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Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Rugged' first year as MPP

Recently, northern Ontario media outlets voted the ONTC issue as the biggest new story of 2012.  Reflecting on his first year in office, Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli agrees, and predicts that the issue will remain important throughout 2013.  He also speculated that the rail division would be the next up for sale. 
'Rugged' first year as MPP | North Bay Nugget

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Good News and Bad News

Support for New Deal North continues to grow, with the provincial NDP stating that the idea has "merit".  Meanwhile, Infrastructure Ontario has moved ahead with the sale of Ontera and plans to announce the buyer in Spring 203.

Monday, December 17, 2012

New Deal North: A new website and a stronger ONTC campaign

Christmas time is nearly upon us and the mess of politics usually winds down, leaving little news for us to digest.  However, building on the momentum of many provincial Liberal leadership candidates questioning the ONTC divestment plan, the ONTC's General Chairperson's Association has chosen to ramp up its campaign for a new deal and has launched a new website - - to promote their plan for the ONTC to be transferred to a port authority.

What began as a union-driven movement to stop the divestment of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission has evolved into a campaign to protect infrastructure in northern Ontario and boost ecomonic and job growth through expanded transport links and new mining operations.  The new plan - to transfer the ONTC to a port authority under the federal Canada Marine Act - would see the ONTC protected, a new line built to the 'Ring of Fire' and increased jobs through the mining sector and the services necessary to support it.  Since April, the negotiations have included native groups who are well represented in the plan.  Municipalities, reserves, politicians, ONTC employees and mining companies all support the plan.

I think that the plan can work.  It protects, and even improves, infrastructure services to northern Ontario while allowing the provincial government to bow out gracefully and move away from what has become a mess.  I think that if native groups are respected and the mining is conducted in a responsible, sustainable manner this will be a great opportunity for the north.  Not only will the existing ONTC services be protected, but the plan also calls for reinstatement of some form of passenger rail along the Highway 11 corridor.  Let's hope this works!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A city, a spur and a whole lot of trouble

There is a conflict brewing in Oshawa.  The motor city is also home to an excellent industrial harbour which is seeing a new lease of life thanks to a new ethanol plant on the waterfront.  The federally-administered Port of Oshawa is being upgraded to serve large cargo ships and several are now docking at the harbour every week.

However, while the federal government supports the construction, residents of Oshawa and the municipal government are not happy and do not want the plant.  Among the concerns are the impact on the adjacent wetlands and the nearby public beach and park.  The plant is also set to bring increased heavy truck traffic to south Oshawa, an area with schools and houses, as well as heavy industry.  Despite the opposition, construction continues apace.

Stuck somewhere in the middle is CN, who will be offering rail access to the new plant.  In preparation for this new traffic, CN is currently rebuilding and upgrading their line to the harbour.  Abandoned for the past two decades or so, the remnants of the Oshawa Harbour/Wentworth Spur currently run from the CN Kingston Sub south across Wentworth Street before petering out just north of Harbour Road.  In the last few months, CN has finished building the new roadbed near Harbour Road and rail is waiting to be laid.  Further north on the spur, near Wentworth Street, the line is still in its abandoned state, offering an interesting photo opportunity.

Looking north along the Wentworth Spur

I don't know when the line is set to open, but I expect it will offer some interesting angles for railway photography when it does... unless trains run at night.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

So, how is Metrolinx doing?

Currently, the Ontario Government funds two agencies responsible for rail: the ONTC and Metrolinx. The government's desire to divest the ONTC is apprently justified by the perception that the services are a bottomless money pit that no amount of subsidy can possibly fill.  Metrolinx, however, is lauded as being a model transportation agency, with new routes and services being announced every month.  The latest report from Ontario's Auditor General sees Metrolinx in a slightly less rosy light.

It seems that Metrolinx isn't as cost-effective as the government would like it to be.  PRESTO, the new smart card system, is one of the most expensive in the world and is expected to cost over $700 million.  The system, which is designed to offer seamless transfers between transit systems, won't be fully implemented in the TTC network until 2016, one year after the Pan-Am Games.  The renovation of Union Station is over budget and will cost more than $270 million.  Track improvements at the station are also proving costly, with the final bill expected to be $38 million.  The rail link to Pearson Airport, slated to open in time for the 2015 Pan-Am Games, is likely to need more subsidies as the report suggests that ridership will be lower than expected.

It is nearly impossible to run a public transit system without subsidies, but this report also shows just how unrealistic the government's two-tier system is.  Metrolinx and the ONTC both need subsidies, yet the ONTC is somehow less worthy of them.  Compared to Metrolinx, the ONTC serves a very small group of people, but the service is minimal at best.  In the densely-populated Toronto Area, Metrolinx provides a variety of improving services to millions of people, it seems with infinite capital available when it is needed.  The north-south divide is clear. News - Ontario may write off $1.4B in unpaid taxes, AG says

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'Liberals are long on platitudes and short on policy' - Fedeli

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli criticises the Liberal leadership candidates for their lack of understanding about northern Ontario.  While many of the candidates were part of McGuinty's government, their decision to hold a debate on primarily northern issues suggests that there might be some desire for a better relationship with the north.
'Liberals are long on platitudes and short on policy' - Fedeli

Monday, December 10, 2012

Liberal leadership rivals clash on autonomy for northern Ontario

It's a rare occasion when all the candidates agree on something (other than they want to win).  However, it would seem that they all agree on one point: Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government has failed northern Ontario.
Liberal leadership rivals clash on autonomy for northern Ontario | iPolitics

Friday, December 07, 2012

GO Tracker: A New Tool to Follow Trains

 GO has just launched GO Tracker, a new website designed to offer real-time information on the GO rail network, including train locations, times and platform numbers.  It looks like a lot of fun and will certainly help people find out if there are any delays to watch for.
GO Tracker

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

DVD Review: De-Railed

Trailer for De-Railed: The National Dream

For many years, I have been ranting and raving about the decline of railways in Canada.  Yes, there is growth in the GTA thanks to commuter rail, but the rest of the country is increasingly seeing railways reduced to single tracks for CN and CP.  I really believe that the future of rail in Canada is troubled, so imagine my relief to discover that I am not alone in my concern.

I recently received my copy of De-Railed: The National Dream, a new documentary by Sault Ste. Marie-based filmmaker Dan Nystedt.  Not only do other people share my fear for Canada's railway future, but some of them care enough to make a documentary about it.  In this 70-minute production, Nystedt takes us on a frenetic trip across the country, surveying the state of rail and profiling the people looking to halt, and even reverse, the decline.

The trip begins in northern Ontario, looking at the uncertain future of the Huron Central Railway, a company leasing the CP line from the Soo to Sudbury, in desperate need of infrastructure funding to keep running.  After rushing through the story of the railway, which I found to have a cliffhanger ending (as it still does in reality), the documentary continues to profile other threatened railways in Canada including the Ontario Northland (which, at the time of filming, was considered to be "hanging by a thread").  From Ontario, the trip continues to the Prairies to look at the consolidation of branchlines serving the grain industry and the various communities that have banded together to buy abandoned lines to continue shipping their grain to market on their own terms.  The journey concludes on Vancouver Island, where the Island Corridor Foundation is trying to reopen the abandoned CP line along the spine of the island.

The claim that the documentary is a coast-to-coast journey is not entirely clear as Quebec and the Maritimes are hardly mentioned.  The production features interesting and insightful interviews with many different people, including native leaders, academics, lobbyists, politicians, railroaders and even Amtrak president Joseph Boardman.  The interviews show how people from all walks of life are concerned about the direction Canada is taking when it comes to rail.  Shockingly, the country has lost over 12,000 km of track in the last 20 years and only just over 1% of government infrastructure money is spent on what railway network is left.

I really felt that the production was too short.  From the credits, it was clear that the number of people appearing in the finished product represented only a small fraction of the number actually interviewed.  Likewise, much of the footage in the introduction and conclusion shows that the trip was in fact far more coast-to-coast than the film showed.  Of course, all productions have time limits, but I really felt that 70 minutes was too short and that it caused the story to be abbreviated too much.  At times it felt as if the story was being sacrificed for the sake of brevity.  This documentary is not a narrative or a comprehensive guide to all the issues, but rather an overview of several initiatives from across the country.  It can at times feel a little disjointed, but as some of the people pointed out, Canada has no national transportation strategy, so this feeling of disconnect is to be expected.

This independent documentary gives a very good and persuasive overview of the crisis in Canadian railways as lines are torn up because the scrap value of the rail outweighs the value of the railway itself.  I would like to see public broadcasters, such as TVO, pick up this documentary because it profiles an important issue in Canada's future: what happens should, heaven forbid, we need railways again one day?

Authors often end up blinkered when working on their latest project.  I confess that working on my upcoming Ontario Northland book, I have tended to ignore railway issues in the rest of Canada.  Dan Nystedt's latest full-length documentary has helped me to reconnect with the bigger rail picture in Canada.  De-Railed is fast, intelligent and left me asking: when is Part 2 coming out?

De-Railed: The National Dream is available now on DVD through the Form Productions website.  Copies cost $20 each.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Pacific's Tour Comes to a Close

It's official.  According to a post on the Canadian Passenger Rail Group, Pacific is safely back home in Ajax after the Mother Parker Remembers tour to raise money for Alzheimer's research.

The tour provided a very interesting part of railway photography this past year and the unofficial tally suggests that over $900,000 was raised by the tour, an impressive sum indeed.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

CP's Holiday Train

For the past 14 years, Canadian Pacific has sent specially-decorated trains across its Canadian and American networks to kick off the festive season.  Although it is called the "Holiday Train," it is clearly a Christmas train, complete with Santa and a tree on the locomotive roof.  Along with connecting the railway to the communities it passes through, the Holiday Train also hosts musical guests at the various stops along the way and collects donations for local food banks.  To date, the initiative has raised $6.4 million and 2.6 million lbs. of food, all while providing free entertainment along the way.

I have seen the train on several occasions, its visit often accompanied by very bad weather.  This year was no different, its stop in Bowmanville coincided with the first actual snow of the year, all two millimetres of it.  However, it was the biting wind and intermittent ice pellets that made this year's weather memorable.  Despite the weather, I was able to capture some interesting photos of this year's CP Canadian Holiday Train.

The business car at the end of the Holiday Train

The train arrived a little late at the Scugog Street crossing in downtown Bowmanville.  It struck me that the crowd of spectators this year was thinner than normal, and many people left as soon as they had seen the train arrive, not bothering to stay for the show.  The weather certainly did not help.

The Holiday Train crosses Highway 2 on its way to Oshawa

Rather than listen to the show, which honestly didn't sound all that musically enjoyable, I wandered around trying different angles before setting up to photograph the train departing for the next stop in Oshawa.  The same locomotive is used on the Holiday Train each year, with CP 9815 assigned to the Canadian train.  I saw 9815 in the St-Luc Diesel Shop during my visit last October.

This was also the first time that I had my Canon SLR to shoot the train and it performed admirably.  The top ISO of 1600 was certainly helpful, although higher would have been nice too!

The Holiday Train is now making its way across Northern Ontario on its way to the Pacific Ocean.  For a schedule, visit CP's website.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Holiday spirit hits the rails

If you ever needed a reason why the ONTC should remain in public hands, read how much time and effort the ONTC family invests in the communities it serves.  Shareholder accountability really limits that sort of thing.
Holiday spirit hits the rails | Your online newspaper for North Bay, Ontario

10 Years of Websites

In December 2002, I put my first website online.  It was basic, rather pointless and was hosted by the now-defunct Geocities.  Unfortunately, no copies of this original website exist, but it dealt with the same topic I still discuss today: railways.  Here's to ten years and, just maybe, another ten in cyberspace.