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.
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.
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.
O-TRAIN AT BAYVIEW, CARLETON
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.
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.