Wednesday, January 29, 2014


It's at least -30C with the wind chill and I'm standing on a wind-blown stretch of overpass waiting for a train. I must be nuts.

The Beachburg Sub has been neglecting the railways in its own backyard lately so I set out this week to take some winter railroading photos in Ottawa, even if it meant risking my limbs to frostbite. With that, let us enjoy Ottawa's winter wrath and beauty along the rails.

I paid a visit to Ottawa's Central Station to catch some arrivals. I walked over to the Belfast Road overpass, just east of the station, since I wanted to catch Via Train 33 arriving from Montreal on the Alexandria Subdivision. When I arrived on the overpass, I was dismayed to see the east sidewalk covered in snow, which forced me to shoot Train 33 from the west sidewalk. I was lucky that traffic was sparse and no trucks blocked my vantage point. The train, pulled by P42DC 907 had six renaissance cars in tow as it approached the overpass. The wind had begun to pick up at this point, but the sky was relatively clear.

After capturing a few postcard images, I made sure to turn around, face west and get an overhead shot as Train 33  passed under Belfast Road and into the station.

You can see how much the wind had been whipping up against Train 33 on the way to Ottawa, judging by the roof of the first class coach and the rear of P42 907. I like this spot for taking photos, but it is rather restrictive facing west since so many hydro wires obscure the view of the station. Note how the tracks are all but hidden by blowing snow except for the section with the switch heater, directly ahead of the train.

After Train 33 arrived, the wind picked up quite a bit, which actually made me happy since I have so few true winter railway shots in my collection. I made it to the station in time to wait for Train 50 from Toronto, which usually arrives about 20 minutes after Train 33. While I was waiting, I saw an interesting consist on the far track. Several generations of Via in one train! P42 918 idled away with a consist of LRC coaches in tow, with the exception of streamliner 4002, which was the designated Business Class (Via 1) coach for the day.

Now, check out the same consist after the wind picked up (below). It appears as though Ottawa is in the midst of a blizzard, but by this point, it was far too cold for snowfall. However, given the overnight snow that had blanketed the city, there was more than enough of the white stuff to blow around, creating the illusion of a blizzard.

This happened in the span of about 10 minutes. I tried to stay warm as Train 50 approached. Usually, one can see eastbound trains coming into the station fairly easily from the platform. Unfortunately, I could not see Train 50 approaching, since the wind had created whiteout conditions. But, my keen hearing picked up the sound of a bell, so I fixed my camera west into the white abyss.

At this point, my fingers were frozen, so I tried to snap a few more images before I called it a day. Here's a closer shot below of Train 50, with F40PH-2 6457 and a string of three LRC coaches. Of course, I couldn't confirm the consist until the train actually emerged from the white wall of flying snow.

And with this shot below, it was time for me to head back indoors and let my hands thaw.

I am by no means done with this subject of winter railroading in Ottawa. My new goal is to shoot some freight trains that use the trackage near my house in Bells Corners, in the west end of Ottawa. There are several amazing vantage points for photographs, but the line is only used twice a week, so it will be incredibly tough to get the shots I want. But I shall persevere! Thanks to several Beachburg Sub readers who gave me a summary of Ottawa's local CN freight assignments. 

Beachburg Subdivision Update: I've been meaning to blog about the remnants of this subdivision recently. The news regarding the fate of this sub is not encouraging. In December, the Pontiac region in Quebec lost a provincial court battle to maintain the remnants of the CN rail line that still lies within its jurisdiction. Essentially, the region is arguing that, according to a bylaw it passed, the rail corridor has been designated for rail use only, making any attempt to pull up the rails illegal. That argument was struck down in court. The municipality has vowed to fight on, but it seems that the remainder of this rail line will likely be torn up in the spring, as CN seems anxious to tear up the rail line all the way to Nepean junction, where Beachburg branches off from the Renfrew spur (formerly CN's Renfrew subdivision). You can read about the latest developments in the Pembroke Daily Observer here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

So close and yet...

As I have mentioned numerous times, Ottawa is not exactly a hot spot for railways. Occasionally, I am able to make it out to Walkley Yard and to Via's two train stations to shoot some railway action here in the capital. But, to continue feeding this blog, I often have to get creative. Whenever my family travels south to see family, for example, I always get the itch to do some serious railway photography.

This brings me to one of the hardest places to shoot railway action: Ontario's Highway 401, or the 401, as Ontarians call it. I usually get my wife to drive through the spots on the highway when the road parallels either Canadian National's or Canadian Pacific's main lines, which are clearly visible from different parts of the highway in the Toronto area and at points further east in Durham Region and near Kingston.

When reading Trains Magazine last year, I was blown away by a photo in the back gallery, which showed a steam locomotive in full flight, racing beside a highway. Someone took a great shot from the passenger side of their car. Heck, I thought, I have a nice digital camera. I can do better than that.

So I thought.

Exhibit One: This is the shot of the tail end of a westbound Via train, pulled by a P42 and featuring an attractive mix of streamliners just east of Kingston on Aug. 9, 2013. I steadied my camera and kept waiting for the train to come into focus in between clusters of trees that blocked my view. This is a stretch of track that runs through a wetland just before it ducks into the city proper.

Not much to look at, although I saved this one salvageable shot for the purposes of this post. You can see the hint of movement in the greenery at the bottom of the shot. But, for the most part, this was a disappointing shot. When I saw the results of this hasty photo shoot, I knew this process was going to be a lot trickier than when I marvelled at that in-motion shot in Trains Magazine.

Over the Christmas break, as my family was making its way home to Ottawa and heading east through Toronto on the 401, I saw a manifest freight making its way west toward Toronto. I knew this shot would be harder to catch since we were heading in opposite directions, each going at quite a clip.

Here is the result.

Again, this shot is not much to look at. I was happy I did manage to catch 5747 in the frame, unlike the shot above. I was unable to take any more shots of the train, as the road dipped too far below the right-of-way. It's too bad since there were some really interesting cars in this consist, including some Saskatchewan!-branded grain cars (with the exclamation point).

So, the quest will definitely have to continue for the perfect in-motion shot. I'm not sure when my family will next find itself on the 401, but I will have my camera on hand.

To give you an idea of the type of in-motion shot I would like to capture, here's an example of the drama I am aiming to show.

This was taken April 13, 2012 at Fallowfield Station in south Ottawa. This shot was previously featured in my post Favourite Train Photos #1. Okay, so I was stationary on the platform at the time, but you get the idea. There is something about capturing the speed and power of a train in motion that best explains my passion for these machines.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Long may you run: F40PH-2

I have a soft spot for these locomotives. To me, they are the true unsung heroes of passenger railways. Their service on Via Rail Canada's network has been pretty solid for 25 years. My aim this week is not necessarily to go over the locomotive's history, but to explore the F40PH-2's curious role in passenger transportation in Canada. (For those interested in Via Rail history, I would suggest checking out Eric Gagnon's Via Rail book blog or his Trackside Treasure blog.)

My first impression of this locomotive is that what it lacks in style it makes up in reliability.

I wonder about this locomotive and its role in Via's history in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was first delivered to the network from London, Ont.'s former GM Diesel plant. The locomotive falls into a funny period in Via's history, well after Via took ownership of CP and CN's faltering F units. But were it not for the problems with the original Bombarider LRC locomotives, I wonder just how many of the F40s would have been purchased and used on Via.

Above: Toronto bound F40PH-2 6441 idles at Sarnia Station in the winter of 1991

I would never call a 3000-hp, 16-cylinder locomotive with head end power a fall-back option for Via, especially since the locomotive has performed so well for Via and has been rebuilt for many more years of service.

But despite my admiration for this workhorse, I have come to the belief that there is something inherently awkward about the F40. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It's kind of charming in a way. When you see these engines pulling the LRC coaches, it's clear that the two don't fit together all that well, but the site has become so common, we might tend to take it for granted that the F40 was not meant to pull these coaches.

Speaking of awkward, take a look at the Amtrak F40 332 with an older Amtrak coach in tow. The shot below was taken at Sarnia Station in the early 1990s, before the Toronto-Chicago rail connection, dubbed the International Limited, was discontinued by Via and Amtrak in 2004.

Why do I say awkward? Well, when you compare the smooth lines of the old Amtrak coach with the more angular F40, it's obvious that the two are not a natural fit. Just like when you see the F40 pulling the comparatively small LRC coaches, it's obvious that the two were brought together by necessity.

So, they might not win any beauty contests, but these locomotives have nonetheless become an icon of passenger transportation in Canada over the last 25 years, just like the old F9s were between the 1950s-1970s. If you don't agree, just check out the new Canadian $10 bill. (Link opens a PDF document)

Over the years, the F40 has proven its value time and again in Via's corridor service but also with its long-haul trains, especially the Canadian and the Ocean. The shot above was taken May 3 of last year at Ottawa's central rail station. It's another example of an F40 pulling what one would think would be an awkward looking consist, if it weren't such a common site.

Over the years, these locomotives have sported a number of different looks (who remembers the Kool-Aid, Spiderman 2, Home Hardware, Telus, Grey Cup painted F40s?) and are now settling into their new renaissance look after having been rebuilt and modified over the last several years. Via's F40 fleet is one of the last remaining fleets of its size since Amtrak and GO Transit have both retired their fleets.

Above: F40PH-2 6435 sits idle at Ottawa station as P42 913 bound for Montreal readies for its next run in late summer, 2013

Today, the F40s work alongside the GE P42 DCs. When I first started seeing the GE units on Via trains, I realized how much I had taken the F40s for granted. The F40s may not have the sleek contours of the GE units, but they also don't look like they have been dropped on their heads.

I suppose I could wrap this up with more than a backhanded compliment for this locomotive, but it kind of seems fitting.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The changing colours on the Sarnia Sub

Railways don't change their image all that often. Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CN are good examples of railways whose diesels have looked remarkably consistent over the last twenty years. CN's last major change occurred when it ditched its safety scheme for the CN North America scheme, which quickly gave way to the current CN look, complete with web address beneath the wet noodle. One railway that has bucked this trend is CSX. This railway, which was a creation of a number of diverse railways, has always been colourful, particularly on its oftentimes orphan Sarnia Subdivision. 

Above: Chessie System quadruple header makes it way through Corunna en route to Sarnia in Spring 1991. The railway ran the vast majority of its manifest freights with two GP38-2s at this time.

For years following the merger between the Seaboard System and Chessie System (which were in turn the result of the merging of a number of smaller railways), the GP38s on the CSX Sarnia Subdivision wore mainly Chessie System colours, with the yellow, orange and vermillion blue, although it often looked more like black to me. This was likely the result of the fact that the Sarnia Sub was formerly a C&O line. The above photo shows the rare combination of four Chessie diesels, some still bearing the markings of their original railway on the side of the hoods. You can see the B&O marking on the final GP38 in the above shot. In 1992 onward, those cab markings were removed in favour of a smaller "CSXT" marking, which was likely the precursor to being repainted in CSX's original grey and blue scheme.

One exception in the 1980s and the early 1990s was a scattering of units still painted in the B&O and C&O blue scheme. You can read the story of the below B&O unit here. A reader noted in that post that GP38-2 2100 was also a frequent presence on Chessie's Windsor operations around the same time. How this unit escaped repainting is an interesting question. One explanation is that CSX's Canadian operations were at the edge of the railway's network and often lagged behind the rest of the network in appearance.

Above: B&O GP38-2 2100 crosses Hill St. in Corunna in the early 1990s

The early 1990s brought changes to the sub as the first of the GP38s began to appear in CSX colours. They were often paired with Chessie units. Notice how the fuel tank and trucks were repainted along with the rest of the unit in the shot below.

There's no question that CSX is a strange name for a railway, although it seemed less odd after Burlington Northern Santa Fe morphed into BNSF. I read about the origin of the CSX name. The C in CSX stands for Chessie System while the S stands for the Seaboard System. The X is the symbol of the merger and the fact that the combined entity was obviously much larger and more dynamic than its predecessors. That was the rationale at the time, anyway.

Above: CSX GP38-2 2013 sits on an idle freight train near St. Clair Blvd. in Corunna in Spring 1991

In about 1993, a single unit appeared on the subdivision with a yellow stripe added (GP38 2006). This unit was a tough one to capture in a photo. I recall chasing this unit for months before I finally caught up with it around sunset near the CSX Clifford Street rail yard in Sarnia. There was a span of three to four years where the old Chessie units continued to work the sub alongside the newly painted CSX units, making for colourful consists.

Above: CSX GP38-2 2006 near the Clifford St. station in Sarnia in July 1993. This was the first diesel on the Sarnia Sub to wear the newer CSX scheme.

Following this change of paint scheme, most units on the sub looked very much like GP38 2006 until CSX decided to make a wholesale change, going from grey units with blue and yellow trim to blue units with yellow trim. I'm not sure when this change happened, since I have not lived in this area for years and have only been in the habit of photographing trains on this sub very recently. When CSX began to adopt a new colour scheme, the essential design of the scheme remained the same, as did the logo. Last year, on a visit to the Sarnia area in October, I caught a glimpse of a few geeps in the blue and yellow colour livery.

Above: October 2013 on the Sarnia Sub near Clifford St. in Sarnia as two GP38-2s in the blue paint scheme grind to a stop. Note the difference in the background from the 1993 photo above. Gone are the storage tanks, replaced by a gravel dock on the river.

The latest version of the CSX logo has been rolled out since last year, with a boxcar design being added around the CSX script. I have read some negative comments about the new boxcar logo, since boxcars aren't exactly the most popular freight cars on North American railways anymore. Some have suggested the new logo symbolizes container traffic. Either way, it's changed. I caught a unit on the Sarnia Sub with the new logo on Dec. 23rd. The engineer was kind enough to give me a wave as he brought his unit to a stop. Notice some of the modifications on the unit including ditch lights, the removal of lights next to the top number boards and what I am assuming are air conditioning units on top of the cab.

Above: GP38-2 2697 pulls into the Clifford St. yard in Sarnia on Dec. 23, 2013. The "boxcar" CSX logo is the latest livery for the railway.

Despite the changes that the diesels have undergone on the sub in the last 25 years, the one thing that has remained the same is the type of engine used. Ever since I can remember watching trains on this sub, the unit of choice has been the GP38-2. It's been the one constant on a railway line that has sported many colours over the years.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Our first stop in 2014: Mandaumin, Ont.

So, where is Mandaumin anyway? Mandaumin is a tiny farming hamlet that straddles Mandaumin Road, the dividing line between Sarnia and its neighbouring township. It is a rural community of less than 100, just east of the city. It has a farmer's co-op, a few homes, a United church, an ancient barn and an abandoned (and supposedly haunted) farm house. For our purposes, it is also bisected by the east-west CN Strathroy Subdivision at milepost 50.9 (Sarnia Yard is at 57.2) Long freights eastbound for London or westbound for Sarnia's rail yard and the St. Clair Tunnel speed through this community regularly.

On Dec. 23, I was on my way into Sarnia when I saw this intermodal train (above) making its way east. The first thing worth mentioning is this area's resemblance to the prairies. Sarnia and Lambton County is an area of fertile farm land, which is as flat as the prairies, albeit with more trees. The ice storm that blasted Toronto on the 23rd brought rain to the Sarnia area, which produced the above shot of this train making its way next to a fallow corn field, dotted with snow.

By way of contrast, this shot below is Mandaumin in the summer months, with the corn stalks at their peak.

As I drove down the road, I pulled over a few times to take a few shots of CN 5451 (SD60) and Illinois Central 1038 (SD70) hustling with a full train bound for London. You can make out the barns on the other side of the main line. I was really pleased with this shot and the one at the top of this post, since the terrain allowed me to get full shots of the train.

I was even luckier as the train made its way to the crossing (shot below). The sun managed to peak through the clouds to provide the perfect lighting for the train as it passed the railway's Mandaumin sign. You can see a small piece of the farmer's co-op to the right. I was pleased with the lighting and the clouds, which all contributed to some of the best rail photos I have taken. I have a few more from this meet that I will share later.

I made sure I was first in line at the crossing as the train sped by. You can see that the sun was in the perfect spot for photos. Due to the speed of the trains, this crossing has had crossing guards for a long time.

Almost as if on cue, the sun began to retreat behind the clouds as the end of the train came into view. I snapped a few shots of the end of the train through my car's open window before making my way into Sarnia where I spent an enjoyable morning getting some great shots at the end of the CSX Sarnia Subdivision, on the Point Edward spur and around Sarnia Yard.

Happy New Year to all my fellow train fans. Hope you enjoyed our first stop in 2014.