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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Network battling to restore passenger rail in northeastern Ontario

The Northlander shows no sign of coming back to life, but people haven't forgotten how critical passenger rail is in regions where safe road conditions cannot be guaranteed.

>>>Well worth the fight | North Bay Nugget<<<

Capreol museum gets $90,000 to restore steam locomotive

Congratulations to NORMHC and best of luck with the continued restoration of 219!

>>>Capreol museum gets $90,000 to restore steam locomotive - Sudbury.com<<<

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Ontario Northland: As it used to be?

Someone has kindly posted this nostalgic look back at the Northern Ontario of yesterday... well, at least a tourism board view of yesterday.



Since then, Ontario Northland's divisions have been cut back or dissolved completely, the Manitoulin ferry has been spun off as a separate crown agency, and the Polar Bear Express has been merged with the mixed freight to Moosonee. Perhaps interesting to those who think that smartphones have taken over the world (such as myself), is the realization that we were just as snap-happy back then, albeit with film and no wifi.

I'd love to see more archival promotional material from Ontario Northland, as it offers a glimpse into the priorities of the corporation at different times. For instance, the last tourism tie-in I am aware of was at the turn of the new millennium, when you could still get package tours to Moosonee through the ONTC.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sex and the Ring of Fire: How to lose friends and alienate people

This is not a website about mining (for a good website about mining, see Republic of Mining). It is, in fact, a website about railways. However, since the future of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission might rely on transporting chromite from the proposed Ring of Fire, the two topics do intersect.

KWG Resources' recent decision to be represented by a pair of bikini-clad spokesmodels has become one of the most sustained news stories surrounding the sluggish development of the Ring of Fire. The video, which has now been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube, has been boosted by this media coverage, but it remains to be seen whether it will help or hinder KWG's efforts in the James Bay Lowlands.

Women in the mining industry are upset that the video erases what progress has been made towards gender equality in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sector. Equally perplexing is what relevance the video has to the issues surrounding the Ring of Fire in the first place. As Melanie Paradis of Earnscliffe Strategy Group told Northern Ontario Business:
“There is nothing shocking about a video with two young women in bikini tops and shorts. What is shocking is how remarkably disconnected this video is from the realities of the Canadian mining industry. Sex might sell, but it definitely doesn’t build mines.”
Further, First Nations groups are distancing themselves from KWG's marketing, a move which further shows the growing tensions between bands and mining companies in what was supposed to be  a great opportunity to bring all groups together in a resource extraction project. Native people living in remote areas of Northern Ontario have long been one of the most disadvantaged groups of people in the country. By including their voices in the Ring of Fire development plans from the beginning, the potential revenues from the extraction of chromite were supposed to offer new opportunities to these communities.

Regardless of whether KWG's video is judged to be tasteful or not, it has caused many people to question not only their association with the company, but whether KWG is taking the project seriously enough. If the predictions are correct, the Ring of Fire could bring untold riches to mining companies, Native groups, Ontario Northland and the wider Canadian company. If the predictions are correct, the time for fun and games is over and it is time for the hard and serious work to begin.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Rails in Eastern Ontario

Recent trips have taken me (briefly) to both Kingston and Smiths Falls, allowing for some different railway photography.

Inspection at Smiths Falls / Inspection à Smiths Falls

"Spirit of Sir John A"

Friday, August 12, 2016

Wynne commits to ONTC future

Refurbishment of the Polar Bear Express continues, but the Northlander is still dead.

>>>Wynne commits to ONTC future | North Bay Nugget<<<

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

'Sex sells': Mining company defends use of bikini video to promote Ontario's Ring of Fire

While there is indeed good economic potential in the development of the Ring of Fire, progress is slow. Furthermore, the project could bring huge benefits to rail transportation in the North, not to mention a whole new era of cooperation between First Nations and Bay Street. Despite this, the media coverage of the project is relegated to media in Northern Ontario or within the mining industry itself.

In a bid to promote the project to a broader audience, KWG Resources has published a series of "Mining Minute" videos to promote the project to a wider audience (although the view counts on Youtube are modest to say the least).

One particular episode has attracted criticism for showing bikini-clad spokeswomen explaining the benefits of the project. While the company claims that this is a great marketing tool (and within the industry it might be), it makes them appear dated and old-fashioned. Further, it sends a very negative message for women who are thinking of entering the mining industry: how will their colleagues view them? As equals or as entertainment?

In the long-term plan to develop the Ring of Fire, this video is likely to have no effect whatsoever.  However, it does call into question the image that KWG is trying to project.

>>>'Sex sells': Mining company defends use of bikini video to promote Ontario's Ring of Fire - CBC News<<<

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fed train aid goes off the rails

Transport minister Marc Garneau has dealt a blow to hopes of the return of the Sault Ste. Marie to Heart passenger rail service. Speaking in the Soo, Garneau stated that the proposal announced recently does not meet the criteria for the funding set out by Transport Canada because most communities along the route are served by roads (albeit ones operated by private logging companies).

Garneau also suggested that the rail proposal would fit better within the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs, but it remains unclear how high a priority funding a rail link would be in the already overstretched government department.

>>>Fed train aid goes off the rails | Sault Star<<<

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Goodbye Algoma Central, Hello Mask-wa Oo-ta-ba?

After months of waiting, it appears that passenger service on Algoma Central will be back starting this summer - if the federal government agrees.

After the aborted proposal involving Railmark, Keewatin Railway has been chosen as the interim operator for the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst passenger operations. Keewatin currently operates passenger and freight services between The Pas and Pukatawagan in Northern Manitoba and is First Nations-owned.

The new service, to be called Mask-wa Oo-ta-ba (Cree for bear train) would begin under the supervision of Keewatin this year with local crews eventually being trained to run the line themselves.

The plan now rests in the hands of the federal government, who control the annual $5.3 million subsidy needed to get passenger trains running.

>>>With plan in place, passenger rail supporters press Ottawa to release subsidy<<<

Friday, July 01, 2016

Rails of the GTA 1 & 2 Out of Print

As of July 1, Rails of the GTA Volume 1 and Rails of the GTA Volume 2 have gone out of print. The cost of producing high-quality photo books has been slowly creeping up in recent years and the price I would need to charge to make the books viable is higher than I would like to charge people. I do not have any inventory available.

Stand Clear of the Doors and Call of the Northland are still available and there are no plans to take either one of them out of print.

I want to thank everyone who helped me with the two volumes of Rails of the GTA, as well as everyone who purchased a copy or agreed to sell them in your store. Without you, there would be no book.

I often get asked if there is another project in the works. After Call of the Northland, I have to say that there isn't. I expect that there will be another book one day, but I don't know when that might be, or what the subject might be.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

New bus schedule good news for Northerners

Some good news for travellers in northern Ontario: no more lengthy waits in North Bay in the middle of the night.

Charlie: New bus schedule good news for Northerners - Sudbury.com

Sunday, June 05, 2016

China would pay for rail into Ring of Fire

More details of Chinese involvement in the Ring of Fire. Essentially, China needs chromite - lots of chromite. Canada has chromite - lots of chromite. However, at the moment, nobody can reach it.

In exchange for chromite, it appears that China is wiling to fund the project. What this means for sovereignty isn't clear, but it seems that the actual ownership of the rail link would be split between KWG, the ONTC and native communities.

>>>China would pay for rail into Ring of Fire - KWG | Timmins Press<<<

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The ONTC and China

Could somebody please explain to me why every time there is a mention of a possible partnership between the ONTC and the Chinese state railways the link is taken down?

I recently posted a a promotional video for the Chinese government-owned state railway consultants who may be working on the transportation infrastructure for the Ring of Fire. Within hours, the video had been removed from public viewing.

The North Bay Nugget recently published an article on how the ONTC is ready to take part in the mining project should rail be the main mode of transportation. The article also briefly referred to the same Chinese consultants, who are working with various mining partners to study how to connect the Ring of Fire with existing transportation links. Within hours of being published, the article no longer existed on the Nugget's website and had also been removed from its homepage. You can read a cached version of the article here.

Also of note in the article, once you can find it, is the possibility of moving locomotive maintenance from North Bay to Cochrane, which would free up space for more refurbishment work. Corina Moore, President and CEO of the ONTC, also said that she hoped that continued growth in the refurbishment division and improved service on the Polar Bear Express would show Queen's Park that the ONTC "is just as good" as any of the province's other transportation agencies.

CP's Toronto Yard is Shrinking

CP 3021 & 2281, Toronto Yard

Friday, May 13, 2016

Premier stresses ONR's importance

Nothing really new, but calling for an integration of northeastern and northwestern transportation makes sense. While Ontario Northland has always been synonymous with the North, it has really focused on the northeast.

>>>Premier stresses ONR's importance | North Bay Nugget<<<

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ontario Northland, China and the Ring of Fire?

Edit 27 April: I received a message from Ontario Northland, explaining that the video was "supposed to be on private mode for internal view only" and it has since been deleted. The promotional video can still be found on KWG Resources' Youtube channel.

As the saga of the Ring of Fire continues, Chinese companies have taken a growing interest in the project. China is already one of the largest consumers of primary resources in the world and demand is expected to grow in the future. As a result, the Chinese government and enterprises are seeking new sources for the raw materials needed to fuel their economy.

This past month, a delegation from China Railway First Survey and Design Institute (FSDI) visited the development being undertaken by KWG Resources in the Ring of Fire. While the economic potential of the vast deposits of chromite was a key draw, the main reason for the visit was to allow a team of Chinese railway engineers to survey the possible routes for a rail link connecting the Ring of Fire with CN's main line.

After the delegation met with KWG, it held an introductory meeting with Ontario Northland before proceeding to Montreal for talks with CN. While nothing has been said regarding the meeting, Ontario Northland has since posted a translated promotional video for FSDI [edit 27 April: the video has since been removed] and has retweeted KWG's photo of the survey.

Screenshot of Ontario Northland''s Vimeo channel [Edit 27 April: video now removed]

FSDI is part of China's growing interest in railway construction. This includes such controversial projects as the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which human rights groups have claimed increases Chinese influence in the occupied territory. (FSDI is directly involved with the Tibet project). In 2006, a shareholder's proposal calling on Bombardier to adopt a robust human rights policy in light of their involvement with the project was defeated.

Other Chinese railway companies have been heavily involved in railway construction in Africa, including the ambitious East Africa railway project and the already-completed TAZARA Railway. The latter was the subject of a BBC documentary which demonstrated the lack of transparency in the project.

It is too soon to tell whether China will play a key role in the Ring of Fire, but recent developments have suggested that stakeholders are taking the possibility seriously. This leads to several important questions. To what extent would the Chinese government be directly involved in the Ring of Fire and its rail operations if FSDI or another company were to play a leading role in the project? How would China's human rights record play out with aboriginal communities, which make up the largest population in the Ring of Fire? If the BBC documentary on the TAZARA Railway is anything to by, how much transparency can be expected in a project which will likely receive funding from all levels of government in Canada?

The uncertainty surrounding the Ring of Fire and, by extension, the future of Ontario Northland has taken another interesting turn.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Old and new in the UK

Virgin Trains East Coast has now completed the process of rebranding its fleet of IC 125 and IC 225 trains. Despite being decades old, the new livery gives the trains a distinctly modern feel. 43309, London King's Cross 91120, South Otterington

In contrast, the Great Central Railway has done an excellent job trying to erase modernity from its property, as this image illustrates. D6535, Quorn & Woodhouse

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Friday, March 04, 2016

Rail supporters reboot search for third-party operator

Despite three candidates putting forward offers, nobody has been able to present a robust plan for getting passenger service restored along the former Algoma Central line between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.

>>>Rail supporters reboot search for third-party operator<<<

Friday, February 26, 2016

UPX Fares Slashed to Preserve Service

Last summer, Toronto finally joined the list of world cities with a rail link connecting the city centre to the airport. Several months into the service, ridership is dropping, with many trains running at 10% capacity. During the Family Day weekend, the trains ran free of charge, which resulted in lineups and over 10,000 passengers per day using the service.

Novelty aside, the weekend experiment demonstrated that people are willing to use public transit - if the price is right. In a bid to stem the loss of ridership, Metrolinx has voted to slash (I think that is a reasonable term to use) the Union Pearson Express fares by more than 50% in the hopes of attracting more passengers, not just to the airport, but also to form a commuter base using the intermediate stations. You can read about the new fares in the following newsletter: Think Forward – February 23 board meeting (special edition).

The reasons I bring up the plight of the UPX is to draw a comparison with the Northlander, which was cancelled in 2012. When its ridership numbers were less than ideal (although not actually in decline, as the government of the time claimed), the train was simply cancelled and the additional bus service promised to fill in the void never materialized.

Fast forward four years and we have a frequent airport shuttle running virtually empty. However, unlike the Northlander (which was primarily serving Northern Ontario), the UPX serves Toronto. As a result, we see fares cut in a move which will undoubtedly mean greater government subsidy. As I, and many other people, have been pointing out for years, there are two Ontarios - Toronto and the rest.

There were a variety of options which could have helped the Northlander, including a reduction in frequency (although six times a week was hardly extravagant - in contrast, the UPX runs four times per hour) or lower fares, but cancellation appeared to be the only option the government was willing to try.

Given the current fiscal tension, one has to wonder (albeit with tongue-in-cheek), whether it might not be time to begin the divestment of the Union Pearson Express. After all, it seemed to fix the government's little Northlander problem.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Lack of Nuance in the Railway Safety Debate

I love railways. I’ve loved rail transportation for as long as I can remember. But my love has its limits, and the state of railway safety in Canada does leave me with grave reservations.

As an historian, I am programmed to never see issues in black and white. The world is, after all, nuanced. But the current discussion surrounding railway safety in Canada has polarized the debate and fails to see the many shades of grey that are the true basis of the issue.

Before the derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic in the summer of 2013, rail safety was a topic largely relegated to the occasional investigative journalism exposé featuring yet another safety inspector who found their job disappeared after their warnings went unheeded, a train derailed, and they became a convenient scapegoat.

But the tragic loss of 47 lives in a small Quebec town changed how we thought about railway safety (for many people, it was the first time that they did think about). Suddenly crude oil was public enemy number one. Railway companies were the big evil, despite endemic regulatory failures being as much to blame. Each affected party did an admirable job of shifting blame away from themselves and onto the other groups involved. The extensive media coverage surrounding former head of the now-defunct Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ed Burkhardt, played up the shifting of blame.

The fact is that the blame for Lac-Mégantic rests on many shoulders: the crude oil industry (for incorrectly labelling the contents of the tank cars which derailed); first responders (for failing to understand that shutting down the locomotives would release the train’s air brakes); the train crew (for failing to apply sufficient handbrakes to keep the train from moving in case of an air brake failure); the railway companies (for failing to adequately maintain the rolling stock involved, for pushing for one-man locomotive crews, and for failing to provide an adequate response to the initial locomotive fire).

Last, but by no means least, the government was to blame, for failing to provide the strict regulations and accountability which would have prevented an increasingly lax safety culture among railway companies across the country. As the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation demonstrated, the series of events were caused largely by regulatory failure after regulatory failure, a finding backed up by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives own investigation.

The lack of oversight was further illustrated this week when Transport Canada ordered CP to change the way it scheduled shifts for running crews in order to better balance work with rest periods. Crew fatigue dates back to the birth of railways, but this particular order is long overdue and is years in the making. 

Meanwhile, CP’s news releases continue to lambast Norfolk Southern for rejecting CP’s overtures to create a massive pan-continental railroad. Naturally, CP has a vested interest in courting larger business opportunities, but the public perception is of a greedy corporation seeking capital opportunities at the expense of other concerns, such as safety.

The truth is, as is so often the case, somewhere in the middle. The company’s narrowly-focused press releases would suggest that CP’s head office is entirely obsessed with a merger (or “consolidation” to use their term), but there are countless (and silent) employees whose responsibility is the safe operation of the railway - a goal which is achieved the vast majority of the time. These voices are largely missing from the media’s rail safety dichotomy: big bad railway company versus powerless communities.

On the other side of the debate, community groups advocating for rail safety can be equally guilty of black and white thought. In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, a group of concerned residents in Toronto formed Safe Rail Communities, an organization which calls for “safe, transparent, and regulated rail” through increased government oversight. Their early meetings painted freight trains through urban areas as the enemy, a perspective which had more than a hint of NIMBYism to it. To their credit, their campaign has become more focused and their webpage clearly outlines their target: the “increasing numbers of black DOT 111 tank cars marked with the 1267 red diamond plaque (indicating petroleum crude)”. 

But the wider public discourse has not moved beyond seeing all tank cars as the enemy. If there is no hazmat diamond, the car is empty and does not pose much risk; many harmless chemicals are carried in tank cars - corn syrup being one of the most common.

Other groups, such as ForestEthics, appear to embrace the lack of nuance in the debate as a way of furthering their own agendas. In May 2015, a map of rail lines was brought to my attention. The map, published by ForestEthics, asks “how close are you and your family to a disaster waiting to happen?” The map features an overlay of rail routes the group claims carry crude oil across Canada. Along the routes, red and yellow lines denote the 1/2 mile “Evacuation Zone” and 1 mile “Potential Impact Zone” around the tracks in case of a crude oil derailment. The message is clear: if you live in Canada’s most populated areas, you are at risk. 

Screenshot of the ForestEthics rail map of the Ottawa area.

But the message is only clear through a manipulation of reality. The map incorrectly lists VIA Rail’s Brockville, Alexandria, and Smiths Falls subdivisions as being crude oil routes. In fact, none of these lines carry through-freight traffic anymore. Yes, all three do see minor local freight traffic, but this does not include the unit trains of crude oil tank cars which the website suggests they do. In fact, the Ottawa area is almost entirely devoid of freight trains. These three sections of track are the near-exclusive domain of VIA Rail’s intercity passenger trains.

When I saw the inaccuracy, I contacted ForestEthics (just as their website suggested) and brought the mistake to their attention. I never received a reply. Eight months later, the map remains unchanged. The cynic in me has concluded that ‘mapping’ crude oil traffic through the centre of Canada’s bureaucracy is too good a tactic to let accuracy get in the way. 

The reality of railway safety in Canada is complicated, a fact further emphasized by recent revelations that the government heavily redacts documents surrounding the issue in the name of corporate sensitivity. Many groups have a vested interest in the subject. The oil industry needs to ship its products. As proposals for new pipelines are turned down, the rolling pipeline of crude oil trains becomes vital to the distribution of a product that, like it or not, we are dependent on. Railway companies need freight in order to generate revenue. All levels of government need to balance corporate interests with public safety and the economy. The media need to accurately report a balanced picture of the news, but somehow condense it into the tiniest bite-size chunks for the short attention span of modernity (an attention span that is not well-suited to nuance). Communities across the country need to feel safe, but also need transportation links in order to be connected with the rest of the country. 

As in any nuanced opinion, it becomes difficult to take sides because the number of factors is multiplied significantly once one digs beyond the simplicity of black and white. Railway companies are being hounded for issues in the regulatory system and transportation infrastructure when they must share control with a multitude of other parties. Likewise, community activists must clarify their grievances in order to direct their concerns effectively, thus avoiding mistakes which dilute their message with overtones of paranoia.

Anyone who has studied history will know all too well that the more you study it, the more you realize how little you know. Unfortunately, the black and white nature of the current rail safety debate leaves no room for the nuanced complexity of reality. Put simply, to claim to understand railway safety in Canada is (more than likely) to know very little about it indeed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Proposed Ring of Fire railway faces issues

An interesting take on the various issues facing mining and railroading in the Ring of Fire.

>>>Daily Commercial News - Proposed Ring of Fire railway faces issues<<<

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Thank you to OVAR

This past week, I travelled to Ottawa to give a dinner talk for the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR). Until I received the invitation, I'd never really heard of the group. Founded in 1961, OVAR is an Ottawa-based group who meet to share a common interest in all things railway - from 1:1, to 1:87 and beyond. Their membership numbers over 100 and their meeting (despite a winter storm raging outside) was well attended.

My talk, "A Decade of Digital: Ontario Railway Photography, 2006-2016", was an ambitious attempt to show how much has changed in the past decade. As the name hinted, 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of my switch to digital photography. To be fair, I had barely started in film photography before I made the switch, but my early days in digital were filled with scepticism as I wondered whether the image quality would be good (it was - even better in fact - but that would be expected when one's budget allowed only for Kodak fun-time film).

Through my talk, my images charted how the rosters of VIA Rail, GO Transit, CN and CP have all changed in the past ten years - in the Toronto Area at least. (While the talk's title was ambitious, my preparation had forced me to cull my initial selection of 150 images into a more focused discussion of around 90 photographs). I also briefly discussed the Toronto Railway Museum, Union Pearson Express and the demise of the Northlander.

I closed the talk by looking at how the railway scene in Whitby has changed over the past decade. Regular readers will have seen many of these changes documented. They will also have noted that there have been fewer Whitby images of late as various vantage points have become inaccessible or changed beyond recognition.

The talk is the culmination of OVAR's monthly meeting, which includes a meal, plenty of time to socialize and a themed display of various members' ongoing model railroading projects. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and met a variety of interesting people, all with their own unique interest in railways. Railway enthusiasm encourages specialization, but this can cause tunnel-vision (pun intended). One of the strengths of a group such as OVAR is the pooling of interests and talent, which I believe has helped them to continue for over five decades.

Thank you to everyone at OVAR for such a warm welcome and for taking an interest in my photography - I had a great time!