Sunday, February 25, 2024

Running Back to St. Jacobs (Part II)

As I mentioned in my last post, I had the chance to take some shots of the antique trains that are parked in St. Jacobs, a tourist town just north of Warterloo, Ont. I was in the area last November for a conference where I was giving a mental health presentation. In my first post, I focused my shots on the south end of the rail yard, which is situated behind a residential street, just a few blocks from the main street. Just a short block north on Isabella Street, there is another residential street that dead ends at the tracks. From this publicly available viewing point, you can get some shots of the north end of the yard, where there are a number of pieces of rolling stock near the maintenance facility. 

You have to be careful in this spot, because there are private residences and small businesses near the track. To be safe, I stayed on the road and used my camera's zoom, to respect private property.

I also took some shots from the edge of the railway's parking lot, so I could get a shot of this old Budd RDC car, numbered 6135, with a hasty WCRX operating mark stencilled in. The car appears to be used for storage at the moment. The car is still sporting its old Via colours, although I would assume at some point, the railway is going to change its colours to its crimson and grey scheme.  

The car, which is an RDC1 unit, was originally built in 1957 for Canadian Pacific and eventually made its way onto the Via Rail roster, where it served its final Via days on the railway's Vancouver Island operations, before that passenger service was shut down due to deteriorating track conditions. This car is not listed on the WCR website, so I'm assuming it's a fairly recent addition. Given its CP origins, a makeover in the maroon and grey scheme would seem fitting.

Before I get to the shots from the north end of the yard, I should add in one final shot I took from the south end. Although WCR is very much a CPR-styled tourist operation, it should be noted that it operates on the old CN Elmira Subdivision and it does roster one unit still in CN paint. In this case, the unit was already decked out in garland and lights for its Christmas runs. 

Sadly, every time I visit the WCR yard, this old GMD1 is hiding behind the MLW units. The engine, numbered 1012 (ex-CN 1437), is in the CN olive and yellow paint scheme, which predated the now ubiquitous wet noodle scheme. This railway appears to love heritage schemes. On its website, I noticed that the 1958-built unit was still in its CN safety scheme colours and numbered 1437 when it started pulling for WCR. At some point, it was renumbered and given the heritage CN look. I'd love to get a shot of this unit one day, as I do not have a single GMD1 shot in my collection. So close!

Moving on to the north vantage point, this unlettered six-axle heavyweight sat by itself, basking in the morning sun near to where I was standing. Upon close inspection of the photo, it appears this car was once lettered for WCR but seems to be undergoing some cosmetic work. It's still painted maroon, so I assume at some point it will once again sport some grey and yellow accents of the old Canadian Pacific scheme. I would imagine it will be relettered Waterloo Central Railway at some point. It's hard to track its history, as I couldn't identify it on the railway's website roster.

Toward to maintenance facility, I captured something under a tarp, which was partly shielded from my point of view by an old maroon passenger car. I'm not quite sure what they have under that tarp. I can see some safety rails at the end and some chains, but that's not a lot to go on.

Right beside the tarped-off mystery car, I got a peak at WCRX 79482, a caboose clad in a maroon vintage CPR scheme. Again, the CPR scheme might make you think this is a vintage CPR van, but it's actually one of 548 CN cabooses from the Pointe St-Charles shops in Montreal. This one was built in 1971. The last CN van built in Quebec was in 1977, according to the WCR website. I find it incredible that there were once nearly 600 of these vans plying the rails across CN's system. How times have changed. This caboose came to the tourist railway in 2007 in a red CN scheme. It was returned to its original number and repainted after 2021.

I hope you enjoyed this post, as it really is like strolling through a museum. I still have yet to see this railway in action, at least at a time when I have a camera with me. I did see it in action years ago when I lived in Kitchener-Waterloo, although I wasn't in the habit of taking train photographs at that time. 

From its origins as the St. Thomas-based Southwestern Ontario Locomotive Restoration Society to its incarnation as the Waterloo Central, this organization is succeeding in an area where a tourist railway has failed in the past. Its ambitious plans, meticulous attention to detail and determination really do seem like a blueprint for other tourist operations.

Possibly the next time in am in the Waterloo Region, I can figure out a time to actually catch these old antiques in action. That would be a treat.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Running Back to St. Jacobs (Part I)

Back in November, I was in Kitchener-Waterloo for a conference, where I was giving a mental health presentation. I made sure to carve out some time trackside, as KW has some unique rail photo opportunities. You can read about my time trackside in Kitchener here. My first stop was St. Jacobs, a small community north of the City of Waterloo. St. Jacobs is known for its area old order Mennonite population (think horse and buggies) as well as its tourist industry, which is very much a mainstay of the local economy.

The Waterloo Central Railway has a yard located in the town, which serves as its maintenance facility and starting point for some tourist excursions. At one point, the WCR operated from the former Waterloo train station, but the rails south of St. Jacobs are now all occupied by the Ion light rail system. CN still operates local freight operations during off hours, which you can read about in this blog entry. But the area is off limits to the WCR.

You might recall I've been to this yard a few times, which you can read about here and here.

This time around, I arrived in the early morning, as this was the only time I had to take photos. I was quite happy to get a few shots of the WCR's former Essex Terminal Railway caboose, clad in a wrap that would be useful for its Christmas Train. The railway added some nice touches, like the HOHO 2023 operating mark. Also, as a communications professional, I always like it when a business includes its web address in a visible spot. I remember a marketing professional telling me she couldn't understand why a company would ever hesitate to share its website at every opportunity. 

You can even see the WCR speeder to the left of the caboose as well as a Budd-build RDC unit behind the caboose. I got all these shots from a small park next to the railyard, which offers you some great vantage points to get photographs. It's like visiting a rail museum for free. There is even a street just north of this park that ends at the tracks, where you can get some shots from a different vantage point, but stay on public property (the street). There are signs here that clearly show you where you can and cannot go, as there are homes and a small trackside business here.

There were some other interesting things to see in the yard, as the railway was clearly getting ready to assemble a Christmas train. If you look closely at this old passenger coach, you can see that the crews had already strung up lights around the windows and across the top and bottom of the car. The WCR is clearly influenced by a love of vintage Canadian Pacific colours, as many of its cars and locomotives sport CP's maroon (Tuscan red, technically) and grey scheme, which was officially ditched in 1968 for the action red multimark livery.

This coach, however, is actually a former CN coach, built in 1954 by Canadian Car and Foundry. It served well into the Via Rail era, where it took on the blue and yellow scheme, before finding its way into the BC Rail fleet, where it became known as Sunset Beach, and finally the Orangeville-Brampton Railway. Coach 1978 has been with WCR since 2018. 

In previous years, WCR kept some of its coaches in the blue and yellow Via Rail scheme. I was lucky to get a shot of one of the last coaches to sport this scheme. I was happy I did, as I have great memories of these old blue and yellow cars as a kid.

Here's a sun-drenched shot of two S13s 1001 (left) and 1002 in the yard. Each unit was built by the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1959. While each bears the colours of the pre-action mark CP, these units were actually Pacific Great Eastern (later BC Rail) units upon delivery. After serving out west, they spent time on the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway as 501 and 502, before moving further east and operating for the Ontario Southland Railway with the same numbers. They have been with the WCR since 2018. It's incredible to think of how much revenue service these old units have seen.

A little deeper in the yard, another MLW unit, this one ex-CP S3 6593, was sitting with a mixed consist, including 1930s vintage ex-CN baggage car 8751, a tank car and a former Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo boxcar. Unlike the other units, this one was originally a CP unit, built in 1957. For Ottawa railfans, they might be interested to know that CP sold it to the National Research Council, where it served as the NRC switcher at its ground transportation research centre along the old CP Prescott Sub, near the Ottawa International Airport. It was sold to the WCR in 2012. Here is a cool shot from its move from Walkley Yard back in 2012. This unit began its work in these maroon and grey colours before being switched to action red, so this is likely a fitting scheme for this old unit.

The railway explains on its website that its small collection of rolling stock is for the purposes of television and movie work, where productions might need to include a freight train in a scene. Since the WCR also has a steam engine on its roster, I would imagine have a tank car might come in handy as well for the purposes of feeding the engine water.

All in all, it was a fun visit to this area. I will share a few more images from this morning in another post, since there was quite a bit to see in a brief time.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Railway Reads: The Petrolia Spur has the goods, maybe a few too many

A few years ago, I read a self-published book, The Petrolia Spur, by Petrolia history buff Tom Walter. You'd be forgiven if you wonder why anyone would write a book on a spur line that was less than five miles long. But the Petrolia Spur wasn't just any branch line. It was a line that was wholly financed by the captains of the burgeoning oil industry in this boom town in the 1860s. In many respects, this book tells a good chunk of the story of the birth of North America's petroleum industry. So it's not just a book about a small piece of track.

Walter deserves full credit for the sheer depth of his research on this rail line and its connection to the town, which was for many years an affluent, influential boom town whose influence was global in reach. I say this without much hyperbole, as many of the so-called hard oilers who figured out how to find oil and get it out of the ground soon travelled the world and shared their expertise throughout Europe and other spots where crude was waiting to be tapped.

Walter focuses much of his research on the railway, of course, which began as a Great Western Railway branch, before giving way to the Grand Trunk and eventually the Canadian National. There is much to discover in this rail spur's story and Walter did an outstanding job of scouring the historic records and news articles, not to mention interviewing people who remember this rail line, which was finally torn up in 1994.

If you sensed there was a but coming, here it is. Writing a history book is not an easy task, as there are sometimes countless pieces of information to cobble together into a narrative. This is where I find the Petrolia Spur sometimes becomes too ambitious in its reach. There are many instances in the book where the overall story of the railway and its connection to Petrolia's development gets somewhat lost in a recap of newspaper articles and inconsequential details.

I found there were a few too many asides in the book, where space was taken up exploring inconsequential rail collisions, derailments and too much prose focusing on the station agents and their lives. I understand that this book is mainly for the people who live in and around this town and those who are fascinated by local railway history like me. However, I think this book might have benefited from a more thorough edit that could have streamlined the main story and discarded some of the less important divergences. In my opinion, many of these stories that do not fall into the main narrative could have been collected into a chapter of fun railway stories.

If you are willing to overlook some of this overabundance of ambitious detail, there are many interesting elements of this town's railway story that might surprise you. The rich collection of historic photographs gives you a surprisingly thorough depiction of what this railway operation, including the engines and rolling stock, actually looked like. Also, the author includes a number of appendices, like the architectural plans for the historic Petrolia railway station. These additions are excellent resources for those looking to model railways in this area or those who simply want to better understand some of the technical elements of the railway operation. Again, full credit for the breadth of research.

The author's passion for rail history shines through in his writing. As I mentioned, it comes across as unfocused at times, but I think this is a function of the sheer amount of material he was able to uncover. But he does succeed in presenting a complete story that very much gives you the big picture, rather than just a narrow local narrative. 

You just need to sift around a bit to piece it together at times. If you are interested in this book, your best bet would be to contact someone in Petrolia or call the town hall. I would imagine the book is available at local independent bookstores in the area. If you want to borrow my copy, you'll have to come to Ottawa.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Magnificent Seven: Highlights of 2023

Last year was a year where my railfanning was quite concentrated. I saw a lot of Via Rail action, mostly because my evening schedule on Wednesdays allowed me to meet the same westbound train many times. Rather than taking the same shot over and over again, I began experimenting with different angles and ideas, which ushered in the Year of Different. There was also a chance meeting with CN's Arnprior Turn, a few sightings of freight trains along Highway 401, lots of photography from a trip to Stratford, a few cool shots from Kitchener-Waterloo and a couple of other scattered highlights.

I like to temper the railfan posts with other posts that are more focused on history and research. Sadly, those posts were in short supply last year, for a variety of reasons. All told, I was able to get 37 posts online last year, which was my highest output since 2019. I have considered easing my pace to biweekly this year for a while, but a recent influx of new material means that I can continue my current pace for now.

So, the highlights...


At the tail end of Via Rail's buffer car period, I found myself at Ottawa Station and was able to get a shot of  Via Rail buffer car 8318 Craig Manor bringing up the rear of westbound train arriving from Montreal. It wasn't long after I took this shot that an investigation into the structural efficacy of the old silver streamliner cars showed that they were safe to use without the need for an extra car. But it was fun to see so many outliers in the corridor for a while.


In late May, I was happy to be able to get a first glimpse of Via Rail's new Siemens equipment at Ottawa Station. This was Train 24 bound for Montreal. It would be a few months before more of this new equipment began entering into regular revenue service across the corridor, so this catch was fun, as there were still just a few in operation last spring. It was a difficult morning to get quality images, as the harsh morning sun and scarce clouds made for some harsh glare. The shots near the Belfast Road overpass were a little easier, but the sky was a complete washout.


As I was driving my daughters to dance class in the Colonnade Road area, I saw the Arnprior Turn returning on the Beachburg Sub to Walkley Yard. I managed to catch the train on the Prince of Wales flyover, which was one of my finer catches, given the scenic location. I have caught several Via Rail corridor trains at this spot in the last year, but this catch was special.

Read the post here


It's always a coup to catch something unusual, especially when it's something that you won't likely be able to see again. In late July and early August, I was in Stratford, where I was able to catch an arriving GO Train that was making its way west back to London. Metrolinx has since shuttered this service, which was a pilot project linking London to Toronto in a commuter service. I often see these trains when my family travels through Toronto on Highway 401, but being able to see these trains in a small city like Stratford is a case of capturing some rare mileage. I'm glad I did.


I don't want to give away too much since these images are for a post that has yet to be shared online. However, my family found itself in Kitchener-Waterloo in November, which gave me several opportunities to railfan, including in Kitchener, where I saw some local yard action. Nothing special, but photos of a freight train in an exotic location are always fun for me. But it was in St Jacobs where I was able to capture some cool images that are worth mentioning. This town, north of Waterloo, is home to the Waterloo Central Railway yard, where the tourist railway has built an old-fashioned trackside flagstop platform and shelter. I have a model train structure just like this. It was cool to see something like it in real life. More shots from this yard to come soon.

Favourite shot of the year

I can't think of a shot I like more than this. I have one or two that are for upcoming posts that come close, but I have to say that this is my favourite. To be able to catch a CN freight on the platform in Stratford as it makes its way past some GEXR units was just about the perfect shot for me this year. It includes all the things I love. I love small towns, short line railways and seeing freight trains, since it is such a rare treat for me. You can see the full set of shots in this post.

Train 59

I needed to include a shot of Via Train 59, since I have caught this train more than any other in the past year. After taking photos of this train through the spring and well into the fall, I realized how many different methods I had tried to get shots of this westbound train. I intend to collect all these shots in a post sometime this spring. This shot below might be my favourite from last year. The shaggy trackside greenery adds a nice contrast to the train just past the curve in the Smiths Falls Sub.

There were other highlights from 2023, including winning the first ever Trackside Treasure Annibursary prize for excellence in railway blogging, an award initiated by one of the most prominent rail bloggers in Canada, Eric Gagnon.

This blog also logged the 10th anniversary of its birth, which was a nice accomplishment. Then there was the 400th post. 

All in all, there was much to celebrate in 2023. Here's to many more posts. Thanks for continuing to be along for the ride. I appreciate every person who reads and reaches out.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Not quite a wonderland, but...

I left it until the final day of Christmas vacation to get out there and do a little railfanning in Ottawa. It was a very quiet couple of weeks with my kids at home, which is exactly what I needed after a hectic couple of months leading up to Christmas. But I was feeling the itch and I figured I might as well get a few shots of the new Via Rail Siemens equipment while there was actually snow on the ground. I would not call it a winter wonderland, but it was something a little different. It was a dry couple of weeks through Christmas, so the sight of falling snow was a welcome sight, even if it was a bit chilly for photography, at least by recent standards.

True to my desire to get a variety of different photographs, I started by taking a shot at the signals just east of the Fallowfield crossing, the left of which was showing straight green over red. The signals to the right govern the movement of trains on the Fallowfield passing siding, when it is used. They are almost always showing red over red.

I then moved to the end of the east parking lot of the station, to get an unobstructed view of the train approaching from the east, as the lot was full and the views from the west lot did not look promising. My daughter came out to see "the new Vias" as she calls them. She has taken to doodling the Via and CN logos at home, which is a hopeful sign. I'm not sure I made a railfan of her, but I have managed to get her interested in hockey, so maybe trains aren't a huge stretch. 

The approaching Siemens consist was headed up by the control cab car in the lead and the locomotive at the rear. A blog reader said these trains don't have much of a horn. Since Via trains usually use a horn as they approach the Woodroffe Avenue crossing before the station, I was curious to hear what they sounded like, but I didn't hear any horn from this train, which was Via Train 43.

Let's get the obligatory 3/4 wedge shot in there. As much as I am trying to get different shots these days, I still have to take some of these more straightforward shots, as the new Siemens units really do demand it. That's car 2303 in the lead.

I like to get shots of trains loading on the platform, since it is a different image. I try to position myself far enough away from the crowds, to avoid taking photos of anyone that would allow them to be recognized. I like this shot, since I made sure to frame the Via logo on the locomotive in the upper right corner. 

Next, I tried to get a shot of locomotive 2204 at the end of the platform. It was a little trickier than I thought it would be since the Siemens trains are a fair bit more lengthy on the platform than the more usual consists with P42s/F40s and a mix of 4-6 cars in tow. Even with the double-enders that Via has been using in recent years, this train was sitting much closer to the eastern edge of the platform. I had to angle myself carefully to stay on the edge of the platform and get a shot safely.

Before leaving, I went to the west parking lot to get some more shots of the train making its way west toward the Fallowfield crossing. Luckily, the western lot was mostly empty near the end so I was able to get a shot of the train leaving, but the light standards at the edge of the lot didn't help with the image. Those shots didn't work out, so I focused on framing the train against the signals near Fallowfield Road. I like this shot best, as it captured the snow against 2204.

All in all, it was a fun, quick trip to the station and my daughter thought the new train was pretty slick. She is looking forward to our family's first train trip to Toronto in June, when we will take our daughters to their first Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre. I was glad in a way that we received some unexpected snow (this as before the massive 20-25 cm snowfall we saw on Jan 22-23) and well into Sunday, as it allowed me to get some winter railway shots. It's just not as fun when the winter shots have no snow on the ground. A good first effort for 2024.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Dive right into 2024 (Stratford Part IV)

Happy New Year, fellow friends of the iron horse. I was considering how to start the new year and what to write about when it hit me. Just start with some cool train photos. That was what I decided. There is lots of material left over from last year's adventures, which will be shared over the weeks and months to come. Sadly, I wasn't able to make it trackside over the Christmas holidays, but that's okay. There was very little snow after Dec. 25 and I was still working my regular hours at home, so the opportunities for something seasonal didn't materialize.

So let's start with some shortline summer action shots, shall we? On July 30 while in Stratford for a family reunion, I had a chance to stop by the Stratford station to see if there was anything going on in the yard. Luckily, there was. The GEXR crew had two geeps idling in the yard and ready for some work. Later on, CN 568 came passing through, which you can check out in this post. In the harsh early morning sunlight, I wandered around the yard from publicly accessible vantage points, as the crew assembled a string of hoppers that seemed to be destined for Goderich or other points along the GEXR Goderich Subdivision. Here's a shot from the crossing. The morning sun was washing out the sky, but I still like this shot.

I have a friend who takes shots from this vantage point, so I decided to follow his lead and get an overall shot of the yard action. This is in keeping with what I started last year, in the Year of Different. the goal is to get some railway images that aren't dominated only by the train. In this case, I wanted to get the grain elevator and the overall yard in the image. I didn't get all that I wanted, but I think this shot conveys the overall size of this railway operation.

Here's another example of a shot that is different. I wouldn't have taken this shot even a few years ago. The crew in this shot is getting ready to couple its two hoppers with a few more cars, some that are hidden behind the boxcar. It's the human element that I like in this shot, even though the morning sun did not do me any favours.

The engines went back and forth getting the cars the crew needed to take up the Goderich Sub, which allowed me to think about different shots and elements to capture. There's nothing like a good smoke shot! In fact, I dedicated a previous post to smoke.

As everyone knows, GEXR is a shortline owned by the Genesee & Wyoming Inc. shortline company, so it's not uncommon to see orange units in the yard that aren't technically GEXR units. In this case, the power was supplied by a Southern Ontario Railway GP38-2 2111 and Huron Eastern GP38-2 3510. Here's a closer look at the Huron Eastern logo, which is a small departure from the G&W logo.

While SOR has been absorbed back into the CN empire, HESR continues to operate close to 400 miles of track in Michigan's thumb area and into Flint and Saginaw in the lower peninsula of the state. Here's something that I thought was odd, though. Since I have been taking shots in this yard in Stratford, I have spotted more G&W units that are not GEXR than I have actual GEXR units. I would imagine the reason for this is that things are likely quite fluid between the various operations that G&W oversees across North America.

One more observation from this shot. The aftermarket horn on the SOR unit, as it was moving across the crossing, was more like a car horn than a train horn. It was quite pathetic, to be honest! I often see people on train forums that can rhyme off the actual make of horns on engines. In all honesty, that is a level of detail I just don't have room for in my brain.

Here's shot that required some editing, as the morning sun was playing havoc with my shots. I decided I would accept some form of distortion and shadow for the chance of getting a shot of the engines in action against the backdrop of the grain elevator. I liked how this turned out, despite the obvious imperfections. It screams early morning or late evening. 

Here's one final shot with a blue sky in it, as the sun was throwing me a bone. The shadows were harsh still, but the colours came through pretty well in this shot as the crew stretched out its consist before backing it up again to pick up more cars. I didn't stick around for it to depart, as my daughters were getting a little impatient, so I decided to wrap up my wanderings shortly after taking this shot and a few more.

Looking through my photos from Stratford this summer, I can see I have a lot more to share. This early morning bit of shunting was fun to see but there were a few more surprises the yard still had to offer me. However, it wasn't until I returned to Stratford in November that these surprises were fully revealed. All in all, it was a fun bit of railfanning on a pleasant July morning. And that wasn't counting the mainline freight that came through later on.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas break. Here's to more rail musings and conversation in the year to come.