Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Few Hours Around Grand Forks

My family traveled to Grand Forks, North Dakota a couple of weekends ago for a little shopping and to get away for a bit. As we approached the border crossing at Emerson, Manitoba, I saw a CN train at the Letellier grain elevator with a big engine (Dash-9?) and a GP38 for power. Just north of the border was another train with a single BNSF engine on it. BNSF has started running its power straight through into Manitoba on occasion.. more on that in another post.

On the morning of February 16, I went out for a couple of hours of railfanning. I went to the yard first to see what was around. On the west end, orange remote control engine BNSF 1730 was working the yard while green BNSF 2921 (GP39E) and 2082 (GP38-2) idled patiently.
BNSF 2921 and BNSF 2082 in Grand Forks

I saw a train rolling east through the yard up to the shop. It had BNSF 4163 (C44-9W), BNSF 7499 (ES44DC), BNSF 1531 (GP28M), and old friend BNSF 3028 (GP40E) as the fourth engine.
BNSF 4163 in Grand Forks
BNSF 7499 in Grand Forks
BNSF 1531
BNSF 3028 in Grand Forks
BNSF 3028 was a familiar sight in Winnipeg for quite a while, as the BNSF Manitoba power.

Over by the turntable, three engines were arrayed quite nicely for viewing from the sidewalk. BNSF 3195 (GP50), BNSF 8168 (SD60M), and BNSF 1885 (SD40-2) provided a nice variety.
BNSF 3195, 8168 and 1885 in Grand Forks

After surveying the yard, I headed back west to the Amtrak station and saw a grain train disappearing down the line toward Fargo, and headlights to the west... what to do, what to do. I decided to go shoot the eastbound train. BNSF 962 was on the point.
BNSF 962 approaching Grand Forks

They were poking along so it was easy to shoot them twice.
A BNSF train approaches Grand Forks

Right after that, I headed down I-29 to try to catch up to the southbound freight train.Mile after mile went by and I finally caught sight of the tail end near Buxton and they went under the I-29 overpass just before I reached it. Too bad - that would have been a nice spot. I carried on to Mayville but I wasn't far enough ahead to take the exit, so I carried on to Hillsboro. I exited there and drove straight to the grain elevator to set up the shot. Soon enough BNSF 949 (in Santa Fe livery!) and NS 8140 came through this pretty little town.
BNSF 949 in Hillsboro

Love those thoroughbred engines!
Norfolk Southern 8140 in Hillsboro

I took a few more photos of the grain elevators in town, as well as caboose BN 11711 on display, then headed back north on I-29 toward Grand Forks. I saw a train coming south and it was the same train I saw approaching Grand Forks! Here it is again... BNSF 962, BNSF 9850 and BNSF 2284 were the power.
BNSF 962 approaching Hillsboro North Dakota

I always enjoy railfanning in North Dakota.

Monday, February 17, 2014

New Name For The MMA, and Tank Cars

DOT-111 car carrying crude oil
The Bangor Daily News is reporting that the new owner of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic will change the railway's name to the Central Maine and Quebec Railway once the deal closes, probably by the end of March.

The excellent Oil-Electric blog has a good history of the rail line. He raises the interesting question of what power will operate the railway, given that the MMA is selling 25 locomotives to raise money. Perhaps the CM and Q will lease locomotives to start. or perhaps they have no intention of actually operating This filing to the Surface Transportation Board asks for an exemption for a non-rail company to own the CM and Q and operate essentially the same routes and serve the same customers as the MMA.

Speculation on the cause of the Lac-Mégantic runaway has focused on an insufficient number of hand brakes being set on the locomotives and freight cars (I thought that too). It has come to light that the MMA was repeatedly warned about not setting enough brakes - in 2004, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

I have a number of comments I'd like to make about Transport Canada's effectiveness, but that will have to wait for another time.

Meanwhile, Transport Canada is calling for increased tank car safety (but not requiring it) and Irving Oil is voluntarily upgrading the DOT-111 cars in its tank car fleet for increased protection. I'm told that they had a backlog of cars in Saint John due to difficulties with unloading in the cold temperatures, but the backlog is almost clear now. As non-upgraded DOT-111 cars are emptied, they will be shipped off to be upgraded.

EDIT: Added STB link, thank you JHansen!

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Growing Opposition to Northern New Brunswick Rail Plan

VIA crosses the Miramichi. Photo by David Morris
Following last week's announcement that the provincial government would invest in most of the northern New Brunswick CN track, but leave the Bathurst-Miramichi segment out, opposition is growing to the government's plan.

Members of Parliament Yvon Godin (NDP, Acadie-Bathurst) and Dominic LeBlanc (Liberal, Beasejour) are both opposed to the government plan, according to this CBC article. The other eight MPs, coincidentally all Conservatives, have not said anything on this issue that I am aware of. I'm especially curious what Tilly O'Neill-Gordon, MP for Miramichi, has to say on the matter, and I have emailed her to ask.

Some accuse VIA Rail of "deliberately attempting to discourage ridership". Ted Bartlett, acting president of Transport Action Atlantic says that VIA's decision to cut the Ocean back to three trips/week and VIA's lack of marketing have led to reduced ridership (almost precisely half what they were prior to the cut, according to some accounts), and the recent CN-New Brunswick announcement "has presented VIA with a golden opportunity to get out of a service that they really don't want to operate."

Transport Action Atlantic's report "Revitalizing New Brunswick's Rail Sector" was released on December 30, 2013 and recommends a number of key points:
  • Explore options to retain CN's Newcastle subdivision;
  • Restore the Ocean to daily operation and establish VIA as a full Crown corporation with stable funding;
  • Revive Industrial Rail Services in Moncton.
CN has said that it would cost $10 million to restore the missing segment from Bathurst to Miramichi. A "spokesperson from Economic Development" (presumably the New Brunswick government) was quoted as saying it would cost $50 million to reroute the Ocean over the Edmundston-Moncton line. The cost to VIA was said to include the cost of buying land, building at least 5 stations, and installing signals. That cost sounds high to me but it would have to be studied and probably is being studied by VIA Rail.

I understand that VIA Rail does not have $10 million to spend on the Bathurst-Miramichi segment. Their budget has been squeezed by the federal government for the past few years and extra cash cannot be found.

I believe the federal government needs to step in and provide this capital cost to upgrade the line and retain service, just as they have stepped in to join provincial governments for a rail underpass in Winnipeg ($22.2m), rail widening in the Greater Toronto Area ($8.3m), port upgrades at Belledune ($26.4m, jeopardized by the soon to be very long rail connection to the rest of the world), rail upgrades for NB Southern ($9m), and on and on... the federal government needs to come to the table.

The Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt (Conservative, Halton), has been ducking this challenge. She spoke on February 3 to the Canadian Club of Ottawa as the Minister, and her notes contain not one word about VIA Rail. When asked by MP Bruce Hyer (Green, Thunder Bay-Superior North) about the future of passenger rail in New Brunswick and Sault Ste. Marie (also in jeopardy), she said, "We are monitoring closely. We are working with VIA Rail and with everybody who has an interest in these lines to get to the right place. That said, it is incredibly important to note that VIA Rail is an arm's-length corporation that makes its own business decisions."

With respect to the honourable minister, at the end of the day, VIA Rail answers to the federal government. They might be at arm's length but it is the federal government's arm that holds them accountable.

CN 8807 and CN 5414 in Miramichi

Time to step up. Write your Member of Parliament. Contact the Minister of Transportation. Get involved and make some noise, or this rail line will be gone forever.