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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Progress at VIA's Oshawa Station

At the same time that VIA 92 derailed near Aldershot, I was at VIA's Oshawa station to see the progress on the new platforms and footbridge.
The footbridge is absolutely huge! The station staff have their work work cut out shepherding passengers through the construction site to reach the trains. When the project is complete, the station will have three tracks, hopefully reducing delays for passengers.
While I was visiting, an eastbound CN freight rolled through on the south track with two units on the point and a DPU about 2/3 of the way back.

I don't know how much people will be able to access the platforms when the station is complete, but the station is still a good place to photograph trains right now. For more details on the project, visit VIA special construction website: http://www.viacorridor.ca/en/Project-Regions/Oshawa.aspx

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Via derailment passengers sought for class action - CBC News

In a litigious society, the legal wrangling naturally begins quickly after something happens. However, it is less than 48 hours since the accident and I would be surprised if passengers weren't still shocked or afraid. What this case fails to consider is the structural integrity of the coaches - they remained structurally sound and in one piece, thus preventing further injury. It is too soon to assign blame, let the TSB investigate.
Via derailment passengers sought for class action - CBC News

More on the VIA Derailment

The derailment of VIA 92 on Sunday continues to dominate news coverage in the Toronto area. While this is the largest passenger derailment in the GTA for decades, I also feel that much of the coverage is unfairly portraying railways as dangerous places. So many headlines of "how safe are trains" have appeared recently that you would think that roads and cars were incredibly safe. I must point out that the vast majority of fatalities on railways are people hit by trains, an issue that in fact has nothing to do with the railway at all.

This article appeared in the Toronto Star this morning and I feel it summarises the latest facts quite well, without resorting to the bias of some other coverage.
VIA train derailment: Investigators look to black box for crash clues - thestar.com

Monday, February 27, 2012

The VIA Rail Derailment near Aldershot

The Canadian media has been hard at work covering the serious derailment of an eastbound VIA train yesterday afternoon. Based on the news sources and media releases, this is a potted version of events:
  • VIA 92 (Niagara Falls-Toronto) departed from a stop at Aldershot station at 3.26pm.

A screenshot of VIA's departure website showing VIA 92 having made its stop at Aldershot.

  • Less than five minutes later, the train derailed at a crossover, hitting a building. I am not an expert on derailment investigation, but I would speculate that the cause of the derailment is likely to be the switches at this location.
  • Five VIA crew were on board: three in the locomotive and two in the coaches. All three crew in the cab were killed - two were engineers with over 30 years experience each, the other was a trainee learning the route. Of the 75 passengers and two crew in the five coaches, around 45 were injured.
  • Media reports have confused locomotives and coaches, sometimes citing a six-car train, rather than the correct five-car consist. Also, 75 passengers spread over five cars is not a busy train, as was reported several times.
  • The Transportation Safety Board of Canada recovered the train's data recorder this morning. This will form the basis for much of the investigation.
  • The train consist was VIA's refurbished F40 #6444 and five LRC coaches. This is the locomotive that pulled train 40 during my trip to Ottawa a few years ago.

VIA 6444 leads train 60 at Whitby back in 2010. This locomotive was leading the ill-fated train 92 yesterday.

The media have since begun to question the safety of travelling by train in Canada. Canada has routine freight derailments, often serious, normally caused by maintenance and weather factors. However, Canada has a very good passenger safety record. VIA Rail's last derailment causing death was at Thamesville, Ontario in 1999, while the last "immense" passenger train wreck was at Hinton, Alberta back in 1986. Certainly, Canada does not run as many passenger trains as other countries, but GO Transit (which runs over 100 trains each day) has an exemplary record, having only had a handful of accidents in its over 40 year history. Despite yesterday's tragic accident, passenger rail remains one of the safest modes of transport and is considerably safer than travelling by car.

Every time that a railway incident makes the headlines, I am reminded that the media is not an expert on everything. I wouldn't expect every reporter to have a nut and bolt knowledge of rail operations, but it makes me wonder how accurate other reporting is when reporters mistake passenger cars (with windows) and locomotives (that look obviously mechanical).

Mostly, I am sorry for all the people travelling on the train and for the deceased, their families and their friends. I find that it hurts whenever anyone is hurt or killed in the rail industry. I might not work for it, but I do feel attached to it and my experiences volunteering do give me an idea of what it it like to work for the railways.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

VIA Rail Derailment Near Burlington

VIA 92 derailed near Aldershot this afternoon. Details are sketchy right now, but several outlets confirm that at least one person died and that many passengers were trapped on board. A few photos have appeared online and show that this is a major derailment. Have a look at the various stories below to build up a picture of what happened.

CBC News

CTV News

The Toronto Star

The Hamilton Spectator

Saturday, February 25, 2012

More snow (sort of)

Yesterday was supposed to be the biggest snowstorm of the season. People panicked, schools closed and buses were cancelled, news coverage was in overdrive. Then the snow sort of forgot to show up! Just a light dusting fell in the GTA, as this shot of VIA 60 from today shows. Despite the lack of snow, the wind was brutal, making any photography expedition short and to the point.

Ontario universities should offer three-year degrees... says provincial report

This has nothing to do with learning. This is clearly a cost- cutting measure, as was the abolition of Grade 13. The sooner that people are in the workforce, the faster they contribute to the workforce. Of course, this view does not consider the higher earning potential of more highly-educated workers.
Ontario universities should offer three-year degrees, classes year-round and more online learning, says provincial report - thestar.com

Friday, February 24, 2012

Howling Wolves and a Polar Bear Express

I've always liked the Ontario Northland Railway. Here is a great video by trainguyONR of the Polar Bear Express, the Cochrane-Moosonee train.
Howling Wolves and a Polar Bear Express - YouTube

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Transit commission fires chief general manager

Who is better suited to decide the appropriate transit expansion plans for Toronto: a 37-year transit expert, or a 2-year mayor?
TTC: Transit commission fires chief general manager - thestar.com

Monday, February 20, 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Snow is back again!

Wet snow fell most of today and provided another opportunity for winter shots.

"Recommended Reads" Takes Shape

I have finally started to add books to my Recommended Reads page. Have a look!

Trainspotters: A Dying Breed?

Way back on Christmas Eve 2008, I posted the first version of the following piece on one of my previous websites. An edited version later appeared on my rail photography tips site. I have once again edited it and the newly revised version appears below:

Trainspotters, A Dying Breed?

Tangmere approaches Ely station with a railtour

As 2008 draws to a close, we inevitably think of the past but we also turn our attention to what might happen in the years to come. Recently, a two-page article in the Railway Magazine lamented the passing of trainspotting. I beg to differ, I believe that trainspotting, or at least railway enthusiasm, is very much alive and well.

Trainspotting began in earnest during the 1950s while British Railways were consolidating locomotives and it gained momentum when plans to phase out steam began to be implemented. People flocked to the station to see as much steam as possible before it was gone, as they thought, forever. Throughout the next few decades, trainspotting remained popular and spotters warmed to diesels and electrics as they began to take over. This has been especially the case among the generations born after steam's demise.

Something changed during the 1990s. I believe that it started when the railways were privatised. Suddenly, it became more difficult to access the stations and as the year 2000 arrived it became dangerous to be caught with a camera at a station. What happened? It is simple really: stations were once part of the community. When passengers first took to the rails in the first half of the 19th Century, taking a train was a major process. Purchase of a ticket was conditional on the passenger supplying all sorts of details, from address to occupation. Gradually, these restrictions were relaxed as people began to accept the railway as part of British life. Stations became a central gathering place and it was very acceptable to stand on a platform for hours watching trains, especially since the 1950s. However, with privatisation. the railway became a commercial entity, ticket barriers popped up everywhere to protect revenue. A station became a revenue collection point. A train no longer has a guard. Their role has been replaced by a “Train Manager” (very corporate) or the occasional “revenue protection officer”. This is where the fear began. The railways were now a private company and if someone were to take a photo, they might profit from it and this would be lost revenue. What if said photographer were to fall? Then there would be a lawsuit. Add terrorism to the mix and a group of men with cameras and anoraks seem more dangerous that a group of commandos. This paranoia is certainly unjustified and thankfully it is also not found everywhere. Even the trainspotters seem to have lost faith in the railways: “you only see multiple units” you hear them lament, “it used to be better”.

So far, I have painted a very bleak picture of trainspotting in today’s world. But I actually see a very bright future for my hobby. Think of those multiple units; thanks to the speed that franchises are changing we are now seeing the greatest diversity of liveries that we have seen in decades. One unit might have signs of two or three previous franchises on it, how can this be boring? As rail traffic increases, various companies are using more “vintage” locos and stock. Why, in Wales loco-hauled trains are still used quite frequently. In fact, several loco-hauled trains still arrive in London daily. This is not boring. It seems that the people who complain have forgotten that class 47s once outnumbered the current total of class 66s!

Several weeks ago, I travelled to Ely by rail to see 34067 Tangmere. What I saw on my journey reassured me that I am not alone in my interest. At every level crossing, at every lay-by and at every bridge were men with cameras trying to get the best angle. I had never seen so many enthusiastic people waiting for a train. At Ely Station, it was even better as people (not just men, but women and children too) filled both platforms. Of course, Tangmere was late but this only added to the excitement. What I saw in the children’s eyes was pure wonder. When Tangmere finally came into view, an announcement was heard: “the next train to arrive at platform 1 is the one that you have all been waiting for”. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd. No terrorists, no fear of lost revenue, no heightened security, just simple fun. The crowd gathered around the engine, covered in steam and jostling for the best possible photo in the excruciatingly poor sun angle. I didn’t see a dying breed, I saw a new generation of excited people falling in love with railways.

This past weekend, I walked in the fens to see two more specials, one diesel and one steam. I found the same sort of people, excited about the prospect of seeing the railway in action. They weren’t all pensioners and no one questioned their motives. These were simply people enjoying part of Britain’s rich legacy – the railway. Think about it: Britain gave the world what we recognise as a railway. Britain still has one of the most developed networks in the world. Passenger numbers are up. There is even a brand-new steam locomotive. This is a time for celebration! Britain's railway is seeing a revival that it hasn’t seen in decades. Those who complain would do well to visit my birth-country of Canada and try to travel solely by rail – I wish them the best of luck. Britons simply do not realise how blessed they are to have their railway. Certainly, it needs work and it does not always work perfectly but people must remember that it could always be worse.

Trainspotting with notebook and Ian Allan’s ABC in hand is not an accurate stereotype anymore. It belongs in a simpler world; another age. Today, trainspotting has gone high-tech. While the notebook might still be there, the ABC is now gone and it has been replaced with digital camera, digital camcorder, mobile phone to receive the latest sightings and possibly even a GPS unit! The youth of today would do better to drop the video games and take part in a real-life, high-tech game of trainspotting. It’s simple: get the timings, find the best spot (that means healthy exercise) and take a photo of your prize. What could be more fun? I know that's unlikely to happen, but it makes no more sense than blowing up pixels on a screen.

If you were not entirely convinced that railways still have a following, walk into your nearest WH Smith (other newsagents are available) and look under the transport section. You probably won’t find much evidence of railways because you should be looking under the railway section, which will be full of different specialist titles. Take the Railway Magazine as an example: their August issue sold over 40,000 copies. I do not believe that 40,000 people can possibly be seen as a dying breed. No, I see a future that is bright.

Everything changes and trainspotting is no exception. The hobby might have evolved away from the commonly-held stereotype, but it is still there. As I sit back and think about what is to come in the future, I am confident that my hobby will never disappear. After all, our new steam locomotive will run for years and someone has to look after it!

Postscript: February 2012

While I have made several changes to the main body of this piece, its content remains accurate to the situation in 2008. Four years later, little has changed. The plight of ticket barriers impeding the hobby has been publicised and the wider restrictions being placed on photography are also under the media spotlight. Probably most damning for the TOCs was the refusal to open the platforms at Darlington station so that people could see Tornado's unveiling (note: the decision was reversed following a public outcry). When plans to install ticket barriers at York's iconic station were announced, the city council stepped in to fight the move. In a rare victory, the council successfully argued that the station's listed status prevented any cosmetic changes, meaning that ticket barriers could not be allowed. I am pleased to report that York's platforms remain open and are rarely without enthusiasts.

I should also note that railway enthusiasts are not limited to the UK. They exist virtually wherever there is a train to spot. There are several young photographers in the Toronto area whose work is frequently seen on various rail photo websites. Younger people are always the first to embrace technology and it means that the internet is increasingly the gathering place for railway enthusiasts. The closure of fotopic.net was a blow to the community, but people have started to upload new galleries to alternate hosts. Many railway magazines are now publishing online editions of their publications, further opening up the hobby. Despite all the fuss about how it is now risky to be a trainspotter in the UK, I have to admit that I have never had a problem taking photos here. I have had far more trouble in Canada, probably because railfans are simply not a recognised part of the culture and are thus a novelty to law enforcement. I also had no trouble in the security-conscious USA, where I spent hours happily photographing freight trains from the platform without incident.

This is not to say that photography is safe, far from it. While laws regarding photography in a public place are usually very clear, their implementation is sporadic and authorities (notably private security) are highly ignorant of what the law allows. Governments are also complacent, paying only lip-service to the problems photographers increasingly face. In all, trainspotting is not dead, but its future depends on the young and a fairer approach to photography and photographers in general.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Caterpillar feels force of Canada's anger as it closes country's last train plant

I wonder if CAT was prepared for the backlash? Probably.
Caterpillar feels force of Canada's anger as it closes country's last train plant | The Guardian

Immigrants the proudest Canadians, poll suggests

A very interesting survey. As a Canadian who has spent time abroad, I have often encountered hostility for looking to live outside the country. Don't forget the campaign of xenophobia launched against Michael Ignatieff by the Conservative party several years ago.

Many immigrants needs to sacrifice a great deal to come to Canada and often need to give up even more when they arrive. The cliché taxi driver with a PhD is not that inaccurate as it is exceedingly difficult for foreign qualifications to be recognised by Canadian institutions.

The survey highlights substantial minorities, often nearly 1/3, who hold views which would represent more the opinions that I have been confronted with. For example, 1/3 of those polled thought living abroad was unacceptable. So, can one leave Canada? Guess not.
Immigrants the proudest Canadians, poll suggests - CBC News

Monday, February 13, 2012

Shining Waters Railway

The latest on the reinstatement of Toronto-Peterborough passenger service.
Shining Waters Railway

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The House of Shafia

The Shafia trial made Canadian headlines every day for weeks. It is a tragic story of a clash of value, failed social services and missed opportunities. The only consolation is that the justice system has worked appropriately, although only after the fact.
The House of Shafia - the fifth estate

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Winter Hits the GTA

Canadian winters are as hard as the Canadian accent. There was a time that the GTA used to get feet of snow each and every winter, I remember. Today, this is no longer the case, but the cold is always present. Winter presents a huge headache for railways: snow drifts, brittle rails, frozen switches. To the rail photographer, winter presents lots of exciting opportunities. Photos of snow clearing, trains whipping up a fresh dusting of the white stuff and blizzards make for great shots.

Shooting in winter presents all sorts of challenges. Firstly, the photographer needs to stay warm. Then there is the challenge of keeping equipment warm enough to avoid damaging it. Focus can be a problem as falling snow can confuse focusing systems, as can the powerful diffused light from the locomotive headlights shining through falling snow. Exposure is also a problem as snow often causes cameras to underexpose shots. Moisture is also a problem as condensation can form when a cold camera is warmed up, potentially damaging electrical components. To avoid this, wrap the camera in a plastic bag and let it warm up gradually.

About an inch of snow fell overnight and was still falling this morning, making for a good opportunity to shoot some trains. It was -12 with a windchill of -22 - this is what I like to call lung-slicin’ cold! In these conditions, it takes about 30 second of shooting to cause your fingers to turn white and go numb (or more accurately, a very acute ache – numbness would actually be nicer). I spent about 30 minutes trackside in the blowing snow and managed some excellent shots of freight and passenger trains. Environment Canada is forecasting for more snow throughout this week, so hopefully I will have more opportunities for snow shots.

CAW questions Caterpillar takeover of Electro-Motive

As the plant closes and the CAW and CAT sit down to talk about compensation, the questions begin to look bad for the government.
CAW questions Caterpillar takeover of Electro-Motive - CBC News

Friday, February 10, 2012

The toughest place to be a train driver

You don't often think about South American railways. This article demonstrates how they can truly be called extreme.
BBC News - The toughest place to be a train driver

A snow-free Whitby

Unlike York, the GTA is snow-free, as this shot shows.

Snowy York

York has finally got snow. This was the scene last weekend as a 47 and 37 await their next snow-clearing duty. Despite the snow, few trains were delayed.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Huffington Post Quebec

Le Huffington Post, maintenant en français pour le Québec et les canadiens francophones.
Huffington Post Quebec

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Caterpillar closes Electro-Motive plant in London

More reaction and analysis:
Caterpillar closes Electro-Motive plant in London - thestar.com

Further Thoughts on the Closure of EMD London

A convoy of London-built class 66 locomotives bound for Europe is seen at Mimico in August 2008.

Five London-built SD70ACe/lc locomotives bound for Australia are seen at Oshawa in July 2010.

Yesterday, it was announced that the EMD plant in London, Ontario is now closed. In a letter to employees, Caterpillar CEO Billy Ainsworth cited the union structure of the factory and called the labour contract "antiquated". He also confirmed the "orderly" closure of the plant and the moving of production to other facilities elsewhere in the Americas.

Those of us who have been following the labour situation at EMD over the past few months were not surprised when the employees were locked out last month. However, the complete closure of the plant has surprised me. Progress Rail have been opening new facilities in North and South America, sparking fears of a loss of some production, but the complete closure sends a clear message to labour: the days of comfortable, well-paid jobs are over for the London employees. Caterpillar sees being competitive in a global market as being more important than a highly-skilled workforce with decades of experience.

The plant has a proud heritage of 62 years of locomotive production for the Canadian and global markets. GO Transit's F59s, VIA Rail's F40s, the highly popular Class 66s for Europe and Africa were all built in London. I am very sorry for the employees, their families and London, a great plant has been unfairly closed.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Locked-out Electro-Motive plant to close

This is terrible news and Canada is losing a very special industry. This was coming, but it's terrible news. Progress Rail's/Caterpillar's PR is non-existent.
Locked-out Electro-Motive plant to close - CBC News