Friday, February 28, 2020

Sometimes, magic happens

May you live in interesting times, or so goes what many feel is a Chinese proverb or curse. We do live in interesting times in Canada. For those of us in Canada who like to sit trackside, it's been a long few weeks. I have mixed feelings about everything that has happened in this country that has ground rail traffic to a standstill in many parts. I won't get into it much more than that, because this is not what this blog is about.

Recently, my daughter expressed an interest in astronomy, which is why I drove her into the countryside on a Saturday evening to look at a few constellations and planets just after sunset. We brought a pair of binoculars, which are surprisingly useful for stargazing.

On our way to our spot, I noticed the signals at the Twin Elm crossing were showing green for westbound trains, which I found odd. As far as I was concerned, nothing was moving on the Smiths Falls Sub, due to the blockades.

Well, on our way back home, I got my answer. I double-ended Via Rail train was making its way west through Twin Elm, which had me confused. I brought along my camera, which I usually do when I know I will be near a rail crossing. The train was making its way to the crossing much slower than it usually does. So I propped my camera on my driver's side mirror to ensure any shot I got was somewhat clear in the dark. (Always find something to use a tripod, if you can. I learned that trick very early on)

This was probably the best shot of the tail end of the consist (above), with a wrapped Via Rail F40 wearing the "Love the way" slogan on the side. I didn't have time to switch my camera to its night settings, which would have helped the shots, no doubt. But, then again, this was really a surprise meet.

I think I like this shot the best because it shows the blurred strip of lights coming from the LRC coaches. The entire train was made up of old LRC coaches, still bearing the Via Rail blue and yellow livery, which I appreciated. I have seen many many shots over the years of nighttime rail photography where a train appears as a blurred lines of lights. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to capture these types of shots. Quite by accident, I was able to create a first attempt. It's not perfect, but it's a start. The lights from the crossing gate and signal really flared a fair bit, which I tried to fix with some retouching, but this was the best I could do.

When reviewing the shots, I decided to make one of them black and white to see if it added to the scene at all. I'm not sure if it made the shot better or worse, but it was worthwhile experiment nonetheless.

So, it was a little bit of magic on a night when my focus was trying to teach my daughter what little I know about the night sky.

I did notice that, after the blockade was removed near Belleville and freight traffic began moving again on the CN main line, someone went to Walkley Yard and took shots of the local CN crew putting a train together. This video was posted on Facebook. I have to say, with respect, that taking shots from the service road next to Walkley Yard is probably not a great idea. That road is private property past a certain point, which puts you in danger of being charged with trespassing. There are Ottawa Police and private security guards watching this area a fair bit.

It's not worth it.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Ottawa's light rail disaster

I have been reluctant to share any thoughts about Ottawa’s new electrified Confederation Line light rail system on this blog. You don’t need to live in Ottawa to know that the launch of the east-west Confederation Line has been an unqualified disaster. There is no other way to describe this system. It was already well past its launch date when it began service in September. Admittedly, hopes were high when it did begin operations, but the problems began almost immediately.

Here is an unofficial summary of what Ottawa commuters have had to face since September.

1. City officials insisted that the trains had to operate flawlessly for 12 consecutive days before actual commuter operations were to begin. That did not happen, but city officials used all sorts of bafflegab and doublespeak to explain away this obvious failure to comply with its own guidelines.

2. The first major problem happened almost immediately when commuters tried to pry doors open when trying to catch a train. This is common in most transit systems. Most buses and subways have safety and redundancy systems that account for this behaviour. The O-Trains could not handle these situations and the doors would remain open after being pried open. The trains would then shut down. The door issue has been resolved through a change in commuter behaviour, but it’s not clear to me that the issue was ever fixed. The city insisted that technical adjustments were made.

3. Switches on the Confederation Line would often not operate normally, which would shut down part or all of the system. This happened multiple times before the issue was largely fixed. It should be noted that this problem has begun to resurface recently, due to winter conditions.

4. The city had told the public that 15 O-Trains would run during peak periods in order to maintain normal 3-minute intervals of service at all stations. The system has not yet had 15 trains working at one time. City officials have quickly changed their tune, saying the number of trains operating during peak periods is 13. No one has ever explained why this has changed.

5. There have been many cases where these trains have shut down for no apparent reason. If there were explanations for these mysterious failures, they were not well communicated with the public or not shared with the public at all.

6. Early on, a piece of the continuous welded rail broke apart, forcing the system to shut down while repairs were made to the (at the time) brand new right-of-way. The city insisted that this is a common occurrence in any rail system. Officials were then forced to admit that this “common occurrence” has never once happened on the Trillium Line since it first began operations in 2001.

7. A long piece of the overhead catenary was torn off its bracing by an O-Train for no apparent reason near Saint Laurent Station. The city never offered any explanation as to why this would happen.

8. Multiple O-Trains experienced power failures around the New Year. In this case, it was explained that the company that maintains the trains had to modify its maintenance practices because the pantographs that pick up the power were being compromised by a mixture of copper shavings from the overhead catenary mixed with rock salt.

9. In the New Year, the entire Confederation Line was severely compromised by a number of flat spots on the train’s wheelsets. The company maintaining the fleet explained eventually that its wheel truing machinery had broken down. The result was that only eight trains were available for use during peak hours for more than a week.

10. On New Year’s Eve, the city offered free rides on the O-Train for those going out for a night on the town. A mysterious failure on one of the trains caused a delay of more than an hour, due to the fact that there was obviously no back-up in place for train failures. Eventually, those stranded on the stopped train did get aboard a replacement bus, but the incident was the latest black eye for the beleaguered system.

11. It took weeks for the city to explain that a faulty sump pump was causing a lingering sewer smell in the underground Rideau Station. The problem has not been totally resolved yet.

12. There are now problems with a rotten egg smell at the underground Lyon Station, for reasons that have not yet been fully explained.

13. The city now says it will take more than a year to fix the electrical problems that are causing untold delays on the Confederation Line.

I mention all these instances as examples of some of the more egregious errors that have happened since this new service was launched. Some of the problems were to be expected with a new system. But the service interruptions have been an almost daily occurrence since December. It’s actually hard to think of a stretch of more than three to four days where the system has operated normally without any problems.

There are three more recent developments that have further eroded any trust the citizens of Ottawa have in our local leadership.

1. The company that is largely responsible for the current Confederation Line, SNC Lavalin, was handed the contract to extend the Trillium Line as part of the Phase II of the system’s expansion. This, despite the fact that the company had failed to meet the minimum technical threshold to advance in the bidding and was disqualified by the city’s own technical evaluation committee. That committee’s decision was overturned by senior city officials, due to a secret power they held to make such an arbitrary decision. It has since been revealed that SNC failed to grasp in its bid that the Trillium Line is not an electrified line, but rather a diesel line. The company’s bid also did not include provisions for snow removal. Yet, they won the bid. The city council has ordered an independent review of this contract process.

2. City officials have only recently come forward publicly with the revelation that the trains they purchased from Alstom, are not terribly reliable in a North American winter. These trains are a specifically modified version of another Alstom train that is used worldwide. However, the fact remains that the trains used here are the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. They are the first to be used anywhere. And, as one city official admitted, they are so far proving to be lemons.

3. Ottawa residents were told that the company that is maintaining the Confederation Line and electric O-Trains has not been paid yet, due to the poor performance of the service since September. Only, that was another lie or half truth from city officials. It was actually revealed that the city, in fact, paid the company, which is called Rideau Transit Maintenance or RTM, $4.5 million.

I won’t offer my opinion, other than a few words. Everything that I have mentioned here is what has been reported. As a taxpayer and commuter, I can only hope that things will get better. I have lost trust in this city’s senior managers and the mayor. This will affect my vote in the next election. But, here’s the obvious truth. This is what happens when you don’t understand railways and have not had to live in a city with overly visible railways for the better part of half a century.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Railfan 5, Take Two

If you have been reading this blog for years, you might remember that, in 2014, I participated in the Railfan Five challenge, an initiative that began with Eric Gagnon of the Trackside Treasure blog (click the Trackside Treasure link for his latest five). He's been a great influence on me. When he asked me to come up with another five photos that tell my railfan story, I readily agreed. I had to give it some thought, because Eric suggested five photos from five years. In his case, he joked that coming up with five was tough for him, given the embarrassment of riches he had to sift through from his time trackside on the mainline in Kingston. Here in Ottawa, the size of the photo vault is considerably smaller.

But then, inspiration struck.

I was just beginning to go through my 2015 photos when I started looking through my file labelled "Arnprior Local." I found a photo I instantly loved and decided that it should be my shot for 2015. Then it occurred to me that maybe finding a shot of the Arnprior Turn for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 might be a fun idea.

After all, for better or worse, this tiny runt of a train has become this blog's calling card more than anything else. I have mixed feelings about that, since I always want to offer more, but I also appreciate that readers are enamored with this train for various reasons. And, I have to say, since this train is so hard to catch, it makes every one of my photos of 589 special. So, without further ado, here is my Railfan Five, which really does tell the story of this blog, my railfanning in recent years and the state of railways in Ottawa.
Sept. 2015

This shot was taken when I had a few minutes of spare time before picking up with daughter at her daycare provider's house. My newborn baby was along for the ride, since she didn't like me much at first and would only settle down when I took her for a car ride. To be honest, 2015 was a very tough time for me, as I really struggled with my health and nearly gave up blogging. But then, little moments like this occurred and they always managed to stir within me that passion I have for railways. This shot really captures the ragged glory of the Beachburg Subdivision and the remnants of CN's operations in this part of the country.

Feb. 2016

Again, remember when I said that every time I caught this train, it was an achievement? This meet was fleeting and it almost didn't happen. I was on my way home from the hospital after undergoing an early morning MRI when I made sure to make my way home close to the tracks. It was on this miserable winter morning that I caught the one-car Arnprior Turn meandering its way through Bells Corners. I had to fire off a few blind shots from my car while keeping my eyes on the road. I ended up with some spectacular winter shots. I know some people would take issue with the poles and visual distractions, but I like them. If I'm going to show CN's operations here as they really are, then I have to show all the imperfections.

April 2017

This is the one meet I don't have a good story for, sadly. Those who read this blog know that my strengths do not necessarily lie with the technical knowledge of railways. Instead, I feel my strength lies with the personal stories and the big picture thoughts on railways in general. That's why I wish I had something profound to share about this meet, but I don't. An old warhorse GP9 pulls a string of four cars west (four cars! That's as good as it gets on this line). The great thing about chasing the Arnprior Turn is that you are almost always guaranteed to see a classic piece of motive power. CN doesn't usually have anything new working up here. And that's okay with me.

April 2018

This shot was taken from atop of snow pile at the end of a very long winter. It was also taken at a time when I was having a phenomenally hard time at work, right before I switched ministries and found a much better job in the public service. I recall capturing this shot and once again feeling better about life in general. And that is something I can't stress enough. For me, being trackside makes life better. It's a stress reliever and it's a way for me to connect with my family history. There's something about railways that runs very deep within me. It's very hard to explain. When I was putting together this post and came up with the idea of featuring the Arnprior Turn as my theme, I keep hoping against hope that I actually had a shot for each year. This was my only meet with this train in 2018. That snow pile really helped the shot, coincidentally.

March 2019

Have you noticed that, of all the shots I've shared of CN trains on the Beachburg Sub, not one features a current CN livery? All of them but one have the safety scheme. This last one was really special since I was able to capture some leased power in the midst of a snow squall. Once again, I was standing on a snow pile about 10-12 feet high, which allowed me to avoid chopping off half the train behind the weed-choked fencing. I remember when I first arrived at this spot that day, there was no snow falling. But by the time the train rumbled by, most of my shots were almost blurry because of severity of this squall. It makes no difference. It made for a very interesting shot.

So, I'd be lying if I said that my story as a railfan in the last five years didn't somehow include this train. CN 589 has been a cruel mistress at times, but it has also done wonders for this blog. So, despite my somewhat lukewarm feelings toward CN, I am grateful for what little success I've had in the last few years.

I remember in the original Railfan Five post that everyone who took up the challenge made a mention of a train-related organization that they intended to support. In my case, my support in the coming year will be directed at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. They do tremendous work with not a lot of help. This museum is a must for all railfans. I can't wait to bring my girls back there this spring.

Other Railfan 5 blog entries worth checking out include Steve Boyko's Railfan 5 on his Traingeek site as well as Chris Mears' entry on his site, Prince Street.