Friday, March 27, 2015

Post 100: Review of Ottawa's new O-Trains

(Yes, I've hit Post No. 100. Click here to read Post. No. 1 - Michael)

As I mentioned recently, I had the opportunity earlier this month to ride this city's new O-Trains. The city's 8-km Trillium Line began to host new Alstom Coradia LINT trainsets a few weeks ago, which has allowed the service to increase train frequency and operate speedier service. The new trains now travel on a revamped line, which is complete with passing sidings, new track and new signals, all of which allow for a much better experience.

After a few initial glitches with the new service in the first week, the Trillium Line is now fully operational with the new trains. The following are a few observations I made when I took a trip from Bayview south to Confederation stations.

O-Train C4 near Somerset Street overpass and Bayview Station

The new trains, in my opinion, look a little bulkier than the Bombadier Talent trains, but a reader reminded me that the Alstoms are sleeker in some ways. The platforms at all stations along the Trillium Line had to be extended to accommodate the profile of the more slender new trainsets. I made note of this when I boarded the train.

I should mention that, upon arriving at Bayview Station, a trainset was idling. These trainsets do not sound like a conventional train when idling. They sound much more like a bus or truck.

On board, the seats are arranged as they would be on a bus, with the exception of a few areas where seats are facing each other, much like you'd see at the end of a Via Rail passenger coach. This seating alignment probably works for most. For me, I found the leg room lacking. I found my knees were rammed up against the backs of the seats in front of me. I guess these seats weren't built for tall guys.

Enjoy the view out of the giant picture windows in the new O-Trains.

The ride itself was smooth. The new tracks on the Trillium Line and the new trains made for a nice trip. The picture windows in the new trains are massive (as you see above), which allow you to get an interesting view of the rock cut that CP Rail made to recess its old Ellwood and Prescott Subdivision right-of-way beneath the surrounding neighbourhood in the Little Italy area.

A northbound O-Train passes under Bronson Avenue as its approaches Confederation Station.

I did notice some small touches along the line that, for a railway fan, were classy tips of the hat to the line's past. For one, those shiny metal boxes that you see at the train stations were all labelled "Capital Railway Ellwood Subdivision." I like that the city maintains an official name for its light rail service and continues to refer to the line by its Ellwood moniker. An interesting break from tradition, however, is the kilometer post designation. I noticed that the line has km posts rather than mileposts.

I also saw that a number of streets that the line passes under are either labelled with small signs connected to the tunnels beneath the streets or large signs that face the tracks. For example, when my train was passing beneath Gladstone Avenue, there was a large sign facing the tracks that read "Gladstone."

Northbound O-Train approaches the Somerset Street overpass. A long staircase on the overpass makes railway photography easy and safe.

As I previously mentioned, the line's Confederation Station seems pretty isolated, although this is hardly a new development. This station was in place when the service first launched. I figure it was placed where it was because of its close proximity to several government office buildings and Canada Post facilities nearby. Still, it seems a little far from the closest neighbourhoods off Heron Road. But it's still only about 10-15 minutes away if you are walking.

Carling Station

It was hard to get a photograph of stations along the line from inside the train, given the light and reflection, but I'm hoping this above shot gives you a rough idea of what some of the stations look like along the line. My train was manned by an operator and two fare inspectors positioned at either end of the train. For most people, getting on board is as simple as passing their Presto card over the scanners at each station. Those trying to use bus tickets were removed from the train.

Overall, it was a great experience. The wait for a train is no more than five minutes now, which is great for commuters. Here's one last shot I took (below) when I was walking east on Heron Road to Bank Street. This is an old right-of-way, by the looks of it. I'm not sure what line this may have been. (Update - Read Alex's comment below, which explains that this was an old CP right-of-way) Perhaps one of my Ottawa readers can fill me in. I have done some initial research on this old right-of-way but have not found anything yet. Still, a good shot of Ottawa's railway past.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A rare find: CN diesel still sporting the North America scheme

As I mentioned in a previous post, my brother has been busy taking photos in and around Sarnia with his son in the past few months. We here at The Beachburg Sub have been the happy beneficiaries of his contributions. I have a number of shots of tunnel trains, including one series taken from the Port Huron, Michigan side of the tunnel. These will appear in a future post. There was one photo that Marc sent my way that really caught me off guard recently. Here it is below.

That's right. That is the CN North America scheme still logging miles on a Grand Trunk SD40-2. You can read about the CN's subtle red-white-and-black paint scheme tinkering in this post here. The number boards on the top and side of the cab look a little different as well. Now check out this 1990 shot of the same unit. It looks like this diesel has had a colourful history. It was clearly a Union Pacific unit at one point before being repainted in the CN North America scheme, like in the 1993 timeframe. How this unit has endured in this scheme for so long is likely an interesting story. I'm always fascinated by engine that carry old colour schemes far past their best before date.

His find reminded me of the day when I took a bunch of shots of CN diesels at the old Sarnia roundhouse and ended up capturing a few units in the North America scheme. I never cared much for this logo, since I felt it was needlessly complicated. I can't imagine that those who had to paint these logos were terribly enthused with it either.

Here's a shot taken near the Sarnia roundhouse in the summer of 1993.This one is another SD40-2 with a wide nose. This unit has since been converted to the current CN scheme, as you can see here.

And here another shot of 5324, and another unit in the North America scheme, right around the fueling station in the Sarnia Yard.


Those readers who might occasionally glance at the right-side tab on the main blog page will notice some changes. I have added a few blogs that I think will interest you as well. One will be familiar to many of you who have drifted over here from Trackside Treasure or Confessions of a Train Geek. CP Rail Manitoba and Minnesota Subdivision is one of the better model railroading blogs I have come across. It also adds in some excellent posts about big-time railroading. It is definitely worth checking out.

The second you might not know. However, I can tell you that the future of railroad blogging is in safe hands, if this blog is any indication. I first came across Nathan O'Neill in this article in the Toronto Star. I encourage you to check it out and read up on what this 7-year-old rail fan has already accomplished. He sounds like an amazing kid. I have linked to his blog because it will no doubt remind many of us where our passion for railroading started. I encourage you to read his blog On the Rails and send along an encouraging word to Nathan. I did. He returns messages.

Finally, for my Ottawa readers, I am adding Ottawa Rewind, an absolutely fascinating blog about Ottawa's history. The author focuses on a number of lost pieces of Ottawa's history, including this post about the Prince of Wales bridge. I would invite you to check this blog out as well, especially if you are interested in this city's history like me.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Some interesting visitors up north

For weeks, I have been receiving a number of email messages from my brother with numerous photos of railway action in and around Sarnia Yard. His son, almost three years old, has taken to trains. Every weekend, my brother takes his son to the yard after running errands, which has resulted in a number of interesting encounters. I have put together a few photos of some of the more interesting finds. The first few shots that caught my eye were these shots of a most unexpected visitor to Canada. A Norfolk Southern unit was paired with a CN unit in the yard on Feb. 7. Of course, it's not uncommon for outside power to appear in the yard. This is the first time I have seen any shot of a NS unit in Sarnia Yard.
The shot below is a closer view of NS 6677. This is obviously an older unit, since it sports the old NS logo without the thoroughbred. My brother took these photos with his iPhone, so there are some limitations to the shots you will see in this post. But I think this is good work nonetheless. That was not the only surprising find that my brother and my nephew saw.

Okay, so this is not necessarily a surprise, but I thought this was an interesting shot anyway. This a stack of chassis on their way to one of the many automotive plants in Michigan or southwestern Ontario, depending on which way this flat car was headed. You don't see these loads in Eastern Ontario!

My brother has captured a number of tunnel trains from the platform of Sarnia's Via station, which sits at the edge of the CN yard. On one of those trains headed for the tunnel, he made sure to grab a shot of this old boxcar with its original Southern Railway markings. I love the two slogans on the car, including the innovation one on the left.

The lighting on this next shot was challenging. I had to fiddle with it to the point where it looks a little oversaturated, so I could make sure that all the features of the car and the lettering were clearly visible.

This is a Klemme Co-op Grain hopper car from Iowa that was repatched for the Northwestern Oklahoma Railway. I did a quick search for these cars online and can confirm that these cars were originally painted pink. They are somewhat well known icons in Iowa. Although this car has been repatched for the Northwestern Oklahoma Railway, the NOKL reporting mark, from what I have read, is actually a mark used by a car leasing company, First Union Railroad Corp. From what I found online, this is an arrangement where the shortline railway leases out its reporting marks to a car leasing company.

And with that, I will close with a nifty shot my brother caught of an autorack train headed for Michigan. He and his boy are lucky with the embarrassment of riches they get to see each weekend. As a train-starved Ottawan, I can only shake my head. Special thanks to my brother Marc for becoming a regular contributor to this blog. I have a number of other shots he's taken that will appear in future posts. Feel free to let him know what you think of his work (Be nice!).


I was surprised by some of the comments from last week's post, which turned out to be a little more contentious than I had intended. Most of who read this blog know that I am not a fan of many elements of this city's light rail plan. However, new readers to the blog should be mindful that I am a rail fan and not an expert on city policy. I do not pretend to be an expert, as I have often mentioned. I try my best to research all the points I mention, but there are times when I get it wrong. I was wrong on a few points last week. I happily made corrections when informed of mistakes made. I would respectfully ask that anyone thinking of commenting keep their comments civil. This is a blog aimed at sharing my love of railways. It is not meant to be anything other than it is. Your comments are always welcome, but let's keep things respectful.

With that, here's a shot of a new Alstom Coradia LINT O-Train at Confederation Station, taken yesterday (March 12), on one of my errands in that part of the city. Talk about an isolated station! Very convenient for nearby government and Canada Post workers, but nary a neighbourhood to be seen anywhere. I will share my (mostly positive) thoughts on the new O-Trains soon, based on my experiences yesterday. Stay tuned for that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ottawa's O-Train: The good, the bad and the ugly

I was pretty excited to see Ottawa's new O-Train service in action this week on the recently dubbed Trillium Line. It didn't take long for my excitement to turn to disappointment.

This Monday, after months of testing, the city retired its fleet of Bombardier Talent light rail trains, replacing them with more efficient Alstom Coaradia LINT trains. There is much to like about the newly expanded O-Train service. There are more trainsets working on the old CP Ellwood/Prescott Subdivision. There are several passing sidings and new traffic signalling equipment, which have increased the frequency of trains to five minutes. The new trains are better for the environment.

The $60-million expansion of the service wasn't even launched this past Monday before a faulty insulated joint and controller error (OC Transpo's words) halted the new service in its tracks. This held up the official launch, much to the chagrin of numerous city officials and OC Transpo executives, who had staged several photo opportunities at O-Train stations for the morning rush. After some delay, the trains began to run, although commuters were none too pleased with the morning rush hour snafu.

New Alstom Coradia LINT train C7 heads south near Somerset Street on March 4, 2015

By the end of the first day, it was evident that the new service was not operating properly, so transit officials suspended service, telling riders to take the bus until further notice. On Tuesday, commuters were told the Trillium Line would be up and running by Thursday. Meanwhile, at the northern end of the line at Bayview Station, I noticed a brand new trainset sitting idle, being guarded by OC Transpo constables, since it was not able to return to Walkley Yard.

By any estimate, it was a terrible week for the city's light rail service, although service seemed to be returning to normal Wednesday afternoon. I ventured out on my lunch break to see what was going on and was surprised to see the service operating at five-minute intervals. This shot below is what the city wants you to see. Two O-Trains pass each other near Somerset Street, making use of the new passing sidings that were installed last summer and fall. It was fun to see this for the first time.

Here's another shot of the meet:

Of course, this latest snafu could have happened to any train service in any city. The fact that it happened in Ottawa might just be a coincidence. I tried to restrain myself earlier this week, given my vocal criticism of the city's railway policies. But, since this is a blog, I am going to let the city have it one more time. The following is my personal list of the top ten railway blunders here in the City of Ottawa in recent years. I will keep this list mainly focused on recent commuter rail decisions.

1. Allowing CP to tear up the Prescott Subdivision within city limits. This has to be the top blunder of all. This is the mistake that the city is now paying for dearly. The O-Train launched in 2001, just a few years after CP was allowed to rip up its Prescott Subdivision in 1999. Had the former Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (now the City of Ottawa) had any vision in 1999, it would have retained the rails and right-of-way for future commuter use. It's obvious today that the biggest demand for light rail is coming from the southern suburbs Barrhaven and Riverside South. This mistake leads to blunder number two.

2. Not expanding the Trillium Line on existing trackage. The one saving grace of the local government's inaction in 1999 was that it retained trackage to the southern limits of airport land, near Leitrim Road. This will allow the city to expand the Trillium Line to the airport, if it ever gets around to committing to this long overdue expansion. Council still has not moved much on a city staff proposal to expand this line, which I find baffling. The expansion is currently undergoing an environmental assessment, but recent comments from the mayor suggest support for this expansion is no sure thing. How the city waited 14 years to seriously consider the merits of this expansion is beyond me. Anyone who wants to take public transit to Ottawa's airport knows why a rail link is desperately needed. Bus service on the two-lane Airport Parkway is simply not enough. And, if this expansion does eventually happen, the city will now have to create new rail beds and lay new tracks to Riverside South.

3. The tunnel. This blunder, in my opinion, is simply a matter of cost. I will admit that routing trains below Ottawa's core makes sense, given the old downtown would be hard pressed to accommodate trains without a good plan. However, given that Ottawa has several wide one-way streets with limited business frontage and wide berths for tracks, I have always maintained that trains on the surface can work. These one-way streets are used almost exclusively by city buses during rush hours as it is. Building a billion-dollar tunnel is simply not affordable. Many other cities operate commuter trains on roads. I have never understood why former Mayor Larry O'Brien insisted on a tunnel. Current Mayor Jim Watson vowed to look at the tunnel issue when he was elected, but he soon found himself an ardent tunnel supporter.

4. From nowhere to nowhere. The current O-Train Confederation Line plan began when former Mayor Larry O'Brien essentially scrapped his predecessor Bob Chiarelli's rail plan. Although Chiarelli's plan had major flaws, it looks downright sensible in retrospect. The biggest flaw with O'Brien's O-Train plan is that the first phase of the service begins and ends in areas of the city that are not terribly close to neighbourhoods. These areas, Tunney's Pasture and Blair, are well served by the city's Transitway rapid bus service. We all remember the bridge to nowhere in Alaska. I fear this will be train to nowhere. This will be rectified when the second phase of the Confederation Line is in place, but are commuters going to jump on board with Phase I? I wonder.

5. Dropping the ball on the Prince of Wales Bridge. Ottawa city buses go to Gatineau every day. Gatineau buses cross the river to Ottawa every day. Why has no one ever bothered to look into extending the O-Train over the Prince of Wales Bridge on existing trackage? The city owns the bridge and tracks and yet seems determined to convert the bridge into a recreational pathway.

6. Bob Chiarelli's proposed abandonment of the Trillium Line. At one point, the former mayor was proposing to tear up the current alignment of the Trillium Line and replace it with an all-new north-south alignment. Considering the land expropriations, environmental assessments and enormous costs involved, this thankfully never came to pass.

7. Building a new O-Train service facility in the middle of nowhere. This was another strange component of Bob Chiarelli's plans at one point. Instead of establishing a maintenance and commuter train yard in Ottawa's half empty Walkley Yard, there was a plan to build a completely new O-Train yard and servicing facility along Bowesville Road in the south end of the city near airport lands. Environmentalists were furious with this part of the plan, since the proposed new yard would be plopped down in the middle of a natural area. This idea, thankfully, has never attracted much support.

8. Deafening silence on Mike Maguire's common sense plan. Mayoral candidate Mike Maguire had a radical idea in the fall election. Why not establish commuter rail on existing trackage in the city? The most common objection to this plan was that the city had already gone too far with its own plans to press the reset button. I think the merits of Maguire's idea were lost amid the noise and fear-mongering during the election campaign. I still wonder why no one ever suggested that the two ideas could co-exist. After all, CN still has some vital - and sparsely used - trackage in the city that travels through densely populated areas.

9. Inaction on the Beachburg Subdivision. Any hopes for regional rail to Renfrew County, Pembroke and Petawawa went out the window when the city essentially washed its hands of this rail line. CN tore up much of the right-of-way this past fall. A small part of this subdivision is still in place to north Kanata, where it could be used as a commuter link. But that will not likely happen. The city simply does not see the value of commuter rail on this line. I understand why there would be no interest in retaining this line outside of Kanata, but using the rail to the north end of this suburb still makes sense.

10. Deafening silence on Carling Avenue plan. I was no fan of  former councillor Clive Doucet, but when he ran for mayor, he had an idea for light rail that had some merit. He suggested running trains down the middle of Carling Avenue, a divided six-lane thoroughfare through much of Ottawa's west end. His plan was short on details, but he correctly pointed out that the road passed through a number of densely populated areas, including numerous rental communities. Sadly, there was no consideration for this idea. And now, the city is haggling with the National Capital Commission over where to place part of the second phase of its western LRT line, since the NCC won't let tracks cross over its precious Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway lands.

This was an exhausting post to write. I can't believe how much fodder this city gives rail critics like me. This is the city that keeps on giving.

Oh, and Happy Trails to the Bombardier Talents! They served the city well from 2001 to 2015. Sharp looking trains. I will miss them on the current Trillium Line. I'm glad the city is keeping them and I hope to see them in use again.