Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A photo mystery solved

The other day, my brother emailed me to tell me he took his son to the train yard in Sarnia for a few minutes as he was running errands. My nephew, not even three years old yet, is already a big train fan and is into Thomas the Tank Engine. My brother was kind enough to take a few shots of the trains he and his son were watching (I will share those in a future post). I mention this because it started me thinking of my father. My dad often used to take photos of trains for me. I have some great 1990s shots of the Goderich Exeter Railway, thanks to my dad.

I think, deep down, my dad is like me in that he likes the big machines. That is why I wasn't surprised when my brother emailed me this photo he found in the family archives recently. I had never seen this photo before. In fact, I didn't even know it existed until my brother sent it to me. Initially, my only solid conclusion about this photo was that my dad took it. I was glad to add this image to my collection, but it made me wonder where this was taken and when.
This is what I initially managed to figure out about this photo.
1. This is an Algoma Central Railway train, since CN took over the railway in 2001 as part of the Wisconsin Central purchase. That would mean this photo was taken post-2001.
2. The units leading this train, including CN 5714, are SD75Is, judging by other photos I found of 5714. However, the 2011 shot I found shows 5714 has been repainted at some point since this photo was taken.
3. The dome car following the locomotives is ex-Western Pacific 813, Silver Palace. This was one of the Budd-built streamliners of a similar vintage to Via's silver and blue cars. The car was purchased in 1999 by ACR's parent company. This site suggests the car, now called Spirit of Superior, retained its California Zephyr paint scheme until at least 2004, which clouds the timeframe a bit. Looking at the information available online, this car doesn't seem to have a number, as it is usually referred to by its former number.
4. Given that these units are pulling a dome car, it's a safe guess to say this train is the Agawa Canyon Tour train. I figured it was taken at the end of the line, at the canyon.
5. You can see two passengers reading a tourist sign in front of the engines, which would suggest it was taken in the canyon.
Earlier this week, I was able to solve the mystery behind this photo when my Dad confirmed to me that he did indeed ride the Agawa Canyon tourist train in the early 2000s, although he wasn't able to pinpoint exactly when.
Also, later on in the week, my sister sent along some photos she took when her family rode the same train on Aug. 15 this summer. Note the similarities between the two photos.
The only question that remains is when was the first photo taken. I place the timeline between 2001-2005. It depends on when the old Zephyr cars were repainted in ACR colours. Anyone out there know the answer?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Last glimpses of the Beachburg Subdivision

When I first started this blog in April of 2013, I knew it was a risk calling it the Beachburg Sub. Even then, the dormant CN subdivision was in danger of being lost. These past few weeks, this blog's namesake rail line has been torn up by the Canadian National, despite various efforts to revive the line with a shortline operator. Last week, I headed deep into Ottawa's rural northwest countryside, to pay my last respects to this line.

As of Saturday, Nov. 16, the line has been torn up all the way to the Dunrobin area, although rails are still in place into Kanata. The work train was loaded on that day and shipped out. A reader told me that the work crew is then given a six-day rest before resuming its work. That would mean work will resume on the 21st or 22nd.

Below is a shot of the Beachburg Sub at Stonecrest Road Ottawa, Nov. 9, 2014

Here's the same stretch on Nov. 11. The bolted rail will be picked up later by truck, I assume

Here's the same crossing, looking east on Nov. 9:

And here it is two days later. You can just make out the end of the work train in the distance.

On Nov. 9, the work train was silent, as the crew was taking its days off before revving back up on Nov. 11. This is what I saw on Nov. 9 at Stonecrest Road.

On Nov. 11, I ventured out to another rural crossing, to try and catch the CN continuous welded rail work train in action. This led me to a rural road, Torbolton Ridge Road. As you can guess, this was another remote stretch of the city and it was heavily wooded. This didn't allow for great wide shots, but I felt compelled to capture something. CN GP40-2W 9543 was idling by the crossing, waiting for the track gang to finish its work so it could inch forward.

Here's a shot of the longest freight train I've seen in Ottawa in all my time in this city. How sad is that statement?

As you can see from the woody stemmed weeds in the above shot, this crossing is pretty rough. I stuck around for a while, thinking the train was about to move. One of the worker's cars was idling on the road, which led me to believe something was about to happen. After half an hour of waiting, I decided to call it a day. Here are a few more shots.

Bug's eye view.

The dreaded CWR cars carrying their prize.

By now you know the story of the subdivision. It was once part of a transcontinental main line, which stretched through Algonquin Park and a large swath of rural Ontario. You know it was also a vital part of the Ottawa Central Railway.

Now, it's mostly history.

I thought about the name of my blog this week and wondered about the merits of changing the name for a moment. But, as one of the few rail enthusiasts carrying the torch here in Ottawa, I think it's more important than ever that we pay attention to the past.

After all, Ottawa's troubled light rail plan is proof positive that those who ignore our history are doomed to repeat it. And at great cost.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Updated: End of the line for Beachburg Subdivision

Well, it's finally happening. The last remnants of CN's former transcontinental main line through Ottawa are being taken up in the city's northwest end. The Beachburg Subdivision north of Nepean Junction will be history in a few weeks. A couple of readers have alerted me to the presence of the continuous welded rail work train in the region. I had the chance to go and see this train on Sunday, Nov. 9.

Over the weekend, work had halted. Thanks to information from a local rail watcher (thanks Ray), I was told the work train was parked at the rural Stonecrest Road level crossing near milepost 30.0, northwest of Dunrobin. I made my way out to this secluded spot and was immediately struck by the rugged character of the the area. The path to the crossing was hilly, twisty and generally hemmed in by trees. This was about as rural as you can get within the city limits.

When I arrived at the crossing, there was a bit of a clearing and the sun was shining. You could immediately see the end of the work train by the crossing, being guarded by a lone CN employee. I spoke to him briefly and he told me I was allowed to take photos from the road. He also told me that work was to recommence on Tuesday morning. Given how much progress has been made to date, I would not be surprised if the rest of this stretch of track was gone in a few weeks.

Given the area where the work train is parked is heavily wooded, getting a shot of the entire string of cars was impossible, so I had to try and capture the consist with some condensed vertical shots. Luckily, the afternoon sun was in the perfect spot for me to get some of these shots. You can see in the shot above that there is some rail still in the process of being fed into the CWR cars.

I managed to capture some shots of the yellow work cars at the end of the train (above), but that was about all I could capture in terms of long horizontals. You can see the rail being fed into the CWR cars in this shot as well.

The above shot was taken from the crossing. The road was very quiet when I arrived, so taking shots from the middle of the crossing was pretty easy. You can see that this line has been left to its own devices for a number of years, as the ballast is largely lost in overgrowth.

Above, the dreaded CWR cars, especially for a train-starved railfan in Ottawa.

This shot gives you an idea of the immediate surroundings at this level crossing. Two CN trucks had been parked at the side of the road since the train had halted its work. Both had Quebec licence plates, so I'm guessing the railway sent work crews in from Montreal to take apart this line.

This final shot pretty much sums up the sad end for this once vital piece of CN's network. A threader was left locked in place, with a small stretch of rail yet to be fed onto the train. Beyond the loose rail, you can see the abandoned right-of-way, which will no doubt soon become a snowmobile trail. This shot gives you an idea of the types of grade crews would have had to manage on this line, when it was a transcontinental line and then part of the Ottawa Central Railway.
And with that, another piece of the Ottawa Valley's railway history is removed. I can't help but wonder what might have happened to this line, if Ottawa Central hadn't been purchased by CN. Many rail watchers here have grumbled over the years that CN only purchased OCR to get its hands on the actual rails, so it could use them elsewhere in its network.
I also wonder what might have happened if efforts to establish the Transport Pontiac Renfrew shortline railway had been successful. I recall the former president of the OCR James Allen telling me a wood pellet plant in the Pontiac wanted rail service on this line, a prospect that promised (in his words) hundreds of car loads a year. But sadly, too much industry has been lost in the valley to support a railway line in this area.
The city did mention earlier this year that it would be interested in purchasing the old line for a possible recreational trail. Considering how remote this part of the city is, I doubt a trail in these parts would get much use for anything other than snowmobiles and ATVs.
This brings me to my final question. Given the level of interest in light rail in the city, you can't help but wonder if retaining this line for future regional rail use should have been seriously considered. This approach to rail is very common in the United States, but sadly not here.
And, as another line fades away, the city continues to wrangle over the next phases of its light rail dreams, which require expensive new rights-of-way in areas where rail once served.
For those looking to capture some of this work along Beachburg, the work will continue through this week into the weekend (from Nov. 11-16 or so). I invite readers in the Ottawa area to get out there and capture some of this before it's too late. On Tuesday, the train was nearing Torbolton Ridge Road. Wednesday will likely see the train nearing the Kinburn Side Road crossing. At this rate, it should be nearing Dunrobin in the coming days.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Thomas Edison on the rails

Thomas Edison was a railway man. Really. After a chance encounter with an old rail car this summer, I searched out the legend of the famous inventor and his connection to railways. This is what I discovered.

Across the St. Clair River in Port Huron, Michigan, Thomas Edison remains an immense source of civic pride. Although born in Ohio, Edison spent a great deal of his childhood in Port Huron, where his journey toward world fame began on the rails.

Let's back up a bit. The photo you see below is a restored 1800s baggage and passenger car, once belonging to a railroad with quite possibly the longest name in rail history. Care to guess what the C.D. & C.G.T. Jct. R.R. stands for? No googling, please. The initials stand for the Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction Rail Road. The line was built in 1858-9 to link Port Huron to Detroit and the rest of the outside world. As the GT suggests, this line was part of the Grand Trunk Western system, although the line was technically independent until 1928 when it officially became a subsidiary of the Grand Trunk. The Grand Trunk continues to operate in Port Huron, including on waterfront trackage that goes past this old rail car and its old rail station (you can the station and the crossing signal in the photo).

August 2014 photo of restored baggage and passenger car at Thomas Edison Depot Museum in Port Huron, Michigan. The museum is located along the St. Clair River waterfront, right next to the Bluewater Bridge (seen behind the station).
Back to Edison. The young inventor was a restless young man, even as far back as his pre-teen years. He was twelve years old when he convinced his parents to allow him to ride the train to and from Detroit each day in order to sell newspapers and candy to passengers. He was soon successful enough that he hired other boys to work as newsboys on the same line. One of the results of this venture was that Edison obtained the exclusive rights to sell his own newspaper, the Grand Trunk Herald, along the line.
The profits Edison reaped from his railway sales helped fund his early experiments. A few versions of a local legend suggest that Edison's hearing problems stemmed from a failed science experiment on a train. He once suggested a conductor hit him over his ears and threw him off the train after one of his experiments went awry. That story changed over the years.
There is even a Canadian connection to Edison's railway adventures. After his time selling papers and candy on the rails, Edison would go on to become a telegraph operator for the Grand Trunk in Stratford, Ontario. The story about this job holds that Edison saved a young boy from being struck by a train. The boy's father, a Grand Trunk employee, was so grateful to Edison that he trained him to be a telegraph operator. 
Photo from Port Huron Museum
Of course, there is so much more to the Edison story, but for our purposes here, I will stop there. Port Huron continues to pay tribute to the man. The restored 1800s rail car and train station comprise what is known as the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, which is perched beneath the Bluewater Bridge, linking Port Huron to Point Edward and Sarnia Ontario. The rail car has been restored, but many of its original furnishings inside the car have been replaced by what you see above. Look online and you will notice many complaints about this. The city also has a waterfront hotel, The Thomas Edison Inn, not far from the museum.
Information on the car was very hard to come by. Most references to it suggest it was an 1800s vintage car, but little else is out there, from what I can see.
Via Rail Canada was busy reassuring residents in the Barrhaven neighbourhood that there are no public safety issues after the warning signals at two level crossings at Jockvale Road and Greenbank Road both malfunctioned earlier this week, resulting in the signals going into fail-safe mode. Via Rail said the problem was due to a mechanical malfunction, which has been fixed.
On Thursday morning, an OC Transpo double decker bus stopped beneath the crossing guards at the Fallowfield Road level crossing, in the midst of the morning rush hour. Although commuters on the bus told local news they were frightened by the fact that the bus was about five metres away from the train, the city transit authority insisted that the bus driver did the proper thing by stopping for a yellow light, even though the bus was sitting in the path of the crossing guards. The incident, of course, will likely raise new questions over the safety of these crossings, especially after the fatal bus-train collision at the Woodroffe Avenue crossing last fall.