Wednesday, July 1, 2020

I'm back, sort of...

Thank you to everyone for your kind words from my last post, which explained why I was stepping away from this blog, mostly due to the hectic nature of my life.

Life has eased a bit, with the summer now here and the school year mercifully over. I am still having a hard time figuring out how to maintain a blog about railways in Ottawa when there is so little to see, especially from my vantage point in the city's west end. I do have some vague plans to do some real honest-to-goodness railfanning in Bedell or Smiths Falls at some point, but those are not terribly firm right now.

That said, Canada Day seemed like a good time to head out somewhere and try and find a train. More than anything, I was looking for some quiet time, since  my house has become a bit too cozy of late, with all of us here all the time. I love my family and I know they at least seem to tolerate me, but too much of a good thing, right?

So, I headed out to one of my favourite spots, Twin Elm, to catch a westbound Via Train 53. There wasn't a lot to choose from on Canada Day. Even thought it fell on a Wednesday this year, CN 589 to Nylene Canada was not operating. That pretty much left me with Via or nothing.

So, I vowed to get something more in the way of landscape art than railway photo, since I have far too many clinical shots of Via corridor trains. So, here's the first shot as Via 53 raced across the Cambrian Road crossing.

As you can see, the train was being led by a Love The Way wrapped P42. I tell ya, I will shed no tears when these dogs are replaced. Ugly.

I tried to ensure I got at least one shot of the train next to the red farm structures for a little bit of variety. I'll share the rest of the shots in a later post.

As for rail news in Ottawa, I noticed an inordinate number of comments about the Arnprior Turn and I have received a few emails from readers who have caught it of late. Thanks to everyone for keeping me in mind. So, in case anyone is wondering, yes, CN still makes its weekly run out to Nylene Canada in Arnprior. Mostly, they operate on Wednesdays, although some have told me the train is making its way west a little later in the morning than many are used to seeing (10-10:30 a.m.).

And, yes, for those outside the city, the O-Train Confederation Line is still a complete disaster. On top of the numerous failures this past winter, the trains were running at reduced capacity recently because it was too hot. It makes us wonder if these awful trains run well in any conditions.

The president of the Rideau Transit Group, the company that built and maintains the line, recently resigned and was replaced. I think people in the city would care more if they honestly believed the move would result in better service. Meanwhile, the city is still withholding payment to RTG due to its continuing failure deliver on its promises. And, as many in the city know, the second phase of construction on the Confederation Line is well underway in many different places.

We can only hope the issues get figured out before the line is extended to Orleans and Moodie.

It's good to be back. No promises, but I'll see what I can do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Hi everyone,

As you know, things are not normal in our world. They really aren't normal in Ottawa, where much of our city is still pretty much shut down. Since the beginning of this pandemic, my life has changed a great deal. I am now fully immersed in teaching my oldest daughter and getting her through the remainder of her school year. I am working from home full time as well. On top of that, my wife continues to work evenings, which has tended to fill my day with childcare and school.

On top of that, I have taken on a great deal of volunteer work with my community, mainly with my church. That has tended to take up a lot of time as well. The things I have learned in the last few months are amazing to me. I am livestreaming events, creating elaborate videos and doing a number of other things to keep people connected and hopeful. This work has occupied huge chunks of my day, but I do it with a smile as I take great pride in trying to do my little part in making the world a better place.

Finally, I am also still actively involved with an Internet radio station in producing a regular half-hour program. That takes up an incredible amount of time as well. The ratio means that one half hour of air time usually requires about four times as much prep time and editing. So, we're talking about several hours.

Obviously, I have not been able to do much trackside and I don't see this changing anytime soon. Ottawa is a railfan's nightmare at the best of times, so you can imagine what it's like now.

All this to say I don't want to continue producing a blog when I cannot give it my full attention. You people are smart and you can likely tell a good blog from a mediocre blog. I believe you deserve the best that I can give and I'm just not in a position to deliver quality material right now.

For these reasons, I am taking a hiatus from blogging to regroup, think of some new content, get some new pictures trackside, do some research and make a better go of things when the world allows me to do so.

Over the years, I have gotten a number of encouraging messages from fellow railfans who have told me how much they enjoy my efforts from this lonely railway outpost called Ottawa. Those messages have often kept my going when things got tough.

So thank you all. We'll see you soon, I hope!

Take care,

hammond.michael77 AT gmail DOT com

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Real life inspiration for a fictitious branch

The good news for my model railway in my basement is that the main line works and three spurs are essentially operational. There are rough spots causing derailments and the wiring is about 90 per cent complete. I have a rough idea of a piece of my town and a plan for a railyard and interchange track.

The bad news is I need a tonne of supplies and time (which I don't really have) to complete some of the important next steps. I'm trying to decide what next steps I can take with what I have. But I will share a few details of things I have done so far and give you an idea of where I found the inspiration in the actual railway operations I have photographed over the years.

A bit of context. I am not modelling any actual part of the CSX Sarnia Subdivision. Instead, I am taking elements from both the north and south ends of the line (Chatham had a number of rural agricultural customers while Sarnia had the industrial and petrochemical customers). There were points on the old Sarnia Subdivision that had both the agricultural and industrial customers. I am modelling what I would imagine to be a branch off the main sub that would include many of the elements one would have seen along this operation in the early to late 1980s.

One thing I am proud of is my maintenance-of-way spur that sits next to the mainline near the station.

One half of the MoW consist has an old Canadian Pacific baggage car, which was not an uncommon thing for railways to use during this time. Since the Sarnia Sub intersects with the CP in Chatham, I took the liberty of blending both railways. You will also notice an old wooden TH&B boxcar. Some of these old wooden boxcars lived well into the 1990s as MoW cars. The photo below from the Sarnia end of the the CSX operations gives you an idea of my inspiration. I would love to one day put together a detailed C&O MoW boxcar like the one below, but the TH&B boxcar will have to do for now. It was once part of the CP empire, so it's a stretch, but I am not one for strict adherence to prototypical operations. I like to freelance a bit.

Here's the other end of the MoW consist. It features an old Cotton Belt gondola and a CP flatcar, which I built from an old Ulrich kit. I had to look up this company to see what it was. When I bought this car, I had never heard of this model train maker before. You can see the rooftop of an industrial building in the shot as well. I'm not sure what it is going to be yet. You can also see a short train on the mainline with AT&SF, Bangor & Aroostook, RF&P and a green PC boxcar trailing a set of F units. All of these boxcars, except the PC, were given to me last year by a friend who had them in his basement collecting dust. What a gift!

Here's a closer shot of the CP flatcar. It took a lot of work to put this 60-year-old car together and get it operational. The couplers that it came with I had never seen before. I had to put in a conventional coupler and modify the car a bit to get it to fit properly.

Here's a shot of a MoW gondola I saw once in Sarnia, which gave me the idea that I needed one on my own maintenance track.

Here's a final shot of the mainline train and the station spur, below. You can get an idea of the developing town from this angle. There are a couple of things to note in this shot.

One is I bought an extended platform kit for my train station but found that it wasn't needed for what I was modelling, which is essentially a small town. So I used the extra platform for a railway themed park across the street from the station.

The next thing is the Chessie System F unit. You will see that it is mated to an old vintage Canadian Pacific unit, which needs a lot of work to make it look a little more realistic. Again, the old CSX Subdivision from my youth did not include shared power, but there were instances in Southern Ontario, particularly in the case of the CASO Sub near Windsor, where shared power did happen. So, it's another liberty I am taking. To be honest, I was just testing the old CP dummy to see how it handled the tracks. It has a temperamental coupler in the back, but it's working really well so far.

Try as you might, you will not find any real world example of a Chessie-painted F unit. I looked into it and discovered that the Chessie System did not retain any F units for revenue service, so this F unit is someone's idea of what it would have looked like if the railway had saved any of the covered wagons from its predecessors' long gone passenger service. The closest thing I found was that the old Seaboard System retained a set of F units long after it gave up its passenger operations.

You will also notice that the station is sitting on a block of wood. It will, of course, be elevated from the town, much like the Guelph Via Rail station is situated well above that city's downtown. The station is a common kit from Atlas. I like the look of it, since it reminds me of the old C&O station at the foot of Clifford Street in Sarnia, nestled behind the Esso refinery. The station looks different these days. Back in the early 1990s, it looked pretty rough. My station is a bit more tidy, for sure.

So that's one part of my set that could be close to getting some scenery in the near future, since it is pretty much set from a functional point of view. There is another part of that spur, which will serve a small farming operation. The building itself (you can see a piece of its power in the second last shot) is an old lumber mill, but it's generic enough that it can double for just about any old industrial building. I'm hoping to convert it into a feed mill, so I can use my hoppers and cylindrical hoppers there. That's a topic for another post.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Takin' it to the basement

The trackside time has pretty much dried up for me, since there is so little happening in Ottawa to begin with, but with the stay-at-home orders, it's even tougher. I've been thinking of things to share in this strange time. I have a model railway in my basement, which doesn't receive a lot of attention in busy times. But it's seen a little bit of love in the last few weeks.

I have been trying to figure out how to take a decent shot of the set, which is far from finished. The walls of my den are also adorned with pictures and framed copies of some of my old newspaper stories from my journalism days. It makes photos pretty tough. There's also a lot of bare wood still showing and a lot of unfinished track work, particularly in my rail yard.

So, I decided I would content myself with a few shots of a few test trains that I have been operating, just to ensure my main line is somewhat operational. So far, my operations have gone quite smoothly, with almost no derailments. That's a real step up from my days of model railroading back in my teens, when persistent operational problems were enough to make me quit the hobby for long spells.

Here's a shot of my test train, led by Chessie System SD40-2 7614. It is passing by a spur that will serve some sort of plastic or petrochemical customer in the near future. I have a storage tank, tankcare unloading platform and a general purpose industrial building.

Right now, I have some intermodal cars parked there for no reason at all. Possibly my railway is relying on car storage fees before its official start-up. Those container wells were actually given to me. They don't really fit in with what I'm doing, but they look okay parked.

The covered hopper I picked up used a few months ago. Someone tried to apply their own West Virginian livery on the car alongside the Chessie cat, but I was able to get rid of the hand-drawn logo for the most part. What's left looks like old graffiti, which is okay by me. I used to see these hoppers an awful lot on the Sarnia Sub when I was a kid.

I should mention that the SD40 was an engine which did not prowl the Sarnia Subdivision, but I like to use it anyway, as it was a Christmas gift from my parents many years ago. I am not one to strictly follow prototype rules. I'm not sure what part of the old CSX Canadian operations I am modelling, but I am trying to blend a few of its operations in and around Southwestern Ontario.

My diesel roster also features a B&O GP35-2 and a Seaboard GP38-2. There was sometimes a blend of pre-CSX power on the Sarnia Sub before the CSX units began to take over. The Seaboard units were exceptionally rare, but they were not unseen, in my experience.

I also recently finished a secondary spur that ends at my station. The spur now houses an old Canadian Pacific baggage car, a wood box car, a flat car and a gondola, which will act as a MoW consist, if I ever feel the urge to operate one of these trains.

It reminds me of this MoW consist I once captured in Sarnia. In fact, this photo below was my inspiration.

I would be happy to share some thoughts about my model railway endeavors, but rest assured that I intend to continue my focus on real world railways when the world opens back up.

Take care. Stay healthy.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Railway stories: The reporter along the tracks

With the options for railfanning limited these days, I have been searching for some ideas to use for this blog. I have been cycling through photos and thinking of stories not yet told. Then it hit me. I have a number of life stories that somehow connect to the railways. I'm sure lots of people have similar railway stories, whether they know it or not. For me, I tend to remember more details of major life events when there is some sort of railway connection.

So, here's my first story. When I was in my early 20s, I lived for two years in Peterborough, Ontario. I worked for the local newspaper, the Examiner. It's a daily that is famous for once having employed Robertson Davies as its publisher. While Davies is certainly not my favourite author, I can appreciate his work and the cachet his name still carries.

In 2003-04, when I worked there, the Examiner was located in an industrial office building on an industrial road dubbed The Queensway. The building included a printing press in the back and the property backed up onto the Kawartha Lakes Railway line, a CP Rail shortline. This was the same line that once went through to Ottawa. The line now ends in Havelock. It is once again being looked at as a possibility for better, faster train service to Ottawa and Montreal (pipe dream).

This is not a shot from Peterborough. In fact, I have no rail photos from my time there in 2003-04, but I thought I needed to show something. So here's a shot of a yard switcher in London, Ontario. It's a good example of CP's secondary power that was and is the primary power on the Kawartha Lakes Railways through Peterborough.

When I worked in Peterborough, the Kawartha Lakes Railway was a forgettable secondary rail line that saw limited, albeit somewhat regular, action. But it was never terribly busy. I do recall being at my desk in the evening and looking out the back window of our newsroom, which faced west. The setting sun was always a soothing site, but that window also offered a view of the rail line and it would always make me pause when a train came roaring by.

I also remember being held up mid-jog by a train that was hurtling by Lansdowne Street, being led by two old SW1200s that were pulling a surprisingly long load. That was the type of scene you could expect to see on this line at the time. Two yard switchers pulling a long freight train, working as primary road power. 

I remember one night, a call came in on the police scanner, which was asking for officers to try and find two yokels in a pickup truck who had steered their truck onto the rail line in search of a deer they were apparently hunting. This was the type of local flavour that often coloured our police coverage.

To this day, I'm not exactly sure what to make out of this city. It was always an enigma to me.

But I think the clearest memory I have of those railway tracks was when the city was hit by what is known in weather circles as a cold low. It was a torrential rain storm that stalled over the city and dumped more than 100 mm of rain on the city in less than 12 hours. The result was that the city was flooded almost in its entirety. The flood only lasted a day, but its damage was immense. The story made national headlines in the summer of 2003.

The only way I could make it to work was by bike, since the roads were mostly flooded between my house and the newspaper offices.

This was my street. A neighbour was trying to fish something out of the crater that had been created near the hydro box.

The day of the flood turned out to be one of the longest of my career. It was exhilarating and humbling at the same time. I remember biking down one of my local streets with the water over the front tires of my bike. I had no raincoat, so I had to wear a garbage bag over my clothes, just to keep dry.

My railway memory of that day happened when I was in the back parking lot of our newspaper offices and looking down the tracks, much of which were washed out and unpassable. In that quiet moment amid the chaos of that day, a young reporter came walking up to me, a recorder and microphone in hand. She introduced herself as a reporter from CBC Radio and wanted to know if I could comment a bit on what was happening in the city.

The whole time as I am answering her questions, I wondered, how did this reporter, most likely from Toronto, find her way into the city? The main routes into Peterborough were flooded. I also wondered, why was she walking along the railway tracks? I never asked her how she made it into town and I never did figure out why she was walking along the tracks.

It was a surreal moment in my career and one that I will never forget. Much of that has to do with the fact that it happened near railway tracks.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Three shots, lots of history

I am always aware that many readers of this blog come across it accidentally and read these postings long after I posted them. So rather than expounding on the state of the world as it stands on March 29th, 2020, as I write this, let's just enjoy what we came here for. Let's explore our passion for railways together for a few minutes and consider ourselves lucky to be able to do so.

With that in mind, I recently came across some images I captured this past summer in Southwestern Ontario when I was visiting family in the Sarnia area. Those who are regular visitors here know I post a lot from this area, since it is where I grew up and it remains a spot I visit semi-regularly.

One day near the end of my last visit, I took my nephew and my daughters to the Sarnia CN rail yard on our way home from a visit to a museum in the downtown. We were treated to the sight of a tunnel train marshalling its load together in front of the Sarnia Via rail station. You can read all about that train here.

But as I was looking for other items of interest in the yard, I turned my attention to the old Sarnia roundhouse, where Lambton Diesel operates as a repair and refurbishment facility for many railways. That means you are often treated to the sight of rare or odd units in the yard, depending on the day you visit.

Take this image below. You can clearly see the long hood of an old CP geep in its action scheme It's most likely an old GP9, which was one of the last of the railway's GP series that was rostered on the railway in recent years. My guess is this hood was from a geep that was sold off to a shortline or industrial operation before it reached the end of its lifespan and was sold for scrap or parts.

You can also see the old Novacor SW series switcher, which appeared to be in for servicing. I have shot that unit at the Nova Corunna plant a few times in recent years, where it still operates alongside what appears to be a genset. And old CN warhorse GP9 is peaking out from behind the shell of the old CP geep hood.

Here's another shot with no shortage of interesting material. You can the see the exposed engine of an old CN SW1200 switcher in the centre of the frame. To its left, the old Esso SW switcher, which likely was in for servicing. As Imperial Oil still has a very large presence in the Chemical Valley, I'm sure that switcher is kept busy

Look to the left of the Esso unit and you can see a grey shell of another geep unit. The grey could be primer or possibly it's an old CSX livery. I am guessing it's been taken down to primer. Just a hunch. Looking to the right of the frame, you can see another grew SW unit behind the old CN unit. To the right of the frame, CSX has one of its GP38s in for servicing as well.

I almost missed this unit, but saw it at the last second, sandwiched in between a tank car and an NCIX covered hopper. I don't know how many of this GATX units are still in use on the CN system, but I'm guessing few, if any, especially given the dearth of business right now.

So there's a brief distraction for you. Lots of 1960s-1970s heritage units, all in a few shots. I always make sure to get a shot of these old locomotives when I see them in Sarnia because you never know which ones are destined to become parts for another engine.

Catch the history while you can.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Weird cargo and rare cars

The thing I love about railways is there is an escapism about them. Granted today, we know more about railways than ever before, but I still like to watch a train go by and wonder where everything will end up. Sometimes, you have an idea of where a certain car came from and where it's going. Then again, sometimes you take in a sight that makes you scratch your head. I love those moments when you see a rare car or a piece of rolling stock with mysterious cargo. With that sense of escapism and mystery in mind, here is a gallery of some interesting pieces of rolling stock and unique pieces of cargo.

The first photo is courtesy of my brother, who was trackside in Sarnia late last year when he spotted a long line of windmill blades heading west toward the Paul Tellier Tunnel beneath the St. Clair Tunnel. That would have been a sight to behold, seeing these impossibly large and long pieces going into the tunnel. I would like to know what type of planning and engineering goes into moving these things over such a long distance.

Here's one of my favourite shots from a 2017 visit to London. I was on a side street next to CN's yard along the Dundas subdivision when I spotted this heavy duty flatcar, which amazingly had almost nothing in the way of freight on it. Still, three sets of trucks on either side, which suggested to me that this car was made for large bulky loads. So, why then, was there so little strapped down to it on that day?

This hopper might not look like much of an oddity, but it's rare enough. It's one of the type of covered hoppers that delivers what it known as carbon black to companies like Cabot in Sarnia's Chemical Valley. This product is a powdery substance used for rubber products as well as for pigment purposes in plastics. It's a messy product, to be sure, which would explain why it is carried in black covered hoppers. The plant in Sarnia once had a full fleet of of these hoppers, with ribbed sides, stationed on a three track spur. All of the cars sported a Cabot logo. I wish I had a picture of those old cars.

You don't see these yellow tank cars very often, so I was happy to capture this one in 2013 in Ottawa. These cars were once patched with a Safety Kleen logo and are used for what is known as fluid recycling services. Some of the liquids this company recycles include oil, coolants and antifreeze solutions. So it's anyone's guess what was in this car on that day.

This is one of my favourites. At first site, it's not much to look at, since it is a tired looking CN gondola, with its markings barely visible. But on closer inspection, you can clearly see that it is a side dumping gondola that looks to me that is used for ballasting and maintenance of way purposes. Given how little is done to secondary parts of CN's system, seeing such MoW equipment in Ottawa was always a rarity. This car was captured in 2013 as well.

I saw this piece of equipment on a mixed freight barelling west on CN's Strathroy Subdivision several years ago. At the time, I remember asking if anyone knew what this was. No one knew for sure. It bears some resemblance to a piece of HVAC equipment, but there are too many small components and pipes for this unit to be that, to my uneducated eye. So I will throw it out there again to those more knowledgeable than me. Does anyone know what this is?

This last shot isn't necessarily a rarity, at least not in Southern Ontario, but it is rare elsewhere. It's not uncommon to see a long string of these underframes making their way from a parts supplier to an automotive manufacturing plant somewhere in the heartland of the province. I have often seen these strings of cars in the Sarnia area when I visit that area. I saw this string on an eastbound train crossing Camlachie Road, just outside Sarnia's eastern city limits.

I've often mentioned in this blog that railfanning isn't just about getting shots of locomotives. To me, that's boring. There is always something else to see on a train. In some ways, it's better to be train starved like me, because it makes you appreciate everything you do see. And it motivates you to take a few extra shots.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Sometimes, magic happens

May you live in interesting times, or so goes what many feel is a Chinese proverb or curse. We do live in interesting times in Canada. For those of us in Canada who like to sit trackside, it's been a long few weeks. I have mixed feelings about everything that has happened in this country that has ground rail traffic to a standstill in many parts. I won't get into it much more than that, because this is not what this blog is about.

Recently, my daughter expressed an interest in astronomy, which is why I drove her into the countryside on a Saturday evening to look at a few constellations and planets just after sunset. We brought a pair of binoculars, which are surprisingly useful for stargazing.

On our way to our spot, I noticed the signals at the Twin Elm crossing were showing green for westbound trains, which I found odd. As far as I was concerned, nothing was moving on the Smiths Falls Sub, due to the blockades.

Well, on our way back home, I got my answer. I double-ended Via Rail train was making its way west through Twin Elm, which had me confused. I brought along my camera, which I usually do when I know I will be near a rail crossing. The train was making its way to the crossing much slower than it usually does. So I propped my camera on my driver's side mirror to ensure any shot I got was somewhat clear in the dark. (Always find something to use a tripod, if you can. I learned that trick very early on)

This was probably the best shot of the tail end of the consist (above), with a wrapped Via Rail F40 wearing the "Love the way" slogan on the side. I didn't have time to switch my camera to its night settings, which would have helped the shots, no doubt. But, then again, this was really a surprise meet.

I think I like this shot the best because it shows the blurred strip of lights coming from the LRC coaches. The entire train was made up of old LRC coaches, still bearing the Via Rail blue and yellow livery, which I appreciated. I have seen many many shots over the years of nighttime rail photography where a train appears as a blurred lines of lights. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to capture these types of shots. Quite by accident, I was able to create a first attempt. It's not perfect, but it's a start. The lights from the crossing gate and signal really flared a fair bit, which I tried to fix with some retouching, but this was the best I could do.

When reviewing the shots, I decided to make one of them black and white to see if it added to the scene at all. I'm not sure if it made the shot better or worse, but it was worthwhile experiment nonetheless.

So, it was a little bit of magic on a night when my focus was trying to teach my daughter what little I know about the night sky.

I did notice that, after the blockade was removed near Belleville and freight traffic began moving again on the CN main line, someone went to Walkley Yard and took shots of the local CN crew putting a train together. This video was posted on Facebook. I have to say, with respect, that taking shots from the service road next to Walkley Yard is probably not a great idea. That road is private property past a certain point, which puts you in danger of being charged with trespassing. There are Ottawa Police and private security guards watching this area a fair bit.

It's not worth it.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Ottawa's light rail disaster

I have been reluctant to share any thoughts about Ottawa’s new electrified Confederation Line light rail system on this blog. You don’t need to live in Ottawa to know that the launch of the east-west Confederation Line has been an unqualified disaster. There is no other way to describe this system. It was already well past its launch date when it began service in September. Admittedly, hopes were high when it did begin operations, but the problems began almost immediately.

Here is an unofficial summary of what Ottawa commuters have had to face since September.

1. City officials insisted that the trains had to operate flawlessly for 12 consecutive days before actual commuter operations were to begin. That did not happen, but city officials used all sorts of bafflegab and doublespeak to explain away this obvious failure to comply with its own guidelines.

2. The first major problem happened almost immediately when commuters tried to pry doors open when trying to catch a train. This is common in most transit systems. Most buses and subways have safety and redundancy systems that account for this behaviour. The O-Trains could not handle these situations and the doors would remain open after being pried open. The trains would then shut down. The door issue has been resolved through a change in commuter behaviour, but it’s not clear to me that the issue was ever fixed. The city insisted that technical adjustments were made.

3. Switches on the Confederation Line would often not operate normally, which would shut down part or all of the system. This happened multiple times before the issue was largely fixed. It should be noted that this problem has begun to resurface recently, due to winter conditions.

4. The city had told the public that 15 O-Trains would run during peak periods in order to maintain normal 3-minute intervals of service at all stations. The system has not yet had 15 trains working at one time. City officials have quickly changed their tune, saying the number of trains operating during peak periods is 13. No one has ever explained why this has changed.

5. There have been many cases where these trains have shut down for no apparent reason. If there were explanations for these mysterious failures, they were not well communicated with the public or not shared with the public at all.

6. Early on, a piece of the continuous welded rail broke apart, forcing the system to shut down while repairs were made to the (at the time) brand new right-of-way. The city insisted that this is a common occurrence in any rail system. Officials were then forced to admit that this “common occurrence” has never once happened on the Trillium Line since it first began operations in 2001.

7. A long piece of the overhead catenary was torn off its bracing by an O-Train for no apparent reason near Saint Laurent Station. The city never offered any explanation as to why this would happen.

8. Multiple O-Trains experienced power failures around the New Year. In this case, it was explained that the company that maintains the trains had to modify its maintenance practices because the pantographs that pick up the power were being compromised by a mixture of copper shavings from the overhead catenary mixed with rock salt.

9. In the New Year, the entire Confederation Line was severely compromised by a number of flat spots on the train’s wheelsets. The company maintaining the fleet explained eventually that its wheel truing machinery had broken down. The result was that only eight trains were available for use during peak hours for more than a week.

10. On New Year’s Eve, the city offered free rides on the O-Train for those going out for a night on the town. A mysterious failure on one of the trains caused a delay of more than an hour, due to the fact that there was obviously no back-up in place for train failures. Eventually, those stranded on the stopped train did get aboard a replacement bus, but the incident was the latest black eye for the beleaguered system.

11. It took weeks for the city to explain that a faulty sump pump was causing a lingering sewer smell in the underground Rideau Station. The problem has not been totally resolved yet.

12. There are now problems with a rotten egg smell at the underground Lyon Station, for reasons that have not yet been fully explained.

13. The city now says it will take more than a year to fix the electrical problems that are causing untold delays on the Confederation Line.

I mention all these instances as examples of some of the more egregious errors that have happened since this new service was launched. Some of the problems were to be expected with a new system. But the service interruptions have been an almost daily occurrence since December. It’s actually hard to think of a stretch of more than three to four days where the system has operated normally without any problems.

There are three more recent developments that have further eroded any trust the citizens of Ottawa have in our local leadership.

1. The company that is largely responsible for the current Confederation Line, SNC Lavalin, was handed the contract to extend the Trillium Line as part of the Phase II of the system’s expansion. This, despite the fact that the company had failed to meet the minimum technical threshold to advance in the bidding and was disqualified by the city’s own technical evaluation committee. That committee’s decision was overturned by senior city officials, due to a secret power they held to make such an arbitrary decision. It has since been revealed that SNC failed to grasp in its bid that the Trillium Line is not an electrified line, but rather a diesel line. The company’s bid also did not include provisions for snow removal. Yet, they won the bid. The city council has ordered an independent review of this contract process.

2. City officials have only recently come forward publicly with the revelation that the trains they purchased from Alstom, are not terribly reliable in a North American winter. These trains are a specifically modified version of another Alstom train that is used worldwide. However, the fact remains that the trains used here are the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. They are the first to be used anywhere. And, as one city official admitted, they are so far proving to be lemons.

3. Ottawa residents were told that the company that is maintaining the Confederation Line and electric O-Trains has not been paid yet, due to the poor performance of the service since September. Only, that was another lie or half truth from city officials. It was actually revealed that the city, in fact, paid the company, which is called Rideau Transit Maintenance or RTM, $4.5 million.

I won’t offer my opinion, other than a few words. Everything that I have mentioned here is what has been reported. As a taxpayer and commuter, I can only hope that things will get better. I have lost trust in this city’s senior managers and the mayor. This will affect my vote in the next election. But, here’s the obvious truth. This is what happens when you don’t understand railways and have not had to live in a city with overly visible railways for the better part of half a century.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Railfan 5, Take Two

If you have been reading this blog for years, you might remember that, in 2014, I participated in the Railfan Five challenge, an initiative that began with Eric Gagnon of the Trackside Treasure blog (click the Trackside Treasure link for his latest five). He's been a great influence on me. When he asked me to come up with another five photos that tell my railfan story, I readily agreed. I had to give it some thought, because Eric suggested five photos from five years. In his case, he joked that coming up with five was tough for him, given the embarrassment of riches he had to sift through from his time trackside on the mainline in Kingston. Here in Ottawa, the size of the photo vault is considerably smaller.

But then, inspiration struck.

I was just beginning to go through my 2015 photos when I started looking through my file labelled "Arnprior Local." I found a photo I instantly loved and decided that it should be my shot for 2015. Then it occurred to me that maybe finding a shot of the Arnprior Turn for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 might be a fun idea.

After all, for better or worse, this tiny runt of a train has become this blog's calling card more than anything else. I have mixed feelings about that, since I always want to offer more, but I also appreciate that readers are enamored with this train for various reasons. And, I have to say, since this train is so hard to catch, it makes every one of my photos of 589 special. So, without further ado, here is my Railfan Five, which really does tell the story of this blog, my railfanning in recent years and the state of railways in Ottawa.
Sept. 2015

This shot was taken when I had a few minutes of spare time before picking up with daughter at her daycare provider's house. My newborn baby was along for the ride, since she didn't like me much at first and would only settle down when I took her for a car ride. To be honest, 2015 was a very tough time for me, as I really struggled with my health and nearly gave up blogging. But then, little moments like this occurred and they always managed to stir within me that passion I have for railways. This shot really captures the ragged glory of the Beachburg Subdivision and the remnants of CN's operations in this part of the country.

Feb. 2016

Again, remember when I said that every time I caught this train, it was an achievement? This meet was fleeting and it almost didn't happen. I was on my way home from the hospital after undergoing an early morning MRI when I made sure to make my way home close to the tracks. It was on this miserable winter morning that I caught the one-car Arnprior Turn meandering its way through Bells Corners. I had to fire off a few blind shots from my car while keeping my eyes on the road. I ended up with some spectacular winter shots. I know some people would take issue with the poles and visual distractions, but I like them. If I'm going to show CN's operations here as they really are, then I have to show all the imperfections.

April 2017

This is the one meet I don't have a good story for, sadly. Those who read this blog know that my strengths do not necessarily lie with the technical knowledge of railways. Instead, I feel my strength lies with the personal stories and the big picture thoughts on railways in general. That's why I wish I had something profound to share about this meet, but I don't. An old warhorse GP9 pulls a string of four cars west (four cars! That's as good as it gets on this line). The great thing about chasing the Arnprior Turn is that you are almost always guaranteed to see a classic piece of motive power. CN doesn't usually have anything new working up here. And that's okay with me.

April 2018

This shot was taken from atop of snow pile at the end of a very long winter. It was also taken at a time when I was having a phenomenally hard time at work, right before I switched ministries and found a much better job in the public service. I recall capturing this shot and once again feeling better about life in general. And that is something I can't stress enough. For me, being trackside makes life better. It's a stress reliever and it's a way for me to connect with my family history. There's something about railways that runs very deep within me. It's very hard to explain. When I was putting together this post and came up with the idea of featuring the Arnprior Turn as my theme, I keep hoping against hope that I actually had a shot for each year. This was my only meet with this train in 2018. That snow pile really helped the shot, coincidentally.

March 2019

Have you noticed that, of all the shots I've shared of CN trains on the Beachburg Sub, not one features a current CN livery? All of them but one have the safety scheme. This last one was really special since I was able to capture some leased power in the midst of a snow squall. Once again, I was standing on a snow pile about 10-12 feet high, which allowed me to avoid chopping off half the train behind the weed-choked fencing. I remember when I first arrived at this spot that day, there was no snow falling. But by the time the train rumbled by, most of my shots were almost blurry because of severity of this squall. It makes no difference. It made for a very interesting shot.

So, I'd be lying if I said that my story as a railfan in the last five years didn't somehow include this train. CN 589 has been a cruel mistress at times, but it has also done wonders for this blog. So, despite my somewhat lukewarm feelings toward CN, I am grateful for what little success I've had in the last few years.

I remember in the original Railfan Five post that everyone who took up the challenge made a mention of a train-related organization that they intended to support. In my case, my support in the coming year will be directed at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. They do tremendous work with not a lot of help. This museum is a must for all railfans. I can't wait to bring my girls back there this spring.

Other Railfan 5 blog entries worth checking out include Steve Boyko's Railfan 5 on his Traingeek site as well as Chris Mears' entry on his site, Prince Street.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Southern Comfort (Part II)

The second part of my plan to do some railfanning in Florida included a visit to the Plant City Railway Museum and the adjacent railfanning platform at the junction of the old Atlantic Coast Line A Line and the Seaboard Railroad S Line. (Here's the first post.) It all sounded very promising. The daylight wasn't terribly kind and the position of the buildings meant this was the only decent shot I could get of this caboose.

Those who read this blog know I am a fan of CSX's predecessor railways, since the Chessie System (former C&O, former Pere Marquette) served my hometown in Southwestern Ontario. That line still exists in a much reduced capacity as part of CSX's industrial switching operation for the Chemical Valley in Sarnia and a few scattered industries south of the city.

So a chance to see two historic predecessor rail lines in action was pretty exciting. The Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum is located in the city's former Union Station in the downtown. It was not open on the morning I visited, sadly, but there was more than enough on the museum grounds to look at, including this wonderfully preserved and rehabilitated Seaboard Caboose.

Plant City is an area that is dotted with a number of railway tracks, but the activity in and around the city is mostly relegated to overnight freight action, which was a big disappointment to me.

This Whitcomb switcher is almost too small to be believed. You have to see these machines to truly appreciate what it must have taken to fit any type of railroad-grade horsepower into such a small box. I looked at the axles and wheels on this thing and wondered how it maintained its balance. This unit, ACL 508, was painted in an unknown-to-me purple and grey livery for the old Atlantic Coast Line. These engines remind me of the trackmobiles you sometimes still see in industrial switching operations.Here's an example of one, for comparison.

Since the S Line and A Line were so quiet, I made sure to seek out the details on the museum grounds, such as the Seaboard logo on the caboose. Here's an interesting piece of trivia. The Seaboard Railroad adopted the "Air Line" into its name as a way to compete with airlines. The Air Line nomenclature was meant to signify that the Seaboard routes were the straightest and most direct connections between destinations. So, in other words, it was like flying straight to your destination. Interesting marketing concept. I always liked this logo.

The ACL logo was incorporated into a number of railroad items on the grounds, including a few benches, which used old rails bent to act as supports for the wooden slats. I like that the old ACL listed its major destinations on the outside of its logo. It gives you a good idea of the reach of this old line. That tradition continued when Seaboard and ACL came together as the SCL, which in turn became part of the loosely joined Family Lines system (later Seaboard System). Here's an example of the Family Lines logo.

This is where I waited, and waited, and waited. The signals on the A Line and the S Line remained solid red in my time in Plant City, which meant that nothing was happening. I was really disappointed that not a single train passed through, although I did know going in that traffic was light to sporadic in the daytime. Welcome to modern PSR-obsessed railways. Sigh...

Another small piece of trivia I unearthed while in Plant City was that the town itself was not named after the famous strawberries that grow in the region. Chances are, if you buy strawberries with any regularity, as I do, you will likely buy Plant City strawberries at some point during the year. They are known to be some of tastiest in North America. But, the Plant in Plant City comes from the railway executive who originally laid the tracks through this area. So, like many other cities and towns across North America, the town name can be traced back to the railways.

The final insult in my time in Florida was my time spent with my kids at Disney World. Even the Magic Kingdom's famous steam railway was out of commission on the day I visited. The entire railway was undergoing significant maintenance and renewal, including the removal of some of its narrow gauge track. I will hand it to the people in charge through, who knew enough to park one of the trains in front of the Magic Kingdom train station for the Christmas season. A nice touch.

So, on the whole, my train karma wasn't great in my time in Florida, but I suppose it's better to have bad train karma and be warm than have bad train karma and shiver trackside, as many of us often do in Ottawa.

In case anyone is wondering, yes I have some strong opinions on the absolute disastrous launch of Ottawa's Confederation Line light rail service. But that post will have to wait for another day. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Southern Comfort (Part I)

After Christmas, my family made its way to Florida for a family vacation. I made sure to carve out some time to sit trackside and capture some images of railway action outside my customary haunts in Ottawa. On Dec. 29, when my family was relaxing poolside, I made my way to the Lakeland Amtrak station to get some shots of Amtrak's long distance train, the Silver Star. This train connects Miami with New York alongside its sister train, the Silver Meteor. The Star serves Lakeland twice daily, once on its way northbound and once on its way south to Miami.

I arrived a little early because I was curious about the Lakeland Amtrak station, which has an unconventional design, but is still quite pleasing to the eye. It's not a terribly old station, but it has some nice classic touches, like the arched windows. Here's a shot from Lakeland's Main Street. For those interested in Lakeland's geography, it is located roughly halfway between Orlando (to its east) and Tampa (to its west).

I couldn't help but think of some comparisons between Amtrak and Via Rail Canada, while I stood on the platform, waiting for the northbound Star to make its way to the platform. My first observation was how impossibly long the platform was (look carefully at the image below and you will see just how far into the distance those arches recede).

My first thought was how many more long distance trains Amtrak has in its schedule compared to Via Rail. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison by any means, since Amtrak relies much more heavily on regional subsidies for many of its longer distance regional trains, but the fact remains that its long-distance trains that fall under the Amtrak National umbrella outnumber Via's Canadian and Ocean by a wide margin.

Here's a shot of the Star crossing Massachusetts Avenue in Lakeland's downtown. The consist of this train might appear odd to some, but it does make sense. The train was led by two P42s, as all Amtraks seem to be. The P42s are arranged elephant style. I have read in a few places (including Trains Magazine) that this arrangement is used when a train breaks up into two pieces, like the Empire Builder does on its western fringes. In this case, the Star doesn't do this, but I have also read that the engines are often arranged this way, rather than back-to-back, as a redundancy in case one of the units breaks down. The other will then be able to take over without having to wye somewhere.

I was not able to get a great angle, since I was so close to the tracks, but I did manage to get a shot of some of the Amfleet equipment. This design seems to be timeless. I don't know if there was ever a time when Amtrak didn't have some generation of this type of coach in its fleet. I was reading not too long ago that this design was a carryover from the old Penn Central Metroliners, which Amtrak inherited when it took over much of the American passenger railway services in the 1970s. Apparently, despite the initial problems with the rough ride, Amtrak liked the fuselage style design of the cars and stuck with it.

The end of these trains are always lined with newer equipment, with wider windows. You can even see the baggage car, which is at the end of the train. If you look closely, you can faintly see the light from the Amtrak station agent's scooter, which is used to carry bags to the back of the train.

Here's a new baggage car, much newer than the baggage car I saw the last time I caught this train in Kissimmee, Florida a few years back. I am told that Amtrak leaves the baggage car at the back of the train on the northbound Star because it means one less car to turn when the train is readied to head back south to Florida. I'm not sure if that's the reason, but it does make for an interesting consist when this car is on the end. Notice, too, how the traditional Amtrak striping has been applied to this car. I'm often baffled by Amtrak's various paint liveries. There's always some form of red, white and blue but look at the difference between this car and the coaches.

Now look at the blue and grey livery of its P42s. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but neither does the various shades of green, turquoise and yellow that Via Rail uses. I was actually hoping to catch one of Amtrak's heritage painted units, but this was all that was on display that day. 

One last going-away shot and that was a wrap for this brief trackside meet with a long-distance passenger train. If you click the link above to the post where I met this train in Kissimmee, you'll notice quite a difference in its length.

I tried to catch this train one more time, but there must have been some serious congestion on CSX's Florida lines because the train was ridiculously late the next time I was at the station and I ended up giving up. The A Line, which this train uses for the stretch through Lakeland, is lightly used by most indications, but the lines further south, which include CSX's S line (former Seaboard) has heavier traffic. In any case, this was my only meet with the Star. I did manage to make it out to a railway museum at Plant City and saw some interesting stuff. I will share that soon.

Friday, January 17, 2020

CN's final days in Ottawa: Fact and fiction

I've seen a fair bit of chatter on a few railfan groups online regarding CN's departure from Ottawa. From what I've read, there seems to be a lot of confusion out there. In the spirit of clearing the air or at least starting a conversation, I decided that it would be fun to attempt a few answers. It also gives me a chance to share a few photos that were sent to me by some generous fellow railfans.

So, let's start off simply.

1. There will be no freight railway in Ottawa once CN leaves. FICTION

I say this with near certainty. Let's look at the facts. Ottawa and Eastern Ontario is an area with more than 1 million people. And there are some rail-served businesses that would suffer a great deal if rail service were to disappear. I can't foresee a scenario where no one wants anything to do with freight activity here. There are too many shortline railway concerns in Canada and the U.S. for there to be no interest in an operation here. Let's assume, as well, that the City of Ottawa ends up acquiring what little rail CN retains here in the region. To me, that is one less capital expense for a smaller operation to worry about. And remember that there are motivated customers here that depend on rail that cannot carry on business as they are now without rail. Think Nylene Canada in Arnprior. They have said repeatedly that they need rail.

CN's Coteau run sweeps through Carlsbad Springs with leased power on point. Contrary to what people have said, rail activity in Ottawa has not stopped. Thanks to Keith for sharing this photo, taken recently.

2. Freight activity has ended already. FICTION

I've seen a few comments where people think that CN's freight service has already ended. This is simply not true. Multiple blog readers have shared their photos or observations with me recently that prove it's business as usual for CN for the moment. We need to remember that catching CN's locals anywhere in the region is tough since the frequency is tiny. In my case, I have two chances to catch a once-weekly train that goes through my neighbourhood each Wednesday. That's it. We need to keep in mind as well that discontinuance notices are part of a fairly detailed process, which takes time. A railway can give notice of discontinuance and continue operating for some time afterward.

3. CN is going to rip up the Renfrew Spur. FICTION

This is something that is often forgotten when this subject comes up. The Renfrew Spur belongs to the City of Ottawa. Look on some maps and you will see this line is labelled the Ottawa-Arnprior Railway.

The rails themselves are owned by Nylene Canada. This arrangement predates the amalgamation of the City of Ottawa. It was actually the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton that partnered with the old BASF (now Nylene Canada) to save this line and keep freight service operating to the old plant on the edge of Arnprior.

This arrangement was the compromise when it was determined that BASF was not able to receive service from the Canadian Pacific from its old Chalk River Sub, which once connected with the Renfrew Spur in Arnprior. Of course, the Chalk River Sub is long gone and the Renfrew Spur barely makes it over the Ottawa-Renfrew County border.

If I was a betting man, I would say that this rail line will one day be a commuter line with freight service operating outside of commuting hours, which means likely at night or the wee hours of the morning.

To be honest, the only reason this line is still there is because of the deal that was made more than 20 years ago to save it.

My thanks to a reader who follows along from Yukon, who once rode these rails with his family when his Dad worked this stretch of track for CN. He recently visited the city and took some shorts of what's left in Kinburn. My thanks to him for sharing his photos. I've done a fair bit of writing on this track, but he reminded me of the old Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound lineage that this line boasts. It's a part of the local rail history I haven't done a great deal of research on, so perhaps that's next on my list.

4. CN will rip up more track in Ottawa and Eastern Ontario. FICTION

Quite honestly, everything that CN could remove has already been removed. This company owns almost nothing in Ottawa anymore, save for the trackage into and out of Walkley Yard, the old Ontario-l'Orignal Railway and the tiny stretch of the old Beachburg Subdivision that links the Renfrew Spur to Federal Junction. I can't imagine the railway would want to tear up any of this trackage if it was seriously considering an arrangement to sell it to the city or possibly hand it off to a short line operator. You will recall from an earlier post that the city has confirmed that it is in talks with CN to buy the remaining trackage it might need in the city. The only stretch of track I would keep an eye on is the old l'Orignal trackage. Given that this track is key to CN's main customer in Eastern Ontario, I would suspect it's safe for now. Keep in mind as well that the Alexandria and Smiths Falls Subs are both controlled by Via Rail Canada.

5. The city will own the unwanted CN tracks and will contract out freight services. FACT

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest this is what is going to happen. It makes business sense for a short line to provide a service while not having to maintain the track per se. The only question mark is over the l'Orignal trackage. I don't know who would want to own that track, as it is not strategically important to Ottawa. This might be the only stretch of track that a future short line would have to own and maintain.

6. There's already another company operating freight services here. FICTION

I've seen some people ask this question already a few times. Don't let the GATX leased units fool you. CN is still operating here. 

So, here's one final thought. Who is going to step forward and take over freight services for CN? We all know the names. I'd be curious as to what the experts out there think. I'm going to say that, whoever steps forward, James Allen of the old Ottawa Central will be involved in some way.You will recall that he was involved in the efforts to save the old Beachburg Sub as far as the Pontiac Region and Renfrew County. It wouldn't surprise me if he was involved in this process in some way. More on that later.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Winter observations in Ottawa

Happy New Year everyone. I just returned home from a family vacation in Florida. I was planning to do some railfanning down in the Sunshine State and managed to spend some time trackside, the results of which I will share in the coming weeks. I did have a few Ottawa specific items and images to share, so I thought I would start off the year with those.

A few housekeeping items to pass along before I get into my images. The first is that, despite the questions about CN's status in Ottawa, the railway is still operating its freight services as per usual. Several posts have appeared on the Eastern Ontario Rails Facebook group that show the railway making the rounds on local rails. Of course, we don't know what will happen to freight services in the capital once CN officially discontinues service here, but I would be very surprised if someone doesn't at least attempt to step forward to carry on these operations such as they are.

Keep in mind that the railway is planning some sort of event from June 30 to July 5. Wouldn't it be ironic if the railway held this event after it officially pulled out all its services from the city and region?

Secondly, I should point out that several readers have contributed rail images in the last few weeks, which I will share in a future post. Many thanks to those who reached out to me over the Christmas break with images and thoughts for new posts. One of the shots that was contributed featured the GATX leased geep that is serving as CN's power in the region right now. It makes me want to get out there and try to capture it again. I did get a shot of it last year, which you can see here.

So, on to business. In mid-December, I found myself on my way to a Christmas party in Orleans when I found the time to stop at the Central Station to get a few photos. Sadly for railfans, Via Rail has erected tall chain-link fencing between its tracks and the eastern parking lot, which will make photographs especially difficult.

Seeing this barrier, I opted to try and get some shots in the fog from the Belfast Road overpass. I snagged this shot below of a wrapped Love The Way Via F40PH-2. This was the only angle I could get without having to deal with the mess of hydro wires that obscure much of the view from this overpass.

Even in this shot below, you can see a hydro wire in the bottom left. This was the only way I could capture this shot of the three trains in the station yard. The one on the far right is loading while the other two are parked. You can just make out the P42 on the other end of the consist from the wrapped F40.

I wasn't expecting to get anything great, but a corridor train from Montreal just happened to be making its way to the station when I was there, which allowed me to snap a few quick shots. You can see the fog obscuring much of the cityscape just beyond the station's platforms. Also, you can just make out the wrapped F40 in this shot as well. As you can see from the overhead wires, getting a good shot of the side of the wrapped unit was tough, as I did not have anything to steady my hands when I zoomed the camera in for a closer shot.

This shot gives you an idea of the visual hazard that the overhead wires present when you're shooting from this vantage point.

I also wanted to share this photo below that my wife took from the passenger seat of our car as we headed down to visit family for Thanksgiving in October. She took some shots of a conjoined train with three locomotives, but sadly the trees all but ruined all the shots. This is a tricky spot along the Kingston Subdivision, especially when you're shooting from the 401 while travelling at 110 km/h in the opposite direction. Oh well. It made me think that I should put together a post of some of my best (or worst?) visual hazard shots.

So those are the few observations from Ottawa. I could add in a few lines about the O-Train Confederation Line, but I won't get into it. It's still an unreliable and problem-plagued service, which has the city's commuters growing more impatient by the day.That is hardly news anymore. C'est la vie.