Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lessons learned in Kissimmee

A little breath of fresh air in Kissimmee, Florida really did me good. I made sure to take time away from the typical family outings to break away for a few moments of photographs at the Kissimmee Amtrak Station.

I had targeted this as my spot for photos before my family even went to Florida for a few reasons. The first was the station was photogenic, having been built in 1910. Second was that the trackage through the city is somewhat famous and is still known as the A Line, which was formerly a very busy and important route for the Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Coast Line and Seaboard System railways. It is currently under CSX control, although the line sees light traffic. But, true to its name, it is poised to be an important line once again.

In the above photo, you will notice batches of new rail ties ready for placement on the A Line, as Amtrak Train 98, the northbound Silver Meteor approaches the Monument Street crossing (Check out the old Amfeet coaches!). The reason for the upgrade is that this section of the subdivision is slated to house the state's Sunrail commuter operations, which will link the city of DeLand, via Orlando, with the Poinciana region in Osceola County. Kissimmee will be the second last westbound stop on this route, or the first eastbound stop, depending on the train. This commuter link will serve an incredibly congested part of the state where the roads are at capacity, to say the least.

When I arrived at the station last Thursday, I made sure to keep my distance, since I was warned that security is tight at this station. I loved the look of the old building, which still sports old signal equipment on its roof (right of photo) and a steam engine weather vane. The inside of the station had beautiful, creaky old floors and a number of other period flourishes. I decided not to take photos, just to be safe.

While waiting for the predictably late Train 98, I decided to take some shots at a number of pieces of maintenance-of-way and track-laying equipment that were parked on a spur next to the main line. Clearly, this track is just about ready for its makeover.

Shortly after hearing an announcement warning passengers that the Silver Meteor would be "15 or 20 minutes late," P42DC 75 roared into the station about 25 minutes late, much to the relief of the passengers who were baking in the mid-afternoon sun. I brought some heat rashes back to the Great White North as a souvenir.

The train didn't stay long and geared up pretty fast as it crossed East Drury Avenue, which was where I was perched at this point. I haven't seen an Amtrak train since my teenage years in Sarnia, so the site of these old Amfleet coaches was a treat. In fact, it was nice to see a passenger train with a few different coaches in its consist. I was pleased with the shot below, as it captures the acceleration of the locomotive, which is spewing out smoke as it picks up speed.

This (below) was the true gem of the lot, an old heavyweight baggage car at the end of Train 98, coupled behind a few Viewliner sleepers. It's been a while since I've seen Amtrak rolling stock, so correct me if I'm wrong about the Viewliners.

I came away from this encounter with a few thoughts.

1. Commuter rail in the U.S. is faring somewhat better than it is in Canada. The co-operation between municipalities, states and the federal government is getting a number of commuter lines going, which should serve as a reminder to us here in Canada that intercity rail travel isn't just important in the busiest eastern corridors.

2. Amtrak has a much more extensive roster of long-haul trains, which is a product of a system in the U.S. where states subsidize trains that they feel serve an important purpose. This train, for example, was bound for New York City. It runs daily in both directions between the Big Apple and Miami. I wonder how different Via Rail would be if provinces were allowed more leeway in deciding where passenger services would be useful. I would think Western Canada might be better served, at the very least.

3. Despite these positive points, Amtrak is still at the mercy of government whims, not to mention the timetables of its railway hosts like CSX. You can't help but wonder how passenger rail manages to survive in North America in spite of these two massive obstacles.

4. I really miss the old Amtrak logo and red, white and blue scheme. The latest one is boring.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Revisionist History

Ottawans have always had a certain amount of antipathy for the National Capital Commission, but it wasn't until recently that I began to understand how deep this antagonism seems to run through the capital. I was on a treasure hunt last week, hunting for old photos in the newly redesigned Library and Archives Canada online photo archive as well as the City of Ottawa's historic photo gallery. This search led me down some interesting alleys and left me with a different impression of the city.

Most notably, I came away with the impression that, despite efforts to bury Ottawa's railway history, longtime residents have continued to embrace the city's railway past.

The photo below is part of the City of Ottawa's online archives. CP F-unit 1428 leads a 1958 royal train carrying Princess Margaret in 1958. The train is set out in the former train yard behind Ottawa's downtown Union Station, along the Rideau Canal. The building, which still stands, remains a subject of fascination for Ottawa residents, not to mention a source of frustration.

Readers of this blog know the story of Ottawa's Union Station and its demise as a rail station in 1966, due to a decision by the National Capital Commission to lift rails from central Ottawa. The photo below shows the station in its heyday (photo is from the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology), as a focal point in Ottawa's core. It seems strange today that a city like Ottawa would have this gem of a station in its core, which is off limits to the public and used strictly for government conferences. The building is officially known as the Government Conference Centre, but as I learned searching through some Facebook pages and other historical discussion groups, people who know Ottawa's history loathe the official name of this building and still call it Union Station. They also resent the fact that the government took off the dome atop this building to make way for a penthouse level of offices. This added level really seems out of place on the building.

I also noticed quite a few comments in the discussion groups that question the decision to remove the passenger service to the core. Clearly, these people are my kind of people! Although, I do have to say that having a triple track next to Majors Hill Park, across from the Bytown Locks (lower left) and Parliament Hill is a bit of overkill, especially today. This undated photo below shows the approach to the Alexandra Bridge, which is now a main artery for cars.

The great tragedy of the downtown train station seems to be the continuing efforts by the federal government to keep this building off limits to locals and to downplay its magnificent history. Anyone who has walked around this building will only find a tiny hint of its past in the form of a small plaque overlooking the canal. Try as we might, we can't escape the fact that Ottawa was once a very different city that had a more pronounced industrial character.

The shot (below), which seems fitting this week, shows how the Rideau Canal was used as a snow dump for the downtown rail yards. The shot below is an undated shot from the national archives, but it's a safe bet that it was taken in the 1930s-40s, judging by the vintage of the passenger coaches and wooden boxcars (to the right). This yard is now part of a scenic parkway called Colonel By Drive. The lands to the right are part of a mini expressway and bus route called Nicholas Street, which basically empties traffic off of Highway 417 (The Queensway to locals) into the core. Beyond Nicholas, you will find the University of Ottawa campus. I personally believe having this expressway to and from a 400 series highway in not much of an improvement.

One of the unintended consequences of pulling up the rails from Ottawa's core was the stress it placed on downtown roads and the interprovincial bridges. This decision contributed to an inundation of truck traffic on key downtown streets, like Rideau Street. This has been a longstanding problem for the city, with no relief in site.

One of the funnier discussions I came across concerned some promotional literature for Ottawa's current train station, which was opened in 1966. The building won architecture awards and it really is an interesting structure, to give it its due. However, I found it funny that some effort was made in 1966 to dub this station as Ottawa's new "Union Station," as it served both CP and CN. From the discussion boards I read, I gather that this attempt at branding was a dismal failure. The name never caught on. Today, most people know of only one Union Station in Ottawa and it's not here. And what is Ottawa's train station known as exactly? Some names list it as the Central Railway Station, but the station isn't exactly central, so that name is also dubious. Most just call it the train station.

One thing is certain. Those who know Ottawa know this will always be the Union Station.

I find it interesting that, despite the best efforts of the NCC and federal officials to gloss over a piece of Ottawa's history, local residents have refused to buy into it. Like I said, these are my people.

Programming note: The Beachburg Sub will be taking a short break on a passing siding as I will be on vacation for the next few weeks. Expect some southern railroading content to come!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The wet noodle, the safety scheme and beyond

One thing I've noticed about Canada's two major railways is their consistent appearance. Their looks have both remained largely unchanged over the last half century. CP has not deviated from its choice of red on its locomotives, although its more recent decisions to adopt the gold beaver and then the new Canadian Pacific script for the side of its engines stand out as the biggest changes to the CPR's looks since it adopted the modern red and multimark look in 1968 (I'm leaving out the 1993 decision to adopt the CP Rail System Flag scheme, which was short-lived).

CN has been even more consistent since it first developed its wet noodle logo in 1960. Along with that decision came the radical transformation of the look of its locomotives, cabooses, freight cars and passenger coaches. Amazingly, after 50 plus years, one could put a 1960s vintage CN diesel next to a modern diesel and easily make the connection that the two belong to the same road.

The first, and longest-lasting version of CN's modern look, was the so-called safety scheme, which featured slanted white stripes against a black backdrop and a red cab. The wet noodle was plastered on the front of the engine. When you look at the modern paint schemes of North American railroads, CN was definitely an anomaly in that it did not have its corporate logo on the side of most of its diesels when it changed its look in the early 1960s.

CN F7A 9162 in Edmonton, Alta. in 1973 (Photo from the Canadian Science and Technology Museum archives)

However, there were some exceptions to the rule when CN went modern. Over the years, a number of its locomotives were painted in a nearly all-black scheme. These units had the CN logo on the side and red fronts and backs. I've often wondered why some units were given this scheme.

CN GP9 in 1967 at an unknown location (Photo from the Canadian Science and Technology Museum archives)

Another notable exception to the safety scheme was CN's fleet of workhorse SW1200s, which prowled rail yards and local spurs for decades. These units were given a mainly black scheme with the CN logo on the side. Unlike the GP9 above, the SWs were given red cabs and red trim on the front panels. This grunt and mate 1215 are pulling a load of autoracks to the St. Clair rail ferry in 1993 in Sarnia Yard.

These schemes changed in the early 1990s when CN finally decided to make a change to its look by adopting its CN North America logo, which featured the grey continent image beneath the CN logo. This look coincided with CN's first major marketing foray into the US. You can read about this paint scheme in greater detail by checking out this post in the Trackside Treasure blog. This scheme was around for a few years and it really did suggest what was to come for CN after it was privatized in 1992-93.

CN SD40-2 6002 in Sarnia in 1993

The CN North America logo didn't last all that long and was soon replaced with the look that CN locomotives sport today, like these two brutes below, shot in Markham on Aug 10, 2013. When I was looking through photos in government archives, like the two at the top of this post, I was struck by the consistency of the CN paint schemes over the last 50 years. Compared to the era before the modern logo was adopted, which was marked with constant image tinkering, the wet noodle and red/black/white scheme have been remarkably stable. It's hard to think of a railway that has had such consistency over the same period.