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.


Eric May said...

Thanks for the update on this line. I spent a week in Wallaceburg back in 2005. I have photos of the same milepost.

Canadian Train Geek said...

That's quite a nice location to catch the train - even if it is very short!

My only exposure to the CSX line in Ontario was a quick glimpse at the section in Chatham.

Michael said...

Apparently, the CSX run south to Sombra is the Southwestern Ontario equivalent to CN's Arnprior Turn here in Ottawa. I guess I have a way with rare trains. Thanks for the comments, gents. It was a real trip to catch this train and relive some memories from my earlier railfanning days.

Eric said...

Thanks for sharing, Michael. A corner of Ontario not usually covered!