Saturday, February 10, 2018

What's to become of CSX in Canada?


The CSX I knew seems to be disappearing right before my eyes. First there was the upheaval when Hunter Harrison took over and then there was his untimely death. Say what you want about the man, he got results. For my part, I’m not about seriously question his methods, other than to say that I think there is an extreme lack of long-term thinking among publicly traded companies, especially railways. There has been a lot of debate over the fixation over quarterly number. As a former business reporter, I understand how the game is played, but I have to wonder how much is enough? How long can you slash, burn and defer for the sake of making a quarterly target, even if you’re sacrificing your long-term profitability? I’m not necessarily saying this is the case with CSX, but you look at the scale of the cutbacks the company is considering and you wonder what will be left when the hedge funds are finished with this company.

April 1991 - A northbound CSX mixed freight waits on the Sarnia Subdivision, just south of the St. Clair Boulevard crossing. That empty field behind the train is now a subdivision.

For me, CSX has been a lifelong fascination. The railway’s Sarnia Subdivision passes through my hometown. For how much longer is anyone’s guess. When I was younger, CSX operated from Sarnia all the way to Chatham, where it interchanged with CP. At one point, the rail line went all the way to Lake Erie, terminating in Erieau, but that was before my time. Now, the railway switches a few refineries in Sarnia and maintains a scant presence between the Chemical Valley and its remaining customers south. CSX only goes as far as Sombra. South of that, the line’s service has been discontinued through Port Lambton, Wallaceburg, rural Kent County and Chatham.

This past summer, I caught a short local returning to Sarnia from Sombra. At the time, I wondered if that meet might be the last time I saw the CSX passing through my hometown. I’m thinking it was.

August 2017 - Perhaps my last meet with a CSX freight near my hometown

I can remember back when the railway was much busier, often shuttling long trains of interchange traffic between Sarnia and Chatham, with countless autoracks, auto parts high-cube boxcars among its usual tank cars and hoppers. In the 1980s, nearly all the GP38s were painted in the Chessie scheme, a scheme I didn’t like at the time but have grown to appreciate. There were even a fair number of B&O and even C&O painted geeps plying the rails. At some point in the late 1980s, the drab silver and grey CSX scheme popped up. By then, the writing was already on the wall. The trains were getting shorter and less frequent. By the time I moved away for school, the interchange traffic from Chatham was largely gone and the railway’s customer base in the Valley was shrinking (Dow Chemical left in the mid-1990s, Ethyl closed and a few other operations left the area afterward).

Summer 1991 - Autoracks and cabooses? This was back when CSX linked the CP in Chatham with CN in Sarnia.

Although there is optimism that small-scale industry is on its way back to some of these old refinery sites, I don’t think the CSX will want to wait around for an economic rebound. Its Sarnia Sub is already disconnected from the rest of its network.

As some continue to speculate, the Ontario Southland Railway might be a prime candidate to pick up the trackage from CSX and assume operations. The one wild card I’ve heard is that the City of Chatham-Kent owns the south end of the line and has been searching for an operator to resume rail service for the mainly agricultural customer base on the south end of the line. That process has dragged on for years with no success.

One has to wonder whether the addition of the lucrative switching business in Sarnia would make such an acquisition more palatable to the colourful shortline. I would love to see those old OSR F units and vintage locomotives in my hometown.

But I think I might raise a glass to the railway of my youth – the old Chessie System. It’s the railway that often woke me in the middle of the night when its freight trains would announce their presence by the two long, two short, one long horn blasts all the way through town. Even when I was young, I always found the sound reassuring and comfortable.

The CSX was the railway that used to distract me from my soccer games in the summer in Parkdale Park.

The CSX was the railway that produced countless summer chases as I raced to the tracks with my bike in the hopes of snapping a few shots.

The CSX is the railway whose old MoW cars were used for climbing on a tiny spur Port Lambton, where I went to school. Despite the open access to the old cars, they were never vandalized or damaged. How times change.

Fall 1992 - These MoW cars were often parked in Port Lambton, where I attended school. I recall climbing these cars on occasion, back when a railway could leave cars parked on an unprotected spur in the middle of a town and nothing would happen to them.

You get the idea. I’m not so much mourning the disappearance of the railway that I know as I am mourning the loss of its legacy in parts of Canada, especially around my hometown, but also in Windsor, Essex County, Niagara, St. Thomas and parts of Quebec. Hard to believe that this railway once served so many areas in Eastern Canada. But there is no room for sentimental nostalgia for a publicly traded railway in 2018.

CSX brings in an interchange load into CN's Sarnia Yard in October 2016

I look at what’s become of CSX in the last year and it seems like there’s almost no room for nostalgia with this railway. It’s a shame because a railway with such a colourful history deserves better.

5 comments:

Steve Boyko said...

Nothing lasts forever.. I'm glad you were able to document the CSX in Canada as it was. Hopefully it'll hang on for a few more years.

David said...

Reminds me of the loss of the Tropicana Juice train out of Florida. Back in the day CSX would send box cars of Tropicana Juice up to New Jersey as a dedicated unit train. Nowadays CSX takes Tropicana Juice box cars and puts them on any train that is going up North to New Jersey.

Eric said...

I'm still mourning C&O, B&O, WM and their union into Chessie System! Chessie System was garish, colourful and did away with a lot of history albeit using predecessor reporting marks.

Same now with CSX for you, Michael. Great to document what you remember and share it. The railroad business survives and continues to be dynamic and at least somewhat relevant - perhaps even lucrative!

Eric

AJ said...

I think everyone on here has said it best in that you have done a great job documenting CSX in Canada on the blog. As someone who rarely encounters anything CSX related, this is pretty much the only exposure I'll likely ever get.

Michael said...

I like the positivity of the comments this week, guys. While I will be sad to see the CSX go, if that is indeed the case, I would love to see OSR running through my hometown, especially with its vintage units. And, as we often say on our blogs, it's important to document everything. I am glad I caught up with a few Chessie trains back in the day.