Monday, March 20, 2023

Random photos from a random year

Last year was an odd year for my railfanning activities. There were some great moments where I was able to capture lots of images and material and then there were moments where high expectations met flat reality. In other words, it was a year of highs and lows. The challenge I always face as a blogger from Ottawa is that there isn't nearly enough going on here for me to maintain a weekly blog. You can only photograph Via Rail trains so many times before it gets old and before you run out of things to mention on a blog. I suppose if I had focused my blog on passenger trains exclusively, then I would be in better shape, but I never intended for this blog to be so narrowly focused.

Bloomington, Indiana, USA

Naturally, whenever I get out of Ottawa, I have high hopes of capturing something to share. In September, my wife and I travelled to Bloomington, Indiana, to attend a wedding. I was excited, as Bloomington was situated along the Indiana Rail Road's Indianapolis Subdivision, south of the state's biggest city. Sadly, in my research, it became apparent that this part of the railway's subdivision saw sparse traffic, with much of it passing through at night, mainly coal trains. Our hotel was within walking distance of the rail line, but it was quiet for much of my time there, except for a weekly local, which passed by on Friday evening. I only know this because I heard it while eating dinner in the city's downtown.

But the city has some fascinating railway history that is visible and accessible. Although Bloomington hasn't seen regular Amtrak service in many years, the town's former passenger station is still standing next to the rails, although it wasn't clear to me if it was a private residence, art studio or business. It looked like it could be any of the three, although there was no signage to indicate what it was used for. I decided to confine my photographs to shots taken from a small winding road that led to the station on the hill.

It looked to me like the station once housed a restaurant, where the station had an addition added on the left. The originals stone structure appeared to be a residence. Interestingly, the station sign still hangs on the side of the building. It would be a good thing, in my opinion, if some civic-minded person saved this sign, cleaned it up and housed in a local museum. I am always fascinated when I see old station signs and relics in local museums. They are a part of a community's history.

While in the city, I also came across what locals call the freight station. The building is a fairly nondescript maroon wooden building, which has an elevated main level, which is your first clue that it served the railways. Since the building served only freight purposes, it really doesn't have the architectural flourishes you would see on a passenger station. Still, the building was significant enough that it was declared a national historic site. After closing in the 1960s, it served as a restaurant at various points. Today, it is an office building.

The building has an interesting history. It was built by the Illinois Central Railway in 1906 in response to a local effort to attract a railway to compete with the Manon Railroad, which was the sole railway serving the city at the time. The IC depot was built after the IC finished its railway line through the city. The presence of the depot spawned economic growth in its immediate vicinity, which sustained the city for decades. It wasn't until 1963 when it closed, due to a decrease in demand for rail service. 

Still, as you can see, the elements of the building have been well maintained, including signage on the side of the building, indicating its original purpose. You can also read about the building's importance on the plaque amid the hostas. This was the rail line that connected America from north to south through its heartland, from Chicago to New Orleans. You might recall the famous Willie Nelson song, City of New Orleans. That song is about the train of the same name that rolled through Bloomington for decades.

Corunna, Ontario

This shot below could have been something special, had I been just a bit quicker. I was in the middle of a visit to my sister's house. My sister's property backs onto the CSX Sarnia Subdivision, just south of Corunna. I was caught in a bad place when an unexpected CSX local rolled by carrying a string of gondolas destined for the the old Ontario Power Generation Lambton Generating Station power plant, which is in the process of being demolished. I have meant to get a shot of one of these trains, which are a rarity on the CSX line, since this operation deals almost exclusively with tank cars and covered hoppers for petrochemical customers.

The biggest issue at this moment was I was in the middle of a conversation with one of my sister's neighbours and didn't want to be rude by bolting for the tracks. So I politely turned around and got this shot of a CSX local poking out from between the trees. There were two GP38s with the new CSX scheme pulling a load of about 10 AIM gondolas. A big missed opportunity, but at least I got something, right?

Earlier in the year, I was visiting family on the March Break when I passed by the Nova Corunna refinery on the Highway 40. Its rail operations have expanded a great deal in recent years, as the facility has undergone an immense multi-billion dollar expansion. The problem with getting a shot of rail operations here is you need to shoot overtop of the earthen berms. That means getting a shot from the highway overpass, which goes over a spur connecting Nova to the CN St. Clair River Industrial Spur. This can only be done if you are on the highway when it is empty or when you are in a passenger seat. In this case, I was riding shotgun in my brother's car, which made the shot easy to capture.

These are not easy shots to get, so any time I can capture Nova's old SW switcher, it's a win. I like the colours of the sky in this shot mixed with the smoke from the stacks. As I have mentioned a fair bit in the last year, I am much more interested in train photos that incorporate the surrounding landscape. I could have zoomed in on the switcher, but I wouldn't be getting the old story behind the shot. I will be doing a deeper dive into the SW switcher, as I have a few cool shots of these old beasts. They are rapidly fading from railways. Most of the survivors are in use on short lines or industrial operations. 

Ottawa, Ontario 

Most of what I captured in Ottawa in 2022 was shared in my posts. I only made it out to Via's Tremblay Road station once. When I was there, I got a quick shot of an O-Train on the Confederation Line heading west toward Tremblay Station. It was not a good year for the O-Train as its operations were disrupted a number of times by various mechanical issues, accidents and even a lighting strike. I don't generally like to shoot these operations, as I don't find them all that compelling from a photography point of view, but I made the exception on this turn, since the sunlight made for a quality image at that moment.

There are a few more odds and ends from last year that I considered throwing into this pot pourri of a post, but I have plans for those shots in some upcoming themed posts, so they will have to wait. I can't really complain about my adventures trackside last year. There were definitely more hits than misses, which you can see in this year-end post. But I am always taking shots trackside, no matter what. You never know when those random shots will come in handy.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Past and Future of Rails in Kitchener-Waterloo

This past August, my family travelled to Waterloo, Ont. for a week-long music camp at Wilfrid Laurier University. The weather was ideal with sunny skies and muted summer temperatures. It was also a homecoming of sorts, as I used to live and work in Kitchener from 2007-2009.

While the music camp portion of our trip was exhausting, with parental participation a key component to the day, I did managed to sneak away a few times to explore the city's railway scene. There are a number of facets to this region's railway scene, if you are so inclined to railfan in the region.

For the uninitiated, Waterloo, the city, is situated in Waterloo Region, which consists of the conjoined cities of Waterloo (furthest north), Kitchener, and south of Highway 401, Cambridge. In the south end, CP's Galt Subdivision runs through Cambridge. CP is busy in this area, as it serves both Toyota automotive plants and numerous industrial customers. Sadly, I didn't have the time to explore these operations.

CN serves Kitchener, as its Guelph Subdivision runs through the city. This is the former Goderich Exeter Guelph Sub. The CN line also gives way to Metrolinx trackage, as GO Trains operate from the Kitchener Via Station into downtown Toronto. There is a Metrolinx spur in Kitchener, where trains are kept in off-hours, but it is not accessible to photograph. 

Waterloo does have rails, but they are mainly used by the region's Ion light rail trains. That's probably the best place to start, as I saw more of these trains than anything during the week. This shot below is of a northbound Ion train, having just crossed Seagram Avenue, near the Laurier campus.

Waterloo's light rail system is a highly reliable service, which uses Bombardier trains that ply the rails both off and along city streets. In many places, it's more like a streetcar, as it stops at red lights, makes turns onto streets like vehicles and observes fairly tame speeds. This is a real difference between Waterloo and Ottawa, where the O-Trains do not go anywhere near city streets and run at higher rates of speed, albeit not nearly as reliably.

Here's a shot of the Seagram level crossing. I was surprised by the frequency of trains crossing this street. The number of times the gates are activated makes it a frequent occurrence for drivers to consider when driving in the city. As far as I could see, the trains were seeing light ridership in early August, which is not a surprise, but they were far from empty. The uptake on this service seems to be pretty brisk to my eye, anyway.

Later in the week, my daughter and I had a break in her schedule, which allowed us to check out the rails near Kitchener's Via station along the Guelph Sub. I've had good luck with trains here in the past, as you can see from this post. On this day, however, the rails were quiet. There wasn't even a local in action. The Kitchener train station is quite nice, even if it is a bit dusty looking at times. You can just make out the GO Train ticket machine to the right of the image. This photo was taken from the platform looking back onto Victoria Street.

Here's another shot of the station's trademark outdoor waiting area, with its distinctive arches. Across the tracks is the old Krug industrial building, which is still in use.

One major change I noticed near the station is that the old King Street level crossing at Victoria has been eliminated, as the Ion trains that go north and south along King require a separation from the Guelph Sub. This is a major change since I lived in the city, when this track was a level crossing and often caused a fair bit of commuter distress when longer freight trains made their way slowly over King Street. When I was in Kitchener this past summer, I noticed a few level crossings had been eliminated by flyovers.

There wasn't much happening in the CN yard, which is visible from the sidewalk along Lancaster Road.

Here's another angle. The mainline is the track farthest to the right in the image.

Like I said, not even a local at work! It was a quiet day to say the least. Disappointing.

Later in the week, I took a few shots of the rails in Waterloo itself, as the city still has the remnants of the old CN Elmira Subdivision going through its downtown. Much of this trackage is now in use for light rail trains, but you can still see the remnants of traditional railways in the city. Waterloo's old train station still sits trackside, but is now a men's clothing store.

In the back of the men's clothing store along the rails, an old CN caboose still sits on a disconnected piece of track.

The store's name is Paul Puncher menswear, hence the branding on the caboose. But if you look closely, the old caboose's original number is still visible on the roof ledge. This is former CN caboose 79664. 

I also took this shot of a piece of trackage down an alleyway in Waterloo's core. These rails do still host CN trains, but those operations happen overnight and in the wee hours of the morning, when the Ion light rail operation is not operating.

This was one of my favourite pictures from the week, considering I had almost no luck capturing any live railway action. My schedule just didn't allow me to catch the early morning GO Train or go down to Cambridge to capture some CP action. I had to make do with what I had in Waterloo, which was light rail and any other assorted pieces of vintage railway scenes that crossed my path. 

At one point during the week, I was able to make my way up to St. Jacobs, a small tourist friendly town north of Waterloo, which is home to the Waterloo Central Railway tourist operation. I have blogged about this unique railway before, which you can read about here. I really wanted to go and take some photos of its unique roster of rolling stock and motive power, all of which is able to be photographed from public property. 

I will save these images for a later post.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The St. Clair Branch's Last Vestiges

This past summer, I was lucky enough to visit a unique community museum that tells a fascinating story in Canada's history. And it just so happens to be the site of the last vestiges of a long-gone railway line with an interesting history. You'll be forgiven if you haven't heard of the Oil Museum of Canada. Or Oil Springs, where the museum is located. You'd also be forgiven if you didn't realize that the North American oil industry first started in Oil Springs in the 1850s. This fact is disputed by those in Pennsylvania, where oil was discovered around the same time, but historians in the Oil Springs area do have some documentation that strongly points to Oil Springs being the site of the first gusher, in oil parlance.

I'm talking about the St. Clair branch of the Canada Southern Railway, which once connected St. Thomas with Courtright through a swath of southern Ontario forest and swamps. The rails are now long gone, and the areas it served now encompass some of our country's best farmland. You can read about this line's history in this post.

The short version is the Canada Southern, an extension of the New York Central Railway, built a rail line from St. Thomas to Courtright, with spurs into Petrolia and Oil Springs. The line opened in 1874 and was active until around 1960, when it was pulled up. The St. Clair branch was a secondary route off the main CASO line, which acted as a short cut for NYC traffic from the Niagara Region to Windsor, where trains would ultimately proceed under the Michigan Central Tunnel in later years and onto Detroit and Chicago. CASO's purpose was very much to act as a bypass of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie for NYC traffic to Chicago.

At the Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs, not only do you get a glimpse of what it was like to discover, capture and refine oil in the industry's early days, you also get an idea of how railways benefited greatly from this discovery in innumerable ways. 

Local history buffs know that Oil Springs, a town now of less than 700, once boasted a population of 4,000 or more, with the streets jammed, several hotels jockeying for oil drillers, churches, saloons, makeshift schools and all the other assorted amenities of a boom town. That boom didn't last long, but the oil kept flowing in smaller quantities, which meant that there was business for a railway that could get there.

This is basically all that is left of the St. Clair branch, the Oil Springs train station, which was itself on a spur that originated in Oil City at the Eddys Junction. I've seen the spur referred to as the Eddys Spur and the Oil Springs Spur. The museum uses the latter term.

The museum once had a length of track between the station and an old tank car further up the line, but much of that trackage has been removed, although the old roadbed is clearly visible, although sinking into the ground slowly.

Even in the grass, the old line is still visible. I'm not sure why the museum disconnected the line, but I would assume it's a lot of work to maintain the roadbed, much of which is sinking into the ground. It's a bit of a shame for a railfan not to have this short stretch still intact. I am thinking of the way they use a short stretch of track to give rides at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. But the staff for this museum likely has its hands full with the many historic structures it already maintains.

Sitting on the last piece of the St. Clair branch is an old tank car, likely in use in the last days of the St. Clair branch operations. You can see that the museum attached a wooden rail worker on the car who would have been the person to help fill the cars in Oil Springs, which the museum points out was a common occurrence until the rail line's later days. All oil brought up from the ground here was bound for the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia. To this day, oil from this area and Petrolia is still sold to Imperial Oil in Sarnia, although it arrives by truck now.

The station itself is a treasure trove of railway history, with many preserved pieces of rail equipment, like this sign, which was attached to the rail and acted like a chock when a car needed to be protected from any possible movements.

Some of the line's old station signs have been preserved, including the sign for Eddys, which was the end of the Oil Spring Spur in Eddys Mills, a tiny farming hamlet that once required rail service for loading crops.

The Petrolia Junction sign is also preserved, and its story is fascinating. The Petrolia Spur was very much CASO's me-too answer to Petrolia being served by the Grand Trunk Railway. At the time, Petrolia was flush with cash and much of the oil discoveries were focused in this town. Rich oil merchants paid out of their own pockets to build a spur to connect to the Grand Trunk Strathroy Subdivision (later CN). That spur proved lucrative to the Grand Trunk, so the Canada Southern decided it wanted in on the action, as it opened its own station on the other side of the town's main street, today called the Petrolia Line. 

The CASO Petrolia Station survives to this day, although it is a private residence in Bright's Grove, a northern suburb of Sarnia along Lake Huron. You can see the distinctive witch's hat turret facing the water. The railway did do some bustling charter and passenger business in the age before cars, which made this station a fairly busy spot in its heyday. This picture was taken from public property in March of 2022. I didn't want to go any further, as I didn't want to disturb the homeowner.

An old steam engine's number plate also adorns the walls of the Oil Springs Station. 

My wife found this sign highly amusing. It was at a time when women were not expected to be travelling alone all that much. Interesting to see how society has changed in a relatively short period of time.

I would kill to have access to some of these historic photos, but many were simply placed on the walls behind a laminate, which made them hard to photograph. This shot seems to be of a doodlebug, likely in the 1930s or 40s. Passenger service on the St. Clair branch ended long before most passenger service on secondary lines was ended. The date of this photo is unknown.

Here's another photo behind laminate of a steam engine bringing in a passenger train to the station, although in an unothodox fashion as trains had to back onto spurs before getting back on the main line. This shot appears to show a steam engine backing into the station with the tender in the lead and a passenger car in tow behind the drawbar of the cowcatcher. It was hard to make out, given the lighting and the lack of information. I would imagine there would have been some wye to ensure the train was in the right configuration on the main line. 

Curiously, although the Oil Springs station was completed in 1885, crude oil from the area wasn't hauled to Sarnia on tank cars until 1915, when a crude oil receiving station was built for Imperial Oil. So even though the oil boom was a big motivating factor behind the building of the St. Clair branch, local oil producers still had a tough time bringing their product to market, so to speak. 

The railway did still serve a purpose, as it hauled goods into isolated towns for local businesses. In the case of Oil Springs, the railway also transported children to school in Petrolia. That would have been some experience, I would imagine. Nothing like a school bus.

Of course, the St. Clair branch never really lived up to the initial promise. It was never a major player in hauling crude oil, as much of that business had already been taken by the Grand Trunk, which reached Petrolia first. 

Initial plans to have a through connection to the United States via a St. Clair River crossing at the end of the line in Courtright never materialized either. The timber that was harvested and generated initial business on the line soon thinned out, as the area became farm land. In the end, the St. Clair branch barely made it to 1960, when it was officially pulled up.

The Oil Museum of Canada in Oil Springs was recently renovated and refurbished. It is a real gem out in the countryside, which tells an important story in Canada's history that few people really know. The railways of course get their due here, even if they aren't the main attraction. It's still worth a visit, if you are a rail buff and want to see some rare mileage.