Friday, July 26, 2013

CN's quirky Point Edward spur

The end of the CN Strathroy Subdivision is a train watcher's dream. CN operates a massive rail yard and a couple of picturesque local spurs in Sarnia. The most intriguing of the local spurs is the Point Edward spur, which is a curious run of trackage with an interesting history. According to local rail watchers, the line has 2.9 miles left. Much of the trackage into Point Edward has been lifted (for those who don't know, Point Edward is a village at the mouth of Lake Huron surrounded on all other sides by Sarnia). Those who have been to Sarnia will know that CN once ran rails as far as the Bluewater Bridge. The Point Edward Casino is in fact, an old CN freight shed.

In the early 1990s, the Point Edward spur was a busy stretch of track as a host of CN SW1200s shuttled countless autoracks and hi-cube boxcars onto the old CN ferry, which was the only means the railway had of moving these oversized cars across the St. Clair River into Michigan onto the St. Clair Subdivision of CN subsidiary Grand Trunk .

This section of the spur (seen below) was just beyond the edge of the Imperial Oil refinery in the south end of Sarnia. This area, located near a retirement home and the Sarnia Observer offices, is now just a single track. Before 1994, it was triple tracked and a hive of activity as the influx of oversized cars grew. In 1993, with the influx of double-stack container trains forcing its hand, CN started construction of the Paul Tellier Tunnel, which was able to handle these cars. In 1994, the tunnel replaced the original St. Clair Tunnel, which was dug by hand and had been in operation since 1891. The ferry service ended at the same time and the Point Edward spur grew increasingly quiet.

Above: CN SW1200 1206 and 1317 work a switch job near the St. Clair rail ferry along Front Street in Sarnia, Summer 1993. The Bluewater Bridge is barely visible amid the haze in the background.
Another shot of the pair of SW1200s at work in the Summer of 1993 near the rail ferry. You can see the dock for the old ferry jutting out into the St. Clair River, just behind the UP autorack. The Chemical Valley is also visible.

The Point Edward spur is a curious run of track, which runs along the Sarnia waterfront, behind office buildings, through Alexander Mackenzie Park (Canada's second Prime Minister spent many years representing Sarnia in Parliament) before it crosses Front Street where it then runs parallel to the street. The trackage then crosses Front Street again and runs through Centennial Park where snakes its way to the government wharf, where it services the massive Sarnia grain elevators, that store goods from Great Lakes freight ships.

At one point, the spur had another small yard along Front Street, which branched off from the line leading to the grain elevators. This yard was used for storing hopper cars that were used to service the grain elevators. This stretch has been removed.

The line continues to operate for the sole use of servicing the grain elevators. Curiously, even today, large stretches of the line are not barricaded by any fencing, including the stretches that run through city parks. It makes for nice photos, but it also requires vigilance. It also makes for easy access to special trains, like the CFL Grey Cup special, which set up shop on the spur during the cup's centennial celebrations in 2011.
What I love about the spur is its level crossings along Front Street. Since the activity on the spur was light beyond the rail ferry in the 1990s, you were lucky to catch trains crossing Front Street and trundling along through Centennial Park. This shot (above) I took around 1993. You can see the crossing is an awkward one as the line angles across the street. Watch out cyclists!

This shot below best illustrates how this line remains a curious part of downtown Sarnia. Here it runs along Front Street next to manicured gardens and apartment buildings on the other side. Notice the father and son sharing a moment as the engine roars by and the engineer giving a wave.
The SW1200s have disappeared from this spur, judging by more recent photos I've looked up online. In the 1990s and beyond, these little engines were workhorses for the CN in Sarnia in its rail yard and on its local spurs. I find it interesting that, in an era where we encase our children in bubble wrap and hockey helmets just to let them ride a bike, this spur still wends its way through city parks with no fencing. No one seems to get hurt and everyone seems to enjoy watching a train go by.

FREE STUFF: Do I have your attention still? You might notice an addition to the right sidebar section of this blog. In addition to blogging, I am also a published author. My first novel was published in 2006 by Baico Publishing. I have uploaded eight ebooks online, which vary in length from short story to novel, and all are available to read (some are free, two are half price until the end of July). They are all works of fiction. The ebook cover you see to your right (King Eddie) has a strong railway connection. It is based on actual stories I heard from union leaders and people I interviewed when I worked as a business and labour reporter in Kitchener. Please take a moment to check out my author's page and feel free to upload an ebook onto your reader.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A family tradition

I come by my love of railways honestly. Both my grandfathers worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. All my uncles worked for the CP in their teens while one worked for Via later in life at Union Station in Toronto. My Dad told me that he often used to clean out the RDC Budd cars that Canadian Pacific used for its passenger service between Windsor and Toronto. He said he often found money and booze. My cousin works in the industry as well. Ever since I was a child, the railway has played a role in my family.

Which leads me to what is perhaps my favourite photo of my grandfather, Paul-Emile (below, second from right). He was born into a large French-Canadian family in St-Fabien, Que., in the Rimouski region. After leaving home in his teens to become a lumberjack as a way of supporting his family, he found his way into a railway job. For close to half a century, he worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway as a rolling stock mechanic, first in Chapleau, Ont. and then in Windsor, Ont.

The photo below was taken in the 1960s or early 1970s at the site of a derailment in Ridgetown, Ont. For years, this photo hung in the kitchen of my grandparent's house in Windsor with the inscription "Life on the tracks." My grandfather had impossibly large hands from a lifetime of working on these big machines. Even in his 70s and 80s, he could squeeze your arm (jokingly) and it would feel like a pair of vice grips. As I grew up, many in the family said I looked like my grandpa, which I always considered a compliment.

This photo was the source of a family myth for years. My grandpa never talked about the photo, but others in the family guessed it was taken in Northern Ontario, when my grandpa worked in Chapleau, which was a major servicing point on the CPR for years. It wasn't until my grandpa passed away in 2008 when we were told by a former co-worker at his wake that the photo was actually taken in Ridgetown, in southwestern Ontario.

Given the recent tragedy in Lac-M├ęgantic, Que., I don't want to make light of train accidents, but am happy to share that this one was a minor accident and the only casualties were the rolling stock and track, as you can see behind the trackside gang.
The next photo is a shot from the 1950s when my grandfather (back row, right) took his family to Padoue, Que. (near Rimouski as well) where much of his family lived. My father Georges is front row, left, while my grandma Imelda is back row, left. I love this photo because it is quintessentially Canadian. It could have been taken at any small town anywhere in Canada in the 1950s and the chances are, there would be a railway station and families on the platform. Padoue still has but a few hundred souls, but it had its own train station in the 1950s. Imagine that. How times have changed.
Below is a photo that continues the family tradition. My father took this photo of my siblings and I in front of former Canadian National steam engine 5588, dubbed the Spirit of Windsor, in front of the old Windsor rail ferry. I am in the front row left while my brother is beside me. My sister is in the back row right next to her childhood friend, who is trying to keep me still for a photo. The shot was likely taken in 1980 or 1981. You can just make out the Railbox boxcar behind (Next load, any road!). It was around this time when my grandpa first brought me to the Windsor rail yard and took me aboard a locomotive for the first time. I still vividly remember when he showed me how an engine worked.

And the tradition continues with my nephew and godson, Daniel, as he marvels at the passing of a CSX freight train headed for the Chemical Valley in Sarnia a few weeks ago. My sister told me that the train had stopped on the main line, which runs by the edge of their property. My nephew ran to the back of the property to watch the idling train until it eventually trundled off on its way to Sarnia. I wonder if my year-old daughter will share my passion when she grows up. She does like it when I fire up my little N-scale train set in our house, so there's always hope.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ottawa's Train Hotspot: Belfast Road Overpass

Ottawa's central train station hosts a number of Via passenger trains each day, connecting to Toronto and Montreal. I've been by the station a few times in the past weeks on lunch breaks and weekends, to get some shots of new Renaissance coach consists as well as the familiar LRC consists. The other day, I ventured just east of the station to the Belfast Road overpass to get some long shots of the station's platforms and some elevated shots of outbound Montreal trains. The vantage point is tricky, as there are a number of hydro wires to contend with, along with a fair bit of overgrown brush. However, the overpass offers what might be the city's best best rail-watching vantage point.

The image below is a shot of Montreal-bound Train 54, led by rebuilt F40PH-2 6421 with four LRC coaches in tow. Another train, with P42 909 and Renaissance coaches, sits idle, awaiting its assignment on the next track. I was initially disappointed when I arrived at the station, thinking that the P42 consist would be the train I shot heading east. Thankfully, it wasn't (I'm a traditionalist, what can I say? I don't like the look of the P42s).
When the train approached the overpass, the wires were less of  an issue. I have rarely had the chance to see a train from this vantage point, other than in Toronto near Union Station. I was pretty happy with these shots below. As you can see, there are fewer wires in the shot below. If you look in the cab of the locomotive, you might see something. Do you see it?
Here's a closer look below.
Someone's enjoying a coffee on the right.

Before I headed up to the overpass, I was taking some shots of the idled train with the Renaissance coaches when the coach behind the locomotive caught my eye. I haven't seen this before.
This is Renaissance baggage car 7002, one of only nine in the Via fleet, according to its website. I had to look at it a few times before I realized what it was. It certainly doesn't fit with the image I have of Via baggage cars from its streamliner fleet or its old blue and yellow fleet inherited from CN. I expected to see a giant baggage door but it looks more like a retrofitted passenger car to me. The Via website says these cars were made from the shells of sleeping cars.

While I'm at it, here is a shot of another interesting coach worth noting. I caught this car a few weeks ago on Train 50. It's the new paint scheme for the LRC cars. This swoop indicates that the car is a Business Class car (formerly Via 1).

Beachburg Subdivision Update: I have been asked by a few readers what is happening with the old CN Beachburg subdivision, which is this blog's namesake. At this point, all I can share is that there have been no new reports of the CN rail removal teams coming to Ottawa. In my part of the city, the hopper cars that had been stored near my neighbourhood for months were recently taken away. I first blogged about this in May. I'm not sure if this means anything, since there have been no new reports of rail being removed from the portion of the Beachburg Sub that falls within the Ottawa city limits. I am trying to find out what is happening from a few sources. I will post an update soon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cabooses on the CSX Sarnia Sub

CSX Transportation's Sarnia Subdivision was a fascinating anomaly in the 1990s for a number of reasons, including its continuing use of Chessie System painted GP38s well past the creation of CSX. This sub also hosted a B&O painted GP38 for a few years in the early 1990s and had no signalling equipment for much of its Chatham-Sarnia line. Another strange quirk that characterized this line was the use of Chessie System-painted cabooses into the early to mid 1990s, including a bay-window caboose.

Of course, a number of  railways continued to use cabooses into the early 1990s, so I am not suggesting that this sub was the last surviving rail line to use these cars. However, I am guessing that it was among one of the last lines to use them. In the area where I watched trains, CN had long since stopped using its trademark red cabooses by the early 1990s in and around Sarnia, including its branch line that passed by Corunna's eastern town limits.

The most commonly used type of crew car on the CSX Sarnia line was top-mounted cupola style car like C&O 103144. I likely snapped this photo in the summer of 1992, although this photo was not dated. I missed the head-end of this train, but I arrived in time to catch a few interesting cars and this caboose. You will notice that it's hitched to an autorack, which was a common site on this subdivision up until the mid-1990s when this traffic began to disappear. I mention this because it makes the cupola on the caboose useless when you can't see anything beyond the next car in the consist. However, by the 1990s, the cupola was obviously not a key component of this car.

I did a little research online to see whatever happened to this car and found nothing. Unfortunately, Chessie's history is hard to track online, especially when it comes to this forgotten subdivision. 
The above photo was taken in a new subdivision, which gave me a new vantage point to watch trains on this line. Before this subdivision was built, the area was forest near the edge of town.

The photo below was taken in the spring of 1991 at the St. Clair Boulevard grade crossing on the outer southern edge of the town. This bay window crew car is, to my knowledge, still on this sub and in Port Huron, Michigan as a shoving car or safety cab, depending on what term you prefer. You can see what the car looks like now in this photo from I prefer to remember it as it was back in the spring of '91, when it was still in use as a crew car. What a beauty!

This was the shot I took as it approached the crossing at the tail end of a manifest freight. The bay window car is hitched to an ex-Louisville & Nashville hi-cube box car, which likely carried auto parts. This was another common site on this line in the 1990s until this traffic largely dried up. 
I am looking forward to visiting family in the Sarnia area later this summer. I am hoping to catch a train on the sub, although I doubt I'll see the variety that I saw back in the day.