Thursday, September 26, 2019

Ten thoughts about the Confederation Line launch

I reluctantly took my first few trips aboard the new O-Trains on the city’s much-ballyhooed Confederation Line recently. To my surprise, I found the new system quite nice, with many small details well executed. There’s no doubt that people in the city are impressed with the new system. I think much of the excitement is centred around the fact that the line acts as a quasi subway through the downtown core, as it travels beneath the main parts of the core between the edge of the LeBreton Flats to the west and the University of Ottawa to the east.

Without getting into the politics behind the new line or the operational and bureaucratic miscues that have led us to this point, I thought I’d share a few observations on the trains themselves and the on-board experience.

1. My first impression of the train was that the ride was quite smooth and the trains remarkably spacious, considering how many people are hopping aboard at the end points of the line, which for me is Tunney’s Pasture. However, it is important to note that the old rapid bus transit system is still operating normally until Oct. 6, so these trains aren’t yet at full capacity just yet.

2. From a purely aesthetic point of view, I find these trains fairly ugly, especially the operator’s area at either end. I’ve seen other light rail sets in other citys that do not look like an insect’s head. Our trains look as though they have grotesque bug eyes on either end. I know they are probably designed this way to maximize safety and the sightlines for the train’s operators, but still. This is the light rail version of the P42. A small complaint.

3. The downtown underground stations are impressively laid out and quite functional. They are clean, although a bit sterile for my tastes. Most of the stations along the Confederation Line have a fair bit of artwork in them, but I found the actual platform areas at Rideau and Lyon Station to be a bit bland. Once you get into the areas with the stairs and pedestrian ramps that lead you away from the platforms, you begin to see more of the artistic flourishes. I suppose the platforms are no better worse than the subway station stops I can recall from my time taking transit in Montreal or Toronto.

4. The four-storey escalator that takes you from the deep underground Rideau Station to ground level is disorienting. It’s encased in a long, drab concrete tube. Unfortunately, there was no thought put into designing anything along the tube that is positioned at level. That means when you ride the escalator, you have a hard time judging whether you are standing at level. Think of the Crazy Kitchen at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and you will begin to understand. I have issues with vertigo and equilibrium and found the escalator a bit unsettling.

5. Pity the poor Trillium Line, the city’s first true light rail system. With all the hype and hoopla surrounding the launch of the Confederation Line, it’s somehow getting lost in the shuffle that this city has had a light rail system for more than a decade. The media coverage suggesting otherwise is just lazy.

6. The sound of the Citadis Spirit trainsets on the Confederation Line is more of a whirring rather than the sounds you typically associate with railways. I’ve been on subways in Toronto and Montreal and have to say that these LRT trainsets here sound much differently. There are no clanking sounds, just a high-pitched whirring.

7. The downtown rail tunnel is much louder than I thought it would be. As the trains makes their way through the core, the echoes of the train through the tunnel are quite noticeable inside the train cars. This is not a complaint. Just an observation.

8. The Tremblay Station that is right near the Via Rail central station has to be one of the more lightly used stations on the line. I am not an east-end commuter, so I can’t say this definitively. I took the train during off-peak hours but was still quite surprised at how empty this station was.

9. It’s interesting how the city links together two trainsets for the morning rush. The trains arrive every 3-5 minutes and are always in this configuration where two cabs are linked up together in the middle. I suppose this gives the operations people flexibility when they have reduced demand on the weekend and don’t need to use this two-trainset consist.

10. The new system has proven to get me to my workplace a few minutes quicker each morning, which was a pleasant surprise. Still, I’m not exactly thrilled that I have to make two connections just to get to work.

I guess I will reserve final judgment until this line operates in the winter. But, so far, so good.

We'll see.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Beachburg Sub Milepost 300

Earlier this year, I very quietly passed the six-year mark, or at least the sixth anniversary of my first post on the Beachburg Sub blog. To be honest, the six-year mark came at a time when I was contending with a busy household, ballet lessons, swimming lessons, volunteer commitments, a basement that needed to be gutted and rebuilt as well as a relentless cold snap that prevented any time trackside.

I recall only thinking of the sixth anniversary (April 30, 2013 was the first post) a few weeks after I had actually passed the mark. Since that time, my basement has been rebuilt and the demands on my time have eased up a little bit. That’s when it hit me that I was approaching another milestone, or milepost, perhaps.

I was nearing my 300th post.

This here is Milepost 300.

I am proud of the fact that I’ve stuck with it as long as I have, considering how challenging it is to produce a blog from a city with so little in the way of railway fodder to offer. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot and managed to make the most of what little there is to see in Ottawa. But, that deficiency has also served me well as it has allowed me to engage in some interesting online discussion with other enthusiasts about railway policy, particularly at the local level (spoiler alert for any newcomer to this blog: local railway policy is a disaster).

I’ve given a lot of thought over the last year and a bit about this blog. I’ve thought about what I want to do with it and what stories I’d like to tell still. At times, I wondered if the well was running dry. As you might have guessed if you’ve been here before, I’m not content to just share photos of trains I’ve caught trackside. I like to tell stories and share information about railways as well. I’m not terribly well versed on the operational side (obviously), but I really enjoy delving into the history of railways. In fact, I’d like to start looking for a few historic topics to explore in new posts, since I haven’t done a lot of those recently.

I’ve been fortunate this summer that I have caught more trackside action than I did in all of 2018. I suppose it’s a glass half full situation. I am spending more time sharing recent trackside experiences and less time digging into some historic topics. When one well begins to run a bit dry, the other one always seems to have something fresh to offer.

It seems as though whenever I feel I’m running out of material or interesting things to share, something always comes along.

The end result of these musings is not really a result at all. I don’t know how long I will continue this blog and I like that I don’t know. I want to keep this project open-ended. I’ll do it as long as I enjoy it and I feel I have something worthwhile to share. I’ve had this approach since Day One. I have kept to a weekly schedule through much of these last six years, although I did have to ease my pace last year given all the things I mentioned above. I even took a small sabbatical this summer while I was on vacation in Southwestern Ontario, which allowed me to do a lot of railfanning and form the basis for about three months worth of posts.

So, as I pass MP300, let me just say thank you to everyone who stops by to read, comment, offer tips and sometimes even submit guest content (that list is quite large, so I won't mention everyone). I’m not really sure that a blog is a terribly relevant entity on the interwebs these days, but I like this blog and I enjoy sharing what little I have to offer with fellow enthusiasts.

Okay, enough navel gazing. As they say en francais, on-y va. Let’s go.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

The tricky business of capturing the hidden Nova railway operation

Like it or not, plastics are vital to the global economy. Until we figure out how to properly recycle them all and keep them out of landfills, they will always be part of our lives. And someone has to make that plastic. This year in St. Clair Township, Nova Chemicals is investing $2.2 billion in a new polyethylene plant next to its existing plant, just east of Corunna on the Petrolia Line. This plant is crucial in the production of polyethelyne, which is the most common form of plastic in the world.

For those who like to watch railways in action, it means that Nova’s switching operations are likely to remain quite busy and quite possibly expand.

I’ve always been fascinated by this operation, which is partly visible from Highway 40, although it is not a great place to get photographs, since the rails are largely hidden behind a grassy berm. Also, the highway can be quite busy and the only place to get photos is on the overpass over the tracks that connect Nova’s railway to the CN St. Clair River Industrial Spur. Needless to say, there is no place to stop here.

Hoping for the best! This is a no-look shot. I left some of the highway guardrail in the shot. I was going pretty slow at this point.

My approach to getting any shots of this operation has always been the same. I only attempt a shot when I am sure the highway is not busy and there are no cars around mine. Next, I roll down the passenger window and slow down while keeping my eyes on the road. Finally, I point my camera in the general direction of the railway and hope for the best.

This summer, while visiting family in the area, I was passing by this operation when the conditions were right for a shot. The highway was empty in the middle of the day so I fired away and hoped for the best. Fortunately, I managed to get some interesting shots of this switching operation, which has a half diamond, what appears to be a genset locomotive and occasionally an on SW unit, although that old warhorse was nowhere to be seen when I was driving by.

Here’s a good shot of the genset switcher.

I did, however, manage to spot the SW unit later in the week as I was passing by CN’s Sarnia Yard, where I saw the old Nova switcher near the old roundhouse, where it was likely undergoing maintenance at the Lambton Diesel Specialists shop. I’ll save the rest of that adventure for another post.

The Nova operation isn’t terribly flashy, as it’s exclusively the domain of the tank cars you see on trains anywhere in Canada and the United States. But the refinery in the background does make for some interesting shots you won’t just anywhere.

I’ve always been fascinated by this operation, ever since it used to host those old GATX Tank Train branded tank cars. In recent years, Nova Chemicals has been expanding a fair bit in the area, which bodes well for the CN industrial spur that connects Sarnia to the Terra Industries plant at the edge of the old Sombra Township.

August 2017 at the Rokeby Line

In the last few years, trackage has been added off the CN spur near Mooretown. These tracks are shielded from view by a large metal wall lining the Moore Line, but some of it can be seen as you travel west down the Moore Line near Highway 40. I don’t know enough about Nova’s expansion in the area to be able to say what the purpose is of these new tracks.

I think the beauty in shooting the industrial switching in this area doesn't necessarily have to do with the trains, which are pretty standard tank car and covered hopper consists. I think the interesting element is the background.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Catching up with GEXR in Stratford

Stratford was my destination of choice. I knew it was the headquarters of the Goderich Exeter Railway. This railway has always been a source of fascination for me, which made this opportunity to possibly see it in action as a priority. I was dismayed to learn recently that GEXR no longer has control of the Guelph Subdivision, after CN resumed control of the right-of-way after the GEXR lease was not renewed. These are my thoughts about that from last week. So, as I was visiting family in the countryside about half an hour west of Stratford, I knew that my prospects for seeing something would likely be best in Stratford, since I didn’t want to venture too far afield.

When I arrived, I made sure to stake out a good spot near the historic train station, which was built in 1913 by the Grand Trunk Railway. Interestingly, the two-storey station was built in the prairie style, according to the historic plaque. I’m not sure I’ve seen many stations like this in Ontario.

It was a beautiful summer morning, with a few clouds obscuring the rising sun, which turned out to be quite a blessing, as a real, honest-to-goodness GEXR train was readying itself alongside this grain and feed elevator complex. When I first arrived, the train was backing up toward the elevators with a short consist of grain hoppers in tow. I waited for the crew to get its clearance and watched the nearby signal before the short train eased forward.

I was thrilled with some of these shots, which have a few picturesque elements to them, not the least of which is the grain elevator. I often marvel at the grain elevator images on other blogs (hello, Trackside Treasure and Train Geek!) and wonder if I could ever capture something like that here in Ontario. Well, this one below is not quite as majestic, but it’s one of my favourite shots I have taken in years. If there was a better vantage point, I might have moved back a bit but I had to stay on publicly accessible land.

I was still quite happy with these images.

And, unlike a few years ago when I caught some GEXR action in Kitchener, this time I actually caught a fully painted GEXR geep in its Genesee & Wyoming colours. The GEXR unit is the second.

The first unit in the consist was notable too, since it was painted for the Southern Ontario Railway, a Hamilton-Nanticoke area shortline that was also swallowed up into the CN empire once again. So, a good catch all around.

I took a few more shots of the short train as it made its way to the Goderich Sub and northwest toward Lake Huron.

I stuck around to see if possibly a CN freight was going to make its way by the station, but signals at the station remained stubbornly solid red, which meant nothing was imminent, sadly. I have heard different stories as to just how much CN is using this subdivision again, as it doesn’t appear to be a huge priority for the railway.

I did look for some rolling stock in the yard worth shooting and saw this car, which was hard to capture properly due to the angle I had to capture it. It reminded me of a similar yellow hopper I spotted recently in Smiths Falls, but this one did not have the same paint scheme. NMIX 465119 is a Scoular grain hopper, with a grain image on the side. Here's another shot of the car here. The car is owned by NSC Minerals Inc. Anyone know more about these cars? This is the first time I've ever seen one. (Quick update - NSC Minerals is Saskatchewan's biggest provider of rock salt, according to its website. That would make sense for this car to be on a GEXR train headed to Goderich. The car will likely be used to service the salt mine at the end of the GEXR line at Goderich Harbour. Still no info on Scoular)

All in all, it was a brief, but exciting, morning for me in Stratford. I can now cross GEXR off my list officially, as I have captured a GEXR train at the east end of the Goderich Subdivision.