Thursday, February 26, 2015

Nova Corunna's tiny railway

CN's St. Clair River Industrial Spur is a rail line with a strange name. It stretches from Sarnia south all the way to the Courtright area, a distance of 23 kilometres, or 14.2 miles. CN and CSX (via operating rights) move 450 cars a day in and out of a number of refineries in Lambton County. The line sees four CN trains and two CSX trains every day. Major customers include Nova Chemicals (Corunna and Moore sites), Imperial Oil and Terra International, among others. The railways carry plastics, ethylene, polyethylene, butane, ammonium nitrate, nitric acid, methanol as well as other raw materials.

The word "spur" seems out of place for such a long right-of-way with a fairly busy schedule. Over the Christmas holidays, I was able to get some photos of one the line's major customers, Nova Chemicals' Corunna site (formerly known as Petrosar). This refinery, pictured on Christmas Day, was built in 1977 and accounts for a large portion of CN's consists on a daily basis.

This shot below shows an overview of the refinery, as seen from an overpass on Highway 40. The highway was completely empty on Christmas morning, which allowed me to pull over and take these shots before I continued on to my sister's house for a visit. Getting these shots would be very tough at any other time since there is no place to pull over here and photograph this operation.

You will notice from the top photo and the one below that Nova performs its own switching duties, with the help of the old warhorse switcher you see below. Also, check out the ancient tank car on the wye (below).

The refinery is actually a fair way from the CN St. Clair spur, but is accessible via a long turnout that branches off east from the spur and leads to a large rail yard before proceeding below the highway onto the refinery's site. 

Here's a better shot (below) of the old switcher. I have not been able to determine what this is. (see comments below for answer) I would say it's a modified Electro-Motive (GM Diesel) SW model, but the unit doesn't have any numbers on it, so I'm not sure what it is. The refinery formerly used NCLX 2003 locomotive on its tiny railway, which I have shot before.

You will notice the sign beside the locomotive that advises all operators that the speed limit is 5 m/ph beyond the wye. The refinery produces 1.8 billion pounds of ethylene per year and another two billion pounds of related products, so the speed limit is probably a good idea. Ethylene has a number of uses in the chemical industry (think of the many uses of ethylene glycol) and is a key component in products used in agriculture to hasten the ripening of fruit.

This switching operation is pretty constant most days, given the number of cars that need to be delivered to the plant and shipped out to Nova's other area plants. The Corunna site feeds the Nova Moore and Nova St. Clair sites, which means this little railway is a busy one.

On the other side of the highway, you will find this rail yard, which leads to the CN St. Clair River Industrial Spur. Again on most days, this is a busy spot. However, given that I was passing by on Christmas Day, everything was quiet.

When watching trains in this area, it's common to find cars lettered for Nova. The company has a number of cars lettered NCIX and NCLX. You will recall from an earlier past post that Nova inherited these colourful cars when it purchased local DuPont operations, also in Corunna.

I was glad to get some shots of this operation, even if it was on a day when nothing was happening.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

When life hands you winter

True north strong and free, so our national anthem proclaims. Yes, winter is serious business here in Canada, particularly in northern cities like Ottawa. I have lived here on and off from the better part of 20 years. Even so, this last month has been challenging. Ottawa has regularly averaged highs of -15C (5 Fahrenheit) with wind chills often near -30C or even -40C. One of the most challenging aspects of this weather is how it affects my attempts to photograph trains.

In these past few weeks, weather played havoc with various attempts to get some winter photos. But, these misadventures offered some good lessons, which I think are key to surviving rainfanning in winter, especially in Canada.

Lesson 1 - Be sure that you stake out where you are shooting early. I took this for granted the other weekend when I intended to catch a Via corridor train and a weekly CN freight train. I scouted out a location late, which was made even harder by the fact that blowing snow had obscured the shoulders of the road where I was shooting. The conditions meant I couldn't pull over on Moodie Drive, which was my first choice, since I wanted to shoot a train on the Jock River bridge. I did find a stretch of the shoulder on McKenna Casey Drive that I thought would be safe from passing traffic. I did snag a shot of Via Train 643, en route to Toronto. My camera's burst mode froze up a bit for a second, which meant I missed out on shots when the train was closer to the McKenna Casey crossing. This all could have been avoided had I given myself more time.

Lesson 2 - Expect weather delays. The following weekend, I ventured out earlier to find a spot to catch Via 643 and the CN freight (The freight didn't show either weekend, since it is making its rounds earlier these days). However, I didn't account for the morning snowstorm and blowing snow. Yes, I was much earlier this morning, but I was unfortunately stuck behind a driver that was crawling along Moodie Drive, which ruined my timing.

That meant the warning lights began to flash well before I was close enough to the McKenna Casey crossing. I had to pull over onto the side of the road and shoot the train beneath the Highway 416 overpass. I had been meaning to get some shots in this area, since it offers some interesting sightlines and graffiti. Unfortunately, since I had to rush, I didn't get the greatest angle, which hampered the shots a fair bit.

However, I was reasonably happy with these shots, considering they were a first effort in this location. I think when the weather is better, I will be able to walk closer to the tracks and get some better shots. Still, I love the look of a train kicking up a lot of snow.

Lesson 3 - Take an extra set of gloves. I cannot stress this enough. Usually, when the temperature is -19C with a wind chill factor near -40C, I am better prepared. This past Saturday night, I picked up a friend at the Fallowfield Via station at 11:10 p.m. I usually have a big pair of woolen winter mittens that I use when out in the elements. On really cold days, I put on a thin set of gloves beneath the big mittens. You can get these things anywhere for a dollar or two. The benefit of using these is that, when a train is coming, you can take off your bulky winter gloves or mittens and get a better feel for your camera. The thin gloves will protect your hands and buy you some time before frostbite begins to set in.
I failed to do this on Saturday as I watched Via's Train 48 pull into the suburban station. Although I was thrilled with my first successful attempt at night photography, my hands were impossibly frostbitten in about a minute, which made the drive home extremely uncomfortable.

I could include a lesson here about checking your camera's night settings, but I will leave that for more experienced photographers. Needless to say, I studied my camera's settings and was sure to set it correctly before I arrived at the station so I could get some good shots at night. I also made sure to fire off a few test shots. This could also be lesson 4, but it's a more universal lesson, which isn't particular to winter photography.

I was really pleased with this above shot in particular. The snow on the tracks and platform served to brighten the ambient light and reflect the overhead floodlights, which helped illuminate the shot. I have tried nighttime photography at this site in the summer and it's ten times more challenging, as you can see from the shot in this post. I also like that my shots managed to capture the windy conditions in 6439's headlights.
So, to sum up, scout your location ahead of time, expect delays and always overdress. Winter rail photography is challenging, but worth it!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Details matter

Sometimes when I'm out looking for interesting railway photos, I tend to forget that the train itself doesn't always have to be the star attraction of a photo. Sometimes, it's the finer details that make photos interesting. I was reminded of this the recently when I read this post in Steve Boyko's blog, Confessions of a Train Geek.

With that in mind, I dug through my photos to find those unconventional shots where it's the finer details or the unconventional aspects that tell the story.

The first shot could best be described as disappointment. This shot was one of the first I took at an empty Walkley Yard in Ottawa on the Civic Holiday weekend in August 2013. I revisited this shot and realized it actually tells a great deal. It tells the story of Ottawa's railway business right now. Granted, the rail yard is rarely this empty, but it's often a ghost town. You can see the one engine assigned to Ottawa in the left side of the shot and a tiny piece of an O-Train trainset peaking from behind the hopper and lumber car.

This next shot is another that, at first glance, doesn't really show much, but it struck me the other day that it actually tells a fair bit. This is the CN bridge over Highway 416. I took this shot on New Year's Day this year, as part of an effort to get some file shots of local rail infrastructure, including bridges in Bells Corners. What struck me about this image isn't that this section of the Beachburg Sub was double tracked at one point, but that the track was removed and the ties left in place for some reason. I chalk it up to the fact that these ties are old and likely worthless, but it still makes me wonder. This is another image that tells the sobering story of Ottawa's rail infrastructure these days.

This shot below, taken May 13, 2013, was one of the first I took for this blog when I began taking shots of trains again. I love taking shots of Via's old silver and blues, but what I like about this shot is that the car's position allows you to see straight through to a station sign on the other side of the track. I do recall seeing the sign through the vestibule door and deliberately trying to capture it. The fact that the sign is hanging a little off kilter says something about Ottawa. But I'm a cynic, so maybe it's just me.

This shot below, taken October 6, 2013, is a shot of CN's hideous Millennium caboose in Walkley Yard. I've taken shots of this monstrosity before, but this time, I tried to focus in on some details, like the boarded up windows. But the real star of the show in this shot is the rain. It was a gloomy, lonely day in Walkley Yard.
This shot below really isn't special, which is why I haven't used it until now. But I thought it fit the theme of the post. I think the colours and the lines really tells the story of big time railroading today. This shot, taken August 10, 2013, was taken on the Woodbine Drive overpass in Markham, Ont. This container train stopped to allow another one to pass. You can also see the part of the GTA skyline in the distance.

The image below was one of many I shot when I happened across Sarnia's preserved steam locomotive in Centennial Park on December 23, 2013. No. 6069 has been undergoing an extensive refurbishment by dedicated local volunteers in the past few years and the progress shows through in the small details, like the old CNR maple leaf logo. I had a few detail photos of this locomotive that I wanted to share, but I thought the logo was the most vibrant.

One final shot. As I mentioned above, you don't need a giant train perfectly framed at an ideal spot to have a great railway photo. This shot below is another I like, but for reasons other than the train. I shot this photo on December 18, 2014, at Sarnia's rail yard. Looking at the shot, I think the train shot is fine, but I like prominence of the track and the turnout in the foreground. I also like that you can see pieces of the Chemical Valley peaking through the trees. It's an interesting mix of the environment and industry. You will also notice an old cement piling in front of the lead engine on this small consist. I'm not sure what it was, but it adds another interesting element.

I would never claim to be a good photographer. I am still learning the techniques and tricks of the trade from other more seasoned shooters. But I hope this small collection at least highlights the importance of occasionally mixing up your routine when trackside. The results might not be immediately obvious, but you'll thank yourself later.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Winter observations in Ottawa

It's been averaging about -15C for the last few weeks here, which has made for a cold, dry winter. A very brief break last week brought the temperatures back to around freezing, which of course resulted in a pretty substantial snow storm. The brief thaw and storm reminded me that I had not ventured out to take photos recently, so I braved the cold and made my way to Ottawa's central station, to see if there was anything interesting happening. Other than the installation of some new signal equipment, there wasn't much to see. It certainly was not as exciting as last year's January trip to the same station.

You can see the new signals framing incoming Train 50 from Montreal in the shot below. They are more than likely part of the capital improvements that Via has been making in this corridor.

I was looking through the functions of my old camera, which I had with me, and was surprised to learn it had its own primitive burst mode, allowing me to get multiple shots. The one below turned out okay, thanks to the clouds covering the sun and reducing the shadows, which is always the problem when you visit this station. The cranes you see in the background are working on the Confederation O-Train LRT line.

Here's one final shot from the old camera, which actually isn't that bad. The best tip I learned when I was a reporter was that just about any shortcoming that a camera might have can largely be made up by getting as close as you can. Of course, you can only get so close at Ottawa station. It was -33C with the wind chill when I took this shot, so needless to say, I didn't stick around long.

This past weekend, I made a trip to the McKenna Casey crossing outside Barrhaven in the morning. The temperature was -18C without the wind chill factor so I set my car up on the side of the road and stayed inside the car until I saw the Via corridor train making its way to the crossing.

Watch the snow fly!

Sadly, CN 589 has already done its rounds, so I was not able to catch it after the Via breezed through.

Speaking of Via, a west-end neighbourhood is celebrating its railway past, as Jan. 14 marked the 25th anniversary of the last run of Via's Canadian through the west-end neighbourhood. You can read about the local railway heritage exhibit here. After the train passed through Stittsville, CP began tearing up its Carleton Place Subdivision.

The other big development is that the city is showcasing a full-scale model of the electric Alstom Citadis Spirit light rail train at the Aberdeen Pavilion through March. The grand unveiling was held last week. You can read about it here. The shot below, from the City of Ottawa's media release, is a shot of the engineer's controls.

The media was in force for the announcement and it seems that Mayor Jim Watson is genuinely enthused about his light rail plan. The city estimates that, when the Confederation O-Train line is operational between Blair to Tunney's Pasture, the zero-emission trainsets will take the equivalent of 7,300 cars off the road.

I always wonder when we hear these estimates. No doubt the trains will take cars off the road and reduce emissions on a day-to-day basis, but I always wonder how much carbon is generated to produce the electricity these trains need to operate every day? I think this is a fair question to ask whenever anyone talks about the benefits of electric vehicles.

And, while I'm on the topic of the O-Train, it seems that Mayor Watson is somewhat less keen on the proposed extension of the existing O-Train Trillium line to the airport and beyond on existing trackage.

Although I was a little disappointed that there were a lot of conditions to the city's support for the proposal. The mayor points out that the airport will have to pay part of the costs of a spur track off the existing line, so that the O-Train can serve the airport. I agree with that assessment, but was still a little disappointed that the city continues to hem and haw about this extension, which should have been done years ago.

Anyone who has taken the 97 bus to the airport knows how badly this rail connection is needed.

Here's an article from the Ottawa Citizen, which explains how the new line would work. Readers might recall that I predicted that this line extension would likely result in passengers having to change trains at the south end of the current line. Apparently, the engineers drawing up the plans agree with my assessment. I love it when I'm right!

Prince of Wales Bridge Update: The city has hired a consultant to advise the city on what it would cost to convert the Prince Of Wales Bridge from its current form as a railway bridge to a recreational path for cyclists and pedestrians. The reaction to this has been positive, as I expected it would be. However, it also marks the potential beginning of the end for this vital piece of rail infrastructure, which was once part of the Canadian Pacific Railway and is now owned by the City of Ottawa. As you have read in this blog, there appears to be no appetite for a potential commuter rail link between Ottawa and Gatineau. This decision will come back to haunt the region. Anyone who sees the flood of traffic over the interprovincial bridges knows how useful a rail link between Ottawa and Gatineau would be, if only there was the vision to make it happen.