Tuesday, March 12, 2019

March Break tonic for a weary railfan

Those who are familiar with this city know that our light rail system has been delayed (yet again). For those keeping score, that's three delays now and more than a year past when we were supposed to "Get Ready for Rail" as our transit system continues to promote.

Meanwhile, the city has handed one of the principals responsible for Phase I, SNC Lavalin, the keys to Phase II at a price tag of $4.6 billion, or $1.2 billion more than expected. And, despite the legitimate concerns from city councillors about how the second phase become so much more costly, we are getting very little in the way of explanation from city officials. It's amazing to me that people that are public servants would do their best to avoid answering legitimate questions about something that is so critical to the future of our city. I should also mention that the extension of the Trillium Line (you know, the O-Train line that is actually operating) is also likely to come in over budget.

From the outset, I have wondered whether this city really thought through its options for relieving traffic congestion, especially when it had a pretty decent rapid bus system that, with a few tweaks, could have served the city well for decades to come. In other words, rail is great when it addresses a real need. In Ottawa's case, I have never seen a clear reason why its light rail plans were somehow better than a revamped Transitway bus system.

Did I mention that one of the reasons the first phase of the Confederation Line is being delayed, if you believe some people, is that testing has shown that the trainsets could not cope with severe winter conditions? I really do hope that was one of the first things considered when this massive project was first floated.

Okay, so the point is, it's not a good time to be a railfan or a rail booster in Ottawa. The city, by the way, is about to have its appeal heard in the case of the Prince of Wales bridge, which it neglected for more than a decade before someone took Ottawa to task for severing the bridge from the old Ellwood Subdivision.

Man, I keep meaning to share a few things I saw this week when I took my family to the Canada Science and Technology Museum, but the bad news keeps piling up. Well, let's lighten things up. Here's a scale model of the old CN/Via Rail turboliner that is hanging from the rafters in the museum. It's up so high, getting a decent shot is tough.

One thing I noticed when looking at this model is that there is a single axle between the middle passenger coach at the end power units. Was this part of the design of the actual Turboliner? Any experts out there who know?

Here's another interesting item that I saw in the steam engine exhibit. There are so many transportation related items in this exhibit, it's sometimes hard to see everything, but I saw this dramatic image of  Hudson type locomotive that is firing up before it heads out into the night. I suppose if I was a steam fan, I would be more enthralled with this photo. As it is, I think it's a cool shot.

I made sure to get a good shot of the golden rodent on the side of the CP steam locomotive.

Here's a little bonus for kids. They are giving away cardboard cutout steam locomotives for kids to take home. Remember those Via Rail LRC cardboard trains? Same concept. My older daughter asked for one. Brought a tear to my eye!

This reminds me of Bullet Nose Betty back in Sarnia.

Finally, the museum has a special exhibit right now, including an 1874 streetcar that once prowled the early commuter rail rights-of-way in Toronto. It was built in New Rochelle, New York.

The exhibit mentioned that the cars were pulled by horses, which had its limitations, obviously. The horses would often get tired, so the operators had to keep a rather large stable of horses at the ready to relieve the ones pulling the cars. You think your commute is slow now? Imagine what it must have been like in 1874!

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time at the museum this week. I hope to get out there and see some actual rail action this week, as it has been too long for me since I've been trackside. At the very least, the museum offered a little bit of comfort for me after months of shaking my head at what's been happening here in Ottawa.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Some facepalm moments

A few railway headlines recently made me think of bringing together another themed package for a post. The new Via Rail order for Siemens Charger locomotives made me shake my head. Not because I don’t think the chargers aren’t a great pick. They seem like very capable locomotives and they are, in my opinion, a real aesthetic upgrade over the hideously ugly P42s and the boxy F40PH-2s.

But the paint scheme has me baffled, if Via follows through with its goals to have a yellow black and grey colour scheme. I don't have a huge problem with the colours on the surface, but it seems really odd that a railway would use a light colour on the top of a locomotive, where it is sure to bear the signs of engine exhaust in no time flat. Yes, the Chargers will be much cleaner-running engines than what we see on the rails today, but yellow on top and black in the centre? Makes no sense. I won’t get into the longstanding issue I’ve had with the railway over its incoherent colour schemes and liveries over the years. Pick a good scheme and stick with it.

I don’t have a problem with the half maple leaf on the end of the unit, since Ottawa’s city buses have sported the same leaf design for decades. It’s the choice of yet another new colour scheme that makes no sense to me. Look to railways like CN and UP as good examples of sticking with a good thing. It creates trust and reinforces the best things about your brand.

This leads me to my favourite railway target of all: the bumbling City of Ottawa. Let’s just put it this way. It’s absolutely bizarre how the consortium building the new Confederation Line LRT could have gotten this far along in their testing and not have some sort of plan in place for a heavy snowfall. I mention this because one of the city’s new Citadis Spirit LRT consists was marooned somewhere on the Confederation Line because of the heavy snowfall. That unfortunate blunder cost the consortium a few days of testing, as they figured out how to clear the line and rescue this train.

I will say nothing of the growing realization that this consortium will miss its third completion deadline, if recent media reports are to be believed. But not having a plan in place for heavy snowfall? In Ottawa? C’mon, people. I know that no one at city hall has any clue about railways, but we all know about snowfall. Figure it out.

Here's a quick shot of one of the new Citadis Spirit O-Train consists at Pimisi Station on the Lebreton Flats. Behind you will see Place du Portage, the massive government office complex in Hull. I waited for a while for this train to pull out of the station, so I could get a better shot of it, but it just stayed there, seemingly stuck. Kinda fitting.

And one of the companies that is responsible for this first phase of the LRT is also in the running to be part of the second phase of the railway construction. That contract will be handed out next week. I won't say much about the company: SNC Lavalin.

All I will say is I am not all that impressed with the delays with phase one, nor am I pleased with what I've read about this company, as it pertains to national affairs, if the media is to be believed.

For so many reasons I will not get into here, we can do better.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

One of these things is not like the others

I've been sifting through my years of photos and trying to put together some thematic posts in the last little while. This week, I came across another idea as I was driving to Drummondville, Quebec (don't ask, long story). After I had finally made my way past Montreal, I found myself heading east on the Autoroute 20 around Saint Hyacinthe when I came across one of the more bizarre sites I've seen in my years observing railways. There, in the middle of a 100km/h stretch of a four-lane divided highway, was a single track level railway crossing. I was amazed that a railway would cross a major highway in this way, as it seemed to me to be a very dangerous proposition. As I was driving by, I noticed an "Exempt" sign, which I have generally understood to mean that the crossing is longer in use. Still, at one time, it was and as I was driving by, I noticed a CN GP9 switching local industry not far from the highway, errr, autoroute. 

That got me to thinking of some of the strange things I have seen in my time trackside, so here is a small sampling of random disorder.

In the early 1990s, I came across the experimental Bombardier HR 616 freight diesel in the Sarnia Yard. It was hitched to a string of idle locomotives. At the time, I thought nothing of it, but realized years later that this unit was quite rare indeed. This model of diesel was even loaned to CP for a while, even though it still sported the CN safety scheme.

More recently, I was trackside in Bedell and about to leave, when I spotted a long tank train barreling west toward my spot. The train was an ethanol train, which meant each tank car was exactly the same. 

Well, not quite. What's that white tank car doing in that consist?

I've often seen some strange consists at the Ottawa Via station. Usually, Via Rail corridor consists are made up solely of LRC coaches or stainless steel Budd streamliners, but Via sometimes mixes it up. Sometimes you see a rare P42-F40PH-2 lash-up, usually when a locomotive needs to be bailed out. Whenever you see an outlier in the consist, it's a treat.

Then there's the rare single carload that you might see on a freight train. This used to be much more common. That's what makes it so special these days when you catch a single car that stands out on a long train. Here's one of my favourite catches, which happened in Wyoming in 2017. I should mention that this train had five diesels leading the way, which is itself an outlier these days.

This one is from a freight heading west on the Kingston Sub. My wife caught this load of axles right behind the power. Makes me think that would be an easy thing to replicate on my home layout, once I get back to working on it.

Here's another oddity I found when I caught a CP mixed freight westbound on the Galt Sub at Industrial Road in London in 2016. A single load of untreated telephone poles. Who said carload freight was dead?

This one might be my favourite. When I chased trains as a kid in my hometown, there was always the potential for something special on the CSX Sarnia Sub, like this very rare B&O clad GP38-2. This one lasted well into the 1990s, surviving a Chessie and CSX repaint. I have a HO scale version of this type of unit on my layout (although my Ho scale version is a GP35).

I can't wait until I find my next outlier. When you rarely get to see trains, it's the oddities that are the rare prize. I wonder what's next.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Lament for the boxcar

I'm not one to endlessly talk about how things were better when I was young. After all, I grew up without cellphones, the Internet, digital cameras, millions of TV channels and many of the other modern conveniences that we now take for granted.

But I will say this. When it comes to railways, I miss boxcars. They used to be one of the more common types of rolling stock on any freight train. When I was younger, I recall seeing an endless assortment of boxcars pass through my hometown on the CSX freight trains. It wouldn't be uncommon to see CP Rail, CN, Central Vermont, Grand Trunk, Port Huron & Detroit, Chessie System, Louisville & Nashville, Seaboard Coast Line or Conrail boxcars on a train. Many of the cars were your standard boxcars (think of the once ubiquitous CN brown boxcars). But some would have ribbed exteriors and some would be impossibly huge, like this one below in the CN Sarnia Yard, used for auto parts. They almost always had interesting railways graphics and were very much the standard bearer for railways alongside the locomotives. Think of all the slogans Southern Railways used on its boxcars, as an example.

I think the best thing about boxcars is how they add such a graphic element to railfanning. They still fly the flags of railways, both past and present, in a way that is somewhat lost today with the proliferation of containers and homogenous leasing company rolling stock. Here's a great example of what we have lost from an aesthetic point of view.

This is an old St. Lawrence Railroad boxcar, in CP Rail's Windsor Yard in 1991. You can also see a Bangor & Aroostook boxcar in the background. Behind that boxcar is Detroit's Renaissance Center, home to General Motors' headquarters.

I'm not saying I don't enjoy watching today's long container trains. I think, when taken as a whole, they are quite interesting to shoot, given their symmetrical dimensions and their mix of colours. This shot from the London CN Yard is a good example of the interesting visuals containers sometimes offer.

But what I think we've lost as railfans is the ability to pick out individual cars in a freight train to shoot. There's always a cool boxcar worth grabbing in a photo, in my opinion. I have more boxcar photos than any other type of rolling stock. I don't have many individual wellcar photos, by comparison.

There isn't much to cheer about if you're a railfan in Ottawa, but I will at least say that at least we do have a fair amount of boxcars still plying the rails here. I have snapped a few interesting ones over the years. This one I spotted in Walkley Yard, which made me think of the trains I watched as kid in Corunna. I like that there's a little stencil next to the door that says "A CSX Quality Car."

Here's another cool shot of a string of boxcars early one morning at Walkley Yard. It's an image that could have been taking 20 or even 30 years ago. But, it's actually 2013.

I'm always thankful when I catch an old boxcar on a passing freight. It's like watching a bit of history pass by. This one looked like it was hand painted.

Have you noticed that most museums or tourist railways have lots of boxcars, like this one on the Waterloo Central?

Railways today are great at what they do. But they are not nearly as colourful as they once were. Even though I know why boxcars are on the wane, part of me wishes they weren't.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Thank you, rail friends: Another post of random rail photos

I have mentioned often that I am fortunate to get contributions from many readers and friends. This has really helped me this past year, since I have only been trackside a select few times, due to the usual busy life items that occupy your time when you have a young family. Going through my old email the other day, I realized I have several images that people have sent to me that are worth sharing. Often, I will hang on to images people send me, just in case I can put them together in a thematic post. But, sometimes, the photos on their own do not lend themselves to any larger ideas, which necessitates a post of random images.

I don’t mean to diminish these images, however. I actually love putting together the occasional post of random images.

So, without further preamble, here’s another instalment of random railway photos. This batch are courtesy of my brother Marc, a frequent contributor to the blog, and my brother’s father-in-law, Kevin, who took some photos at a museum in Arizona for his grandson, also my nephew.

This first photo made me laugh a bit. My brother took this photo of this car, since he had never seen this logo (URL?) before. When I looked at the photo, I only wished he had taken a photo of the former UP diesel that was being used on the train. I have only been able to see one such instance of leased power this past year in Wyoming.

Here’s another shot from my brother, which he saw in Sarnia yard earlier this year. It’s an old BC Rail GE unit, which has obviously seen a fair bit of action, judging by the dirt and dust it has acquired. The unit is in the BC Rail blue scheme, which I believe was a latter day livery.

My brother was in Goderich over the summer and spotted these two former GoC grain hoppers parked near the Sifto salt mine on the Goderich harbour. I wonder if these cars were being used for salt use. (Answer - they're not. The tracks those cars are on branch off to the town's infrequently used grain elevator, according to a reader)

My brother passed along a few shots that his father-in-law, who visited the Arizona Railway Museum in Chandler, Arizona. The highlight of the photos passed along to me were the shots of the old silver-clad E unit 97.

Here’s another shot.

The museum had a number of privately owned passenger coaches, which are used for all kinds of excursions. But there were also some other assorted gems, like this old Southern Pacific maintenance of way crane.

Here’s an old oil-burning SP steam locomotive X2562.

As always, you're free to contribute to the blog!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Updated: A Most Unlikely Survivor: The Renfrew Subdivision

Note: This post is meant to focus on the more recent history of the Renfrew Sub under CN control and not its early years as part of the Canadian Atlantic Railway all the way to Depot Harbour. - Michael

Since 1894, Ottawa has been connected to neighbouring Renfrew County via a rail line that was and is still known as the Renfrew Subdivision. Although its viability as a freight line has long since passed, the rail line continues to persist and may one day become an important piece of Ottawa’s rail future.

As it stands today, the Renfrew Subdivision extends from the end of the Beachburg Subdivision, at a point that was once known as Nepean Junction. From this point, the tracks travel roughly 43 kilometres west to the Nylene Canada plant at the edge of Arnprior. You’d be forgiven to think that this rail line is part of the Canadian National system, but it’s really not. The rails are owned by Nylene Canada while the actual land where the rails are laid is owned by the City of Ottawa. CN still delivers a weekly load of caprolactum to Nylene Canada, no doubt under contract, since the rail line itself is technically known as the Ottawa-Arnprior Railway.

Before Nepean Junction was scrapped, this is where the Renfrew Spur branched off from the Beachburg Sub (2014)

You might wonder why this rail line has lasted so long, when most other secondary lines in and around Ottawa have been removed. The answer is Nylene Canada. This plant took the steps to buy this rail line because the management of the plant felt there was no other practical way to move caprolactum from Texas to Arnprior other than by rail. So, while CN still operates over the line, it’s only as a contractor. CN first filed to abandon the Renfrew Subdivision in 1987.

Due to its six-figure losses on the line, CN was given permission to abandon the line in December 1988. Shortly after, Nylene Canada predecessor BASF took steps to buy the rails while the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton purchased the land, with an eye to future transit uses.

In 1987, CN moved a total of 96 cars on the line, 95 of which went to Nylene (BASF), one to a customer in Carp, while a single car was shipped out from BASF. The railway reported a loss of $328,730 on the line for 1986. During the abandonment proceedings, CN was discussing the possibility of BASF being served via its old diamond connection with the old CP Chalk River Subdivision through Arnprior. Those talks didn’t amount to much and now, both lines are gone through Arnprior proper.

It’s interesting to look through documents from the abandonment proceedings at the time, since the Teamsters Union suggested that CN had two other customers on the line that were looking for better service, Sullivan’s Lumber (now a Rona outlet) in Arnprior and Carp Flour Mills in Carp. I doubt that three customers would make this line profitable, but it’s always interesting to see how differently these small rail lines are viewed, depending on your point-of-view.

When the Ottawa Central Railway took over freight operations in Ottawa in 1998, it inherited this line and ran weekly service out to Nylene Canada, sometimes on Thursdays and sometimes on Sundays. When CN bought out OCR in 2008, it resumed weekly operations to Nylene Canada, mostly on Wednesdays.

CN 589 westbound near Corkstown Road, just east of the beginning of the Renfrew Spur (2017)

While the demise of this line as a going concern for CN is not all that uncommon in the years post deregulation, the line’s history and possible redemption as a future commuter line make its story worth exploring.

The rail line was completed in 1894 as the Ottawa, Arnprior and Renfrew Railway, one of many lines that dotted the Ottawa Valley at the time that railways relied on timber, natural resources and early small-scale industry to serve the valley. Three years before service started through Renfrew, the line was merged into the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway. In 1899, the line was merged into the Canada Atlantic Railway, which in turn officially became part of the Grand Trunk in 1914. The GTR was then combined with other struggling railways to form the Canadian National Railway in 1920.

What many people might not realize is that the Renfrew Sub once stretched from central Ottawa to Whitney, a distance of 145 miles or 233 kilometres. Going further back, it was once a key part of John Rudolphus  Booth's empire that linked his timber holdings in the Algonquin Park area to Depot Harbour. The Ottawa portion of the line originally began by branching off from the Alexandria Subdivision just southeast of the old Alexandria alignment when that line proceeded up the Rideau Canal to the old Union Station downtown.

A vintage CN system map, which shows the former Renfrew Subdivision extending beyond the town of Renfrew. At one point, the rails went all the way to Whitney. These days, the line barely makes its way into Renfrew County

The Renfrew Sub generally ran east-west along what is now the Queensway. Even before most of the railway lines in central Ottawa were taken up in the 1960s, the Renfrew Sub between Deep Cut (its junction with Alexandria) and Chaudière Junction (its connection with the CP Ellwood Sub where the Queensway now stands) was taken up. CN operated its last train on this old right-of-way in 1952 and the rails were pulled the following year.

It’s interesting to note that the 80-foot strip that CN owned where the Renfrew Sub operated had to be expanded by 100 feet when the land was sold off to what is now the National Capital Commission. That meant having to negotiate with landowners in order to have the proper amount of space to build an expressway. That would never happen today.

Even while its downtown portion was being pulled, the sub hosted daily freight service in the 1950s between Ottawa and Renfrew. By the mid-1960s, the frequency had dwindled to three freights a week. By 1974, service was reduced to an as-needed basis. In 1983, tracks between Whitney and Renfrew were pulled up.

One of the few spots in the city where you can actually see the old remnants of this line is through the old Nepean Equestrian Park, now known as Wesley Clover Park. Just west of Moodie Drive, right off of Corkstown Road, you will see a recreation path running arrow straight toward the Beachburg Subdivision and the old Nepean Junction. The trail is known as the Watts Creek Pathway. That is one of the few visible portions of the old Renfrew Sub.

The decision to sever the downtown portion of the Renfrew Sub was an easy one. The line essentially paralleled the much busier Beachburg Subdivision through central Ottawa. Whereas the Beachburg Sub was an essential component of CN’s northern transcontinental line, the Renfrew Sub was already seeing its traffic wane, with a number of industries fleeing Ottawa’s central areas, as the beautification efforts began transforming the face of the city.

Looking at old railway maps, it’s fascinating to see how CN and CP operated in decades past, when carload operations were the norm, which often ensured the vitality of these small rail lines. Of course, now that CN and CP are focused on economies of scale, this approach to business is long gone. But the Renfrew Sub through downtown Ottawa at one time counted a fair number of small-scale industrial customers along its right-of-way.

Fellow blogger Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure pointed out an old photo of downtown Ottawa, where a gravel dock is clearly visible along the Rideau Canal on the opposite bank near the old Union Station. I have seen that photo before, but his message was a good reminder of why there were once so many rail lines dotting the landscape through the central part of the city.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Looking back and looking ahead

I'm hoping that 2018 was an anomaly for the blog, since I didn't quite follow the usual script. There were quite a number of things I wanted to do, but it didn't work out the way I planned. Since my railfanning was severely curtailed due to life, I had to switch gears quite a number of times and start focusing on issue-based posts, history-based posts and thematic posts more so than I have before.

But in the end, I was happy that I was able to explore new space in the previous year, although I'm not sure I want to neglect my trackside adventures like I was forced to do last year. That said, there were a few moments from the previous year that I really enjoyed sharing with you. The biggest highlight was meeting this CN train in Wyoming in the summer.

I was really happy to catch some CN leased power on this train. And it was an old ATSF warbonnet to boot, which was particularly cool.

Speaking of CN, I did catch up with the Arnprior Turn.

As usual, in Ottawa, one has to often content themselves with Via Rail corridor trains if they want to survive. Even with this plentiful supply of corridor trains, I didn't get out to see much in the preceding year, but I did catch a few things that I was happy to share.

This was a shot from July. This train was bringing my wife home from Montreal after a few days away from the family. You can see a piece of the new Ottawa platforms in the shot.

Speaking of platforms...

And very early last year, I had some fun on the Belfast Road overpass near Ottawa's main railway station. This was my meet with a Via 40-clad P42.

I was also thrilled with this shot of a F40PH-2 pulling a string of renaissance cars toward Montreal. This might be the best going away shot I have taken.

I would mention something about the city's ongoing O-Train Confederation Line drama, but I don't know that there's much to share other than the planned handover of the new east-west line has yet to happen. That means the trains are not running yet. So, instead of sharing photos of the yet-to-be-finished Confederation Line, I thought I'd share this shot of the Trillium Line, with two trainsets about to pass each other near Bayview. I was really happy with how this shot turned out.

Looking ahead, I have resolved to get out there a little more. But I have been working on a number of posts that will explore some fascinating rail history from the Ottawa area. Given how much has happened with Ottawa railways even since this blog has started, I think examining rail history is even more important now.

Stay tuned for some posts regarding the history of the Renfrew Subdivision and a multi-part account of the final days of the Northern Transcon. I've been working on these posts for a while and hope to be able to share them soon.

And, much to my surprise, I found out today that this post is my 275th post for this blog. Thus begins the countdown to 300. I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays and I wish you the best for 2019!



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