Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The busy spur with the long name

Lambton County 2017 Part II

I often mention my rotten luck when it comes to trains, but I have to say that I was incredibly fortunate to see lots of railway action and even knock a few items off my railfan to-do list. As I mentioned last week, I finally caught a freight train on the CSX Sarnia Subdivision near my hometown. This was the first time I have documented action on this line since the early 1990s. You can read that post here.

The next day, I was heading out to visit family when I was approaching the St. Clair River Industrial Spur level crossing along the Rokeby Line. As luck would have it, three warhorse CN GP9s were switching the industrial tracks near the crossing. Of course, since I didn't have any advance warning, I had to make do with a spot on the edge of a farmer's field, which was one of the few places I could stash my car on Rokeby, which has no gravel shoulders, but very, very deep drainage ditches.

Yes, there is a major hydro corridor right next to this line. Hard to shoot without running into a few towers!

I wasn’t sure if the crew was servicing the Suncor Energy Ethanol plant. I say this because the train the crew was assembling for a run back to Sarnia Yard was comprised of covered hoppers almost exclusively. So, my first thought was the train must have been serving the Nova Chemicals Moore refinery, which is located on the Moore Line, just a concession south. Upon further thought, the train might have been collecting hoppers that were used to deliver raw material for the ethanol plant.

Check out the tree behind the GP9s!

Whatever they were doing, they were assembling a pretty impressive consist for a spur, which is what the line is. As I have mentioned in this post, this industrial spur is quite long and likely among the busiest spurs you will find. CN boasts some siginificant customers on this line, including the above mentioned customers, along with Nova Chemicals’ Corunna refinery and the Terra International nitrogen products plant near Courtright. These are all big facilities, which require significant service. In other words, this is not a spur like the Renfrew Spur, which sees a lone train to and from Arnprior each week.

This is my favourite shot from the meet. It shows you a little of everything, including the thunderstorms south of Rokeby.

As I will explore in a future post, CN is about to see business increase on this spur as Nova Chemicals is in the midst of a massive expansion of its operations in Corunna and near its Moore site. You can see the signs for the expansion of its rail facilities along the Moore Line. The company has already bolstered its operations at the plant and is operating two switchers each day.

But at this moment, I wasn’t thinking about all the developments along this line. I was simply enjoying the show as the old geeps trundled back and forth and assembled a train bound for Sarnia. This meet marks the first time I have caught a train on this line. I have taken photos of rolling stock, like this shot taken at the former Serviplast plant near Corunna, but I have never captured a train.

I backed up the zoom in this shot to show a little bit of the Suncor ethanol plant (at left) and the high-voltage towers to the right of the spur.

So, if you’re keeping score, that’s two big items I had on my list for this trip down south that were crossed off. I caught trains on the CSX Sarnia Sub and the CN industrial spur. As I will show you in a few more posts, I managed to cross off some other items from my to-do list. It was an eventful trip for sure.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Last glimpses of CSX? I hope not

Lambton County 2017 Part I

For a railfan continually frustrated by a lack of success in Ottawa, I was thrilled to enjoy some good luck along the CSX Sarnia Subdivision on a recent trip south to visit family in the Sarnia area. My family was staying at my sister's house. My sister and her husband own a two-acre property that backs onto the Sarnia Subdivision. I was determined to catch something along the subdivision while spending the week there.

One afternoon, as my daughters were napping, I took a walk to the back of the property, which I often do when I'm there. The railway is not separated by fencing or anything else. What's more interesting is that the right-of-way barely crests over the surrounding land. It is almost level with surrounding properties, at least near milepost 64.2, which is where my sister lives (MP 64.2 is actually the Rokeby Line level crossing).

As I was making my way to the back of the property, I thought I heard a distant horn but as I waited for it to repeat itself, I heard nothing. I began walking back to the house when I heard the familiar horn much louder. It was the unmistakable sound of the train crossing Rokeby. I raced to the back of the property and set up a fair distance from the tracks, as I wanted to get a wide shot.

This is what I saw. Two GP38-2s, one in the older CSX paint and one in the newer container logo scheme, emerging from behind trackside scrub.

I find it an incredible anomaly that a railway still operates though an area with no barrier whatsoever. For a railfan that knows the rules, this is a great advantage. Clear sightlines!

Here's a closer shot. The sun was high and bright, which made the shots a little tricky, but nothing that a little photoshopping couldn't solve.

This (above) might be one of my favourite shots from the last year. This is old-school railroading that reminds me of my childhood. No fencing, no signals. Just one track, controlled by track warrants. However, unlike the trains that I saw on this line in my youth, the trains using this stretch of the sub are sadly very short and one-dimensional.

Still, this was the first time I caught a train on this subdivision since 1991. I took as many shots as I could, just so I could savor the moment. Here's a shot of 2799 heading into the cover of spruce trees that line the tracks at the back of my sister's property.

True to my recent vow to document rolling stock a little better I took a photo of the train's tank car consist. This was pretty much the entire consist, sadly. The majority of the load was liquid carbon dioxide coming back to Sarnia (CSX also transports liquid oxygen south of Sarnia along this line, which goes just past Sombra at present). I wasn't able to read what the final tank car was carrying.

The best part of this spot on the line is you can walk right up to the right of way and get a dramatic shot like this (no end of train device!). I was happy to get this image because it gives you an idea of how small the CSX operation has become outside of the Chemical Valley.

Most of the railway's business outside the valley has dried up. I wonder how long it will be before the line outside the valley is abandoned or possibly sold off to CN, which operates the parallel (and extremely busy) St. Clair River Industrial Spur, which extends all the way to the Bickford Line, where it serves the Terra nitrogen products plant.

The reason I will savor this meet is because I can imagine what the fate of this line will be under Hunter Harrison's leadership of CSX. Given that many of the customers along this line have dried up (Dow Chemical, Polysar, Ethyl and several others are long gone) while new prospects don't seem to hold out enough promise to justify any further investment in this line.

There are many ideas for what should happen at the Dow Chemicals and Ethyl sites in the valley, nothing has happened yet. There is a bioproducts industrial park taking shape at the old Polysar site and a cogeneration plant at the old Dow site, but the spurs into these old sites are basically not in use.

CSX still has business in the valley, as it serves the Esso, Shell and Suncor refineries, but aside from these jobs, there is little else to sustain the sub. The south end of the sub has been abandoned from just south of Sombra to Chatham, which forced the City of Chatham-Kent to try and find an operator to serve the agricultural customers on that end of the line. After several years of searching, no operator has been found.

Surprisingly, the tracks on the abandoned part of the sub still seem to be in good shape, or least in the Port Lambton area, anyway.

Even as far back as 2005, there were rumours that CSX was going to turn over the majority of the Sarnia Sub to CN, although this has not happened. I wonder now if the site of CSX trains through my hometown will be a thing of the past.

Old stone milepost 63 at Emily Street in Mooretown on the CSX Sarnia Subdivision.

If so, I'm glad I was able to capture some images of this railway, whose history stretches back generations, and several predecessor railroads, in Lambton County.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reasons to appreciate rolling stock (Part III)

Sometimes, a single photo of a single railcar is just not worth it to a railfan. However, even if something like a blank sided hopper car or similarly drab tank car doesn't excite you, maybe it's time to think outside the box. Yes, one railcar might not be worth a shot, but what about a shot of a bunch of railcars?

Read Part I and  Part II of the Rolling Stock Appreciation Society posts.

As railfans, we often chase diesel units and focus almost exclusively on the head of the train, but I think there's merit in shooting the middle of the train and the end of the train. Why? Because when taken together, railcars can sometimes tell a story of their own.

The best example I can think of is a container train. Intermodal trains are commonplace to say the very least and for the most part, aren't terribly exciting to shoot. Well, not so fast. I think when you take the container trains as a whole, they are actually fairly compelling to the eye. This photo above is one of a number of examples of containers trains I have shot. This train was one of my favourite meets. It also tells a story about railroading today. And check out the CN Mandaumin sign. The containers really form a great backdrop for the sign.

You'll never see just one container car on a train like you might with a boxcar, hopper car, flatcar or tank car. Intermodal cars are always part of a unit. These units are huge. They tell you a lot about how railroads operate today.

This shot, above, is one of my favourites. It doesn't contain a great deal of detail, but it tells a story. This is what railroading looks like today. This is how goods are shipped on the rails today. This is what intermodal is all about. This is what railways do best these days. Check out my post about this meet here.

You'll notice in each of these shots that the container cars are framed by an interesting looking sky. This is where I think many railfans could benefit from paying a little more attention to rolling stock. This shot, above, may not have an engine in it, but it gives you an idea of the scale of unit intermodal trains today and it is framed by an interesting backdrop. Sometimes, even a throwaway rolling stock snap can be worthwhile.

Another example of this is the humble autorack. This car hardly inspires excitement among many of us, I would imagine, but when you take a shot of group, you are telling the story of how cars are moved via rail today. You never see just one autorack on a train. They are always grouped together in large units. This tells you the scale of this source of revenue for railways. I like this shot above for that reason, but also because these autoracks are framed by some cool wildflowers trackside.

Here's another example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. I like the lines that this image captures. On the surface, a unit ethanol train isn't terribly exciting, but when I reviewed this shot and looked at the lines this long string of tank cars created, I really liked the shot. The other thing I tried to capture was the anomaly. In this case, there is one white tank car in a sea of black ethanol cars.

Full disclosure. I don't see a lot of trains, so many of these revelations I have come across about rolling stock are really the product of a dearth of meets. I don't see many trains so I am always taking as many photos as possible when I do see one. I also can admit that I threw many of my old shots of rolling stock away in the 1990s, which in hindsight was a dumb move. I can only imagine if I had those photos today how much more compelling my image collection would be.

Learn from my mistakes. Take a shot of everything. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer observations in Ottawa (Part II)

As I mentioned in the first summer observations post, a lot is happening in Ottawa this summer, especially on the rail front. However, something that isn't necessarily news is that it has been a cold and rainy summer, for the most part. I have made my way out to Fallowfield Station a few times, mostly to get shots of the Via Canada 150 wraps.

Here's a pretty typical shot from Fallowfield. The skies are grey while P42 920 leads a four-car consist westbound toward the station just past Woodroffe Avenue in mid-July. Under grey skies, of course. You can see a puddle trackside.

As I mentioned in the previous post, work on the the Confederation O-Train line is progressing at quite the pace at the moment as the Rideau Transit Group tries to get the system operational for next year. The east end of the line seems to be farther along than the western end. I have seen a fair number of hi-rail vehicles on the rails, but I have never seen the maintenance of way equipment. Here's a shot of some of the "rolling stock" along the line, although I think the British term "wagon" is a little more appropriate.

This shot was taken near the central Via station. I didn't know what to think when I saw this piece of equipment. It's an interesting site, to be sure.

At Bayview Station, work of the new transit station is progressing well. Here's a shot of the new light rail station. This is the station that is sitting atop the old Canadian Pacific trackage that leads up to the Prince of Wales Bridge.

As you may recall, the group looking to establish a privately-run commuter service between Ottawa and several outlying towns in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec has taken the city to task for not maintaining the old CP track. In a complaint filed with federal authorities, the Moose Consortium argued that the city has an obligation to maintain the track it owns that leads to the bridge. The city has responded by saying it has not abandoned the line. The city, in fact, has recently begun working with the City of Gatineau on working toward establishing O-Train service over the bridge. I don't know how this will happen, since the old CP Ellwood trackage is not only disconnected to the O-Train Trillium Line (the track is buried in ballast near the Trillium Line, as I pointed out in this post), but another section is now buried beneath the new LRT station.

I wonder how the city plans to establish a connection to Gatineau when it seems like there is no plan in place at Bayview to retrofit the facilities to accommodate a new connection to the bridge.

I will get back to the Moose Consortium in a minute, but wanted to touch on Walkley Diamond. In the past few weeks and months, some readers have alerted me to some work being done to the diamond as well as the tracks leading up to the Trillium Line. The end result is that much of the trackage on the diamond appears to have been upgraded. The ballast is new and the ties look to be new as well. You will recall from this post that this work was started in the spring. The shot above shows one of the Alstom Coradia LINT O-Train diesel trainsets heading south toward Greenboro Station at the diamond.

This shot above shows the new O-Train connection (at left of photo) between Walkley Yard and the Trillium Line. You can see the disconnected track immediately to the right of the new O-Train connection. Further to the right, some more work is ongoing in the CN portion of the yard as some track inspection takes place near a switch. In the background, you can see a long string of covered hoppers and tank cars, along with one lumber car hitched to the tank cars.

So, that leaves us with Moose. The group recently made its pitch to regional municipalities about establishing a GO Train style of regional commuter service between Ottawa and communities outside the city.

Does this mean we are likely to see trains like this one, above, in the National Capital Region soon? I have to admit I have my doubts. I give the group credit for its forward-thinking vision and ambition, but I can't see how it will overcome the massive hurdles it now faces.

Let's start simply. The group of 12 businesses backing this plan wants to establish a 400-km network along existing rails and recently abandoned rights-of-way. The commuter service would link Ottawa with Arnprior, Smiths Falls and Alexandria in Ontario. On the Quebec side, the service would link the urban area with Bristol, Wakefield and Montebello.

The railway is banking on the development opportunities along its network as a way to fund its operations. The premise is simple. Development usually happens along railway lines, so the Moose Consortium is expecting to collect a share of development money once development occurs along its line. The group also plans to allow private concerns to build the railway stations along the network. Finally, Moose plans to collect fees from municipalities that would benefit from this commuter service. Essentially, they would subscribe to the commuter service.

It's an interesting concept, particularly since it is aiming to be a privately funded venture.

Here are the issues, as I see them.

1. Linking any community along the old Beachburg Subdivison northwest of Nepean Junction would require a new rail line to be built. The group has pinpointed this old right-of-way as part of its network in several graphics.

2. Linking to Arnprior would require some significant upgrades to the Renfrew Spur in order to accommodate passenger trains operating at higher speeds than CN's weekly 589 Arnprior turn.

3. Linking to Wakefield will require saving the old Canadian Pacific Maniwaki Sub, which has been inoperable for years. The municipalities along this line recently decided it was better to pull up the rails than to invest in repairing damage from floods. This line has only hosted the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Train in the last few decades. At the very least, it needs significant work, if it is saved at all.

4. Linking to Alexandria and Smiths Falls would require trackage rights from CN and Via. This is not a huge hurdle, but I would imagine it would be tougher to get schedules to fit on the Via Smiths Falls Sub, given the frequency of Via Rail corridor trains on this line. Similarly, I see similar issues on the Alexandria Sub, given the frequency of Via service between Ottawa and Montreal.

5. The group does not appear to be interested in charging commuters a set rate for riding its commuter trains. Instead, the operations would be covered by the subscribing municipalities. I have a hard time believing a commuter service could be viable with no reliable commuter fares.

Those are just my concerns, but I do hope this group can make a go of this plan, since regional rail service appears to be a big need in and around Ottawa. I just hope some of these hurdles can be overcome. It makes for interesting blog fodder, at least. I'd be interested in what other railfans think of this plan.