Saturday, July 29, 2017

Three Passenger Trains in Northern Québec (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post by Al in Vancouver... enjoy!

In June and July of 2017, I had the opportunity to ride three passenger trains in northern Québec. This guest post will focus on overall impressions and tips for railfans.

Sept-Îles - Schefferville

1-IMG_9369 This passenger service is operated by Tshiuetin Rail Transportation, owned by three first Nations in the region.  The head end crew and track between Sept-Îles and Emeril, Labrador are provided by the QNS and L Railway, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iron Ore Company of Canada.

The train operates twice weekly.  As tickets are non-refundable and the person at the phone number listed on the website told me the train is never full, I decided to buy my ticket at the station in Sept-Îles the morning of departure.  I was surprised to learn they only accept cash (no credit or debit cards) at the station in Sept-Îles.  There is no ATM at the station.  After all passengers with tickets were boarded, I was allowed to buy my ticket and board.  Photo ID is required at boarding.  Seating is first come, first served.

I was surprised at the length of the train:  Two locos (TSH 7205, 601), baggage generator TSH 1423, four baggage (TSH 1422, 1401, 1455, 1445), cafeteria TSH 1000, three older coaches (TSN 1002, 1004, 1005) and two newer coaches (TSH 13518 and 13517).  I was directed to sit in an older coach with red seats (TSH 1004) which was also equipped with a projector and screen suspended between the luggage racks to show movies.  I sat far enough away from the movie equipment so that it would not obscure my view out the window.  A Québec tour group (tour conducted en français) occupied the first newer coach while the trailing coach was kept for employee use.  I estimate 50 to 60% of the seats were occupied.

None of the windows on the train were clean; disappointing as this affected the view.  Even if they were clean, I believe the age of the windows would still diminish the view.  Fortunately a photographer with the tour group was given supervised access to open the vestibule windows, and I was able to use this for photos soon after we left Sept-Îles.  The interior of the train was kept quite clean.

The first 100 miles north from Sept-Îles pass through beautiful scenery as the route climbs along the Moisie River.  Sit on the left (west side) of the train for the best view.  We had a few meets with QNSL iron ore and work trains.  Speeds are generally between 30 to 40 mph.
It is interesting to watch the changes in scenery as the train climbs the Canadian Shield and gains latitude north through Labrador.  While the track is in good condition south of Emeril, there are sections north of Emeril that are rough and slow.

We arrived Schefferville around 20:30.  I did not have accommodation reserved but managed to arrange a clean, quiet and efficient room for $75 at a facility for workers named Bloc Orange.  From what I saw of the conventional motels, it is easy to pay over $200.  There is no road access to Schefferville, so things are expensive.  Your mobile phone will not work for voice or data unless you get a local SIM card.  Also note that WiFi gets very congested during the evenings due to high usage over limited bandwidth.

The road between the town of Schefferville and the train station is gravel.  If you decide to walk like I did, there is a good chance someone will stop and offer you a ride!  There is a taxi service in Schefferville, but there was a long wait once the train arrived.  I was also told the taxi is not open in time for the morning southbound departure.
The southbound trip the following morning was on the same equipment, except that locomotives TSH 601 and 701 were leading.  The station at Schefferville accepts credit and debit cards for tickets. Again, photo ID is required at boarding.  There was no tour group southbound and both of the newer coaches were kept for employee use.

We arrived Sept-Îles around 22:00.  The train was turned prior to the station stop.  Apparently it is not unusual for the train to arrive hours late due to meets and slow orders.

There is a good thread about the train on and a CBC documentary on YouTube.

Full photo album on Flickr

Senneterre to Montreal

VIA Rail operates this train, as well as the Jonquière train described below, over CN tracks.  Each train is operated with a single F40PH-2 loco, one 8600 series baggage car and one HEP2 coach. They operate three times a week.  Seat selection is not pre-assigned.

Due to limitations in my schedule, I chose to do this trip one-way from Senneterre to Montreal.  In retrospect, I would have done a return trip on this route, as the scenery is nice and because this train is always at the rear of the combined Senneterre and Jonquière train south of Hervey, providing access to a window facing out the rear of the train.

Note that not much is open in Senneterre before the train departs (even for the later Sunday departure), so bring food with you or buy it on board.

The scenery is interesting with lots of forest, lakes, rivers and some hills.  As with the other routes, the northern portion of the route provides access to camps, cottages and settlements that do not have good road access.

We were two hours late arriving Hervey due to meets and slow orders.  We pulled into Hervey station for passengers, then reversed out to allow the train from Jonquière to get into the Hervey station ahead of us.  We then coupled to the rear of the train from Jonquière.


The route from Hervey to Montreal is similar to the route between Québec City and Montreal with lots of rich farmland and stretches with good track speed.  There are some significant trestles on the Joliette subdivision (miles 50, 52, 58, 65 and 76), a tunnel at mile 51 and an interesting route through Shawinigan.

As we were still late approaching Montreal, the train stopped at Gare Sauvé for the crew to take a 20 minute rest break, allowing them to extend their operating day by 2 hours.  As the Jonquière train has a later start than the Senneterre train, the Jonquière crew is fresher and this is why the trains wait for each other in Hervey and are coupled with the Jonquière train and crew leading.  By the time we arrived Gare Centrale in downtown Montreal, we were two and a half hours late. Note this train does not use the Mont Royal tunnel, so it takes a while to route through the yard at Saint-Luc.  Most shops at Gare Centrale close at 21:00; fortunately a nearby Provigo supermarket was open til midnight.

I noticed a brochure at Senneterre station describing (en français) an outing using the train from Senneterre to Press, with a re-enactment of the last spike ceremony at Press followed by brunch and return to Senneterre by bus.  Remaining dates for 2017 are planned for August 6 and 20.  Info is available by emailing or calling +1-819-737-2296 extension 221.

The local tourist bureau can suggest activities in the region.  They can be contacted by emailing or phoning +1-888-437-2694 or +1-819-737-2694.

Full photo album on Flickr

Montreal - Jonquière

This train is assembled with the baggage car trailing the coach, i.e., locomotive followed by coach followed by baggage.  I was told this is to allow canoes to be loaded and unloaded using the rear door of the train from the baggage car.
I didn't see this door being used, but I can imagine a stop on a banked curve or conditions at the side requiring rear access.  Note that this arrangement prevents passengers from seeing out the rear of the train.
Between Montreal and Hervey, the Senneterre train is coupled (elephant style) to the rear of the Jonquière train. For this portion of the route, please see my comments above.

Northeast of Hervey, the route follows the appropriately named Rivière-à-Pierre upstream.  The best views are on the north side of the train.  Many cyclists used the train, and at times the coach was around 90% full.  This is a very scenic region with infrastructure for tourists.  There was some freight traffic on the line with a few meets.  Forest product companies seem to be the primary customers.
The descent into the Saguenay region provides some nice views (again, the best view are on the north side) of Lac Saint-Jean, which is huge!

The terminus station in Jonquière is conveniently located at a transit hub, providing cheap transit options throughout the region.  I stayed overnight approximately 10km away in Chicoutimi and used transit both ways.

If you are a cyclist and not familiar with Québec's Route Verte and their 5000 km network of bike paths, check out this link.  More info about taking bikes on VIA trains is on VIA's website.

Full image album on Flickr

Final Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed all of these trains.  Although it is difficult to rank them, I have to say the trip to and from Schefferville provided the most memorable experience.  This is due to the different scenery and the QNS&L railway but also because most people operating and using the train were from First Nations.  I suggest that if you take this train, try to get to know some of them (the seats in the cafeteria car provide a good place to do this).  The person who picked me up on the way to the station in Schefferville made a lasting impression as he shared his background and stories with me.  The farther north you go, the more English is spoken, so language should not be a barrier.  Note that if I did not have access to open vestibule windows, it would have diminished the experience.  You might want to bring something to clean your window!  And you should be prepared for mosquitos.

The Québec tour group I encountered on the train from Sept-Îles also offer tours using the Senneterre and Jonquière trains.  While these appear to be conducted en français, the itineraries may offer some ideas.

I'd like to ride all of these trains in winter; perhaps April or May to allow for longer daylight, before leaves on trees along the line obscure the views.

I hope you get the chance to experience these trains!

Al is a railfan based in Vancouver.  He has ridden the rails on six continents and is a guide with offering custom tours to Japan (a great destination for railfans!) and beyond.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rainbow Railfanning 'Round Rivers

On June 19th I was in the Carberry-Brandon area of Manitoba and had a free evening. I had seen some photos from a location just east of Rivers (the namesake of the CN Rivers subdivision) and I wanted to check it out.

Little did I know how many rainbows I'd encounter around Rivers!

Warning! This is going to be a long post, and very picture heavy. Let's go.

In Rivers

From Brandon, I headed north on highway 10 past the old grain elevator at Forrest, under the CN main line, and then turned west on highway 25. This road parallels the CN line a few kilometres to the north and I saw a train go by as I was rolling west.

I arrived at Rivers and drove through town. I noted a locomotive parked by the former station (more on that later) and I continued to the west end of town.

I saw an approaching container train in the distance, so I set up to photograph and video it by the former Cargill grain elevator(s).

Soon, two of CN's finest, ET44ACs CN 3035 and 3048 rolled past the elevator.
CN 3035 and 3048 passing the Rivers grain elevator
It was nice to see the elevator's  doors open, indicating that it is still in use. In fact, later on I saw a grain truck drive up to the elevator.

The skies were pretty interesting that night, as you'll see later.

Recording.... recording...
Here's the video of that train.

Once the train passed, I headed back into town. I stopped by the VIA station to check out CN 2438 idling away.

CN 2438 is one of CN's GE Dash 8-40CM (or C40-8M) units with the "Draper taper" behind the cab for greater crew visibility. Opinions are very mixed on whether the visibility is improved very much, and I don't think many crews like them.

Many of the 55 CN units that were built have the "CN North America" logo on them.
CN North America Logo

Grant's Cut

The location I wanted to shoot at is nicknamed "Grant's Cut". I don't know why.

To get there, you drive east from Rivers on highway 25, then hang a right on Road 120W - basically the first right after crossing the Little Saskatchewan River. Drive straight through the 4-way intersection and keep going and you will cross over the CN Rivers subdivision. This is Grant's Cut (Google Maps).

Looking north
Note the skies! It was really threatening to rain by this time, and the clouds were moving swiftly. I parked off the bridge - it's really just one lane - and stayed relatively close to my car just in case it started to rain.

This is the view to the west...
Looking west from the overpass at Grant's Cut
And this was the view to the east after a few minutes...
Double rainbow! What does it mean?
Rainbows were the theme of the night. The weather was very unsettled and there were some very dramatic clouds around. I was pretty concerned that I was going to be rained on - or hailed upon - but the nasty stuff passed by to the north. I did feel a few rain drops now and then. There was even some lightning in the distance.

So, nice broad curves to the east and west... and an overpass with no traffic. A lovely location! One other nice feature is that you can look straight down the track toward the east...
Mile 140.8
Wait... what's that in the distance? Red lights and a set of headlights?

CN 347

I was really hoping the rainbow(s) would stick around for the train's arrival. How cool would that be?

I've had some luck with rainbows and trains in the past. I just barely included a rainbow with a CP SD40-2 back in August 2014 and with a CP GP38/GP9 pair in Winnipeg. Back in 2010 I was railfanning in the Calgary area and caught a sunset rainbow at Keith.

Alas, it didn't happen here. The rainbow was gone by 19:03 and the train didn't arrive until 19:06. So close!

The sun was very spotty indeed. Notice the train rolling through the rural crossing and the "sucker hole" of sunlight here.
Catching the sun
This is a highly cropped view with my 70-200mm lens. The train was still a long way away.

Here they are just about to take the curve... in the dark.
Back in the dark
A few seconds later, they've emerged into sunlight again and are taking the curve.
Taking the curve at Grant's Cut
CN 2151 and BCOL 4641 were the power on this train. The profusion of empty centerbeam flat cars means this is CN 347... a train I have photographed many times. It is very distinctive.

The weather was so strange that night. Here's a shot of them a few seconds later and it looks like a beautiful day!
Gorgeous evening!?
The train rolled on, endlessly, centerbeam after centerbeam after centerbeam. I counted from my video and I think there were 138 cars. I think these were all 73' cars so that's a 10,000' foot train.

I've heard CN 347 called a "sail train" because of the appearance of the empty cars, and also because they have a sail effect and create a lot of wind at ground level for trackside crews who have to inspect the train as it passes.

No CN crew has ever said anything nice about this train!

As I said, the light was very variable and part of the time the train was in relative darkness. Challenging for photography and video!

After that train passed, there was a lull for almost an hour.

Green = GOOD
I was thinking about whether I should hang around or hit the road, but eventually the signal lit and that told me a train was en route.

Or maybe I heard the engines before the signal lit.

I can't remember which came first, but either way... TRAIN.

I knew it was coming from the west, which is not great light for evening photography, but what can you do? Take pictures anyway, that's what!

Oil Train

CN 2957 East
CN 2957 East was an oil train. They had a single unit on the head end, a CN grain car as a buffer car, then a long black snake of oil tankers.

I think the above photo turned out pretty well for shooting somewhat toward the sun. It took a fair amount of processing in Lightroom but I like that side glint.

The going away shot shows the dark and foreboding clouds and some rain on the horizon... plus a little shadow selfie.
Going away
Of course, if you crop in far enough, it looks like a beautiful evening...
Dark clouds? What dark clouds?
Pictures can be deceiving.

There was a tail end unit, CN 3041, with another buffer car between the locomotive and the tank cars. You can see it in the video I compiled.

I hung around another 10 minutes or so but it was starting to get late (8:15 PM) and I wanted to check Rivers out one more time. The clouds were still pretty dramatic... and if you look closely, you'll see a wee little rainbow on the horizon just left of centre.
Not your normal clouds

Back to Rivers

Time for.. a crew change..
Apologies to the Little River Band
I drove back into and through Rivers. On the west side I saw there was a train pulling up to a stop... out of town.

They were stopping at a rural crossing and there was a CN vehicle there.

I suspect they were doing a crew change there to avoid blocking crossings within the town.

CN 2242 was the sole power on the head end of this long freight train. It had a lot of autoracks.

I was at the highway crossing on the edge of town.

I decided to do something a little different and shoot with my "long lens" (70-200mm) to get a telephoto look, then use my iPhone to take a quick wide angle snap as the train passed.

The problem with the telephoto / long shot was that there were a few shrubs (visible in the photo above) that prevented a nice full train shot, and then there was the crossing gate itself to get in the way. I'm not 100 percent happy with the shot below.
Making the best of a bad angle
It would have been a better composition had I stood closer to the tracks, but that's not safe and so I settled for this.

I prefer the iPhone shot I took a few seconds later.
The iPhone wins!
After that, I rushed over to the other end of town to shoot them passing the train station, with the grain elevator in the background.
Backlit in Rivers
Imagine this shot in the morning... golden sunrise light on the nose of the locomotive, elevator and station lit... that would be nice.

Not this time.

I had a notion to get them on the bridge just east of town.. before Grant's Cut. I knew I couldn't beat them there but maybe I could get a silhouette shot against the sunset. Worth a try!

Silhouette shot
Yep, pretty much what I wanted. Jeannette Graves has a similar shot on Flickr.

I drove back east along highway 25. Looking to the south I could see a container train slowly rolling west in the distance.

There was another rainbow. Of course.

Rainbows were definitely the theme of the night.

Did you know that "rainbow" comes from the Latin arcus pluvius, meaning "rainy arch"?

In school everyone learns ROYGBIV, the seven colours decreed by Sir Isaac Newton. I always knew it was VIBGYOR - not sure why - but I think Roy G. Biv is a lot easier to say.

Here there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow... just a container train. Nice enough for me.

The photo to right was with my telephoto, cropped in. Check out the wide angle photo below.
That's a big old cloud
I couldn't stop taking photos of the sky!

Taking a LEAP

Another rainbow...
On my way to Rivers, I had noticed a major north-south road, highway 270. As I was returning east I decided to drop down 270 to the tracks and see what I could see.

When I got there, I very quickly saw CN 2242 approaching from the west. I took a video of the train (see bottom of post) and then took a few photos of the area.

This is "Leap", a new control point / set of crossovers on the Rivers subdivision. It has all new shiny LED signals. This is part of a 9 mile stretch of double track between Knox and Levine.

There used to be a Manitoba Pool grain elevator here, at "Smart". It was demolished in 2002.

While admiring the signals, I was surprised by a westbound train.

I was so surprised, in fact, that I didn't have time to adjust my settings and shot a full two stops too dark!

Fortunately, I shoot RAW files so there is enough information in the file to recover a decent shot, despite underexposing the image so badly.
Remember, kids, always shoot RAW. ;)

I liked the going away "glint" shot.
Glint FTW too
The train had CN 2953, 2969 and 5796 on the head end.

This post has been picture-heavy already, so I'm not going to post any photos of the cars, but I did want to mention that it had not one but two 2001 Census hopper cars (DCLX 7490 and DCLX 8096).

Photos by Last Light

It was getting pretty late by this point, so I went back up to highway 25 and then down highway 10 past Forrest. I couldn't resist stopping to take a few photos of the old Forrest grain elevator.
Forrest grain elevator at sunset
I combined three photos into one to get enough of a dynamic range for the above photo. A little "HDR trickery" if you will.

I was sure I was done taking photos by this time (9:36 PM), but as I passed the Brandon airport, the old T-Bird on display at the highway caught my eye.

Fine, just one more photo...

Then I was truly done for the night.

The Video

Here's my video combining the two trains at Grant's Cut with CN 2242 at Leap.

I hope you like it. I am trying a new video editing program, Hitfilm Express. So far I like it - and it's free!


It was a good night. I:

  • Explored two new locations (Grant's Cut, Leap)
  • Photographed five trains
  • Photographed two grain elevators
  • Saw a bunch 'o' rainbows
  • Got a bonus plane photo
Good times and good photo opportunities. Thanks for reading.

PS - hey, do me a favour and sign up for my mailing list! I'll send you a weekly summary of photos I post on social media (if you opt in to that) and occasionally I'll send you reminders of blog posts like these. That's it. Thanks!

PPS - check out George Dutka's White River Division blog! He posts a great mix of model and 1:1 scale trains.. always worth a read.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sixty Million to Churchill?

Omnitrax held a press briefing on Tuesday, July 18 to present the results of the study that they commissioned to assess the flood damage to the rail line from Gillam to Churchill, Manitoba. The costs are.. high.

The Study

AECOM Canada, the engineering company that did the study, estimates that the line could be fixed in 60 days starting on September 1, for a cost starting at $13 million that could climb to $60 million. EDIT: Link to study

The study says there are 13 bridges, 68 culverts and 31 washout areas that need to be repaired on the Hudson Bay Railway's Herchmer Subdivision's 183.7 railway miles (294 km) between Gillam and Churchill.

Omnitrax has stated that they don't have the money to fix it, and have called the line "a public utility" and they "believe there is a role for the public to play" in fixing the line.

Government Response

So far government response continues to be muted. The provincial government indicated it is looking to the federal government to lead. Meanwhile, the federal government indicates that Omnitrax has an obligation to repair the line.

Reports say that Omnitrax has received $20 million from the federal government over the past 5 years and Manitoba has contributed "millions". AECOM said that Omnitrax has spent $60 million on the line since 2009 to improve conditions, although this Financial Post article seems to call that figure into question.

A Deadline

Omnitrax stated that it has to have funding in place by August 1 to begin planning for the work to commence in September, and be completed within 60 days before it becomes too cold to work.

What Now?

There's no doubt that Omnitrax can't afford to fix the line. They are privately held, so their financials aren't available, but the estimate I found says the company's gross income is around $90-100 million USD. $60 million would be a tremendous burden. I assume they have some insurance to cover losses like this but nobody outside Omnitrax seems to know much about that. Many people are insisting that Omnitrax is holding the town of Churchill hostage for public funds.

As I said at the end of my last update, I still think the best course of action is for Omnitrax to immediately proceed with the sale it already negotiated, and then the federal and provincial governments can step in to pay for the repairs. It's clear that the governments are loath to contribute money to a private company - understandably - so Omnitrax has to be removed from the situation.

I can't see why Omnitrax would want to hold on to the line, except perhaps to get the best price for it. I have no doubt they are universally hated in Churchill, especially when they boosted the price of gas by 30 percent briefly last night.

So sell it already and let's get on with fixing the rail line and restoring service.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Railfanning and the Carman Fair

Rio Grande - really?
On Saturday July 15th our family traveled to Carman, Manitoba for the Carman County Fair. It was a lovely - if warm - day and we like going to these country fairs so the kids can ride on the midway rides without too much of a crowd.

The CEMR Carman Sub

We drove down on highway 3, paralleling the Central Manitoba Railway (CEMR) Carman subdivision for most of the trip. I noted cars at the Sanford grain elevator and some tank cars and a few ex Illinois Central ballast cars parked in Brunkild. At the Pioneer grain elevator outside Brunkild, there were some maintenance machines and an ex Amtrak ballast hopper working on the elevator tracks.

Carrying on down highway 3, the Sperling grain elevator was still gone (sigh) although there were tank cars stored in the village. The Homewood grain elevator is alive and well and the Carman warehouse had a lot of grain cars at it.

Stored potash cars and the fair
As we drove into Carman, I noted many potash cars stored in the town as well as a short CEMR train with two locomotives on it. I resolved to come back to that when we left.

The Fair

The fair was great - the kids had fun and my wife and I found the temperature and crowds quite tolerable. We ate supper there and the food prices were quite reasonable.

I saw one place advertising a schnitzel sandwich so I had to have that. It was greasy but tasty!

As you can see from the lead photo in this post, I couldn't help railfanning the toy train.

After we visited the petting zoo - very popular with the kids - we had ice cream and then hit the road. I decided to head back through Elm Creek / highway 2 to cover a different route.

CCGX 5202

On our way out, I stopped to photograph the CEMR train. It was not positioned for photography so I had to shoot a bit against the sun. Here's a photo I processed with HDR to get as much detail as I could.
CCGX 5202 and CEMR 5396 in Carman
The far locomotive is CEMR 5396, an ex CP SD40-2 that I have photographed many times. The near one, though, is new to me.

CCGX 5202 is an SD38AC originally built in 1971 for the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad as BLE 865. It was acquired by the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railroad as DMIR 200 in early 1993 and retired in April 2008. It bounced around a couple of small companies and Cando Contracting acquired it in August 2015 (more info).

This loco has been painted in Cando's sharp "swoosh" scheme and looks quite nice. Note the "SD38AC" designation, the plaque "Rebuilt with pride by CEMR Winnipeg", and the Buzz Lightyear sticker.

That was nice to see. Hopefully I'll see it in better light soon.


On the way up highway 13 to Elm Creek, I stopped briefly to photograph the two lovely grain elevators in Barnsley. They looked very nice in the setting sun's light.
Barnsley Grain Elevators

Elm Creek Switching

As we approached Elm Creek, I could see the highway was blocked in the distance.. by grain cars! It turned out that the CPR was in town. I drove through town and found the head end at the wye.

Two of the new ECO units
The train had two of the rebuilt "ECO" units on it, CP 2238 and 2325. Again the sun was in the "wrong" spot so I did the best I could. I saw the conductor walking back to the locomotives, so I drove over the nearby crossing to avoid being trapped on the "wrong" side of the train.

The light was better on the other side..
CP in Elm Creek, Manitoba
If you squint you can see the Cargill unit about 2/3 of the way across the photo, near their grain elevator.

They started pulling, so I grabbed a photo I had been planning for a long time... the train by the giant fire hydrant.
CP 2238 and the giant fire hydrant in Elm Creek, MB
That hydrant is apparently the second largest in the world.

Homeward Bound

We headed home without waiting for the train, as it was getting late and I didn't want to push my luck with my family. We passed the lovely elevator in Culross - no cars - then Fannystelle - no cars - then Starbuck - cars - then back onto the Trans-Canada Highway and home.

This was essentially our route:

See Also