Monday, May 21, 2018

Stainless at Sunrise

When I was going to sleep Sunday night, I checked VIA's web site for the current position of VIA 1 and 2, the west and eastbound "Canadian" trains. They have been consistently late all winter and this spring has been no different. VIA 2 is due in at 20:45 on Sunday night, but last night it was showing an arrival time of around 06:30 or around 10 hours late. I decided to get up a bit early on this Victoria Day Monday to see if I could catch it coming in at sunrise. Eastbound trains at sunrise... nice.

I woke up at 05:25 and checked the web site, and sure enough, it was showing a 06:45 arrival. I threw on some clothes, left a note for my wife (who sadly is working today), and hit the highway. I figured I would get to the CN line, then head west to Diamond to wait there for VIA 2 and shoot it in the wide open prairie.

As I took the exit for Wilkes Avenue, that plan was shot all to heck when the lead engines of VIA 2 shot by the nose of my car.

I took a hard right and brought my Civic up to speed in pursuit of VIA 2. Since they were within city limits, they were down to a reduced speed, so it was actually possible to catch up to them. I'm not sure what the speed limit for them is, but I overtook them in the 90 km/hr zone and crossed the tracks at Elmhurst Road.

I pulled to the side, threw the car in park, and jumped out with my camera and sprinted to the crossing. As I arrived, the lights started flashing and the bell started ringing. This didn't deter one approaching motorist, who gunned it through just before the gates started to drop.

I did some quick settings changes - low light, gotta go with ISO 1600, need a decent shutter speed, try 1/800s, f/8 aperture to get enough of the train in focus - fired a test photo, checked it, exposure looked good, let's go...

VIA 6449 at sunrise
VIA 6449 and company looked pretty good in that morning light!

I fired off several frames as the train approached, then banged a shot off for every car so I could get the full consist. There's no art in the recording of numbers, just a quick pan and click for every car to get the number or name off the side.

Skyline 8516
Back to "art" mode for the "going away" photo, the EVANGELINE PARK looking very nice in the golden sunrise.
VIA's Evangeline Park at sunrise
It wasn't the location I wanted, but you take what you can get, and I'm glad I actually caught VIA 2 this time. I tried this stunt a week or two ago and missed VIA 2 by about 30 seconds, so I'm grateful that I "got the shot".

After the adrenaline faded, I headed west along the CN line to see if anything else was around. CN 8875 East was stopped just short of Hall Road, presumably waiting for their turn to enter Symington Yard.
CN 8875 East
That face... these SD70M-2s mean business. There's no curves anywhere, just brute power.

This train wasn't going anywhere for a while. I drove along the train, looking for a DPU engine, but the two at the head end were the only locomotives on the train.

At the highway 334 crossing, I photographed the train all stretched out along the prairie.
Sunrise train
There were tons of red-winged blackbirds around, so I photographed a few of them too. They are very talkative and it was nice to hear them chirping and see them fluttering about.

Red-winged blackbird
I also saw one of these - not sure what it is, but it's cute!
Pretty bird
I decided it was time to head home, so I hit the highway back to home and back to bed for a little while. It was a nice way to start off Victoria Day.

How's your day?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum

CN Lunenburg sign
In October 2017, I visited the excellent Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum in scenic Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I had always wanted to visit and I had the opportunity to do so, so I took it.

The museum is billed as "a railway display of Nova Scotia's South Shore". It is located in a former industrial building (here) on highway 3 directly east of Lunenburg.

Museum Entrance
When you enter the building, you'll see a replica ticket counter, with a gift shop to the right and the museum entrance to the left. Behind the ticket counter, the station agent's office looks very realistic.
The station agent's office
Once you pay the entrance fee, you'll get a ticket, stamped for Yarmouth and punched for the current date. Check mine out!

The entrance to the museum portion is built to look like an antique railway car for the Halifax and Southwestern. In the photo below, you'll see Duane Porter, the friendly curator of the museum. I've corresponded with Duane a few times and it was great to finally meet him in person.

Duane is a super nice guy, very dedicated to preserving the history of the railway, and a great tour guide too!

Duane Porter and the Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum
Inside the "car", you'll sit in one of the authentic railway car seats and view a short video introducing the railway and the museum. Once you see that, you can proceed through into the museum itself.

The museum features many model railway scenes of the former Halifax and Southwestern / CN railway, complemented with many, many signs and other items from the railway itself. Numerous photographic displays explain portions of the railway and its history.

The model railway scenes are very detailed and, I presume, accurate. I never saw the railway lines when they existed, but I trust they accurately represent what used to be here.

This winter scene shows Bridgewater. The iconic station is visible in the distance.
Model railway scene of Bridgewater, NS in winter
Some scenes are really "lit" and can be viewed with lights out.
By night
There are numerous displays throughout the museum, including one with railway dishes, one with keys and a timetable display that I drooled over.

Brief History of the Halifax and South Western Railway

The actual Halifax and South Western Railway ran from Halifax to Yarmouth along the east coast of Nova Scotia. It was incorporated in 1901 by the dynamic duo of William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, who later created the Canadian Northern Railway. Mackenzie and Mann purchased the charters of a few paper railways in Nova Scotia to help cobble together their railway.

The line was complete by the end of 1906. The railway started at a junction with the Intercolonial Railway in Africville (Halifax) and wandered along the eastern shore through Chester, Mahone Bay, Lunenburg, Bridgewater, and Liverpool before terminating at Yarmouth on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia.

It became part of Mackenzie and Mann's Canadian Northern, which went bankrupt and was acquired by the federal government in 1918 and became a part of the new Canadian National Railways (CNR).

The CNR built a new passenger station in Halifax after the original station and area was destroyed by the Halifax Explosion. This new station, and the new tracks through the railway cut across Halifax, meant that the H&SW line now started at Southwestern Junction, very near today's Fairview engine servicing facility.

Under CN, the railway consisted of four subdivisions:
  • Chester, from Halifax to Liverpool, with a junction in Bridgewater to the Middleton Sub (109.1 miles)
  • Yarmouth, from Liverpool to Yarmouth (136.6 miles)
  • Middleton, from Bridgewater to Bridgetown (66.9 miles) with a junction with CP's Dominion Atlantic Railway at Middleton
  • Caledonia, from Calendonia Junction to Caledonia (21.9 miles) 
Lunenburg itself was served by a 7.7 mile spur from "Blockhouse".

Traffic on the railway declined, and in the late 1970s it was proving to be very uneconomic. In 1982, the Yarmouth, Middleton and Caledonia subdivisions were abandoned. The majority of the Chester spur was abandoned in the early 1990s, and only a small spur remained to industrial parks. By late 2010, all tracks of the Halifax and Southwestern Railway were gone.

The railway was served by SW1200RS units, and later MLW RSC-14 locomotives. The Middleton subdivision was especially light and CN's unique RSC-24 locomotives were known to operate there.

Visit the Museum

The Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum
The museum is located at 11188 Highway #3, just east of Lunenburg (see Google Maps). In the extended summer season, from May 1 to October 31, it is open Monday to Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM and on Sundays from 1 PM to 5 PM. Please visit their web site for updated details.

PS - The late David Othen wrote a book on the last 25 years of the Halifax and Southwestern. You can buy it at Blurb as a book or eBook. Other books on the railway include Along the Tracks (of the Dominion Atlantic and the Halifax and South Western Railways) by Tony Kalkman, and a reprint of Summer Resorts Along the Road by the Sea, originally produced by the railway itself.  (some of these are affiliate links - I earn a small commission when you buy it through that link, at no additional cost to you)

PPS - Check out my list of Canadian railway museums!

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Canon 77D - First Thoughts

The Canon 77D camera
I bought a new camera body a while ago - a Canon 77D. Since I bought my previous body in June 2010, it was time for an upgrade.

In this article, I'll go through my reasons for upgrading, my camera selection process, general comments about the camera and my experience with low light photography with the 77D.

Why Upgrade?

Night photo with Canon 77D
My Canon T1i was and is a great camera. I've taken close to 60,000 photos with it, and I still use it on occasion for video or as a second camera. In fact, I just used it to shoot a half marathon.

However, it had a few weaknesses that were really bugging me. The biggest one was that it had poor low light performance.

When it's dark, you have only three ways to get a decent exposure for a photo:
  1. Open the aperture up (limited by your lens);
  2. Slow the shutter speed (need a tripod and a stationary subject); and/or
  3. Increase the ISO (increases digital noise).
The problem with the T1i is that above ISO 400, it got very noisy and was pretty much unusable above ISO 800. This meant that I couldn't take star photos, especially not Milky Way photos. Also, sports photography in dim rinks weren't really successful.

My Canon T1i didn't have a flip out LCD screen either. Beyond the obvious selfie potential, I could see that as being useful for composing shots when the camera was on the ground or other positions where I can't look through the viewfinder.

Choosing a Model

Top view of Canon 77D
I had decided to continue with a Canon body. If I was starting fresh, I'd pick a mirrorless camera instead of an SLR, but I have a big investment in good glass (lenses) so I am sticking with Canon.

I didn't want a full-frame SLR, because one of my two good lens isn't compatible and I had already decided that it was unnecessary for my needs. I had been lusting after a Canon 7D Mk II for a while, but after a little research, I found that the Canon 80D was a better camera for a lower price!

A little more investigation showed me that there were three very similar cameras in Canon's lineup:
  1. Canon T7i, consumer grade
  2. Canon 77D, prosumer grade
  3. Canon 80D, semi-professional grade
Here's a table comparing those three camera bodies, along with my old T1i on the left.

Canon T1i Canon T7i Canon 77D Canon 80D
Megapixels 15 24 24 24
Max ISO 3,200 25,600 25,600 16,000
Focus Points 9 45 45 45
LCD Fixed 3" Flip-out 3" Flip-out 3" Flip-out 3"
Frames/second 3.4 6 6 7
Video 1920x1080, 20 fps 1920x1080, 60 fps 1920x1080, 60 fps 1920x1080, 60 fps
Other features - - Built-in interval and bulb timers; top LCD panel Weather sealing; pentaprism viewfinder
Price Discontinued $ $$ $$$
Amazon Buy on Amazon Buy on Amazon Buy on Amazon

You can see there are more similarities than differences between the three "7" cameras. I didn't want the T7i because I wanted a higher-end body to resist weather. The 80D seems like the superior camera but its ISO performance isn't as strong as the T7i or the 77D, because it has an older processor in the camera.

I went to Henry's and asked to look at the 77D and 80D. I held them for a few minutes then bought the 77D.

General Comments

Controls on the Canon 77D
So far I've taken a little over 3,000 photos with the 77D and I am very impressed with it. It operates very much like the T1i, being another Canon product, but it has some definite improvements.

The focusing performance seems better on the 77D, presumably due to the dual-pixel technology that these cameras have. I rarely have a focus miss now, something that I had fairly frequently when using my 70-200mm lens in lower light. I'm also impressed by how well it focuses in lower light, where my T1i would hunt and not focus.

One small thing is that the shutter sound is much quieter on the 77D. My T1i's shutter was super noisy, loud enough that it would sometimes turn heads if I took a photo in a quiet room. The 77D is by no means silent but the shutter isn't very loud.

A few controls have moved - notably, the power switch - but in general, it wasn't a big learning curve for me to move to this camera. I like that there is a separate button to change the ISO. I wish there was a button to change the focus type between "one shot" and "AI Servo".

The 77D has a touch screen. To be honest, I have not used this at all. I've locked it out for the moment, as I am afraid I am going to touch it and change settings that I don't mean to change. Maybe I should try enabling it, as I could change the focus type pretty quickly using the touch screen.

This camera has wireless (wifi and Bluetooth). I've used the app on my phone to receive photos from the camera, but I haven't played with it much. I think it will be more useful as a remote trigger for the camera. More to come.

Low Light Performance

Ooooh, stars!
Here's the important part. I bought the 77D primarily to get better low light performance, and it delivers. I'm very impressed by how much better it is in low light, both when shooting at a low ISO and also how well it performs when I shoot at ISO 1600 or higher.

Here's a photo at a ridiculous ISO 25600 - something I would never ever attempt with the T1i. In fact, you couldn't even select it on the T1i.
ISO 25600 photo with Canon 77D
There's some quality issues, but it is still quite usable at such a high ISO. I was also shooting from across the rink!

In case you're wondering what's going on here, this was a little game they were playing in the stands during a curling competition in Portage la Prairie. The person who could get the most tissues out of the box won a prize.

Here's a more reasonable ISO - ISO 1600. My friend Jason Paul Sailer is giving the wave to a train at sunrise.
ISO 1600 photo of a train with Canon 77D
I'm very happy with the quality of this photo.

Another ISO 1600 photo - curler Kaitlyn Lawes' intensity is apparent as she is delivering a shot at the Canadian Mixed Doubles Curling Trials in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
Kaitlyn Lawes throwing a curling stone
I am super happy with the low light performance of this camera.


I love my new camera! The Canon 77D has met my expectations for low light performance and I've been impressed by its focusing capability and picture quality. I have very few complaints.

I was not compensated in any way to write this article. I just want to share my experience with the camera!

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Four Days in April, Part 4

Meet me at Lorette
In a span of about a week in April, I made a point of getting out and photographing trains. I ended up shooting trains on April 14, 16, 17, 18 and 19, and I am going to share each outing in a separate post.

Wednesday, April 18th

GTW 5943
I ducked out briefly on April 18 to photograph trains over by Symington Yard. There wasn't a lot going on beyond the regular hump yard activity. An SD40-2 rich set of power was on one pullback track, with CN 6015, GTW 5943, CN 6005 and slug CN 217 hard at work.

CN 6015 and 6016
On the other track, CN 6016 emerged from behind CN 6015 as they pulled a long string of cars back from the yard. This set was 6016-6010-GTW 5948-255. I like the grey GTW units better than the black-red-white units.

GTW 5948 in Winnipeg
The freight cars were pretty unremarkable, except for this pinkish three bay hopper car - reporting mark CC. I noted one end was painted white, so maybe it is equipped with a rotary coupler for dumping?
A carbon copy / CC?
A train was getting ready to depart the yard, but I didn't have time to stick around to chase it. Sisters CN 8903 and 8960 were on the head end.
CN 8903 and 8960 in Winnipeg, Manitoba
So that was April 18.

Thursday, April 19th

I went out along the CN Sprague subdivision on the evening of the 19th to see what I could see. As I approached Symington Yard, I saw an eastbound freight was getting ready to leave, so I headed east along the Trans-Canada Highway and set up on the "sun" side to capture the train. I decided to shoot a "going away" photo to take full advantage of the sun behind me.

CN 2323 approaching the approach signal
I believe this is the approach signal for the Lorette siding. It was showing yellow over yellow, and CN 2323 would end up taking the siding, as you will see.

There was a DPU locomotive, CN 8878, about 2/3 of the way back in the train. CN has been running a lot of trains in this "1+1" configuration, one locomotive on the head end and one in the middle of the train.
CN 8878 and my shadow
Notice my shadow and my old Canon T1i on the tripod, taking video.

I liked this Saskatchewan car - now lettered for MGLX - Mobil Grain. 663 hopper cars were purchased by Big Sky Rail, at a price of about $10K / car. The Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation sold off its fleet last summer. The Great Western Railway bought 150 and the Great Sandhills Railway bought 85.

MGLX 625444 outside Winnipeg
CN 2323 East trundled into the siding at Lorette, meeting the waiting autorack train led by CN 2818.

Meet at Lorette
CN 2818 West had four locomotives, including a lease unit.
Meeting adjourned
I repositioned to the sun side of the train to record the train leaving. I didn't have a lot of time and I wish I had 30 more seconds to set up for the video. Oh well!

The train had CN 2818 / CN 3019 / CN 5621 / GECX 7383 for power. Here's a view of GECX 7383.
GECX 7383 leaving Lorette siding
Aaaand here's the video.

I decided to let them go without a chase, so I went up to the CN Redditt subdivision. I went to the first crossing east of the highway and saw the tail end of a train heading east. Time to chase!

It turned out to be a long chase. I had to drive through Dugald and beyond before I caught up to the tail end. I continued on through Anola before I saw the head end of the train. After another few kilometres, I figured I was far enough ahead to cut right into a side road to get to a crossing to nab the head end.

As it was, I barely had time to put the car in park and jump out to get the shot of CN 8007 East.
Over the hood shot
BCOL 4615 was second in line, with CN 2009 third.
BCOL 4615 at a rural crossing
I took a few shots of the train with the setting sun glinting off the side. I liked this one the best.
Autoracks at sunset
That was nice.

I headed back toward Winnipeg. As I passed through Dugald, I noted a white bus with a red "CP" on the side. The bus had a set of "hi-rail" steel wheels on the front end and it had a lot of people in it. When I first saw it, it was coming down route 206 in company with a couple of conventional hi-rail pickup trucks. Maybe they were coming off the CP
A CP rail bus!
I continued into Winnipeg, making my way down Plessis Road past Symington Yard. I noted that CN 2818 West was stopped just short of the Fermor Avenue overpass.
GECX 7383 and company, waiting
That was the end of the railfan day for me, and this marks the end of this series. Thanks for reading these "four" days in April, which ended up being five. Call it a bonus day! :)

Further Reading

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Four Days in April, Part 3

Prairie sunset
In a span of about a week in April, I made a point of getting out and photographing trains. I ended up shooting trains on April 14, 16, 17, 18 and 19, and I am going to share each outing in a separate post.

Tuesday, April 17th

On Tuesday evening, after washing the dishes and other post-supper activities, I decided to try some sunset rail photography. I headed out to a familiar location, CN Diamond just west of Winnipeg. Here the two-track CN Rivers subdivision provides plenty of rail action.

First up was an eastbound train, led by CN 2167, 2629 and 5413. It's a little harder to photograph eastbound trains at sunset because you're shooting into the sun. I positioned myself on the north side of the track to capture the "glint" / side light on the train.

Let's try black and white
"Glint" shots lend themselves well to black and white photography, because they tend to lose a lot of colour compared to a photo with the sun behind the photographer. I wish I hadn't shot at that particular moment with the shrub obscuring the pilot on the locomotive, but it'll have to do.

I took video of that train.

After that train passed, I decided to head west along the tracks to see if another train was following this one. Sure enough, there was CN 8019 dragging a long string of containers behind it.
CN 8019 under that big prairie sky
I processed this one pretty heavily to bring out the sky and foreground. Is anyone interested in seeing my editing process? Leave a comment!

I had stopped by a pile of old ties to incorporate them into the photo. I thought they might add some interest... I'm not sure if it was really successful. I did a little pan as the locomotive went by, then hit the road to get the train again.
8 blank 19
As I chased them toward Diamond, I saw the headlights of a westbound freight coming on the south track. There was no way I was going to catch the meet of the head end locomotives, but I decided to catch as much as I could. I set up my video camera and started recording the eastbound intermodal train, and waited for the westbound to arrive.

As the westbound came up to me, things happened very fast.

First, CN 2272 and its reflection.
CN 2272 on the move
Next, the tail end of the intermodal train, CN 8010, was coming up. I looked at the two trains and did a little sprint to get in position to catch both locomotives, side by side.

I hoped for the best, and fired off a 5 shot burst.

Number 4 was the winner.
Side by side
I'm quite happy with that shot!

If you're interested, here are the 5 photos of the burst in a row. Click on the image to embiggen it.
5 shot burst
I spun to the left to capture the 3 locomotives of CN 2272 West.
CN 4797 and friends
It was interesting to see a Geep on a mainline train. I guess it was being transferred to a yard somewhere to the west.

Here's the video I took.

Once the two trains were gone, I decided to head home. I drove along Wilkes Avenue and found myself overtaking CN 8019 East... again! I decided to grab it one more time.
Silhouette of CN 8019

It was starting to get dark... but as CN 8019 passed, I noticed a green signal at Carman Junction facing east.

You always have time for one more train!

I decided to wait at Carman Junction aka Fairmont Road.

I changed my camera settings to ISO 800, f/2.8 and 1/400s shutter speed. I had to push the ISO a bit, and close up the aperture, to compensate for the low light and still have a decent shutter speed.

After less than 10 minutes, CN 3047 West came rolling along with an oil train behind it... and an interesting second unit!
CN 3047 West
I panned to capture the second unit, CREX 1510, as they passed by me.
CREX 1510 passing Carman Junction
A fine looking unit!

I hopped back in my car and headed west toward the Perimeter. I thought I might catch them from the side of the road before I got on the Perimeter Highway and headed home. I did catch up to them but the shots weren't remarkable, although I did like this photo of the tail end buffer car (Wisconsin Central 84934) against the sunset sky.

Oil train buffer car
Soon I will write a blog post about those buffer cars...

So that was it for my April 17 railfanning. We still have April 18 and 19 to go!