Friday, May 31, 2013

Chasing a ghost from the B&O

As I mentioned previously, I grew up along CSX's Sarnia subdivision between Chatham, Ont. and Sarnia, Ont. The line was a throwback in many ways, which you can read about in this post. The most obvious throwback on the Sarnia sub was the continuing use of Chessie System-painted geeps (mainly GP-38s) well into the 1990s. This seemed odd to me since the merger forming CSX between Chessie System and Seaboard System was quite a speck in the rear-view mirror by the mid 1990s.

This sub was in many respects an orphan, being cut off from the remainder of the CSX network. I've been told this was the reason why the motive power on this sub continued to sport Chessie colours long after most of CSX's diesels were repainted in the initial grey and blue CSX paint scheme.

Well, seeing Chessie painted locomotives is one thing, but seeing a Baltimore & Ohio-painted geep? In the 1990s?

I know it sounds ridiculous, but this was what happened one summer in the early 1990s when this ghost of railroading past made its way onto the Sarnia sub. I remember how strange it seemed to be seeing the dark blue geep puttering up and down the line. The last time I had seen a B&O geep was in the mid-1980s when I was in grade school and even then I knew that the B&O was long gone.

So one summer, I began my quest to catch up with this engine and snap a photo of it. The problem was, being too young to drive, my sole means of catching up to trains was to hop on my bike and race down to the St. Clair Boulevard crossing, which was about five minutes from my house. I remember this engine teasing me. I would see it from time to time when I was being driven around and didn't have a camera. I also remember biking around Corunna (my hometown) and hearing a train coming only to realize I didn't have my camera on me. That B&O geep was an elusive subject to capture.

So one afternoon as I was biking around Corunna near one of our main roads, Hill Street, I could hear the sound of an engine horn. The B&O geep was at the head of the consist, complete with the Capitol Building logo on the front of the hood. As luck would have it, I had my camera. Even more exciting, I just so happened to be in a great spot to capture the engine, very close to the tracks. My moment had finally arrived.

As the train approached, I set up my camera and watched it approach through the camera lens. It crawled closer and closer, finally relenting to a photo, I thought. Just as the unit began to fill my frame, preening for a photo, some kid on a bike raced right into the middle of my frame, right as I clicked the button to snap a frame.

This was long before the term photobomb meant anything. I was crushed. I quickly recovered and took this shot (below).

This going away shot was all I could get after I wound the camera's film and framed the locomotive properly. I didn't date the original print, but I am assuming it was taken around 1991 or 1992.

I remember looking at that ruined photo in my collection for years, always cursing that dumb kid in the middle of the frame, who was scowling at me and wondering what the hell I was doing taking his photo. In disgust, I threw away the print. Years later, I threw away all my reels of film. To this day, I still can't believe how stupid those two decisions were.

So, this is the only shot I ever captured of CSX 2100, still painted in the old B&O colours. At least it makes a good story. Sigh.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Last stop: Ottawa (Part II)

Although Ottawa's rail network has been pushed to the peripheries of the city, the capital is by no means a rail backwater, at least not when it comes to Via Rail. As many a traveler would know, Ottawa remains a key part of Via Rail Canada's network, with regular passenger service to and from Toronto and Montreal each day.

In some respects, the Ottawa market is a key destination for Via, since it owns its own trackage in Eastern Ontario and in Ottawa. This means it does not have to contend with the scheduling demands of CN or CP, which is a reality for Via elsewhere. This sometimes means freights are given priority, causing delays for passenger trains.

Having its own trackage means Via's on-time performance in this key portion of the Windsor-Quebec City corridor is quite good.

Since 1966, passengers arriving in Ottawa finish their journey at the Ottawa Central Railway Station, as it is called by Via. The station is located on Tremblay Road in an area east of the downtown. It's relatively close to some apartment buildings and a nearby neighbourhood with streets named after the alphabet, but it is otherwise an isolated island next to multiple retail developments, a baseball stadium and Highway 417.

Via took the rare step of opening a second railway station in southern Ottawa in 2002 in the Barrhaven subdivision. The Fallowfield station, as it is called, is typical of small-town stations and seems to be popular, based on the times I pick up family there and ride the train myself.

                                  Train 46 arrives at Fallowfield Station at dusk on April 13, 2013

Of course, there was a time when passengers actually finished their journey in downtown Ottawa. Before rails were ripped up from central Ottawa, as per the suggestions in the Greber urban planning report, passenger trains made their way to the old Union Station, just east of Parliament Hill. Visitors to the capital will know the old train station when they see it. The old building has been the Government Conference Centre for years. Sadly, it has been renovated inside to the point where some of the architectural features of the old station are unrecognizable. The building is also off limits to the public. I have been lucky enough to see the place as a journalist covering past federal budgets, since journalists go there for the lock-up prior to the budget being released publicly. There are a number of historic railway photographs in the building and some original features of the old station are still visible. There is also a hallway beneath Rideau Street that connects the station to the hotel across the street.

The tracks leading up to the old Union Station used to follow the east side of the Rideau Canal along a portion of what is now Colonel By Drive. It seems almost unthinkable today to see this meandering, tree-lined parkway as a rail line, but here is photographic proof, courtesy of the Canadian Science and Technology Museum.

This photo was taken in 1963. This stretch of the canal now features parkland, bike trails and beautiful homes that I could never afford. Seeing an old CN Rapido led by an F9A and B unit is an odd site indeed.

At one point right before 1967, the old train station was going to be torn down, but it was saved by those who recognized its beauty and historic significance.

The station was originally opened by the Grand Trunk in 1912 to serve as a central station for the CN, CP and Grand Trunk, although only the GTR used the station originally.

The station opened the same day as the famous railway hotel across the street, the Chateau Laurier. Neither building opened with much fanfare since the man who was behind the construction of both, Grand Trunk President Charles Melville Hays, died on the Titantic on April 15. It's a commonly held belief in Ottawa that the president's ghost roams the halls of the Chateau. Many guests claim to have seen Mr. Hays and insist he is a friendly spirit.

Not sure what the ghost of Mr. Hays thinks about state of Ottawa's rail network today.

At a time when railways are being seen as an increasingly important resource to traffic-congested cities, Ottawa is a city without a downtown rail connection. It's hard to imagine where rails would fit into the core now, although an underground tunnel for the city's light rail system will be in place in the coming years. Looking at the photo below, an altogether different picture of Ottawa is seen, one where rails dominated. The photo is from Library and Archives Canada.

As you can see in the middle of the image behind the train sheds, Union Station was a transportation hub in Ottawa, next to the Rideau Canal. To the right, is the old train yard, which is now part of the University of Ottawa campus and the poorly named mini-expressway Nicholas Street. To the left is an old gravel or sand dock. Today, this side of the canal is parkland with plenty of trees, a bike bath and Queen Elizabeth Drive. Also,you'll see lots of homes you can't afford. Very little in this photo still exists today other than the Parliament buildings, to the left, and the Chateau Laurier (directly behind the train station).

Imagine emerging right onto the downtown Ottawa streets from this station with the Chateau Laurier right in front of you and the Parliament buildings and National War Memorial just to your left (Canada Science and Technology Museum photo below).

Although Ottawa's central train station today is not in a terribly strategic position for Via, especially compared to the location of its other big-city stations, the structure itself is an excellent station. I am not a fan of modern architecture for the most part, but this station is an exception.

Although not much to look at initially, when you walk into the station, you are struck by the immense windows, bright natural light and spaciousness. It's unique, to be sure (Photo is from the Via Rail website).

I chose not to take any photos of the station myself because it's difficult to get the building in a single shot that does it justice. This photo at least gives you an idea of the front facade and the emphasis on windows. When you walk into the place, there are some impressive steam engine models to look at while you wait.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series (Last stop: Ottawa, Part I), it seems a little short-sited that Ottawa would have no downtown rail connection of any kind, especially considering how beautiful the old Union Station is and how convenient it is for travelers, government officials, politicians and business people.

At least there is easy photo access at the central station. Small consolation.

                                  Via Rail F40PH-3 6449 rests with streamliners in tow including 
                                  the uncommon site of a baggage car on an inter-city train (May 3)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Beachburg Subdivision Update

It's a good news/bad news scenario for this rail line.

First the bad news. Canadian National has continued to rip up the tracks in Renfrew County, northwest of Ottawa, despite efforts to stop the track from being lifted. I emailed James Allen, former general manager of the Ottawa Central Railway, who confirmed to me that efforts to save the sub have failed. Allen was involved with Transport Pontiac Renfrew, a working group that was aiming to revive the line. Allen said CN has lifted the rails in Renfrew County, despite a petition against the move that was circulating and an attempt to have that region's MP Cheryl Gallant intervene. It's a tough blow for Renfrew County, no doubt, since the county has already lost its Canadian Pacific connection from Smiths Falls.

So, the good news. The remainder of the sub might not share the fate of the right-of-way in Renfrew County. That's because municipal officials in the Pontiac region in Quebec have a bylaw that prevents rails from being lifted in the municipality.

Allen said the rail from Quebec to Ottawa is safe for now. Allen also told me that he was mystified as to why Renfrew County did not enact a similar bylaw to preserve its rail line, but it's a moot point now as the line is gone.

A reader told me that a CN freight train with rail transporter cars has arrived in Ottawa, which to me suggests more line is to be lifted. I saw the first train with those orange rail transporter cars a while back, but I didn't think anything of it, since I was unaware of the fate of the Beachburg sub until recently. I wish I would have taken a quick snap. If you want to see an example of these cars that carry rail, go to Eric Gagnon's Trackside Treasure blog, since he has a photo of these cars from a past post.

So you may ask why CN is doing this, if there are local backers who seem to think they can make a go of it on this line? One main reason, according to one of this blog's readers, is that Beachburg line is composed of continuous welded rail, which is extremely valuable, particularly in other regions where CN is doing brisk business and needs to upgrade older rights-of-way. Allen said the rail from the Beachburg sub is headed west, no doubt to areas where CN is busy transporting oil and frac sand.

I didn't realize that the Beachburg sub was once part of CN's national freight route, which a reader pointed out to me. That explains why this sub has such valuable rail. I was told that, if the sub had jointed rail, efforts to save it would likely be successful.

Make no mistake, CN is in business to make money. It has obviously done its due diligence and figured that it is not worthwhile to operate on the sub. I don't mean to come across as being hard on CN. As a railway fan and industry observer, the move to scrap the line seems driven by immediate business demands, which is understandable. However, it still seems like a short-sited move to me.

The bigger issue here may be why there is no provincial or national policy on old railway lines. As I have mentioned before, rail lines are becoming increasingly important as a way to alleviate stress on overcrowded highways and to move goods in an environmentally friendly way. People and businesses are beginning to realize the value that trains bring to a national transportation system. Railways have not enjoyed this type of goodwill in decades. So why do these old lines get ripped up with nary a word? 

If there are any other updates on Beachburg, I will pass them along.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Chessie System's last stand in Ontario

Growing up just south of Sarnia, Ont., I watched the famous railway cat Chessie breeze through my hometown along CSX Transportation's Sarnia Subdivision. The line was an oddity by most standards, although I wasn't old enough to appreciate it. The most obvious oddity was the ongoing use of Chessie System-painted locomotives well into the 1990s. The Chessie livery lived on elsewhere in the CSX network long after the Chessie-Seaboard System merger, but the cat seemed to persist much longer on the Sarnia Sub.

                              GP-38 2002 crosses St. Clair Boulevard in Corunna, Ont., Spring 1991

No doubt these units were left in the Chessie livery as a cost-saving measure. At one point, the sides of the cabs were repainted to with the CSXT reporting mark instead of C&O, B&O or WM identifiers, which the Chessie System used on its units after the Baltimore and Ohio, Chesapeake and Ohio and Western Maryland railways were brought together under the Chessie System umbrella. When I was growing up, I used to think the Chessie colours were something akin to the old Houston Astros uniforms. In other words, I thought they were gaudy and downright ugly.

Looking back, I'm glad I took photos of those units, which were usually paired off in twos. The Chessie geeps shuttled tank cars, hopper cars, auto racks and boxcars to and from Chatham, Ont. and Sarnia, Ont. The frequency of the trains was low, with one heading in each direction once a day and sometimes two at most. The density of traffic on this single track line was light enough that there was no signal equipment on much of the right-of-way.

Besides the Chessie engines, the line also featured a number of other throwbacks like two types of cabooses that were in use well into the 1990s, long after most cabooses went the way of the dodo. There were also several pre-World War II wooden boxcars and crew cars lingering on the line into the 1990s. Perhaps the most interesting relic was a Baltimore and Ohio-painted GP-38 that was used on the line during this time. More on all of these in future posts.

The Sarnia sub is still operational today. The line meets up with the Canadian Pacific's Windsor mainline in Chatham. It once ventured all the way south to Rondeau Point on Lake Erie before that section was abandoned all the way up to Blenheim. A small section in Blenheim was sold to CN and remains in service. At the north end, the Sarnia sub finishes in the Chemical Valley, where it interchanges with the Canadian National.

The line was completed in 1886 as the Erie and Huron Railroad. In 1902-03, it became part of the Pere Marquette system, which itself became part of the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1947. The line once carried passengers, as evidenced by this former passenger station near the end of line in Sarnia (left). This station is hidden behind a refinery in the Chemical Valley at the end of Clifford Street. The old station acted as a railway office for years. I haven't been by there recently, so I have no idea what has become of this sad old building.

There isn't much else along this line that serves as a reminder of its past. However, south of Sarnia in the riverfront community of Mooretown, the old railway station has been preserved along with a speeder on the grounds of the Moore Museum (below).

Although this sub continues to operate sporadically, there has been chatter for years that CSX wants to abandon this line. If it does, it would mark the end of the railway's presence in Ontario. CSX still has trackage rights in Windsor and a branch in New York State that stretches up to Melocheville, Que. Other than that, the Chessie cat has all but disappeared in Canada, as you can see on the CSX system map.

I guess age changes your perspective because I don't find the old Chessie colours so bad anymore. I was lucky to have caught up with the Houston Astros of the railway scene and grabbed a few images like this one when I had the chance (below).

                            Two geeps sit idle just outside Corunna with a full load headed to Sarnia
                            and the Chemical Valley (April 91). Since the sub is a single track
                            with no major sidings, it was not uncommon for freights to stop on the line
                            while waiting for switch jobs to clear the main track. 

NOTE: If you are new to the Beachburg Sub, I would invite you to read the first post to get a primer for this blog.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Last stop: Ottawa (Part I)

Like many Canadian cities, Ottawa owes much of its progress to the railways. Over the course of its history, the capital has seen its share of railroads, from the Grand Trunk to lumber baron John Rudolphus Booth's Canadian Atlantic Railway to the usual suspects, the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific. The decline of Ottawa's rail network owes itself to two main factors.

                                          Abandoned signal equipment on the Beachburg Sub

The first is the gradual decline of the Ottawa region's resource-based economy and the proliferation of its knowledge economy (high-tech and the government, obviously). It's hard to imagine how freight railways can serve an urban centre with so little heavy industry and and so few commodity industries nearby. This is especially true given how much track was removed from central Ottawa in the 1950s and 60s.

The removal of all that track began with a political decision in the early 1950s to clear much of the city, particularly the downtown, of rails for aesthetic reasons. Longtime Ottawa residents know all about the Greber Plan, an urban design plan that resulted in the creation of the city's celebrated Green Belt, numerous parks and biking trails, not to mention a whole host of other aesthetic and cultural features that transformed Ottawa into what it is today.

Few people in Ottawa would argue that this was a bad development. More on this in later posts, including the strange fate of the city's former Union Station.

Of course, railways have continued to serve Ottawa along the margins of the city since the last few rails were pulled from central Ottawa in the late 1960s. The Canadian Pacific abandoned the Ottawa region entirely in the late 1990s when its last remaining line discontinued service and was partially rehabilitated for the city's O-Train pilot project. That line is now being revamped once more to accommodate a faster O-Train.

Canadian National first gave up the ghost in Ottawa in 1998 when it sold its remaining assets to a company, which included the Ottawa Central Railway. OCR's parent company later purchased trackage from a shortline to Hawkesbury, Ont. and negotiated trackage rights on 138 kilometres of Via Rail's lines in the city and south to Coteau-du-Lac, Que.

OCR operated between Pembroke on the Beachburg sub down to Coteau-du-Lac, Que., where it interchanged with CN. OCR handled newsprint, steel, pulp, forest products, petroleum and scrap on 200 kilometres of rail, mainly between Pembroke and Hawkesbury. The railway sported sleek black Alco RS-18s, which became a favourite for local rail watchers.

OCR ran into some trouble with the onset of the recession, which resulted in the loss of industry in Eastern Ontario. In 2008, OCR was acquired by CN. Since that time, CN has continued operations in the city, although it has not used the Beachburg branch, despite some promising prospects on the line, including the 2010 start-up of a Trebio wood pellet plant at the old Smurfit-Stone facility in Portage-du-Fort, Que. and another potential opening of a shuttered plant in Renfrew County. Estimates have suggested hundreds of carloads could initially be carried along the line. James Allen, former general manager of OCR, spoke to me for a freelance article I wrote and said that the Trebio plant wanted to ship its goods via rail. The line is still being ripped up, despite pleas by the working group Transport Pontiac Renfrew, which is trying to revive the line.

This brings us to the present. With plans for a new shortline railway along the Beachburg sub compromised and no immediate prospects for major new business, CN will carry on as it is in Ottawa. According to local rail watchers, this includes a single locomotive making two moves a day in and out of the Walkley railyard.

This is the scene near where I live in west Ottawa.

A string of hoppers has sat here for half a year, which is obvious when you look at the wood-stemmed weeds along this stub spur (above).

The vandals have definitely taken over, as you can see below.

The caps being pried open was surprising to me, although the graffiti is all too common (below). If you're wondering why I photographed these cars on the shadow side, it's because the other side of the spur was choked with brush right up to the track, making photographs extremely tough.

I would imagine these cars will be taken away soon as the rails are lifted, depending on how far CN decides to lift the rails. As I mentioned in my last post, I can't help but think that, with the city investing heavily in commuter rail, the removal of these tracks is an opportunity lost.

NOTE: If you are visiting this blog for the first time, I'd invite you to read the first post to get a little primer of what's to come. Welcome!