Thursday, October 31, 2013

Autumn at Ottawa Station

Fall arrived in Ottawa in a hurry this year. Among with the changing colour of the leaves, it's easy to spot autumn in Ottawa by the changing consists at the central Via station. The most obvious change I spotted last week was the length of the trains. Throughout the summer, many of the trains were about three cars long and most were LRC consists. I even spotted one two-car consist. Last week, I saw some longer trains and was happy to see the return of the streamliners, albeit in an odd spot.

Above: P42 913 and F40PH-2 6435 idle at Ottawa's central railway station. Note the difference between the classic Via blue and yellow and the new Renaissance scheme.

I was a little surprised to see F40PH-2 6435 with two streamliners in tow, up against bumpers when I visited the station on my lunch break last week. The F40 was idling, so I was curious why it had been backed up on this track and where it was headed. But it was a stroke of good luck for me, since this track offers a great vantage point for photos, as it is close to the parking lot and platform.You can see streamliner coach 4122 below.

In the photo above, you can just make out some Renaissance cars to the right, which were part of Train 45 headed west for Toronto. That train was four cars in length, towed behind a P42. As I mentioned, the two-car streamliner consist was very close to the platform and the parking lot, allowing for some shots that you cannot usually get. Here's a shot from the rear of streamliner 4122, with a Montreal-bound consist of Renaissance cars idling a few tracks over. I'm backing into the real highlight of the afternoon. See below.

I very rarely see this in Ottawa. P42 913 and F40PH-2 6459 linked together. It's interesting to see the two of these locomotives together, because it allows you to see just how different they are. Compare the long, more streamlined GE in front with the more angular F40 behind. Also, you can see the contrasting paint schemes, as the GE still sports the traditional Via blue and yellow while the older rebuilt F40 sports the modern Renaissance green and school bus yellow. I am glad to see the maple leaf incorporated into the Via logo and the flag removed from the side of the rebuilt engines. I also like that the Government of Canada wordmark has been removed from the F40. It's also much less obvious on the Renaissance car behind. I always prefer simplicity to clutter. I still prefer Via's original blue and yellow paint scheme and its silver and blue streamliner look. I think the Canada wordmark on the old silver cars is downright gaudy. I digress.

Here's one final wide shot of the the Montreal-bound consist on the left, the streamliner consist on the right, partially hidden behind a shed, and the local snow plow on the far right. All in all, it was a nice break in my day to see the silver and blue back in Ottawa and to see the relatively uncommon pairing of new and old motive power. It must be fall in Ottawa.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Bittersweet Homecoming

This was not the homecoming I had imagined.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I made a very brief visit to Sarnia, Ont. While there, I made a quick visit to the yard at end of the CSX Sarnia Subdivision. I had been looking forward to this visit for a while, since I had not had the chance to shoot anything along this line since my teenage years in the 1990s. I should back up a bit. Just before I made my trip, a Beachburg Sub reader mentioned to me that CSX Transportation had officially discontinued service on the Sarnia Sub between Chatham and Wallaceburg. He mentioned that he saw the last train leave Wallaceburg, on the southern end of the line.

Above: GP38-2 2011 in Chessie colours idles on the main line just outside Corunna, leading a manifest freight in April 1991

This wasn't all that surprising to me, but it was nonetheless disappointing. A 42-km section of the line has been purchased by the City of Chatham-Kent, which has a side deal with Canadian Pacific to sell it the rail assets along the corridor. What this means is the municipality is paying CSX about $4 million for the line and its assets and turning around and selling the rails and ties to CP for $3.2 million. For the time being, CP is not pulling up the rails, which has given the municipality time to find a shortline operator. A good summary of the situation can be found at the Chatham This Week website. This is an all-too-familiar story for me, although Chatham-Kent seems to be more interested in saving an active rail line, compared to Ottawa, which seems to have no vision for the Beachburg Sub within its borders.

With this in mind, I made sure to capture some action on the CSX line while I still could. The weather on the Sunday over the Thanksgiving weekend could not have been any better. Here's a shot of a stable of GP38s at the end of the line, tucked behind the Esso refinery in south Sarnia's Chemical Valley. Compare these to the old Chessie GP38 above.

Above: GP38s at the end of the CSX Sarnia subdivision, at the foot of Clifford Street on Oct. 13, 2013

The article in Chatham This Week pointed out that there are still some farm businesses along the CSX line in Chatham-Kent, but the sad reality is the area has lost a number of its manufacturers in the last 20 years including a Louisville hockey stick factory, a Nestle plant, a Libbey Glass factory and a number of auto parts or tool and die shops. Many of these businesses used the line for shipping, since parts of this municipality do not have a terribly close connection to a major highway, especially Wallaceburg.

Above: First generation CSX paint scheme on a GP38, just outside Corunna in April 1991.

What this means is that the Sarnia Sub will likely be a very compact line serving petrochemical companies in the Sarnia area and communities to the south. The site of manifest freights with boxcars and autoracks is now a distant memory. Besides the loss of the manufacturing sector in this area, this line was also hurt by the new CN St. Clair Tunnel and the expansion of the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel in Windsor, which was expanded shortly after the opening of the new Sarnia tunnel. Since both of these tunnels began handling autoracks in 1994, this essentially eliminated all autorack interchange traffic on this line, which was a major source of freight on the line until the early 1990s.

Above: This made my trip to Sarnia worthwhile. Two CSX bay-window cabooses, one with CSX Operation Redblock paint, sit at the tail end of a cut of cars along the CSX Sarnia Sub in the Chemical Valley. More on these beauties in future posts!

I will keep an eye on this situation, although I do encourage readers to continue to update me on what they see down in this part of the province. I can't help but wonder why so many shortline operators can find success in the United States while rail lines like this one, and the Beachburg Sub, continue to languish in Canada, much to the chagrin of local industries crying out for rail service along abandoned lines.

It strikes me that the Class I railways in Canada have become so good at being Class I railways, they have forgotten or willfully neglected the quieter branch lines along their networks.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

CN's St. Clair Tunnel (Part II)

In 1993, CN began work on a second tunnel beneath the St. Clair River to accommodate double-stack container trains, autoracks and other oversized rail cars that were being shipped via ferry. Unlike the original 1891 St. Clair Tunnel, which was dug from two sides, the second tunnel was to be excavated from the Canadian side of the river toward the Michigan side (see CN's St. Clair Tunnel Part I). The boring machine used, named Excalibore in a  newspaper contest, was installed and began work in the summer of 1993. The original tunnel continued to be used as the boring machine made its way west to Michigan.

Above: The preparations for the new tunnel take shape next to the original tunnel in Summer 1993. Note the small building, called the pumping house, next to the old tunnel.

It was not a smooth process for the boring machine, by any means. Several times during its initial forays under the river, the machine broke down and had to be fixed and cleaned of sentiment that had ground the machine's engine to a halt. At certain points, local media outlets were charting Excalibore's progress versus the men who dug the original tunnel by hand. At one point, the progress achieved by modern machinery was barely ahead of the record set by the men in the 1890s. This was a major embarrassment to the project's contractor and to CN.

Above: Excalibore being assembled in Summer 1993, as seen from a viewing platform set up by CN to accommodate curious locals and rail fans like me.

Despite the initial hiccups, the construction of the new tunnel generated a lot of excitement locally and beyond. Rail fans in London and other points along the CN system snapped photos of special trains that were used to deliver parts of the huge boring machine to the work site in Sarnia. This photo below, courtesy of Eric Gagnon of the Trackside Treasure blog, shows one such special heading through London, bound for the tunnel site in Sarnia. Eric mentioned that the two Via Rail business cars in the consist were likely Coureur des Bois and Sandford Fleming. He also mentioned that he saw a freight in Kingston in 1993 with "white circular 'containers' marked LOVAT." The consist of that June 1993 special through Kingston contained the following (according to Eric's notes):

CN 9665 / EMD(ex-Conrail, blue) 795 / CN, BCR boxcars / CN covered hoppers / CN 670103 / CN 677002 (one of a kind, four trucks, built by CN) / CN 670102.

Eric was also kind enough to pass long this shot below, which shows a more detailed close up of the pieces of the boring machine in gondola cars, again in London. Special thanks to Eric for sharing these images from his collection for this post.

Once the mechanical difficulties were ironed out, Excalibore began to easily chew threw the earth beneath the river and it finished its mission with a sizeable lead over the men who dug the original tunnel. The late surge of boring saved CN and the project's contractors from embarrassment. The new tunnel had the following specs:

Length: 1,898 metres (6,129 feet)

Diametre: 8.4 metres (27 feet, 6 inches)

Compare that to the specs of the original tunnel in my previous post about the tunnel.

More importantly for CN, the new tunnel once again gave the railway an enormous advantage over the Canadian Pacific Railway, which operated a rail tunnel between Windsor and Detroit beneath the Detroit River. When the new St. Clair Tunnel opened in 1994, double stack container trains could move through to Chicago with little delay. Soon after the new tunnel opened, CN's ferry service over the St. Clair River ended.

Meanwhile, the Windsor tunnel, known as the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, could only handle rolling stock as big as autoracks. Considering the fact that 1994 marked the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the ability to seamlessly move container trains through an international crossing offered CN a huge early advantage that CP has yet to match. Plans to replace the Windsor tunnel have still not materialized, meaning double stack traffic cannot be routed through Windsor-Detroit, which is otherwise the busiest trade crossing in North America.

It's interesting to note that the new tunnel gave CN the same advantage that the original tunnel gave the Grand Trunk Railway in 1891. When the original tunnel was built, the Grand Trunk essentially gave itself the edge over the Canada Southern Railway, which was still using ferries in Windsor and in Courtright, Ont. (to be mentioned in a future post). The St. Clair Tunnel had officials with the CSR scrambling to match the Grand Trunk, but the Windsor tunnel would not be opened for traffic until 1910.

Above: A view of the old and new St. Clair Tunnel in Sarnia, Ont. on Oct. 13, 2013. Note the absence of the old pumping house.

Today, the new tunnel bears the name Paul Tellier in honour of the former CN president who oversaw its creation. It has seen its share of fanfare over the years, including a GO Train special, which made its way to Sarnia in 1994 and offered locals a free ride under the river to Port Huron, Michigan in the new tunnel. Sadly, passenger trains no longer use the tunnel, as the Canadian leg of Amtrak's route from Chicago through Port Huron to Toronto was eliminated in 2004. I used to ride on this train in my teens, which often included the Superliners. Back then, it was known as the International, and was jointly operated by Amtrak and Via Rail.

This above shot is of the new and old tunnels, taken over the Thanksgiving weekend on a brief trip to Sarnia. The old building that used to stand at the entrance to the old tunnel (see top photos) is now gone and the original tunnel has been sealed off, although the old right-of-way still acts as a service road. The new tunnel continues to be a source of pride for Sarnia and a vital link in Canadian National's network.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Via Rail over the Jock River

Ottawa is a vast city with a beautiful countryside. In my end of town, a quick jaunt south down Moodie Drive leads to a rural Via Rail level crossing near the meandering Jock River. The river works its way through Ottawa's southern suburbs and crosses Via's Smiths Falls subdivision just a few metres west of Moodie Drive. I ventured out to the Moodie crossing to get some shots a few Sundays ago.

Above you see Toronto-bound Via train 657 making its way toward the Moodie crossing. As you can see, you don't have to venture far outside the urban part of Ottawa to find trains in a rural setting. This shot was a five-minute drive for me. Below you see a closer shot of the consist led by FP40PH-2 6401. On both sides of the track, you will find farmland, although the side closer to me appeared to be fallow.

I was reasonably happy with these shots, but was waiting for the train to cross Moodie Drive so I could get a shot of train 657 crossing the Jock River trestle. I had to move quickly since the train was moving at quite a clip even though it had just left nearby Fallowfield Station in Ottawa's Barrhaven neighbourhood. As you can see below, the consist had both refurbished LRCs and older coaches, making for a fairly typical multicoloured consist. I was not able to get all that close to the actual trestle, which would have provided a better shot. I have seen some local railfans gets shots from the Jock River. I'm guessing it will be easier to get shots in the winter when the river freezes over.

So, the window of opportunity for shots was relatively short, but I do want to point out one thing about the above photo and image below. A lonely sunflower stood by the side of the road right at the edge of the cornfield. Do you see it?

This stretch of track is undergoing a series of improvements including installation of passing sidings, replacement of ties and ballast, adjustment of curves and implementation of central traffic control, among other initiatives. There will be work done on the Jock River bridge as part of these improvements. The goal is to eventually allow trains to reach 160 km/h, which equals 100 mph. You can read about it on the Via site for yourself.

This stretch of track is especially important for Via, since it still has an industrial spur that leads to the massive Kott lumber yard. That facility, according to local rail watchers, is still served by the Canadian National, most likely in the evening when the last Via train has passed by. There's a good discussion of local Ottawa rail operations in this post on the Trackside Treasure blog.

One last photo to share, on a somewhat related note. I was at the Central Station the other week and caught Via Train 50 on its way to Montreal. I don't remember the last time I saw a two-car consist. It's hard to shoot Via trains in the morning at the station since you're always on the shadow side of the train and access to the sunny side is limited.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

CN's St. Clair Tunnel (Part I)

Sarnia has always been a railway town, thanks to its petrochemical industry and its location along a key rail corridor between Toronto and Chicago. The Great Western and the Grand Trunk railways were the first major railways to establish operations in Sarnia. By the end of the 1800s, the Grand Trunk's main line through the city was an extremely busy link between Toronto and Chicago. However, ferrying cars across the St. Clair River into Michigan was hurting the railway's business, which led to the construction of the St. Clair Tunnel, North America's first underwater rail tunnel. The tunnel was constructed at a cost of $2.7 million and opened in 1891.

Some quick statistics about this tunnel:
  • It is 1838 metres long (6028 feet). 
  • At its lowest point, it is 40 feet below the surface of the river. 
  • It was dug by hand by crews in Sarnia and Port Huron, Michigan, at a rate of 10 feet a day.
  • The width of the river where the tunnel is located is 698 metres (2290 feet). 
  • The tunnel's diameter is 6 meters (19 feet, 10 inches). 
Amazingly, when crews met and completed the digging process, they were off only by a fraction of an inch, which many consider to be an incredible feat of engineering for 1891.

The tunnel, seen in this undated Pesha Studio photo below, reliably served the Grand Trunk and its successor, Canadian National, for decades. Trains were originally pulled through the tunnel by Baldwin-built locomotives, which gave way to electric units and catenary wires in 1907 when concerns arose over engineers and crewmen suffocating in the tunnel amid the exhaust from the Baldwins.

Sarnia was proud of its tunnel, which was once regarded as the longest underwater rail tunnel in the world. The city was sometimes known as "Sarnia Tunnel" as you can see from this postcard below. Notice the two types of horsepower in the 1920s onward. The Baldwin locomotives were replaced by the Westinghouse electrics for the tunnel trips, but they were still used around the Sarnia rail yard.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, railway cars grew, mainly due to the advent of large boxcars (hi-cubes) and tri-level auto racks. These cars were essential pieces of rolling stock in southwestern Ontario, since so many auto parts and vehicles had to be shuttled between automotive production facilities throughout Ontario and Michigan. This presented a problem to CN, since the tunnel could not accommodate these cars. By the 1980s, the old tunnel became more of a liability, with the advent of double-stack container trains. CN ferried many of these oversized cars over the river, creating the same problem the Grand Trunk faced in 1890s. The flow of goods was simply too slow between Toronto and Chicago.

This created scenes like this one below from 1992, with CN workhorse SW1200s shuttling long lines of auto racks onto its Point Edward spur, which led to the CN ferry along Front Street in Sarnia's downtown waterfront area.

This also created the problem of lag time in the Sarnia yard (below photo from 1992), with hi-cubes like this Conrail boxcar (coupled to a Burlington Northern autorack) languishing in the rail yard for long periods. In an era of just-in-time delivery demands, CN knew it had to serve its automotive customers in a more timely manner.

Autorack traffic continued to expand on the CN Strathroy Subdivision, which ends at CN's Sarnia yard, and along CSX's Sarnia Subdivision, which interchanges with CN near the yard. This created a backlog of oversized freightcars at the ferry staging yard in downtown Sarnia. The photo below is from Summer 1993. I'm not sure what the cargo on that flatcar is, but my guess at the time was that it had something to do with what was going on in the photo at the bottom of this post.

In 1993, a boring machine called Excalibore started clearing the way for a new St. Clair Tunnel that would accommodate the oversized rail cars (below photo is from Summer 1993). This would usher in a new era of railroading in Sarnia.