Sunday, July 12, 2015

Struggling up the grade

Struggling up the grade / Luttant jusqu'à la montée

Skrillex takes to the rails

Electronic artist Skrillex likes to travel by train, so when it came time to plan another cross-Canada tour, he opted to ditch the jet and the tour bus in favour of a chartered VIA train. The last time this happened, back in 2012, I didn't see the train. This time I did.

Skrillex Full Flex Express

Unlike the previous tour, the Full Flex Express is operating as part of scheduled VIA trains, including 61, which is pictured at Whitby en route to the evening's performance at Toronto's Echo Beach. The front of the consist was the standard train 61, with the second locomotive and stainless steel forming the tour train.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Union not too excited over new contract work at Ontario Northland

As Ontario Northland seeks more refurbishment contracts, a small number of workers have been recalled to meet demand. While job creation (or re-creation) is positive, this sort of 'yo-yo' cycle depending on a fluctuating workload is a problem. The goal (and I'm sure that the ONTC is working towards this) is to secure long-term contracts, such as Metrolinx passenger car refurbishment which will guarantee years of work, not job-to-job.

>>>Union not too excited over new contract work at Ontario Northland<<<

Algoma Passenger Service in Doubt Again

RailMark couldn't get funding for the continued operation of the Sault Ste. Marie-Heart passenger train. Result: no train, at least until some money/another company appears.

>>>Sault-Hearst rail service to cease July 15 (update)<<<

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

“Is there a legal issue here?” How police suspicion derailed my railway hobby


Over the past few months, a new term has entered the Canadian discourse. Once, “carding” meant a penalty on the soccer pitch, but now it has become synonymous with a broken policing system which sees black people disproportionately targeted by police without due cause. Within this discussion, Desmond Cole’s heartbreaking piece has become the central story. The question of carding has become part of the broader discussion of what police should and should not be allowed to do in this increasingly paranoid world. I do not believe that this heightened level of security and suspicion is warranted, but as demonstrated by the increasing militarization of police, somebody certainly wants me to think it is. While the black community certainly bears the brunt of this flexing of police muscle, other groups also feel it. Including railfans.

Railfanning is not well known in car-loving North America. People openly obsessed with trains and all aspects of the railway system seem much more likely to come from Britain, the undisputed capital of the hobby. Sociologist Ian Carter has estimated that between three and five million people in the UK (that’s nearly 8% of the population) could be considered railfans, rail enthusiasts, trainspotters, or whatever title they choose. [Ian Carter, British Railway Enthusiasm (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p. 1] There are no comparable statistics for North America, but based on magazine subscriptions and internet traffic, a conservative estimate would be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans.

I have been a railfan for longer than I can remember. I have always loved trains. After I was born, I went home on a train. I can remember the excitement of riding on the GO train to visit my father’s office in downtown Toronto when I was about four. Back at home, my mother made me a cardboard mock-up of the train which I played with for hours. Some evenings, after my father returned from work, he and I would go down to the local level crossing for a few hours to watch the VIA trains speed past and the long freight trains rumble by. While most boys grow out of their love of trains, I never did, and have continued to be a devout railfan. Over the years, my interest has expanded into writing, photography, academic study and the world of model trains. Such dedication, however, comes at a cost.

I remember the first time the police took an interest in me. It was April 15, 2007, a grey and gloomy Sunday afternoon. Bored, I had convinced my father to drive the two miles to the level crossing so that I could photograph the afternoon parade of VIA trains. As he sat in the car, I stood up at the crossing gates. After a while, an unmarked Crown Victoria pulled up and stopped beside me. The officer inside rolled down the window and we started talking. The officer, with CN Rail’s police force, knew what trainspotting was and wasn’t too concerned about my watching trains. He claimed that he had seen me before, although I did not recognize him. His statement would become common throughout future encounters. Satisfied, he carried on his way and I went back to my photos. In school the next day, I felt that situation gave me a little more ‘cred.’

But then it happened again. On August 21, 2007, the OPP stopped me while I was taking photos from an overpass overlooking the tracks. Same questions, although this officer had never heard of railfanning. I asked him, “is there a legal issue here?” He said there wasn’t. I largely brushed off this second incident too.

As I became more proficient in my railway photography, I began to go trackside more often. I never trespass and always take photos from public vantage points. The more time I spent near the tracks, the more often police (not just CN and OPP, but the local police department as well) began to ask me questions. Since the first incident in 2007, I have been stopped about a dozen times. Compared to some members of the black community, this is nothing, but should it have happened at all?

In every case, up to the most recent incident, a simple “I’m taking photos of trains” has satisfied the police’s curiosity. A quick search of YouTube for “railfan police” shows that, compared to some incidents across North America, I have been fortunate in my experience. Back in 2010, the editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine was detained by the NYPD for taking photos on a subway platform.

Between 2010 and 2014, I spent most of my time in the UK pursuing my studies, only returning to Canada for holidays. On the whole, I enjoyed life in the most surveilled society on earth (where there are nearly 2 million security cameras), even if I found the level of security excessive. The British government’s controversial ‘stop and search’ provisions targeted photographers, leading to the “I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist” campaign. In a country where the transport system has been the recent target of terrorist activity, I expected the police to be all over my railway photography. Despite spending hours taking photos at stations and trackside vantage points, the police never once approached me, even though units of up to a dozen officers patrolled the platforms.

During my time in the UK, the VIA bomb plot made headlines in Canada. Two men were accused of plotting to blow up a bridge, which would have sent a VIA passenger train and its occupants plunging to their deaths. According to reports, police initially became suspicious after reports of the men taking photos of trains. During the trial, surveillance showed the two accused (and an undercover FBI agent) walking along a stretch of track east of Toronto, clearly trespassing, as they inspected a bridge. It was a location I had photographed before, but from public property.

As the story broke, I sent off a series of letters to railway companies and the media, reminding them of the benefits railfans bring to the security of the railway system. In the UK, the British Transport Police has clearly supported the extra eyes trainspotters provide. In the US, Amtrak and BNSF have adopted similar policies. The Toronto Star actually published my letter. Despite greater scrutiny of Canada’s rail network, I still went trackside whenever I could.

My most recent police interactions took place on December 16, 2013 and happened within five minutes of each other. I was back in Canada for Christmas and decided to head trackside to see some trains. After a while, an OPP officer rolled up and quite jovially told me that somebody had so much time on their hands that they had called the police to report me. Satisfied that I was indeed taking photos of trains, he headed off, but not before telling me that he was sure he had seen me before. Once again, I didn’t recognize him at all.

Less than five minutes later, the local police pulled up to say that I had been reported. This time, the officer (who was probably younger than I was) asked for ID. I complied and he went to run my details through the databases. It was a cold day as I stood there, wallet open in my hand. I didn’t dare put it back in my pocket in case the officer thought I was reaching for a gun. After a few minutes, the officer returned my ID. Obviously, no flags popped up, and we talked briefly about railfanning, which he had never heard of. He concluded by saying that he couldn’t see how I could avoid being stopped again, and drove away.

These last two incidents were over a year and a half ago, yet they still haunt me. Did someone really report me? Who thought that I was a threat? What do police databases say about me now? How could I avoid getting stopped again? The answer to the last one was simple: stop railfanning.

I used to go trackside at least once a week if I had the time, but since 2013 I have photographed trains less and less. I choose locations differently, seeking out areas where the police don’t patrol often. When I do go trackside, I spend less time there. I am far more aware of my surroundings and look over my shoulder constantly. In short, I have become a more “suspicious” character, which is surely what the police would have wanted to avoid.

Rationally speaking, I have nothing to fear. I am a white, well-dressed, articulate male. My four railway books, my thousands of photographs, my website and even my MA thesis (on model trains) would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not plotting something and that my interest in trains is completely innocent. Further, last time I checked it was legal to stand on public property. (Both GO Transit and VIA Rail have gone on the record with me to confirm that they do not object to non-commercial photography). However, no amount of rational thought can counteract the emotional stress of handing over my ID to the police and waiting for them to process it, all while countless cars drive by, their occupants trying to guess how many laws I must have broken.

In his piece, Desmond Cole spoke about how every police car makes him edgy. I am the same. Even seeing an officer on point duty makes me tense. Cole is right: the more police stop you, the more you start to think you have done something wrong. The more I think I have done something wrong, the more my body language suggests that I have, which then makes me a target. But surely standing near the railway with a big Canon camera strap around your neck isn’t suspicious.

Then there is the element of chance. While the police have stopped me about a dozen times, they have also driven right by me dozens more times. There is obviously a fair amount of subjectivity in who the police decide to interact with. I think it is quite understandable that I feel like I have been picked on without good reason. Railfanning, as the police have confirmed to me during my interactions with them, is not a crime in Canada. If I am not breaking the law, why should I expect to be stopped?

I’m not sure what the future of railfanning is, but I am cautiously optimistic that the future of policing is going to change. Thanks in large part to Cole’s article and the increasing prevalence of cell phone video, mainstream media are beginning to openly question how the police are allowed to interact with the public. Even the mayor of Toronto has questioned the random stops.

It isn’t a crime to be black (at least I hope it isn’t) and no one should be stopped for walking down the street. It isn’t a crime to take photos of trains either. While I realize that there is a difference between the colour of one’s skin and what one chooses to do as a hobby, it is time for the police to recognize that most people are minding their own business. In recent years, police forces have lost the trust and respect of many in the community. Now they must work to rebuild that trust. We must also be ready to discuss how we want our police force (we pay them after all) to conduct themselves.

Friday, June 26, 2015

City won't sign agreement with Railmark

As expected, Railmark's inability to secure credit has prolonged the uncertainty over Algoma passenger service. That said, the issue is (at least for now) bureaucratic, since Railmark is continuing to operate the train regardless. Next, stakeholders will be shopping around for other possible operators and Railmark will keep trying to get credit.

>>>City won't sign agreement with Railmark<<<

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tracks (Out) Ahead for RailMark?

I must confess that, with my fixation on the situation facing the Ontario Northland, the similarly precarious situation affecting the Algoma Central passenger operations has taken a back seat in my mind. Chris van der Heide is much more on the ball than I am when it comes to the situation on the ground in the Soo, so when he warns that RailMark might be heading for a fall, I take notice. If I understand the situation correctly, we appear to have a deadlock between government, CN, RailMark and creditors - an impasse which has now forced the cancellation of passenger service until at least Tuesday.

I must admit, I always thought that RailMark's claim that the passenger service would be self-sustaining within five years was ludicrous, but I had really hoped that this might work out.

So, what next? Sault Ste. Marie council meets to discuss the issue this week. Although they really don't want to take the passenger operation back, I reckon there is a good chance that CN may be asked/begged to do so.

In the mean time, take a look at Chris' piece on the issue:
>>>Tracks (Out) Ahead for RailMark? | Algoma Central in HO Scale<<<

Correction June 22, 2015: My original post suggested that the cancellation was related to the financial situation surrounding the train. However, as several comments have shown, the two are likely coincidental. Tonight's council meeting will hopefully shed some light on the subject.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Union Pearson Express is Open for Business

The first thing anyone visiting Toronto by air will notice is that Pearson International Airport is nowhere near the city. In fact, the airport is technically in Malton, a part of the City of Mississauga. If you are lucky enough to have family in the Toronto Area, they are probably waiting for you at the arrivals gate, and they will drive you to Toronto. If you don’t, you could either pay for an airport limo, or try the TTC’s airport shuttle to the Bloor-Danforth Subway. All of these options are at the mercy of traffic, as I have found on countless occasions. There are few things as frustrating as getting off a plane from the UK and being reunited with my family, only to be told that the traffic is especially bad and we are going to sit in arrivals for a few hours to wait for it to improve. As of this weekend, there is another option.

Looking at a map of the airport, it is quickly apparent that the CN Weston Sub (now owned by Metrolinx) is very close to the airport, yet Toronto has never had a passenger train connecting the city with Canada’s largest airport. The idea of a rail link to the airport has been around for decades, and plans to build one finally began in 2001. Several companies and setbacks later, the government-owned Union Pearson Express (UPX) finally began rolling this past weekend.

UPX 3002
UPX 3002 arrives at the Pearson station. The centre DMU cars are fitted with a driving cab, allowing the trains to easily run in 2 or 3-car formations.

The “UP” (as people call it) connects Pearson Airport Terminal 1 with Union Station between 5:30 AM and 1 AM, 7 days a week. Trains run every 15 minutes and the trip, which also serves the intermediate Bloor and Weston stations, takes 25 minutes, easily beating all existing transport links. The brand-new Nippon Sharyo DMUs, equipped with luggage space, electrical outlets and complimentary Wi-Fi, are sleek European-style trains which, according to rail staff, are a joy to drive. They are very similar units to the modern DMUs used in the UK, which brought back happy memories for me. Of course, all of these improvements come at a cost. A one-way ticket costs $27.50 (although PRESTO card users get a significant discount) and the entire project cost nearly half a billion dollars. However, when you consider the cost of flying these days, the cost doesn’t seem so bad.

Inside the UPX / A l'intérieur du train UPX
Inside the UPX.


The service officially began on June 6 and I decided to ride it. To save money, I started my journey on the Subway, opting to try the TTC option to the airport. After riding the Bloor-Danforth Subway to Kipling station, I boarded the 192 Airport Rocket bus, which whisked me to Terminal 1, where I promptly got lost. You see, I decided to ignore all the signs directing me to “Trains” and instead tried to find any UPX branding. Well, it turns out that “Trains” really did mean UPX after all. Having found the train, I bought a ticket and spent an hour looking around the new station and watching the new trains arrive and depart every 15 minutes.

Cake! / Gâteau!
Official cake-cutting for the UPX at Pearson Airport.


I arrived just before 11 and, quite by accident, managed to see the official cake-cutting ceremony. Lots of important-looking people took turns with the ceremonial knife for the media. Excitement over, I boarded a train and waited for my ride to begin. The coaches are quite spacious and the seats, complete with retractable armrests and tray tables, are comfortable. There is lots of luggage space in each coach and the whole ambience is a good welcome to the city. Soon, the train was off and slowly rolled along the nearly 3.3 km-long elevated section which connects the airport with the existing Weston Sub. Imagine: the only thing stopping trains travelling to the airport was this tiny stretch. That said, the elevated section is a feat of engineering. Reaching as high as 28 metres, it is the longest bridge in Ontario and gives you the impression that you are still flying.

UPX 1008
UPX 1008 on the elevated stretch approaching Pearson. 


Once the train joins the main line, you are treated to a view of Woodbine Racetracks, industrial and post-industrial wastelands and the shabby eclecticism of West Toronto. The train makes brief stops at new stations at both Weston and Bloor so that people don’t need to travel all the way downtown. Both of these stations are still being built (in fact, delays in station construction have pushed back the opening of the UPX, which had only committed to an opening date about a month ago). The train rolls under the West Toronto Grade Separation, which has seen the once-busy diamond transformed to allow trains to pass one on top of the other without delays. This was one of several construction projects needed to allow the UPX to work. At Strachan Ave., the level crossing has been replaced with a rail underpass to improve safety in what is becoming an increasingly populated part of the city. Beyond the underpass, the train rounds the curve past Fort York and coasts through the Union Station Rail Corridor to the new UPX station at Union.

UPX 1005 at Union / à Union
The new UPX Union station, in the heart of downtown Toronto.


The station at Union is the flagship for the entire service, featuring a gift shop, cafe and restaurant. Located in the Skywalk, it is a short walk from the main Union Station, offering a seamless connection to the TTC, VIA and GO Transit. The Pearson station is little more than an enclosed platform, while the Bloor and Weston stations are essentially tacked onto existing GO stations. 

Gare UPX Union Station
The UPX Union Station.


So often in Canada, new about public transportation is grim. However, I think we have a good news story for once in the form of the UPX. Of course, whether the UPX will succeed remains to be seen. The fares are high, especially compared to the TTC’s airport shuttle, and relying on more affluent travellers is a bit of a gamble. I don’t see anyone using it as a commuter route into downtown, so it will have to rely on air travellers and may not benefit ordinary Torontonians as much as has been advertised. With rising fuel costs and increased security, flying is more arduous than at any time in recent memory and all bets are off for the future of commercial aviation. Despite my reservations, this project shows that the current government is willing to built public transportation in Ontario (the south at least). For that reason, I think we should smile and praise the UPX for what it is - a step in the right direction.

Postscript: I am not a fan of the UPX’s new name. While the “UP” might be uplifting, the “uh” sound is also an expression of doubt. For what it’s worth, I would recommend a different name. To my mind, the Pearson Express Train (or PET for short) would be a more affectionate name and make it seem a greater part of Toronto. You can own a PET, but not an “UP”.

Post-Postscript: I am also not sold on the uniforms. They are a strange blend of rail, air and Soviet military. In fact, the one odd thing about the train is that it does try very hard not to be a train, but rather a continuation of the aircraft. Is this how you have to sell trains to North Americans?

3D Printing is the Future of Model Railways

Two-dimensional printing (in an efficient way, that is) dates back to Gutenberg. It revolutionized how people were able to disseminate information and began the slow process of democratizing knowledge (or at least making books cheaper, ergo easier for more people to access). Fast forward to today and 3D printing is trying to do something similar. Technically, 3D printing is over 30 years old, but it is only in the past few years that it has entered the mainstream. 

In theory, the process is very similar to a computer inkjet printer. Once the 3D design is fed into the machine, a combination of heat and material are injected into the correct place, slowly building up the object layer by layer. As the technology has improved, so the variety of materials has increased. Initially, only plastic could be printed. But now, it is possible to print metal, stone, even human tissue.

A long time ago, I used to wish that model railroaders could invent some sort of “shrink-anator” to make an HO scale copy of any object. When I first heard about 3D printing, probably a decade ago, I was excited about what the technology might mean for model railroading. Until now, if you wanted an HO scale object, you had two options: you could buy a ready-made version or a kit; or you could build it from scratch. This was fine, provided a manufacturer made what you wanted, or you had the required skills to make one yourself. Today, 3D printers offer a third option: become your own manufacturer.

Traditional plastic models were made by injecting a polystyrene plastic into moulds. This required moulds and the skills to make them. The process is long and expensive, but the level of detail is remarkable. Most model trains are still made this way. However, with 3D printing, most of the complex and costly mould process is eliminated. Provided you have a 3D design, simply feed it into a 3D printer and watch as your object is printed before your eyes. It is truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, even the most basic 3D printers are still hundreds - or thousands - of dollars and not worth it for the average person. Many companies, such as Shapeways [http://www.shapeways.com], offer to print objects from user-created files, but these can still be quite expensive. In their great tradition of allowing the greatest number of people free access to knowledge, public libraries have gotten in on the act too. 

I had recently received a set of Rapido Trains gondola cars. Given that I model northern Ontario, where the main freight is mining or forestry-related, I thought a set of covers for the gondolas would look nice, even if it did mean hiding some of Rapido’s trademark interior detail.

Gondola covers are made by a variety of manufacturers, notably Models by Dave [http://www.modelsbydave.com], but to cover my fleet would have cost over $50. The design seemed straightforward enough, so I decided to try designing one myself using prototype photos as a guide. As 3D printing has become mainstream, so the number of software applications to design 3D models has also grown. I opted for the free 123D Design [http://www.123dapp.com/design] from AutoDesk (of AutoCAD fame). It’s BIG - the Mac version is over 700 MB - but surprisingly fast and powerful for a free application.* Learning to use 3D design software is a little confusing: you need to build in order to cut away sections, but I soon got the hang of the basics thanks to AutoDesk’s helpful videos. [https://www.youtube.com/user/123d/videos] My design wasn’t exactly to scale, but it looked good. Now I needed to print it.

Screen capture of the finished design, ready for printing.

First, I tried Shapeways, but their quoted price was over $20 USD per cover based on their most basic plastic material. I have no doubt that the quality would have been good, but it would have cost more than the commercially-available covers. However, I had a trick up my sleeve.

Recently, my local library acquired a MakerBot Replicator 2 [https://store.makerbot.com/replicator2.html] printer so that patrons could use it to print their own objects. Even better, thanks to a grant, the service was (and still is at the time of writing) free of charge. All I had to do was send in my file, and wait for my turn in the queue.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 uses PLA plastic, which is derived from corn. It is heated, melted and injected layer-by-layer to build up the shape. Even better, because it is corn-based, the melted plastic smells like chocolate sweetness, rather than burning rubber. I sent in my design and waited.

Apparently, my design took about 2 1/2 hours to print. A few days later, I was able to collect the finished product.

The first gondola cover, fresh from the printer.

As you can see, the printer builds its own scaffolding-like framework to support the object during construction. This frame is designed to be easily broken away by hand, but a knife and sandpaper help. A rotary tool with a sanding attachment works even better than sandpaper, but will eat through the plastic quickly - beware! Except for the fanciest 3D printers, the grain of each layer of injected plastic is clearly visible (like the rings of a tree). For now, injection-moulded plastic still has the edge, but 3D printing will certainly win out one day, especially for rapid-prototyping or one-off designs. The technology eliminates the need for moulds altogether.

In all, I ordered four covers, which I collected over a period of about three weeks. Although not as quick as getting them printed professionally, I couldn’t argue with the price. In terms of quality, however, there was a price to pay. Two of the cover are slightly warped, one appears to be missing a layer of plastic (making a “stepped” appearance) and one was, confusingly, printed upside-down, meaning that all the framework was moulded onto the curved surface, which required additional sanding and filling to fix. However, once the covers are seen as part of a freight train, the blemishes soon fade and look really impressive on a fleet of really impressive gondolas. In the end, I was willing to compromise in order to take advantage of the library’s offer and most of the errors can be corrected, or ignored.

A string of gondolas enters Foulard Yard on my proto-freelance ONR Green Bank Sub.

Prototypically, most gondola covers are a slightly off-white colour. Since I could have the covers printed in white plastic, the finish was already complete. For the one printed upside-down, I disguised the worst of the damage under several coats of yellow acrylic paint. This also adds variety to the model.

Since the success of the covers, I have designed and printed a winterization hatch for my Ontario Northland GP38-2 and am in the process of designing a set of ramps ramps for the ends of a TOFC flat car.

As for future projects, I am currently out of ideas, but the next time I want to make something for my layout, I will look beyond manufactured parts and scratch-building and consider what the digital age offers me: the chance to be my own manufacturer by designing and printing my own models.

*The free version of 123D is for non-commercial use only, so you can’t sell your designs.

Monday, May 25, 2015

It's another shoo-fly!

Construction continues in Whitby / La construction continue à Whitby
A few weeks back, I went to the Hopkins Street overpass to see whether there had been any progress on the new South Blair Street underpass and the adjacent GO maintenance facility. There wasn't much to see, but I did spend several harrowing hours with thousands of flies.

Hoping that the flies had disappeared, I returned yesterday only to be accosted by another kind of fly - a shoo-fly.

Shoo-fly tracks are when railways build a temporary track diversion around construction, subsidence or any other obstacle. The GO Sub has featured a shoo-fly since last year to allow for the construction of the underpass and recently the north track of the CN Kingston Sub has followed suit. Here, you can see CN 8941 slowly leading a freight through the freshly-ballasted track. Operationally, this is going to be complicated because the north track now has a temporary speed restriction of 30mph for about half a mile through the construction. I expect the RTC will be routing as much traffic as they can over the south track.

Meanwhile, a new chain link fence has been built surrounding the site of the future GO maintenance facility (in the right of the image) and hefty gates have been installed on the access roads. It seems to me that the site has been levelled again, but otherwise there are few signs of construction continuing.