Thursday, May 28, 2015

The inside scoop on the Arnprior local

It seems as though every time I blog about this little runt of a train, which travels once a week out to Arnprior via the Beachburg Sub and the Renfrew Spur, I get loads of responses. I have come to realize that a great number of my readers here in Ottawa watch out for this train every week, many of whom come away empty handed, due to its inconsistent appearances in Bells Corners, Kanata and other stops along the way to and from Arnprior. Well, I was surprised to receive a detailed message about this train in the comments section of my previous post about the Arnprior local.

Before I get to the comment, I need to confirm that, yes, the above image is one of many I captured in my first proper meet with the Arnprior local. I caught up with the three-car consist recently at the Trans-Canada Trail level crossing near Corkstown Road and Highway 417. However, I will save this for a future post. For those interested in a good, safe spot to shoot this train, I highly recommend this spot.
So, back to my original point. All of our conversations about CN's Wednesday train out to Arnprior attracted the attention of Ian McCord, former car controller for the Ottawa Central Railway and Yardmaster for CN. Here is his comment in full, in case you missed it:
The product in the tank cars is Caprolactam. It takes hours/days to unload with the aid of steam as they are basically rolling popsicles.
Nylene has 2 tracks with 3 unloading stops on each. The train crew has special spotting instructions for each car so it could take some time to do all the moves.
In my time at the OCRR and CN, the plant has changed hands 3 times: BASF, then Honeywell Nylon and finally Nylene. The DBCX cars are owned by BASF and the product normally originates at a facility in Texas but some cars are loaded in Georgia. In the 2000s, the longest trains had 7 tank cars and at one time Honeywell would load one or 2 covered hoppers a week with leftover nylon which was shipped to another Honeywell plant in the US.
As for the train's departure time, it is affected by the amount of switching to be done at Walkley Yard as well as the tiny window of time between the O-Trains at the Walkley diamond. The old O-Train schedule had our times for a signal out of the yard at 08:57, 09:12, 09:27, 09:42 etc.
So, there you have it. This is the best information I have been able to get about this train. Special thanks to Ian for reaching out and sharing his information. I'm hoping this will give local watchers some better information to use when they are trying to capture some shots of this train, like I did recently. And for those interested, it crossed Corkstown Road around 9:05 a.m. when I caught it recently.
And for readers outside of Ottawa, who may be a little less interested in this chase saga, I hope you will enjoy my upcoming shots of this train, which I captured recently. I will try to keep that post more generally focused. Stay tuned.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

The other side: Port Huron, Michigan

Port Huron, Michigan is a transportation hub at the southern tip of Lake Huron, across the St. Clair River from Sarnia, Ontario. Like Sarnia, Port Huron is a great place to watch Great Lakes freighters ply the waters of Lake Huron. For our purposes here, it's also located at a critical point in the Canadian National Railways system. The Paul M. Tellier tunnel beneath the St. Clair River allows CN to quickly transport a number of goods between Toronto and Chicago with minimal delay.

This wasn't always the case. Read about this rail hub's history in my first post about the tunnel. You can also read about the more recent history in the Part II.

Without getting into the history here, I will simply say that the tunnel is a favourite spot for railfanning in Port Huron and Sarnia, although I have to say that I have yet to photograph a train actually going into the tunnel or heading out of the tunnel in my visits to the area. I was talking about this with my brother a while back. Then, a few days later, he was on his way back from the Detroit Airport when he made a small detour to see if there was anything to shoot on the Port Huron side of the tunnel.

His email to me read, "Ask and ye shall receive." Here are some shots he took of an eastbound CN container train headed for the tunnel and Canada.

The Port Huron side of the tunnel is nowhere near as dramatic as the Canadian side, but my brother did manage to capture a few rail bumpers and the Port Huron water tower in this shot. As a comparison, here's a shot I took last December of the Canadian side. You can see the old tunnel beside the new one, which opened for business in 1994. You can also see a CN police cruiser parked on the old right-of-way, which is now an access road to the old tunnel.

Back to Port Huron. My brother parked in the Amtrak station parking lot and tried to get some shots of the tunnel train going into the tunnel. As you can see (below), the station is not all that far from the tunnel (to the left of the Amtrak sign).

The Amtrak station is used as an endpoint for Amtrak trains to and from Chicago. This train is called the Bluewater. The station sees one arrival from Chicago daily and serves as the departure point for one other train, to Chicago, each day. At one point, Amtrak and Via Rail Canada jointly operated a train, the International Ltd., which connected Chicago and Toronto. That was the last passenger train to use the tunnel. Service was discontinued in 2004, due to declining ridership. Here's a shot of a Chicago-bound International Ltd. at Sarnia station in the early 1990s.

Here's a better shot of the container train descending into the tunnel. Some of the container cars only have one container. This was once a much more common site in Sarnia, since the old tunnel could not accommodate double stacks.

Here's an old shot of a Via F40PH-2 6441 with a single stack container car next to it, circa 1991.

Here's the going away shot of the train, as a few cars wait at the 16th Street level crossing.

Speaking of the Amtrak station, here it is, in all its uninspired glory. You will also notice that the Port Huron side of the tunnel does not have the bustling rail yard like the Sarnia side. Still, I'd imagine this would be a good vista to capture trains. You can see a long way off in the distance from here.

Special thanks to my brother for stopping off and capturing this train. I still have to cross a tunnel train off my to-do list, but I guess this will have to do for now. If you want to see my meet with a tunnel train as it left Sarnia yard, check out this post from January.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Goderich 2014 Part II: Echoes of the past

I have raved about this town on Lake Huron several times, but I thought I'd revisit Goderich once more, after taking time to visit a number of its historic railway sites last August. You can read my first post about this trip here.

The town has a proud railway legacy that has not only been preserved, but celebrated. The first stop I made was to the city's beach, where the town's former Canadian Pacific Railway station has been relocated. The station was moved a few hundred metres last year, to make way for a new lake-facing restaurant.

The station still appeared to be undergoing extensive repairs over the summer. The developer wants to build a 300-seat restaurant with a 100-seat banquet hall. The opening has been pushed back a few times, due to the structural challenges of bringing this beautiful old building back into shape.

This station, which you first read about it this post, was officially opened in 1907 to serve as a western terminus to a CPR line between Goderich and Guelph. The station last saw passengers in 1956. The line used to host as many as three daily freights, with grain being one of its biggest commodities. The operations were officially discontinued in 1989.

Much of this information I learned simply by reading the numerous historic plaques around the harbour.

One of my other items on the railway to-do list was to visit the Tiger Dunlop Walking Trail on the northern edge of the town. The reason I wanted to check it out was that this trail crosses the Maitland River via the former Canadian Pacific Railway Trestle.

The bridge is an impressive structure, which was built in 1906 for the railway's approach to Goderich harbour. When the original wooden bridge was built, it was 212 metres long (695 feet), making it the longest railway trestle in Ontario. The bridge was not without its challenges, the chief among them the steep drop off between the rail line over the river and the rails at the harbour.

To solve this problem, the railway carted in tonnes of earth to create a gradual grade that would be able to accommodate the needs of steam locomotives approaching the rail line's terminus. It was interesting to walk this old right of way. I can say that, despite the efforts to limit the grade in and out of the low-lying harbour, this grade would likely still pose tough operational challenges for the CPR.

When the CPR discontinued service in Goderich, the fate of this old bridge was very much in doubt until a local preservation effort saved the structure for use as a walking trail. The bridge, now called the Menesetung Walking Bridge, gives you a great idea of what it was like to ride the rails in this area. It also offers great views of the city's harbour.

The shot below gives you an idea of the elevation.

This is what engineers would have seen as they approached the town. Take a moment to consider the elevation and the short distance to the harbour. That's a steep slide down to sea level in a short period of time. It makes you appreciate the skill it takes to work on the railway. You can see the town's grain elevators and parts of the salt mine operations. Can you spot the hopper cars?

The final stop on our history tour was the Huron County Museum, perhaps the best local history museum you will find in Canada. I can't begin to describe how comprehensive this facility is in documenting the history of Huron County. The museum's sister site, the Huron County Gaol, built in 1830, is similarly fascinating and thorough.

The centrepiece of the museum is Canadian Pacific Vaughan class U3e steam locomotive 6275. Built in 1913 at CPR's Angus shops in Montreal, this 0-6-0 locomotive was used as a local switcher in Goderich for years until the diesel era made it obsolete. The shot below is the cab. This gives you an idea of how complex these machines are. It gives me an immense amount of appreciation for my grandfathers, who both worked on the CPR when these brutes plied the rails.

This locomotive's history follows a familiar story. It was in danger of being scrapped when a local effort to save it managed to come up with a deal with the railway in 1958. In the end, the engine was sold for the price of scrap. It was sold for the going rate: $1 for every 5 pounds. How times have changed.

The Huron County Museum was build around this locomotive. To get this engine to the museum's site, it had to be guided down two 60-foot lengths of rail along the town's streets in order to reach its place of honour. No small feat.

This shot below is one of the few shots I took that turned out okay. The museum's lighting was unfortunately not conducive to great photography, particularly the camera I was using that day.

Here's a profile shot below. The locomotive is not resting on rails, but on an angled concrete floor, which looked like the inside of a boat. I imagine this keeps the engine in place. The steam engine is surrounded by benching, very much like the ones you would expect to find in a train station in the 1950s or earlier.

The museum even has a CPR baggage cart with some old luggage packed onto it. Nice touch!

In many ways, I think Goderich is a town that punches above its weight. Its preservation of its past has served the town well. And its current rail operations are a bonus.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

My first glimpse of the Arnprior local

Blogging about railways in Ottawa is frustrating at the best of times. But it's even worse when you squander the few opportunities you get in this city. This is one of those stories.

Let me start by saying that, of all the topics I have mentioned on this blog over two years, one of the most popular topics is the weekly Arnprior train. It's a runt of a train, really, although all freight trains in Ottawa are. This train, for whatever reason, seems to fascinate readers. I have received a number of emails and inquires about this train, which heads out to Arnprior each Wednesday morning via the Beachburg Subdivision before it branches off onto the Renfrew Spur. The train usually passes through Bells Corners and Kanata around 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. After delivering its load of tank cars and performing its switching duties at Nylene Canada, it collects empties and heads back through west Ottawa around 3:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. By the looks of the consists, it wouldn't surprise me if the train unloads its cars, waits for them to be emptied, and returns them to Walkley Yard.

Recently, I had one of the very few opportunities to catch this train. I have lived in Bells Corners since 2010 and have never once seen a train plodding over the tracks through our neighbourhood (Beachburg Sub contributor Dave M. has caught this train, which you can read about here).

In many ways, I have been preparing for this train for years. I've scouted out locations where I could safely catch this train. I've even taken shots of the rail architecture, like this shot of the Moodie Drive rail bridge on New Year's Day.

This is another vantage point I'd like to use. This is the rail bridge over Robertson Road on New Year's Day.

Collecting all the information my readers have shared, I came up with a plan on a recent Wednesday, when I found myself at home for the day. Usually, I work in downtown Ottawa, which does not allow for any opportunities to wait around for this train. I decided to camp out at a scenic stretch of track along Corkstown Road, where there is a place to park and  where there are a number of safe vantage points to catch this train on a scenic stretch of the Beachburg Subdivision. My original plan was to go at 2:45 p.m., since most of my readers who have caught this train tell me it makes its return trip anywhere from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

I was held up at home, preparing a few things for dinner. By the time I was ready to wait for this train, it was 3:00 p.m. I thought I was safe when a sickening feeling crept into my head as I drove down Moodie Drive. I was waiting at a red light when I thought, what if the train goes by on the Moodie Drive bridge when I'm at this light?

Lesson learned. Don't tempt the railway gods. As soon as I thought that, I saw some white and black movement on the rail line. Lo and behold, CN 589 was making its return trip to Walkley Yard earlier than I had expected. As I waited at the light, I fired up my camera and took a few desperate shots, not bothering to frame them. I had to watch the road and wait for the green light. I figured I should take a chance since I didn't know when I would ever get another chance to catch this train. So, I fired off one shot, which you can see above.

As the train slowly plodded across the bridge, I used my zoom and tried another shot, while still waiting for the green light. Given the traffic on the road, I figured I would not have a chance to take a shot while the car was moving (obviously). My second shot turned out okay, except for the telephone pole that killed what could have been a decent shot. You will notice that the shots are not level. I only cropped them a little because I wanted to show what happens when you fire off a few blind shots.

This final shot was taken once the car got going. I wasn't looking at the tracks at all but I aimed the camera in the train's general direction as the road dipped down under the right-of-way. Nothing much to see, but it was the best I could do, thanks to my timing. That blurry sign to the left marks that the land surrounding the rail line is part of the National Capital Commission's Greenbelt.
As a point of interest, the black and white tank cars carry frozen raw materials to Nylene Canada that are then used to produce polymers for nylon and carpet materials. There was some discussion about the safety of transporting these goods through Ottawa's western suburbs, but Nylene Canada told local media last year that these materials are far less volatile than crude oil. Trains using Beachburg usually plod along the tracks slowly.
Beachburg Sub reader Pat Stever also took up the chase recently and captured the Arnprior local  when he heard the train coming through Kanata at 10:45 a.m. Pat got into his car and managed to snag this shot of the westbound consist at Craig Side Road near Carp (below). The weather was lousy, he tells me, but the shot turned out quite nicely. Thanks to Pat for contributing to the hunt and passing along this shot.
So, that's about all I can share about my brief encounter with the Arnpior local. An optimist would point out that I at least caught the train on the bridge, which was not part of my original plan. A pessimist would say that I came so close only to lose out on a great chance to catch this train properly.
Either way, for local rail watchers, you can mark this information down, if you are keeping score. On April 15, CN 589 was passing through Bells Corners at 3:05 p.m. I would ask local readers to make note of the time they either hear or see the train passing through Bells Corners or Kanata. I am hoping we can build up a bank of times that will allow us to catch this ghost a few more times.
For example, here are the return times I've noted recently.
April 29th - 4:30 p.m. through Bells Corners (I heard the whistle on my way home from the bus stop)
April 15th - 3:00 p.m. through Bells Corners (pictured above)