Monday, August 27, 2018

Some thoughts on Amazon coming to Ottawa

Ottawa can consider itself pretty lucky to have a sizeable consolation prize from Amazon. The city lost out, like many other cities, in its bid to be the home of Amazon’s second headquarters, so HQ2. Amazon announced recently that it would be locating a massive million-square-foot facility on Boundary Road, in the city’s east end. The facility will be a warehouse and shipping hub for the company (fulfilment centre is the official name). From the coverage, I read that this building will have 97 truck bays. Of course, that had me thinking.

While the city has been busy slapping itself on the back for this development, which will employ more than 600 people, not to mention 1,500 people in the construction phase, I see problems.

Why? Well, the increased truck traffic on Highway 417 will tax an already strained highway, which is certainly near its capacity in Ottawa itself. Traffic coming from Quebec will have an easier time reaching Boundary Road.

Anyone who lives in Ottawa will tell you that the truck traffic on local highways and in the downtown core is excessive to say the very least.

When I checked out where the new Amazon facility would be located on Boundary Road, I did a quick check to see where it was in relation to a railway. It turns out, not far. Via Rail’s Alexandria Sub runs through Carlsbad Springs, which is just up the road from this facility.

I have no idea if Amazon makes use of intermodal transportation to get its goods to its facilities, but I would think there would be an opportunity here to take advantage of the economies of scale that railways offer.

Of course, the biggest challenge would be how to do you get all this merchandise to Ottawa on a train and then load those containers on trucks so it can be taken to the Amazon facility? Ottawa has no intermodal facilities in this area, save for a tiny little boxcar loading ramp located at the Rideau Bulk property next to Walkley Yard.

And that’s where the idea dies. There is so little rail infrastructure left in this city that an idea like this is dead in the water. It’s a shame because after the excitement dies down over the Amazon facilities, a few uncomfortable realities will settle in. In fact, they already have. Construction has begun on this centre and already, people in the area are complaining about the noise and dust in the local media.

This project begs the question, how is the city going to accommodate all this truck traffic on the highways? How many millions will be spent to widen Boundary Road? What will the impact of this truck traffic be on communities like Carlsbad Springs?

You might recall that I have in the past suggested that perhaps Ottawa would be an interesting site for an intermodal hub serving parts of Eastern and Northern Ontario. Of course, I’m no expert on these matters, but I wonder if anyone is thinking of possibilities like this.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Summer observations in Ottawa

I recently paid a visit to both Ottawa Via Rail stations, since my wife was taking the train to and from a professional development conference in Montreal. It was fun to be out trackside, since I have had very few chances to take in some railside action this year.

My first trip was to Fallowfield Station, to drop my wife off. Before my wife’s train arrived, a Toronto-bound corridor train arrived, with 40th anniversary wrapped P42 908 leading the way. My two daughters came with me, which allowed me to explain rail safety 101 to them. It was a good learning experience for my youngest daughter who is three as has not encountered trains this close before. For those who have never been to this station, the extended platform is quite narrow and is sandwiched between the tracks and the parking lot.

There as some harsh afternoon sunshine that limited what I could do. The images had some pretty oppressive shadows. Even after some retouches, this was about as good as it got.

After seeing that train, I had to leave early as my wife’s train was a few minutes late. All in all, it was a rather uneventful trip to the station, but I figured it was worth it to get a few more images of Via 40 wraps. As I have mentioned many times before, what seems commonplace today will seem more important years from now.

The following weekend, I took my daughters across town to the main Ottawa Via Rail station on Tremblay Road, to welcome my wife home after a long week away. I made sure to go early so I could show the girls the central train station, which they had not seen before. I observed a few things worth mentioning.

One is there are two electric O-Train consists parked on the Confederation Line in front of the Via station, which are being used for testing on the east end of the line. People in the west end will notice there are now two electric trainsets being tested on the western limits of the line as well. More on this later.

When we arrived at the station, I was pleased to see the work to the raised platform near the station has been completed. It was a little weird to see the trains coming in behind the raised platform, but it’s a big improvement for passengers.

Here are a few more shots of the Montreal-bound consist about to leave, with the new platform in the foreground. Also note that the renovations at the station also included another section of platform that has been glassed in, which travellers will appreciate in the winter. All in all, it’s a big improvement.

Here’s another few shots of the Montreal-bound train leaving the station.

And one last one.

And finally, here’s a shot of my wife’s train making its way into the station, including a shot of some wrapped coaches behind the platform.

A little closer.

The wraps behind the platform.

I like that the station has a bench on the edge of the platform where you can wait for the trains outside. I’m not sure that many people wait at this bench here or what the specific station policies are regarding waiting here, since this area is beyond the controlled gates in the station. However, I was not the only parent with children waiting on the edge of the platform and Via staff didn’t seem to mind people waiting safely away from the tracks.

It’s important to note that there are no signs forbidding people from waiting on the edge of the platform.

All railway stations should have this atmosphere.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Where the trains meet: San Luis Obispo

For a community that was never supposed to have a railway, San Luis Obispo has certainly managed to keep itself relevant as a key railway point. The city, located roughly half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a crew change point where Amtrak’s Coast Starlight trains meet. The Coast Starlight and the Pacific Surfliner both serve this city, which is located on the old Southern Pacific Sunset Route (now Union Pacific).

Although freight traffic on the line is sparse in this area, there is a key time each afternoon where you can catch the Coast Starlight Amtrak trains meeting up and the arrival of the Surfliner from San Diego, all in a span of a few hours. Luckily for me, my brother was there on business in the spring and had time to wander around the station area.

While there, he snapped some photos of two Union Pacific diesel tied up next to a bumper, not to mention the two Coast Starlight trains meeting (see above). He also visited the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, which features a few pieces of interesting rolling stock, including an old SP bay window caboose and an old heavyweight passenger car (below). The volunteer there told my brother that the city sees only about one freight a week. Sounds familiar to me.

One of the benefits that this station has for railfans is that it has a cool pedestrian bridge where you can get some interesting shots of the trains meeting. My brother took advantage of this viewpoint to get some overhead shots. This shot below was his favourite and it's hard to argue. You can really appreciate the size of some of Amtrak's intercity trains, especially with their bilevel coaches. This shot also gives you a glimpse of the city's old train station (top centre of image above the tracks), which is where the railroad museum now operates. 

Here's another overhead shot. You can also see the UP local units pretty clearly in this shot.

I like that many of Amtrak's west coast trains have a unique paint scheme from the rest of the railway's national fleet. You might have noticed that Amtrak's intercity trains in California are branded "Amtrak California." This has to do, of course, with the fact that many of Amtrak's intercity reoutes outside the Northeast Corridor are state-sponsored, which is the case in California, hence the unique livery. Another example is the Amtrak Cascades service  in Washington State and Vancouver. In the case of the Surfliner, the cars are clearly branded as such.

My brother also told me that the station is nestled into an active, vibrant part of the city, with shops and cafes nearby. That made me think of how many railway stations at street level that I’ve been to that can make this same claim. Not many.

Thanks to my brother for taking a few moments to capture these dramatic shots from a beautiful spot along the Sunset Route.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about what I said off the top, San Luis Obispo was not supposed to have the old SP Sunset Route built through the city, but local businessmen greased the wheels with the SP's backers and the rest is history. It's a pretty typical story.