Friday, January 31, 2020

Southern Comfort (Part II)

The second part of my plan to do some railfanning in Florida included a visit to the Plant City Railway Museum and the adjacent railfanning platform at the junction of the old Atlantic Coast Line A Line and the Seaboard Railroad S Line. (Here's the first post.) It all sounded very promising. The daylight wasn't terribly kind and the position of the buildings meant this was the only decent shot I could get of this caboose.

Those who read this blog know I am a fan of CSX's predecessor railways, since the Chessie System (former C&O, former Pere Marquette) served my hometown in Southwestern Ontario. That line still exists in a much reduced capacity as part of CSX's industrial switching operation for the Chemical Valley in Sarnia and a few scattered industries south of the city.

So a chance to see two historic predecessor rail lines in action was pretty exciting. The Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum is located in the city's former Union Station in the downtown. It was not open on the morning I visited, sadly, but there was more than enough on the museum grounds to look at, including this wonderfully preserved and rehabilitated Seaboard Caboose.

Plant City is an area that is dotted with a number of railway tracks, but the activity in and around the city is mostly relegated to overnight freight action, which was a big disappointment to me.

This Whitcomb switcher is almost too small to be believed. You have to see these machines to truly appreciate what it must have taken to fit any type of railroad-grade horsepower into such a small box. I looked at the axles and wheels on this thing and wondered how it maintained its balance. This unit, ACL 508, was painted in an unknown-to-me purple and grey livery for the old Atlantic Coast Line. These engines remind me of the trackmobiles you sometimes still see in industrial switching operations.Here's an example of one, for comparison.

Since the S Line and A Line were so quiet, I made sure to seek out the details on the museum grounds, such as the Seaboard logo on the caboose. Here's an interesting piece of trivia. The Seaboard Railroad adopted the "Air Line" into its name as a way to compete with airlines. The Air Line nomenclature was meant to signify that the Seaboard routes were the straightest and most direct connections between destinations. So, in other words, it was like flying straight to your destination. Interesting marketing concept. I always liked this logo.

The ACL logo was incorporated into a number of railroad items on the grounds, including a few benches, which used old rails bent to act as supports for the wooden slats. I like that the old ACL listed its major destinations on the outside of its logo. It gives you a good idea of the reach of this old line. That tradition continued when Seaboard and ACL came together as the SCL, which in turn became part of the loosely joined Family Lines system (later Seaboard System). Here's an example of the Family Lines logo.

This is where I waited, and waited, and waited. The signals on the A Line and the S Line remained solid red in my time in Plant City, which meant that nothing was happening. I was really disappointed that not a single train passed through, although I did know going in that traffic was light to sporadic in the daytime. Welcome to modern PSR-obsessed railways. Sigh...

Another small piece of trivia I unearthed while in Plant City was that the town itself was not named after the famous strawberries that grow in the region. Chances are, if you buy strawberries with any regularity, as I do, you will likely buy Plant City strawberries at some point during the year. They are known to be some of tastiest in North America. But, the Plant in Plant City comes from the railway executive who originally laid the tracks through this area. So, like many other cities and towns across North America, the town name can be traced back to the railways.

The final insult in my time in Florida was my time spent with my kids at Disney World. Even the Magic Kingdom's famous steam railway was out of commission on the day I visited. The entire railway was undergoing significant maintenance and renewal, including the removal of some of its narrow gauge track. I will hand it to the people in charge through, who knew enough to park one of the trains in front of the Magic Kingdom train station for the Christmas season. A nice touch.

So, on the whole, my train karma wasn't great in my time in Florida, but I suppose it's better to have bad train karma and be warm than have bad train karma and shiver trackside, as many of us often do in Ottawa.

In case anyone is wondering, yes I have some strong opinions on the absolute disastrous launch of Ottawa's Confederation Line light rail service. But that post will have to wait for another day. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Southern Comfort (Part I)

After Christmas, my family made its way to Florida for a family vacation. I made sure to carve out some time to sit trackside and capture some images of railway action outside my customary haunts in Ottawa. On Dec. 29, when my family was relaxing poolside, I made my way to the Lakeland Amtrak station to get some shots of Amtrak's long distance train, the Silver Star. This train connects Miami with New York alongside its sister train, the Silver Meteor. The Star serves Lakeland twice daily, once on its way northbound and once on its way south to Miami.

I arrived a little early because I was curious about the Lakeland Amtrak station, which has an unconventional design, but is still quite pleasing to the eye. It's not a terribly old station, but it has some nice classic touches, like the arched windows. Here's a shot from Lakeland's Main Street. For those interested in Lakeland's geography, it is located roughly halfway between Orlando (to its east) and Tampa (to its west).

I couldn't help but think of some comparisons between Amtrak and Via Rail Canada, while I stood on the platform, waiting for the northbound Star to make its way to the platform. My first observation was how impossibly long the platform was (look carefully at the image below and you will see just how far into the distance those arches recede).

My first thought was how many more long distance trains Amtrak has in its schedule compared to Via Rail. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison by any means, since Amtrak relies much more heavily on regional subsidies for many of its longer distance regional trains, but the fact remains that its long-distance trains that fall under the Amtrak National umbrella outnumber Via's Canadian and Ocean by a wide margin.

Here's a shot of the Star crossing Massachusetts Avenue in Lakeland's downtown. The consist of this train might appear odd to some, but it does make sense. The train was led by two P42s, as all Amtraks seem to be. The P42s are arranged elephant style. I have read in a few places (including Trains Magazine) that this arrangement is used when a train breaks up into two pieces, like the Empire Builder does on its western fringes. In this case, the Star doesn't do this, but I have also read that the engines are often arranged this way, rather than back-to-back, as a redundancy in case one of the units breaks down. The other will then be able to take over without having to wye somewhere.

I was not able to get a great angle, since I was so close to the tracks, but I did manage to get a shot of some of the Amfleet equipment. This design seems to be timeless. I don't know if there was ever a time when Amtrak didn't have some generation of this type of coach in its fleet. I was reading not too long ago that this design was a carryover from the old Penn Central Metroliners, which Amtrak inherited when it took over much of the American passenger railway services in the 1970s. Apparently, despite the initial problems with the rough ride, Amtrak liked the fuselage style design of the cars and stuck with it.

The end of these trains are always lined with newer equipment, with wider windows. You can even see the baggage car, which is at the end of the train. If you look closely, you can faintly see the light from the Amtrak station agent's scooter, which is used to carry bags to the back of the train.

Here's a new baggage car, much newer than the baggage car I saw the last time I caught this train in Kissimmee, Florida a few years back. I am told that Amtrak leaves the baggage car at the back of the train on the northbound Star because it means one less car to turn when the train is readied to head back south to Florida. I'm not sure if that's the reason, but it does make for an interesting consist when this car is on the end. Notice, too, how the traditional Amtrak striping has been applied to this car. I'm often baffled by Amtrak's various paint liveries. There's always some form of red, white and blue but look at the difference between this car and the coaches.

Now look at the blue and grey livery of its P42s. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but neither does the various shades of green, turquoise and yellow that Via Rail uses. I was actually hoping to catch one of Amtrak's heritage painted units, but this was all that was on display that day. 

One last going-away shot and that was a wrap for this brief trackside meet with a long-distance passenger train. If you click the link above to the post where I met this train in Kissimmee, you'll notice quite a difference in its length.

I tried to catch this train one more time, but there must have been some serious congestion on CSX's Florida lines because the train was ridiculously late the next time I was at the station and I ended up giving up. The A Line, which this train uses for the stretch through Lakeland, is lightly used by most indications, but the lines further south, which include CSX's S line (former Seaboard) has heavier traffic. In any case, this was my only meet with the Star. I did manage to make it out to a railway museum at Plant City and saw some interesting stuff. I will share that soon.

Friday, January 17, 2020

CN's final days in Ottawa: Fact and fiction

I've seen a fair bit of chatter on a few railfan groups online regarding CN's departure from Ottawa. From what I've read, there seems to be a lot of confusion out there. In the spirit of clearing the air or at least starting a conversation, I decided that it would be fun to attempt a few answers. It also gives me a chance to share a few photos that were sent to me by some generous fellow railfans.

So, let's start off simply.

1. There will be no freight railway in Ottawa once CN leaves. FICTION

I say this with near certainty. Let's look at the facts. Ottawa and Eastern Ontario is an area with more than 1 million people. And there are some rail-served businesses that would suffer a great deal if rail service were to disappear. I can't foresee a scenario where no one wants anything to do with freight activity here. There are too many shortline railway concerns in Canada and the U.S. for there to be no interest in an operation here. Let's assume, as well, that the City of Ottawa ends up acquiring what little rail CN retains here in the region. To me, that is one less capital expense for a smaller operation to worry about. And remember that there are motivated customers here that depend on rail that cannot carry on business as they are now without rail. Think Nylene Canada in Arnprior. They have said repeatedly that they need rail.

CN's Coteau run sweeps through Carlsbad Springs with leased power on point. Contrary to what people have said, rail activity in Ottawa has not stopped. Thanks to Keith for sharing this photo, taken recently.

2. Freight activity has ended already. FICTION

I've seen a few comments where people think that CN's freight service has already ended. This is simply not true. Multiple blog readers have shared their photos or observations with me recently that prove it's business as usual for CN for the moment. We need to remember that catching CN's locals anywhere in the region is tough since the frequency is tiny. In my case, I have two chances to catch a once-weekly train that goes through my neighbourhood each Wednesday. That's it. We need to keep in mind as well that discontinuance notices are part of a fairly detailed process, which takes time. A railway can give notice of discontinuance and continue operating for some time afterward.

3. CN is going to rip up the Renfrew Spur. FICTION

This is something that is often forgotten when this subject comes up. The Renfrew Spur belongs to the City of Ottawa. Look on some maps and you will see this line is labelled the Ottawa-Arnprior Railway.

The rails themselves are owned by Nylene Canada. This arrangement predates the amalgamation of the City of Ottawa. It was actually the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton that partnered with the old BASF (now Nylene Canada) to save this line and keep freight service operating to the old plant on the edge of Arnprior.

This arrangement was the compromise when it was determined that BASF was not able to receive service from the Canadian Pacific from its old Chalk River Sub, which once connected with the Renfrew Spur in Arnprior. Of course, the Chalk River Sub is long gone and the Renfrew Spur barely makes it over the Ottawa-Renfrew County border.

If I was a betting man, I would say that this rail line will one day be a commuter line with freight service operating outside of commuting hours, which means likely at night or the wee hours of the morning.

To be honest, the only reason this line is still there is because of the deal that was made more than 20 years ago to save it.

My thanks to a reader who follows along from Yukon, who once rode these rails with his family when his Dad worked this stretch of track for CN. He recently visited the city and took some shorts of what's left in Kinburn. My thanks to him for sharing his photos. I've done a fair bit of writing on this track, but he reminded me of the old Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound lineage that this line boasts. It's a part of the local rail history I haven't done a great deal of research on, so perhaps that's next on my list.

4. CN will rip up more track in Ottawa and Eastern Ontario. FICTION

Quite honestly, everything that CN could remove has already been removed. This company owns almost nothing in Ottawa anymore, save for the trackage into and out of Walkley Yard, the old Ontario-l'Orignal Railway and the tiny stretch of the old Beachburg Subdivision that links the Renfrew Spur to Federal Junction. I can't imagine the railway would want to tear up any of this trackage if it was seriously considering an arrangement to sell it to the city or possibly hand it off to a short line operator. You will recall from an earlier post that the city has confirmed that it is in talks with CN to buy the remaining trackage it might need in the city. The only stretch of track I would keep an eye on is the old l'Orignal trackage. Given that this track is key to CN's main customer in Eastern Ontario, I would suspect it's safe for now. Keep in mind as well that the Alexandria and Smiths Falls Subs are both controlled by Via Rail Canada.

5. The city will own the unwanted CN tracks and will contract out freight services. FACT

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest this is what is going to happen. It makes business sense for a short line to provide a service while not having to maintain the track per se. The only question mark is over the l'Orignal trackage. I don't know who would want to own that track, as it is not strategically important to Ottawa. This might be the only stretch of track that a future short line would have to own and maintain.

6. There's already another company operating freight services here. FICTION

I've seen some people ask this question already a few times. Don't let the GATX leased units fool you. CN is still operating here. 

So, here's one final thought. Who is going to step forward and take over freight services for CN? We all know the names. I'd be curious as to what the experts out there think. I'm going to say that, whoever steps forward, James Allen of the old Ottawa Central will be involved in some way.You will recall that he was involved in the efforts to save the old Beachburg Sub as far as the Pontiac Region and Renfrew County. It wouldn't surprise me if he was involved in this process in some way. More on that later.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Winter observations in Ottawa

Happy New Year everyone. I just returned home from a family vacation in Florida. I was planning to do some railfanning down in the Sunshine State and managed to spend some time trackside, the results of which I will share in the coming weeks. I did have a few Ottawa specific items and images to share, so I thought I would start off the year with those.

A few housekeeping items to pass along before I get into my images. The first is that, despite the questions about CN's status in Ottawa, the railway is still operating its freight services as per usual. Several posts have appeared on the Eastern Ontario Rails Facebook group that show the railway making the rounds on local rails. Of course, we don't know what will happen to freight services in the capital once CN officially discontinues service here, but I would be very surprised if someone doesn't at least attempt to step forward to carry on these operations such as they are.

Keep in mind that the railway is planning some sort of event from June 30 to July 5. Wouldn't it be ironic if the railway held this event after it officially pulled out all its services from the city and region?

Secondly, I should point out that several readers have contributed rail images in the last few weeks, which I will share in a future post. Many thanks to those who reached out to me over the Christmas break with images and thoughts for new posts. One of the shots that was contributed featured the GATX leased geep that is serving as CN's power in the region right now. It makes me want to get out there and try to capture it again. I did get a shot of it last year, which you can see here.

So, on to business. In mid-December, I found myself on my way to a Christmas party in Orleans when I found the time to stop at the Central Station to get a few photos. Sadly for railfans, Via Rail has erected tall chain-link fencing between its tracks and the eastern parking lot, which will make photographs especially difficult.

Seeing this barrier, I opted to try and get some shots in the fog from the Belfast Road overpass. I snagged this shot below of a wrapped Love The Way Via F40PH-2. This was the only angle I could get without having to deal with the mess of hydro wires that obscure much of the view from this overpass.

Even in this shot below, you can see a hydro wire in the bottom left. This was the only way I could capture this shot of the three trains in the station yard. The one on the far right is loading while the other two are parked. You can just make out the P42 on the other end of the consist from the wrapped F40.

I wasn't expecting to get anything great, but a corridor train from Montreal just happened to be making its way to the station when I was there, which allowed me to snap a few quick shots. You can see the fog obscuring much of the cityscape just beyond the station's platforms. Also, you can just make out the wrapped F40 in this shot as well. As you can see from the overhead wires, getting a good shot of the side of the wrapped unit was tough, as I did not have anything to steady my hands when I zoomed the camera in for a closer shot.

This shot gives you an idea of the visual hazard that the overhead wires present when you're shooting from this vantage point.

I also wanted to share this photo below that my wife took from the passenger seat of our car as we headed down to visit family for Thanksgiving in October. She took some shots of a conjoined train with three locomotives, but sadly the trees all but ruined all the shots. This is a tricky spot along the Kingston Subdivision, especially when you're shooting from the 401 while travelling at 110 km/h in the opposite direction. Oh well. It made me think that I should put together a post of some of my best (or worst?) visual hazard shots.

So those are the few observations from Ottawa. I could add in a few lines about the O-Train Confederation Line, but I won't get into it. It's still an unreliable and problem-plagued service, which has the city's commuters growing more impatient by the day.That is hardly news anymore. C'est la vie.