Friday, June 7, 2024

The Overpass Debate

Note: Due to my ongoing efforts to move, my time online to pursue blogging is severely limited. I will be taking the siding for a few weeks, to focus on housing matters. The situation has improved, as we have bought a new home (near the Beachburg Sub!) and are in the process of selling our house. This is a stressful time for me, as I have mentioned in the past, so I appreciate your patience during this pause. In the meantime, here's a post that's been in the can for a while. I will continue with my Ottawa to Sarnia series when I return. - Michael

One of the things my family did in the early days of the pandemic was search for new exotic playgrounds for my children to play at throughout the city. In the summer of 2020, I took my daughters to a park next to the Smiths Falls Subdivision in Barrhaven. That was when I saw my first real glimpse of the overpass that now takes Strandherd Road over the Smiths Falls Sub. For those in the city, you know that Strandherd is an extremely busy road that is being widened and cannot handle its current capacity. The overpass really began to take shape over that summer. It also got me to thinking a bit about Ottawa and our railway etiquette in the city.

First things first, as we were leaving the park, I heard the familiar sound of a Via Rail corridor train heading east toward Fallowfield Station. I had my iPhone with me so I fired off a few shots of the train through the trees. I like this shot below the best.

I don't know that I've shared too many shots from my iPhone on this blog over the years, but I was glad to have it at that moment as the train went by at a fair clip. The sun was hiding behind clouds and making for some funny shadows, which explains some of the weird lighting in the shot. I decided to leave it untouched. 

Here's a shot of the tail end of the train, which was a double-ender with a P42 bringing up the rear.

This was pretty much the best I could do. I was trotting across a soccer field and trying not to use my phone's zoom function, which pretty much guarantees you a highly pixelated shot. As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I have really grown to like railway photos that place a train in its surroundings. I am as interested in the landscape around the train as I am in the train. I think there's so much more to the story than capturing an engine at the head of a train. This is why I like shots where the train isn't dominating the majority of the frame. I think the surroundings tell as much of the story as the train does.

But as I looked over at the Strandherd overpass, I couldn't help but think back to the years before 2020, when many of the signals and crossing guards were malfunctioning in Barrhaven, which had local residents suggesting all their level crossings should be switched over to overpasses or underpasses. 

I chuckled at those debates, as I have lived in cities with far more level crossings, many of which accommodate both long freight and passenger trains. Ottawa drivers don't know how good they have it. There is a high frequency of Via Rail traffic going through their neighbourhoods, but the inconvenience of a short, quick passenger train going by is quite minimal when you compare that to the time it takes for a giant freight train passes by. We're talking about the difference between a few seconds of waiting and a few minutes.

Having seen the delays these freight trains cause first hand when I lived in Kitchener, I know how these many crossings back traffic up, yet I don't recall much of a conversation about what needed to be done. Drivers accepted railways as being part of their landscape and learned to adjust their days according to the possibility of a delay. 

2016 shot of a flyover being constructed over Greenbank Road in Barrhaven. 
Greenbank flyover in 2023
I know I've made this point before, but Ottawa drivers really don't know how to live with railways anymore. The days of transcontinental freights going through the city are long gone, as are the days of more frequent short line traffic, like when the Ottawa Central Railway was at its busiest. 
While it is true that the residents of Barrhaven have more transportation headaches than many other parts of the city (they are also situated under the flight path approach to the Ottawa International Airport), the limited intrusions caused by Via Rail's corridor traffic are laughable when compared to what other cities have to live with. And never mind the once-a-week freight traffic, which usually consists of a freight train of no more than five cars.
I remember years ago when someone was complaining about the Arnprior Turn causing headaches for people in the Valleystream neighbourhood, when the once-a-week freight train rattled their homes with what the blogger described as "tar sands" oil tank cars. I was less than impressed with this blogger's ignorance, to say the least.  

Ottawa has become a spoiled city, where people think railways and crossings are a nuisance to be eliminated. Yet, they don't often think of the vital role Via plays in this city, or the role the rails could one day play in a future commuter transportation system.

Yes, overpasses are safer and better in the long run. I'm not suggesting they aren't the way to go from a safety perspective. However, I fear that people in this city have no concept of how to live with trains. A  collision between a Via Rail corridor train and pickup truck at the Barnsdale Road (country road, with clear views) level crossing is a good example. Anyone who thinks they can outrun a passenger train at this crossing is clearly not aware of the speed of these trains.

Sometimes, common sense is just as useful as improved infrastructure.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part II)

Taking the train across Ontario is a great experience, but it is also a long day, given that this isn't a pleasure ride through the Rockies or a eye-opening trek up to Churchill, Man. Taking the train through Ontario often means getting on in small town stations, at odd hours, changing trains at Union Station in Toronto and enduring the numerous delays when Via has to make way for CN freight trains. There's also the scenery, as I mentioned. Personally, I find the ride fascinating, but for some, I'm sure it's a bit of a bore.

When I was a university student at Carleton University in the late 1990s, I rode the train dozens of times between Ottawa and Sarnia in both directions. For someone who grew up fascinated by trains, I loved travelling by train. Sadly, I was not in the habit of taking photos at the time, but I have plenty of memories of those times spent travelling across Ontario. In the last post, I shared some memories and observations of the stops between Ottawa and Kingston. This time around, I'd like to continue heading west.

Via westbound corridor train meets an eastbound CN freight west of Kingston Station, July 2016 
Between Kingston and Toronto, depending on what corridor train you are on, the most likely stops you will notice are Napanee, Belleville, Cobourg, Port Hope, Oshawa and sometimes Guildwood (Scarborough). It depends on whether you are taking a train that is considered a milk run or an express. The express trains usually stop in Belleville, Cobourg and Oshawa. Selected trains can stop at any of the above mentioned towns.
In the 1990s, this was the part of the trip where I was usually immersed in reading, chatting with friends or writing. There is some impressive scenery between Kingston and Oshawa, particularly when the tracks edge close to Lake Ontario, like in the Clarington area, just east of Oshawa. The small town stations are nice, although some, like the original Grand Trunk stonework Port Hope station, are lightly used. Given that Via has recently reinstated some service in the busy Ontario-Quebec corridor, that means more trains for towns like Port Hope.
When I rode the train in the 1990s, Belleville station had yet to be completely transformed, so my memories of this stop are quite a contrast with what is there today. The new station is a modernists' dream and features a number of modern amenities, but I'm sure there are many people who think this place just doesn't have a classic railway station feel to it. For a town the size of Belleville, this is an impressive structure. I can't think of many towns this size that have such a large, modern station. It pays to be on the main line between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.


I have lots of memories of Union Station in Toronto, going back to 1983, when I rode a train from Sarnia, through Toronto, into Quebec City on a overnighter, back when Via still did that. Union Station was the place where I saw a complete CN passenger train under the sheds, not knowing then that it was a Via corridor consist that somehow had not been repainted in the blue and yellow yet. 

In the 1990s, I spent a good number of hours in the Union Station, after my train to Toronto finished its journey and I had to wait for the evening train into Sarnia. This usually meant finding some fast food option. Unlike today with all its renovations, the Union Station of the 1990s was not the same place. In fact, you could argue it was a little rough around the edges. 

Still, the feeling you get when you enter that great hall was the same then as it is now. Back in the 1990s, it was never lost on me that entering the hall was like entering the pages of history. How many stories include this hall? How many people have passed through here? Why did they pass through here? I would venture to guess my mother passed through this hall in the mid-1950s when she was arriving in Canada for the first time, en route to her eventual home in Windsor. Like I said, countless stories.

Back in the 1990s, the train sheds were dark and dismal, charred by decades of diesel smoke. In recent years, efforts were made to brighten this space with windows, as part of the station's renovations. It makes for a more welcoming experience in Toronto than when I used to get off trains in the 1990s. The image below shows you how dark the sheds were before the renovations, as two Via eastbound corridor trains approach the station before the retrofits.

I have many memories of sitting on my luggage in line near the gates, which are located below the great hall. Many times, lunch or dinner was a hot dog purchased outside the station at a cart on Front Street, across from the Royal York Hotel. 

I will mention this memory passed along to me by a Via Rail employee, but I will not name them in any way. This person told me that, when they were working on a crew that helped pack the baggage cars, there was an incident one day when a coffin was brought down to the platforms. This person told me that, for some reason, there was a miscommunication between the people coordinating the move of this coffin into the baggage car that resulted in the contents of the coffin tumbling to the tracks. You can imagine the scene. Obviously for the family of the deceased, this is horrible. Decades have passed since this happened and this person can now smile just a bit at this story, if only to shake their heads at the absolutely awful luck and bad form that resulted in this happening. It pays to work in brighter light, I guess.


I will deviate a bit from the 1990s theme to share one memory of my time at the Guelph railway station. In 2009-10, I had just been laid off from my job in the media in Kitchener and had moved back to Ottawa to work for the government. I was engaged at the time and my now wife was still living and working in Guelph. We used to visit each other every six weeks or so between the time she finished her job in Guelph and moved to Ottawa with me, after we were married. This was a period of about 18 months apart, while engaged. Not a great time, but a good test of our commitment.

Guelph has a historic railway station perched on a hill overlooking the city's chic downtown. At the time, the city's historic 6167 was displayed in the area, but has since been relocated to an area near the River Run Centre, just on the outside the downtown core.

The station itself is another of the original Grand Trunk stations and has served the city since 1911. The building was renovated in 2016-17, to help preserve its historic character. The station is used by Via as well as Metrolinx, which provides commuter service between Kitchener and Toronto daily. So, here's my story about this station (picture was sourced through Wikimedia Commons).

After a weekend with my then fiancee, I had to board a train back to Ottawa. I remember standing on the platform on a reasonably warm spring morning, not relishing the thought of returning to Ottawa and working at a thankless job in media relations in the government. The platform was fairly full, with about 20 or so people ready to board. The quiet was shattered by the angry yelling of someone in Italian. I know it was Italian because my mother's family is Italian. And, though Italian can sometimes seem like an angry language, this isn't the case. There's expressive Italian, which I remember well, and there's angry Italian, which was what this was. When this person emerged on the platform, it was clear he was suffering from some sort of mental health episode as he continued to yell at no one in particular. I mention this story because it's my clearest memory of this station. I don't share it to be funny or make light of what this person was experiencing. 


Having lived in Kitchener two years, I have more recent memories of my time at this station, which is located on Victoria Avenue just north of the city's downtown. Kitchener's station is another of the classically built heritage stations between Toronto and London, on the Guelph Subdivision. It has an annex to its east of the passenger side that was once used by the Goderich Exeter Railway, which once operated freight services in the city prior to CN taking over that business in recent years. I do remember taking an Amtrak Superliner into  Kitchener one weekend when I was in high school, to visit my sister at the University of Waterloo. That was a fun weekend and a good memory. On my trips to and from Ottawa, Kitchener was always an area of fascination with me, as the station is built among some vintage brick industrial buildings. Many of these buildings have been repurposed. That, combined with the nearby University of Waterloo health sciences buildings and technology incubator in the old Lang Tannery mean this area is changing. It was a little rough when I passed through in the 1990s.

There's also the relatively recent addition of the Metrolinx GO Train service to Kitchener, which means this station is much busier than it was when I passed through in the 1990s.

The final leg of the journey requires an extra post, as there are a number of small stations and vivid memories for me of this time spent on the rails. Once past Kitchener, I could always feel anticipation rising in me as I returned home to see my family. I will save those memories for another time.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part I)

I wasn't in the habit of taking rail photos in the late 1990s when I began my post-secondary education in Ottawa at Carleton University in September 1996. In retrospect, it would have been a fun time to take shots. That's because every one of my trips home to see family at that time meant spending the better part of a day on the train. It was a time when you could still buy your student-discounted ticket at a Travelcuts travel agency on campus and the ticket you got might still have the red carbon copy. That quickly changed to those thick cardstock paper, one-fold tickets with the perforated lines to separate each leg of your journey. For me, taking the train regularly over those four years (1996-2000) was an eye opener, as someone who had seen almost no part of Ontario beyond Toronto for the first 18 years of his life. So, let's take a journey down memory lane and across the province back in the glory days of the late 90s.

A quick note about the equipment. As far as I can recall, every one of the trains I took were pretty much the same consist. I don't recall ever riding behind a P42. It was always an F40PH-2. The cars were almost exclusively LRC coaches. I don't recall riding in an old silver HEP car once during my university years. I don't know if that's a coincidence, but I'm almost positive of these facts. 


It's important to mention this off the top. In all my time taking the train in university, there was no Fallowfield Station. The train would roar through Barrhaven in Ottawa's south end and throttle up for the short leg to Smiths Falls. That meant all trips started at Ottawa's train station on Tremblay Road. Despite the fact that Ottawa doesn't have an historic train station as in Toronto, the east end station in Ottawa is a fascinating building, which is an award-winning architectural work from the 1960s. Given what many buildings of a similar vintage look like in Ottawa, the central train station is downright beautiful. Its main hall, with an endless wall of windows facing the tracks, is a bright, welcoming space. The circular ticket office in the middle of the hall is a creative way to create separate areas. The underground tunnel from the outside platforms is quite beautiful as well, especially the circular ramp to take you back up to the main station. The Via Panorama Lounge is well appointed as well, although I have only been there once. That was when I accompanied my friend, a person with a disability, who was accommodated in the Business Class (formerly Via1) car. All in all, the building hasn't changed much since I frequented it in my university years. The biggest change might be that there is no Harvey's at the station anymore. The food options are not great. Also, the rail yard is much smaller and the old Governor General's cars are no longer there. A small complaint.

Smiths Falls

Heading southwest, the first stop was (and is) always Smiths Falls, which had a classic railway town feel the moment you eased into the old platform at the former Canadian Pacific station on the edge of the CP yard. Of course, in those days, that old building still functioned as the Via station, which has since changed. The new Via station is more of an enlarged kiosk on Union Street, on the edge of the town.

The old station is now a centre for the arts and seems to be well used. Depending on which way I was travelling, Smiths Falls was either the stop where I was getting restless or the stop where I would be settling in with a book, magazine or my walkman (yes, I still listened to cassette tapes then). It was a town I didn't know much about until I learned of its history. It was the longtime home of the Hershey's chocolate factory and was once a very busy division point on the CPR, the dividing point between the Brockville, Winchester and Belleville subdivisions. It still is, but the Brockville Sub is now exclusively Via controlled while the Winchester and Belleville subs continue on as the eastern leg of the CP system to Montreal (and now beyond, once again). But the activity here is not what it was in the 1990s.


Brockville is another town that I must confess that I still don't know a lot about, other than it is still sees plenty of rail action each day, as the CN and CP eastern main lines converge here. There's plenty of history in Brockville, including its famous old railway tunnel, not to mention its name, which pays tribute to Sir Isaac Brock. Brock was a British military leader who many credit with preventing a successful American invasion of the Canadian colonies in the War of 1812. The red coat that he was shot and killed in on the Queenston Heights in the Niagara Region can be found at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A gruesome relic, but a fascinating story.


This town was probably the most surprising stop in my early years taking the train to and from Ottawa. I didn't know the town existed, to be honest, and was absolutely shocked when I saw its railway station for the first time. I wondered what kind of one-horse town Gananoque was. I didn't understand at the time that the town's train station was actually not in the town at all, but in a rural area named Cheeseborough to the north. This station remains a vital link where Gananoque is connected to the main line. A short branch line south into the town itself served Gananoque as a passenger link until 1962 and as a freight spur until 1995, when the last freight service ended and the rails were pulled up. However, the first time my train stopped there and I looked around the station area through the window, it was hard to comprehend how a station could be placed in the middle of nowhere. That's what it appeared like to me, anyway. You can read about the town, its famous engine the Susan Push (below), and its heritage in this post, where I explored some of the town's railway history.


Prior to my university years, I had only been to Kingston one time. Over the years, I have made some visits and I really do love the city. It's an eclectic mix of historic charm, academia, Upper Canada Loyalist, blue collar ethos and innovation. The city's history, of course, is what underpins much of Kingston and its beautiful downtown and waterfront.

From a rail traveller's perspective, there isn't much to be gleaned when you stop at Kingston station. The Via Rail schedule here is packed, as Kingston sits arguably about half way between Toronto and Montreal and also hosts a number of corridor trains to and from Ottawa. I suppose my memories of Kingston in the 1990s are closely tied to my high school friend Chris, who went to Queen's University to study engineering. Chris and I often found ourselves on the same train between Sarnia and Ottawa, although rarely on the return trip west. Chris was (likely still is) a real card back in high school and university. He had a gregarious personality and didn't mind making fun of himself in a crowd if it meant drawing laughter.

My clearest memory of our rides together on the train happened when we somehow got onto the topic of Stompin' Tom Connors and his famous ditty, The Hockey Song. I'm not sure how it came about, but I remember Chris singing the entire song word-for-word on the train, just loud enough that the people around us could hear him, but not too loud that he would annoy them. I think he left a few people befuddled, to be honest. 

Chris made many a train trip a little more bearable, although I should point out that I had no problem sitting by myself, reading, writing or listening to my cassette tapes. I do recall that, in the days before everything was available online, my brother would sometimes tape a cassette's worth of my favourite radio morning show from back home, which I used to listen to over and over. 

I should also mention that Kingston to me is closely tied to nearby Ernestown, a railway ghost town if ever there was one! The old stone station still stands trackside and it was on my rides between Ottawa and Sarnia that I first saw that old abandoned station. Back in the days before everything was online (man, I'm sounding old now), the story of that station remained a mystery to me, which I think was part of its appeal. Later on, I was filled in on the Ernestown story by Trackside Treasure's Eric Gagnon, but back in the 1990s that old station was the stuff of my imagination. 

These rides featured many other memories and lessons for me, but these are the ones that stick out as part of the Eastern Ontario portion of my journeys. I'm grateful for that education.