Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Branchline Rehabilitation Program

Back in the 1970s, grain transport in the Canadian Prairies was in trouble.

Government of Canada Branch Line Rehabilitation
The railways weren't very interested in transporting grain because their revenue was limited by the Crow's Nest Pass Act Agreement. This agreement between CP and the federal government fixed the freight rates on grain and flour forever, in exchange for federal subsidies to the CPR. It sounded like a good idea at the time but the rates were far below other freight rates by the middle of the 20th century. This was known as the Crow rate.

The Crow Rate was ended in 1984 by the federal Liberal government and transport minister Jean Luc Pepin, through the passage of the Western Grain Transportation Act. The government continued to subsidize the shipping rate and recently this subsidy has been replaced by the the rail revenue cap. Farmer's subsidies are complicated!

While the Crow Rate was in effect, there was no incentive for the railways to maintain the lines and no incentive to add new grain shippers. CN and CP weren't maintaining Prairie branch lines and many lines still had very light rail, limiting car weights to 177,000 lbs/car and therefore only permitting boxcars to be loaded. Loading boxcars with wheat is very time-consuming and labour intensive. Here's a great article on CP's grain boxcars.

Federal Government Investment

Grain cars in Chaplin, SK, August 2010
After several studies, the federal government decided to invest in grain transportation to the tune of greater than $1 billion. They purchased 13,500* cylindrical "Coke can" grain hoppers between 1972 and 1994 and assigned them to CN and CP for maintenance and operation at no cost. This greatly increased the size of the fleet to transport grain (and allowed retirement of most grain boxcars), but required more robust track and roadbed to handle the increased car sizes.

* The number of grain cars purchased doesn't appear to be certain - many sources quote 12,400 and some quote 13,500. It is also not clear whether this includes the 2,000 aluminum hoppers purchased between 1975 and 1978. Those were not very successful due to structural issues and the last was retired in 2009.

    Note that Saskatchewan purchased 1,000 cars in 1981 (900 remained by the end of 2015) and Alberta purchased several hundred. Here's a good article on the uniquely Canadian grain cars.

    Line Rehabilitation

    The government spent hundreds of millions on prairie branch line rehabilitation to support these larger cars, which was in essence a direct subsidy to the railways. Good thing this was before free trade!

    In order to receive the subsidy, a line had to be "grain dependent" meaning that 60% or more of the traffic on the line was grain. The Prairie Rail Action Committee determined which lines would receive the subsidy to be upgraded to be able to handle the 263,000 lb. cars that were purchased by the government. Lines that did not receive rehabilitation were essentially doomed.

    The railways owned the lines after rehabilitation. In many cases rehabilitated lines were eventually abandoned, and the relatively new rails were lifted and reused elsewhere.

    Ballast Cars

    The railways purchased ballast cars that were funded by the rehabilitation program. These cars were stencilled to reflect this funding but were owned and maintained by the railways.

    CN's Open Hoppers

    Series CN 90000-90479 were built by National Steel Car in the late 1970s as open top hoppers. These cars were painted orange with a large black CN "noodle". One side says "CANADIAN NATIONAL" and the other says "CANADIEN NATIONAL", which was typical for CN freight cars.
    CN 90170 in Prince George, BC, June 2014
    I don't think they have been modified much since construction with the exception of reflective stripes added for greater visibility, and the replacement of the colourful Automatic Car Identification (ACI) visual labels with today's wireless AEI system.

    CN 90333 in Winnipeg, March 2015
    These cars are still in service on CN for maintenance work. One can often see them in yards or at work on the road. They are obsolete compared to the modern automatic unloading ballast trains such as the Herzogs but they are fine for spot work.
    CN 90127, covered, Winnipeg, February 2016

    CN Flat Bottomed Gondolas

    Marine Industries built CN 91000-91143, a set of flat bottomed gondolas with side gates to dump ballast on the outside of the rails.
    CN 91064, Winnipeg, January 2016
    These cars are painted a more typical CN boxcar red with a lot of lettering and a white CN noodle.
    CN 91067, Winnipeg, January 2016

    CN Air Dump Cars

    A third series of CN maintenance of way cars purchased for the branchline rehabilitation program is the CN 528xx series of air dump cars, built by Hawker Siddeley Canada. It appears to have been a pretty small series. So far I have discovered photos for CN 52899, CN 52850 below and this one.
    CN 52850, Winnipeg, March 2015

    CP Ballast Hoppers

    National Steel Car built the series CP 456000-456325 for Canadian Pacific for branch line rehabilitation work. These cars were painted black with a large CP "multimark" at one end.
    CP 456267, Emerson, Manitoba, May 2014
    These cars have received the reflective stripes and AEI transmitters, and you can see from the above photo that the doors appear to have been modified, based on the fresh stenciling.
    CP 456239, Winnipeg, May 2011
    I have seen these cars in solid blocks used for ballast work.
    CP ballast cars, Winnipeg, May 2011

    Boxcar Rehabilitation

    Many of the existing grain boxcars were rehabilitated as well. These boxcars continued to serve the light branchlines that were not upgraded, and some continued to serve the Churchill line in Manitoba until that was finally upgraded to handle the cylindrical grain hoppers.

    CP 252797, Beiseker, AB, July 2013
    Both CN and CP boxcars were rehabilitated. According to Eric Gagnon's excellent article, the CP boxcars lasted in service until 1996.

    CN's boxcars lasted until the end of 1996 in Churchill service, again according to Eric Gagnon. Some 1,000 40' boxcars were rehabilitated starting in 1985 with money provided by the province of Manitoba, for Churchill service; these boxcars wore a bison logo and were nicknamed "Buffalo boxes".

    Cars rehabilitated under the federal program bore the wheat sheaf logo seen on this CP boxcar stored in Beiseker, Alberta.

    There's a great article in the March 1999 Branchline magazine, "The 40-foot Boxcar's Last Dance" by David Maiers. Recommended.

    No 40' boxcars exist in revenue service. A few may survive in maintenance-of-way service for CN or CP.

    Modeling the Branchline Rehabilitation Program

    Ballast hoppers

    Grain boxcars

    • 40' CP grain boxcars - Intermountain - #46822 "ready to run"
    • 40' CN and CP grain boxcars - Trains Canada (defunct)
    • 40' CN boxcars - Highball Graphics - HO scale decals
    • CN grain boxcar - Ozark Miniatures (ex CDS) - HO scale decals
    • Wheat sheave decals etc. - Ozark Miniatures (ex CDS) - HO scale


    Thursday, March 24, 2016

    Video Review: Canadian National's Western Manitoba Mains

    I recently received a copy of Big E Production's "Canadian National's Western Manitoba Mains" DVD set, and I'd like to review it.

    The two DVDs cover sections of CN's two western Manitoba main lines: the CN Rivers subdivision near Miniota, and the CN Togo subdivision between Dutton Siding and Roblin, MB. The Rivers subdivision is on the first DVD and part of the second, with the Togo footage on the remainder of the second DVD.

    Big E advertises "no more mindless runbys" meaning that they show the entire train. When you start the DVD you are given the choice of two audio tracks - just the train sounds, or train sounds accompanied by narration. I watched the narrated version as I personally feel that watching a DVD of just trains going by is a bit boring.

    The narration really adds value to the DVD. There are details on each train, including train symbols, origin and destination, and some comments on the consist. The narration also covers the history of the line and interesting features of the area. I thought it was excellent.

    Big E usually shows 24 hours of action in a location and this DVD did the same. I believe there were about a dozen trains each way on the Rivers subdivision and only a few each way on the Togo - they were lucky to see a couple of diverted trains. Since it was shot over 24 hours, many of the trains were shot at night.

    The power on the trains wasn't exceptional - mostly CN units with a few BC Rail units of various colours, one black Illinois Central "death star" unit, blue IC 2459, and the VIA Rail Canadian.

    I have a couple of negative things to say about the DVDs. First off, the weather wasn't great so there are mostly gray skies in the DVDs.

    The larger negative I would say is that the choice of locations wasn't great. The majority were shot at rural crossings and there's nothing really to say "prairie" in the shots. I definitely would have liked to see some grain elevators or the nearby Uno trestle.

    I enjoyed watching the DVDs and I would recommend them to anyone who wanted to see a typical day on CN's western main lines in Manitoba (Big E web site).

    Disclaimer: Dick Eisfeller, the big "E", had asked me for a few details about the area to provide background material for the DVDs, and in thanks he sent me the two-disc set. He didn't ask me to write a review, nor am I receiving any compensation for writing this review, but I decided to write a review because I like writing reviews.

    Saturday, March 12, 2016

    Winnipeg Area Railway Scanner Frequencies

    Here are useful frequencies for a radio scanner to monitor railway operations in the Winnipeg, Manitoba area.

    Please remember that use of a radio scanner in a vehicle is illegal in Manitoba. Also be careful what you share with others!

    CN Frequencies

    Train Standby Channel


    This is used for train-to-train and train-to-ground communication for road trains, on all subdivisions. Hotbox detectors also broadcast on this channel. Highly recommended.

    RTC Channels

    These are used by the Rail Traffic Controller to talk to train crews and maintenance crews. Often they can give useful information about approaching trains or trains entering CTC territory.

    CN Sprague Subdivision: 160.935
    CN Letellier Subdivision: 161.025
    CN Lilyfield Spur: 161.025
    CN Rivers Subdivision: Miles 0-14: 161.025; miles 14-206: 161.205
    CN Redditt Subdivision: Miles 20.7-239: 160.665; miles 239-252.1: 160.025

    CP Frequencies

    Train Standby Channels

    CP Carberry Subdivision: Miles 0-5: 161.115; miles 5-133: 161.535
    CP Emerson Subdivision161.325
    CP Glenboro Subdivision: Miles 0-4: 161.115; miles 4-128: 161.325
    CP La Riviere Subdivision161.325
    CP Arborg SubdivisionMiles 0-3: 161.115; miles 3-end: 161.325
    These is used for train-to-train and train-to-ground communication for road trains. Hotbox detectors also broadcast on these channels. Highly recommended.

    RTC Channels

    This is used by the Rail Traffic Controller to talk to train crews and maintenance crews. For CP the train crews use the RTC channel to call in to the RTC but they then switch to the train standby channel, so monitoring these channels is not as important as for CN.


    CEMR Frequencies

    Train Standby Channel


    This is used for CEMR's train-to-train and train-to-ground communication for road trains. Highly recommended. This is used for the Central Manitoba Railway's Carman and Pine Falls subdivisions.

    When CEMR is running over CN trackage it uses the CN frequencies.

    GWWD Frequencies

    The Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway uses two frequencies:

    • Miles 5-20 and miles 48-82: 167.700 / 169.620
    • Miles 20-48 and 48-82: 167.670 / 169.590

    Prairie Dog Central Railway Frequencies

    Train Standby Channel


    When the PDC is running through CP or CN, it uses their frequencies.

    VIA Rail Frequencies

    VIA Rail uses CN frequencies in the Winnipeg area as they are running on CN trackage.

    Related posts:

    Wednesday, March 09, 2016

    Photography on the Rails - Just Say No

    Not cool
    Yesterday I received a notice that someone had linked to my CN Bedford subdivision page. Curious, I followed it to find a Halifax-area photographer had taken photos of a young family on the rails, and referenced my page.

    Not cool.

    I messaged the photographer and asked her to remove the link.
    Could you please remove the link to my web site (traingeek.ca)? I do not want my site to be associated with a photography session on train tracks. Thank you.
    She replied and said she would. In the meantime, I posted about it on my personal Facebook feed and numerous people commented. A friend from Operation Lifesaver picked up on it and suggested that I change the page on my side to show rail safety information instead. Great idea! I changed it to redirect my rail safety page.

    Keep Off
    I'm pretty sure others commented on her page, and it's been taken down. I'm not going to mention who it was as the matter has been dealt with. Hopefully she will think twice about taking photos on railway property.

    It's an epidemic. You don't have to look far to see many photos of people on tracks, including kids and even stock photos.

    We need to teach kids to respect trains.

    Parents too.

    Recently a 15-year old girl's life was cut off far too soon after the car she was in was hit by a (CN) train near Elie, Manitoba on January 10. She fought for a long time but she died in early March.

    My heart goes out to her and her father (who I believe was driving, and was hurt as well) and her family.

    Last year 14 people died at railway crossings in Canada and 31 trespassers died in Canada (source).

    Take the time to slow down and look both ways at crossings. Don't race the train. Don't walk down tracks. Simple things that can save your life.



    Sunday, March 06, 2016

    A Fine Evening's Railfanning

    Graffiti is everywhere
    The sun came out Saturday afternoon, so I decided to do a little railfanning in the late afternoon / early evening. This winter has been severely lacking in sunshine, so I wanted to take advantage of the sun when it showed up.

    I headed out and decided to take the Perimeter Highway around to the Trans-Canada and then look into Symington. As I approached the CP Emerson sub's crossing over the Perimeter, the lights came on. If I were like most other Winnipeg drivers, I would have gunned it through the crossing. However, I'd rather not get hit by a train (#safetyfirst) so I stopped and the gates came down.

    Like any good railfan, I had my camera sitting on the passenger seat, ready for action. I lowered the passenger side window and shot the approaching northbound train.

    Grab shot!
    The power was unremarkable but it was nice to catch it at just the right time.

    The train had a mixed bag of cars, including an empty intermodal well car and a few auto racks. I liked this graffiti:
    Well done graffiti
    I really don't like vandalism like this, but wow - great art.

    After the train passed, I drove up to the Trans-Canada and exited. There was nothing in sight to the south on the CN Sprague sub, so I went north toward Symington. I saw a CN train was pulling up to Navin, although they had a red light so they couldn't proceed yet. As I watched, a CN truck pulled up to the signals, presumably to inspect the train when it got its chance to leave.
    No turns ahead on the CN Sprague subdivision!
    I waited for five or ten minutes but they weren't leaving, so I left instead. As I approached Symington I saw they were on their way. There was a DPU locomotive in the middle of the train but I didn't catch the number.

    Not much was going on at the hump. I drove up to CN's Transcona yard but there was no train there, just cars, so I kept going up to the CP line and on to CEMR.

    CEMR 4002 was idling away at the head of some tank cars. CEMR 4000 and 4001 were moving around in front of the shop, but the interesting stuff was behind the shop.

    Two CEFX locomotives were there - CEFX 6056 and CEFX 6057. Both are SD38-2 locomotives, apparently renumbered and relettered back in June 2015. These are ex Iowa Interstate locomotives, now with a Cando logo on them.
    Cando or CEFX? Who knows?
    Also on the property are two Railink locos, CCGX 1808 and CCGX 1755. A little Googling showed that these locomotives were working on the Barrie-Collingwood Railway before that more or less went dormant. Apparently they sat in Utopia, ON for a few years before being picked up by CP this past May. I don't know how long they've been in Winnipeg, as I haven't been by CEMR for quite a while.
    CCGX 1808 in Winnipeg
    After photographing what I could see from public property, I carried on south to the CN Redditt subdivision and headed out toward Dugald. The road was... icy... so I was being careful. I arrived in Dugald and took yet another photograph of the grain elevator.
    Photograph #728 of the Dugald grain elevator
    One thing I did spy with my little eye was a green signal wayyyy in the distance.
    Some serious cropping
    That meant a train was cleared to head east out of Winnipeg.

    I headed back toward Winnipeg, keeping one eye on the track to my right and at least one on the icy road. I didn't see a train until I crossed the Perimeter Highway, and then I spotted the train picking its way through the Transcona yard.

    I found a safe place to turn around and got ahead of it. I decided to get a little artsy with this nicely placed shelter to frame up CN 2647 as it led the train out of Winnipeg.
    Frame it up

    That was the end of the day's railfanning... not a bad outing.

    Thanks for reading!

    Wednesday, March 02, 2016

    Onboard the UP Express

    The UP Express is a new train and route that was built to connect the Pearson (Toronto, YYZ) airport in Mississauga, Ontario with downtown Toronto.

    On a recent trip to the US, I ended up spending several hours in the Pearson airport. I seriously considered taking the UP Express downtown to Toronto just for fun, but the price discouraged me ($44 round trip) plus the timing was a little too close for comfort. I did decide to go have a look at the trains.

    They are not hard to find.

    The new UP Express station is integrated with the airport; all you have to do is go up an escalator (or elevator) to an area with ticket machines, then on to the trains themselves. There were quite a few staff present, and I asked one of them if it would be all right if I went on board to take a few photos. She waved me on cheerily so I had a look inside the waiting train.

    Inside the UP Express
    It seemed roomy enough inside, and everything was nice and clean... as I expected, given how new the train sets are. The UP Express launched in June 2015.

    Inside the UP Express
    The UP Express uses 18 Nippon Sharyo Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) cars, powered by Cummins QSK19-R ultra-low emissions diesel engines. They have 12 type A powered cars and 6 type B intermediate cars with toilets, allowing for 2 or 3 car trainsets. They are designed for relatively easy conversion into Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) cars.

    The first pair of cars was delivered to Metrolinx in August 2014. The cars were built in Japan with final assembly at Nippon Sharyo's plant in Rochelle, Illinois.

    Pearson is served by a new 3.3 km elevated spur from the GO Kitchener line. The trains run every 15 minutes and a trip between Union Station downtown and Pearson takes 25 minutes. There are intermediate stops at Bloor and Weston.

    The train looks nice from the outside too!

    UP Express ticket kiosks
    I don't normally pay a lot of attention to transit vehicles, but it's nice to be able to railfan right at the Toronto airport.

    If I have more time on a future Toronto connection, I'll seriously consider making the round trip... especially now that the cost is going down, due to poor ridership.

    Fellow blogger Eric Gagnon took the UP Express from Union Station to the airport and back and blogged about it. I'm not sure where he got the $27.50 round trip fare... maybe I overlooked that option!

    While I was at the airport, I couldn't help but do a bit of airplane watching.
    Chock it up to good positioning!

    The Air Canada Rouge planes look pretty sharp.
    Air Canada Rouge C-GBHR
    I saw my first Airbus A-380 but I didn't get a good photo of it... too slow!

    My favourite was this Boeing Dreamliner 787 with Hainan Airlines.
    Hi there, Hainan!
    Of course, talking about Pearson airport wouldn't be complete without Rush's classic instrumental, "YYZ".

    EDIT: Several people have pointed out other fare options. The "meet and greet" $27.50 round-trip option was not available to me because you have to originate from Union, Bloor or Weston... I guess you can't "meet and greet" from the airport into Toronto.

    The PRESTO card is a cheaper option, but then you actually have to have a PRESTO card (cost $6). It was a maximum of $19 one-way but after March 9 it is going down to $9 one-way Union-Pearson.