Friday, November 25, 2016

Ottawa's Railway Station gets a little respect

Say what you want about Ottawa's Railway Station, but you can never accuse it of being boring. The station, which was opened in 1966, has always had a couple of factors working against it. But in the past few years, it has begun to gain a little respect.

Let's start with some surprising facts about this station. Did you know the Tremblay Road station has been open 50 years? That means it has been open for business just three fewer years than Ottawa's Union Station, which operated as the main railway hub in Ottawa's downtown from 1912 to 1966.

Did you know that the Tremblay Road station won a Governor General's Medal for architecture in 1967? Or that it was ranked as one of the 500 most significant buildings produced in the last century by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 2000? Or that in 2007, it was presented the Ontario Association of Architects’ Landmark Award? Or that it was designated a heritage railway station in 1996, just 30 years after opening? Pretty impressive for a building that doesn't get a lot of love.

July 8, 2013 view of the platforms at Ottawa's Central Station as a Montreal-bound corridor consist eases out from the platforms. You can see the main building in the top right hand corner of this shot.

Many locals still bemoan the fact that the city's original Union Station was moved from the downtown to Tremblay Road, which is not exactly central like Via Rail's stations in Montreal, Toronto or Quebec City. The Tremblay Road station will also never measure up to the historic charm of the old Union Station, which is now the Government Conference Centre and soon to be the temporary home of Canada's Senate.

However, a few developments in the last few years promise to ensure that the Tremblay Road railway station gets a bit more respect in the years to come.

First, a pedestrian bridge has been built over Highway 417, which now connects the station to the neighbourhoods north of the highway, not to mention the city's baseball stadium, RCGT Park, home of the 2016 Cam-Am League champions, the Ottawa Champions (rather presumptuous name, but we backed it up with a championship).

Second, the city's Confederation Line light rail system is in the process of being built right through the station's property, which promises to directly link the Via Rail station to the downtown in a way that has been lacking since the station was built. Commuters will soon be able to board the LRT and get to the railway station without minimal fuss.

Finally, more than $21 million is being spent on ongoing renovations that will greatly enhance each traveler's experience at the station. Indeed, these are exciting times for the station.

June 26, 1971 view from the west side of the platforms when both CN and CP passengers trains used the Beachburg Subdivision.

The most obvious change that travelers will notice at the station will be the platforms. They will all be raised so that travelers will be able to board their coaches without walking up any steps. This will replicate the platforms that Via Rail has at its Montreal and Quebec City stations. The other major change is these platforms will be heated. If you have the misfortune of coming to Ottawa in the winter via train, this scene below is what you might face when you get off the train

Winter storm in early 2014.

The image below shows you what the platforms will look like when they are finished next fall.

Via Rail Canada publicity image

The station will also get new elevators that will improve access to the platforms. The station already has an aesthetically pleasing tunnel below the platforms, which ends with a massive and impressive circular ramp that you can take to the main concourse, if you decide to skip the escalators. I've done this a few times, just to prolong the experience a bit.

The station will also get roof repairs, electrical repairs, Business Class lounge renovations and washroom renovations.

Beginning in November, the railway also boosted the number of departures from Ottawa Station by two, meaning that there are now nine departures to Toronto and Montreal each day. This station accommodates 800,000 travelers each year, making it the third busiest railway station in the country.

Via Rail Canada publicity photo

When you think of how much has happened in the past 20 years around this station, it's hard to believe that there was so little surrounding this depot at one point. For example, most local take for granted that Trainyards retail development. Some might not remember that much of this land was railway property and some of it housed railway tracks.

Closer to the station, a few office buildings have been built in recent years on railway land that sat unused for quite a long time. Up until very recently, there were a few dilapidated railway structures on the other side of the chain link fence that surrounds the station's tracks.

Even on the other side of the highway, a fair bit of retail development on Coventry Road has really quickened the pace of the area around the station. When you think of the pedestrian bridge and light rail connection, the disrespected station in the middle of no man's land seems to be a little less lonely these days.

Happy 50th Birthday to Ottawa Station. I often rave about Ottawa's old Union Station, but I have to admit I truly do like this station. Here's hoping it remains a busy fixture in the city.

Via Rail Canada Facebook image

Friday, November 18, 2016

This is why I bleed action red

Let's forget about Hunter Harrison, Bill Ackman, Pershing Square Capital Management, operating ratios, profit per share and the rest of the soap opera that has typified the Canadian Pacific Railway's recent history. Let's forget about blind trusts, Norfolk Southern, hostile takeovers and everything else. Let's forget for a moment the argument that rail systems need to span the entire continent. All of these items are worthy of discussion, but there's something more important about the CPR that is worth considering.

Canadian Pacific's Rideau at Ottawa's Central Station in 1967. I had this postcard for years before losing it. I had it so long I didn't even know who gave it to me. I was lucky that I got another copy from Trackside Treasure blogger Eric Gagnon. Thanks Eric!

The Canadian Pacific Railway is quite far removed from that iconic entity that brought Canada together from sea to sea in the late 1800s. I'm not naïve enough to think that this railway is anything other than a for-profit company that is beholden to its bottom line and shareholders. We live in a capitalist country and I don't have a problem with a company doing all it can to earn as much as it can. That's how it works.

But I'm disappointed with this railway because it means so much more to me. The Canadian Pacific's history runs deep in my family. At one time or another, just about all my uncles, my father and both my grandfathers worked for this company. I'm immensely proud of that fact because the CPR is more than just a company in Canada's history.

So, why am I disappointed with all the shenanigans that have typified the railway's recent history? Well, from a personal point of view, I think the company can do more to honour its rich history. I think it's better than this.

But to truly explain just how deep this company runs in my family, I'd like to share a few stories.

Let's start with my grandfather, Egidio. My grandfather (I called him Nonno) was born in northern Italy and came to Canada after World War II to build a new life for his family. My Nonno was pressed into enlisting for Mussolini's army and was forced to fend for himself in what was then Yugoslavia after the Italian army disbanded when Il Duce was overthrown.

My Nonno, Uncle John and me at Heritage Park in Calgary in the summer of 1992. You can see a piece of the park's passenger train in the background.

I'd imagine that he likely had seen enough by war's end and welcomed the opportunity to come to Canada. When he did, he found work as a general labourer for the Canadian Pacific in the Crowsnest Pass area. I only know this from my Uncle John. My Nonno spoke very little English, even though he lived in Canada for fifty years. He knew I liked trains and once gave me a book Canadian Railway Scenes Vol. I by Adolph Hungry Wolf. He would sometimes mimic the motions of a steam engine to me to try and explain what he did. As I grew older and learned more about railways, I knew that what he did wasn't glamorous. He fixed tracks, tamped down ballast and did a lot of the grunt work that often goes unnoticed. It was hard work. For my Nonno, it helped build a future for his family, including my Mom.

My other grandfather, Paul-Émile, worked for the Canadian Pacific in Chapleau, a town in Northern Ontario that owes its existence to the CPR, since it served as a servicing point along the transcontinental main line. My grandfather worked as a rolling stock mechanic in Chapleau and then Windsor. Again, since he didn't speak a great deal of English, I mainly know about his work through stories he told my Dad and uncles.

My grandfather and me in Mirabel, Quebec, 2005

And the stories are amazing. My Dad told me this summer about some of the more colourful duties that fell to my grandpa. Whenever there was a wreck, my grandpa was dispatched to the crash site to help repair the cars and get them back on the rails so they could be towed back to Chapleau to be fixed properly. My grandpa also was dispatched to crashes when he was transferred to Windsor. You can see a photo of one of these wrecks in this post.

My Dad told me that my grandpa was often away from home for weeks, which makes sense considering how much territory there is west of Chapleau where the railway crosses nothing but wilderness. One of the fringe benefits of going to these crash sites would be that the crews were able to take home the damaged merchandise that fell out of the boxcars. My Dad said my grandpa would often return home loaded with all sorts of things that had fallen out of the boxcars and couldn't be salvaged otherwise.

My grandfather worked for the railways for decades and brought me aboard my first locomotive in Windsor when I was very, very young. I still remember him sitting me in the engineer's seat and showing me how the engine worked. Years later, when I was a teen, he brought me back to the Windsor yard, where I was able to take photos from a vantage point I wouldn't otherwise have access to. His former co-workers greeted him warmly when he showed up and told him how much they could use his expertise at the yard.

Canadian Pacific yard in Windsor in 1991

This summer, my Dad told me about another chapter in our family's railway history. When my Dad was in grade nine or ten, he landed a job with the Canadian Pacific in Chapleau. On Sunday nights, he would board a train westbound toward Manitoba. He would ride a caboose in the back of a freight train. He carried a box of food for himself for a week. At a given point, the train would stop and let off my Dad and a few others. Over the course of a week, my Dad would bunk in a trackside bunkhouse and spend his days repairing tracks "in the middle of the bush" (his words). He said that his supervisor would keep in touch with dispatchers via a trackside phone so the crew would know when to keep clear of the tracks when a train was coming through. This work would continue through the week until my Dad boarded an eastbound freight and returned to Chapleau.

My Dad said he spent a summer doing this work. His older brother, my Uncle Claude, did the same thing, although my Dad said my uncle worked further west on the line. Both my uncle and my Dad told me it was incredibly hard work. They also spoke of working with local First Nations youth on these track gangs. The First Nations part of the crew would work half days, since they were expected to spend their afternoons hunting and fishing.

Later, when my Dad's family moved to Windsor, he worked with my Grandpa in the Windsor yard, doing things like trackside inspections and greasing the bearings on the old freight cars. Again, he said the work was incredibly hard, which made his decision to work for Ontario Hydro much easier. At one point, the railway offered my Dad a job, but the railway dynasty wasn't to be.

My Dad's little brother, my Uncle Michel, did work for the railways for a while, working for Via Rail at Toronto's Union Station, but that was it. My cousin worked for CP for several years in dispatch before he moved on to another career in the railway industry.

Me on board an old Canadian Pacific switcher at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls, Summer 2015

And then there's me. My connection with this railway has been peripheral at times, but it seems as though the CPR has always been there.

Going to Windsor to visit my grandparents as a kid was always a highlight, since it pretty much was a guarantee that I would see a CP train. There was one crossing at Howard Avenue that was the best bet, since it wasn't far from the CP Yard and the old Michigan Central Railway tunnel. I remember how excited I was when a long freight train would slowly pass by, as motorists on the busy thoroughfare would patiently wait. That crossing was replaced by a flyover a while ago.

When we visited my Nonno's house, also in Windsor, I used to stand at the end of his driveway, since his street, Wellesley, provided a direct view to the CP tracks. For a young railfan, it didn't get any better than this. Seeing the old multimark go by was a thrill for me, since I mainly saw Chessie System trains in my hometown of Corunna.

Then there was the summer of 1992 when I went to Alberta by myself to visit family, including my Nonno and Uncle John. That trip included a few days in Banff where I visited my sister, who was working there for the summer. One of my best memories of that trip was railfanning at Banff station where I saw this unit grain train. (You can read about my railfanning in Alberta in this post and this post.)

When I worked for the newspaper in Peterborough, I remember watching the Kawartha Lakes Railway trains rush by our newspaper offices at night, en route to the Nephton mines. There were a few times when I would have to stop my evening jogs after work when a train was passing through town. It was always nice to feel that draft of wind when the train passed by.

I often travelled the Highway 7 between Peterborough and Ottawa during that time of my life. The highlight of the drive was very often going through Havelock, where the Kawartha Lakes Railway still maintains a small rail yard that parallels the highway before the line branches off to the Nephton mines. I often considered pulling over on my trips to and from Ottawa to take pictures, but I never did since I wasn't in the habit of taking rail photos then like I am now.

More recently, since I began this blog, I have had a few occasions to see some CP action in Bedell (You can read about my most recent time there in this post).

Empty CP ethanol train westbound at Bedell, Summer 2016

The whole point of these stories is that this railway has always been a part of my family's story and a part of my story as a railfan.

That is why all this drama surrounding the railway makes me sad. I won't argue the economics of mergers or the improved performance that the railway has shown under its current management. Like I said, it's a public company and it is doing a good job of making money for its shareholders.

But I also know from a number of sources that the morale in the company is low. I know that its CEO is not terribly respected by the rank and file, although it's no mystery why he is loved by investors. I won't get into the particulars because it's not my place.

I will only say this. I think this company can do better to live up to its legacy. There are no doubt many other families with similar stories to that of my family. And there are many other stories of how this railway has helped shaped Canada.

I don't begrudge the company for wanting to do the best it can.

But I think the Canadian Pacific is better than what we've seen in the last few years. Be profitable, sure. But never forget your roots because there are countless Canadians that contributed so that company could endure.

I'm not sure today's CP truly appreciates that.

Friday, November 11, 2016


No one can deny that railways are a dirty business. Sure, locomotives today operate more efficiently than their predecessors by a mile. For all that the railways make of the green nature of their business, it's not exactly like driving a Prius. These massive locomotives need serious power to pull their consists and this requires heavy duty diesel engines. That sometimes results in lots of smoke.

The shot below is one of a few I caught in October around Sarnia Yard as CN diesels went about their business. In this shot, these diesels are putting together a long consist, likely headed west for the tunnel and into Michigan.

I haven't caught too many shots of locomotives mid-smoke, so these shots I thought were worth grouping together. You can't tell by the direction of the exhaust in this shot, but this train was actually backing up. It just so happened that the wind was blowing pretty swiftly in the direction of the train's backward move. The lead unit in this consist is CN C44-9W 2670. The majority of the smoke appears to be coming from the third unit.

Here's a closer shot, with a little more colour correction. I like how the exhaust is bluring the light standard behind it. I had a tough time shooting due to the angle of the sun, but you have to take what you can get sometimes. There really is no way to catch these trains on the sunny side in the late morning from this vantage point. You may notice a piece of equipment in the foreground that was once used to service the old heavyweight passenger cars. That track is now ripped out from the side of the Sarnia station.

This might be my favourite shot from the weekend. This is a pretty typical scene in the yard, as a pairing of yard engines is shunting a cut of tank cars around. That initial moment when the units begin their shoving movement is always fun to watch as the engines roar and the plumes of smoke blanket the area around the front of the train.

A moment later, the wind begins to dissipate the plume. These units are clearly working hard to get this line of cars moving.

I zoomed in to get a closer shot of the locomotives in the aftermath. It was just a brief moment, but I was lucky to catch a few images of this movement. As much as I love catching a mainline freight screaming down the tracks, I really do love watching small yard jobs making moves like this.

Throughout the year, I have tried to change my approach to photographing trains. This wasn't really a group of shots I was consciously trying to capture, but I'm glad I snagged them just the same since they offer a glimpse of how these machines work.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hello, old friend

I have terrible train karma up here in Ottawa. I can't tell you how many times I have attempted to catch the Arnprior local (CN 589) only to come up empty handed. Of course, whenever I visit my family down in Sarnia, there is almost always something interesting to capture, although I have to say my preference is always to capture CSX action, since it is generally a rarer commodity.

Happily, when I visited my family over the Thanksgiving long weekend, I found my way to CN's Sarnia Yard twice. On the second visit, I was lucky to catch CSX's interchange with CN coming into Sarnia Yard right around the old roundhouse.

This time around, I was in a position on the Via Rail platform to get a shot of the train making its way around the curve as it emerged from the St. Clair River Industrial Spur, over which CSX has running rights. There are a number of points in the Chemical Valley and points south where the CN Spur connects with CSX's Sarnia Subdivision (the Imperial Oil refinery and CF Industries' Terra Courtright nitrogen complex to name two), but the yard seems to be the most common place for the two carriers to exchange loads and empties.

The interchanges (some call it the CSX transfer) that I have seen have not been terribly long. The last few times I have seen this consist coming into Sarnia Yard, the car count was about 20-30.

This time around, the light was tricky, as were the numerous visual hazards that typify railfanning at Sarnia Yard. I was happy to catch this decent shot of the two GP38s bringing in a long line of tank cars. I saw quite a few molten sulphur cars in this consist, which turned out to be much longer than the usual 20 cars I see.

This shots above and below turned out okay, considering I was on the wrong side of the train. The shots offer a view of the gantry just before tunnel trains reached CP Hobson, which brings them to and from the Paul Tellier tunnel beneath the St. Clair River. The shot below offers a decent shot of the consist, which features mainly tank cars, although there were a few covered hoppers. There was even a car with some liquid carbon dioxide, which CSX/CN customer Air Liquide uses at its Terra Courtright facility.

The going away shot washed out the sky, but I wanted to try and capture a few of these images, because there was activity to the east of this train's location, which I also wanted to capture in one image. Lucky for me, this consist just kept going, which meant the CSX crew had to pull the train far deeper into the yard than I've seen them do in past instances.

Although the sky was completely washed out, I was able to capture some detail of the train as it headed east toward the Indian Road overpass. It's a long line of Procor tank cars. Interestingly, Procor has its own maintenance facility on the east edge of the yard, just beyond Modeland Road, complete with its own access road that is named after the company.

This is why I stuck with the train for so long. In this shot you can see three consists at various stages of organization. The CSX interchange is headed for Indian Road while two CN yard jobs continue their rounds just beneath the overpass. You can also see the broom stick standing out on the switch stand in the foreground. Most switches in this yard seem to be manual, with a broom at the read for when snow needs to be cleared away.

As mentioned, here is the one outlier in the consist. In a sea of black and white tank cars, here is the one tank used to supply Air Liquide. The striping on the bottom in the giveaway.

As I mentioned, I have seen this train a number of times in the yard. Anyone that is a railfan in Sarnia knows to be in the yard around 9:30-10:30 a.m. to catch this train.

You can read about my previous encounters with this train by clicking here and here.