Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Updates on Churchill Rail Line

Omnitrax photo
Churchill has been in the news a lot since the rail line was severed near the end of May.

Churchill Suffering

Since the Hudson Bay Railway stopped delivering to Churchill, the only way to get goods into the town is by air, which drives transportation costs up. The community is starting to get desperate and prices have increased for groceries, fuel, building supplies and other materials.

The federal government implemented its Nutrition North food subsidy program to Churchill and continues to do so. Nutrition North subsidizes "a variety of perishable and nutritious food items" and "traditional food commercially processed". In my opinion, this is a good program to help get fresh goods to people in remote areas.

Fortunately for Churchill, it is not the heating season.. yet. There is a big concern about heating for the coming winter season, as Churchill does not have enough on-site storage for propane for the entire winter. The Manitoba government is reportedly "mulling" adding storage. Clearly materials are going to have to come in by ship or barge soon.

How Badly Damaged Is It?

Two motorcyclists from Colorado drove up the rail line recently and their photos have made quite an impact. Many say the damage doesn't appear to be as bad as Omnitrax has been saying, and there have been a lot of pressure put on the company to start work.

The photos clearly show a considerable amount of ballast that was washed away, with several sections of track hanging in the air. There are no photos of the bridges along the line and no photos of culverts or other track support structures.

Personally I don't hold a lot of faith with these photographs. It's easy to say that a few loads of ballast will fix things up, but the real costs are with bridges and culverts and there's no way to know from a few cell phone photos how much those are damaged. Dumping ballast may put the line in service for a short while but the next rain storm will break the line again.

Fixing the Line

So far no repairs have been made to the line. Omnitrax says it is waiting for an engineering report to be completed, while people are demanding that repairs start. Local First Nations groups have suggested that the "nearby" shortline Keewatin Railway Company could step in to fix the line. UPDATE: The KRC says they can do it for $2 million and finish in 45 days.

Omnitrax has not been communicative, which does not help.

Part of the problem with fixing the line is that it has to be done one break at a time. There are no parallel roads or paths that can be used to position materials at each location to be fixed. The repair crew would have to fix one break then move on to the next one.

It is possible they could repair it enough to be able to pass over, then leave some equipment and material behind to do a permanent fix as the next break is worked on.

I believe Omnitrax plans to do the work in the winter when the ground is frozen and they can move materials over the frozen ground. I also believe that this is too long to wait.

Time For a Road?

At least one person is calling for a road to Churchill. Marolo Alfaro, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Manitoba, worked on a highway in the Northwest Territories. The terrain is challenging - permafrost and muskeg being the primary concerns.

A road to Churchill was studied about 10 years ago as part of a Manitoba-Nunavut route, and it was considered "feasible" but no costs were estimated. My guess is that costs would likely be in the half a billion (with a "b") dollar range.

Maybe someday in the future a road might be a good idea, but that doesn't help Churchill now.

Why Hasn't Anything Been Done?

Omnitrax's position is that they are waiting for the engineering study before taking action. The federal government continues to subsidize groceries, as mentioned above. The provincial government has done very little of substance.

It is hard to know why no significant action has taken place yet. I imagine there is a lot of discussion behind the scenes, and perhaps something will appear in the next few days or weeks from different levels of government.

I believe the major complicating factor is that the line is owned by a private company. I believe the governments are reluctant to give a lot of money to a private company for repairs, especially since Omnitrax really wants to sell the line, and since many people believe Omnitrax has mismanaged the rail line and do not deserve any support.

What Should Be Done?

I believe that Omnitrax should sell their line to the local First Nations.. sooner rather than later. They have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding and they should get on with it. Alternately, they should sell it to the federal government.

This would allow the federal and provincial governments to step in to assist with repairs and get freight and passengers moving again (and help move that stranded VIA train).

Long term, governments have to expect that they will have to subsidize the rail line every year, forever. There can be no reasonable business plan that can expect this line to pay for itself... just like no road to Churchill could pay for itself.

The people of Churchill are waiting for action.

Update From the Premier

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister said the province plans to convert about 100 Manitoba Housing units to electric heat to reduce the need for propane heating in Churchill. Mike Spence, the mayor of Churchill, is unimpressed.

Thompson Freight Office Closed

On July 7 Omnitrax issued a statement that their freight centre in Thompson, Manitoba would be closed indefinitely. Since no traffic is going north, except perhaps a little to Gillam, it didn't make sense to keep the office open.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Limiting Beliefs

I listen to a lot of podcasts. One that I really like is Chamira Young's Pro Photographer Journey. She writes honestly about the business side of being a professional photographer and I learn a lot from her own explorations and interviews.

A recent recap episode she published, The Most Common Limiting Beliefs and Mindset Challenges that Photographers Face (whew! long title!), talked about the beliefs that may limit your potential for growth.

She talked about five limiting beliefs that I list below:

  1. I don't deserve success.
  2. I have to price my photography as cheaply as possible to compete.
  3. I'm not as good as other photographers.
  4. Professional photography is a dying industry.
  5. It's too hard to please everybody.
I want to talk about #3 and #5 in particular.

I'm Not As Good As Other Photographers

As I always say to my kids, there's always somebody out there who is better at something than you are, and you are better at some things than a lot of other people.

It's easy to pick up a magazine or look on Facebook or Instagram to see some amazing photography and think, "man, I will never be that good."

That may be TRUE.

Don't let it limit you.

Keep in mind that the photographers you admire and feel are better than you have put in a ton of time and effort to hone their craft. They've taken training, they've learned from mentors, and they have put in the hard work to discover locations and techniques that help them to take great photos.

You can take great photos too.. if you want to, and you're willing to put the work in.

I remember when I first started taking train photos, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was terrible. It took me years before I started taking it seriously enough to study WHY I was bad at train photography, to learn from great photographers, study, and experiment.

I think I'm a much better photographer now. I also know there are others who are better than me.

That's OK.

I can keep learning and improving. There's no limit.

It's Too Hard to Please Everybody

I do like to please everybody. I'm greatly troubled when someone is mad at something I did or wrote. I always preferred to avoid conflict... which is a whole other blog post. Or two.

But here's the thing. There's an very old saying, "if you try to please everyone, you please no one" (maybe from Aesop?). That's good but I like this one better:

If you're trying to please everyone, then you're not going to make anything that is honestly yours, I don't think, in the long run. - Viggo Mortensen
If Aragorn said it, it must be true.

You have to have your own voice. You have to be authentic and take photos and share stories the way you want to.

If there are people out there who don't like your style, or your photos, or your words? Too bad. Ignore them. There are plenty of people who will like what you make.

I recognize that a lot of people don't care for trains think of trains at all and that's OK. They probably won't come to my blog. They won't like my photos.

I'm not going to write about things I don't care about to try to capture a larger audience. It won't be good and I won't be happy with it.

So don't limit yourself by trying to please everybody. Produce good work, promote it, and you will get recognized for it. Maybe not today.. maybe not for a year.. but it will come.

The Sky's The Limit

More than ever, if you're willing to put the work in, there's no limit on what you can accomplish... in photography or elsewhere. Don't let the above limiting beliefs hold you back. Do good work.

See Also

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Anker PowerCore Portable Battery

The Anker PowerCore battery
My wife and I were recently in Italy for vacation and we took a lot of photos. I took well over 3,000 photos with my Canon DSLR (and a few with my iPhone) and my wife took about 1,500 photos with her iPhone. One thing that really helped her (and I) was a portable battery to keep her phone charged, and we used the Anker PowerCore 20,000 mAh portable charger for that.

The need for this really came to light a few years ago when we were in London. We had just walked across the Tower Bridge in the rain, and were walking along the Thames River. We looked back and saw a double rainbow over the Tower Bridge. I hauled out my SLR and started taking photos, and my wife took maybe two photos and then her phone's battery died. No more!

When we returned to Canada, we bought a cigarette-pack sized battery which did a decent job but didn't really hold enough of a charge for vacationing.

Enter the Anker PowerCore 20,000 mAh charger. This beefy portable battery can charge an iPhone numerous times, and even completely recharge a dead iPad 2. It has a lot of juice.

Two USB ports and a charge port
The PowerCore has two USB ports on it so it can simultaneously charge two devices. We haven't really used this feature but it is there. You plug your device's USB cable into it and plug the other end into your phone or tablet, and off it goes.

The one button
Note: you do have to press a button on the Anker to turn it on. If you don't do this, it won't charge your device. Once you do this, the Anker will stay on until the device is fully charged.

The PowerCore is pretty plain to look at - a heavy black pack with three ports on one end (two USB and a micro USB for charging the Anker), a single button on the side, and LED indicator lights to show how much charge the Anker has in it. Pressing the button lights the LED, with 1-4 lights indicating the relative charge in the Anker. The LEDs also stay on while charging.

The PowerCore comes in a classy box with a travel bag, a micro USB cable, and a manual. You have to supply the appropriate USB cables to connect your devices, and your own USB wall charger to charge the PowerCore.

Almost empty!
Note that it takes a long time to recharge the PowerCore. Overnight might be enough to top it up but it might take 24 hours to fully recharge an empty PowerCore. It takes a long time to run one of these down but it takes a long time to fill them back up! Use a good USB wall charger that puts out at least 2A; the cheap 0.5A USB devices will take forever to charge this battery. You could use an Anker PowerPort 4 (40W) to charge it.

The 20,000 mAh version is heavy - 354g or almost 0.8 pounds - and long. It's a little big to fit in a pocket of your pants without getting in the way. I keep it in a pocket of my camera bag and it's fine there.

If that's too big for you, get the 10,000 mAh version at half the weight and smaller than a deck of cards. It only has one USB port but otherwise it's the same... just with half the capacity.

I highly recommend this portable battery. You need to keep your devices charged and Anker is a premiere brand in the portable charger space.

We used this extensively on our recent trip to Italy. My wife often had it in her pocket, keeping her iPhone at 100% charge. If she didn't have pockets, I put it in a pouch in my camera bag and we brought it out at meals to give our devices a boost. We never ran out of power.

In Canada this usually lives in our van where it can charge one of our phones while the others' phone is plugged into the van's power outlet. It gets a lot of use.

Buy Anker PowerCore 20,000 mAh battery: Canada or USA
Buy Anker PowerCore 10,000 mAh battery: Canada or USA

PS - Italy was awesome. I promise, photos are coming.
Me on top of the Duomo in Florence, Italy
This post contains affiliate links that earn me a commission when you purchase something after clicking the link, at no additional cost to you.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Rail Line to Churchill Severed

On May 30, rail service to Churchill, Manitoba was suspended - perhaps for months, if not indefinitely.

Hudson Bay Railway map
Affected area shown in red
The last freight train arrived on May 23 but nothing has come since, due to unprecedented flooding in the area. The Churchill River was flowing at just over 1,400 cubic metres/second at the end of June, versus about 600 cubic metres/second in April. Major blizzards in March didn't help the situation.

The owner of the railway between The Pas and Churchill, OmniTRAX, issued a statement on May 30 that the Hudson Bay Railway would not be operating between Gillam and Churchill due to "track and bridge damage.. caused by the spring thaw." This is the Herchmer subdivision.

On June 9 (Friday) OmniTRAX issued an update that said that "unprecedented and catastrophic" damage has occurred and the rail line is "not expected to resume operations before the winter season." The track bed is damaged in 19 locations and 5 bridges are known to be damaged, with an additional 30 bridges and 600 culverts to be inspected in the coming weeks to determine how much more damage has been caused. (CBC News) No doubt it will cost millions of dollars to repair.

What Now?

Hudson Bay Railway locomotive
in Winnipeg, Dec 2011
OmniTRAX has declared force majeure, which is a legal term that basically means they are unable to fulfill their common carrier duties due to circumstances beyond their control.

This is terrible news for Churchill and for communities north of Gillam. The rail line is the sole connection for many of them, since the only transportation into Churchill is by rail or by air.

Calm Air (a northern airline) and Gardewine (a regional ground transport company) have teamed up to provide some air-based freight service from Thompson, but this is very expensive in comparison to rail freight and will result in severe hardship for businesses and individuals in Churchill.

This also basically kills the tourist season for Churchill, as the majority of tourists come by rail using VIA 693 from Winnipeg. Businesses are already issuing layoff notices and no doubt more will be coming.

VIA Rail

Speaking of VIA Rail, there is a VIA Rail train stranded in Churchill, with VIA 6434 and "Canada 150" wrapped VIA 6402 parked at the station.
VIA 6434 and 6402 stranded in Churchill. Photos by Patricia Sinclair, used with permission.
VIA issued a travel advisory on June 6 that they will only be operating between Winnipeg and Gillam. Looking at their reservation system you can book a trip to Gillam as usual, but it fails when you try to book to Churchill.

I see there is a wye in Gillam so they should be able to turn VIA 693 on the wye and become VIA 692, rather than backing up.

For Sale?

This will obviously have an effect on OmniTRAX's attempts to sell the line. You may recall they were talking with a First Nations consortium, since named the Missinippi Rail Consortium, and in December OmniTRAX signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them.

On May 31 OmniTRAX and Missinippi signed a deal for $20 million. I imagine (hope) there are some contingencies because I doubt Missinippi wants to inherit this mess.

There is a rival group, One North, that was also vying to purchase the line.

Hope for the Best

Hopefully the engineering assessment underway now will find that the damage is not as bad as first imagined. It will be terrible if the line will not open until the winter, and I can't imagine that OmniTRAX is willing or able to shoulder the entire cost of the repairs, given the marginal economic value of the line as it is.

The people of Churchill and communities along the line between Gillam and Churchill will be enduring significant hardship while this line is out of service. I really feel for them.

More to come.

Friday, June 09, 2017

I Say It's All Right

Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right - George Harrison

Last night, my wife and I returned from a trip to Italy. I'll write about that later. Given the 7 hour time difference between there and Manitoba, our biological clocks were and are a little "off". I woke up at about 4 AM this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. After messing around on the computer for a bit, I realized that the sun was going to come up so I might as well go take some sunrise photos.

I decided to head for the CN Rivers subdivision for the best chance to catch a train before I had to return to get the kids ready for school. As I drove around the Perimeter Highway I saw a beautiful golden sky as sunrise approached.

CN Delivers the Goods

I reached the CN tracks and headed west to get into the wide open spaces. I spotted headlights in the distance immediately, so I parked and walked across the tracks at a private crossing to get on the sun side of the train.

CN 5473 East at first light
I had to fiddle with my camera settings to get a decently lit photo, given the low light available. The above was at 1/80s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

I think I like the "going away" shot better, to be honest.
CN 2550 and 5473 at first light
With a shutter speed of 1/80s a little blur is inevitable, so they aren't as sharp as I would like, but I can't complain.

After the power passed, I took a number of photos of the mixed freight train. I like these photos better than the locomotives! What do you think?
Sunrise train
There were a substantial number of these hoppers (many SCYX reporting marks but also some PMRX, TILX and CEFX) on the rear of the train. I imagine they are for frac sand but I could be wrong.
Hoppers by morning light
After the comparatively short Italian freight trains I saw last week, this was a return to my normal railfanning!
The end of the train
Once the train passed, I took a few more photos of the sunrise then headed west to see if another train was in the offing.
Sunrise through the weeds
Alas, there were no more trains imminent, but I did take the time to photograph the old searchlight signals at mile 17.9.

These signals are on borrowed time as no doubt they will be replaced by LEDs at some point.

With the advent of Positive Train Control, many signals are being replaced. I was reading recently that the last semaphores in main line service were due to be removed, and I know much if not all of the CN Redditt subdivision has LED signals now.

There are good reasons to replace these signals, but if you are interested in railway history at all, get out and photograph what's there now before it's gone.

CEMR Surprise

On my way back home, I noticed that the Central Manitoba Railway (CEMR) had a train parked just south of Oak Bluff, so I went to photograph that.
CEMR 5396 and 4000 near Oak Bluff
They were not running, so perhaps they had done some work on the Carman subdivision and were parked there overnight to resume work in the morning.

I've photographed 5396 many times but I couldn't miss the opportunity to photograph her with that sweet morning light.
CEMR 5396 and derail
Note the portable derail, set to protect against runaways. A good safety practice!

That was it for my sunrise railfanning. I went home, got the kids to school, then went back to bed. I took today off to recover so it's been nice to spend time at home on a Friday with my wife. Even after being together on our trip for almost two weeks, we aren't sick of each other! That's a good sign.

See Also

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Hit and Miss in Kamloops

I was in Kamloops, British Columbia and had a very "hit and miss" evening on May 1. Let's go.


Aerial view of Alyth yard in Calgary, Alberta
I flew from Winnipeg (YWG) to Kamloops (YKA) via Calgary (YYC). Normally I book an aisle seat in airplanes, so I can lean into the aisle and not feel trapped against the wall by my seatmate. This time I decided to flip things around and take a window seat on both flights. I'm glad I did! It was a lovely clear morning and I was able to snap a few photos of CP's Alyth yard as we were on final approach to the Calgary airport.

I've been to Alyth on the ground several times but I appreciated the aerial view to get a better sense of the places that non-railway people like me cannot see. For instance, I had no idea there was a large - car repair? - area jutting out of the yard.

I was also struck by how empty the yard is. I understand that one of the many changes made in CP in the past several years is that a lot of switching that used to be done at Alyth is being done elsewhere instead. I know that a full yard means cars not moving, but you expect a certain number of cars in a yard as an indication of a healthy volume of traffic. I don't see that here.

Anyway, I also took some photos of the mountains between Calgary and Kamloops.
The Rockies?
You can see from the prop in the upper right of the photo that I was sitting in front of the wing.

My flights were uneventful - thank you - and we landed in Kamloops on time at 9 AM. After collecting my rental car, I headed to my workplace and spent the day there.


After work, I drove out to Tranquille to try to catch a few CN trains there. I've been there before and I had a great afternoon there once.

On my way out, along the aptly named Tranquille Road, I was surprised by the eastbound Rocky Mountaineer rolling into Kamloops. Oops! Probably should have checked their schedule to know when they were running...

A quick U turn and I was in pursuit. The road has an 80 km/hr speed limit and I was slowly gaining on the train as we both approached Kamloops. I knew that soon the road would diverge and I would not be able to keep up, so I got a bit ahead and bailed out to grab a quick photo.
Rocky Mountaineer 8011 and 8016
It's really not the angle or location that I would have wanted... but it was the best I could get.

I snapped a few photos of the train as it rolled past, and bid it adieu.
Rocky Mountaineer cars
So, it was a miss, but not by that much. At least I did photograph it.

On to Tranquille.


As I approached Tranquille proper, I saw a westbound CN train receding in the distance. Clearly a miss and no opportunity to chase on the north side of the Thompson River, as there is no road past Tranquille.

I settled in to wait for the next train... eastbound or westbound.


After about 25 minutes, I heard a train horn. Great!

But... it seemed distant. Too distant.

It turns out it was CP on the other side of the river..
CP from far away
It was a westbound potash train, led by the two Pacifics, Canadian and Union. They came to a stop, clearly for a meet.

The light was all wrong to photograph them from the north but I did what I could. They were about 2.5 km away so it was a bit of a reach to photograph them!

It wasn't long before the eastbound train came along for the meet. The eastbound was a general freight with a couple of CP units on the head end.
Distant Meet
As soon as the eastbound train passed, the potash train started moving and soon they were gone. I took a video, and you can see it at the end of this post.

Hit - Finally

It was 6 PM when the CP train disappeared from my view. I paced around, waiting for some sweet CN action. My stomach was getting a bit grumbly but it would have to wait.

The sun started playing peek-a-boo with clouds, and finally disappeared behind a big cloud bank. I wasn't impressed, but what are you going to do?

After 40 minutes of waiting, a CN train presented itself.
CN 2926 at Tranquille
I was definitely wishing the sun was out!

I was still set up for video, but I had neglected to change the batteries in my Canon S3 and it refused to start up... so no video of this train. Miss.

Given the low light, a pan shot was in order. 1/50s at f/8.0.
Panning CN 2926
The mid-train unit was CN 3104.
She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes
Might as well pan that one too!
CN 3104
I waited a while longer, but nothing seemed to be coming. I was a little disappointed with the sun but again, what can you do?

A Surprise Hit

I packed up and started driving back toward Kamloops. I noticed a headlight in the distance, from another CN train snaking its way along the hills, so I quickly returned to Tranquille to grab a video of CN 5708 and 2298 rolling westward with my iPhone. It's at the end of this post.

I didn't take any stills because I didn't want to juggle my camera and iPhone. Trying to do both at once is often a recipe for disaster!

Visiting Cando

I posted back in January 2016 that Cando Rail Services were building a facility outside Kamloops. This facility will do rail car storage and transloads. I decided to see how it was coming along... and it looks almost ready for service!
Cando bumpers in Kamloops
Literally miles of track at the Cando facility in Kamloops

Absolutely! All photos taken from the "good" side of the fence

A Big Miss

As I was driving back along Mission Flats road, I saw a CP train rolling west. I took a brief video (see below) of CP 9622, CP 8744 and CP 9739 as they came to a stop short of the crossing. "Huh," thought I, and turned my camera off and got back into my car. As I drove away, I saw a second CP train pass them with a UP unit... so I recorded the "boring" train and missed the good one. Miss.

The Video

Here's the video of three trains in or near Kamloops, BC.

There are three trains in this video, the CP potash train, a CN general freight train and CP 9622 and company.

Lessons Learned

I can take away a few lessons from this day:

  • Charge your dang batteries. I am usually very good at this for my DSLR but not as diligent for my AA batteries.
  • Look for a second train. Often one train is followed by another so if you have the time, wait a few minutes to see if a second one shows up.

See Also