Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The history of Walkley Yard

This post is the third in a rail history series I intend to extend through 2017 as we celebrate Canada's 150th birthday. Click the links to read the first and second rail history posts.

Here's an anniversary to consider this year. Sixty-two years ago, Walkley Yard was constructed,  a significant component to the changing face of Ottawa. The impact of this rail yard is not to be underestimated. Even though it's a shadow of what it once was, the rail yard played a key role in the transformation of the Ottawa that we now take for granted.

Walkley Yard today, as seen from the Bank Street overpass. The rail yard is quieter than it once was, but it still sees activity most mornings. This shot shows from maintenance of way happening earlier in April.

Let's take a brief tour of the yard today, to give you an idea of what can be found in the yard now.


While most people in the city likely don't pay this yard any mind, there was a time when it was big news. That was because by the early 1950s, politicians of all stripes were finally ready to remake the face of Ottawa, which at the time was an anomaly of a capital city. Within much of the city's older sections, rails were extremely prominent along with heavy industry. Many photos of Ottawa from the late 1940s and early 1950s illustrate this. Many felt that a capital city should not look like Ottawa did in the 1950s.

Of course, today, much of this heavy industrial imprint is long gone, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was still very much scattered through old Ottawa. Politicians were finally able to agree that something had to be done. It's important to note that plans to remove rail and heavy industry from the core of Ottawa began to gain traction in the early 1900s. However, two world wars and numerous changes in government ensured that any plan to remake the city was shelved. That changed with the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King.

The end result was the 1950 Greber Plan, which called for several radical changes to Ottawa, including the relocation of rails and heavy industry from central Ottawa. The most important element of the report for our purposes was the section calling for the relocation of rails and industry from central Ottawa, which was done.

Amazingly, this is where the Queensway now splits the Ottawa neighbourhoods of Centretown and the Glebe. This is CN's old Bank Street Yard on the former CN Renfrew Subdivision in 1948. Canada Science and Technology Museum image.


Walkley Yard began life as a necessary evil. When it was clear that politicians were finally going to plow ahead with some key elements of the Greber Plan to build an expressway through the city, the Canadian National’s Renfrew Subdivision was the ideal choice. It was an 80-foot wide right-of-way through the heart of the city, but it was already beginning to see diminished traffic. The predecessor to the National Capital Commission bought the land from CN and began acquiring additional properties to expand the right-of-way’s width to 180 feet in order to accommodate the highway.

This all took place quickly. The Greber Plan to remake Ottawa was unveiled in 1950. CN operated its final trains on the old Renfrew Subdivision in 1952 and the old right of way through Ottawa was lifted in 1953.

Before the Greber Plan began to take effect, CN had several rail yards in the core of the city, including its Bank and Elgin Street yard, which stretched from Bank Street all the way to the Rideau Canal (see above image). CN also had a rail yard along the Rideau Canal, which served the old Union Station in downtown Ottawa, and an engine roundhouse on Mann Avenue.

This undated photo from the Canada Science and Technology Museum archives only states that this is one of the earliest shots of the Walkley Yard. The heavyweight coaches, early SW switchers and numerous wooden cabooses give you an idea of the era. Note the absence of any development around the rail yard, which was then on the fringes of Ottawa.

With the rationalization of railway lines throughout Ottawa, there was a need to centralize this function and so Walkley Yard was created in a rural area south of the city.



An interesting fact about Walkley Yard. The yard is not all that close to the road for which it is named. When the yard was built, there was no development between Walkley Road and the yard, but over the last half century plus, development has surrounded the yard on all sides. A railfan coming to Ottawa for the first time would be hard pressed to find it, since it is not all that accessible, except via the end of Albion Road and via Conroy Road on its eastern fringe. Housing development surrounds the yard on its north and south sides.


A UP hopper car sits on the Rideau Bulk transloading spur in Walkley Yard. Note the proximity of housing on the yard's south side.

Another interesting fact about Walkley Yard. This is one of the few yards in Canada that can lay claim to serving four railways over its lifespan. Obviously, the yard was built by CN, although its rival Canadian Pacific did not choose to locate its operations there until 1967, when it abandoned its Ottawa West railyard at what is now known as Bayview. CN and CP shared the yard, with CN using the south tracks and CP using the north tracks. This was a year after CP and CN also left Union Station in downtown Ottawa and began to route their passenger trains through the new Central Station on Tremblay Road, just east of the downtown.



An early shot of CP's operations at Walkley Yard in 1971. Note the old maroon and red scheme on the Alco switchers. This is the north side of Walkley Yard. Canada Science and Technology Museum image.

These two railways used Walkley Yard until 1997 when CP discontinued operations in the region as its last customers across the river in Hull dried up and the Ellwood/Prescott Subdivision was discontinued. A year later, CN sold off its railway operations in Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley to the Ottawa Central Railway, which operated between Pembroke and Coteau, along the Beachburg Subdivision and the Alexandria Subdivision.

Two old OCR warhorses at Walkley Yard. Photo print courtesy of Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure, although Eric was quick to point out he didn't actually take the shot. Maybe it's better to say it's from the Eric Gagnon collection?

CN reacquired the OCR and resumed operations in the region in 2008, albeit on a much smaller system.

Summer 2015 shot of Walkley Yard with cars set out for a run to Ivaco Steel in L'Orignal

The fourth railway to use Walkley Yard is the Capital Railway, otherwise known as OC Transpo’s O-Train. This yard has been used by the Capital Railway since commuter service was launched on CR’s Ellwood Subdivision in 2001. That line is publicly known as the Trillium Line. In addition to storing its Alstom diesel trainsets at Walkley overnight, CR also uses this yard as a maintenance facility.

The old and the new: The Capital Railway's new Alstom trainset sits next to an older Bombardier Talent trainset in the summer of 2013.

What's next for the yard? Well, its northern half is largely empty and the activity here is pretty sparse. It's a sad site for a railfan, but the yard has played a major role in Ottawa's railway history. For years, it hosted transcontinental freights from the Beachburg and Alexandria Subs, when they comprised part of CN's former northern transcontinental main line.

A triple header freight rests at Walkley Yard in 1972. Canada Science and Technology Museum image.

Given how CN has downsized its operations in Eastern Ontario, including the scrapping of the Beachburg Sub from Pembroke to Nepean Junction, it's likely that Walkley Yard will never again play a role as important as its role in decades past. Still, it's an important piece of Ottawa's railway history. That's something to celebrate.

Postscript: There was a conversation recently on the Eastern Ontario Rails Facebook group about the extension of Albion Road, which lines the south side of Walkley Yard. There have been questions about whether this road is in fact fair game for railfans or private property. The access road serves Rideau Bulk facilities, but signs do remind people that the yard is private property. I have used this access road in the past but am now of the opinion that this road is a private road. I no longer use it and would remind any local railfan to steer clear. Railways are very serious about security and it's not worth the trouble. Besides, there is so little happening here, it's more worthwhile to focus on more active operations.

4 comments:

Alex said...

It's interesting to note that since you took those first two pictures, much of the trackage around the MOW equipment has been completely reconfigured, and work is ongoing in that area. Switches have been moved, and additional track added to the north side in that area. I don't know if this work is being driven by CN or CR, but I believe I have seen RailTerm doing some of it. It is possible that the work is being done to separate the yard from the north E-W track that curves around the Home Depot, allowing CR access from their yard to the Ellwood sub, without using any CN yard tracks. It might be worth it to stop by again soon, as work is underway daily during the day.

Michael said...

Good tip, Alex. I will definitely try to get back there to see what's going on. Possibly an expansion of the O-Train facility to accommodate the extension of the Trillium Line and the additional equipment required?

Steve Boyko said...

Great detail on the Walkley Yard.. lots I didn't know.

Patrice Carriere said...

Hi Michael. I just found this related video on You Tube https://youtu.be/NCPYiKBzIck . It shows the follwing: "Streetcars Of Ottawa Stranded By Snow - 1942 Educational Documentary:

Published on 26 Mar 2017
Scenes show streetcars frozen in tracks on Laurier Street, while a bulldozer frees work car with trolley derailed by ice. Army work force tries to clear tracks. Tracks cleared at Bank Street subway, crew and passengers board streetcars.

Contemporary reports of Eastern Ontario's Freezing Rain Storm during December 28-30, 1942 stated ice "as thick as a person's wrist" covered telephone wires, trees and railway tracks. In Ottawa, 50,000 workers walked to work for five days. Because of the war, there were few men available to clear the streets and repair lines."

You can clearly see the Bank Street subway as well as the Parliament Buildings (from a distance) in the video. Also interesting to note that Duke Ellington was performing during that time frame. I hope you find this interesting.