Thursday, March 28, 2019

One small train, so many thoughts

A two-car train trundled by. Big deal. I’ve caught this train numerous times. For most people in my neighbourhood, I’m not even sure they’re aware that these train tracks are even active anymore. The weekly service out to Arnprior is like an apparition. I’m sure some are vaguely aware that trains may use the tracks at some point during the week, but it likely doesn’t seem all that important.

In my opinion, this weekly train is tremendously important. And here’s why I consider myself really fortunate to catch this train as it returned to Walkley Yard.

1. These tracks might not be here much longer. You will recall that I wrote about CN’s plans to walk away from its Ottawa operations. While this is hardly surprising, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the remaining trackage it actually controls in the area. Most of the tracks in the region are now controlled by Via Rail, with the exception of the last portion of the Beachburg Sub between Federal and the old Nepean Junction. This link is hardly important to CN, but it is absolutely critical to Nylene Canada in Arnprior, which relies on the Beachburg Sub-Renfrew Spur tracks to receive its weekly delivery to its plant. Does this mean Nylene Canada will have to purchase this right-of-way or at least the rails? Will the city be a willing partner and buy the land beneath the rails, like the old Region of Ottawa-Carleton did with the old Renfrew Sub? It’s clear to me that something has to be settled here before CN pulls out.

2/ I don’t think I’ll miss CN in Ottawa, quite frankly, since the railway has done little to nothing to expand rail service here, which is not meant to be a critique. It’s just reality. CN is not a short line and it should not be expected to act like one. Its purchase of the old Ottawa Central was always an awkward one, with many suggesting was solely motivated by the scrap value of the old Beachburg Sub rails between Pembroke and Nepean Junction. But, if CN goes, that means I won’t likely have a chance to shoot any number of its older units anymore. I have been blessed to catch many different liveries, including a leased GATX unit, over my years of catching the Arnprior Turn. So, from a railfanning perspective, I will miss the variety of older units the railway has trotted out here in recent years.

3/ A commuter opportunity awaits. Unless the city reverses course, these rails will not survive. That is, unless a short line railway takes over local freight rail operations or the city decides to use these rails for future commuter use. As we have seen in the last decade, the city’s vision for light rail does not include using existing infrastructure, although the last two mayoral runners-up have proposed the idea to little fanfare. Meanwhile, areas that are screaming for better transit, like Kanata and Stittsville, will have to wait for Phase III of the city’s light rail plans before they get any service. And, as locals know, Phase I is already a year behind and Phase II is already mired in controversy. It’s a real shame, in my opinion. The old region had the vision to consider maybe one day using the Renfrew Spur for commuter rail and the last portion of the Beachburg Sub would be ideal for that use, now that it appears CN has no plans for it. Perhaps a short line operator can move the needle for freight service or commuter rail on these tracks. You will recall that there was a short portion of the old Beachburg Sub north of Nepean Junction that used to go through large subdivisions in north Kanata, but that commuter opportunity was lost when the city failed to even consider it.

4/ Freight by rail matters. Especially local freight that is carried by a short line. We don’t have to get into any extensive environmental debate to know that Ottawa’s highways are congested, to say the least. And the city is often choked by truck traffic. Ottawa is no different than any other city, but if tourism officials are serious about the tourist experience in a national capital, imagine what a difference it would make if there was a concerted effort to divert some of the neverending truck traffic off local roads (especially downtown) with a reinvigorated freight railway. Of course, there are practical considerations here. Railways will never be able to replace trucks for numerous local transportation delivery needs, but I would imagine there are still several opportunities that are going untapped, simply because CN couldn’t be bothered. Maybe it’s time for a new Ottawa Central type operation, or perhaps a short line holding company with some vision. Admittedly, it would likely be a tough sell, but it seems incredible to me that a short line couldn’t make money in a city of nearly a million people.

I look at the photos from the March Break meet with the GATX and they seem quaint now, since so much of our snow is finally (knock on wood) starting to melt. But I was happy to catch this train in a snow squall because it allowed me to get some winter shots, which I have not been able to do this winter.

I've mentioned it before in this blog that winter railroading is underrepresented in my railway photograph archives. Add to this meet another interesting catch I had at Fallowfield Station and I had quite a productive week recently (stay tuned for more on the other meet).

So that's the sum total of my thoughts from my meet with this tiny freight train. Due do some scheduling changes in my household, I have not been able to get out on Wednesday afternoons to catch this train so this might be my last meet with CN’s 589. I hope not, but I fear it might be so.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

What a difference a year makes

So I finally was able to catch something trackside, for the first time in months (and I won't say how many). A number of life factors have occupied my time. But this past March Break, I did manage to break away on Wednesday afternoon to catch the Arnprior Local as it passed through Bells Corners. I have noticed in the last few months that the local usually passes through around 4:20 p.m. as I am getting off my bus and walking home. I often hear the local's horn as it approaches my neighbourhood, so I was reasonably confident that I would catch it this past Wednesday. And I did.

I have a fair number of thoughts to share from this brief meeting, but I will leave that until next week, along with the rest of the photos of this two-car train. But the only thing I will mention this week is how much a difference this year's winter made to my shot, compared to last February, when I caught 589 last.

Here's this year's shot of 589, led by GMTX GP38-2 2260. Yep, that's a full fledged March snow squall. When I arrived at this spot a half hour earlier, there were only light flurries.

Now here's a shot from last year, roughly the same time, roughly the same place and roughly the same vantage point (complete with the same two poles in each shot and the same white SUV for the truly observant). The biggest difference would be that there is considerably less snow to contend with, making the shot easier to focus.

Yep, it's been that kind of winter!

I have a number of thoughts to share about this meet, but I wanted to leave that for another post. I simply wanted to point out that it's been a long winter in Ottawa. Aside from the massive snow piles at the end of this parking lot (I estimate I was standing on the top of  10-12 foot high pile), which made the shots of this train much easier both times, I'll be glad when spring eventually arrives.

Whenever that is. As I write this, they are calling for another possible 10-15 cm of snowfall for tomorrow. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

March Break tonic for a weary railfan

Those who are familiar with this city know that our light rail system has been delayed (yet again). For those keeping score, that's three delays now and more than a year past when we were supposed to "Get Ready for Rail" as our transit system continues to promote.

Meanwhile, the city has handed one of the principals responsible for Phase I, SNC Lavalin, the keys to Phase II at a price tag of $4.6 billion, or $1.2 billion more than expected. And, despite the legitimate concerns from city councillors about how the second phase become so much more costly, we are getting very little in the way of explanation from city officials. It's amazing to me that people that are public servants would do their best to avoid answering legitimate questions about something that is so critical to the future of our city. I should also mention that the extension of the Trillium Line (you know, the O-Train line that is actually operating) is also likely to come in over budget.

From the outset, I have wondered whether this city really thought through its options for relieving traffic congestion, especially when it had a pretty decent rapid bus system that, with a few tweaks, could have served the city well for decades to come. In other words, rail is great when it addresses a real need. In Ottawa's case, I have never seen a clear reason why its light rail plans were somehow better than a revamped Transitway bus system.

Did I mention that one of the reasons the first phase of the Confederation Line is being delayed, if you believe some people, is that testing has shown that the trainsets could not cope with severe winter conditions? I really do hope that was one of the first things considered when this massive project was first floated.

Okay, so the point is, it's not a good time to be a railfan or a rail booster in Ottawa. The city, by the way, is about to have its appeal heard in the case of the Prince of Wales bridge, which it neglected for more than a decade before someone took Ottawa to task for severing the bridge from the old Ellwood Subdivision.

Man, I keep meaning to share a few things I saw this week when I took my family to the Canada Science and Technology Museum, but the bad news keeps piling up. Well, let's lighten things up. Here's a scale model of the old CN/Via Rail turboliner that is hanging from the rafters in the museum. It's up so high, getting a decent shot is tough.

One thing I noticed when looking at this model is that there is a single axle between the middle passenger coach at the end power units. Was this part of the design of the actual Turboliner? Any experts out there who know?

Here's another interesting item that I saw in the steam engine exhibit. There are so many transportation related items in this exhibit, it's sometimes hard to see everything, but I saw this dramatic image of  Hudson type locomotive that is firing up before it heads out into the night. I suppose if I was a steam fan, I would be more enthralled with this photo. As it is, I think it's a cool shot.

I made sure to get a good shot of the golden rodent on the side of the CP steam locomotive.

Here's a little bonus for kids. They are giving away cardboard cutout steam locomotives for kids to take home. Remember those Via Rail LRC cardboard trains? Same concept. My older daughter asked for one. Brought a tear to my eye!

This reminds me of Bullet Nose Betty back in Sarnia.

Finally, the museum has a special exhibit right now, including an 1874 streetcar that once prowled the early commuter rail rights-of-way in Toronto. It was built in New Rochelle, New York.

The exhibit mentioned that the cars were pulled by horses, which had its limitations, obviously. The horses would often get tired, so the operators had to keep a rather large stable of horses at the ready to relieve the ones pulling the cars. You think your commute is slow now? Imagine what it must have been like in 1874!

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time at the museum this week. I hope to get out there and see some actual rail action this week, as it has been too long for me since I've been trackside. At the very least, the museum offered a little bit of comfort for me after months of shaking my head at what's been happening here in Ottawa.