Sunday, January 24, 2016

10 Questions for Bill Linley

Railroad magazine used to have a regular feature highlighting an "Interesting Railfan". I thought I would run a similar series with some railfans who have agreed to participate. I'm asking each railfan 10 questions, some standard and some customized for the particular person. I hope you enjoy it. (See all in the series)

Bill with his third book, Canadian Pacific
in Color Vol 2: Western Lines
Bill Linley is an author and photographer living in Nova Scotia. Bill has published three books through Morning Sun Books, and is well known in the Canadian railway scene. Bill was very kind and helpful to me when I was starting to railfan and he is an inspiration to my photography.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

From the Bay of Fundy to the Pacific Coast, I have been photographing and writing about trains for close to sixty years.  I was introduced to train watching by my father, Les Linley, in our native Toronto in the early 1950s and began photographing trains on the Quebec Central in 1959 while living in Ste. Foy, Quebec.

I shot the first of some 100,000 colour slides in April 1962 with a photograph of the Canadian Pacific’s Ottawa West Station.  I focussed on the CPR and particularly on the changes to railways in the Ottawa region which I photographed extensively until around 1970.  About 30,000 of my images are now in the CRHA archives at ExpoRail in St. Constant, Quebec.

Bill in the dome on VIA 17
on the Gaspé coast. Photo by
Marilynn Linley
While studying geography at Carleton University, and thanks to lifetime friend Bruce Chapman, I worked as a message router at the Sparks Street office of Canadian Pacific Telegraphs.  I later worked as a reservations clerk and ticket agent for the CPR at the old and new Ottawa Union Stations selling their train travel experience.  Had I stayed, I would most likely be the happy holder of a life-time pass with Air Canada.  I made trips across Canada in the late 1960s trying to catch the last of the traditional railway operations in PEI, Newfoundland and British Columbia.   Always a fan of MLW/Alco locomotives, I pursued these engines far and wide, notably the FPA-4s on VIA in the 1980s.

Following graduation from Carleton University in May 1969, I began a 33-year career in economic development with the governments of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.   My career took me across Canada where I often managed to photograph trains in the off-hours.  I moved to Fredericton and Halifax where volunteer work included a director and oft-times treasurer of church and volunteer organizations.

During my years in Fredericton from 1976 through 1984, I had an opportunity to travel frequently and was able to record stations and trains in many nooks and crannies throughout New Brunswick.  These formed a starting point for my 2015 Morning Sun book, Trackside in the Maritimes 1967 – 1993 with Bill Linley (my review).

For a dozen years, I owned CN caboose 79510, a product of Point St. Charles in Montreal, and a CCF boxcar that continue to welcome guests as part of the Train Station Inn in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.  The caboose and boxcar were re-modelled to provide first class guest accommodation for persons seeking a unique railway experience.  In 2009, I was featured as a waiter in the Train Station Inn’s dining car in an episode of CBC TV’s serial The Week the Women Went.

Morning Sun Books published my first two books in 2003 and 2011 featuring the Eastern and Western Lines of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  They have become best sellers, and I expect that they both will be soon out of print.  My Eastern Lines book was one of the first brought out by publisher Bob Yanosey in his digital reprint series.  I am keen to contribute to the work of others engaged in the preservation and interpretation of railway and industrial history.  I am the president of the Nova Scotia Railway Heritage Society.

In 2012, I was the 25th anniversary recipient of the CRHA’s lifetime achievement award in recognition of my photography, writing and encouragement of the railway preservation movement.

I currently volunteer in many community organizations in Port Lorne including the fire department, cemetery committee, wharf preservation society, the historical society, and Fundy Hall, a former Temperance Society meeting house.
My wife, Marilynn, and I live in the historic Captain John G. Charlton house in Port Lorne on the Bay of Fundy near the ghosts of the Canadian National and Dominion Atlantic railways.

2. Why do you like trains?

From Sunday visits to Front Street in Toronto with my dad in the 1950s to overlook the busy railway operations to the current day, I have been impressed with the power and majesty of moving trains.  Moving trains have allowed me to combine my love of geography and transportation.  I am always interested in the where does it go, how did it get there, and what is around the next curve.  I enjoy the adventure of passenger train travel, notably the experience of watching the nighttime countryside in winter from the snugness of a roomette in a Budd sleeper.

3. Where's your favourite place to railfan?

I am currently very partial to the Young Avenue overpass in downtown Halifax. As I live almost two hours away from the nearest “hot rail” in Windsor Junction, Nova Scotia, I gravitate to the predictability of watching VIA’s departing Ocean.
VIA 15 in Halifax on November 4, 2015

Unlike many spots that used to be very accessible, like Fairview Roundhouse etc, there has yet to be a hassle involved in watching and photographing trains from the viaduct.  Switchers, transfers and ships are also on hand for my enjoyment.  I time my occasional visits to Halifax so that I am there on Wednesday or Friday at noon to be sure that I may have my ‘train fix.’

4. If you could railfan anywhere, anytime, where and when would it be?

For me, nothing can surpass the former CN line along the southern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula in eastern Quebec.  For almost the entire 202 miles of the Cascapedia and Chandler subdivisions, the line hugs the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Scenic shots are often spectacular, densely packed and ever changing.  New angles are as common as one’s imagination.
VIA 16 at Cascapedia, Quebec on April 18, 2005

I first chased this line in the fall of 1969 and have been back many, many times over the last 45 years as recently as December 2015.  Sadly, much of the line is embargoed and the CFBC only regularly runs over the first 69 miles to New Richmond.  However, they do use some of my favourite engines, ex CPR MLW RS-18u’s!

5. What's your favourite railway?

It cannot be anything except the Canadian Pacific.  As an employee in the 1960s, I gained lifetime access to what I consider to be a family experience.  I know the railway and we have gone our separate ways.  Times have changed dramatically, but you can’t take that railway out of this boy.  All else pales in comparison, as the saying goes.

6. Do you find your interest in railfanning growing, waning or staying much the same as it was?

Over the years my ability to participate has ebbed and flowed but my interest has never knowingly diminished.  My interests have shifted over time.  I am not particularly excited by “toasters hauling boxes” as some friends call the oft-GE powered trains of today.  However, I don’t hesitate to be trackside, camera at the ready, should the opportunity be there.  My railfan expeditions are less of a preservation quest than they were from the ‘60s through the ‘80s.  The dramatic VIA cuts in 1990 were a real turning point for me.  I can be intense but I don’t always pull out all the stops.  Trips are now much more about the equipment, Budd equipped Oceans, and getting together with long-term friends.

7. Who inspires you?

I have always gravitated to the photography of Lucius Beebe and Jim Shaughnessy.  While perhaps at opposite ends of the photographic spectrum, they motivate me.  I am very partial to including a whole passenger train in the classic Beebe “wedgy” style, preferably showing a station or lineside nameboard.

On the other hand, I revel in Jim’s documentary style, shooting the landscape often with the train as a secondary feature.  Many of my friends are in one camp or the other of these styles and I try to adapt to their pace as the whole of the shared travel experience is what I now savour.

8. What has changed significantly in railfanning over the years?

I think the biggest change has been the diminished access to railway personnel and facilities.  In my early days, the local station was THE source of information on train operation.  Divisional dispatching offices, such as Smiths Falls, ON and Edmundston, NB were open to the visiting railfan.  The more remote from home, the more welcoming they seemed to be.  A customary request for a lineup and an “outdated” employee timetable was rarely refused.  Dispatching offices were the starting point for planning when and where to find local and symbol freights.

Passenger train schedules and topographic maps, and when possible, letters from previous visitors, provided the details on when and where to shoot. Local station agents and operators provided confirmation on the whereabouts and anticipated moves of the trains in a railway rich and friendly environment.  All of this provided a joy of discovery as I often thought that I was the first to be there.

The CP yard in McAdam, NB in August 1976

Today, I find that railfans are rarely welcome except at staged or sanctioned events.  The welcoming informality has largely vanished in the fog of enhanced security.  Today, I sometimes tune in to chat groups, YouTube or Facebook to see that everything I once pursued with the delight of exclusivity is now posted for everyone to see and share without cost.  It’s much too like any spectator sport for my taste.  On the flipside I learned, to my regret, that I had to replace employees with train radios.  Radios are now helpful but I find it revolutionary to now have VIA’s app on my cell phone to give me streaming data as to the whereabouts of the Ocean that I am chasing.  Wow! Now if we could have that for our few remaining CN freights in the Maritimes.  Haven’t I heard that this is already available to fans in Ohio and probably elsewhere?

9. What's your next project?

I am taking a break from book writing for a while.  I do have a couple of ideas in mind and will advance them when I am ready.  My current priority is to properly label the thousands of digital images that I have made since beginning the move to that format in 2002.

Bill with me at the Irving outside Rockingham
Yard in Halifax, NS, April 2004
In addition, I am burdened by tens of thousands of Kodachromes that went unlabeled for some 30 years of shooting.  Oh well, I have the images and want to be sure that they are identifiable.  I really enjoy the periodic internet game of “where is that photo” but do not want to leave too many behind that could lack a correct response.  So scan, label, and donate now to a worthy organization. We must not let railway history fade away.

10. Film, Slides or Digital?

As an old time shooter, i started out with 620 roll film yielding 8 6x9cm images per roll in black and white.  I continued to shoot B-and-W until about 1970.  For many years I developed my own film as a way to control quality and cost.  I shot and traded the classic, medium format, 616 negatives of roster shots with people like Peter Cox, Bob Webster, Roger Boisvert, George Parks and George Melvin. We were all disappointed circa 1975 when Kodak stopped making this film. Mark Perry is currently scanning many of Peter's 616 negatives and one can readily see their quality and detail.

Beginning in 1962, I started shooting in colour as often as I could afford the film.  I'm so glad that I added colour as these are among my most treasured images to this day.  I started with a used Agfa rangefinder camera where I had to set the aperture and shutter speed as well as the focus.  I moved to a used Pentax K SLR in 1963.  I had to open the lens manually after each shot to focus for the next one.  Eventually the mechanism failed and I have a whole roll of over exposed images to show how it should have worked.  I think that Photoshop can bring back some of the colour.  I never discard a slide!

At first, I shot a bit of Anscochrome and department store brands but settled on Kodachrome by early 1963.  From time to time I tried new films with the Ektachrome-like E-6 emulsion that could be processed almost anywhere.  I never tried to do it at home as the chemicals and tolerances were beyond my patience. Instead, I learned to make black and white enlargements which I sold on board excursion trains to offset their cost.  There were several dealers on most trips with CNR 6167 and 6218 in the 60s.

Around this time, I was so keen on action shots that I developed a bracket using a piece of 3" aluminum 90 degree angle stock.  With two tripod screws, I was able to mount my SLR next to my 2 1/4" square format Minolta that I used for black and white.  It worked very, very well for the classic wedgy shots that I favoured at the time.  It was inspired by watching well-known American railfans like Bob Collins, the now-famous E-L dispatcher from New Jersey, who used a 4x5" Speed Graphic for black & white.  Using wire, they formed a bracket above the Speed Graphic on which they mounted their SLR. In my rendition, I held the bracket in two hands pressing the shutters simultaneously while framing through the SLR.

In 1967 my Pentax was stolen during a visit to Expo 67 in Montreal.  The following March I made a visit to Henry's on Church Street in Toronto where my friend Bob McMann introduced me to "Gerry," the owner of their one and only store. They easily convinced me to buy a Nikon F for black and white and a Nikkormat FTN for colour.  No motor drives, of course. They would come to me in the early 1980s. The Nikkormat was my favourite camera, ever.  I bought successor models which maintained the centre-weighted metering and eventually added shutter-priority auto-exposure which I use to this day.  In any event, I also purchased a 105mm lens which I found to have excellent optics, admirably suited to my growing interest in scenic, action shots.  I would move to a Nikon zoom lens in the 1970s as my travel by air increased, often allowing me to have but one camera.  With no regrets, I've stuck with Nikon since that first purchase from Gerry.  I still have most of the cameras that I've bought over the years and enjoy handling them from time to time.

In the late 1990s, I switched to Fujichrome's Sensia 100 as Kodak had consistent quality control problems which often yielded muddy, scratched Kodachromes. By 2002, our family had obtained a Canon point and shoot digital camera and I took it out West on a trip.  It worked very well.  So the transition to digital began.

In March 2003, I purchased a Nikon D70, my first digital DSLR.  It worked well and I shot with it increasingly as time went on.  I now use a Nikon D600.  In 2003, my base camera was a Nikon FM2 as I had avoided the top of the line models.  By 2005 the film cameras had been parked and digital reigned.

Part of my reasoning for the move to digital was the ease with which I could capture the date and time of each shot.  Decades earlier, my lifestyle choices had excluded the continuing use of a railfan notebook.  An unwise choice to be sure, but that was how it went.  Also, I figured that I had enough slides to label without taking more and more.  For several years, ending around 1970, I traded slides across North America so I actively took multiple roster shots, often called traders or, in Canada, spares. I really didn't break the habit of multiple shots when I stopped trading so have lots of these slides to deal with nowadays.

Finally, my complete move to digital was motivated by my waning interest in extended railfan trips.  In effect, I felt that I had been to most of the locations that attracted my fancy and could satisfy a lot of my remaining curiosity by dipping into the vast pool of on-line images.

So much has changed from the 1960s and 70s when I was highly motivated to capture images that I believed were not being captured by other fans.  It was something of a calling, a duty.  Now we are instantly aware of so much that is being photographed and the documentary side of railfanning seems so thoroughly covered.  I no longer feel a responsibility to do so. The lack of variety and the vanished rural railway scene has made me a big fan of retro-railfanning through chat-groups, books and magazines like Classic Trains.  Railfan photography has become a recreational, even social pastime which is quite sufficient for me.  Hence, I am satisfied with high quality images but do not feel the need for the permanency of film.

Once again, the key thing is to enjoy and share your experiences.

Happy railfanning!

Thanks, Bill! You can find Bill at his web site at and find his books at Morning Sun Books. You can read my review of his most recent book.

See the rest of the series

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