Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ontario Hydro and CSX: The railway deal that wasn't

I stumbled across a photo the other day of a CSX train passing by the Lambton Generating Station near Courtright, Ont. The photo reminded me of a rail story about this old coal-fired generating station, where I spent a summer working. The photo caption suggested that two rail spurs into the generating station property were used for coal deliveries and fly ash removal. Though the photo was top notch, the information about the rail spur was wrong. I know this because my Dad worked at this power station and I know the story behind the rails into that plant.

So, here is the story behind these long disconnected rail spurs and how they nearly led to a deal between Ontario Hydro and CSX Transportation in the 1990s, a deal that would have changed the fortunes of the rail line.

Could a deal with Ontario Hydro have changed the fortunes of the CSX Sarnia Subdivision in the 1990s? We'll never know. (Stalled northbound freight near Corunna in 1991)

I spoke with my Dad about the rail lines recently and he told me the two rail spurs into the powerhouse (the main building, left of photo) and behind the powerhouse were put in place to deliver the materials needed to build the power plant in the mid-1960s. At the time, the railway delivering those materials was the Chesapeake and Ohio.

Here's a closer shot, below, of the rails without the mark-ups.  You will notice to the right of the photograph that part of the turnout from the Sarnia Subdivision was preserved but a section of track was torn out. This remained the case for decades after the rail deliveries stopped when the plant was built. I find it interesting that these rails remained in place. Was there a thought that these rails would someday be useful again?

In the late 1990s, I was fortunate enough to land a summer job at the Lambton Generating Station, which was perhaps the best summer job I have ever had. I recall walking through the powerhouse and seeing those old rails in place. I wondered then why they were there. It wasn't until recently that my Dad told me about the rails being in place for the construction. The scale of the construction must have been impressive, if the rails were put in place simply to deliver materials for the power plant. Sadly, no publicly available photographs exist of the railway delivering any of these pieces necessary to build the plant.

That brings me back to the early 1990s when the Lambton Generating Station was being retrofitted with scrubbing technology that used lime to remove harmful sulphur dioxide emissions from the generating process. The thought at the time was that the best way to deliver the lime needed was to have it brought in by train. The resulting fly ash that was produced by the scrubbing process would have been shipped out by rail as well. This would have been a pretty big contract for CSX Transportation, which was struggling at this point with the loss of industry on its Sarnia Subdivision.

From a railfanning perspective, I don't think this deal would have changed the look of trains on the Sarnia Subdivision. I would imagine you would have seen more of these covered hoppers in the Courtright area, not that these cars were uncommon along that line at the time.

Alas, it was not to be. At one point, it was decided that rail service was too expensive and that all the lime would be brought in by truck and all the fly ash removed the same way. I have to wonder just how expensive it would have been for a Crown corporation to back away from rail service. After all, Ontario Hydro (later Ontario Power Generation) wasn't exactly the model of cost efficiency.

That leaves me with one shot from my summer at the plant. This is a shot my Dad took of me standing atop one of the power generation units at the top of the powerhouse.  You can see a Canada Steamship Lines coal ship making its way south along the St. Clair River to the left of me. The power plant received its coal from these lake freighters. You can see the coal funnel just to my left in the photo.

I climbed up to the roof of the plant with my Dad on one of my last days of work.

My most vivid memory of that climb to the top of the power station was walking up this long set of metal stairs. The higher we went, the deeper the dark void was beneath us in the unit we were climbing. My dad breezed up the stairs like it was nothing, but I was hanging on to the rails and taking each step gingerly. Man, what  bad time to discover a fear of heights.

Anyway, the rail deal never happened and thus started an endless convoy of trucks in and out of the Lambton Generating Station to feed its scrubbers. It would have been fun to see rail service in that facility, but CSX never had the chance to use those rails again. Looking at the overhead shots of the rails in that area, I wonder if they might be of use again when a new gas-fired power plant is built on the property to replace the controversial Mississauga gas plant that was shuttered before it was completed. I doubt those rails would be of use, since the new plant will not be built near the old powerhouse. However, it is worth noting that two of the units in the old powerhouse have been kept in a condition such that they can be started again if there is a retrofit considered for the old plant.

I guess keeping those rails in place all these decades might not have been such a bad idea.


Steve Boyko said...

The Belledune generating station in New Brunswick had rails laid into it to bring construction materials in. They were never used after that, until several years ago when they were refurbished to take gypsum out by rail to Saint John. Good thing they were there!

I visited Lambton once to look at its control system. It looked like a good plant at the time.

Michael said...

It was a good facility, with ready access to transmission lines across the river to Michigan. It was a relatively clean burning station. I find it hard to believe that nothing more was done with it once coal generation was ended in Ontario. It was cool to see those rail lines in the plant, though, when I worked there.

Anonymous said...

I recall the generator turbines being removed for refurbishment during a major rebuild and shutdown in the late 80s. The turbines were designed to be removed and lowered onto flatbed cars. The units were lowered by crane and sent to GE for refurbishment by CSX.

Michael said...

Thanks for your comment. I didn't know the spur was used as late as the 1980s. That would have been something to see.

AJ said...

Interesting write up! I always find stories of where people first started out in the work world to be interesting (probably why I am taking HR in university right now....).
The one takeway I had (which could be nothing and I don't want to get political or anything about it, but I am throwing it out there) is that CSX was spurned for Canada Steamship Lines in providing coal. One has to believe that if you were negotiating a contract on the ash being taken away, you'd likely (and again, crown corp right) find the best cost savings in also providing the contract to the same company to bring the coal to the plant (cars are bringing it there full, why leave empty). Something like you bring this here and take that back and give us a better price at the end of the day. Being the 90's and being Canada Steamship Lines and how we all know what family is and has been in charge of Canada Steamship Lines and their relation to the Minister of Finance in the 90's, I have to wonder if the decision to spurn CSX was largely due to political ties of the time? I don't have proof, but it does make some sense to someone who is an outsider and merely interested in political and economical history of the time.

Eric said...

Some thoughts:
-the shuttered Mississauga power plant begat the large addition to our nearby Lennox Generating Station. Cranes and trailers everywhere. Some large components were delivered by barge on Lake Ontario, brought ashore at an existing gravel pier nearby
-Lennox was originally oil-fired, then a gas line was brought in and some of the oil tanks are no longer in use. Neither is the regular rail service bringing oil, though the TankTrain consist is stored at the plant, just visible from nearby roads. You may have seen the post on Lennox G.S. on Trackside Treasure.
-most transformer stations and power plants had rail service, seemingly if for no other reason than to have transformer deliveries. As the rail network retracted, such deliveries like the recent one in Myrtle Station, were brought to the nearest rail point then trucked.
-a neat story about your work and 'climbing to the top' at the power station, Michael!
-I liked how you worked in the laker!

Michael said...

Thanks for your comments AJ and Eric. I guess my biggest question when putting together this post was why the spur was left in place for so long, but I think the comments section has answered that question.