Thursday, September 25, 2014

Revisiting a tragedy

The Transportation Safety Board released some of its findings regarding the tragic bus-train collision in Ottawa last year. The initial findings show that the crash was likely caused, in part, by distracted driving. To briefly recap what happened, last Sept. 18, an OC Transpo double-decker bus collided with a Via train during the morning rush hour, killing five passengers as well as the bus's driver. The collision has led to a year of questions about the safety of level rail crossings in Ottawa. This accident occurred in the Barrhaven neighbourhood at the Woodroffe Avenue crossing. Via Rail's Smiths Falls Subdivision passes through this neighbourhood and has been the site of numerous signal malfunctions in the recent past. Thankfully, those issues appear to have been addressed.

A Via Rail corridor train crosses Woodroffe Avenue, as seen from the platform of Via Rail's Fallowfield railway station in May 2012.

The TSB found that the bus was approaching the crossing at 67 km/h along the bus-only Transitway lane. The posted limit for buses at the time was 60 km/h. That has since been reduced to 50km/h. The board also found that the driver was likely looking at a monitor above his sun visor at the time, which may have distracted him from braking the bus. These double-decker buses are equipped with a monitor screen that allows the driver to see what is happening on the second level of the bus. Witnesses say someone was standing on the second level, which is not allowed on these buses.

These findings are heartbreaking for several reasons. Although they have given grieving families some answers, they also shine a light on the driver's error, which will no doubt haunt his family for some time. Also, the findings pointed out that, if the bus had been travelling at the posted limit at the time, the driver would have been able to stop the bus before colliding with the Via train. Again, these findings would be tough to hear, given that they lead to a number of what if questions.

OC Transpo has posted its special constables in the area to enforce the new speed limit.

Good news for the Renfrew Spur?

A planning committee meeting this week shed some light on what might happen to the Renfrew Spur, in Ottawa's west end. The meeting was focused on a retail development in Kanata along the Renfrew Spur. The committee discussed a proposed 15-metre buffer between the development and the rail line.

The line, formerly the CN Renfrew Subdivision, serves the Nylene Canada industrial polymer plant in Arnprior, just outside Ottawa's western border. The rail line is owned by the city and maintained by Nylene Canada.

I found an interesting line in an Ottawa Sun story, which has me wondering if there may actually be a forward-thinking rail advocate in this region. The sentence in the story, which greatly interested me, reads as follows:

"Nylene is interested in possibly expanding the use of the track since lines connecting to the larger rail network are so rare west of Ottawa."

More like nonexistent, but I digress.

The story is behind a paywall, so I won't link to it, although you can find the story doing a Google search by typing in Nylene and railway. To be honest, I'm not sure what the reporter meant to convey by saying "expanding the use of the track." There is very little in the way of industry along this line, especially west of Kanata.

At the very least, it suggests to me that this rail line appears to safe for now. Now, all I have to do is catch Local 589 out to Arnprior on a Wednesday.
Above: The Renfrew Spur (seen at left in the spring this year) appears to be in good hands.
Finally, I thought I would share another piece of interesting local rail news. A mayoral candidate, Mike Maguire, has proposed something The Beachburg Sub has been advocating since the beginning. Instead of spending billions on a deeply flawed light rail plan, Maguire is proposing something radical. Running commuter trains on existing (and underused) rails in the capital. Do you think Mr. Maguire read last week's post?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

For consideration: GO Trains in Ottawa

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks Ottawa needs to retain what little heavy rail network it has left.

In my travels with family this summer, I ended up having an interesting conversation with a friend of my wife's family that once operated a truck stop in Cardinal, Ont., a small town in Eastern Ontario. She mentioned to me that she found operating the business extremely difficult because finding staff was a major headache. She explained that most people told her they were chasing a federal public service job in Ottawa. This got me to thinking.

Thousands upon thousands of Eastern Ontarians commute into Ottawa each day to work in the federal public service. The traffic volumes on the region's two 400-series highways are a testament to the commuting patterns in the region. There's also little debate over the growing traffic jams on the roads.

I began to think about this conversation the other day when I stumbled across another conversation on YouTube. The commenters spoke of how silly it was that no one stepped in in 1997 to save the old CP Prescott Subdivision between Kemptville and Ottawa. Another commenter questioned why the dormant CN Beachburg Subdivision between Nepean Junction and the Pontiac Region in Quebec hasn't been eyed for a regional rail commuting service.

It seems painfully obvious that the last remnants of the CN Beachburg Sub north of Nepean Junction will be gone before long, even though it has managed to remain intact this summer, much to my surprise.

Going, going, gone: Could this stretch of the old CP Prescott Subdivision have hosted GO Trains for Eastern Ontario commuters? Some people here think so. Too bad this rail is now gone.

In 2009, a group that once operated the Ottawa Central Railway attempted to purchase the remnants of the Beachburg Subdivision. I recall interviewing James Allen, the former general manager of the OCR, for a story I wrote for a local news website. In addition to establishing immediate freight service for a wood pellet plant in Pontiac, Que., Allen said there were plans for a regional commuter service between Renfrew County, the Pontiac Region and Ottawa. It would be focused on those who work in Ottawa and live in the valley (what locals call the area northwest of Ottawa).

Unfortunately, rails were lifted from Pembroke all the way to the Quebec border. The remainder of the rails to Nepean Junction also seem to be on their way out, despite some very measured and sensible arguments about the importance of this infrastructure to the future of the region. Sadly, Ottawa has expressed no interest in this line, even though city staff said they would be interested in buying the land for a recreational trail. If this city valued its rail infrastructure as much as it values its trail network, local transit would not be such a challenge.

Could the Beachburg Subdivision see new life as a commuter line in west Ottawa? It doesn't seem like city planners see any potential for this corridor other than as a future recreational trail.

The obstacles to regional rail in Eastern Ontario are formidable. The National Capital Region spans two provinces, which means a number of provincial policies would need to be streamlined for a regional service to operate across the Ottawa River. Don't count on this. Ottawa and Gatineau can't even agree what to do with the Prince of Wales railway bridge, which has sat dormant and neglected for years.

Another significant barrier would be how this system would be funded. Would municipalities have to buy in on their own dime? Would the service be funded through the Ontario government like GO? How would it be funded if it crossed over into Quebec? How would it operate in conjunction with the existing Ottawa bus and O-Train service? How would it operate around other rail operations like Via and CN in the capital region?

These are all tough questions, but it seems to me that some have remarkably straightforward answers. Toronto's transit system is far from perfect, but I have never heard anything bad about the GO Trains. Having taken GO Trains before, I can vouch for their reliability and convenience. It seems that this is a conversation worth having in this region.

Why? Well, Ottawa's main expressway, the Queensway, is being widened  in the city's east end, but it's obvious that the highway has no room left to expand in many spots through the city. The city's planned Confederation Line O-Train expansion will not be open until 2017. And the new east-west line will operate from Tunney's Pasture to Blair, on brand new trackage. These areas of the city are sparsely populated at best.

Tunney's Pasture is a warren of outdated government office buildings, with very little connection to nearby neighbourhoods. And it has the advantage of being fairly close to the downtown core. It is already well served by the existing bus commuter road, the Transitway. How this area became the western terminus for the new O-Train line is beyond me. It is by no means underserved.

Blair, the city's east end, is a commercial area with lots of commercial development, but very little housing in the immediate vicinity. Again, I struggle to understand how this became the eastern terminus.

The existing north-south O-Train line, from Bayview Station to Greenboro Station, is well used. There has been talk about extending this line, which was once the CP Ellwood and Prescott Sub. Existing trackage has been left in place all the way to Leitrim Road, which is a road in the city's south end, relatively close to the Riverside South neighbourhood, which is crying out for better transit options. The city owns the old CP right-of-way to Osgoode, a community in the city's mainly rural southern countryside. Why the rails were never retained along this right-of-way is a real head scratcher. The city now faces the possibility of having to install a new rail line along the old CP right-of-way, just to reach Riverside South and other developing communities in Ottawa's southern suburbs like Greeley and Manotick. The lack of vision is astounding.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems to me that regional rail could still be done in Eastern Ontario, provided the political will and vision is there.

Unfortunately, this might be the biggest obstacle of all.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bedell Ontario Part III: Big Time Railroading

At long last, I am able to share some big-time railroading photos from my recent adventures in Bedell Ontario, a small hamlet south of Ottawa. Bedell is situated on the Canadian Pacific's Winchester Subdivision, the main line between Montreal and Smiths Falls. Due to computer issues, which have finally been resolved, I was able to recover my Bedell shots and back them up. Yes, this was a very good lesson for me to regularly back up my photos.

Click here to read Bedell Ontario Part I.
Click here to read Bedell Ontario Part II.

On July 17th, I made my first visit to Bedell and was able to capture shots of the remnants of the old CP Prescott Subdivision, which was being scrapped. After doing a little exploring in the weeds of that old line, I heard a westbound freight making its way toward my spot along the main line. For those unfamiliar with Bedell, it is a former CP stopover and servicing point. There is little left now, but the area does offer a spectacular view of main line action from an old parking lot and plateau perched trackside, both of which offer safe, legal places to shoot trains.

This freight was being led by ES44AC 8719 and AC4400CW 8565. After shooting mainly old geeps around Ottawa, it was refreshing to see some modern workhorses. As I was putting this post together, I thought about the last time I shot CP action and I realized that it was in 1992 in Banff, Alberta. You can read about those adventures here and here.

As you can see, I was unfortunately on the shadow side of the train, which wasn't a huge loss considering the lighting was decent. You can see the steel coil cars trailing the lead units above and below. In the shot below, you can also see a turnout for bad orders. This turnout was once part of a much larger rail yard in the area, most of which is gone. You can also see a bit of an old signal tower behind the trailing 8565 unit. You can see that tower in the final shot below.

Although it may seem I was right beside the track, I can assure you I was a safe distance from the train and using my camera's zoom.

As I have mentioned before, a mixed freight is the best freight to shoot, in my opinion. Intermodal double-stack trains are the most common, but they don't offer much variety. This train was a true mix. It reminded me of the mixed freights I shot along the CSX Sarnia Subdivision as a teenager. Boxcars closely followed the coil cars on this train, as you can see below.

It wasn't long before a few ballast cars came into view with some old CP Rail multimarks. I have a HO-scale blue hopper car painted in this livery at home, so I took a shot.

There was a long line of tank cars before a couple of hopper cars gave way to the double stacks at the end of the train. You can see the whistle sign in this shot, as well as old rail that had just been lifted from the old turnout that led to the abandoned North Prescott Spur, formerly the Prescott Sub.

The double stacks included a number of Canadian Tire containers, which wasn't unusual since CP is the retailer's main long-distance cargo hauler. The sunny blue skies, scattered clouds and full summer foliage made for a perfect backdrop.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, as did this manifest freight. You can see the bad order turnout more clearly in this shot as well as some angled crossing signals at the Bedell Road crossing. These lights are angled due to the path of the road, which parallels the track before taking a sharp turn at the crossing.

A few weeks later, I made sure to get a shot of the old signal tower, just in case the railway decides to get rid of this relic.

So that was my first encounter with a CP freight on the Winchester Sub. I am planning to return to Bedell very soon to see if there is anything left from the old Prescott Subdivision. Also, I hope I won't have to wait 22 years to shoot my next CP freight.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Your Guide to Railfanning in Ottawa

Most Canadians need to visit Ottawa once in their life. It really is a beautiful city with lots to offer tourists of all ages. Even railfans. Yes, despite all of the rail missteps in its past, Ottawa still offers great opportunities for the determined railfan. I am often critical of decisions made here in the capital, but this city still has its points of railway interest.

So, I present your pocket guide to shooting railway action in the capital.


Your best bet, by far, is Via Rail Canada's Central Station on Tremblay Road, just east of Ottawa's downtown core. The station is easily accessible off Highway 417. It lacks the historic significance of Ottawa's old Union Station downtown, but the central station is a spacious and airy building with interesting rail artifacts inside. Its long shelters make for some challenging shadows, but you can still get reasonably close to numerous Via corridor consists, which often include streamliners. There is a great cluster of arrivals and departures to shoot on any weekday:

10:55 a.m. - Arrival from Montreal
11:12 a.m. - Arrival from Toronto
11:27 a.m. - Departure for Montreal
12:30 p.m. - Departure for Toronto
1:58 p.m. - Arrival from Toronto
2:54 a.m. - Arrival from Montreal

If it's frequency you want, this is the busiest stretch of railroading you will encounter in Ottawa during daylight hours. That's six trains you can shoot in four hours. The food at the train station used to be better, so packing a lunch is a good idea. Staff will let you wander the platform closest to the station within reason, provided you follow the rules and make it clear you are taking photographs. I have never once encountered any problems here. You can also shoot over the fence on the other side of the station, if you can find your way into the Train Yards retail development.

You can also get some great shots on the Belfast Road overpass, although I suggest shooting east rather than west (toward the station) because of the hydro wires will foil your best efforts. The shots facing east can be rewarding, as you can see from the top photo in this post. Bear in mind that this overpass is currently undergoing construction and is off limits for photographers.

Above: Via corridor train leaves for Montreal on July 8, 2013. Shooting west from the Belfast Road overpass is tough due to the hydro wires.

The biggest complaint I hear about Ottawa is its lack of freight activity. Since Ottawa no longer finds itself on a national mainline, the freight traffic here is limited. However, you can still catch several local freights in the city, provided you are prepared. Ottawa has two local assignments, Train 589 and Train 584.


Let's start with Train 584. This train operates in eastern Ottawa mainly and operates Sunday to Thursday, beginning at around 8 p.m. Your best bet to catch this train would be to shoot it as it leaves Walkley Yard. There is an access road that runs along the yard, right at the end of Albion Road. You can also access it via Conroy Road. Given 584 begins late, this train is not well documented. 584 makes daily runs to Coteau, where it interchanges with the CN mainline. This local picks up and drops off rolling stock at Coteau. On Monday, 584 switches local CN customers.


Train 589 is a far better option for those looking for freight action. Like 584, Local 589 operates Sunday to Thursday. It originates in Walkley Yard and usually starts at 7 a.m., although this time can often change depending on a number of factors, including Via traffic on the Smiths Falls Subdivision and Beachburg Subdivision toward the Central Station.

On Monday and Thursday, 589 heads east to Hawkesbury and back via the Alexandria Sub. This means you could technically catch freight trains going through the Central Station tracks, although you would need a scanner to keep tabs on its location.

On Sunday and Thursday, Local 589 heads west on the Smiths Falls Subdivision toward Twin Elm. This train services the Kott Lumber facility on Moodie Drive near the Jock River and the SynAgri Feed Mill at Twin Elm. You can see an example of this train in action in this post. Both the Jock River crossing and the Twin Elm feed mill offer great vantage points and interesting scenery. The train is easy to follow for a stretch of Old Richmond Road and is also easily caught in Richmond, Ont., just south of Bells Corners and Kanata in Ottawa's west end.

This train sometimes waits for a Via corridor train to clear the tracks on Sunday, which means it doesn't make its way past Fallowfield Station or the Moodie Drive crossing until after 9:30 a.m. This could be your best opportunity to catch a freight train in Ottawa with decent lighting. Both the Moodie Drive and McKenna Casey Drive crossings offer great sightlines. If you don't have a scanner, the easiest way to figure out if 589 is coming is to check the Kott lumber spur. If you see a lumber car on the spur, 589 is coming. If the spur is clear, you missed it.

On Wednesday, Local 589 heads west on Beachburg and then on the Renfrew Spur toward Arnprior, where is serves the Nylene Canada plant. This train passes over two bridges in Bells Corners, which offer great photo opportunities. (Check out reader Dave's shots, which he kindly pointed out in his comments below). It also passes through some great rural landscape in Ottawa's west end, including Carp. The best way to catch this train is to listen in on a scanner, unless you have the time to wait for it trackside. It's a once-per-week run, so be prepared.

Above: Local 589 assembles its consist on a Sunday morning in September 2013. This train is your best bet for photos.

Shooting 589 in the spring is a great idea, especially around Moodie Drive, since the bare trees allow you to see the train switch Kott Lumber. You can also get some great shots of Via's morning corridor train to Toronto around this trestle. If you have access to canoe, you could get some shots from the river as well. There is no shortage of possibilities here.


If you find yourself near the Bayview Station transit stop, just west of Ottawa's downtown, you can easily capture shots of Ottawa's O-Train. The commuter service has been wildly popular in the city and the train frequency is about 12 minutes. The line currently hosts Bombardier diesel light rail trainsets, but new Alstom Coradia LINT trainsets will begin operating on this former CP Ellwood Sub very soon. This line is a scenic one, as it passes through Little Italy and Chinatown before it heads beneath Dow's Lake in a refurbished rail tunnel. This line has recently been upgraded, complete with passing sidings and new signals.

I recommend getting off at Carleton Station, on the Carleton University campus. Just steps from this stop is a scenic spot on the Rideau River where you can capture shots of the O-Train passing over on a beautiful trestle. Catch the trains here in the spring and you will get the added bonus of capturing the roaring Rideau rapids during the spring thaw. Check out this spot in this post.

Above: Ottawa's O-Train in July 2014. The commuter line will be the scene of increased activity in the coming months as the commuter services ramps up service and introduces new trainsets.


Not many cities can boast two train stations, but Ottawa can. The city has a gem of a station in Barrhaven. Fallowfield Station offers great vantage points, since it has a long platform. As mentioned above, you can catch CN Local 589 on Sundays or Tuesdays or you can catch any number of Via corridor trains along the platform. Due to recent safety concerns regarding malfunctioning signals at grade crossings in this area, security is a little tighter here than at the Central Station. However, if you follow the rules, you won't have any problems here. It's always a good idea to let station staff know what you are doing, if you are unsure. Just stay behind the yellow paint, be respectful and you will be fine.

Above: The platform at Fallowfield Station allows you to get up close and personal with Via corridor trains or the occasional CN freight train.
I should mention that it's never a bad idea to visit Walkley Yard. There isn't much activity there these days, but you might get lucky and catch some interesting rolling stock there. You can also shoot CN's two locally assigned cabooses or an old RDC unit. Check it out here.
So those are your options if you decide to come to Ottawa. For local readers, I hope some of this information gives you a better idea of what you can do around the city. I should mention that CP's Winchester Subdivision is just outside Ottawa's southern city limits and it offers your best bet for big-time freight trains. To read more about Bedell, Ontario, check out my first and second post about this area.
Special thanks to two Beachburg Sub readers who offered me the information about local CN assignments. I'm hoping this post will motivate local train watchers to share their observations or tips. This information is based on my own experience trackside in the last year or so. If you have anything to add, I'd encourage you to comment. I would specifically like to see if anyone out there has better information as to when Local 589 passes through Bells Corners on Wednesday mornings. I still have not caught that train, which is a shame, since it passes so close to my house.