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.


Eric said...

Nice post Michael, and glad those photos were of use.

Interestingly, CN ran a six-car special with blue & yellow VIA cars behind engine 9674 to Sarnia to mark start of construction on September 16, 1993.

On May 5, 1994 a six LRC-car special behind 6410 tailed by Courer des Bois and Sandford Fleming. On May 6, a CN employee special of 11 LRC cars bracketed by VIA engines 6404 and 6410. I included these consists in my second VIA Rail book, but may not have included the public special using GO equipment.

Sometimes people ask about double-stack trains and when they began. Certainly, as you've noted, the new tunnel allowed the free flow of double-stack trains on CN, though earlier movements had been made. I hope to get a Trackside Treasure post together on the topic of double-stacks.


Eric said...

Correction - that car name should read Coureur des Bois, and I meant to add that it was a VIP special operated by CN.


Unknown said...

I was the Conductor in Charge of the second train which handled the boring machine called Excalibor" I was at London and had to wait about 45 minutes for an eastbound train to arrive London so we could operate westward on the south and eastward track, While waiting I went back and had a sandwich and a coffee provided by the cook of the Sanford Fleming,I still have that cup they let me have labelled the CNR Sanford Fleming with the old maple leave LOGO. During that time someone took this photo and this is the first I saw of it on your blog, CN had a film crew follow us from Malport to Sarnia, We operated via the Guelph and Thorndale subs, There was no speed restriction on this train that day and the camera crew had a hard time hop skipping to stay ahead of us. We cleared the bridge on the south or eastward track that day with only 3 inches to spare. I remember the height of the loads was 31 feet, not 27 as stated.The main load was the cutting head of excallibore. I came in one piece in a specially designed car and carried it 3 inches above the rail head. Between toronto and Sarnia, we dragged it over a few high crossings and the officials reported to us after they saw the dust from the observation car .It cleared under the Bridge at MP 5.2 Strathroy Sub by 3 inches, We had orders to stop and proceed on hand signals as official watched. .The next day, I brought this equipment to the mouth of the new St Clair tunnel with special clearances for my GM
CN Retiree, Wallaceburg, ON
Bill Namink