Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part III)

Note: Although my time right now is dominated by a move, I have found some time to blog. This is the final entry in my reminiscences of taking the train between Sarnia and Ottawa in the late 1990s. The route between these cities on opposite ends of Ontario is filled with memories and items of interest for me. - Michael

In the second post of this series, I focused on a few points of interest between Union Station and Kitchener. Once you pass Kitchener on a westbound train, you get into the smaller, more pastoral stops that speak to railroading from another era. 

St. Marys

One of these stops is found in the beautiful community of St. Marys. The town is located in Perth County, has a population of 7,200 and boasts a few historic curiosities. It is the resting place of Canada's ninth prime minister, Arthur Meighen. It is also home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which I have visited. Finally, it is home to an historic stone railway station. The station is situated on a hill just beyond a large trestle crossing.

The station itself has been well maintained and still hosts daily Via Rail service. That additional platform you see is the Metrolinx platform that was used when GO Trains were run between Toronto and London in a pilot project. That service has since ended. Just beyond the station sits an impressive trestle that crosses a creek that wends its way over Rotary Park. This bridge shows you the impressive geography that had to be forded to operate railways through this terrain.

The last time I was in St. Marys, I made sure to walk beneath the bridge just to get some perspective as to how high it is over the valley. This view below gives you an idea of the size and height of this railway structure. This town is known for its limestone deposits, which explains the stone piers holding up the metal girders. Now you also know the origin of the St. Marys Cement company name. It's this town.

When I took the train between Sarnia and Ottawa in the late 1990s, I always made a mental note to look out my window when crossing this bridge. It was cool to see people from my perspective atop the bridge. It always filled me with a sense of comfort to see people going about their business in this small town when the train passed through. As a small town guy at heart, I have a soft spot for this town. Also, there's an ice cream store near the station that has a dairy free option, which makes me happy. 


I won't dwell on Stratford too long, as I have blogged about this town many times. I now have family living here, so I have made many trips to this station, which is one of the nicest in Southwestern Ontario. It really does suit the town, which has one of the richest cultural scenes of any community in Canada. The impact of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival cannot be underestimated.


London is the big city in Southwestern Ontario. If you are from Sarnia, it's the easiest big city to get to, as it is only an hour east. My first-ever train trip was between Sarnia and London when my Dad had an appointment in London. I remember travelling on a classic blue coach to London when I was quite young. I could not have been much older than 4 or 5, but I remember the excitement I felt as a train obsessed little kid. When I travelled between Sarnia and Ottawa, London was either the last major stop before I came home or it was the first major stop as I settled in for a long day en route back to Carleton University. 

Via's station here has been well maintained. It was not always this way, before the station was renovated in the early 2000s. This is not the station I remember from my travels in the 1990s. You can just make out an HEP silver streamliner to the right of the picture. As London is at the junction between rail lines going to Sarnia and Windsor, this station continues to host both Toronto-Windsor and Toronto-Sarnia trains in both directions. 

London's station has a small yard, which at times has hosted some oddities over the years. Here's an undated shot shared with me of the old GM Diesel switcher at the old London station. The last I saw, this old unit resided at the Lambton Diesel shop in Sarnia yard.


Between London and Sarnia, Via makes two stops, although in the 1990s, it made three. Heading west, the Via corridor trains stop in Strathroy and Wyoming. Just east of Wyoming in the 1990s, Via also made a brief stop in Watford, but that service has since been discontinued.

The Wyoming stop is a throwback to earlier days in railroading, when railways served small towns. Wyoming's former CN train station is long gone, as are the rails of the old rail yard, but there is still a tiny station just off Broadway Avenue, Wyoming's main street.

When I took the train in the 1990s, there always seemed to be someone who either got off in Wyoming in the evening or boarded the train in the early morning. It's somewhat of an anomaly that this town has Via service still, but given the population growth in this part of the province, the station might see more activity in the coming years. In my time on the train in the 1990s, Wyoming again was one of those stops where I was either itching to get off the train after a long day or it was where I was settling in for a long trip east. I have visited this spot a number of times to train watch. It's a great spot to watch mainline freights roar by.

Here's one of my meets with a passing freight in 2022.

Okay, here's a shot of the power. A shot of an autorack seems like a bit of a rip-off, I'm sure.

Last stop: Sarnia

I've disembarked on the Sarnia platform many times, always late at night when my train pulled in at the end of its run. My clearest memory of this station was when I returned home in October 1996. It was the first time I had visited my family after moving away to attend journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa. I was homesick, as my first year hadn't gone all that swimmingly to start. My roommate and I didn't mesh. He was a good guy but I couldn't live with him. When the train pulled into the station, I had a window seat overlooking the station platform. I had already gathered my bags and was beginning to stand up to stretch my legs, as I was eager to get home. I recall my brother on the platform, jumping up to see where I was in the train, as he was excited to see me. I have never forgotten that moment.

As brothers, we don't often need to say anything to each other. We know we are each other's best friend. My older brother has been a great influence on me all my life. I have always looked up to him. When I saw how excited he was to see me, it reminded me of what family is all about. When people ask me why I am so sentimental about trains, that moment in 1996 is one of the reasons. Trains have brought people together for generations. That is what keeps me fascinated.

Thank you to everyone who has sent along their best wishes as my family tries to navigate through the last portion of a very difficult year. We're close to being free of this situation. I can't guarantee when the next post will appear, but I'm hoping it will be soon. All positivity welcomed.

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Overpass Debate

Note: Due to my ongoing efforts to move, my time online to pursue blogging is severely limited. I will be taking the siding for a few weeks, to focus on housing matters. The situation has improved, as we have bought a new home (near the Beachburg Sub!) and are in the process of selling our house. This is a stressful time for me, as I have mentioned in the past, so I appreciate your patience during this pause. In the meantime, here's a post that's been in the can for a while. I will continue with my Ottawa to Sarnia series when I return. - Michael

One of the things my family did in the early days of the pandemic was search for new exotic playgrounds for my children to play at throughout the city. In the summer of 2020, I took my daughters to a park next to the Smiths Falls Subdivision in Barrhaven. That was when I saw my first real glimpse of the overpass that now takes Strandherd Road over the Smiths Falls Sub. For those in the city, you know that Strandherd is an extremely busy road that is being widened and cannot handle its current capacity. The overpass really began to take shape over that summer. It also got me to thinking a bit about Ottawa and our railway etiquette in the city.

First things first, as we were leaving the park, I heard the familiar sound of a Via Rail corridor train heading east toward Fallowfield Station. I had my iPhone with me so I fired off a few shots of the train through the trees. I like this shot below the best.

I don't know that I've shared too many shots from my iPhone on this blog over the years, but I was glad to have it at that moment as the train went by at a fair clip. The sun was hiding behind clouds and making for some funny shadows, which explains some of the weird lighting in the shot. I decided to leave it untouched. 

Here's a shot of the tail end of the train, which was a double-ender with a P42 bringing up the rear.

This was pretty much the best I could do. I was trotting across a soccer field and trying not to use my phone's zoom function, which pretty much guarantees you a highly pixelated shot. As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I have really grown to like railway photos that place a train in its surroundings. I am as interested in the landscape around the train as I am in the train. I think there's so much more to the story than capturing an engine at the head of a train. This is why I like shots where the train isn't dominating the majority of the frame. I think the surroundings tell as much of the story as the train does.

But as I looked over at the Strandherd overpass, I couldn't help but think back to the years before 2020, when many of the signals and crossing guards were malfunctioning in Barrhaven, which had local residents suggesting all their level crossings should be switched over to overpasses or underpasses. 

I chuckled at those debates, as I have lived in cities with far more level crossings, many of which accommodate both long freight and passenger trains. Ottawa drivers don't know how good they have it. There is a high frequency of Via Rail traffic going through their neighbourhoods, but the inconvenience of a short, quick passenger train going by is quite minimal when you compare that to the time it takes for a giant freight train passes by. We're talking about the difference between a few seconds of waiting and a few minutes.

Having seen the delays these freight trains cause first hand when I lived in Kitchener, I know how these many crossings back traffic up, yet I don't recall much of a conversation about what needed to be done. Drivers accepted railways as being part of their landscape and learned to adjust their days according to the possibility of a delay. 

2016 shot of a flyover being constructed over Greenbank Road in Barrhaven. 
Greenbank flyover in 2023
I know I've made this point before, but Ottawa drivers really don't know how to live with railways anymore. The days of transcontinental freights going through the city are long gone, as are the days of more frequent short line traffic, like when the Ottawa Central Railway was at its busiest. 
While it is true that the residents of Barrhaven have more transportation headaches than many other parts of the city (they are also situated under the flight path approach to the Ottawa International Airport), the limited intrusions caused by Via Rail's corridor traffic are laughable when compared to what other cities have to live with. And never mind the once-a-week freight traffic, which usually consists of a freight train of no more than five cars.
I remember years ago when someone was complaining about the Arnprior Turn causing headaches for people in the Valleystream neighbourhood, when the once-a-week freight train rattled their homes with what the blogger described as "tar sands" oil tank cars. I was less than impressed with this blogger's ignorance, to say the least.  

Ottawa has become a spoiled city, where people think railways and crossings are a nuisance to be eliminated. Yet, they don't often think of the vital role Via plays in this city, or the role the rails could one day play in a future commuter transportation system.

Yes, overpasses are safer and better in the long run. I'm not suggesting they aren't the way to go from a safety perspective. However, I fear that people in this city have no concept of how to live with trains. A  collision between a Via Rail corridor train and pickup truck at the Barnsdale Road (country road, with clear views) level crossing is a good example. Anyone who thinks they can outrun a passenger train at this crossing is clearly not aware of the speed of these trains.

Sometimes, common sense is just as useful as improved infrastructure.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part II)

Taking the train across Ontario is a great experience, but it is also a long day, given that this isn't a pleasure ride through the Rockies or a eye-opening trek up to Churchill, Man. Taking the train through Ontario often means getting on in small town stations, at odd hours, changing trains at Union Station in Toronto and enduring the numerous delays when Via has to make way for CN freight trains. There's also the scenery, as I mentioned. Personally, I find the ride fascinating, but for some, I'm sure it's a bit of a bore.

When I was a university student at Carleton University in the late 1990s, I rode the train dozens of times between Ottawa and Sarnia in both directions. For someone who grew up fascinated by trains, I loved travelling by train. Sadly, I was not in the habit of taking photos at the time, but I have plenty of memories of those times spent travelling across Ontario. In the last post, I shared some memories and observations of the stops between Ottawa and Kingston. This time around, I'd like to continue heading west.

Via westbound corridor train meets an eastbound CN freight west of Kingston Station, July 2016 
Between Kingston and Toronto, depending on what corridor train you are on, the most likely stops you will notice are Napanee, Belleville, Cobourg, Port Hope, Oshawa and sometimes Guildwood (Scarborough). It depends on whether you are taking a train that is considered a milk run or an express. The express trains usually stop in Belleville, Cobourg and Oshawa. Selected trains can stop at any of the above mentioned towns.
In the 1990s, this was the part of the trip where I was usually immersed in reading, chatting with friends or writing. There is some impressive scenery between Kingston and Oshawa, particularly when the tracks edge close to Lake Ontario, like in the Clarington area, just east of Oshawa. The small town stations are nice, although some, like the original Grand Trunk stonework Port Hope station, are lightly used. Given that Via has recently reinstated some service in the busy Ontario-Quebec corridor, that means more trains for towns like Port Hope.
When I rode the train in the 1990s, Belleville station had yet to be completely transformed, so my memories of this stop are quite a contrast with what is there today. The new station is a modernists' dream and features a number of modern amenities, but I'm sure there are many people who think this place just doesn't have a classic railway station feel to it. For a town the size of Belleville, this is an impressive structure. I can't think of many towns this size that have such a large, modern station. It pays to be on the main line between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.


I have lots of memories of Union Station in Toronto, going back to 1983, when I rode a train from Sarnia, through Toronto, into Quebec City on a overnighter, back when Via still did that. Union Station was the place where I saw a complete CN passenger train under the sheds, not knowing then that it was a Via corridor consist that somehow had not been repainted in the blue and yellow yet. 

In the 1990s, I spent a good number of hours in the Union Station, after my train to Toronto finished its journey and I had to wait for the evening train into Sarnia. This usually meant finding some fast food option. Unlike today with all its renovations, the Union Station of the 1990s was not the same place. In fact, you could argue it was a little rough around the edges. 

Still, the feeling you get when you enter that great hall was the same then as it is now. Back in the 1990s, it was never lost on me that entering the hall was like entering the pages of history. How many stories include this hall? How many people have passed through here? Why did they pass through here? I would venture to guess my mother passed through this hall in the mid-1950s when she was arriving in Canada for the first time, en route to her eventual home in Windsor. Like I said, countless stories.

Back in the 1990s, the train sheds were dark and dismal, charred by decades of diesel smoke. In recent years, efforts were made to brighten this space with windows, as part of the station's renovations. It makes for a more welcoming experience in Toronto than when I used to get off trains in the 1990s. The image below shows you how dark the sheds were before the renovations, as two Via eastbound corridor trains approach the station before the retrofits.

I have many memories of sitting on my luggage in line near the gates, which are located below the great hall. Many times, lunch or dinner was a hot dog purchased outside the station at a cart on Front Street, across from the Royal York Hotel. 

I will mention this memory passed along to me by a Via Rail employee, but I will not name them in any way. This person told me that, when they were working on a crew that helped pack the baggage cars, there was an incident one day when a coffin was brought down to the platforms. This person told me that, for some reason, there was a miscommunication between the people coordinating the move of this coffin into the baggage car that resulted in the contents of the coffin tumbling to the tracks. You can imagine the scene. Obviously for the family of the deceased, this is horrible. Decades have passed since this happened and this person can now smile just a bit at this story, if only to shake their heads at the absolutely awful luck and bad form that resulted in this happening. It pays to work in brighter light, I guess.


I will deviate a bit from the 1990s theme to share one memory of my time at the Guelph railway station. In 2009-10, I had just been laid off from my job in the media in Kitchener and had moved back to Ottawa to work for the government. I was engaged at the time and my now wife was still living and working in Guelph. We used to visit each other every six weeks or so between the time she finished her job in Guelph and moved to Ottawa with me, after we were married. This was a period of about 18 months apart, while engaged. Not a great time, but a good test of our commitment.

Guelph has a historic railway station perched on a hill overlooking the city's chic downtown. At the time, the city's historic 6167 was displayed in the area, but has since been relocated to an area near the River Run Centre, just on the outside the downtown core.

The station itself is another of the original Grand Trunk stations and has served the city since 1911. The building was renovated in 2016-17, to help preserve its historic character. The station is used by Via as well as Metrolinx, which provides commuter service between Kitchener and Toronto daily. So, here's my story about this station (picture was sourced through Wikimedia Commons).

After a weekend with my then fiancee, I had to board a train back to Ottawa. I remember standing on the platform on a reasonably warm spring morning, not relishing the thought of returning to Ottawa and working at a thankless job in media relations in the government. The platform was fairly full, with about 20 or so people ready to board. The quiet was shattered by the angry yelling of someone in Italian. I know it was Italian because my mother's family is Italian. And, though Italian can sometimes seem like an angry language, this isn't the case. There's expressive Italian, which I remember well, and there's angry Italian, which was what this was. When this person emerged on the platform, it was clear he was suffering from some sort of mental health episode as he continued to yell at no one in particular. I mention this story because it's my clearest memory of this station. I don't share it to be funny or make light of what this person was experiencing. 


Having lived in Kitchener two years, I have more recent memories of my time at this station, which is located on Victoria Avenue just north of the city's downtown. Kitchener's station is another of the classically built heritage stations between Toronto and London, on the Guelph Subdivision. It has an annex to its east of the passenger side that was once used by the Goderich Exeter Railway, which once operated freight services in the city prior to CN taking over that business in recent years. I do remember taking an Amtrak Superliner into  Kitchener one weekend when I was in high school, to visit my sister at the University of Waterloo. That was a fun weekend and a good memory. On my trips to and from Ottawa, Kitchener was always an area of fascination with me, as the station is built among some vintage brick industrial buildings. Many of these buildings have been repurposed. That, combined with the nearby University of Waterloo health sciences buildings and technology incubator in the old Lang Tannery mean this area is changing. It was a little rough when I passed through in the 1990s.

There's also the relatively recent addition of the Metrolinx GO Train service to Kitchener, which means this station is much busier than it was when I passed through in the 1990s.

The final leg of the journey requires an extra post, as there are a number of small stations and vivid memories for me of this time spent on the rails. Once past Kitchener, I could always feel anticipation rising in me as I returned home to see my family. I will save those memories for another time.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Memories of Ottawa to Sarnia in the late 1990s (Part I)

I wasn't in the habit of taking rail photos in the late 1990s when I began my post-secondary education in Ottawa at Carleton University in September 1996. In retrospect, it would have been a fun time to take shots. That's because every one of my trips home to see family at that time meant spending the better part of a day on the train. It was a time when you could still buy your student-discounted ticket at a Travelcuts travel agency on campus and the ticket you got might still have the red carbon copy. That quickly changed to those thick cardstock paper, one-fold tickets with the perforated lines to separate each leg of your journey. For me, taking the train regularly over those four years (1996-2000) was an eye opener, as someone who had seen almost no part of Ontario beyond Toronto for the first 18 years of his life. So, let's take a journey down memory lane and across the province back in the glory days of the late 90s.

A quick note about the equipment. As far as I can recall, every one of the trains I took were pretty much the same consist. I don't recall ever riding behind a P42. It was always an F40PH-2. The cars were almost exclusively LRC coaches. I don't recall riding in an old silver HEP car once during my university years. I don't know if that's a coincidence, but I'm almost positive of these facts. 


It's important to mention this off the top. In all my time taking the train in university, there was no Fallowfield Station. The train would roar through Barrhaven in Ottawa's south end and throttle up for the short leg to Smiths Falls. That meant all trips started at Ottawa's train station on Tremblay Road. Despite the fact that Ottawa doesn't have an historic train station as in Toronto, the east end station in Ottawa is a fascinating building, which is an award-winning architectural work from the 1960s. Given what many buildings of a similar vintage look like in Ottawa, the central train station is downright beautiful. Its main hall, with an endless wall of windows facing the tracks, is a bright, welcoming space. The circular ticket office in the middle of the hall is a creative way to create separate areas. The underground tunnel from the outside platforms is quite beautiful as well, especially the circular ramp to take you back up to the main station. The Via Panorama Lounge is well appointed as well, although I have only been there once. That was when I accompanied my friend, a person with a disability, who was accommodated in the Business Class (formerly Via1) car. All in all, the building hasn't changed much since I frequented it in my university years. The biggest change might be that there is no Harvey's at the station anymore. The food options are not great. Also, the rail yard is much smaller and the old Governor General's cars are no longer there. A small complaint.

Smiths Falls

Heading southwest, the first stop was (and is) always Smiths Falls, which had a classic railway town feel the moment you eased into the old platform at the former Canadian Pacific station on the edge of the CP yard. Of course, in those days, that old building still functioned as the Via station, which has since changed. The new Via station is more of an enlarged kiosk on Union Street, on the edge of the town.

The old station is now a centre for the arts and seems to be well used. Depending on which way I was travelling, Smiths Falls was either the stop where I was getting restless or the stop where I would be settling in with a book, magazine or my walkman (yes, I still listened to cassette tapes then). It was a town I didn't know much about until I learned of its history. It was the longtime home of the Hershey's chocolate factory and was once a very busy division point on the CPR, the dividing point between the Brockville, Winchester and Belleville subdivisions. It still is, but the Brockville Sub is now exclusively Via controlled while the Winchester and Belleville subs continue on as the eastern leg of the CP system to Montreal (and now beyond, once again). But the activity here is not what it was in the 1990s.


Brockville is another town that I must confess that I still don't know a lot about, other than it is still sees plenty of rail action each day, as the CN and CP eastern main lines converge here. There's plenty of history in Brockville, including its famous old railway tunnel, not to mention its name, which pays tribute to Sir Isaac Brock. Brock was a British military leader who many credit with preventing a successful American invasion of the Canadian colonies in the War of 1812. The red coat that he was shot and killed in on the Queenston Heights in the Niagara Region can be found at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A gruesome relic, but a fascinating story.


This town was probably the most surprising stop in my early years taking the train to and from Ottawa. I didn't know the town existed, to be honest, and was absolutely shocked when I saw its railway station for the first time. I wondered what kind of one-horse town Gananoque was. I didn't understand at the time that the town's train station was actually not in the town at all, but in a rural area named Cheeseborough to the north. This station remains a vital link where Gananoque is connected to the main line. A short branch line south into the town itself served Gananoque as a passenger link until 1962 and as a freight spur until 1995, when the last freight service ended and the rails were pulled up. However, the first time my train stopped there and I looked around the station area through the window, it was hard to comprehend how a station could be placed in the middle of nowhere. That's what it appeared like to me, anyway. You can read about the town, its famous engine the Susan Push (below), and its heritage in this post, where I explored some of the town's railway history.


Prior to my university years, I had only been to Kingston one time. Over the years, I have made some visits and I really do love the city. It's an eclectic mix of historic charm, academia, Upper Canada Loyalist, blue collar ethos and innovation. The city's history, of course, is what underpins much of Kingston and its beautiful downtown and waterfront.

From a rail traveller's perspective, there isn't much to be gleaned when you stop at Kingston station. The Via Rail schedule here is packed, as Kingston sits arguably about half way between Toronto and Montreal and also hosts a number of corridor trains to and from Ottawa. I suppose my memories of Kingston in the 1990s are closely tied to my high school friend Chris, who went to Queen's University to study engineering. Chris and I often found ourselves on the same train between Sarnia and Ottawa, although rarely on the return trip west. Chris was (likely still is) a real card back in high school and university. He had a gregarious personality and didn't mind making fun of himself in a crowd if it meant drawing laughter.

My clearest memory of our rides together on the train happened when we somehow got onto the topic of Stompin' Tom Connors and his famous ditty, The Hockey Song. I'm not sure how it came about, but I remember Chris singing the entire song word-for-word on the train, just loud enough that the people around us could hear him, but not too loud that he would annoy them. I think he left a few people befuddled, to be honest. 

Chris made many a train trip a little more bearable, although I should point out that I had no problem sitting by myself, reading, writing or listening to my cassette tapes. I do recall that, in the days before everything was available online, my brother would sometimes tape a cassette's worth of my favourite radio morning show from back home, which I used to listen to over and over. 

I should also mention that Kingston to me is closely tied to nearby Ernestown, a railway ghost town if ever there was one! The old stone station still stands trackside and it was on my rides between Ottawa and Sarnia that I first saw that old abandoned station. Back in the days before everything was online (man, I'm sounding old now), the story of that station remained a mystery to me, which I think was part of its appeal. Later on, I was filled in on the Ernestown story by Trackside Treasure's Eric Gagnon, but back in the 1990s that old station was the stuff of my imagination. 

These rides featured many other memories and lessons for me, but these are the ones that stick out as part of the Eastern Ontario portion of my journeys. I'm grateful for that education.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Illegitimus non Carborundum

In the spirit of full disclosure, which is part of my mission as a mental health public speaker, I will share that I am once again struggling with my life as it is, mainly due to an ongoing situation in my neighbourhood where my family is still being harassed and intimidated by a local resident. Long story short, our attempts to stop this behaviour through legal means have only met with mixed success and the threat remains. We had to report this individual recently, as he shows no signs of stopping. We are also desperately trying to get the Ottawa Police Service to take ownership of its litany of mistakes (my opinion, not theirs, obviously) in (mis)handling this situation.

That brings me to this blog and my continued efforts to find new and interesting things, or possibly old and interesting things, to share about my love of railways. The title of this post is a nod to the Latin motto of the now defunct Whitehorse Star newspaper, which recently closed its doors after 124 years. The scrappy newspaper's motto roughly translates to You mustn't allow the b@stards to bring you down. I love this scrappy attitude, which seems to be right out of the Klondike era Yukon.

In the spirit of that motto, I am trying not to allow anyone or anyone's failures to prevent me from living my life. It's hard right now, when I have my family's safety on my mind and the everpresent threat from this person, but through counselling, I have been able to deal with stress and anxiety in ways I couldn't a few years ago.

Part of my therapy, quite honestly, has involved going out on Wednesdays, after dropping off my girls at dance class, and sitting trackside. In the last few weeks, I've found some new spots to shoot the evening westbound Train 59 and the eastbound Train 43. It's all therapy and if we all learn something, even better, right?

Milepost 1.63 Smiths Falls Subdivision

I'll start at Milepost 1.63 of the Smiths Falls Subdivision, which is where the tracks cross Merivale Road, one of this area's more notoriously congested arterial routes. It's a throwback to 1960s urban planning when commercial development was grouped together in an endless pattern, with little thought to surrounding neighbourhoods or some sort of natural balance. There are Merivale Roads in every city and Ottawa certainly has its share of similar areas (Hazeldean Road in Kanata, southern Bank Street in Central Ottawa, Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Innes Road in the east end).

The Merivale level crossing marks the point where the commercial properties end and the residential areas re-emerge. It's a crossing that has a wide sidewalk on the west side of the road, with clear sight lines down the arrow straight stretch of track. Two weeks ago, I took a few pictures of Train 59, just to see if this crossing had anything interesting for visual purposes.

I framed the train to the left of this shot because I wanted to capture the symmetry of the power lines to the right. That overpass in the background is the Hunt Club Road overpass, where I have taken a number of railway pictures in the past few years.

Here's a shot (above) at the Merivale crossing itself. F40PH-2 6432 leads a four-car LRC consist east toward Fallowfield Station, which is situated just past the next level crossing at Woodroffe Avenue, to the west of this spot. You can see the petroleum storage tanks at Eastway Tank to the left of the crossing signals. To the right, you can see a residential neighbourhood. This spot really is the dividing line between commercial and residential areas in this part of the old Nepean.

I waited around for Train 43 eastbound, which is scheduled to come through this area around 6:48 each evening, if it isn't running late. Lucky for me, it was on time, which meant I could catch a shot of it running eastbound. Given the shadows cast by the buildings next to the track, I had to wait until the train emerged into a sunny pocket to get this shot. Note the last car in this six-car consist. One of these things is not like the other things.

Here's a closer shot nearer to the crossing. Note the shadows from the buildings on nearby Capital Drive. You can make out the new Via scheme, the old blue-and-yellow scheme and a wrap, if you look closely.

I'm not sure why an old HEP car was added onto the end of this train, but it made for a nice little surprise. I don't think we'll see too much more of this variety in the corridor. 

So that was my late April adventure at a new spot. I'm not sure I will return to this crossing, as I don't see many opportunities for new shots, but it's always fun to capture images of places in the city that I haven't documented before. This level crossing is at an interesting spot. It is worth a try, if you are a local train enthusiast and are looking for something new.

This past week, I returned to the Rideau River bridge, to get a new angle I hadn't tried yet. I will share those images in the weeks to come. 

These Wednesdays have been therapeutic for me, because they give me an evening away from my house and allow me to be free of household concerns and chores for a few hours. I'm sure I'll grow tired of taking shots of the same train at some point, but I have already identified two new vantage points I'd like to capture in the weeks to come, so I'm hoping to continue my efforts to find new ways to capture railway images in Ottawa.

Even if I don't come up with anything new, just being trackside seems to be enough for me right now. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Let's give thanks for the Bytown Railway Society

In my years since I started blogging, I've come across the Bytown Railway Society regularly, mostly through social media, but also in casual conversations or through research. Chances are, if you are looking into the history of railways in Ottawa, you will come across someone from the society who either knows the history or was part of the history.

A while ago, I had an appointment on St. Laurent Boulevard, in Ottawa's east end, which gave me the chance to have a quick glance at the society's historic rolling stock collection outside the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. Those who have been to this museum know there is a great steam engine exhibit inside, which to my eye seems to be one of the most popular features. The society can be thanked for this exhibit, which explains the history of passenger trains and steam-driven machinery.

Then there's this beauty out in front of the museum, which was recently moved, complete with the laying of a temporary track to get it to its new spot. Again, the society did yeoman's work in this move. And the newly refurbished 4-8-4 6200 looks better than it has in years. 

Ottawa winters can be incredibly harsh, so seeing this old machine with fresh paint, a new bell, an operational headlight and vivid number plates is a wonderful thing to behold up close. It gives you an idea of why people of a certain vintage hold steam engines in such high regard and why these mammoth machines continue to be a source of inspiration. Again, this engine's new lease on life can be traced back to BRS.

When you make your way to the small BRS rail yard stashed away behind the museum storage building, you begin to appreciate the time and effort these people have put in to preserving railway heritage in a city that has largely forgotten about railways. In my opinion, there's a huge opportunity to be had in introducing visitors to the museum to these old antique pieces of rolling stock. I can imagine a small tour and explanation of these cars and an explanation of their role in keeping Canadians moving would present a wonderful and interesting hands-on learning opportunity. That is what museums are for, right?

I don't mean this as a criticism of the museum or the BRS. There are a number of priorities for the museum in curating an interesting collection that tells an overall story of innovation. Railways are only one piece of the science and tech story. However, it strikes me that having this collection in storage is a missed opportunity.

I think back to the museum's older iteration, before its renovation. This caboose was part of the railway display. Now, the display only features two steam engines. Again, it's a small quibble and I'm not criticizing anyone per se. I love the museum and I have great respect for the Bytown Railway Society and its members. I'm just saying that I think there's an opportunity for so much more storytelling here and who better to tell the story of railways that the society?

This brings me to a memory. Back when the Canadian Pacific brought its business train into the city a few years ago, where it was largely hidden away from view and guarded at Walkley Yard, there was a palpable buzz among railfans over the presence of history in the city. I remember getting a few long shots of the train from Conroy Road, which was the closest I could come to the train, as the friendly CP police officer stood nearby (really, he was great, we chatted and he was cool).

The next day, I camped out along the Smiths Falls Sub at Fallowfield Station, waiting for the train to makes its way out of the city and was joined by a member of the Bytown Railway Society. We talked about the society's new space in the museum archives building, which is a state-of-the-art facility and a fitting home for this railway equipment. However, I remember sensing the frustration in his voice over the fact that the museum is no longer connected to an active rail line.

For those who might not know, the Bytown Railway Society was once quite active in arranging heritage train excursions along the trackage around Ottawa. Some of these excursions made their way along the Alexandria Sub while others plied the rails of the Smiths Falls Sub and the now torn-up Beachburg Sub into Pembroke. Even as recently as about 10 years ago, I remember there was chatter about planning for another excursion, but so much has changed with railways in Ottawa, that the society now finds itself working with great facilities but no connection to active rails. 

The Society's latest project was its extensive work to refurbish this old CN coach. Those who follow BRS on Facebook, as I do, will remember that the society documented the extensive work of its Dirty Hands Club in getting this old heavyweight six-axle coach back to its former glory. It looks great and I would think it could serve as a wonderful reminder of what railway transportation used to be like. However, I was a bit sad to see chatter on Facebook about which group would be prepared to take on this coach and give it a good home where it can be appreciated. 

Personally, I would love to see it stay with BRS and be put into use on local excursions. The society, in my opinion, would be an ideal operator or partner for these types of excursions, if given the chance. However, the prospects for this are slim. Even the old Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield steam train is a distant memory on the old CP Maniwaki Sub, as municipalities there struggled with bringing that line back into operation following storm damage. The end result was the line was scrapped (some would say predictably) and the equipment sold off. 

My point is there doesn't seem to be a lot of appetite to support this type of moving, living history, at least among those who would have the power to make it happen. I'm sure the society would jump at the chance at either hosting or partnering on some form of excursion or even rail tour initiatives from the museum.

My point here is not to criticize anyone or any organization, especially BRS. Rather, I am trying to express that I believe local rail history and the society deserve better. I appreciate that they have new digs, which is a huge step up for them, and deservedly so. 

However, what happens when you have all this expertise, knowledge and volunteer power, but nowhere to really make proper use of it? Well, think about the BRS refurbished coach that now resides at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. It's a great place for this old antique, where it can be appreciated.

But I can't help but remember the conversation I had with a society member who seemed to be a bit disappointed that this old coach had to go to Smiths Falls at all (and by truck, he mentioned, with tongue firmly in cheek). Again, it's a great outcome for this car, but I think it also represents a bit of a loss for those talented people who worked so hard to get it back to its former glory.

Many railfans know the BRS as the publisher of the Canadian Trackside Guide. I'm not old enough to remember when the society was a regular operator of special steam excursions and other heritage train rides. BRS is also active at area train shows and in arranging rail heritage discussions.

I do not mean to speak on behalf of anyone in saying this, especially the Bytown Railway Society, but I think many people in Ottawa are missing an opportunity to make use of this organization and its collection.

It can be as simple as people regularly touring the equipment as part of their museum visit. It could be something far more ambitious like re-establishing the rail connection at the museum and possibly starting up heritage excursions again.

I understand that there are many, many logistical and legal issues I am not accounting for here in this simplistic view.

But wouldn't it be great if we were able to better appreciate our history and allow the Bytown Railway Society to do what it does best without limitations?

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Trackside ABCs in Ottawa

Last year, I declared 2023 to be the Year of Different. This year, I am declaring 2024 to be the Year of ABCs. No, I'm not talking about kindergarten stuff, I'm talking about our collective approach to rail photography. That is why I am challenging myself to:

Always Be Challenging (my approach) and;

Always Be Changing (my vantage points, framing, subjects or locations).

Last year, I decided that I would begin shooting the evening approach of Via Train 59 westbound around Hunt Club Road, since I am in the area for my daughter's dance class every week. But after a while, there are only so many times you can shoot the same train with a similar consist from the same spot, so I started challenging myself to try different approaches. The end result was that I was able to get some new photographs that tell a little more of the story of railways in Ottawa.

Let's face it. If you are going to be a railfan in Ottawa, or west Ottawa in my case, you need to be creative because you are going to shoot mostly Via Rail corridor trains. That's just life. Yes, there is CN's weekly Arnprior Turn that operates on Wednesdays. But if you work, as I do, this train will remain a ghost unless you get lucky enough to catch it occasionally.

So this year, this is how I began my pursuit of rail photos on my Wednesdays trackside. I am once again chasing Via Train 59, which makes its way west past Hunt Club Road around 6 p.m. This shot below I would only be able to get this time of year, since the foliage around this spot will soon obscure this train's approach to the Prince of Wales Drive flyover. I decided to try and get a shot of Via crossing the Rideau River, which runs parallel to Prince of Wales, just to its east.

Since I have already captured Train 59 on the Prince of Wales flyover, I wasn't terribly interested in doing it again, but I did fire off a quick few shots as it passed by. Not a terribly inspired shot (below), given some of my previous work at this location.

But the thought of getting a shot of Train 59 crossing over the Rideau River trestle began to intrigue me. The question was if I could find a spot along the river to get a shot of the bridge without encroaching onto private property. This is a tricky proposition in this part of Ottawa, as the Rideau River is largely hidden from view in a narrow valley and the vast majority of its banks are private property south of Mooney's Bay. So, I had my work cut out in looking for any city easements, trails or vantage points where I could get a shot of this bridge. Given the natural course the river takes, even trying to get a long distance shot from the sidewalk on the Hunt Club Road overpass is impossible, since the river curves and the dense foliage obscures any views of the trestle.

However, after some searches along the west bank of the river, I turned my attention to the east bank and did find a public easement with trails leading to the river. I followed one trail, which led me directly to the riverbank, right next to the trestle. And, happily, the trail is on the side of the bridge where the train is bathed in sunlight at 6 p.m.

So on March 27, I attempted my first shots of Train 59 crossing the Rideau River. This shot was taken quite a ways out into the riverbed, as the Rideau was running low and I was able to wade out into the sand and rocks to get an unobstructed view. Note the original Via livery on the P42, the updated livery on the first class car, a wrap on the second coach and an updated livery on the next coach. Catch Via's rainbow era while you can. It's going to disappear quickly.

I was reasonably happy with this first attempt. The daylight was a mixed bag, as the clouds prevented a washout of harsh evening sun, but the overall grey couldn't be helped.

This past Wednesday, I ventured out to the bridge again, thinking it might be better to get a shot with better lighting. As the sky was mainly sunny with a fair bit of clouds, I set up on the east riverbank again, although I had to change my spot as the river level had risen, which meant I had to live with the skeleton of a tree in the shot. 

I chose this shot, above, with the tree for a reason. You can make out the reflection of the train in the water, for one, and this was the last shot I took before the sun began to wash out the F40. You can see the usual mix of Via LRC cars that are used on this train, which had six cars. It usually runs between 4-6 cars. 

Here's another shot, below, where the tree is less of a factor but the train is a bit more obscured by the sun. I like this shot as well, since it gives you that golden hour glow that you can only get around sunrise or around sunset, although the sun was still pretty high in the sky when I took this shot.

The next time I come out to this spot, I think I'm going to work in front of that tree, although getting too close to the trestle means you are shooting at a more intense angle and that is not what I'm going for exactly. Still, it might be fun to experiment with this point of view.

I should point out that, closer to 7 p.m., another Via Rail corridor train makes its way east in the same area. This is Train 44, which is usually slated to arrive at around 6:43 p.m. at the downtown station, although it often comes in closer to 7 p.m. In late March, on the evening when I shot Train 59 near Prince of Wales, I decided to see if I could also capture Train 44 before my daughter's dance class ended. 

I got this shot of Train 44 near the now dismantled Bentley Avenue industrial spur. The former Ottawa Sun building is to the left. I was reasonably pleased with this shot, although as the train was late, I'm not sure I'm going to stick around each week to catch it, as it's cutting it close to pick up my daughters at their class.

A few observations I made as I was experimenting with this new spot near the Rideau River. The Beachburg Subdivision from Ottawa's Central Station and Federal Junction is maintained quite well, to my untrained eye. The tracks seem to be freshly ballasted and the signalling is all modern. Of course, this is hardly a keen observation, as this stretch of track is part of a very busy Via Rail corridor. 

However, having mainly taken in the stretch of Beachburg that CN maintains west of Federal Junction, it was a bit of a shock to see a stretch of a modern railway right of way in Ottawa. Via has a maintenance of way area along this subdivision just east of the Rideau River. It is observable from public property, although it is behind a fence. The area has a fair bit of rail, ballast and other supplies. I didn't know there was a maintenance spot in this location, but now that I do, I might take a photograph or two if there is anything of interest.

So, here is my challenge to you. Take the ABC challenge this year and think of new things to do to change your approach to rail photography. Don't settle for the same images from the same angle at the same spot.

Next post, I'll share another new spot I found to get a different railway image. Always be changing!

Friday, April 5, 2024

Railway Reads: A most unexpected book about railways

Tom Zoellner is a veteran journalist who worked throughout the United States with different newspapers before becoming a writer. His works span diverse territory, from his book about the end of slavery in the British Empire to his look at how uranium has shaped world history. Zoellner's work has appeared in countless publications. So it was with some surprise that I as handed his book Train a few years ago.

Officially titled, Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World, Zoellner takes you on epic rail journeys across the United Kingdom, India, the United States, Russia, Spain and China. Each chapter deals with a separate journey, where the author speaks to the people on the train and gets an idea of what it means to them. Zoellner weaves this insight together with his own research on the railway systems in these countries. On each journey, you get a vivid picture of how trains have shaped the history and future of countries all over the world. For better or for worse, it's an innovation that continues to shape world history, long after it ceded its crown as the dominant form of transportation.

If you are looking for a book focused on the technical elements or the history of railways, this will not appeal to you. Zoellner does pack a fair bit of railway history into his travelogue, but his focus is much more broad than the names and dates of each country's rail history. His focus is very much on how these railways have shaped each society and how they continue to leave their social impact. 

Some moments that stand out are his conversations with Russians who are leaving Moscow aboard a train that will traverse the entire country, all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. On that trip, he muses on the Russian Revolution and where Russia is now. Of course, the attack on Ukraine and the country's descent into outright authoritarianism makes this part of the book a bit dated, but the elements of Russia's discontent are still very much at play in his observations. It's actually quite interesting to read about his insight into the Russian psyche before the country took a hard right turn into dictatorship and widespread oppression.

Then there's the chapter about India where Zoellner attempts to explain why India's national railway system is impossibly bloated and overstaffed. He also touches on some rather unsavoury elements of the railways in India, including the ongoing practice of railway washrooms essentially dumping human waste on the tracks. As I mentioned, this is not your typical railway read.

The chapter about China's efforts to build a railway to Tibet is particularly poignant and heartbreaking. As impressive as it was that people figured out the complex engineering to build the line through a high plateau of permafrost, one can't help but shake their head at the sociological impact of a country using a railway to essentially wipe out a culture, which is what many believe is the true reason behind this money-losing line into this ancient land.

I couldn't put this book down. It was a riveting read that combined railways with a much more broad contemplation of the importance of railways to modern society. Zoellner is a gifted writer and talented journalist in ferreting out small details. The humanity he brings to his travelogue makes this a book that railfans and non railfans alike can enjoy.

As a former reporter myself, this is the type of story I wish I could have told or had the ability to tell. Anyone who has read the reportage of Chuck Klosterman, Charlie LeDuff or David Eggers will be very much satisfied with the insights Zoellner has to offer.

Monday, March 25, 2024

November Surprise in Stratford

In November, my family made its way to Southwestern Ontario, as my wife and I were involved in a conference in Waterloo. That meant I was able to bring my daughters for a visit to Stratford, where their grandparents live. While there, I naturally made my way to the town's train station, which is always a treat for me. I haven't been to Stratford's rail yard at that time of year, so I wasn't sure what I would see. Given the seasonal nature of some of the traffic on the CN Guelph Subdivision and the GEXR Goderich Sub, the look of this rail yard likely changes with the seasons.

When I initially walked past the yard, I captured this image of a field full of rail and a blue boxcar in the background. CN maintains a fairly extensive maintenance of way facility to the east of the station, with large piles of track supplies. I thought this made a good image.

Next, I captured a clear shot of this piece of snow clearing equipment, a Jordan spreader. This car has been in the yard for quite a while, but I have never had a clear line of sight to capture it. I was happy to get a shot of it finally. Surprisingly, there were no identifying numbers on the car. I blew up the photo and saw the remnants of an old CR reporting mark and some numbers, but it was too hard to make out what they read. I can assume though that this car once belonged to Conrail, given its CR reporting marks that are still faintly visible.

For those who don't know about this part of the country, snow clearing equipment like this can sometimes be absolutely critical to keeping trains moving. Southwestern Ontario, especially areas not far from Lake Huron, are susceptible to extreme snow events and heavy snowfall, or lake effect snow, as they call it. 

In some areas, the wide expanses of open farmer's field make for dangerous drifting, which requires heavy duty equipment to clear rail lines. I often tell people that parts of the southwest are like the prairies, only with more trees. But the wide open space can still be quite forbidding in the winter. 

The Goderich Exeter Railway up to Goderich, in particular, is sometimes forced to use drastic measures just to keep its line open in the winter. I am guessing this equipment didn't get any use this past winter.

As is often the case, the yard was quiet when I walked by, with this GEXR-clad geep sitting on a stub-end track. I tried to frame it with the old Burlington Northern hoppers in the background, since they were remarkably intact and free of graffiti. Hoppers in this yard are very common, as agricultural products are a key commodity for the GEXR and CN on the Guelph Sub. Also, the Masterfeeds elevator facility is served by rail in the east end of the yard.

I also found this two-bay hopper a bit curious, as its metal sheeting was a bit angular at the ends.

Figuring that was it, as the mainline was showing nothing coming, I went downtown to enjoy some time at a coffee shop and a used record store with my father-in-law. I took one final overall shot of the yard from the platform. The little hint of sun on the old geep was a nice little surprise.

It is always a bit disappointing to capture bits and pieces, but since this trip was an impromptu visit, I figured it was a win since I managed to capture some additional interesting images to share.

Later on the same weekend, we went back to Stratford for another quick visit. This time, I was able to leave the kids with the grandparents so I could wander the town by myself, which I did. I returned to the rail yard and began to see if there was anything I had overlooked on my previous visit. It turns out, I had. As I walked around the yard on the nearby roads, I caught sight of something deep in the yard near the elevator.

Two GEXR units sat near the elevator, with a splash of sunshine illuminating the cab of the front unit. I was quite surprised to see these engines sitting there. I have only ever seen two GEXR geeps in this yard in all my visits to this yard. I figured the extra power might have been needed, as the end of the harvest in Ontario likely meant more moves to and from the elevator. 

I tried a few different approaches to capture these engines in the yard, but I like the shot above the best. I did zoom in to maybe get some more information on which engines were actually sitting back there. The lead unit is ex-Southern Ontario Railway GP38-2 2111. I was not able to get a shot that helped me identify the second unit. I did like the Grand Trunk Western coil car that was in the shot, although it made it a bit more challenging to focus on the engines. You can even see two brooms just to the left of the GTW car, for clearing off switches in the winter, I'm guessing.

Before leaving, I spotted a BC Rail lumber car, so I took a shot, given I don't have many shots of any BC Rail equipment, so I figured it was worth it. I also like that you can see a Burlington Northern hopper in the background. Two fallen flags in one shot.

Just before leaving the yard, the searchlight signals east of the yard came to life and showed that a train was on its way. I stuck around for quite a while waiting for that train, but it never showed and I had to move on. I made my way once again to a great used record store in downtown Stratford and found a cheap copy of Gordon Lightfoot's first Greatest Hits record on vinyl. I love listening to Gord at dinner time. So I missed the train, but I gained the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Not a bad trade-off.