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.