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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Northern Ontario MPP eyes election for region's 'turn-around'

Is there a provincial election on the horizon? Hard to tell, but a lot of MPPs think that 2014 needs to bring some sort of change - either a new government, or significant progress on northern issues. 
Northern Ontario MPP eyes election for region's 'turn-around' - CBC News

What is the Future of the National History Curriculum?

Last night, I heard a very interesting discussion on the future of the national history curriculum on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week. You can listen to the episode here, or download the podcast version here. The discussion was centred around Michael Gove, the current Education Secretary in the Cameron/Clegg coalition government mess, who has called for tougher exams and an end to modular GCSEs to make English qualifications more competitive on the world stage. He is not a historian, nor has he studied history, but he wants to rewrite the history curriculum to give students a better understanding of the grand sweep of British history. Joining him on the panel were three acclaimed historians: Simon Schama, Margaret Macmillan and Tom Holland (I'll admit it, I hadn't heard of him before). All three agreed that it is time to overhaul the history curriculum, but they also cautioned about creating a heroic, hagiographic construction of the British past (Gove himself claimed to be a "whig" when it comes to history). The term history was used in its colloquial sense throughout to mean the past, which is really what we teach school children. We tend to shield them from the messy, "muddled" (as Macmillan put it), world that is historical debate. Of course, this means they miss all the fun!

I am a product of two different history curricula during my schooling: Ontario all the way through the end of high school and the English A-Level system. The two have very different approaches, but both miss the mark for making people well-versed in history. Throughout my Ontario learning, I always complained about how shallow the history teaching was, spending only a few hours on what appeared to be immense topics (I think I spent a total of three days studying the Russian Revolution, about 20 minutes on the Tudors and about the same on the Industrial Revolution). Instead, my learning was a whirlwind tour of world history, with the same core Canadian narrative repeated in every grade with little added detail; one textbook and one version of events. Critical analysis and the other techniques that make historians such skilled people were entirely lacking. Conversely, the English A-Level is all about detailed, close analysis; spending weeks on a minute section of the past until you really understand it (even if the final essay answer is considered tediously loyal in its adherence to what was taught). This is closer (except the essay bit!) to what historians do in their day-to-day research, but it lacks a broader picture. I often found myself referring back to the sweeping tour of the past of my Ontario days to see how what I was learning fit into the bigger picture. English students leave with a detailed knowledge of Romans, Tudors, Victorian and Edwardian Social Reform, and Nazis - lots of Nazis. Unfortunately, they don't really know why the French Revolution mattered or why Germany became powerful in the first place. The ideal system is probably a mix of both a sweeping chronology and detailed study. This is how history is generally taught at university level and it seems to work. Even if it works, the emergence of new trends in history, such as transnational, postcolonial and Eastern European histories to name a few, show just how much we are missing out and how immense history really is.

Two things struck me about the discussion. Firstly, the idea of a national curriculum where all students learn the same syllabus and write the same exam. While I disagree with J.L. Granatstein's emphasis on military history in his polemical work Who Killed Canadian History?, he is right to emphasise how fragmented history teaching in Canada is with at least 13 different curricula. You could further fragment the system. For instance, I am a product of French Immersion and I spent much more time on Francophone-Canadian history than most. The other element of the discussion that intrigued me was the repeated notion of patriotism in teaching history. Being a product of North America and a specialist in 20th-century history, the p-word puts me on edge, it being too closely-related to its cousin nationalism. Given, Britain generally lacks North American-style flag-waving, but it is creeping into British society all the time (I really can't get excited that my potato chips have salt from Cheshire and all-British potatoes). It is fine to be quietly proud to live in a country, but this should not cloud all the bad things that happen there. Rather, this pride should push you to fight to rectify the ills. History can help by identifying the root causes of problems and consider how previous reforms have been successful, or not so. To understand how the world around us came to be is critical to living in the present and thinking about the future. Now if only Canada could have a discussion about the future of teaching history on a national radio show...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Loyal Subscribers Keep Hobby Magazines Afloat

It seems that the digital age isn't destroying print media just yet. Many hobby magazines, including Model Railroader and Trains, are doing well in the screen-saturated world of leisure reading. Yes, they have developed digital versions and online content, but people still want the magazines too.
>>>Loyal Subscribers Keep Hobby Magazines Afloat -<<<

Friday, December 20, 2013

Snow Dust / Neige Poussiéreuse

Via Flickr:
GO 651 pulls train 908 towards Whitby GO Station, 16 December 2013. / GO 651 avec le train 908 approche la gare de Whitby, 16 décembre 2013.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

ONTC fire sale dead or not?

Vic Fedeli believes that the Auditor General's report hasn't changed anything and that the divestment process continues regardless.
>>>ONTC fire sale dead or not? | Kapuskasing Times<<<

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Selling Off ONTC is Still a Good Deal for Ontarians

It isn't often that you come across a dissenting opinion in the ONTC debate. You are either against divestment - or you are the government. That is why this opinion piece was so interesting. While he doesn't deny that divestment would cost a lot of money, Lafleur argues that there would be cost savings in the long term. He also advocates for competitive bidding for services in the north. While this model does work (and suits some political persuasions better than others), it doesn't address the core concerns of those against divestment, notably that the Northlander is no longer running and that they don't want private-sector involvement. Personally, I still believe that divestment is a mistake and that a restructured ONTC is the best solution. However, Lafleur's arguments merit consideration as another possible path to follow.
>>>Why Selling Off ONTC is Still a Good Deal for Ontarians | Steve Lafleur<<<

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Unpacking the Auditor General's ONTC Report

I have now read the newly-released Ontario Auditor General's report into the divestment of the ONTC. The full report can be accessed here. While much of the report deals with numbers (many of which have been grabbing the headlines), it also sheds valuable light onto the divestment process as a whole. While the Auditor General (AG) is an impartial body, the government is accused of poor planning and communication, which calls the validity of the divestment into question. Given the revelations, it is hard not to criticise the government.

The media has latched onto the two key numbers from the report: the government's initial claim of a $265.9 million saving over three years and the projected $820 million cost calculated by the AG. The initial savings claim, which was released as part of the information on March 23, 2012 when divestment was announced, is seen as incomplete and ambiguous. The figure does not consider potential liabilities, such as severance and environmental cleanup and it was not clearly defined in the government announcement, leading to different interpretations and confusion. The projected costs have been rising steadily since March 2012 and are now estimated to exceed $820 million excluding environmental cleanup, Aboriginal negotiations and other costs deemed too "sensitive" to publish. Despite the high costs, the AG does conclude that divestment may still lead to cost-savings in the long term, especially if the alternative is to continue the ONTC in its current form.

Of greater interest to me was the analysis of divestment, a process which the government has clearly screwed-up spectacularly. Interestingly, the AG contextualises the divestment as a continuation of every financial decision surrounding the ONTC since Mike Harris' failed divestment plan in 2000. The current divestment was announced on March 23, 2012, less than 24 hours after much of the process was implemented. In fact, the President of the ONTC was only notified once much of the restructuring had already happened. The report details a culture of mistrust and poor communication between the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the ONTC, two groups which it appears could not understand each other. The ONTC was seen as a politically-sensitive issue, so any attempts to restructure it were blocked to avoid conflict. As a result, the financial problems at the ONTC continued to get worse as losses continued without any apparent solution. This poor working relationship has been exacerbated by the government's de-facto ban on the ONTC seeking new business and the continued lack of consultation of the ONTC about its own future.

The most damning revelation in the report is the government's complete lack of due diligence on the issue. Investigations into the potential cost of divestment, pension and severance liabilities were only begun after divestment was announced in the first place. The government had never tried to divest something as large as the ONTC and was clearly stumbling around in the dark trying to make a complex reality fit their goal of cost savings. The highest cost, liabilities as a result of the ONTC's  collective agreements (which cover 90% of employees) was not even considered until well after the divestment was announced.

This report offers startling new information into what has happened over the past two years and how much of a mess the government has made. That said, it is also important to draw a line between the McGuinty era and the Wynne era. While McGuinty's tenure was marked by closed-door decisions (which the report suggests were short-sighted and unwise), Wynne's government has made the process more transparent, notably by creating the Minister's Advisory Committee and backing away from complete divestment. While it is unclear how much of this change was provoked by the revelations in the AG's report, what matters is that there has been change. The contents of the report show irresponsible government practices and decisions, but this also offers a chance to change the situation for the better. Now is a chance to open up discussion, be more transparent, recognise the needs of northern Ontario and of responsible fiscal policy while actually helping the ONTC to adapt to a changing world. This should not be a partisan or a political issue. The core of the ONTC has always been service to people and to Ontario. This must not be forgotten.

This is my take on the report. I encourage you to read the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions as well. There is a comprehensive article in the Timmins Press which outlines some high-profile reactions to the report.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Auditor General's Report is Released

The Ontario Auditor General has released the long-awaited report into the government's divestment plan for the ONTC. You can read the report at the Auditor General's website. I have not yet read the full contents of the report and I will not be commenting until I have done so. Watch this space!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Runaway Trains

The Canadian media has been full of stories of runaway trains of late. After the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic during the summer, railway safety has once again been a key issue. The latest chapter revolves around runaway trains, which appear to be defined as any train that moves when it shouldn't. The CBC has uncovered hundreds of such incidents over the past decade and has made a map charting every incident. Puting things in perspective, most of the reported incidents appear to be freight cars moving in yards, but there are other incidents that are more worrying, such as CN 450 which left a large portion of its train on the Newmarket Sub near Huntsville. The CBC map is very detailed and there is plenty of information to keep any railway fan interested. I was especially interested to see that neither GO Transit nor Ontario Northland have any reported incidents: a cut above the rest?
CBC Map: Runaway Trains in Canada

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

As I was settling down to sleep last night, BBC Radio 4 interrupted programming to bring listeners the news that Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, had died at the age of 95.

The sad news was not unexpected, his health had been failing for several years and a series of scares during the summer had brought his mortality into the forefront of the South African conscious, but it still came as a shock which will continue to be felt for the considerable future.

While I have never visited South Africa, I do feel a connection to the country. My grandfather was born and grew up in Johannesburg and I still have relatives near Cape Town. Since the end of Apartheid, much has changed in South Africa and it is undeniably a much fairer society. However, much remains to be done.

Mandela was the figurehead of so many movements to improve the situation in South Africa. Yes, there was violence on both sides of the conflict, but the international pressure and boycotts are an example of when peaceful pressure actually gets results.

Throughout history, there have been many great world leaders, but there have been very few great world leaders. Mandela's influence reached far beyond South Africa's borders and he was respected around the world as an advocate for peace, democracy, fairness and the fight against poverty. While he is now gone, his ideas and legacy are here to stay.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Auditor General report on ONTC imminent

It has been a busy week on the ONTC front and it appears that change really is in the air. Dialogue between the government and the unions is about to increase, the Auditor General's report will be released, and the government's tone has changed significantly.
>>>Auditor General report on ONTC imminent<<<

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Light at end of ONTC tunnel? (Text of Gravelle's Statement)

Michael Gravelle's statement on Monday appears to show a change in direction regarding the ONTC. His words are generally vague, but the shift away from divestment is very clear. I think the most important passage is that
Ultimately, both our government and the Minister’s Advisory Committee, recognize the importance of a resilient, prosperous regional economy that attracts people and investments to Northern Ontario.
In light of the recent problem with the Ring of Fire, I think the government has decided to stop tampering with the ONTC and develop a concrete plan in order to protect the economic development of northern Ontario.
>>>Light at end of ONTC tunnel? | Kapuskasing Times<<<

Focus on transformation, not sell-off, of ONTC

It's all over... sort of.
In an announcement on Monday, Minister Michael Gravelle changed the wording of the ONTC issue from 'divestment' to 'transformation,' although divestment does remain one of multiple possibilities. If I had to make a prediction now, based on limited information, I would say that the ONTC will remain in provincial hands. I do not think that the government can hope to push forward with divestment while retaining support. Here's to a new beginning.
>>>Focus on transformation, not sell-off, of ONTC | Timmins Press<<<

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cliffs Out of Ring of Fire

Indecision, delays and the realities of mining. Ontario has an opportunity to access the Ring of Fire (with First Nations approval), but the delays are taking their toll.
>>> - Cliffs Out of Ring of Fire<<<

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ontario Northland’s Christmas Train

It's back! Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the ONTC, it is good to see some things keep going as normal. Enjoy!
>>>Ontario Northland’s Christmas Train - Ontario Northland<<<

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Ontario creating Ring of Fire corporation

It seems the province has committed seriously to developing the Ring of Fire. After months of little movement, the creation of a corporation to oversee planning and development is a step forward. Unfortunately, there is no immediate comment on the role the ONTC might play in the corporation, but I think that the ONTC should be a vital component for transportation and communication infrastructure.
>>>Ontario creating Ring of Fire corporation<<<

Friday, November 08, 2013

John Vanthof Calls on the Government to Listen to Recommendations

MPP John Vanthof has called on the government to listen to the recommendations made by the Ministerial Advisory Committee for the future of the ONTC. He emphasises that the continued delays are hurting people across the north as they don't know what will happen.

In the release, Vanthof talks about a report released by the Committee. Is this in the public domain? Does anyone have a copy they could share with me?

>>>John Vanthof<<<

Thursday, November 07, 2013

National Railway Day

Did you know that today is Canada's National Railway Day? I know it exists, but I always manage to forget it. Anyway, here is a good press release about why it is relevant to Canada today.
>>>National Railway Day<<<

Monday, November 04, 2013

Locos in a Different Light

Via Flickr:
Each year, the National Railway Museum in York takes part in the 'Illuminating York' festival by letting design teams transform locomotives into works of light art. This year's event coincided with the 'Great Gathering' of A4s and was quite an experience for the thousands of visitors.(30 October 2013)

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Transportation key to unlocking Ring of Fire

 The deadlock surrounding the Ring of Fire continues. There is one good solution: the New Deal would build a rail link, allowing work to continue.
>>>Transportation key to unlocking Ring of Fire - Northern Ontario Business<<<

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Restructuring needed, mayor says

There has been very little said on the ONTC file for quite some time now. Any relevant news has been focusing on the issue of the Ring of Fire and whether government decisions and delays would mean a delay in the mining development plans.

However, North Bay mayor Al McDonald has publicly stated that his vision for the future of the ONTC is rooted in the refurbishment work for Metrolinx, a contract which has been lost to a company in Quebec. McDonald believes that it only makes sense that one provincial agency have its rolling stock refurbished by another provincial agency. I am inclined to agree.
>>>Restructuring needed, mayor says | North Bay Nugget<<<

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A New Start: Recycling your Model Railway

To drag out the oldest cliché in model railroading, a layout is never really finished. I don't know who first used this phrase, but they should have trademarked it! All model railroaders get the urge to change something once in a while. In my case, I have been mulling a change for the last few months. The catalyst was buying an Atlas tank car which didn't like my layout's tight-radius curves (below 18" in some places). Something had to change.

From Thomas Blampied's Railway World

Back in 2006, I started work on Crick Road, a 4x8 OO gauge layout set in Northamptonshire. It was fun and I enjoyed building and operating it. However, over time I began to see its limitations. British freight trains might only be 30 or so wagons long, but they do not have any local services or mixed freights to speak of. As a result, any train on a 4x8 circle was bound to look too short. In 2009, I had started a second modelling project, the IC&L, which was reintroducing me to Canadian model railroading after seven years modelling the UK scene. My next move was clear: time to go back to a Canadian theme on a larger scale. Of course, starting a new layout is both expensive and time consuming. Instead, I decided to recycle.

Last year, I began to model a freelanced version of the Ontario Northland, only two weeks before the whole divestment process began, over top of the existing Crick Road layout. To date, I have remodelled the Crick Road Depot (now the Heron Yard and maintenance facility) and I have built Green Bank as a snow-scene on a previously-unused portion of the track. By changing the track plan, scenery and details, it was possible to make Northamptonshire appear to be Nipissing. Now, I embark on the last chapter as I transform Daventry Station into Foulard, an interchange with CN and the terminus of the passenger train service.

Not only is reusing a layout much cheaper, but it gives you a head start on your new layout: bench work, track and basic scenery are already in place. The process isn't necessarily easy, however, because it all depends on how you built the initial layout. In my experience, the following pointers make a recycled layout easier to build:
  • Track: I use Peco flex-track and points (electrofrog where possible). They are built to a very high standard and their durability allows them to be reused. Most of my track was salvaged from the staging yard on a local model railway club's layout when they retired it. They were planning to put the whole thing in the dump, so I jumped in and saved as much track as I could. I still have enough track spare for another whole layout! While I was at it, I also saved as much scenic material as I could. I have yet to buy any shrubbery material.
  • Fishplates/Rail joiners: I don't use Peco's fishplates. Instead, I always use the Atlas code 100 rail joiners as they are bigger and more sturdy (I don't mind sacrificing the scale for practicality). I also never use them twice. When I first started in model railroading, I used to use them multiple times and then wondered why the trains wouldn't run. D'uh! Used rail joiners loosen easily and do not make good electrical contact between the rails. They are inexpensive, yet so crucial to an efficient layout and should not be reused.
  • Nails: There are many different ways to attach track to a layout. Some people attach it with the ballast in one operation, others use contact cement. I use nails. Again, I turn to Atlas for their track pins, which are much bigger than the Peco equivalent, but very sturdy and can be reused. I have been using the same supply for the better part of a decade, only throwing them out if they get bent too much out of shape to be useful.
  • Cork: Cork roadbed is the traditional was to elevate the track above the height of the surrounding scenery, thus simulating the right of way and deadening the noise of the trains. I use the aforementioned Atlas track pins to attach it to the layout and then nail the track on top. By not using glue, the track and the cork roadbed can be lifted and reused with minimal effort and damage.
  • Ballast and Scenics: I have used Woodland Scenics' Scenic Cement since 2005. Unlike conventional white glue or PVA glue, the cement remains somewhat flexible even when dry. This makes removing scenic material much easier. Adding a little water can also help further soften the material for removal. Much of the material can be reused as the adhesive is so soft that you can grind the ballast back into fine material.
I started to erase Daventry by lifting the station platforms, which were lightly glued to the cork roadbed. I used a wide paint scraper to help lift them. Then I removed the ballast from the sides of the track, using the scraper to pull it away from the ties. After removing the nails securing the track, I slid the scraper under the track and gently broke the bond between ballast and track. It all came up easily and enough ballast remained attached to the track that half of my ballasting for the new layout is already complete.

The surrounding scenery was removed using the above techniques and all usable ballast and ground covering were saved for reuse. Most of the cork roadbed lifted easily with the help of the paint scraper once the nails had been removed. In a few places, the Scenic Cement had adhered the cork to the table and needed more coaxing.

This process allowed me to essentially start building a new layout without the need to buy any new supplies. I am using the same preparation techniques to build my new layout. At this rate, I might be able to reuse the same layout for decades to come!

You may have noticed in the accompanying photo that the Daventry street scene has been preserved. I hadn't the heart to attack it, so I have instead moved the backdrop forward, meaning that I can preserve some of my work without it interfering with the new project.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

My Alter-ego at the Ontario Jewish Archives

As I have said before, as much as I enjoy working on Call of the Northland, it is not my full-time occupation. At present, I am a student working towards a degree in History. Much of the summer was spent in Toronto conducting research at the Ontario Jewish Archives. The Archives have now published a summary of my work as an example of the sort of work that they deal with.
>>>Ontario Jewish Archives Blog: Archival Missives: Research at the OJA<<<

Friday, October 04, 2013

ONTC the next government cover-up: Fedeli

With little obvious progress on the ONTC front, the personal attacks that were so common a year ago are back. Vic Fedeli may be investigated due to emails deleted by North Bay city hall. This is, of course, utterly irrelevant to the ONTC, and it just becomes a petty mess. Meanwhile, thousands of people have lost their train and don't know what other services might be next.
>>>ONTC the next government cover-up: Fedeli | Your online newspaper for North Bay, Ontario<<<

Monday, September 30, 2013

York's Freightliner Yard / Le triage Freightliner à York

Via Flickr:
Back in the UK and here is 66553 pausing for a crew change at the Freightliner yard in York on September 28, 2013. / De retour au Royaume-Uni et voici 66553, arrêtée pour un changement d'équipage au triage Freightliner à York le 28 septembre, 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A solemn anniversary

Here I was, all ready to write a piece on the one year anniversary of the last Northlander, and the North Bay Nugget has summed up most of the points so well! I will, however, add a few of my own thoughts.

A year ago today, I stood on the platform at Toronto's Union Station with a group of ONTC employees waving goodbye to the last Northlander as it left for Cochrane. It was a powerful moment and I felt that I would never see this iconic train again. I still don't think I ever will. When all the dust has settled and there is a resolution to the divestment - one way or the other - I do not believe the Northlander will rise again. In the story of Canadian passenger rail, once a train is gone, it is gone for good.

I blame Dalton McGuinty's government for the events of the past two years. Had he done all the important work currently being done by Michael Gravelle and the Advisory Committee before formally announcing the divestment, the uncertainty and negative consequences for the north would not have happened. There is a lesson here for all of us: do your homework before you speak.

As for me, I continue to write my book, Call of the Northland, which includes a chapter and images on the last day of the Northlander. It is not my full-time occupation, so it is a slow process. I would hope to release it quickly once there is a divestment decision, but I won't rush it for the sake of speed.

To all the people who rode the Northlander and to those who worked on it, I am sorry that the Ontario government caught you in the middle of this mess.

For a detailed look at the consequences of the past year, I suggest reading the North Bay Nugget piece below:
>>>A solemn anniversary | North Bay Nugget<<<

MNDM Minister Gravelle's open letter on the ONTC

Michael Gravelle tells Fedeli to back off and be patient.
>>>MNDM Minister Gravelle's open letter on the ONTC<<<

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Show me the documents???

Recently, Vic Fedeli rejoiced at having won the right to access previously-withheld documents relating to the divestment of the ONTC. Fast forward a few days and it appears his optimism was premature. According to the Liberals, the documents are outside the remit of Fedeli's finance committee, and so must remain hidden. Again, stuck in the middle, are all the people that the divestment process (and the lack of decision surrounding it) are affecting.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fedeli wins release of ONTC documents

A victory for transparency. This, coupled with the upcoming Auditor General's report, should help explain what exactly happened to the ONTC.
Fedeli wins release of ONTC documents | Kapuskasing Times

Friday, September 13, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fedeli eyes ONTC as finance critic

Queen's Park is back in session and Vic Fedeli has a new job. Under Tim Hudak's shadow cabinet shuffle, Fedeli is now the Conservative finance critic. He is hoping his new role will allow him access to previously-redacted documents surrounding the divestment process.
>>> Fedeli eyes ONTC as finance critic | North Bay Nugget <<<

Sunday, September 08, 2013


Bayview by Thomas Blampied
Bayview, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.

Via Flickr:
VIA 911 pulls train 70 through Bayview Junction on September 5, 2013. / VIA 911 avec le train 70 à Bayview Junction le 5 septembre, 2013.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Minister talks Northern issues

Minister Michael Gravelle shows himself to be more open to discussions and interviews. While there aren't any developments, it is clear that the ONTC issue is being taken more seriously than it was under the previous Premier.
>>> Minister talks Northern issues | Timmins Press <<<

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Life with PRESTO

For the past three weeks, I have joined the anonymous tribe of commuters in the Toronto Area for the daily pilgrimage from the suburbs to the city. In all, nearly 200,000 people use GO Transit to do this. For someone who loves railways, these three weeks were quite significant as they marked the first time I had ever taken a train on a regular basis - a feat ever more impressive when you consider that I don't have a driver's license and have thus not simply substituted one means of transport for another. Unlike the majority of commuters, I was not travelling to go to work, but rather for archival research. It was this that made me pay attention to those travelling around me.

I am an observant person anyway - it is in the nature of authors and photographers to be so - but my searching through old boxes of documents made me especially so. I used the word "tribe" very deliberately to describe commuters as I think that social scientists should pay more attention to this interesting group. The commuters' conventions of lining up to board the train, the repetition of where to sit, of "owning" a seat and the rift in the space-time continuum when one fails to get ones usual square foot. Consider also how we choose who we sit next to. Generally, I sit wherever I can get a seat facing forward, but subconsciously I am assessing gender, age, disposition, facial expression and I'm sure other factors I haven't even considered. Although the behavioural science of commuting is interesting, it is peripheral to the main topic of this piece: PRESTO.

Just as both jobs and the trains that take people to them are going high-tech, ticketing technology has also evolved. Gone are the cardboard monthly passes as well as the beloved 2 and 10-ride tickets which needed to be cancelled before each trip in a process known affectionately in my family as "kachunking". While the single and return tickets remain, the others have all fallen to the PRESTO smart card, a credit card-sized piece of plastic similar to other systems used around the world.

Although the rollout has been slow (and is far from complete) and the system's installation cost is one of the highest in the world, the system has worked well for me. The initial registration of the card was complicated and the autoload feature did take days to work properly, but once that was complete, the system could not be simpler. At each end of the journey, I hold the card against a reader to deduct money for the cost of the journey. While it doesn't "kachunk", it does beep - leading to a new verb in my family: to "beepy-beepy".

The PRESTO card is part of the surge in new digital technology which has so changed our society by placing so much data into computer code, a medium that has proven disturbingly permanent. Normally, I refuse store loyalty cards on principle: why would I want to attach my complete purchase history to my name so that marketers could follow and predict my every decision? It seems that the more freedom the digital world supposedly gives us, the more our behaviour enslaves us to governments and corporations. It is then paradoxical, if not hypocritical, that I registered my PRESTO card and set an autoload. The entire system is set up to allow you to make anonymous cash top-ups, but I chose to automate everything because it was easy. As a result, I never had to worry about being unable to pay the fare, but my travel history has now also been recorded in startling detail. For instance, on the 22nd of August, 2013:

  • 6:42 am - I deduct money for a trip starting at the Whitby GO station
  • 7:38 am - I end my journey and deduct the balance of the cost of my trip at Toronto Union station
  • 5:21 pm - I deduct money for a trip starting at Toronto Union Station
  • 6:35 pm - I end my journey and deduct the balance of the cost of my trip at the Whitby GO station
  • 6:35 pm - my card autoloads
  • 6:41 pm - I deduct money for a Durham Region Transit bus (I was lazy)

While this does not tell you where I live, or where I went and what I did in Toronto, the picture is disturbingly clear. In many ways, this is more invasive than any loyalty scheme, even allowing you to construe the discounted fares available for using PRESTO cards as a sort of payment for data, yet I still chose to do it without a great deal of worry. That is the key to data mining in the 21st century - we don't worry about it. This brings me back to the start of this entire commentary: commuters.

Technology has indeed allowed our actions and decisions to be logged like never before. In return, we have been able to access content from the remotest parts of the world. GO Trains are no exception to this, whereas commuters once read books or newspapers, today they are more likely to catch up on work or videos on LCD screen-adorned devices. Adding this to the already invasive noise of cellular telephones has compelled GO to introduce "Quiet Zones" on all rush-hour trains. For my part, I look out the window, while those around me are engrossed in their latest gadgets, thankfully now mostly in silence.

My research is now complete and so I have abandoned the tribe to resume my normal, less traceable life. I have enjoyed the train journeys immensely, just as I enjoyed watching my fellow commuters. There is but one question that lingers in my mind: who will get my now-vacant seat today?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Few details following ONTC meeting

If one word could sum up what happened yesterday, it would be "frank." All the coverage suggests that the meeting between Michael Gravelle and the advisory committee was useful and "frank." Al McDonald claimed it was the most productive meeting yet. What was said? Haven't a clue, but nothing is set in stone.
>>> Few details following ONTC meeting | North Bay Nugget <<<

Monday, August 26, 2013

Démantèlement d'Ontario Northland : le ministre en visite à North Bay

Un rendez-vous de la comité de Michael Gravelle va prendre place à North Bay aujourd'hui. Les syndicats ne planifient pas de manifestation car le gouvernement a changé de comportement, adoptant un style plutôt conciliatoire.
>>> Démantèlement d'Ontario Northland : le ministre en visite à North Bay | <<<

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Memory Junction

Memory Junction by Thomas Blampied
Memory Junction, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.

Via Flickr:
The Memory Junction Museum in Brighton, Ontario is an interesting place to visit and an excellent place to watch trains. Here, VIA 912 passes with Train 61 on August 17th, 2013. / Le musée Memory Junction à Brighton en Ontario est un lieu intéressant à visiter et un endroit excellent pour observer les trains. Dans cette photo, la locomotive VIA 912 passe le musée avec le train 61 le 17 août, 2013.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Group fights for passenger trains

I wish NEORN the best of luck. Ontario needs more passenger rail now. Much of the infrastructure is already in place, all we need is the political will to get the trains rolling.
>>> Group fights for passenger trains | North Bay Nugget <<<

Saturday, August 17, 2013

NEORN Launches Monday

The North Eastern Ontario Rail Network, a partnership between local rail groups and Transport Action Ontario, is officially launching Monday in North Bay. While the scope of their mandate is the entirety of northern and eastern Ontario, the fate of the ONTC is their first priority as it remains intact.

If you are able to join them in North Bay on Monday, please do!

Details can be found on the NEORN website.

GCA disappointed community leaders not involved in meeting with Gravelle

So the meeting wasn't as ground-breaking as people had hoped, but the chance for discussions this fall is a positive step.
>>> GCA disappointed community leaders not involved in meeting with Gravelle <<<

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Rails of the GTA 1 & 2 at the Toronto Railway Museum

My two books of railway photographs in the Toronto area, Rails of the GTA and Rails of the GTA Volume 2, are now for sale at the Toronto Railway Museum. As an extra treat, the copies are autographed. Signed copies are not available anywhere else.

Visit the Toronto Railway Museum online for visiting information.

La MMA perd son permis au Canada

Une décision inévitable, mais qu'est-ce qui arrive au transport ferroviaire dans la région?
>>> La MMA perd son permis au Canada | <<<

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Corktown Common

Corktown Common by Thomas Blampied
Corktown Common, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.
Via Flickr:
Waterfront Toronto has opened the new Corktown Common Park by the Don River for the summer. This provides an excellent new location for rail photography, as this shot of VIA 904 with Train 61 on August 9th shows. / Waterfront Toronto vient d'ouvrir le nouveau parc Corktown Common pour l'été. Ceci a créé un nouveau endroit parfait pour la photographie ferroviaire, comme cette image de VIA 904 et le train 61 le 9 août y indique.

For more information / pour plus de renseignements: Waterfront Toronto (Corktown Common)

Monday, August 05, 2013

GO's New Colours / Les nouvelles couleurs de GO

GO's New Colours / Les nouvelles couleurs de GO by Thomas Blampied
GO's New Colours / Les nouvelles couleurs de GO, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.

GO Transit has recently repainted locomotive 607 into their new GO and Metrolinx colours. I think it weakens a strong image. Train 925 at Whitby, August 4. / GO Transit a récemment peinturé la locomotive 607 en nouvelles couleurs de GO et Metrolinx. Je pense que ça affaibli une marque très reconnue. Train 925 à Whitby, le 4 août.

The Canadian / Le Canadien

Via Flickr:
VIA locomotives 6435 and 6446 have just left Toronto's Union Station after their journey from Vancouver with train #2, the "Canadian". August 1. / Les locomotives 6435 et 6446 de VIA viennent de quitter la gare Union à Toronto après avoir terminées le voyage de Vancouver avec le train numéro 2, le "Canadien". Le premier août.

Via Rail mulls tighter security after alleged terror plot

This revelation was inevitable. There was no way that the alleged terror plot would not mean more security and the inconvenience that this brings to passengers. One of the key marketing points for rail travel is that you can avoid the hassle of airports by taking the train. The less convenient rail travel becomes, the more people will once again think twice about taking the train.

That said, the proposed VIA security enhancements appear to be mostly 'behind the scenes' such as increased checked baggage scrutiny and linking baggage with passenger lists. Even ID checks are not the end of the world, even if they are annoying. My concern is that this might only be the beginning.

Finally, on a practical note: how does VIA intend to implement these procedures? Only weeks ago, VIA announced further job cuts, including decreasing the number of manned stations. How can you scrutinise baggage when there isn't a manned station?

>>> Via Rail mulls tighter security after alleged terror plot - CBC News <<<

Sunday, August 04, 2013

GO Underground / GO souterrain

Via Flickr:
Thanks to the new "Puente de Luz" between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street in Toronto, it is now possible to photograph the GO flyunder. Here, GO Cab 237 leads train 911 on August 1. / Grace au nouveau "Puente de Luz" entre les rues Spadina et Bathurst à Toronto, il est maintenant possible de photographier le "flyunder" de GO. Voici la cabine de contrôle numéro 237 en avant du train 911 le premier août.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

VIA at Port Union / VIA à Port Union

Via Flickr:
VIA 911 with Toronto-Montreal train 60 passes Port Union (Scarborough) on July 25, 2013. / VIA 911 avec le train Toronto-Montréal numéro 60 à Port Union (Scarborough) le 25 juillet 2013.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

ONTC solution must be built collaboratively

Cochrane Mayor Peter Politis calls for Cochrane to be consulted in the divestment process.
ONTC solution must be built collaboratively | Timmins Press

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Northlander to remain derailed

For those of you hoping to see the return of the Northlander, don't get your hopes up. Even if the ONTC returns to normal, it appears that the Toronto-Cochrane train will not be part of it. Wouldn't it be funny if all this mess only managed to cancel a train?
Northlander to remain derailed | North Bay Nugget

Friday, July 26, 2013

219 on the Move?

It has been quite a while since there has been news of 219, the T&NO locomotive that the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum & Heritage Centre saved from scrap last year. This week, the future of 219 moved another step in the right direction when Ontario Northland weighed the locomotive in their Cochrane yard in preparation for a move in the next few months.

From ONR Trip

So, how much does a locomotive weigh? 189,150 lbs. (give or take). That is around 85 tons. It is expected that the move will be made by rail from Cochrane to Capreol, either via Hearst/Oba or North Bay. Either way, the move will encompass most of the railway companies in northern Ontario.

As always, I would encourage you to support the NORMHC if you are able. Contact them for details.

Thanks to Cody Cacciotti, Dale Wilson and Val Crosswell for information used in this post.

Unions call for talks with province

It seems that progress on the ONTC issue has been slow or stagnant over the last few months. Of course, we won't  know for sure as the MNDM page dedicated to the divestment is out of date. In a recent announcement, the GCA representing ONTC unions has called for direct talks with the government, without any preconditions. The GCA has long felt ignored in this debate as they are not represented in the Ministerial Advisory Committee. In a reply, Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle essentially turned down the offer of talks, preferring to stick to the Committee.
Unions call for talks with province | North Bay Nugget

Minister retracts his statement to Coun. Brisson

Cochrane is one of the key ONR communities. Why isn't it at the table?
Minister retracts his statement to Coun. Brisson | Cochrane Times Post

Thursday, July 18, 2013

ONTC divestment could be costly for communities

While I have no doubt that First Nations communities will be the worst-hit should divestment continue, the status of the Polar Bear Express is unclear. According to initial reports from over a year ago, the government planned to safeguard the PBX. However, the overall lack of transparency throughout the divestment process does not make this reassuring. The longer this drags on, the more damaging it will be.
ONTC divestment could be costly for communities | Wawatay News

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Explained: GO Transit trains and buses get a makeover

After 47 years GO Transit is changing its paint scheme because... just because. Apparently the current logo doesn't look good digitally and since trains are of course figments of the digital imagination, we need to change them. I completely support the assertion that the repaint is not costing anything extra, but I wonder why GO is relinquishing what is a bold and recognizable scheme?
GO Transit trains and buses get a makeover | Toronto Star

Two calls for progress on the ONTC front

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli and Timmins James Bay MP Charlie Angus have both called for the Ontario government to make up its mind on the ONTC issue. Fedeli has announced the discovery of new documents that further reinforce the allegations that the government is misrepresenting the financial outcome of divestment. Meanwhile, Angus called the government (among other things) "closed-minded" for not realising the benefits the ONTC brings to the north.

The Auditor General's report into the divestment process will be released later this year. Until then, we will just have to wait for the government to make its next move.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

GO is Repainting

The Green and White: the most permanent symbol of mobility in the Toronto area (after the Red Rocket of course). However, it seems that GO Transit's iconic livery is about to change. user miketer has posted a photo which appears to show GO 607 and a bi-level car repainted into a new paint scheme. The new colours are similar to the Presto Card and do not look good on a train.

Why is GO changing its corporate identity? The current colours have remained untouched in over 30 years and have become a familiar and easily recognizable sight. What is going on?

Monday, July 15, 2013

GCA to commemorate the ONR’s last spike anniversary today

Some good ONTC news for a change. Today marks the 81st anniversary of the "Last Spike" on the ONR. Hopefully the government will realise that now is not the time to cut this valuable provincial asset. Happy anniversary ONR!!!
GCA to commemorate the ONR’s last spike anniversary today

Moose Cree artist shortlisted for Canadian arts award

Duane Linklater, creator of the powerful "The Chevrons" art installation currently on display in Toronto, has been shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award. Despite the heat wave currently plaguing the Toronto Area, I was able to see his exhibit last week. My two favourite elements were, unsurprisingly, "The Chevrons" which is incredibly powerful to stare at - the yellow is dynamic and energetic - and the display on the ONR's corporate identity.

If you are in the Toronto area, there is still time to see the exhibit. Best of luck with the award Duane!
Moose Cree artist shortlisted for Canadian arts award | Wawatay News

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Book? Oh yeah, about that...

In case you hadn't noticed, I haven't said much about Call of the Northland recently. That doesn't mean that I haven't been hard at work writing, revising and researching. Well, actually, it does. Just as developments in the divestment process have slowed down over the summer, so have I. That said, I am hoping to complete another full draft in the next few weeks and get through some very heavy-duty research, notably on pensions.

Rest assured, there will be a book. However, just as the government no longer seems to have a timeline for its activities, neither do I.

Let me also take this opportunity to reiterate that if you have any information you feel might be of use in my work, please contact me (email is on the right-hand side of the screen).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ed Burkhardt: Titan du Rail

La crise à Lac-Mégantic continue et chaque journée les nouvelles s'empirent. C'est fort probable que le taux de mortalité surpasserait une cinquantaine de victimes. La cible pour toute l'émotion de la ville? Ed Burhkardt.

Burkhardt a eu de grands succès avec plusieurs chemins de fer. Le Wisconsin Central avait tant de succès que Burkhardt a pu acheter New Zealand Rail Ltd. en Nouvelle-Zélande. Lors de la vente de British Rail, Burkhardt a pu acheter la majorité du marché de marchandise et a fondé English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS). Wisconsin Central a aussi acheté Algoma Central. Plus récemment, après l'achat du Wisconsin Central par CN, Burkhardt a fondé Rail World Inc., une entrepise qui inclut le Montreal, Maine & Atlantic.

En ce moment, l'opinion publique envers ce titan du rail est très négative. Burkhardt a décidé de ne pas quitter les Etats-Unis pour trop longtemps, ce qui a provoqué le sentiment qu'il n'avait aucune sympathie pour les victimes de cette tragédie. Le déraillement s'est passé tôt samedi matin, Burkhardt n'arriva sur scène que le mercredi, cinq jours après cette tragédie. En plus, le niveau de protection policière provoque aussi un sentiment de division entre la compagnie et les résidents de la ville.

Au début, Burkhardt a suggéré que les pompiers à Nantes ont causé la fuite du train. Plus tard, Burkhardt a changé d'idée, accusant le conducteur du train d'avoir mal-géré les freins. Aucune enquête n'est terminée, et ses accusations sont prématures et franchement méchante.

Un autre fait intéressant: la tragédie au Québec est similaire au déraillement qui c'est produit à Weyauwega au Wisconsin en 1996. Dans cet accident, un train du Wisconsin Central (la compagnie dirigée par Burkhardt) à déraillé, causant l'explosion de plusieurs wagons-citernes de propane et du gaz pétrolier. Le risque d'autres explosions a provoqué l'évacuation de la ville au complet pendant 16 jours. Contraire au Lac-Mégantic, le déraillement au Weyauwega n'a causé aucun mort. Je ne suggère aucun lien entre les deux incidents, mais les similarités sont très intèressantes.

En attendant cinq jours, Burkhardt a détruit sa réputation dans la ville, un fait qui va rendre la guérison du Lac-Méganitic beaucoup plus difficile.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Canada's Rail Mess

Anyone who only started following Canadian railway developments in the last fortnight would be forgiven for thinking that the country's railways were facing the apocalypse. In the last two weeks, three major incidents have made headlines and portrayed rail transportation in a bad light.

Two weeks ago, the city of Calgary narrowly missed a major environmental disaster when tanker cars derailed on a bridge damaged by the recent flooding. Thanks to the slow speed of the train at the time, there was no serious environmental damage or injuries.

This past weekend, a runaway freight train derailed and exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. To date, 13 people are confirmed to have died and at least 40 are still missing. This incident has provoked widespread fear-mongering in the media, who are misrepresenting the transportation of crude oil by rail. CBC has claimed that oil trains regularly travel through Toronto, which is correct, but they used the Union Station Rail Corridor as a backdrop to the story. This line has one freight train per day, which operates at slow speed. The story also featured the tanker sidings at Clarkson, yet did not mention the massive Petro-Canada refinery adjacent to the tracks (which would pose a much larger threat). Indeed, the very train involved in the derailment did pass through the GTA, but with different locomotives and a different crew (CP rather than Montreal, Maine & Atlantic). While safety standards should be constantly reviewed, it is unfair to make rail appear more dangerous than it is. Imagine the damage if a buried pipeline had exploded in the middle of a town - it would have been very similar.

Just last night, Toronto received its highest-ever amount of rain in one day: 126mm (beating Hurricane Hazel's record by 5mm). Among the flooding incidents, a Richmond-Hill GO Train was stuck near Pottery Road with water as high as the coach mezzanine level. It took over six hours for rescue crews to remove the passengers using boats.

Bad things often happen in bunches, but Canada's railway have taken more than their fair share of hits recently.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Lac-Mégantic en Flammes

Samedi matin, un train du Montreal,  Maine & Atlantic a déraillé en plein milieu de la communauté du Lac-Mégantic. La plupart des 73 wagons étaient des wagons-citernes transportant du pétrole brut. Quartres des citernes ont pris feu et environ une quarantaine d'immeubles dans la ville ont été détruit. Dimanche matin, on constate au moins trois morts et une soixantaine d'habitants dont les autorités n'ont pas encore pu les contacter.

Selon les témoins, le train roulait à grande vitesse lors du déraillement. Selon le M,M&A, il n'y avait pas de conducteur car l'équipage avait garé le train pour la nuit. Il semble que cette tragédie sagit d'un véritable "runaway" ou plus précisement un "coaster" car les locomotives ont été éteinte pour la nuit.

Il faut critiquer les médias pour leur emphase sur les "trains automatiques". Si on croit Radio-Canada et TVA, les trains au Canada peuvent rouler normallement sans conducteur. C'est faux. Bien sûr, il existe des locomotives téléguidés dans les gares de triage, mais le conducteur marche à côté du train et les vitesses sont très sécuritaires. En plus, les médias constatent que certains wagons sont équipés d'un système qui leur permttent de rouler sans équipage. C'est faux. Les wagons en questions sont équipés avec des contrôles identiques à ceux d'une locomotive. Ces wagons permettent au conducteur de mieux voir pendant que le train recule. En tout cas, un conducteur est présent. Il n'ya pas de trains magique dans ce pays qui roulent sans contrôle humain.

Cette tragédie à Lac-Mégantic nous rappelles que les trains présentent un risque n'importe où. Ayant dit ceci, le rail demeure un des moyens de transport le plus efficace et sécuritaire jamais conçus.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

ONR cuts Kapuskasing positions

According to Al Spacek, these cuts are not related to the divestment. They do, however, demonstrate how fragile the economic situation in northern Ontario is without the government causing more uncertainty by playing with the region's transportation.
ONR cuts Kapuskasing positions | Kapuskasing Times

Saturday, June 29, 2013

GO Transit moves to 30-minute Lakeshore route service

Residents of north-eastern Ontario: you too can tear up your train schedules! Of course, that's because there is no train to catch, but I thought you might feel left out now that lucky riders in the GTA have nearly double the travel options. While the government pours enormous sums of money into GO Transit, it is dragging its heels on what to do with the ONTC. In many ways, this stalling is just as bad as divestment because no new money or developments are forthcoming and the indecision hurts the northern economy. If only a fraction of GO Transit spending went to the ONTC, it would mean so much.

All sarcasm aside, this increase in GO service is an important development for public transit in Canada. If only it extended to more places...
GO Transit moves to 30-minute Lakeshore route service | Toronto Star

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Suspend divestment until options explored

Cochrane Mayor (and candidate for the Progressive Conservatives) Peter Politis is voicing the concerns from the north in this clear letter to the provincial government. I think he is right: if divestment isn't the only option, then why does the government continue as if divestment was a done deal?
Suspend divestment until options explored | Timmins Press

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Duane Linklater: Two worlds, gently colliding

Up-and-coming artist Duane Linklater's latest exhibit, Learning, is a powerful representation of the iconic ONR chevron logo, a symbol so central to decades of mobility in northern Ontario. It is such a dynamic and instantly recognisable design. I love it!

I do, however, have to criticise the Toronto Star's report. It claims that the divestment of the ONTC is a "much-protested" issue. This is true, but where has the Star been for all these months? Their coverage has been patchy to say the least.
Duane Linklater: Two worlds, gently colliding | Toronto Star

Train groups band together for a louder voice

Various groups calling for better passenger rail links across northern and eastern Ontario have banded together to present a louder and united voice. One point of note is that many tourists decide where to travel based on rail links. It's not just tourists: I often decide where to go based on rail links. I wish them luck and hope that their efforts are successful.
Train groups band together for a louder voice

Friday, June 21, 2013

Premier open to options with ONTC

In a way, it seems that the government really is reconsidering its plans for the ONTC. However, we have yet to see any concrete developments that would indicate this.
Premier open to options with ONTC | Timmins Press

Sunday, June 16, 2013

43151 at London Paddington, 15 June 2013

Via Flickr:
This was my first visit to London Paddington. It is a very busy station, verging on chaos at times (as this scene indicates). With so much of the Great Western Main Line not yet electrified, Paddington is a space still dominated by the sounds and smells of diesels.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The VIA 92 Report

This week, the Transportation Safety Board released the highly-anticipated report into the derailment of VIA 92 last year. Having gone through the report (not read it entirely, but 'examined the contents' would be a more apt description), the findings present several interesting conclusions.

As in so many railway accidents, unusual circumstances were important contributing factors. In this instance, the presence of the third crew member in the cab may have changed in-cab interactions. Similarly, the track routing out of Aldershot station was unusual because of emergency track work and the request to unload at Oakville station's platform 1. That the derailment happened in the 1% of the time the crossover was used is not a coincidence.

I find that the report casts doubt on the structural strength of VIA's rebuilt F40 locomotives. The report concluded that the fuel tank was the original one (and thus not up to the newest standards of crashworthiness). Also, as the locomotive was built before the latest safety standards were implemented, it was not as strong as it might have been. Rebuilt locomotives do not currently need to be upgraded to the latest standards either.

I am sorry to read that the blame for the derailment has been largely placed at the feet of the locomotive crew. People do make mistakes, but it is still sad when they do in such safety-critical situations. It seems that the misread signal was likely the cause and I expect there will be a debate about some form of positive train control system, but I doubt one will be implemented.

This accident also highlighted the need for more recording devices to monitor activity on board trains. VIA 6444 did not have a cab camera, so we cannot know what the driver saw. None of VIA's locomotives have in-cab recorders, so we have no idea what the crew were doing or what actions were taken before the derailment took place. I hope that these measures can be adopted quickly for the safety of crew and passengers, not for employer surveillance.

In the end, this accident was an accident. I'm sorry that people died. I am also sorry that, due to the lack of cab recording equipment, we will never know what actually happened.

ONTC sale not certain

Struggling all the mutual distrust between politicians, this article does have a key point: the Liberals now say that divestment is not the only option for the ONTC, so why is the sale of Ontera still moving ahead at this moment?
ONTC sale not certain | Timmins Press

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fedeli says Premier is playing games with ONTC

Vic Fedeli's comments regarding the ONTC divestment are probably accurate in that it is now clear that the divestment was not clearly thought through and the government now has a mess on their hands. However, beware the cropped version of the debate included in his press release, which makes it seem like the Premier did nothing. By consulting the official transcript, it is clear that the question was instead passed on to Charles Sousa, who then passed it on to David Orazietti. Either way, I would like the government to be more clear about what it plans to do, rather than stall everything with uncertainty.
Fedeli says Premier is playing games with ONTC

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

#Avgeeks: The new warriors on terror

I had never heard of this until I read the article, but here we have a model for trainspotting. In the UK, the benefit of photographers trackside is recognised unofficially. In the US, several railroads operate civilian observation initiatives.
In Canada: nothing. Here is the chance to secure the position of railfans in society. This is especially important following the foiled plot to bomb/derail a train in southern Ontario. Let's form Rail Watch!
#Avgeeks: The new warriors on terror -

Monday, June 10, 2013

Silly Cat

Silly Cat by Thomas Blampied
Silly Cat, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.
Via Flickr:
While waiting trackside for my shot, I often like to watch the world go by. People and wildlife can be just as interesting as the trains. While waiting for a railtour, I watched this cat amble across the line before it stopped to sit in the sun. A magpie came up right behind it. I am pretty sure the bird actually pecked the cat! After a few minutes, the cat carried on its way, never once paying any attention to its companion. I hope this feline had an alternate food source because its hunting skills are quite poor.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Will the National Railway Museum Really Close?

Despite the fact that I spend a large amount of my time in the United Kingdom, I do not spend much time commenting on railway issues affecting the birthplace of railways as we know them. That is not to say that nothing is happening. On the contrary, between HS2 and the inevitable moaning about fare hikes, hardly a day goes by without some concern being voiced.

This week's focus has been squarely on the future direction of the National Railway Museum. The NRM has received a great deal of negative press over the cost of the temporary repatriation of the A4s, the ongoing restoration of Flying Scotsman and the poor turnout for last year's Railfest. This week, the Science Museum Group, the parent body of the NRM (as well as the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and the National Media Museum in Bradford) announced that, due to looming budget cuts, it was having to consider reinstating admission fees or even closing one of the three northern museums to balance the books.

The revelation has been in the news for much of the week, notably in the York Press, which has started an online campaign to save the NRM. Not only would the closure be a blow to York's tourist trade, but would mean job losses and the loss of one of the world's leading railway heritage centres.

At first, I thought that the threat of closure was a move to force the government to increase funding, but the degree of concern from local government leaders suggests that the closure of at least one of the museums is a real possibility. It is worth noting that nobody has suggested that a London museum could be closed. Once again, the north is to take the brunt of cost-cutting.

Which museum is most likely to close? I would guess the Media Museum in Bradford because, in my experience, the British do not value the history of the media as an important subject. The NRM is far too big to fail (of course, that didn't stop the 2008 banking crisis), but I do wonder about the future of the satellite location in Shildon.

Most commentary so far has suggested the re-implementation of admission charges would be the most likely course of action, but some commentators have even suggested privatising the museum by handing it over to the railway companies. This is not an approach I favour given the track record of privatisation in the UK rail sector. What is needed is increased funding from the public sector and perhaps fewer large-scale events such as the upcoming A4 gathering in York.

It is hard to say what the eventual outcome will be, but allow me to say this: Congratulations UK, you are catching up with North America's disregard for history!

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Toronto Union Station waiver rule for journalists criticized

The issue that Metrolinx wishes would go away is getting louder. After the arrest of a Toronto Star photographer last week, journalists from across Canada have been weighing in about the unfair policy of requiring photojournalists to sign a waiver before taking photos at Union Station. The latest article is of particular interest for railfans, because it concludes that "Metrolinx allows casual photography by riders"suggesting that there should be no problems with taking a quick photo before boarding a train. Let's hope so...

Toronto Union Station waiver rule for journalists criticized | Toronto Star

Railways to decide whether to install voice recorders in trains

As we prepare to learn the Transportation Safety Board's conclusions from the fatal derailment of VIA 92 last year, it looks like the government is still not taking the safety of Canada's railways seriously. By continuing to allow in-cab recorders to be a voluntary measure, there is a chance that more incidents will be harder to investigate. Both GO and VIA have installed in-cab recording equipment, so at least most passengers will be safe.

The other side of this issue is the serious concerns voiced by the railway unions about how recorded data would be used. This is a fair point: will it be used for safety investigations, or to spy on train crews? This entire issue needs to be taken seriously.
Railways to decide whether to install voice recorders in trains | Toronto Star

Friday, June 07, 2013

Visiting Network Rail Signal Boxes

Last month, I was lucky enough to visit three Network Rail signal boxes. You can read about my trip on the Toronto Railway Museum's website.

Minister says ONTC cost estimate is outdated

Backtracking from the Liberal government, but it does seem to be open to new directions.
Minister says ONTC cost estimate is outdated | Your online newspaper for North Bay, Ontario

Monday, June 03, 2013

Can I take photos at Union Station?

Can I take photos at Union Station?

This age-old question is a most complicated one to answer and I have never been able to get a straight answer from anyone. According to the tour I took with the Toronto Railway Historical Association, I could take photos of the Great Hall, but not the GO Concourse or the platforms. According to GO Transit, there are no restrictions anywhere in the Concourse or on the platforms. The events of this past weekend call this into question.

It is important to note that these are specific circumstances that will likely not apply to most railway photographers. The arrested party was a journalist with the Toronto Star, meaning that he was not part of the general public. He was photographing an altercation between passengers and GO Police (who are technically not full police) when he was arrested for trespassing. The difficulty with Union Station is that it falls under multiple jurisdictions: GO Police, Union Station Security and Toronto Police all operate in different parts of the station.

While I feel that the reaction was excessive, there are specific regulations pertaining to the media. That said, I would support anyone wanting to document a police procedure, such as the one the Star's reporter tried to, because this is a way to assure police accountability for their actions.

The fight against photographers lead by transit authorities around the world will not be resolved. The problem is this: cameras are increasingly small and discreet, many are in mobile phones. Unless security is willing to confiscate ever person's phone (which would not go down too well), the battle against photography is lost. The internet is already full of photos of Union Station and the new roof over the platforms is bound to attract photographers to what will be one of Toronto's largest architectural landmarks.

So, can I take photos at Union Station? This is an educated attempt at an answer. If other people around are taking photos, it is probably fine. If there is a problem, be polite and try to work it out - try and get a concrete reason as to why you are being stopped. According to GO Transit's by-laws:

No person shall operate any camera, video recording device, movie camera
or any similar device for commercial purposes upon the transit system
without the express written permission of the Corporation.

Seeing as GO does have jurisdiction over the Concourse and many of the platforms, it sounds like the average railway photographer should have no trouble if they want to grab a quick photo getting on or off a train. Any more than that and loitering can come into play. In short, it's a tricky issue and likely will only be solved if and when you happen to be questioned.

Read the story: Toronto Star reporter arrested, ticketed after taking photos of injured GO transit officer | Toronto Star

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Fallout from Fedeli's announcement

Vic Fedeli's announcement yesterday has not gone down well with the ONTC unions or with the other political parties. Both groups have accused Fedeli of merely trying to gain political points and that his information is not new at all. I beg to differ.

It is important to remember that it was the Conservative Party that started the whole mess of divestment back in 2000, although they did later back down. The latest attempt to sell off the ONTC was a Liberal policy, with both the NDP and Conservatives opposed to the idea. I am sceptical of how much the Conservatives would actually do to protect the ONTC, but I also believe that what Fedeli has uncovered is important new information.

Until yesterday, nobody had numbers on a piece of paper. All speculation were just that - speculations. Of course, the projected cost of $790 million is a worst-case scenario and purely theoretical, which is why it was printed in a confidential government document. But it is important to note that we now have an actual number to throw at the government which is just as 'accurate' as the government's claims that the process will save money. The other important piece of information uncovered is that the united front for divestment is a weak façade: civil servants have called for the process to be delayed as the numbers do not work. Instead, the government has (until recently) insisted on continuing as fast as possible, ignoring the wise advice contained in these documents.

I strongly believe that the ONTC divestment mess should not be a partisan issue. I think that northern Ontario deserves all parties to work together for the benefit of the people - not political prowess. While it is fair to criticise what Fedeli said yesterday, please don't believe that the Liberal and NDP attacks are altruistic. They too have a political motive.

Friday, May 31, 2013

A busy day of ONTC developments

Speculation was growing over the past 24 hours as to what might happen to the ONTC divestment debate. The media's curiosity was piqued when Vic Fedeli called a press conference for this morning, where he planned to announce a new discovery in the paper trail previously reported here.

Fedeli did not disappoint. Citing newly-released internal government documents, the Opposition's energy critic accused the government of completely misrepresenting the financial reasoning for the divestment process. While the McGuinty government claimed that the divestment would save $265 million, Fedeli's research indicates that the government in fact estimates that the divestment would cost over $790 million, mainly due to pension liabilities. This would negate the entire rationale behind the divestment process.

In the news conference, Fedeli reiterated his call for the government to halt the "charade" and to support the ONTC as the "economic engine of the north."

In an unrelated development, the CBC is reporting that there is no longer a timeframe for the sale of Ontera, suggesting that the whole process is being reconsidered.

Multiplying A4s

Multiplying A4s by Thomas Blampied
Multiplying A4s, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.
Via Flickr:
Three of the six A4s taking part in the "Great Gathering" events throughout the next year at the National Railway Museum in York are now on display in the Great Hall. Right to left: joining the NRM's 'Mallard' are newly-restored 'Dominion of Canada' (on loan from Exporail in Quebec) and 'Dwight D. Eisenhower (on loan from the National Railroad Museum in Wisconsin).

Thursday, May 30, 2013

ONTC sale against government’s own advice

New documents have surfaced that appear to show how badly planned the divestment process for the ONTC really was. Vic Fedeli's office has found documents from 2012 that appear to show high-level government officials advising the government to stop with the divestment plan as it would not work and would cause major public upset. Notable among the documents is a claim that the financial implications of the divestment have not been considered, backing up the allegations that the whole process was botched from the start.
In recent weeks, the government's resolve in the divestment fight has weakened, suggesting that the reality of the mess that is the ONTC issue is starting to come to light.
ONTC sale against government’s own advice | Your online newspaper for North Bay, Ontario

For further commentary, see the North Bay Nipissing News editorial on the subject.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Origin Displays Goes to Work in Northern Ontario

I applaud Ontario Northland's new menu boards, which feature items in the Cree language.
Origin Displays Goes to Work in Northern Ontario - Times Union

Gas plant money could have been used in the north, MP charges

It's the same accusation, and once again there is no clear answer.  The Auditor General's report is going to be a very important moment in the ONTC issue.
Gas plant money could have been used in the north, MP charges - CBC News

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ontario Northland Video - Extended Cut

In 2011, Ontario Northland made a promotional video to highlight the many important services the ONTC provides to northern Ontario and beyond.  They have recently uploaded an extended cut to show even more of the many different benefits the ONTC offers to Ontario.

As the divestment process continues, think for a moment about what the video is saying.  Do we really want the government to throw all of it away?

Horwath credits NDP pressure

I need to respectfully disagree with the leader of the NDP's assertion than any softening of tone on the divestment front is a result of NDP pressure.  Let us not forget that we have a new premier who appears to want to mend links that McGuinty severed.  The NDP did not not topple the 2012 budget, a move that would have stopped the divestment before it got as messy as it now is.  Indeed, the NDP has helped, but it is local opposition and the numbers that the Auditor General is now investigating that have really made a difference.
Horwath credits NDP pressure | North Bay Nugget

Friday, May 24, 2013

BC Premiere Screening of De-Railed, June 6th

The excellent documentary De-Railed: The National Dream is heading to the west coast.  If you happen to be in the Victoria Area, this is your chance to see this excellent story about how Canada's railways are at risk and about some of the people are fighting to stop Canada losing a vital part of our transportation infrastructure.  Of particular interest to a BC audience, the documentary looks at efforts to restart passenger rail service on Vancouver Island.
British Columbia Premiere Screening of De-Railed, June 6th

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fedeli says Liberals silence on ONTC costs speaks volumes

Speculations continue as to the true cost of the divestment process.  Only the Auditor General's report will be able to clarify the issue.
Fedeli says Liberals silence on ONTC costs speaks volumes

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stainforth Slide Cleanup - 14 May 2013

Via Flickr:
In February of this year, a spoil heap at the Hatfield Colliery began to slip, burying under the nearby railway line and lifting and distorting the track. Since then, the spoil has continued to move and the railway has been closed, with freight services diverted and passengers being bused between Doncaster and Scunthorpe. According to a Network Rail source last week, surveys of the unstable ground suggest that the spoil is water-logged for more than 150 feet down and must be removed. As such, a large amount of work must still be done to stabilise the area before track repairs can begin. The latest (optimistic) estimates suggest the closure will continue until at least the end of the year. This image shows the colliery and the Hatfield & Stainforth railway station, with the buried track in the distance.

Northlander in premier’s spotlight

Cautious optimism perhaps, but this suggests that the Northlander story isn't actually over.
Northlander in premier’s spotlight

Meeting focused on ONTC studies, finances

There has been a definite shift in the last few weeks: actual dialogue!
Meeting focused on ONTC studies, finances | North Bay Nugget

Thursday, May 16, 2013

ONTC 'essential' for economy: Hudak

Hudak does make a valid point linking economic health with transportation infrastructure, but it does not hide the fact that the previous divestment attempt a decade ago was a Conservative idea.
ONTC 'essential' for economy: Hudak | North Bay Nugget

Monday, May 13, 2013

Red 90

Red 90 by Thomas Blampied
Red 90, a photo by Thomas Blampied on Flickr.
Via Flickr:
90018 leads a Durham-bound railtour at York, 11 May 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Gravelle says divestment not the only option

In the nearly 14 months since the divestment of the ONTC was announced, this is probably the most important statement to date.  Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle has said that it is time to consider other options, as well as divestment, for the future of the ONTC.  Among the possibilities is a partnership with Metrolinx, including refurbishment work in North Bay.  Ironically, such work did exist until the GO Transit contract was lost to a Quebec-based company.  It is early days, but this is a definite change in tone.
Gravelle says divestment not the only option | North Bay Nugget

Friday, May 10, 2013

FONOM Looking for ONTC Commitment from Minister Wynne

Kathleen Wynne has taken much more time that McGuinty ever did to address concerns from northern Ontario.  That said, I very much doubt that the divestment will be halted as a result of this meeting.
FONOM Looking for ONTC Commitment from Minister Wynne

ONTC sale could be costly

Vic Fedeli reiterates his claim that the divestment process will cost far more than it will ever save.  Hopefully the fall's Auditor General report will clarify the issue.
ONTC sale could be costly | Kapuskasing Times