Thursday, December 18, 2014

Memories of 2014

That's a wrap for 2014. This post closes out my first full year of blogging (I started this blog in the spring of 2013). This past year has been an incredible experience for me. Here is what I am thankful for this year.

The first thing I am thankful for is having a better idea of the schedules of local freights in Ottawa. A big thank you to a few readers who privately reached out and filled me in on the local schedule here. This allowed me to meet up with CN 589 a few times, including this initial meeting in April, on the Smiths Falls subdivision near Moodie Drive. You will notice in the image below that the second hopper car is a former Chicago and Northwestern hopper. I was looking through photos the other night and noticed the faded logo. It just goes to show that there's treasure even in the smallest things (No pun intended, Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure!).

The second thing I am thankful for is the continuing light rail drama in Ottawa. Regular readers will know all about the O-Train plans here in the capital. I will not rehash the tale other than to say that the city is on track to have about 8 km of east-west rails in place between Tunney's Pasture and Blair by 2017. This route is the first phase of the project and has not come without a great deal of debate, including why anyone would build a rail line that parallels a bus expressway and has two endpoints in sparsely populated areas. Never mind the fact that existing, and sparsely used, rail lines still exist in the city and are not being considered for transit purposes.

The second phase of this project is off to another dramatic start as the city and the federal National Capital Commission are locked in a stalemate over an extension of the western leg of the railway. The city wants to run about a kilometre of the western line through NCC property, where the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway runs next to the Ottawa River. Of course, the NCC wants no part of a rail line near its precious parkway, even though the city has agreed to dig a trench to make the short span of line less obtrusive. The NCC wants the city to redirect the line through Rochester Field and through city parkland near Richmond Road. The Byron Linear Park is off limits to rail, the city has countered. And on and on it goes. Great fodder for a blog, though!

O-Train approaches Somerset Street in July along the former CP Ellwood Subdivision.

While local railfans resigned themselves to the fact that the Beachburg Subdivision north of Nepean Junction was being torn up, I made sure I tried to focus on existing CN operations in the city, like this local freight that was passing through Twin Elm in late September. I had set out to catch a train in this rural part of the city at the beginning of the year. You can read about this meeting here. I never used this shot below, but I like it because it captures some birds in flight and showcases a harvested hay field. So, you can say I'm thankful to live in a city where these types of images are possible.

This year started with a holiday visit to Sarnia in southwestern Ontario, where I met up with this long container train near Sarnia, in the farming hamlet of Mandaumin. The prairie-like feel of this area is a train watcher's best friend, since the lay of the land makes it possible to capture images such as this one from late last December. You can read about this meet here. I was especially thankful to be able to capture an Illinois Central unit on this train.

This next one may come as a surprise. I am thankful for the preservation conscious town of Petrolia in southwestern Ontario. This small town bills itself as Canada's Victorian Oil Town. Its Victorian charm is evident in its beautifully preserved Grand Trunk railway station, which is now the town's library. I was blown away by how many hits my post about this station garnered. This post has been my most popular one by far. I think I may have picked up a few readers in the area with this post.

Petrolia's former Grand Trunk Railway terminal on Aug. 18, 2014.

I am thankful for luck. In July, I made my way to a new spot, Bedell, Ont. This is a trackside hamlet near Kemptville, Ont., just south of Ottawa. It was here that I stumbled across the final dismantling of the former CP Prescott Subdivision, which once connected Ottawa with the CP's Winchester Subdivision. My timing allowed me to get some final photos of this old line and learn about its history through a series of posts. You can read Part I here, Part II here and Part III here. The shot below shows my meet with a CP mixed freight on its way west. It was the first CP train I have photographed in more than 20 years.

Finally, I am thankful to have been able to catch some final glimpses of the last action on the Beachburg Subdivision. Gone but not forgotten.

One of the last CN trains on the Beachburg Subdivision at Torbolton Ridge Road, on Nov. 11, 2014.

Finally, and most importantly, I am incredibly thankful to everyone who has dropped by to read the blog and especially those who have taken time to leave a message or to educate me when I am off the mark (special thanks to Dave M., my blog's first guest contributor). I never thought the blog would garner as much interest as it has and am thankful for every single page view. We've had some great discussions in the last few months and I'm hoping I can continue to engage everyone in the same way in the new year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone from The Beachburg Sub home office in Bells Corners, Ontario.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guest post: Ride the Algoma Central Railway while you can (Part II)

This is the second part of a series about Beachburg Sub contributor Dave M.'s adventures aboard the Algoma Central's passenger trains in Northern Ontario. Please click here to read the first part.

By Dave M

In the morning, we tried to go standby on the tourist excursion train so that we could have some time to hike around the Agawa Canyon before continuing on the local passenger service. Unfortunately, staff said that all 15-20 cars were full, so we were unable to get on. We then proceeded to the yard to catch the regular passenger train back. The train had around 30 people aboard when departing Sault Ste. Marie. Before we got moving, people from a group trying to save the service handed out petition postcards and explained the importance of the line to each passenger. I noticed that some statistics that said the line is responsible for $35 to $48 million in direct and indirect economic activity and that $2.2 million would be required to keep the passenger service alive a year. Everyone boarding the train gladly filled out the surveys.

Interior of an Algoma Central baggage car

An hour or two into the trip, the train stopped at a lodge along the line and picked up a film crew of 15 people, along with several canoes, camera equipment, generators and other items. Many hands helped load and fill up the baggage car. It took around 5 to 10 minutes to load everything. They stayed on the train for about half an hour or so until they reached the canyon. The crew was filming Spirit Land: In Search of the Group of Seven. They were very excited about the footage they shot, shooting at some of the exact locations where the artists made their paintings. When they arrived at the canyon, they unloaded all of their stuff and started moving into a modified box car/sleeping car on a siding. The scenery between the Montreal River and Agawa was very good, especially with the fall colours. When we departed the train at Mile 183, there were only six people remaining on the train, which was going through to Hearst.

Typical scenery on the Algoma Central line

After spending the night in Dubreuilville, we got up early to catch the train at Mile 77.9 on the White River Sub. I knew that there was a hotbox detector at Mile 84.9 (on the far side of Franz), so I tuned the scanner to get a heads-up on when the train would arrive. I didn't catch the detector but I did hear Via 186 and CTC discussing an oncoming freight. Sure enough, in about five minutes, we saw the freight (above). And five minutes after that, we flagged down Via 186. When we boarded the train, there was only one other person aboard. It was a very smooth ride on CPR's continuous welded track, a big improvement over the jointed rail of the ACR.

Typical site aboard Via Rail's Northern Ontario service. Harder than it looks!
The journey back was much busier. We picked up several fishermen and hunters with their canoes. There was an exciting stop where we picked up an ATV. The owner of the ATV made metal tracks so that he could drive the machine onto the train. Driving the ATV on was a bit more difficult than I thought it would have been. The man has to give it quite a bit of juice to get up the steep incline. He also had to be sure to duck so he didn't hit his head on the top of the baggage car doorframe. He then had to hit the brakes hard once he made it in. When we got to Cartier, he pulled his pickup truck beside the train and they lifted/pushed the ATV onto the truck. On our journey to Cartier, we picked up quite a few more passengers. But after Cartier, there were less than 10 of us left.
Just outside of Cartier on the Nemegos Sub at Forks, we pulled into a siding and then a mainline freight stopped, occupying the switch we were to pass over. The detector at Mile 23.2 had flagged a heat alarm on the freight train. The Via staff then went out to inspect the CP train to help find the problem. The freight was more than 50 cars long. They found the problem five cars from where we stopped. The Via engineers addressed the problem (which I think was a brake issue) allowing the CP freight to continue along, which also cleared our path.
We arrived in Sudbury a few minutes ahead of schedule. I am unsure how long this punctuality will last because CP has recently rescheduled a slow freight train (the reason for the recent schedule in the first place) to depart before Via 186. We were lucky on our trip because CTC allowed us to pass the slow freight train when we were both sent to a siding to allow CP 101 to pass. Let's hope that the goodwill of the CP CTC will continue to allow Via's Lake Superior service to be on time.
Based on my discussions during my trip, I don't think that Via's Lake Superior service is in danger of being lost, but I'm fearful for the future of the Algoma Central passenger service. There are two ways that we can help the ACR. The first is to write a letter to the federal Minister of Transportation in support of this service. The second, and most fun way, to show your support is by using the service.
Special thanks to Dave M. for this extensive look at passenger services in Northern Ontario. Please feel free to leave a comment and let Dave know what you think - Michael

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Guest post: Ride the Algoma Central Railway while you can (Part I)

By Dave M

In late 2012, we lost Ontario Northland's The Northlander, from Toronto to Cochrane. I still kick myself to this day for never having ridden it. In early March 2014, I found out that the Algoma Central Railway passenger service was to be cut. I feared that I had lost another train that I didn't make the time to ride. Thankfully, the Algoma Central received a one-year reprieve. When the extension was given, I told myself I would make time to ride it before I lost this train as well.

My original intent was to ride the line from end to end. But after some analysis, the following itinerary was much easier:

[3:00-8:30] Drive from Ottawa to Sudbury
[9:00-15:50] Via 185 from Sudbury to Franz (Mile 77.9)
[Hotel] Dubreuiville

[11:30-18:10] ACR 632 from Dubreuilville (Mile 183.0) to Sault Ste. Marie
[Hotel] Sault Ste. Marie

[9:20-15:50] ACR 631 from Sault Ste. Marie to Dubreuilville (Mile 183.)
[Hotel] Dubreuilville

[8:20-15:50] Via 186 from Franz (Mile 77.9) to Sudbury
[16:00-21:30] Drive from Sudbury to Ottawa


The first train, Via 185 (Via 6250/RDC-4 and Via 6217/RDC-2) was in good shape compared to the last time I took it in 2007. The refurb from Industrial Rail Services of New Brunswick looked great.

The controls of Via 6250

The interior of Via 6217

We departed Sudbury on time with about 10 passengers. In Chelmsford, we picked up a couple more. Half of the passengers were going to camps (some with canoes) along the line while the others were going to Cartier and Chapleau. Only one person was travelling the length of the line to White River.

Via recently took over full operations on Via 185 and 186 (Lake Superior) from the Canadian Pacific. At the same time, the eastward schedule was modified to have it leave a couple of hours early to get it ahead of a slow freight train. Before the schedule changes, the train was typically three to four hours late arriving at Sudbury. After talking with the crew and passengers on this trip, it was apparent that these schedule changes significantly improved the train's punctuality. Many of the regular passengers commented to the staff that they appreciated this new punctuality. I can understand their appreciation since many of the stops were flag stops and would be miserable places to wait for hours in bad weather.

Sinker Creek: Nor your standard Via station

After Chapleau, there was only us only one other passenger on the train. Originally, I had planned to get off at Franz, but the hotel we were staying at advised us that the road from Franz to Dubreuilville was in very poor condition and suggested we get off a few miles before Franz at Park Road (Mile 77.9) because that road is in better condition. We arrived at our stop (Park Road) five minutes early and spent the night in Dubreuilville.

Via Rail 185 at Mile 77.9 Park Road

ACR 632

Our ACR boarding was a true flag stop. We went to where the gold mine road crosses the ACR tracks at Mile 183 on the Soo subdivision to catch the train. Unfortunately, they were expecting us a couple of miles earlier, behind an old mill. The train was travelling at a reasonable speed when we flagged them down. As we were flagging them down, I heard the crew on the scanner say "That is where they are. Stopping. Open door on the right." The consist of the train was CN GP40 9574, AC 312 luggage car (Budd), AC 5654, 5656 coaches (Budd) and AC 78 generator car (Alco). When we boarded, there were about 15 people on the train. About an hour later, we arrived at Hawk Junction. Just about everyone departed the train except for us and five others.

Interior of ACR 5654

After we left Hawk Junction, we didn't stop to pick up or drop off any other passengers. All parts of the train were open to everyone, allowing us to wander around the baggage car and shoot pictures in the open air, out of doors and windows. It was a very nice feeling having your head out the window as you pass along this amazing scenery. The scenery is better than that on any train I've ridden in North America.

When we were about half an hour from our final destination, one of the train's staff went through the car to determine who needed taxis so that they would be there when we arrived. We arrived about 45 minutes behind schedule at the terminus in the ACR yard.

Thanks to Dave for sharing his photos and thoughts about this vital northern lifeline. Please come back next week for the second part of this post. Also, please take a moment to tell Dave what you thought - Michael