Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why Railways Matter (And Why I Blog About Them)

It all started with a few photos at Fallowfield Station.

My wife was on her way to London, to be an adjudicator in music festival in April 2012. I took her to the station where we waited for Train 55 to take her to Toronto and beyond. We watched from the platform as a P42 and streamliner consist made its way past the Woodroffe Avenue crossing to the station in Ottawa's suburban southwest end. I had been thumbing through prints of old train photos for months at home and had been considering what to do with them.

As the train pulled in, I snapped a number of photos, including this one below, not really knowing why. I liked what I saw, but I thought I could do something more with the photos other than add them to my computer.

Earlier that year, I had written a story about plans to start a shortline railway along the inactive CN Beachburg Subdivision for a now shuttered news site, The initial story spawned a follow-up, although it didn't generate much of a response. As I stood at the Corkstown Road crossing along the Beachburg Sub, snapping photos for the story, I found myself lingering around the crossing, wondering what it would be like to have an active rail line so close to my home. At that point, I hadn't yet thought about taking photos, but the seeds had been planted.

Before I knew it, I was bringing my camera to Fallowfield Station whenever someone was coming to town to visit us or when we sent them home. I justified bringing the camera by telling myself that I hadn't landed a shot of an F40PH-2 yet, or I handed landed a shot of LRCs (like 6446 with Train 55 below) yet or I hadn't landed a shot of Renaissance cars yet. On and on it went. I kept telling my wife that it was a just a little harmless diversion. So she thought.

She should have known better. As you may know, the railways have a long history in my family.

Soon after those trips to Fallowfield, I talked to a few bloggers about ideas for a blog, because I knew I had a fair number of old train photos from the 1990s and had some thoughts to share. After some thought, I just started blogging. Before I knew it, I found myself taking photos of trains whenever I could find time. It's been tough to find time since I have a young daughter and a wife who works evenings, but I have managed to get a bunch of new photos and great story ideas.

Case in point: I took this photo (below) along Highway 401 when my family was travelling to Toronto on August 9th. I tried to catch a westbound Via just east Kingston, but this was all I managed to capture. The point is, I knew then I was hooked. I loved sharing my passion with railways in the few spare moments I can find.

I am now getting comfortable in my little corner of the internet, doing what I can to preserve the memory of railroading past and trying to get people thinking about the importance railways can still play in our country. I mention this because Ottawa is the city where railroading went to die. Much of what's left of our rail system here has been banished to the margins of the city. We have done little to preserve the railway tracks left in our city, but now find ourselves spending billions of dollars to build new railway lines and tunnels for a problematic light rail system. I am hoping that my blog can at least get people thinking about preserving what we have left here and investing in the future of this mode transportation in Ottawa and beyond. 

CN SD70 5622 speeds westward as an eastbound intermodal waits on the opposite track, near Woodbine Avenue in Markham, Ont. on August 10.

This is all a long-winded way of reflecting on my first few months of blogging. I also wanted to share some positive thoughts on railroading in Ottawa following the horrific bus-train collision last week in the city.

I was disappointed that many commentators and pundits here have suggested that the level crossing where the accident occurred is inherently unsafe. I find this statement highly speculative and unfortunate since so little is known about the crash. Those who follow this industry know that level crossings with working signals and safety barriers are perfectly safe, provided that everyone follows the rules, which means both train operators and motorists. I think part of the reason why there was so much speculation about this crossing has to do with the fact that Ottawans just aren't that knowledgeable about how railways work since so little of the rail system in this city remains.

Last week's accident only reinforces my conviction that train bloggers, no matter where they are, play an important role in ensuring that this crucial mode of transportation remains a vital part of this country.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tragic bus-train collision in Ottawa

A double-decker city bus collided with westbound Via Rail Train 51 near Ottawa's Fallowfield Station during the Wednesday morning commute in Ottawa's south end. The horrific crash killed five bus passengers and the bus's driver. Thirty-four more people were treated at local hospitals for various injuries. Most reports said 11 people were in serious or critical condition. No one on Train 51 was hurt.

 Transportation Safety Board of Canada photo of P42 915

The train was pulling into nearby Fallowfield Station in the southern Barrhaven neighbourhood along Via's Smiths Falls subdivision. Train 51 had a four-car LRC consist and was being pulled by P42 915. The one saving grace, if there is such a thing in such a tragedy, was that the train had already slowed down significantly as it approached the station, meaning its impact with the bus was not as severe as it might have been had the train been travelling at a higher rate of speed. On the other side of Fallowfield Station, Via trains gear up quickly and speed through the next several level crossings on their way southwest toward Toronto. All of these crossings are equipped with signals and safety barriers.

 Transportation Safety Board of Canada photo of Via Train 51, Wed. Sept. 18

Local radio conversation has touched on the safety of level rail crossings along lines with trains travelling at high speeds. This speculation is partly the result of a long-delayed plan to build an underpass along Woodroffe Avenue, allowing traffic to pass under the track. I still think it's premature to begin a debate over the safety of  level crossings since we do not know what happened. Most motorists and bus drivers obey the rules when they approach such crossings, so any suggestions about rail crossings being inherently unsafe are unfortunate in the early aftermath of this tragedy.

 Transportation Safety Board of Canada photo of OC Transpo bus after the collision

Rather than provide any further thoughts on this tragedy, I will simply refer you to CBC Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen or other local media like the Ottawa Sun or CTV Ottawa. You can also read the Via Rail statement here. Once more is known, I will consider whether I have anything worthwhile to share. Until that time, I will only say that my thoughts and prayers will be with those who were injured and those whose loved ones died in the accident.

I was planning to post a story this week that focused on this stretch of the Via Rail Smiths Falls subdivision. I will likely push this post back, as I think it would be inappropriate. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Back on Track: The O-Train Rides Again

The O-Trains are rolling again even though work on the Capital Railway is not yet finished. The eight-kilometre line was put back into service in time for the school year at Carleton University, which is one of the biggest sources of the Capital Railway's ridership.

Here, below, you can see southbound Bombardier BR643 heading toward the Gladstone Avenue bridge while is passes what will be a new siding.

These sidings will be the key to allowing the Capital Railway to operate six newer Alstom Coradia LINT 41 trainsets at higher speeds. Right now, this line has only one stretch of double track at Carleton University, which is where two trains meet up in opposite directions. When these new sidings are installed, the city is hoping the trains will be able to make the runs between Bayview Station and Greenboro Station in eight minutes instead of the current 15.

The recent media coverage focused on the fact that the O-Train service did not improve when it opened for business again, but the coverage failed to mention that the work on the line is not finished and the service improvements are contingent on the the new Alstom trainsets being used with all the passing sidings in place. Right now, the Bombardier trainsets are still in use on what is essentially the same O-Train line as before, with new ties, new ballast and other improvements. The essential challenge of having one stretch of double track on this line remains.

 Above: Southbound Bombardier BR643 passes beneath Somerset Street near Little Italy and Chinatown, next to what will soon be a passing siding. The train has just departed Bayview Station at the north end of the Capital Railway.

So, for the foreseeable future, riders can expect to ride the current Bombardier O-Train, since the new Alstom trainsets are not expected to be in service until the fall of next year. The new trainsets will be tested outside of regular service hours on this line, I presume.

Above: Northbound O-Train heads toward the Young Street pedestrian overpass under sunny skies.

Initial coverage of the resumption of O-Train service focused on the fact that the trains were taking 20 minutes to complete the eight-kilometre route, but as I checked out the service the other day, the trains seemed to be making the run in 12 minutes, which was equal to the frequency of trains before the $59-million project was started.

Above: Southbound O-Train passes beneath Highway 417, more commonly known as the Queensway to locals.

An interesting note to the resumption of O-Train service was an article in the Ottawa Citizen, which brought up the long discussed option to extend the current O-Train south along existing trackage to the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. Again, the newspaper did a great job building the case for this proposed $74-million expansion, although it missed the obvious point that there is an existing right-of-way that still occasionally hosts trains. CN uses the southern portion of the former Canadian Pacific Prescott Sub, to bring cars to the National Research Council's surface transportation research facility on Lester Road, near the airport. The trackage is not all intact between the NRC and points further south, but the corridor is still in place and is being eyed as a route to connect southern suburbs, mainly Riverside South, to the downtown via rail.

There is obvious support for this expansion, since it would bring thousands of new riders to the O-Train with minimal investment, compared to the problematic east-west O-Train project. However, city officials here fear that, during the construction of the east-west Confederation LRT Line, the increased stress on the existing O-Train line would be too much for the system to bear. I find this reasoning curious, since the city now has six new trains and its existing Bombardiers that, combined, would accommodate an increase in ridership. The city has also invested in improvements on the old Ellwood Sub, which will increase train frequency and allow for more commuters.

I also wonder if anyone has thought about establishing a separate rail link between the southern neighbourhoods to Greenboro, where trains could theoretically stop, allow passengers to get off and board another O-Train from Greenboro north to Bayview. This means there would be two separate services originating from Greenboro heading north and south. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a start.

Beachburg Sub Update: Finally, the City of Ottawa has thrown its hat in the ring in ongoing efforts to save the troubled Beachburg Sub. For full details, please see my post from earlier this week.

And for those wondering, yes Gordon Lightfoot did end his set at the Ottawa Folk Festival with the Canadian Railroad Trilogy! Epic!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Can Ottawa save Beachburg Subdivision?

At the eleventh hour, the City of Ottawa might finally be trying to save the Beachburg Subdivision.

On Sept. 4th, the city's transportation committee unanimously approved a motion to send a letter to Transport Canada and the Canadian National Railway to stop any further removal of the rail line, which is still intact between the Pontiac Region in Quebec and Ottawa's northwestern end.

The motion, brought forward by two councillors who represent the wards that host the Beachburg Sub, is asking that the Pontiac Region be given more time to find a possible business partner to operate a railway on the remaining portion of the rail line. There are prospects for freight on the sub, including the Trebio wood pellet plant and a planned rail-serviced industrial park in the Pontiac, but CN officials have said that these prospects are not enough to sustain a profitable operation.

CN first offered the Beachburg Sub for sale in February 2010, at a cost of $21.7 million, according to a city report. Since that time, there has been an effort to purchase the line, led by business interests in the Pontiac Region and Renfrew County, with the help of the management of the former Ottawa Central Railway. With the line torn up in Renfrew County, the prospects to maintain this line are dim.

The wild card in this process is that the line has continuous welded rail (CWR) from its days as part of the CN's old transcontinental route. The rail is a valuable commodity and the railway would like to use it in busier parts of its network out west.

In the city report, there are a few comments which I found interesting, including this one:

"Realty Services Branch was in contact with CN to discuss the possible purchase of the corridor within City limits once it was abandoned."

The city's policies on railways are muddy at best. The city has no policy to acquire active rail corridors, the report states, nor does it have the capacity to operate a freight railway.

I question this policy and the statement above, since the city acquired the old Ellwood Subdivision from the Canadian Pacific shortly after CP discontinued service in 1997. The Beachburg Sub has been dormant for years, so calling it an active rail corridor is a stretch. Granted, the Ellwood Sub was much more strategic to the city because it hosts the O-Train, but whose to say what possibilities there are along the Beachburg Sub, especially given that the line runs though areas primed for development in both Ottawa and the Pontiac?

If the city is interested in acquiring the 38 km of rail line from CN once it has been abandoned, what will it do with the land? My guess is it would become a recreational trail. That is a reasonable solution, but I find it hard to believe that the city does not believe there is any viable prospect for commuter rail or freight rail on this line at any point in the future.

City officials know that the old OCR management is interested in operating a railway on this line and they also know that this management team believes there is a viable operation here, so I fail to see why the city is not interested in acquiring this line and leasing it to a railway operator. This strategy has been used in other municipalities, such as the Outaouais Region in Quebec, which owns the old CP Maniwaki Subdivision, which was leased to a steam train operator for years.

Here's another comment in the city report, which I find a bit baffling:

"The City is interested in the potential acquisition of all railway corridor lands within its jurisdiction, both operational and abandoned, for future use as a transportation corridor. The City of Ottawa has no current plans for the corridor, that is to say, the Transportation Master Plan does not identify this corridor as required for a rapid transit corridor or other transportation use within the timeframe of the Plan to 2031. The City is therefore not averse to CN retaining ownership of the corridor, or for any other rail operator using the railway for the foreseeable future should MRC Pontiac’s be successful in its attempt to find a business partner to purchase or lease the railway."

This statement seems to contradict the previous statement that the city wants to acquire the Beachburg Sub, once it is abandoned. It also seems to contradict the city's own admission that it has no policy on acquiring so-called "active" rail lines. The statement does seem to suggest it supports the acquisition of the rail line, provided that someone else buys it and maintains it. Considering that the city has already invested nearly $60-million on the eight-kilometre O-Train line, an acquisition of Beachburg, provided there is a plan, makes sense. For a city that is prepared to start work on a deeply flawed multibillion-dollar light rail network, I can only laugh at its logic.

You can read the full report by going to the city's transportation committee page and clicking on the eAgenda link at the bottom of the page. You will then be prompted to enter a search term. Type "Beachburg" and you will find the report. I wish I could just link to the report, but it's never that easy with government sites.

Friday, September 6, 2013

More from Walkley Yard

This past weekend, I took a quick trip to Walkley Yard and managed to catch the CN crew assembling its local. The trip ended up being a good chance for me to tie up some loose ends and address some issues brought up by my readers. You can see the local below, being pulled by GP38-2W 4800 with the conductor walking alongside the consist early morning Sunday, September 8th. A couple of points to mention. The first is the RailBox boxcar to the left of the local with the original paint scheme. The second is that the geep is in the safety scheme. I'm amazed that whichever locomotive is assigned to Walkley is usually in this scheme.

As the local crawled toward my vantage point, I managed to catch one of CN's two cabooses in service in Ottawa, this one trailing directly behind the geep. The caboose, numbered 79834, is a curiosity for a number of reasons. The most obvious point is its truly awful paint job. The second point is the word "MILLENNIUM" stenciled on the right side. Doing a little research, I found out that this car was built in 1976 and was a CN caboose originally. It became part of the Ontario L'Orignal Railway (OLOR) in 1996. The car, numbered OLOR 2000, became part of the Ottawa Central when the OCR's parent company bought the OLOR in 2000. When the OCR was purchased by CN in 2008, the caboose reverted back to its original CN 79834 numbers. The paint job was obviously not a priority. Here's a shot of the car in its OLOR days. The CN has one other caboose in use in the city, which you can see here.

In a recent post, I took some shots of an old RDC and old CN caboose that were parked on a wreck track. I was asked about the car that was hitched to the RDC. I made sure to go back and take a proper shot of the car. As suggested, it appears to be a steel coil car. I'm not sure what it was doing attached to the RDC and the former CN caboose.  

Finally, I submit for your approval, a CSX waffle-side boxcar. This time, I am reasonably sure that I am correct in identifying this as a waffle side car, given that it has vertical slats and horizontal notches. There was a string of cars like this in the yard on the weekend. Can you see the hasty plywood repair made to the car? Seeing a few CSX cars in the yard made me nostalgic for the old CSX Sarnia Subdivision. I have to get back there and get some new shots on that line.

This weekend in Ottawa, folk legend Gordon Lightfoot will play a set to close out the Ottawa Folk Festival. I have bought a ticket since I grew up listening to Lightfoot's music. I look forward to hearing the Canadian Railroad Trilogy live. Should be fun!