Monday, July 29, 2013

Inauguration of l'Amiral Excursion Train

Saturday (July 27) marked the inaugural run of the l'Amiral excursion train in the Gaspé peninsula. The train left New Richmond and traveled to Bonaventure and back. They offer coach service with finger foods as part of the ticket price, with beverages available to be purchased on-board.

Here's their promo video:

There are two upcoming public runs (schedule):
  • August 15: New Richmond - Bonaventure
  • September 22: Gaspé - Percé
It looks like they are hoping to catch some cruise ship traffic. Gaspé had 11 cruise ship visits in 2009 and I see there are six scheduled for September and October 2013.

For the railfans among us, the train has ex-CP and ex-NBEC 1849 for power, followed by a former CN steam generator car SFG 602 (now with a generator to supply power for the rest of the train), and three coaches (ex-AMT cars SFG 1059, SFG 1047, among others). The coaches have been completely refurbished from their AMT days.

Of course, they have a Facebook page as well as a Twitter account.

Thanks to Bernard Babin for the information on the power car.

I wish them good fortune!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lac-Mégantic, Three Weeks Later

It's been 22 days since the terrible derailment and disaster at Lac-Mégantic. The community is no doubt still in shock and trying to make sense of the disaster. It is believed that 47 people died, although some have yet to be identified. The CBC says life is slowly returning to normal but I can't imagine the town will be anything like "normal" for a long time.

The federal government has promised $60 million in aid for the town, matching the province of Quebec's contribution. About 1,000 runners ran the 12 km from the Eastern Townships to Lac-Mégantic to raise money for the victims.

A lot of focus has been placed on the operation of MMA trains by a single crew person. This Eastern Railroad News article talks about the introduction of single-person crews. In theory a one-person crew can operate a train but I have questions about the operation of main line trains by single crews, mainly what might happen if the crew-person has health issues while operating the train.

The Transportation Safety Board has posted a Rail Advisory Letter after the accident, advising Transport Canada to consider reviewing its procedures on unattended trains. Transport Canada has issued an emergency directive disallowing one-man operation for trains with tank cars, as well as other directives for unattended trains. New Brunswick Southern Railway has announced changes to its operating procedures, although it never left main line trains unattended anyway.

Of course, the lawsuits have begun, with a class-action suit naming pretty much anyone with any involvement.

A fellow named Mathieu Huchette posted a photo purportedly of the lead engine (MMA 5017) on fire at Nantes, just prior to the train rolling away.

The MMA has laid off a large portion of its employees (19/80 in Canada and 79/179 in the USA) due to the continued closure of the line through Lac-Mégantic. The company is reported to be struggling financially, and its Farnham, Quebec offices were raided by police looking for information for their investigation.

Much more to come.

PS - Eastern Rail News have other related articles on their news page but they are subscription-only. Consider subscribing - it's quite inexpensive right now.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Two Plays at the York Street Train Station

I'm the Artistic Director of the NotaBle Acts TheatreCompany in Fredericton. You may or may not be aware that we have a play in our summer theatre festival, currently running through August 4, which takes place in the old (now restored) train station on York Street, and is in part about the history of the building from 1985 to the present day. If this is something that might interest you and any of your contacts, here is information on the show, which has two more performances (July 27 and August 1 both at 7 PM) and is running in conjunction with another show that takes place in the liquor store parking lot.  This information is also available on our website at

Street Scenes: Two Site-Specific Plays
Street Scenes annually stages new plays written for and about unique public locations in Fredericton. Join us for a truly original and unconventional theatrical experience.
Showing: Wednesday, July 24 & Thursday, August 1 at 6:30pm, Saturday July 27 at 7pm
Location: York St. Train Station (NB Liquor Building), 380 York St.
Tickets: $12 Regular, $10 Senior, $8 Student
Warning: coarse language.

The Station by Step Taylor, directed by Emily Bossé and Len Falkenstein

The changing face of the York St. Train Station provides backdrop for a man’s life, in this short play about lost love, questionable choices, and possible redemption. Performed in one of Fredericton’s most beautiful historic buildings.

Cast: Georgia Brown, Ian Goff, Jesse LaPointe

Alice Loves the Beach by Sarah Higgins, directed by Alex Donovan

On a stationary bus on a downtown street, two strangers share memories and discover a strange and moving connection with each other, one that prepares them for the journeys they must make in the future. A play on a bus that will take you to unexpected places.

Cast: James Corbett, Ida Orenbach

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

More on Lac-Mégantic

Many more details are emerging on the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

MMA's chairman, Edward Burkhardt, was interviewed about the accident. His position is that the railway followed generally-accepted practices. He said the practices were obviously not sufficient and they have made changes already: the train will continue on to Sherbrooke and not change in Nantes, and the trains will not be left unmanned.

Burkhardt visited the scene today, and during media interviews he basically said the engineer didn't set enough hand brakes. "It seems an adequate number of hand brakes were not set, and this is the engineer's responsibility. I don't think he'll be back working with us." Apparently the train engineer, Tom Harding, pulled nine of the tank cars out of the way after the explosions started.

Here's a good piece describing how train brakes work and how trains are parked. MMA officials said that all five locomotives had their hand brakes on, but it did not say how many cars also had their hand brakes on. The accepted rule of thumb is 10% of the cars plus 2 brakes. For a train of 5 engines and 72 cars, at least 9 hand brakes should have been set. The fact that the train was on a slope should have been considered as well.

There is speculation that the initial explosions were caused by propane cars in the downtown. This makes more sense than the crude oil exploding. Crude will burn, of course, but it is not that volatile.

The cleanup continues, and the grisly task of finding and identifying bodies is part of that. The Quebec police are currently treating this as a crime scene. Mr. Burkhardt said that MMA has not been permitted access to the locomotives.

Many towns with railway tracks nearby are now questioning the railways. Rothesay, NB is questioning CN and Harvey, NB already talked to NB Southern. So is Ste-Anne, MB. I think it's good that they are questioning, so they can update their emergency response plans and be aware of the risks. I don't think it is realistic to expect the railways to share the exact consist of every train passing through, but it would be helpful for the towns to know what kind of cargoes travel through.

Monday, July 08, 2013

First Thoughts on the Lac-Mégantic Disaster

By now I'm sure you have read the news reports about the Lac-Mégantic train accident.. but if not, here's the recap: a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) freight train was parked a few miles outside of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The engineer booked off and left, and sometime in the early morning the unmanned train rolled into Lac-Mégantic, derailed and a number of explosions occurred, followed by intense fires. At this point it appears that thirteen (13) people were killed but it is likely that this number will rise, as up to 40 are reported missing. The explosion and fires happened in the downtown core and the town is devastated, physically and emotionally. About 2,000 of the 6,000 people living in the town were evacuated and at least 30 buildings downtown have been destroyed.

From this press release from MMA and CBC and National Post reports, the timeline appears to be:
  • July 5, 23:15: Train stopped and tied down by engineer at Nantes. The train had 5 locomotives and 72 car loads of crude oil, destined for Irving Oil in Saint John, NB.
  • July 5, 23:30: Nearby resident calls 911 and reports a fire in the parked train. Firefighters respond and put the fire out. A track maintenance employee of MMA was present.
  • July 6, ?????: Train starts rolling downhill to Lac-Mégantic.
  • July 6, 01:15: Train derailed at Rue Frontenac crossing in downtown Lac-Mégantic
  • July 6 (later): Firefighters battle the intense blaze through the day. 13 intact carloads pulled from rear of train by MMA.
From the second press release by MMA, it appears the engine(s) were shut down after the engineer left, presumably during or after the firefighters arrived to put the fire out. What is disturbing to me is that the MMA statement says that the shutdown "may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place". I am no railroader but section 112 of the Canadian Rail Operating Rules is quite clear on this.

When equipment is left at any point a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to prevent it from moving. Special instructions will indicate the minimum hand brake requirements for all locations where equipment is left. If equipment is left on a siding, it must be coupled to other equipment if any on such track unless it is necessary to provide separation at a public crossing at grade or elsewhere.

(emphasis mine)  The implication is that air brakes cannot be relied upon to hold a train in place. Again, I am strictly an amateur but this did catch my eye.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and they have 14 people on the scene. I understand the locomotive event recorder has been recovered. That will help fill in the timeline as to when the train started moving, and most crucially, when the air brakes were released.

In addition to the tragic loss of life, the destruction of the town, there are concerns about water quality due to the quantity of spilled crude oil.

There are some railfan reports that the runaway train may have struck a set of propane cars that were in the town and those are what caused the initial explosions.

My heart is broken at the thoughts of the people killed and injured as a result of this terrible accident.

EDIT: More information here that confirms that the firefighters shut the engine down before battling the blaze.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Dilworth Yard Action

I mentioned that I was down in North Dakota back in May with my family. After I did some quick scouting, I spent some time in downtown Fargo shooting a few trains. We pick up there as I headed east from Fargo into Moorhead, Minnesota. Fargo and Moorhead and Dilworth (MN) are all basically stuck together and it's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. BNSF has a yard that begins in Moorhead but the majority of it is actually in Dilworth.

I remember I stumbled across this pair of engines at the head of a coal train waiting to head west.
BNSF 9528 and BNSF 9312 in Moorhead

Remember that this was early in the morning (8 AM at this time) so the sun was still fairly low in the sky to the east. I was happy to catch a "Grinstein green" engine, more commonly referred to as the "BN Executive" scheme. BNSF 9528 is an SD70MAC.

Moving west, I came across the area where BNSF stages its engines for refueling, recrewing and so forth... here. There was a cluster of about a dozen engines, including BNSF 6672, an ES44C4. This is similar to an ES44AC in the GE Evolution series of engines, except that the middle axle of each truck is unpowered.
BNSF 6672 in Dilworth

Slightly farther west in the yard, I saw BNSF 5520, a C44-9W.
BNSF 5520 in Dilworth Yard

I went down to the very end of the yard, where there is a large grain elevator and an overpass over the tracks. This is called WATTS, mile 1.0 of the K O Subdivision. I found BNSF 4852 (another C44-9W) at the head of what I believe was an oil train, at rest at 8:15 AM. I did not see any crew and it did not move.
BNSF 4852 and BNSF 1062 in Dilworth Yard

To the east, a coal train was waiting to enter the yard, with BNSF 5884 (ES44AC) at the head. You can see that shooting into the morning light was not a great idea.
BNSF 5884 near Dilworth Yard

I decided to wait here to see what might happen. I was hoping for the oil train to start rolling but there was nothing going on there. After 25 minutes of waiting, my friend BNSF 4920 came rolling by with the same intermodal train I saw in downtown Fargo earlier in the day.
BNSF 4920 BNSF 4114 BNSF 4852 in Dilworth

The only other activity was BNSF 2793 in the distance, working the yard with BNSF 2344.

After an hour of waiting, I decided to go up on the overpass and shoot the waiting coal train. With a bit of careful positioning, I was able to overcome the low morning sun at 09:10 and get a shot of BNSF 5884.
BNSF 5884 outside Dilworth Yard

There was another "BN Executive" engine, BNSF 9442.
BNSF 9442 outside Dilworth

I came down from there and of course the BNSF coal train started moving then, so I missed them coming through the crossing where I had been waiting. Oh well.. here they are rolling past BNSF 2793, a GP39-2.
BNSF 2793 in Dilworth

I was just about out of time at this point. On my way back through Dilworth and Moorhead, I stumbled across a steam engine on display in the "Whistle Stop Park". This is Northern Pacific #1068 together with caboose #1651.
Northern Pacific 1068 in Dilworth MN

On my way back toward Fargo, I saw BNSF 5884 and train waiting at the west end of the Dilworth Yard.

That was a good morning!

After some final shopping, we headed north from Fargo toward the Canadian border. Somewhere between Fargo and Grand Forks, I spied a southbound freight train. I pulled over and took a series of shots of the approaching train.
BNSF 5271 near Fargo

I took a pan shot of BNSF 5271 (C44-9W).
BNSF 5271 near Fargo

Sorry to interrupt this BNSF marathon, but when passing Drayton, ND I spotted a trio of engines with a Union Pacific engine in the middle! I'm not sure what UP 4061 was doing deep in BNSF territory...
Union Pacific 4061 outside Drayton

*That* was the end of my railfan adventures in North Dakota. Good times.

Further Reading

Friday, July 05, 2013

Poll - Backgrounds / Screen Savers

VIA 6451 in Winnipeg
I've been thinking of offering free backgrounds / screen savers of my best images. I have a few questions:

  1. Would you use them?
  2. What resolution do you want?
  3. Anything specific you want?
They would have a small copyright and URL on them, but nothing too obtrusive - much like the image above.

From my Google Analytics statistics, it looks like 1024 x 768, 1920 x 1080, 1680 x 1050 and 1366 x 768 are most popular. I'm surprised by the first one, but I guess that's a tablet screen dimension, not a laptop or desktop screen.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Dufresne Grain Elevator, and CEMR

I was browsing through Flickr a few days ago and stumbled across this photo of CN train 342 at Dufresne, Manitoba. It's a very sharp photo, but what really attracted me was the grain elevator. I had no idea there were any grain elevators on the CN Sprague subdivision. I decided that I had to go check it out, and on Sunday June 30, I did.

Dufresne is located about 30 km southeast of Winnipeg, just off the Trans-Canada Highway. The kids and I drove down there and found it easily enough. It's hard to miss a grain elevator on the Prairies once you get within 10 km or so of it.
Dufresne grain elevator

There were some beat-up gondolas and side-dump cars parked beside the elevator, and the smell of creosote was strong in the air. Clearly the elevator is not being used, but a little research shows the elevator wore the Agricore logo as recently as 2006, although the elevator tracks were pretty overgrown by that point.

I went around to the sun side and took a shot there, to illustrate the trackage there.
Dufresne grain elevator

Sadly no trains were evident and the signals were all dark.

The most recent data I have for the Sprague subdivision shows the following for the area around Dufresne:
120.7Hotbox detector-
133.1Hotbox detector-

The siding is evident as the middle track in the above photo, and it does appear to get some use, although by modern standards 6,690 feet is a bit short.

Looking back in time, the CN Assiniboine Division Employee Timetable #72 from April 24, 1977 shows a bit more information.

The siding was just a bit shorter (6,390 feet) and the hotbox detector at mile 133.1 was not there in 1977. The more interesting information is that there was a siding at Ste. Anne at mile 126.2 (not present now) and two spurs in Ste. Anne to service the Co-Op and also Cominco.

Also notice the Railliner trains, #687 and #686, which ran three times a week up to May 21. I assume they were cancelled after that. They were relatively speedy, scheduled to take 3 hours and 10 minutes to cover the 145.7 miles between Navin and Rainy River.

Anyway, after taking all the photos I wanted, we proceeded back to Winnipeg. There were three hump sets of GP38-slug-slug-GP38 visible in Symington yard, two of which were active. I carried on up to Transcona but the yard was devoid of any power. Off to see what was going on at CP and CEMR...

CP was dark but I spotted headlights on the CEMR Pine Falls subdivision just outside their yard. There is a chemical plant there that takes tank cars and I could see an engine with some tank cars. I took a guess that they were going to push the train into the CEMR yard, so I carried on down Day Street. I was surprised to see there was an engine on the other end of the train too. CEMR 4001 had two crew and was pulling the train into the CEMR yard.
CEMR 4001 in Winnipeg

After about a dozen tank cars, there was CEMR 4002 on the other end! It had a crewman riding the end of the engine.
CEMR 4002 in Winnipeg

I had a quick look at what was inside the yard, as much as I could see from Day Street. New acquisition CCGX 4119 was there with CEMR 5396, and ex-CN GP9 JLCX 7059 was there too. I saw that engine several times in its former life as CN 7059.

Not a bad afternoon of railfanning, all things considered.