Friday, February 16, 2018

Ottawa's Big Three: The forgotten railway

Those who know their rail history know that Ottawa was once a key point along both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific main lines. Without going over the rail rationalization that began to reshape the city in the 1950s and late 1960s, it’s still significant to note that the city still hosted a substaintial rail presence into the early 1990s. When CP left Ottawa for good in the late 1990s, the city was left with just the Ottawa Central and Via Rail as its rail carriers. It was a far cry from the city’s rail heyday when the capital was served by three major railways.

Yep, that’s right. Three.

1949 scene along Mann Avenue, where NYC based much of its operations in Ottawa

It would be easy to forget that the city was once served by another major railway other than CN and CP. Until the 1950s, the New York Central operated a division that extended from northern New York State through Cornwall up to Ottawa.

For the full history of this fascinating division, I would suggest checking out the New York Central Ottawa Division website. I haven’t spent much time on this aspect of Eastern Ontario’s rail history. But it’s an interesting chapter in this region’s rail history, mostly because so much of the story has been lost over the years.

The NYC bridge over the St. Lawrence River in Cornwall. The bridge was destroyed to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway shipping lane

But look at some of the placenames in the city and you’ll see the remnants of the NYC. For example, Hurdman transit station, Hawthorne Road and Ramsayville Road all share their names with points along the old NYC Ottawa Division. Hurdman was once a key junction for several prominent rail lines, but it’s often overlooked that the NYC used this junction as a way to access the old Union Station in downtown Ottawa.

Hurdman was a major junction for all of Ottawa's major railways at one point, including the NYC. This junction was scrapped and made way for a city bus transit station. The new O-Train Confederation Line aligns through Hurdman.

When you look south of the city, you may be able to scour for traces of the old rail link in Russell, Embrun, St. Albert, Crysler, Finch and Cornwall. The Ottawa Division, of course, crossed over the St. Lawrence River at Cornwall, until it was abandoned in 1958, when the link across the river was discontinued and scrapped, as construction proceeded on an expanded St. Lawrence Seaway international shipping waterway.

Look closely in Ottawa and you might see some hints of the old NYC system. For example, before it could reach an agreement to share a central passenger terminal with other railways, NYC trains terminated at a station on Mann Street at the edge of Sandy Hill. Later, when the Union Station was completed in 1912, NYC trains finished their runs there. But in 1941, the railway reverted back to its Mann Street station. This point was key for the railway, as there were other facilities for the railway here to service steam locomotives, for example.

Some of the key NYC facilities can be seen in this 1946 image near Mann Avenue

After the war peak, which brought record traffic for many North American railways, the traffic levels of the Ottawa Division fell sharply. Truthfully, the promise of a rail line between New York and Ottawa never really materialized. Business interests on both sides of the borders had dreams of tapping into the potential of this link in the late 1800s, only to find that the riches were never really there. That was the reason why the two groups on either side of the border joined to build this line and link Ottawa with New York State. The Ontario side of the operation began running revenue service in 1897-98 and began through service to and from New York by 1900 when the link over the St. Lawrence was completed. The New York Central bought out the line in 1904 and officially merged it into the NYC system by 1913.
Some late power on the NYC Ottawa Division, a Fairbanks Morse warhorse

The NYC had had enough by the mid-1950s. In 1954, it discontinued passenger services. All operations were discontinued by early 1957. In the same year, the Canadian portion of the line was sold off to CN, which scrapped most of the line for the rails, which it used in Montreal. Small portions of the NYC were retained in Ottawa, but most of those portions were removed in 1972.

I should also credit Colin Churcher's wonderful rail historywebsite for some of the research I was able to do for this post. If you have time, it is well worth scrolling through this site for a while.

Also, feel free to check out my own post about another long forgotten NYC branch in Southwestern Ontario.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

What's to become of CSX in Canada?

The CSX I knew seems to be disappearing right before my eyes. First there was the upheaval when Hunter Harrison took over and then there was his untimely death. Say what you want about the man, he got results. For my part, I’m not about seriously question his methods, other than to say that I think there is an extreme lack of long-term thinking among publicly traded companies, especially railways. There has been a lot of debate over the fixation over quarterly number. As a former business reporter, I understand how the game is played, but I have to wonder how much is enough? How long can you slash, burn and defer for the sake of making a quarterly target, even if you’re sacrificing your long-term profitability? I’m not necessarily saying this is the case with CSX, but you look at the scale of the cutbacks the company is considering and you wonder what will be left when the hedge funds are finished with this company.

April 1991 - A northbound CSX mixed freight waits on the Sarnia Subdivision, just south of the St. Clair Boulevard crossing. That empty field behind the train is now a subdivision.

For me, CSX has been a lifelong fascination. The railway’s Sarnia Subdivision passes through my hometown. For how much longer is anyone’s guess. When I was younger, CSX operated from Sarnia all the way to Chatham, where it interchanged with CP. At one point, the rail line went all the way to Lake Erie, terminating in Erieau, but that was before my time. Now, the railway switches a few refineries in Sarnia and maintains a scant presence between the Chemical Valley and its remaining customers south. CSX only goes as far as Sombra. South of that, the line’s service has been discontinued through Port Lambton, Wallaceburg, rural Kent County and Chatham.

This past summer, I caught a short local returning to Sarnia from Sombra. At the time, I wondered if that meet might be the last time I saw the CSX passing through my hometown. I’m thinking it was.

August 2017 - Perhaps my last meet with a CSX freight near my hometown

I can remember back when the railway was much busier, often shuttling long trains of interchange traffic between Sarnia and Chatham, with countless autoracks, auto parts high-cube boxcars among its usual tank cars and hoppers. In the 1980s, nearly all the GP38s were painted in the Chessie scheme, a scheme I didn’t like at the time but have grown to appreciate. There were even a fair number of B&O and even C&O painted geeps plying the rails. At some point in the late 1980s, the drab silver and grey CSX scheme popped up. By then, the writing was already on the wall. The trains were getting shorter and less frequent. By the time I moved away for school, the interchange traffic from Chatham was largely gone and the railway’s customer base in the Valley was shrinking (Dow Chemical left in the mid-1990s, Ethyl closed and a few other operations left the area afterward).

Summer 1991 - Autoracks and cabooses? This was back when CSX linked the CP in Chatham with CN in Sarnia.

Although there is optimism that small-scale industry is on its way back to some of these old refinery sites, I don’t think the CSX will want to wait around for an economic rebound. Its Sarnia Sub is already disconnected from the rest of its network.

As some continue to speculate, the Ontario Southland Railway might be a prime candidate to pick up the trackage from CSX and assume operations. The one wild card I’ve heard is that the City of Chatham-Kent owns the south end of the line and has been searching for an operator to resume rail service for the mainly agricultural customer base on the south end of the line. That process has dragged on for years with no success.

One has to wonder whether the addition of the lucrative switching business in Sarnia would make such an acquisition more palatable to the colourful shortline. I would love to see those old OSR F units and vintage locomotives in my hometown.

But I think I might raise a glass to the railway of my youth – the old Chessie System. It’s the railway that often woke me in the middle of the night when its freight trains would announce their presence by the two long, two short, one long horn blasts all the way through town. Even when I was young, I always found the sound reassuring and comfortable.

The CSX was the railway that used to distract me from my soccer games in the summer in Parkdale Park.

The CSX was the railway that produced countless summer chases as I raced to the tracks with my bike in the hopes of snapping a few shots.

The CSX is the railway whose old MoW cars were used for climbing on a tiny spur Port Lambton, where I went to school. Despite the open access to the old cars, they were never vandalized or damaged. How times change.

Fall 1992 - These MoW cars were often parked in Port Lambton, where I attended school. I recall climbing these cars on occasion, back when a railway could leave cars parked on an unprotected spur in the middle of a town and nothing would happen to them.

You get the idea. I’m not so much mourning the disappearance of the railway that I know as I am mourning the loss of its legacy in parts of Canada, especially around my hometown, but also in Windsor, Essex County, Niagara, St. Thomas and parts of Quebec. Hard to believe that this railway once served so many areas in Eastern Canada. But there is no room for sentimental nostalgia for a publicly traded railway in 2018.

CSX brings in an interchange load into CN's Sarnia Yard in October 2016

I look at what’s become of CSX in the last year and it seems like there’s almost no room for nostalgia with this railway. It’s a shame because a railway with such a colourful history deserves better.