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.