Saturday, November 24, 2018

30 for 40: A lifetime of Via Rail memories (Part I)

Via Rail Canada’s 40th anniversary had me thinking back to all my memorable moments on the train. Like many others, many of my experiences on the train are tied to family trips and travelling between my hometown in Southern Ontario and university in Ottawa. I encourage anyone else out there to maybe share a few Via memories of your own. As much as people complain about our national passenger railway, I think the railway deserves a great deal of praise for continuing to provide an excellent service despite being at the mercy of its various political masters over the years. So, without further ado, here is the first installment of my 30 Via 40 memories. Let’s start with the first 10 memories, in random order.

1. My first ride aboard Via Rail was when my family took a short trip from Sarnia to London because my father had some appointment in downtown London. I was very young but I have a vague recollection that we were in an old Via Rail blue and yellow coach on a sunny morning. I also remember getting off the train at the old London station and getting into a yellow taxi cab for the first time in my young life. For a kid from a town of 6,000, seeing a “big” city and travelling on a train was about as much excitement as I could handle. This trip was very likely circa 1983-84.

2. I am lucky that I was able to catch the tail end of Via’s rainbow years, when there were was a variety of equipment in use. I recall the first time I saw a Via Rail train in the wild, as it were. The train was an all-blue consist, with an old F unit on point. We were stopped at the Bloomfield Road level crossing in Chatham, as we were making our way to Windsor to visit my grandparents. The train was heading east toward London. I don’t know why this moment sticks out in my mind, but it could not have been any later than 1983. Even to this day, my favourite piece of railway motive power is any F unit. I guess for me, they would hold the same fascination that steam holds for older generations.

3. In 1983 (this time, I know it was 1983), my family was taking the train from Sarnia all the way to Quebec City on the train for a family vacation. I have a number of memories from that time, including sleeping on the seats of an old blue and yellow coach as the train made its way overnight into Quebec. There can’t be a much more Canadian experience than this. My mom told me I fell asleep for six hours on one of those seats. I could never do that today.

4. During that same trip, I remember my brother and I walking the platforms as we were getting on to our train at Toronto’s Union Station. We spotted an old CN black-and-white consist on the platform. At the time, I had never seen any passenger equipment in anything but the familiar Via Rail blue and yellow. It would be years before I realized that Via hadn’t always just been around. The sight of those old CN black and white coaches made me a little bit jealous. I wanted to be on board that train, I told my brother. I was intensely curious.

5. Skipping ahead many years, I remember bringing my now departed dog Tessie to the Fallowfield train station in 2011, to pick up my wife who was returning home from a conference in Toronto. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter and my dog had never been apart from her, which was a bit traumatic for the dog, since my wife works from home. Well, I thought it would be a nice surprise for my wife, but it turns out that the sound and thunder of the approaching train scared my dog (a small schnauzer) half to death. But, all was well, when my wife emerged from the train and my dog saw her favourite person in the world.

6. One time on my way home from university in Ottawa, there was a great deal of commotion behind my seat. I turned around to see a flurry of well-wishers shaking hands with Walter Gretzky, who was heading home as well.

7. In 1998, I was aboard one of the very last Via Rail trains to make it into Ottawa before the ice storm essentially shut down everything in Eastern Ontario and West Quebec.

8. In October 1996, I took the train home for Thanksgiving weekend, after being away at university for the first time in my life. I arrived at Sarnia station pretty late after a long day in transit. My brother was on the station platform waiting for me. I remember him jumping up to see where I was. It’s always good to have that type of homecoming.

9. The first time I had one of those “Where am I?” moments was on one of my first trips aboard a Via Rail train to Ottawa. The train stopped at Ganonoque Station. I looked around and essentially saw nothing. Anyone who has travelled in this area knows this station is in a pretty isolated location. That was when I wondered what kind of one-horse town Ganonoque was. Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Ganononque is actually a really cool little town along the water. You just wouldn’t know it from the station.

10. I am going to date myself here, but I remember when you could still smoke on a train. As part of my family’s trip to Montreal (again, this was early 1980s), half of our LRC car was designated as smoking. I remember a very animated group at the opposite end of our car carrying on a lively conversation in French. My mom and dad were not impressed. It was only later that I discovered that the group was actually telling a bunch of dirty jokes.

Friday, November 9, 2018

CN leaving Ottawa? A look at the possible scenarios

As several local rail enthusiasts have noted in recent weeks, Canadian National has listed all of its Ottawa-related trackage on its three-year abandonment list. That includes the entire Alexandria Sub, the section of the Smiths Falls Sub where is operates with running rights from Via Rail, one mile of the old M&O, its Vankleek Spur, L’Orignal Spur, its connections to Walkley Yard and the last remnants of the Beachburg Sub.

Here's a link to the CN page, where you can find the PDF report.

What does this mean? Well, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen, but it’s obvious that CN no longer wants to foot the bill to maintain what little trackage it does own in the Ottawa area, not to mention in Eastern Ontario (not including its Kingston Subdivision main line through Prescott).

There are many possible scenarios and consequences at play here, depending on what does happen. No doubt, CN will argue its operations in this area are no longer viable to its bottom line, which is probably fairly accurate, given the scale of the operation and the massive overall structure of the company itself.

This is how I see it, from my limited knowledge of CN and railways in general.

1. CN will sell what little trackage it owns on the Alexandria Sub/Smiths Falls Sub corridor to Via Rail. There is no question this will happen. On its abandonment list, it’s not clear to me if CN owns any of this trackage anymore. Someone with more information than me can fill me in. It is listed with an operating rights designation, which likely means it's not theirs.

2. Depending on what’s left to be sold off and what CN still owns in the city, is there a chance CN would continue operating freight services here on a strict running-rights basis? I don’t think so, but I’m raising the point for someone who knows more than me. If CN doesn't own much of anything, it would make no sense to continue on a running rights basis.

3. The opportunity for a new shortline railway to take over CN’s operation is now very real. For this, I reached out to the former General Manager of the much loved Ottawa Central Railway, James Allen. This is what he told me via email: “Can a go be made to operate traffic from Arnprior, Ottawa and L'Orignal/Hawkesbury...I think so. However much due diligence is required.”

We can only hope that someone as professional as Mr. Allen would step in and refocus all local efforts from a more effective shortline mindset. Ottawa will never again be a freight railway hotbed. But, Ottawa Central’s success from 1998–2008 is proof that a freight railway can succeed here.

If CN does indeed pull out, the question becomes who steps in? Is there an existing shortline company or company along the lines of Genesee & Wyoming (G&W's Goderich-Exeter Railway seen below near Mitchell, Ont.) that would be interested in Ottawa? It all depends on what is actually left and what new business could possibly be attracted.

4. If a shortline does step in, then the question of what to do with Walkley Yard becomes a moot point. I’m guessing a number of interested parties would be watching this situation carefully, including OC Transpo, which uses a portion of the yard as maintenance facilities for its fleet of Alstom diesel light rail trainsets that ply the Trillium Line. That line, as you know, will be extended as part of the second phase of the city's LRT expansion.

5. This development causes another headache for one of CN’s sole remaining customers in the west end, Nylene Canada, in Arnprior. This company has stated in the past that it has to have its caprolactum delivered via insulated tank car, given the nature of the substance. Trucking is not an option. A shortline would no doubt continue its weekly deliveries to Arnprior, but the company must still be uneasy.

It’s hard to see CN’s pending departure from Ottawa as anything but inevitable. I once tended to agree with those who stated at the outset that CN was only interested in OCR for the scrap value of the Beachburg Sub from Nepean Junction to Pembroke. That’s a lot of rail, worth tens of millions of dollars that it was able to retrieve and use elsewhere on its system. And I’m not mentioning the other assorted pieces of track it has removed in the last several years in and around Ottawa.

But, given that CN has been operating in Ottawa for 10 years now that argument doesn’t seem to hold up. If the company was only interested in rails only, then why would it stay in Ottawa so long? Maybe the opposition from Renfrew County and the Pontiac Region in Quebec held up its plans for the Beachburg Sub longer than it would have liked. Maybe the OCR acquisition was something CN had to shoulder as part of its purchase of the entire Quebec Rail Corp. portfolio in 2008.

As a railfan and major proponent of regional commuter rail, I’m hopeful that a shortline operator can step in and make a profit here. From a very selfish point-of-view, it would great to see more than one train a week on the railway tracks going through my neighbourhood.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Canada Science and Technology Museum, Part II

As I wrote about earlier this summer, I finally made it out to the newly renovated Canada Science and Technology Museum with my family. While there, I made sure to get a good look at the railway exhibition. Happily, there’s a few more rail-themed treasures for those interested.

Read Part I here.

When you enter the museum, the Artifact Alley awaits you, which is an interesting combination of a number of items that all fall within the theme of science and technology. For example, a sled is displayed prominently, which showcases how it was built to cut through heavy snow.

There are a few railway items in this part of the museum, although you have to really pay attention because there are so many items competing for your attention. I found the signage in this part of the museum not as helpful as it could be in identifying the whereabouts of certain items.

The best example is a scale wooden model of the old CN Turbotrain. The signage mentions the train, but you have to really search around to find it hanging high near the museum’s ceiling.

There’s also a sign that points out an old Canadian Pacific Railway sign, although once again, I had to search around before I found the old sign behind a number of other artifacts.

The highlight in this section of the museum (at least for me) was an old stone surveyor’s cairn from the era when the Canadian Pacific route was being mapped out from Northern Ontario to B.C. I was amazed that the cairn has been preserved all these years. A fascinating relic from the earliest history of the CPR.

Of course, you can’t go to this museum as a railfan and not check out the massive steam locomotive on the front lawn. This old beast has always been a popular draw. In recent years, it was beginning to look a little worn due to the harsh beating it takes from Ottawa weather.

Happily though, the Bytown Rail Society has worked hard to make a number of cosmetic restorations to this old engine. You can see it in the front headlight and number boards. About the only thing missing is the bell on the side of the engine, although I can imagine a bell would be too tempting for a thief.

I've blogged about this engine before, which you can read about here.

I've been back to this museum since my initial visit this summer, since I had family visiting in Ottawa. For those who are visiting Ottawa with children, this museum has a little bit of everything, including lots of things to touch.