Thursday, May 29, 2014

The curious case of the Prince of Wales Bridge

On my recent trip aboard the O-Train, I noticed that Ottawa's Capital Railway at Bayview no longer connects to the former CP trackage that leads to the Prince of Wales Bridge. Instead, the old CP tracks have been buried by ballast, thus severing their connection to the Capital Railway. These tracks, it should be noted, pass through the old City of Hull along the old Maniwaki Sub. This sub is still technically intact to Wakefield, since it is the home of the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train. This tourist train, it should be noted, is in all likelihood a lost cause since storm damage to the line is too expensive for local governments, who own the line, to fix.

But getting back to Ottawa, I was a little surprised by the disconnection at Bayview, although it sadly makes sense given Ottawa's utter lack of vision when it comes to its railway infrastructure. I wandered over to the end of the Capital Railway the other day to take a few shots. Here's a shot below of the buried connection (almost dead centre) taken from the Somerset Street overpass.

This connection, as you can see on the left, still bears witness to the time when the line was part of CP's Ellwood Subdivision.

The other side of the sign reads "CAP" which obviously stands for the Capital Railway, which is the official name of the O-Train operation in the city as it stands right now.

This severed connection is not, on its own, a big deal, but it takes on more significance given what has happened on the other side of the river in recent years.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the bridge connects to Lemieux Island in the Ottawa River, which marks the official end of the Quebec Gatineau Railway, a shortline owned by Genesee and Wyoming. I was doing some research on this railway the other day, trying to figure out where I could go to shoot it, but discovered that it no longer operates in Gatineau, since its main customer on the river, a former pulp mill, has been closed for years. Even more discouraging, I failed to realize that the railway has severed its connection to the tracks in Gatineau, including the stretch leading to this bridge. The furthest west the railway comes is Thurso, while a local continues to serve the Buckingham spur. Much of the QGR right-of-way in Gatineau has been transformed into a controversial rapid bus transit system, which has garnered mixed reviews from residents of the city.

What does this mean for the Prince of Wales Bridge?

Well, it means it is truly on its own for the time being, until such time that the powers that be in Ottawa and Gatineau, not to mention other levels of government, decide to establish a commuter rail link between Ottawa and Gatineau on the remaining trackage. This continues to be a no-go for local politicians, for reasons that escape me.

In the fall, there was a call from city staff to transform the bridge into a recreational pathway for bikes and pedestrians by 2019. This would be a great link, but it also prevents the capital region from realizing the transit opportunity the bridge represents. The report outlined that the city is hoping to do something with the bridge by 2025. In other words, there are no plans. In fact, despite pleas from transportation advocates, the city is not even maintaining the bridge.

This is what the bridge looks like these days, starting with a view from the Ottawa River Pathway.

And a view of the tracks leading to the bridge, just past the end of the Capital Railway. You will notice, compared to shots I took at a similar time last year (see Prince of Wales link above), the foliage is a little late in arriving this year.

And a shot of the Prince of Wales marquis (or is it Ince of Walcs?)

On the plus side, work on the new passing sidings on the Capital Railway has finally been completed, although the new Alstom trainsets have yet to be placed into service. The new sidings have also led to new signalling equipment. Here's a shot of a southbound Bombardier trainset from the Somerset Street overpass.

I have not heard any news as to when these trains will give way to the new Alstom trains, although I would suspect that the new trains will be put into service before the coming school year, since Carleton University, at the half-way point of the Capital Railway, represents one of the biggest sources of O-Train ridership. The new O-Trains are no longer parked in Walkley Yard during the day, so I assume they are being tested somewhere. I dropped by Walkley recently and saw no trace of the new trainsets.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ottawa Landmark: Rideau River Trestle

You really do have to take what you can get in Ottawa when it comes to railways. Recently, I was struck by the fact that there are very few images of the city's O-Train going over the Rideau River trestle, near Carleton University. So I travelled on the Capital Railway for the first time the other day, getting off at Carleton Station. I walked down to the Rideau River to get a shot of the Bombardier LRT trainsets gliding over the river on the old CP Ellwood Sub.

I chose the perfect day, as it was sunny and the Rideau River was raging amid the spring thaw, which made for an incredible photo opportunity.

Above: Northbound O-Train approaches the Rideau River trestle near Carleton Station. The river is in the midst of the spring thaw run-off.

I didn't have to wait long as the two O-Trains make the full 8-km trip on the Capital Railway every 12-15 minutes. The two trains pass each other on the double tracks at Carleton before heading in different directions on the single-track right-of-way. For more on this rail line, you can read last fall's The O-Train Rides Again post or my retrospective on the CP Ellwood sub.

The one challenge at this bridge is the commuter trains are nimble. They gear up quickly after leaving Carleton Station and also approach it from the south at quite a clip, so you have to have your shot set as they sprint across the bridge. The first one I shot (above and below) was a northbound train en route to Carleton and ultimately, Bayview Station at the end of the line.

Hanging around this trestle brought me back to my time spent at Carleton, when the Ellwood Sub was still an active CP line. Of course, had I been actively taking pictures then, I would have grabbed some shots of freight trains using the bridge. Unfortunately, I didn't get any shots then. I do recall that CP ran most of its freights in the evenings, so it would have been a tough assignment even if I was actively tracking railways then like I was when I was in high school.

The shot below is from a southbound trainset headed in the direction of Greenboro Station at the southern limits of the Capital Railway (for now). There has been no further talk of expanding the railway south to the airport and beyond on existing trackage, but I am encouraged that this possibility was finally seriously considered in the fall (Although plans to exclude the airport as one of the stops on the extended line is a real head slapper).

I was happiest with this shot since the framing was, as far as my limited skill allows, pretty close to perfect. The woodland on the other side of the river is Vincent Massey Park. In the summer, the levels on the river get so low around this bridge, you can see the rocks in the riverbed and can walk across the river to the park. This explains the half submerged graffiti on the bridge's pilings.

This line is a fun ride for a number of reasons. First, the northern section is nestled in a deep cut in the heart of Little Italy and Chinatown before it enters a long tunnel beneath Dow's Lake, which is part of the Rideau Canal. While on board the train to Carleton, I did notice that some of the work to ready this line for new trainsets and higher capacity traffic is still unfinished, but the new passing siding near Bayview appears close to being operational.

I also noticed that, in the midst of the work to refurbish the roadbed last summer, the Capital Railway's connection to the trackage leading to the Prince of Wales bridge (see my previous post on this bridge) over the Ottawa River has been buried by ballast. A curious sign still stands next to this forgotten trackage, which says "C.P." reminding all who would have veered onto this trackage that it was once a part of the venerable railway. Apparently, the city forgot to take down the sign when they bought this trackage and the bridge. Seems about right, since the city has done absolutely nothing with this trackage, which is largely lost in overgrowth now.

Next week: More on the status of the Prince of Wales railway bridge.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Capturing a ghost: CN 589

Thanks to Beachburg Sub readers, I finally captured a ghost in the form of an actual CN freight train in Ottawa. With so few freight trains to catch in the capital, I think calling these locals ghosts is appropriate.

On Sunday, April 27th, I decided to venture outside and try and catch CN 589, which makes its way over Via trackage out to Twin Elm, a small rural four-corners nestled beside the meandering Jock River. The picture below is CN 589 crossing Moodie Drive, near Bells Corners, which was the happy end result of a curious morning adventure. Notice how CN GP9 4114 has made its way to Ottawa, which is the first I have seen such classic motive power here this year.

Here's the story of how I ended up getting this shot. I will disclose that I rely solely on schedules, and not scanners, adding an additional layer of difficulty to my chases. My journey started as I drove down Old Richmond Road heading south, since the road parallels the Smiths Falls Sub for the most part. My destination was Twin Elm, since that was the final destination for 589 on its Sunday trip. When I arrived there, nothing was happening at the SynAgri feed mill, but I did snap a shot of two hopper cars, one of which looked like a former Chicago and Northwestern car, which was lettered for the Arkansas Oklahoma Railroad (see comments below). I was reasonably happy with this catch.

However, seeing nothing happening, I then proceeded further down the line to the village of Richmond, since maps showed there were a few spurs there. I arrived at the McBean Street crossing and saw nothing, except an old piece of track maintenance equipment on a stub track.

Crossing the tracks in my car, I looked around and noticed some lights coming down the track. Success! CN 589 was coming. I raced to park the car to get back to the tracks with my camera. When I returned, I was a little disappointed that the train was actually an early morning Via corridor train bound for Toronto. The train was moving at its maximum allowed speed, which made it very difficult to get my camera settings right. Also, I was in a very awkward position to shoot, due to the sightlines and the fact that I couldn't safely cross the tracks. So, this shot was about all I got from Richmond. Scanning through my images once the train rushed by, I was disappointed that this shot below was the best I could manage.

Sometimes, it is just not meant to be.

Heading back home, I decided to take a short detour down Moodie Drive, just to see if maybe CN 589 was waiting for the Via corridor train to clear the tracks. I was pretty sure the local hadn't done its rounds any earlier. I crossed the tracks and again saw lights coming down the tracks. This time, I knew it was 589. And, obviously, it was making its way much more slowly, allowing me to set up close to the tracks in a much better position. The top shot in this post was my favourite, but I also loved this shot of the old geep making its way toward the Jock River bridge. Notice the retrofitted ditch lights. The unit had a similar pair on the other end as well. 
I knew that CN services the Kott Lumber facility, so I was hoping I could catch some switching action.

As you can see, this is what passes for a freight train in Ottawa these days. Back in the days of the Ottawa Central, these tiny consists were the exception, but they are now sadly the norm. In the shot below, 589 heads for the Jock River trestle.

And, as luck would have it, the train stopped as the crew threw the switch for Kott lumber, to retrieve an empty lumber car. This is the type of shot that will not be possible later this spring, as the brush will make any such vistas impossible. Still, I was incredibly excited to catch this action, the first freight action I have caught outside Walkley Yard since I began my blog last year.

Again, this will be a shot that will not be possible later this summer. 4114 makes it way toward the empty centre beam lumber car before it proceeds on to Twin Elm. I toyed with the idea of chasing the train to Twin Elm, but I decided to call it a day, with the thought that I will return another day to Twin Elm to take shots, since it is an incredibly scenic little rural spot for shooting trains.

And that is the story of my first successful pursuit of the 589 to Twin Elm. Now that I know the schedule Sunday and what to look for, I will be sure to capture this local more. And I will be sure to be ready for the Via too.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Via's Fallowfield Problem

The long shadow of last September's horrific train-bus collision continues to pose a huge problem for Via Rail in Ottawa. While there is still very little to explain how this collision on Woodroffe Avenue occurred, Via continues to struggle to explain why a number of level crossings in the Barrhaven neighbourhood continue to malfunction.

Five people on board an OC Transpo double-decker bus died in the September accident, including the bus's driver. No one on the train was seriously hurt.

For Via Rail, that accident was the beginning of a very serious problem in Ottawa's southwest end. The main problem the railway faces is that there are multiple crossings in this suburb that continue to malfunction, resulting in the crossing signals and gates kicking into failsafe mode, which means the lights and bells are triggered while the gates descend, even when no train is coming. The problem spots include Woodroffe Avenue and Fallowfield Road, the two level crossings on either side of Via's Fallowfield Station.

Recently, Via issued a statement that assured residents that the warning signals at four of the level crossings had been fixed. Unfortunately, the lights at the Fallowfield Road level crossing malfunctioned April 28, shortly after Via issued its statement.

Meanwhile, the railway continues to deploy personnel at the Woodroffe Avenue crossing and have reduced the speed of trains near this crossing.

An F40PH-2 leads a Via corridor train over the Woodroffe Avenue crossing on Victoria Day 2012 on its way to the Fallowfield Via Station. Photo was taken from the Fallowfield Station platform.
Making matters worse, a fair bit of misinformation has not reassured Barrhaven residents. There was speculation that there was sabotage happening at these level crossings, which had the Ottawa Police involved. The railway has since made it clear that this was not the case.
However, the railway has also suggested that the faulty equipment might be the result of the salt used to keep the right-of-way clear as well as the salt used to clear roads. Another suggestion made was that some nearby electrical wires are interfering with the crossing signals.
Most recently, Via issued a statement stating that two OC Transpo buses failed to stop behind the crossing gates, meaning they stopped for a passing train beneath the descending gates, which caused the gates to be damaged and again triggered the problems with the crossing signals reverting to failsafe mode. That theory was shot down by eyewitness accounts that suggested otherwise. When this theory was refuted, the city asked Via to retract its comments. And last week, the MP for the area, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, called for Via's CEO Steve Del Bosco to resign. And that is just what the Minister received as Via made the change in early May.
In the midst of all this confusion and finger-pointing, no definitive cause for these problems has been identified yet. The railway and RailTerm, the company that maintains the Smiths Falls Subdivision for Via, suggested a number of factors are affecting these signals. To make things more confusing, the cause of the malfunction at one crossing isn't necessarily the cause of the malfunction at another crossing, according to Via. These issues have been plaguing this corridor since February.
Read about Via's technical briefing with city officials here. Reading this story, you will get a good idea of how uninformed many in this city are about railways, which is understandable since much of the remaining rail network in the city is out of site and out of mind for most. But, for a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen to suggest that Barrhaven has the highest concentration of level crossings in Canada is downright silly.

Here's a small sketch (above) of the track around Fallowfield Station. As you can see, the track crosses many of the roads in Barrhaven at an angle, making the crossings somewhat awkward, especially during rush hour. Marker 1 is site of accident on Woodroffe Avenue. You can see the the thin grey line merging onto Woodroffe. That is the OC Transpo Transitway where the bus collided with the train in September. A separate signal is now being installed for this bus lane. Marker 2 is the Fallowfield Road level crossing. There is a similar crossing at Greenbank Road, Jockvale Road, Cedarview Road, and Moodie Drive, although the crossings get less busy as you head west.

Above: Via corridor train makes its way into Fallowfield Station at 11 p.m. on April 27.

I noticed an increased presence at the station when I picked up a friend who was visiting from Toronto recently. I also noticed that the personnel were watching me take photos. So clearly the railway is keeping a close eye on its assets in the area.

Train 657 makes its way southwest toward Toronto near the Moodie Drive crossing on August 25, 2013.

So, for the time being, it appears Via is apparently close to correcting the problems at most of its crossings, although much remains to be done. Given what happened last year and what's at stake, answers can't come soon enough.