Monday, August 21, 2023

Get on the GO, while you can (Stratford, Part I)

My family recently returned from a trip to Stratford for a family reunion. It's been two years since we've been here. Stratford is best known for its annual summer theatre festival, which has a decidedly Shakespearean flair. For my purposes, it serves as the headquarters of the Goderich Exeter shortline railway. Stratford also serves as the regional hub for Canadian National, which assumed operations on the Guelph Subdivision after leasing out the line to GEXR until 2018. 

On my recent travels to Stratford, I was lucky to be able to spend a fair bit of time at the town's railway station. On the whole, I was able to see two mainline CN freights (CN 568) as well as one GEXR yard job as the crew prepared to head north on GEXR 581. Part of the weekend required a short stay to pick up family on the platform, as they were arriving from London. So that was another one to add to my list. 

Perhaps the rarest catch was the evening eastbound GO Train 3775 from London, as it stopped in Stratford en route to Union Station in Toronto. It's this train I wanted to focus on first, as it is the rarest of birds one would expect to find in a small town like Stratford. Metrolinx launched a pilot project in 2021 to connect a number of southwestern Ontario cities to Toronto via a GO Train. That project will conclude this autumn, without a permanent link being established. All the same, I was able to find myself at the station just after 7 p.m. on Aug. 1 as 3775 made its way past a stopped CN westbound 581. A meet! Two for one! I tried to capture a shot of the control cab making its way to the platform with the Masterfeeds elevator complex in the shot.

This was a surprisingly difficult shot to capture, as Metrolinx has a wooden platform on the edge of the station platform that was obstructing my view. There was also a CN employee in a car parked right next to the tracks. I managed to adjust my zoom and aim my shot in between these visual hazards to get this shot. You can see the searchlight signals appearing double red to the left of the GO Train. CN 581, which was on the second track in the yard, was stopped with three units in the lead. The train was all covered hoppers.

This shot shows you a bit of the visual hazards that could not be eliminated entirely as the GO Train made its way to the station platform. This pilot project by Metrolinx is one that had me scratching my head, to be sure. I'm not sure a two-hour-plus milk run is what qualifies as commuter rail. I did notice when my family arrived on Via Train 87 that the train seemed to be quite full, so I would imagine there was some understanding between Metrolinx and Via about this GO service, which to me is otherwise encroaching on intercity passenger rail service, which is not in its mandate.

Of course, given the size of the Greater Toronto Area, GO already extends quite far on either side of Toronto, making a run out to London not entirely out of character, although to me it's too far. The train leaves London at the crack of dawn and arrives back in London fairly late into the evening. I suppose it's a cheaper option than taking Via, but it begs the question in my mind, which company should be providing this service? It seems to me to be Via, given its mandate to provide intercity service. 

All of this is a moot point, as the GO service will be ending soon, which made me quite happy to catch this train in Stratford. My wife and I also made a quick trip to St. Mary's, near Stratford, where we took photos of the town's beautiful train station as well as its towering train bridge. There is also a GO platform in that city (watch for my St. Mary's post in the near future). 

Seeing this commuter service so far outside the GTA made me wonder why something like this hasn't even entered the local discussion in Ottawa in recent years, as Ottawa tries to sort out its light rail nightmare called the Confederation Line. In an upcoming post, I will share some recent history from Ottawa where leaders were in fact calling for commuter rail on existing rail lines in the city. Alas, I think more people were entranced by the thought of a more European electrified light rail system on a brand new right-of-way, which leads in part to the mess we've inherited today. 

The slight curve on the Guelph Subdivision just past the station does make for some great pictures, although the evening sun was washing out the sky a fair bit. I was not expecting to see an old F59PH unit at the tail end, as these old beasts have mostly been replaced by newer, sleeker MPI MPXpress units, but there it was, rounding the curve as I snapped away.

One final shot of the westbound as it makes its way past the Downie Street crossing. I was happy to capture a few shots without local traffic obstructing my view of the train as it made its way back to London.

I was happy that I could capture a few shots that I will file under different, as this year is the Year of Different. However, it got me to thinking about how much of an opportunity Ottawa missed in not using the rails it has (and recently had) to try some sort of GO Train experiment in the city. In a future post, I will examine what GO service could have looked like in the city, if it had not been for the differing views of our local leadership.

All in all, it was a good catch and it was even better since there was a waiting freight in the hole as well. I will share shots of that train in the next Stratford post.


Kevin from Windsor said...

Informative as always! There are a few other overlaps of federal and provincial mandates that have occurred west of Toronto. Back in the early 80s, VIA and a pair of Windsor travel agencies sold weekend package tours like hotcakes to Michigan residents. For a brief time, there were 6 trains to/from Windsor on Fridays and Sundays. When VIA oversold those trains, they would lease GO coaches for their runs. Later into the 80s, there was some unusual subsidy provided to VIA by the Ontario government to operate service to Brantford. Timetable footnotes and placards in VIA coaches proclaimed that “Service to Brantford is made possible with the support of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation”, with the Trillium logo prominently displayed. The signs and footnotes disappeared after a few years. I never got the background on the program, nor why VIA needed a provincial subsidy to serve Brantford.

Eric said...

Thanks for sharing your visit to Stratford, Michael. I am wondering about those BN/BNSF covered hoppers and whether an upcoming post will show more of them. Is it to be, or not to be?

Two hours on the cowpath is definitely not commuter rail.

Michael said...

Thanks for your comments, Kevin and Eric. Eric, you read my mind. I did take some pictures of the hopper cars, since it's rare to see an old BN hopper in original lettering without much graffiti on it. Stay tuned.