Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Lament for a lost shortline operation

I’ve written a fair bit in this blog about a fascinating railway called the Goderich-Exeter Railway in southern Ontario. In recent years on family trips to areas where GEXR operates, I’ve tried to capture some activity on this shortline with little success. That changed in 2017 when I finally caught a little activity in Kitchener, including this train working the Kitchener yard.

… and this pair of engines that had just pulled up into the GEXR offices next to the Kitchener Via Rail station on Victoria Street.

Without getting into the history too much, the GEXR took over CN’s operations on its Guelph and Goderich Subdivisions in 1998 and, by all accounts, did a great job attracting more business along the line.

I have also mentioned in this space that I once lived in Kitchener and often saw the railway in action, but I never bothered to photograph it, since I was not in the habit of taking rail photos at the time. When I was working for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record newspaper, I planned to do a business magazine feature on the GEXR right around the time when I was laid off. What might have been…

So it’s with a little bit of sadness that I learned recently that CN resumed operations along the Guelph Subdivision last year once GEXR’s 20-year lease on the rail line expired. I’m only mentioning it now since I recently travelled in the area where GEXR still operates.

The good news is that GEXR still maintains operations between Exeter, Goderich and Stratford, which is one of the areas where I was recently (closer to Stratford, actually). However, I can’t help but wonder how much of the railway’s revenues were derived from this stretch of track. To my uninformed eye, I would imagine that the Guelph Subdivision accounted for the lion’s share of the revenues. It makes me wonder if GEXR parent company Genesee & Wyoming will be terribly interested in maintaining the old Goderich Subdivision as a standalone operation. I hope so.

The bad news is that I have seen first hand what happens when CN takes back shortline operations. Now, I won’t get into what happened to the remnants of the old Ottawa Central operations, since there is a massive difference between OCR and GEXR, but I think it’s still a fair comment. CN is great at being a mainline transcontinental railway. As a local service operator in smaller centres? Well, I can’t imagine many people would think that service will improve along the Guelph Subdivision. I hope CN maintains the level of service and finds ways to keep expanding, but I am skeptical. Does any major railway know how to do carload business effectively anymore?

I also wonder what will happen to the Waterloo Central Railway, which operates on part of the Elmira trackage in north Waterloo. That rail line’s freight operations, such as they are, have been handled by GEXR for years on an as-needed basis outside the hours where the Waterloo Central would operate. I'm not sure what the fate of this line is, as it is, generally speaking, not essential to CN's goal to use the Guelph Sub as a through route.

It should also be noted that CN also took over the majority of the operations of the Southern Ontario Railway, which operated in the Hamilton-Caledonia-Nanticoke area. That was another line I recently saw.

It’s an interesting trend that flies in the face of what we typically see today. Most Class I railways are not in the habit of taking back their former operations on secondary lines from shortline operators, but CN is the exception. I suppose an optimist would suggest it’s a good sign that the economics of operating on these lines has attracted a big player like CN again, since that obviously speaks well of the regional economy.

Truthfully, I worry about this move, purely from a railfan point of view. I think freight railways have an important role to play in moving goods in an environmentally friendly manner at a time when we are looking to reverse the effects of climate change. Railways also help maintain the economies of towns that otherwise cannot attract big business. Ask Renfrew County or the Pontiac Region in Quebec how their efforts to attract big business are going now that they have no rail access.

Here in Canada, there is no turning back from rail abandonment. We have no effective legislation to preserve rail lines as they do in many jurisdictions in the United States.

So this summer, I was pleased to finally see some GEXR activity when I was in the Stratford area (stay tuned for that post). I have always been a fan of the underdogs, which is why I had a real affinity for the GEXR. I hope CN treats these operations better than it did to the old OCR operations in Ottawa.

One can only hope.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Some rare sightings in Wyoming

My brother was taking his son to soccer back in May when he had a few minutes to spare in Wyoming. They decided to park trackside in the tiny parking lot near the Wyoming Via Rail station. They were lucky enough to catch a westbound passing freight with some interesting elements worth discussing a bit. Fortunately for me, he sent along the pictures he took.

Before we get into it, a little context. Wyoming is one of my favourite spots to catch railroading action in Southwestern Ontario. The CN Strathoy Sub goes through the heart of the downtown. Around the Broadway Street crossing, there are multiple spots along a gravel access road where you can set up and shoot passing freight trains. Closer to the station, you can see the remnants of CN's old freight loading ramp, which is now mainly covered over in weeds.

You can read about my meets with trains in these posts:

The warbonnet in Wyoming (2018)
Perfect afternoon in Wyoming (2017)

On the west side of the crossing, you can see a large feed mill, complete with trackside elevators, that could easily be incorporated into trackside photos, if you can find the right vantage point on public property.

In short, there is lots for a railfan to see in this town.

The train my brother caught was led by 3807, a GE ES44AC unit with a special decal on its hood that appears to be honouring Canada's Indigenous Peoples. The inuksuk is a symbol of the Inuit in Canada's north (CN operates as far north as the Northwest Territories, which boasts a large Inuit and Dene population). The infinity symbol (sideways eight) is the symbol of the Metis while the feather is a more broad symbol of the various First Nations spread all across Canada.

I have seen images of this logo on other sites and am happy to share my brother's photo of this unit on this blog.

My brother made a few notes in the message he sent to me. He took a shot of an old Cotton Belt hopper, which he tells me he rarely sees in Sarnia.

He also pointed out that he doesn't seen many Potash hoppers, although I was equally intrigued by the Agrium Hopper behind the Potash hopper. I think the Potash cars are likely a more common sight, however I also tend to only see them up here in Ottawa only at certain times as well.

I like this shot of this tiny Wisconsin Central hopper as well. But once again, I am intrigued by the car following, as it appears to have some heavy items strapped down to it. I wondered if it was some sort of prefab concrete product.

My thanks to my brother for sharing shots of his meeting in Wyoming. If you are ever in Southwestern Ontario, this town offers a great trackside experience, especially on a busy mainline. Highly recommended.

And speaking of Southwestern Ontario, I will be heading down there to visit family in the next week and a half. So I will be parking the Beachburg Sub on the siding for a week or two. I hope to have lots to share with everyone when I get back, because I plan to do some railfanning when I am there.