Monday, April 22, 2024

Let's give thanks for the Bytown Railway Society

In my years since I started blogging, I've come across the Bytown Railway Society regularly, mostly through social media, but also in casual conversations or through research. Chances are, if you are looking into the history of railways in Ottawa, you will come across someone from the society who either knows the history or was part of the history.

A while ago, I had an appointment on St. Laurent Boulevard, in Ottawa's east end, which gave me the chance to have a quick glance at the society's historic rolling stock collection outside the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. Those who have been to this museum know there is a great steam engine exhibit inside, which to my eye seems to be one of the most popular features. The society can be thanked for this exhibit, which explains the history of passenger trains and steam-driven machinery.

Then there's this beauty out in front of the museum, which was recently moved, complete with the laying of a temporary track to get it to its new spot. Again, the society did yeoman's work in this move. And the newly refurbished 4-8-4 6200 looks better than it has in years. 

Ottawa winters can be incredibly harsh, so seeing this old machine with fresh paint, a new bell, an operational headlight and vivid number plates is a wonderful thing to behold up close. It gives you an idea of why people of a certain vintage hold steam engines in such high regard and why these mammoth machines continue to be a source of inspiration. Again, this engine's new lease on life can be traced back to BRS.

When you make your way to the small BRS rail yard stashed away behind the museum storage building, you begin to appreciate the time and effort these people have put in to preserving railway heritage in a city that has largely forgotten about railways. In my opinion, there's a huge opportunity to be had in introducing visitors to the museum to these old antique pieces of rolling stock. I can imagine a small tour and explanation of these cars and an explanation of their role in keeping Canadians moving would present a wonderful and interesting hands-on learning opportunity. That is what museums are for, right?

I don't mean this as a criticism of the museum or the BRS. There are a number of priorities for the museum in curating an interesting collection that tells an overall story of innovation. Railways are only one piece of the science and tech story. However, it strikes me that having this collection in storage is a missed opportunity.

I think back to the museum's older iteration, before its renovation. This caboose was part of the railway display. Now, the display only features two steam engines. Again, it's a small quibble and I'm not criticizing anyone per se. I love the museum and I have great respect for the Bytown Railway Society and its members. I'm just saying that I think there's an opportunity for so much more storytelling here and who better to tell the story of railways that the society?

This brings me to a memory. Back when the Canadian Pacific brought its business train into the city a few years ago, where it was largely hidden away from view and guarded at Walkley Yard, there was a palpable buzz among railfans over the presence of history in the city. I remember getting a few long shots of the train from Conroy Road, which was the closest I could come to the train, as the friendly CP police officer stood nearby (really, he was great, we chatted and he was cool).

The next day, I camped out along the Smiths Falls Sub at Fallowfield Station, waiting for the train to makes its way out of the city and was joined by a member of the Bytown Railway Society. We talked about the society's new space in the museum archives building, which is a state-of-the-art facility and a fitting home for this railway equipment. However, I remember sensing the frustration in his voice over the fact that the museum is no longer connected to an active rail line.

For those who might not know, the Bytown Railway Society was once quite active in arranging heritage train excursions along the trackage around Ottawa. Some of these excursions made their way along the Alexandria Sub while others plied the rails of the Smiths Falls Sub and the now torn-up Beachburg Sub into Pembroke. Even as recently as about 10 years ago, I remember there was chatter about planning for another excursion, but so much has changed with railways in Ottawa, that the society now finds itself working with great facilities but no connection to active rails. 

The Society's latest project was its extensive work to refurbish this old CN coach. Those who follow BRS on Facebook, as I do, will remember that the society documented the extensive work of its Dirty Hands Club in getting this old heavyweight six-axle coach back to its former glory. It looks great and I would think it could serve as a wonderful reminder of what railway transportation used to be like. However, I was a bit sad to see chatter on Facebook about which group would be prepared to take on this coach and give it a good home where it can be appreciated. 

Personally, I would love to see it stay with BRS and be put into use on local excursions. The society, in my opinion, would be an ideal operator or partner for these types of excursions, if given the chance. However, the prospects for this are slim. Even the old Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield steam train is a distant memory on the old CP Maniwaki Sub, as municipalities there struggled with bringing that line back into operation following storm damage. The end result was the line was scrapped (some would say predictably) and the equipment sold off. 

My point is there doesn't seem to be a lot of appetite to support this type of moving, living history, at least among those who would have the power to make it happen. I'm sure the society would jump at the chance at either hosting or partnering on some form of excursion or even rail tour initiatives from the museum.

My point here is not to criticize anyone or any organization, especially BRS. Rather, I am trying to express that I believe local rail history and the society deserve better. I appreciate that they have new digs, which is a huge step up for them, and deservedly so. 

However, what happens when you have all this expertise, knowledge and volunteer power, but nowhere to really make proper use of it? Well, think about the BRS refurbished coach that now resides at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. It's a great place for this old antique, where it can be appreciated.

But I can't help but remember the conversation I had with a society member who seemed to be a bit disappointed that this old coach had to go to Smiths Falls at all (and by truck, he mentioned, with tongue firmly in cheek). Again, it's a great outcome for this car, but I think it also represents a bit of a loss for those talented people who worked so hard to get it back to its former glory.

Many railfans know the BRS as the publisher of the Canadian Trackside Guide. I'm not old enough to remember when the society was a regular operator of special steam excursions and other heritage train rides. BRS is also active at area train shows and in arranging rail heritage discussions.

I do not mean to speak on behalf of anyone in saying this, especially the Bytown Railway Society, but I think many people in Ottawa are missing an opportunity to make use of this organization and its collection.

It can be as simple as people regularly touring the equipment as part of their museum visit. It could be something far more ambitious like re-establishing the rail connection at the museum and possibly starting up heritage excursions again.

I understand that there are many, many logistical and legal issues I am not accounting for here in this simplistic view.

But wouldn't it be great if we were able to better appreciate our history and allow the Bytown Railway Society to do what it does best without limitations?


Eric said...

Having had two family members involved with SFRM (now RMEO) and hearing accounts of how volunteer organizations work, I get a sick feeling in my stomach when I hear restoration. More specifically, railfans saying, "We need to preserve [piece of equipment]!" It is so easy to sidetrack something and expect it to be restored and/or run someday. Look at all the city parks in North America that 'got' steam engines put in them then check back how many have stood the test of time.

BRS has had a longtime association with CSTM/Ingenium. And I'm old enough to remember BRS running CPR 1201 to both coasts. Try that one today, any museum group!

I think you're right that the restoration is one thing, operation is a paradigm shift from there! But if I'd spent hours in the Dirty Hands Club, I would be very happy that at least some pieces were being stored inside, subsequently. SFRM/RMEO is quite a different story, unfortunately. I know you've been there since I have, Michael.

Thanks for shining a light on this. That 35-foot CPR business car is characteristically Canadian, perhaps quintessentially so!

Michael said...

Thanks for your comment, Eric. I chose my words for this post very carefully, as I merely wanted to suggest that perhaps there are more opportunities to make use of the BRS for historical purposes. There are snippets of conversation I could have added in, but I ultimately decided to leave them out, for fear of creating controversy where it is not productive. I will say that, among some people I've spoken to, passions run high when it comes to the rail link for BRS.

Canadian Train Geek said...

Railway equipment preservation, restoration and operation is much, much harder than many railfans think it is. I appreciate your careful comments, Michael.