Thursday, June 27, 2013

End of the line for CP Ellwood Sub

Looking back on my first few posts in this blog, I realize that I have devoted a great deal of time to Ottawa's railway history. I don't mean to come across as someone who bemoans the fact that Ottawa has very little rails left. I have mentioned the decision to lift all rails from central Ottawa in the 1960s a number of times. I think this was probably a good decision, for the most part, since Ottawa really doesn't have the resource economy and heavy industry that require rail. The old rail yards along the Rideau Canal and the west end of the Lebreton Flats really make very little sense today, especially in an area that is supposed to be a showcase of the nation.

However, I do think that pulling every last rail up in central Ottawa and neglecting what little was left outside the core is a huge mistake. Case in point: the old Ottawa West train yard on the former Canadian Pacific Ellwood subdivision. This might be the biggest missed opportunity, due to its proximity to the end of the O-Train line and its future potential as a commuter link across the Ottawa River to Quebec. This old yard, where some minimal trackage remains, has literally gone to seed. I found this old piece of track signalling equipment among the weeds last week. It's one of a few relics that have been left to rust in the weeds.

The gravel road to the left is an old right-of-way, long since torn up. To the right of this switch, buried in overgrown plants, trees and weeds, is a rusted right-of-way that leads to the Prince of Wales railway trestle across the Ottawa River (see photos below). This rail line branches off the end of the Capital Railway O-Train line, which runs north-south from Bayview Station, west of the downtown, to Greenboro Station, in suburban Ottawa's south end.

There has been talk about extending the light-rail line across the river to old Hull, now part of Gatineau, but the condition of the trestle would place severe speed limitations on any trains travelling across. As you will see below, the old bridge, now city owned, is in terrible shape. It has not seen a train in some time. I believe one the last trains to use the bridge was a ballast train that helped upgrade the road bed of the O-Train line. You can see that photo on Colin Churcher's excellent Railways In Canada site here. The last CP freight in Ottawa operated in 1997, and this portion of the Ellwood Sub was sold to the city shortly afterward.

Amazingly, as the city has been busily preparing for an east-west LRT rail line, there has been no discussion about keeping this valuable right-of-way in operating condition for future use. A group calling itself Mobility Ottawa Outaouais Systems and Enterprises (mOOse) has been lobbying government to try and get the city to maintain this piece of infrastructure, much as it would a deteriorating road. So far, there has been no effort to do anything other than let the rails rust.

Even the script is coming apart atop the bridge!

The Ottawa West railyard was once a bustling hive of activity, with a rail station for CPR's trancontinental passenger trains, a locomotive roundhouse and various other facilities, most of which were torn down decades ago. In many respects, this was probably a good thing since the CPR's cross-Canada trackage no longer runs through the Ottawa region, making the yard redundant, especially considering how close it was to residential areas in Hintonburg and Mechanicsville, to the imediate west.

Here's a great shot of the old Ottawa West station. This site is now a parking lot next to an overpass. It was taken in 1965 by Bill Linley and is also found on the Railways In Canada website.

I was told by a rail historian recently  that this station was only used for transcontinental trains, like The Dominion, pictured left. CP used the downtown Union Station for all of its corridor passenger trains until it closed in 1966.

I should point out that, if you live in Ottawa and want to wander around this old yard, you can, since a bike path does cut right through it. However, the remaining right-of-way itself is city owned land and I don't think they would be too keen to know I was walking along the neglected tracks. I pass this area every morning on my bus ride to work and I was curious about what was actually left of this former rail hub. Here are a few more relics I found in my little jaunt.

The picture below is another old piece of signalling equipment that has been left behind. This one is right below the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway (formerly the Ottawa River Parkway).
This, left, was Milepost Five, apparently. I was glad I checked out the area when I did. The birds seemed to be a little annoyed that I was encroaching on their little haven, especially a few that were nesting on the ground around the old tracks. In the coming months, work is going to begin on building a new Bayview O-Train/bus station, which will connect the end of the Capital Railway O-Train line with the overpass, where express buses travel to and from the downtown. What this means for the old CPR right-of-way across the river and bridge is not clear. I doubt anything will be done, other than a cursory clean-up at some point. However, if the city is indeed serious about building a light rail system, this key piece of infrastructure will need to be rehabilitated before it becomes too expensive to salvage. That's why I call this neglect on the city's part a huge missed opportunity. If the city had maintained even small pieces of its rail network, including this vital component at Ottawa West, it wouldn't be facing a multibillion-dollar bill to rebuild a rail network what was already in place.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Meet me at the station

Ottawa is not a train-watcher's destination by any stretch. I have mentioned this a number of times since I started this blog. However, it doesn't mean there aren't trains to see, if you are motivated. This week, I have decided to lay off the history lessons and actually photograph some active railroading in Ottawa.

The most obvious train-watching spot is Ottawa's central train station. I headed there on my lunch break earlier this week, since it was dead at work and the station was a few minutes by bus from my workplace. This was the scene when I arrived.
Not much to look at, but it gives you an idea of how extensive the platforms are here. I made sure that I was standing in a spot just on the edge of the no-go zone, in a patch of grass that was once a part of the rail yard, judging by the ballast stones that were creeping up from the grass. I was waiting for what I hoped would be a meet between Train 50, bound for Montreal, and Train 33, arriving from Montreal. I arrived a few minutes past Train 33's arrival time and saw a consist led by a P42 on the far south track (you can just make it out in the top photo between the support posts of the platforms). I was hoping that was not Train 33, since it was not accessible to shoot.

Soon enough, Train 50 arrived with F40PH-2 6411 and a short string of LRC coaches. This was the locomotive once painted in the Kool-Aid and Operation Lifesaver colours, according to RR Picture Archives. The shot below was taken from the vantage point of a service road beside the tracks. I was pretty sure I was not allowed to be on the road, so I went back to the grass to avoid any trouble.
I waited while it boarded and kept an ear out for Train 33, assuming it was late. When Train 50 was fully boarded, it idled a few minutes, which suggested to me that it was waiting for Train 33 to arrive. You can see the other train on the south track more clearly (between the support posts) and also a yellow snowblower on the stub spur on the far right.
Train 33 arrived without much warning, which surprised me as I thought I would be able to hear it, but the noise from the nearby overpass drowned out the train until the last minute. I managed to get a couple of hasty shots of P42 917, albeit from the shadow side. I should mention that taking shots from the other side of the fence is very tough, as most of that land is private property and off limits. My next adventure to the station will include a couple of overhead shots from the Belfast Road overpass.
The real shot I wanted was a decent image of the two trains meeting. These were my attempts to get this shot from my vantage point, which was rather limited.
I was reasonably happy with the above shot, since I was going for a panorama-style shot with the two trains, the platforms, the spur and the switching mechanism all in a wide shot with some blue sky. I do like the look of the Renaissance coaches. At least the Government of Canada wordmark isn't as gaudy as it is on the streamliners and LRC cars. Still, I think the Canada flag, Via Rail maple leaf logo and government wordmark are overkill. The original blue and yellow VIA colours are still my favourite, but I digress.

I wasn't quite satisfied with that shot, so I hung around and waited for Train 50 to take off. This allowed me to get a shot more to my liking.
Train 33 pulled in a little further than I would have hoped, which prevented me from getting all of the rear of its last coach in the shot.

With my attempts at shooting the meet reasonably successful, I made sure to take a shot of Train 50 as it was bathed in the late morning sunlight.

Then, one last shot going away. Notice the old rail ties and the CN shed on the left.
With that, it was back to work.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Favourite train photos #1

I have a couple of railway photos from my teenage years that stand out among the others. I still look at them, years later, and can vividly recall the moment I snapped these images. I have also taken a few lately around Ottawa that have really stood out among my recent photos. The technical details aren't as important to me as the story behind the photos. That is what is so infinitely interesting about railways. There are so many stories that are tied to the railways in Canada.

This one (below) has to be in my top three. It was taken at the Windsor CP Rail yard in the summer of 1991. The locomotive is a C424 made by the Montreal Locomotive Works (Alco), according to what I was able to find online. Even when I took this photo in 1991, this engine looked old and tired. It was just being guided out of the roundhouse onto the turntable before it was put back into service. The modifications on the side are curious. I have not seen those types of grills/vents on an engine since.

If you look to the right of the photo, you can see an open-air CP Rail autorack, which was a rarity where I lived, since most of the autoracks that were interchanged between CP Rail and the CSX Sarnia Sub were covered autoracks. Behind the autorack, you can just make out the famous Renaissance Center in Detroit (The Ren Cen as they call it there), home to General Motors' world headquarters.

The story behind this photo is that my grandfather brought me to this rail yard one day in the summer of 1991. My grandfather worked as a rolling stock mechanic on the CPR in Chapleau and then Windsor. He first brought me to this yard when I was very little (probably three or four) and took me aboard a locomotive for the first time. This time, I was old enough to appreciate the experience, especially since it allowed me to get photos on CP property that I would otherwise not be able to get. I remember one of my grandpa's co-workers telling him, "We could really use you here these days." It made me proud to hear that.

This engine, amazingly, was not scrapped until 2010. I found some other shots of it on Flikr (see what 4214 looked like more recently here) where a former Ottawa Central employee explains that the unit saw use on the Quebec-Gatineau Railway and then New Brunswick East Coast before it was scrapped by CN when it acquired NBEC.

This photo (below) is also a favourite. There really isn't a special story behind this shot. It was taken around the same time as the shot above (Summer 1991). This was taken at the St. Clair Boulevard crossing on the (then) edge of my hometown, Corunna, Ont. The field to the left of the train is now a subdivision.

What makes this shot special to me is that I earned this shot. I heard the train coming from my home, so I raced into the house to grab my camera and hopped on my bike to meet the train at this crossing. Seeing four geeps at the head of a train on this sub was very rare. Most trains during the time were led by a pair of geeps, so seeing an extra pair in tow was a great catch for me. At the end of the train, there was a bay window Chessie System caboose (I will share this in a future post). The colour of the sky was blue that day, but the limitations of my cheap camera sadly resulted in the grey sky you see. I see this shot and I just think of the anticipation I felt when the trains used to come rumbling down the track and I would ready my camera. Since the volume of traffic on this sub was always light, it made this shot all the more rewarding.

The final image is a more recent shot, but I was especially pleased with the movement I captured. I took the below photo while sitting on the Via Rail Fallowfield Station platform in south Ottawa on April 13, 2012. The train that is arriving is Train 46 from Toronto.

As you can see, I now use a better camera, so you can actually see the sky at dusk and some of the fine details in the background. I am not a fan of the P42 locomotive, but I like how the locomotive looks as it pulls into the station in this shot. I actually was trying to catch a still shot of the train creeping to a finish, but I ended up with this  blurry image instead, which was a happy accident. 

The story behind this photo was that my wife had been away for a week, adjudicating a music festival in London, Ont. She was seven months pregnant at the time with our baby girl, so I was especially happy to see her come home, since I was still in my ridiculously overprotective husband/father-to-be phase. I brought along our pet dog Tessa to greet my wife at the station, since the dog was a Mommy's girl. The train scared the life out of my poor schnauzer as the P42 shook the platform while rumbling to a stop.

But it was a happy reunion nonetheless, once the train stopped. Our dog was bouncing all over my wife, delirious with happiness that she was back and the family was reunited once again. A happy family reunion on a small railway station platform. A timeless Canadian tale, no?

Friday, June 7, 2013

A sneak peak inside Ottawa's old Union Station

It's called the Government Conference Centre and as the ridiculously boring name suggests, it hosts federal government conferences. The building is off limits to the public for all but two days a year, which is a shame considering what an enduring beauty this building is. Those who know Ottawa's history know the Government Conference Centre as the old Union Station, once Ottawa's showpiece train station. The old building is unmistakable right in the heart of the capital, beside the Rideau Canal, just east of the National War Memorial, steps from Parliament Hill and across the street from its from its former railway colleague, the Château Laurier.

                          The former Ottawa Union Station still looks the part on its west side,
                          although its former rooftop dome and eastern facade have been ruined by 
                          poor renovation decisions made in the 1960s.

The history of the old station dates back to the early 1900s, when the Grand Trunk began construction of the building after the railway received a charter from the city to build a unified station for each railway. It was intended to be a passenger depot for all railways serving Ottawa, including the Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, the Grand Trunk and the New York Central, although not all railways used the station at first. The station opened for business in 1912 on the same day that its railway counterpart, the Château Laurier, opened across the street. Both buildings opened with little fanfare, since the Grand Trunk's president, Charles Melville Hays, died aboard the Titantic a few months before the buildings were complete. Hays was the visionary behind the buildings. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is widely speculated in Ottawa that the spirit of Mr. Hays haunts the Chateau Laurier.

The station saw its last train in July of 1966 when the city removed the last of its rail network from the central portion of the city, as part of an urban renewal plan. The station was in danger of being torn down until heritage activists fought to preserve it. The building then became an exhibition hall for Canada's centennial before sitting vacant for year until it became the conference centre.

A number of plans have been floated about to bring the building back into public use, including an attempt to locate Canada's Sports Hall of Fame there and another attempt to convert it into a political museum.

Nothing has happened and it continues to be off limits to the public with the exception of the two days a year when it is opened for Doors Open Ottawa.

This is the best part of the station (below) the so-called Waiting Room, which was inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla.

This is the window facing east. You will notice at the bottom of the photo some ominous looking windows. These are translation booths that are used for government meetings. The Waiting Room has a few of these booths, which serve as an odd juxtaposition to the classical architecture. Imagine waiting for your train here when this place was actually a station.

The old station clock (left) no longer works. If you walked under the clock out of the Waiting Room, you would have been headed to the old freight sheds, as they were called. These sheds were on the south side of the station, lined against the Rideau Canal. When the tracks were all pulled up, including the main track that once lined the east side of the canal, a scenic parkway, Colonel By Drive, was created.

Underneath Rideau Street, a beautiful tunnel was constructed to allow passengers to walk to the Château Laurier Hotel (see below). The tunnel wasn't opened for the event, sadly.

 The tunnel has been beautifully preserved, complete with wooden benches that would have fit right in with the aesthetics of the original station in 1912. At the end of this portion of the tunnel, where you see those brown double doors, there is a brass nameplate that reads Château Laurier.

If you go to the Laurier, you will see a copy of a letter from Charles Melville Hays to Laurier, assuring him that the hotel that bears his name will be a proper tribute to the former prime minister.

Those who know Ottawa's history know that Laurier was more than a little uneasy about plans to name a hotel after him. However, he allowed it to happen and the rest is history.

Looking across the street from the station, you can see a gravel pathway (bottom right of photo) that was the former right-of-way that led to the Alexandria Bridge that carried trains over the Ottawa River to Hull and then on to Montreal. You can also see the train shed that is now part of the Chateau Laurier's parking lot on the bottom right as well. Those locks are the Bytown Locks, the beginning of the Rideau Canal.

When you first enter the railway station, this is what you see, looking up. The concrete above the entrance used to read Union Station.

There are plenty of reminders of the old station's history inside, including this banner at the front staircase that leads down to the Waiting Room.

There is also this interesting series of paintings (below) that chronicles the railway's influence across the country. I thought this was a classy touch.

Here's a look at the back of the station in busier times (below). You can make out Parliament Hill on the left and the Château Laurier directly behind the arched windows of the station in the centre of the image.

There were talks that the city's light rail commuter network, which will one day operate beneath the downtown in two parallel tunnels, should use the old station as the main downtown commuter stop. Sadly, this idea was shot down, which will leave the chronically underused building off limits to the public.

One wonders how Ottawa might be different today if trackage was left in place along the east side of the canal and the old station continued to operate. Ask people living along Colonel By Drive now if they would prefer a busy parkway with steady traffic throughout the day or a rail line with the occasional passenger train. I know which option I would choose.