Sunday, March 29, 2015

Buffalo Grain Elevators

The "Buffalo slope" grain elevator in Magrath, AB
A uniquely Albertan phenomenon was the "Buffalo" grain elevators, built by the Alberta Wheat Pool. These elevators were an attempt to improve upon the wooden grain elevator, which was largely unchanged after decades of use. The intent of the Buffalo elevators was to improve capacity and loading speed, and perhaps to make them cheaper to construct as well.


The first version was the Buffalo 1000, known as the "Buffalo slope". The first was built in Magrath, Alberta in 1979. The design was radical in many ways. The bins that hold the grain were not vertical, but were built at a 30 degree slope to still allow the grain to flow "downhill". The bins were built from 42 pre-cast concrete modules.
The "Buffalo slope" elevator at Magrath is now owned by Parrish and Heimbecker
The elevator has five spouts to allow five rail cars to be loaded at once, unlike the traditional elevator which can only load one rail car at a time.

The design was innovative but it did not work well in practice. The slope was insufficient for some grains, causing the grain to hang up and require manual intervention to flow the material into the rail cars. I read a comment that the reason was traced back to the temperature that the concrete was poured at; if it wasn't at the right temperature the concrete had a surface roughness that didn't allow the grain to flow. Modern elevators use metal pipes to ensure a smooth delivery path for the grain.

The Magrath elevator was sold to Parrish and Heimbecker in 2000, who closed it in 2003. It was then sold to Ben and Donna Walter Farms and is still in use today. I visited it last fall with Jason Paul Sailer. Magrath has several grain elevators but no railway, but it is well worth visiting for the variety of elevators there.
Magrath, AB by Jason Paul Sailer


A "Buffalo slope" grain elevator was built in Vegreville, AB in 1981. It was demolished in mid 2010.

Fort Saskatchewan

A third "Buffalo slope" / Buffalo 1000 grain elevator was built in Fort Saskatchewan, in 1981. It was closed by Agricore in 2001 and is now owned by Sime Farms.


After the "Buffalo slope" elevators, the designers went back and produced a "Buffalo 2000" design. These were more traditional in shape, but still incorporated concrete extensively in their pre-cast bin floors and cast-in-place bin walls. They had a capacity of about 190,000 bushels in 30 bins.

A "Buffalo 2000" grain elevator was built at Lyalta, Alberta in 1982. It appears the Buffalo 2000 elevators only had one rail car loading chute.

Chris Doering wrote extensively about this elevator on his blog (and again). The elevator is owned by Canada Malting at the time of writing. (GPS: 51.113424, -113.602910)


Another "Buffalo 2000" was built at Foremost, AB in 1983, with a capacity of 185,000 bushels. It was closed in 2002, but was privately acquired and is now operated by the local "Southern Grain Exchange" group (Google Maps). Jason Paul Sailer shared three photos of the elevator, taken in 2014 and 2015.
Foremost Buffalo grain elevator, by Jason Paul Sailer

Foremost grain elevators, by Jason Paul Sailer

The Foremost Buffalo 2000 grain elevator, by Jason Paul Sailer


The final Buffalo 2000 grain elevator was built in Boyle in 1986, and after a short life it was demolished beginning in April 2009. (photos)


Yes, Brazil! The Buffalo design team came up with the Buffalo 4000 design, featuring bins in a double V pattern. Several were built in Brazil in the 1980s, ranging from 25,000 to 100,000 tonnes in capacity. I believe the facility shown in the Google Street View below in Uberlandia is the 100,000 tonne Buffalo 4000.


The Buffalo grain elevator was a bold attempt to redesign the grain elevator, but ultimately it was a failure. They were too difficult to build, too expensive, and they were overtaken by the slip-form silos of today's "high throughput" (HTP) regional terminal elevators.

More reading:

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sweating the Assets

The Fredericton train station, May 2003
Railways are notoriously frugal. They will "sweat the assets" (as Greg McDonnell says), but when they are done with an asset, it is usually discarded with little or no remorse. As an example, the rapid destruction of train stations (unused since the decline of passenger rail travel) in Canada in the 1970s and early 1980s was only stopped by the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act of 1988.

Sometimes private individuals or businesses buy old rolling stock and repurpose it. Many cabooses become cottages, for example. In my travels I've stumbled across a few pieces of rolling stock still in use for some purpose.
Sweating the assets, Bayshore Bulk Transfer, Saint John, NB 2002

Old caboose at Bayshore Bulk Transfer, Saint John, NB 2005

Boxcars for storage, NB Coal, Minto NB 2006

Repurposed CN container, McGivney NB 2008
NB Southern converted a boxcar to use for transloading pulp in McAdam. The boxcar even has a forklift in it to help move the pulp over from truck to boxcar.
Pulp Trans-Loading Boxcar in McAdam
CN 235058 was used for storage by Northumberland Dairy, Fredericton, NB 2006

Spring Specialty in Moncton NB used to have a boxcar for storage
Kenny's Trucking in Miramichi had a boxcar around
Of course, there was this old boxcar I found at Hathaway last summer:

What have you seen around?

PS Thanks to Glen aka busman for the post idea.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Five Tips to Scout a New City

Suppose you plan to go to a city you've never been to, and you're wondering what railfan opportunities might be there. How do you find out? In my job I travel now and then, to places I've been before as well as new places. I'm always on the lookout for railfan opportunities in the evenings and I've developed some techniques I want to share with you. Let's suppose I'm going to, oh, Slate Hill, NY. I've never been there but suppose I have to go to, oh, Balchem Industrial Products. What do I do?

In short, I:

  1. Map it out
  2. Google, straight-up
  3. Find passenger service
  4. Do an image search
  5. Hit the usual suspects

In detail:

1. Map It Out

The first step is to have a look at a map! Start with where you're going to be working and/or staying. Balchem is at 2007 NY-284, Slate Hill, NY. A quick Google Map search shows this:
Hey, a rail spur! Cool. Let's follow that back and see where it goes.

It ends up in Middletown, NY.

Try dropping to Street View at a crossing to see what railroad it is. What you want to do is look for the box controlling the grade crossing signals and try to read the sticker on it.

In this case it didn't help.

Just a DOT crossing number. However the use of crossbucks instead of lights is a hint that it is a low traffic line. I kept dropping the Street View guy at each crossing until I hit the jackpot at Main Street.

The sign on the station says "Middletown and New Jersey Railway". Now it's on to...

2. Google, Straight-Up

A quick google unearths the Middletown and New Jersey LLC web page. The web page says they have reporting marks MNJ, they have 3 locomotives and 43 miles of track, and they interchange with Norfolk Southern in Middletown (!) and Campbell Hall, NY, and with NYSW [New York, Susquehanna and Western] at Warwick, NY.

I could have just googled "Middletown New York Railroad" and found the same thing, but by doing a map search / Street View I get a feel for the area.

3. Find Passenger Service

You can search Amtrak or VIA Rail (depending on country, of course) to determine if there are any passenger trains in the vicinity. I zoomed out a bit on the Google Map and looked in Amtrak's station list for New York state, but there was nothing there that matched. I then looked at Amtrak's Northeast train routes and saw that they didn't come close to Middletown.

So... maybe no passenger service. But... one last search for "New York Passenger Trains" turned up Metro-North Railroad. Hmmm, north, maybe.. check out the map. It turns out that Middletown is on the Jervis Line. A lot of clicking around leads to this schedule for NJ Transit. It looks like there are over a dozen trains a weekday each way! Very cool!

If nothing else, one could watch New Jersey transit trains all evening...

4. Image Search

Another way to check out a location is to do an image search. Try Googling "Middletown NY trains" and then click on the Image tab.

I saw a lot of images of an old three-story train station. It turns out this is a former Ontario and Western station, damaged by fire but apparently under consideration for renovation in 2013. You can see it on Street View.

5. The Usual Suspects

Finally I will visit and RRPictureArchives to see if there are any railway photos taken in the area.

A quick search on RP shows 4 photos for the Middletown and New Jersey Railroad with a colourful blue and yellow GP9. Norfolk Southern and other local shortlines also show up, revealing more railfan possibilities.

Sadly this photo confirms there are no trains on the Slate Hill line any more.

RRPA is a bit slow but you can zoom right in on a particular location using their location search. They have a lot of photos in Middletown.


What have we found? We know:
  • Slate Hill has no active railroad, but nearby Middletown does
  • Middletown is served by a shortline and by Norfolk Southern
  • Middletown has frequent NJ Transit service
  • There's a great old train station in Middletown
That sounds like lots of things to investigate in the evenings after work!

Bonus: Trackside Guide (Canada only)

We Canadians have a great resource in the Canadian Trackside Guide. When going to a new location, I always check out the CTG. The second chapter lists all industrial locomotives so I can scout those out. The third chapter lists all railway equipment on display. Near the back are lists of railway subdivisions so one can scout locations that way, too. It's just a gem.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chaleur Video Available!

I am pleased to announce that I have a video available, The Chaleur: Canada's Passenger Train to the Gaspé Peninsula. Here's a preview of the contents:

The video is available in two lengths:
  • Full length (65 minutes), over 20 locations
  • Highlights (32 minutes)
The Chaleur is/was a train that runs between Montreal and Gaspé, Quebec via Matapédia. The last train to Gaspé was on December 10, 2011 and the last train to New Carlisle was August 13, 2013. VIA Rail continued to operate bus service to Gaspé until September 17, 2013 when all VIA Rail service on the Gaspé peninsula ceased. Track conditions were the major reason for terminating service. There is hope that service will return but for now there is no rail passenger service on the Gaspé other than the l'Amiral tourist train.

Scenes include stops at Matapédia, New Richmond, New Carlisle, and Chandler as well as numerous bridge crossings and scenic locations like Pabos Beach and Douglastown. The Ocean is also featured between Causapscal, Quebec and Matapédia. The footage was shot in 2007 (see blog post series) and 2009 (see blog post series).

Follow this link to order the video. If you join my mailing list you'll get a code for a 40% discount off the price!

Thank you for your interest!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Amherst Train Station in Jeopardy

VIA Rail at the Amherst train station
The historic train station in Amherst, Nova Scotia is in trouble. This station, opened in 1908, served CN and later VIA Rail trains for decades. The station closed in late October 2012 when VIA Rail cut the Ocean to three round trips/week and closed many of its stations. The Ocean still stops there but onboard staff handle baggage and the station is locked.

The station was host to an artisan's gallery in 2013 but pipes burst in the station over the winter and caused quite a bit of flooding. Currently the station is empty and it is estimated that it could cost over $200,000 to repair the damage.

Photo by David Morris
The town is looking for input on what to do with the station. I believe VIA Rail still owns the station. It is protected under the federal Heritage Railway Stations Protections Act, meaning that it cannot be demolished or significantly altered. Unfortunately the Act does not require that the station be maintained in any way, something I learned during my time with the Fredericton Friends of the Railway in our work to preserve the Fredericton train station.

This editorial makes good points about the station. The town has no municipal use for the station, and Amherst is full of heritage buildings looking for funding to preserve them. As a railfan of course I want the station preserved. Hopefully some organization can step forward and find a good use for this lovely building.

PS Alan Graham has some photos of the lovely second floor of the station.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

ES44ACs on the Sprague

It was a beautiful afternoon on Sunday, March 8th, so I bundled the kids in the car and we headed out to see some trains. I decided to visit the CN Sprague subdivision because, well, that's where I've been going recently. When I reached the intersection of highway 1 with the Perimeter Highway (here), I saw there were two freight trains waiting to leave Symington Yard, and one was already rolling out onto the Sprague. Time for a chase!

I decided to shoot the train coming off the bridge over the Floodway. This necessitated getting my feet a bit wet, as I had to trudge through some wet calf-high snow to get a decent angle. I think this is really more of a summer shot location, but what the heck. This was 3:48 PM.

I had a feeling they were going to meet a train at the Lorette siding (mile 138.2). I don't know why I felt that way - just a "railfan hunch" I guess. Sure enough, there was a train waiting there, headed by shiny new ES44AC locomotives CN 2910 and CN 2944.

The crew dismounted to give the oncoming train a rollby inspection. The engineer was quite friendly and commented that there was a lot of traffic due to the northern Ontario derailment near Gogama. He also said the new ES44ACs pull very well.

Very soon the train was on us and I captured the meet.

This sure beat sitting at home!

It wasn't long before CN 2910 throttled up and headed into Winnipeg. Hopefully they managed to park the train before they ran out of hours!

Once they pulled out, we headed south toward Dufresne (mile 130.9), because I wanted to include the grain elevator in some photos. CN 8912 East was still trucking along but I was able to catch up to it, especially when it slowed down approaching Dufresne. I thought they were going into the siding for another meet. I was able to get ahead of them enough to get the grain elevator in a shot.

For the record it was CN 8921 / CN 2322 / CN 2666 / CN 2182 with no DPU.

Notice their headlights were out. As CN 8921 rolled slowly by, I saw a train entering the siding at the far end. Soon I could see CN 2832 coming up the siding - my second meet of the afternoon.

Clearly this was set up as a rolling meet as neither train stopped, with 2832 crawling along until 8921 East had cleared the west end of the siding.

The RTC was on the ball, lining the switch for 2832 to get on its way without any delay. Fortunately they were going slow enough that I could get on the highway side of the crossing well before the lights came on. Here they are just leaving the siding.

As I sped back toward Winnipeg, I noticed them coming around the bend and decided to stop and take a photo or two. The Prairies have this neat feature where there are connecting roads between the two sides of the 4-lane highway every mile or so, unlike the Maritimes, so it's easy to turn around.

One more turn and I was back on my way toward Winnipeg. I decided to stop at Lorette and catch them passing by. Sadly - for them - they took the siding at Lorette too!

Their meet was soon upon them as CN 3032 blasted by. Meet #3 for me!

This train had CN 3032 and CN 2906, with CN 2824 as DPU power in the middle - lots of ES44ACs this afternoon.

By this time it was 5:05 PM so it was time to get the kids home and make some supper. CN 2832 was still in the siding so I figured they were going to meet another train. After driving for a few kilometres, I saw another eastbound coming so I pulled over to grab one last train.

CN 5685 broke up the ES44AC streak, and CN 2580 was trailing power on this train, composed mostly of autoracks.

A few tank cars and one loaded lumber car... the end.

Not bad... five trains in less than 90 minutes.

Running extra - the day before this (Saturday), I was driving home through a blizzard when I spotted a CN train rolling on the Rivers sub. I pulled off the highway to photograph it but noticed VIA's Hudson Bay (er, VIA 692) rolling the other way and decided to shoot that instead. I only had my iPhone with me but the old saying goes, "the best camera is the one you have with you." Here it is.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Bailout of the Gaspe

The Quebec government has come to the rescue of the Gaspésie Railway. After serious financial troubles that threatened to shut the railway down, the Quebec provincial government has purchased the rails, assumed the debt, and will pay for repairs to the track between Matapédia and Caplan, and between Anse-à-Beaufils and Gaspé. My understanding is the government will own the rails but not operate the trains.

The existing operator, le Société de chemin de fer de la Gaspésie, or the Gaspé Railway Company, will continue for at least the next 19 months. Previously the private industries along the rails were readying a proposal to privately bail out the railway to continue service.

The section between Matapédia and Caplan is currently used for freight service, with the Temrex lumber in Nouvelle-Ouést and Gaspésie Diesel in New Richmond. The section between Anse-à-Beaufils and Gaspé is used by the l'Amiral cruise train.

Note that Caplan is short of New Carlisle, where VIA's train would typically turn when not running all the way to Gaspé. This doesn't bode well for the return of the Chaleur any time soon, as there are no facilities to turn the train between Matapédia and Caplan. At one time there was a wye at Carleton (visible on Google Maps) but it doesn't exist any more, and it wouldn't be useful anyway as the Chaleur would have to back up for 34 miles to turn on it.

I see this as a positive step and will ensure freight service for a few years. However there needs to be more customers on the line to make it sustainable. A few cars from Temrex and Gaspésie Diesel are not enough. The line has many bridges and these are expensive to maintain. There is a lot of hope with the $1 billion McInnis cement plant proposed for Port Daniel, which had good support from the government (both the previous PQ and current Liberal government).

The lack of support for the middle segment is very troubling and calls to mind the controversy over the Bathurst-Miramichi segment in New Brunswick.

Links (in French):

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Grain Elevator Art

You've probably noticed that I love grain elevators. As someone who grew up on the eastern side of Canada, they were not part of my experience until I started traveling to the West to visit my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I was captivated by the towering prairie sentinels and since then I've photographed about two hundred elevators, with more to come.

Many people are fascinated by grain elevators and some use them as their subjects for art. Joel Bouchard, of Holland, Manitoba, has produced more than 130 grain elevator paintings and has a wonderful web site to showcase them. In his gallery you can see many Manitoba prairie icons, many of which are for sale. The Free Press wrote about him.

Dan Reid, of Saskatoon, produces some very fine paintings, including many that feature grain elevators. I love the colour bursting from his work.

Tom Hamp of Alberta has some lovely prints of grain elevators on his web site.

Fine Art America has many great grain elevator paintings for sale.

Christopher Walker, of Montreal, produced a very fine painting of one of my favourite Manitoba grain elevators, the former Federal elevator in Snowflake. Read about the process here.

You may know I use Fine Art America/ for my own grain elevator print sales.

Do you know any other artists who feature grain elevators? Please comment below!