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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Call of the Northland Updates

A little gift for all the loyal readers and all those who helped Call of the Northland to succeed. I have uploaded a new update which brings the Call of the Northland story right up-to-date. The update is available free of charge on the Northland-Book website - click here!

Like what you read? Consider buying a copy of Call of the Northland (if you haven't done so already!) to get the full story of the train that nearly toppled a government. All the details are at the Northland-Book site.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lac-Mégantic à Découverte

Un excellent documentaire à propos de l'enquête du déraillement à Lac-Mégantic l'année dernière ainsi que la décontamination du terrain et du cours d'eau avoisinant.

Découverte - ICI

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Obligatory Holiday Train Shot

It's that time of year...
CP Holiday Train / Train des Fêtes du CP
CP 2246 pulls the Canadian Holiday Train out of Bowmanville on its way to Oshawa, 29 November 2014.

Friday, November 28, 2014

ONTC CEO to roll out transformation plan

Looks like some form of the ONTC will be continue into the future. Hopefully details will emerge over the coming weeks.

“We're open for business. This government wants us to be successful,”
Moore said. “And North Bay needs the ONTC to be around for another 100
years. I believe that will happen. I wouldn't be here if I didn't.”

>>>ONTC CEO to roll out transformation plan | North Bay Nugget<<<

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Christmas train returns

Some good new for a change! The ONR's Christmas train hits the rails again.

>>>Christmas train returns<<<

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Photo Update

Two recent photos to share today:

Firstly, the new Union Pearson Express trains are being tested between Mimico and Danforth GO stations in preparation for the launch next year. I was lucky enough to catch one of them near Bathurst Street on November 6.

Union Pearson Express

Secondly, and because it is Canada, snow has arrived in Ontario. CN 2202 and 2278 speed through a blizzard in Whitby on November 15.

A Taste of Things to Come... / Un avant-goût de ce qui nous attend...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Long-planned ONR work goes ahead

Plans have been afoot since 2011 to refurbish the aging stock for the Polar Bear Express. This, the third time the project has been announced, appears to finally be the real deal.

Long-planned ONR work goes ahead | North Bay Nugget

Monday, November 17, 2014

“The Challenge that We Face Together as a Province”: Bob Rae on the 'Ring of Fire'

The Hon. Bob Rae

On November 12, the Honourable Bob Rae, chief negotiator for First Nations groups in discussion with the Ontario government about the future of the 'Ring of Fire,' delivered the Annual Saul Goldstein Lecture at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto. His lecture, The Ring of Fire: Northern Ontario's New Economic Engine?, outlined the history of relations between Native people and the rest of Canada as well as the challenges we face as we look to develop the 'Ring of Fire,' a potentially enormous economic opportunity for the province and the country as a whole. Given my interest in the ONTC and the 'Ring of Fire,' I was in the audience.

Rae's overview of the issue, which he described as “the challenge that we face together as a province,” began with a history of Native subjugation through unfair treaties and the Indian Act, which saw Native people forced to assimilate (or die) in the face of government land grabs. He noted that “Canadians will have to come to grips with the most disastrous exercise in social engineering” when Justice Sinclair's report into the residential school system is released next year. “It can be called a genocide,” Rae continued, highlighting that the government's past aboriginal policy of “not letting a people be a people,” leaves a legacy that will be difficult to repair.

At the crux of the 'Ring of Fire' issue is the question of treaties, in particular the numbered treaties signed between Native groups and the province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Treaty 9, which covers the 'Ring of Fire,' was sent north by rail and canoe to be signed by Native groups who had no grasp of English and often signed only with an 'x'. While the government saw Treaty 9 as the way to a clear title on Native land, Native groups saw the treaty as an ongoing relationship. This was, in short, the “trillion dollar misunderstanding” which continues to have consequences today. Provinces (such as British Columbia and Quebec) which never signed numbered treaties have far better relations with Native groups. This phenomenon can be clearly seen by comparing life for the James Bay Cree in Ontario with that of their brethren in Quebec.

Turning to the 'Ring of Fire,' Rae pointed out that, as a result of the treaties, there are “two different understandings [that] people have about this land,” a problem further compounded by the fact that Native groups do not consider the land to have ever belonged to them; they were simply custodians for the Creator. Ownership aside, the land that the government and mining companies want to develop is inhabited by a “99%” native population who want to “control their destiny.” The time has come for Native groups to choose their own future, rather than the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines deciding it for them. Historically, Natives were never consulted as Ontario developed northwards. Sudbury was Native land. Timmins was Native land. In fact, it was all once Native land. For the 'Ring of Fire,' the development must be “fully accepted” by Natives groups living there.

The massive chromite deposits in the 'Ring of Fire' do present a “very exciting” opportunity, provided that the project is properly managed. As Rae explained, the framework agreement between the government and native groups is now finished and affirms that all rights will be respected (even if said rights have not yet been spelled out). At the centre of the discussion will be four main issues: infrastructure, living conditions, the environmental assessment process and revenue sharing. Rather than simply declare the “last pristine territory of the province” off-limits to development, Rae said that we must consult with Native people living there and see what future they envision. “We have left [Native people] to languish for generations” in conditions resembling “any third world country.” Attawapiskat, and other James Bay communities, are in desperate need of infrastructure and stable employment so that residents can control their own lives. This must be an important part of any mining development.

Put simply, by ignoring Native issues, “we have not fully embraced who we are as a people.” Canada's Native population is the fastest-growing demographic in the country, but is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and at the low end of the income scale. Like it or not, Canada's economic future lies largely in natural resources, but the legacy of injustice towards Native people must be addressed – the land isn't free for the taking.

To conclude, Bob Rae reminded the audience that “we've come a long way,” but that “we have one more step to take.” It is time to talk with Native people, to find out what they want to happen, and then to proceed accordingly.

During the question and answer session at the end, I raised the issue of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, which I argued could help provide the infrastructure needed in the north, even if the province seems to be ignoring it. Rae's response was that we need a “real sense of imagination” for the development of the 'Ring of Fire.' The key issue for transportation is to avoid the “total isolation” of the north and also to include the entire province in the development of transportation networks. As for the ONTC, Rae's feeling was that rail will be crucial for freight in the north, but not for passengers.

Another question asked whether Natives actually wanted to be connected to the rest of the province. On this, Rae explained that the debate is ongoing, and that there is no consensus. However, he did connect mental health issues in the remote communities to a sense of isolation among young people who, thanks to modern communication, can see what they are missing out on.

Lastly, Rae commented on the perennial question in Canadian policy: jurisdiction. By rights, Native issues are constitutionally federal, but Stephen Harper's regime has followed a very narrow interpretation which effectively absolves the federal government of any responsibility for future development by downloading much of the funding and decisions to provincial governments. In Rae's eyes, Harper's policies continue to make reserve life unbearable in a bid to force Natives to move into urban areas and, by extension, to become invisible, thus finishing the government's century-long goal of erasing Canada's indigenous people. If consensus and cooperation are the way forward, then the 'Ring of Fire' is a long way off.

I thought that Bob Rae's lecture offered a very good overview of Native-government relations, but was weak on the 'Ring of Fire' development itself. The reality is that mining companies are slowing their exploration as they perceive the provincial government to be undecided and an unreliable partner. By focusing on Native issues, I believe that Rae helped divert attention away from the untold wealth waiting to be mined and brought the issue back to the people it will affect. This is a laudable stance and it also let him speak to his current role and expertise as a negotiator for Native communities. I felt his assessment of the role of the ONTC was fair, even if I would like to see passenger rail play a larger role in Ontario's transportation policy.

All things considered, I am still undecided about the role of the ONTC (past, present and future) in the development of northern Ontario. It is a lifeline to many remote communities, who now depend on its services to stay connected. However, it was the ONTC (and its predecessors) which created this dependency in the first place. After all, government control over the north was nearly impossible until the coming of the railway.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Stranded as ONTC changes routes

Starting next month, the ONTC's buses will no longer serve Mactier. Is this the first true cut in service since the divestment/transformation saga began in March 2012? Yes, the Northlander was cancelled, but its stops are still served by buses. However, it appears that Mactier is losing all connections.

>>>Stranded as ONTC changes routes | North Bay Nugget<<<

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Bob Rae 'Ring of Fire' Lecture in Toronto on November 12

Bob Rae, former Ontario Premier and current negotiator for First Nations involved in the 'Ring of Fire,' will deliver the annual Saul Goldstein Memorial Lecture at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto, on November 12. The topic will be "The Ring of Fire: Northern Ontario's New Economic Engine?" For details, click here.

Kelly worried ministry will bleed the ONTC dry

This past week, representatives of the ONTC unions were granted a 1-hour meeting with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines in Toronto. Since the announcement of 'transformation' earlier this year, there have been concerns as to the stagnant nature of this change - that is to say, nothing is happening.

The meeting, described as "frank," did not offer any real answers. It appears that the potential for refurbishment work from Metrolinx is still a possibility, but not until the ONTC is more "competitive." This is reminiscent of the "enhanced" bus service that was promised, then cancelled, when the government decided that there wasn't any demand.

While the ONTC remains in government hands, its future is more uncertain than ever. After all, what can it do without any work?

>>>Kelly worried ministry will bleed the ONTC dry | North Bay Nugget<<<

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Helping "The Guy with a Train in His Basement"

Sometimes (like when you are concentrating your time on releasing a book) certain projects get put on the back-burner, not because they aren’t good, but because you haven’t the time to do them justice. This is one of those projects.

Last December, I learned that Jason Shron, head of the extremely successful Canadian model railway manufacturer Rapido Trains, was going to be visiting the UK, including a special event in Crewe. Unable to head to Crewe, I dropped him an email saying that it was a shame he wasn't visiting York. He quickly replied that he was. Indeed, he did visit York along with his colleague Dan Garcia, and I was their guide for the day.

Jason and Dan discover the replica of Stephenson’s Rocket.

The most memorable event from the visit was Jason and Dan browsing through York's premier model railway shop. Anyone familiar with Rapido's beautifully-detailed models will appreciate that Jason is very exacting when it comes to all model trains. I felt a little sorry for the shop as most UK models he saw simply weren't up to scratch and failed his critical appraisal.

One of the main reasons for the trip (apart from the Doctor Who anniversary celebrations) was to begin the process of developing Rapido's first foray into the British model market. They had told me what it was, but I was sworn to secrecy. Months later, the APT-E project was announced to great acclaim. After their brief York visit, Jason and Dan headed back to Canada while I settled back into my normal York routine.

Fast forward a month and an email from Jason appears in my inbox. While I had filed their secret project into the back of my mind, Jason had been hard at work with the Rapido team and organizations in the UK working on the project. In his email, he asked if I might be able to help by browsing through some files in the National Railway Museum's (NRM) archives, a mere 10-minute walk from my flat. As an historian, I love research. As a railway enthusiast, I love trains. How could I say no?

Overview of the APT-E, courtesy NRM.

And so it was arranged. I spent two days pouring over the plans for the train in question - about 50 boxes of film from the 1970s. I was looking for the drawings which would help Rapido design their model, exterior plans, underframe details and anything else that would be visible on a OO gauge model. Two things struck me about them. Firstly, how fine an art drafting is. Most of the drawings were hand-drawn by actual people, unlike today's CAD-generated printouts. Secondly, I was surprised by how quickly electronic technology had become part of train design; the vast majority of the drawings were circuit diagrams. Whereas a steam engine didn't need any wiring, by the 1970s trains were increasingly powered by silicon chips and copper wire. During my hunting, it struck me that some of the more "photogenic" plans had disappeared, likely as souvenirs when the APT-E project was shelved. Nevertheless, there was enough of a complete picture to allow the initial designs to begin.

Negatives of the APT-E test runs, courtesy NRM.

With the plans sorted, Jason asked me to examine the NRM's collection of APT-E photographs. Again, it took two days to sort through the prints, negatives, transparencies and promotional material of the construction and testing of the high-speed train which was decades ahead of its time. Looking back, there weren't many images of the train in action, probably because it never entered revenue service. As such, the British Rail promotional department never went to town in the way that it did for the APT-P, which did briefly enter revenue service. I was, however, able to find enough good images for Rapido's promotional needs. Two days spent looking at photos of trains in the world's premier railway museum, what could be better?

* * *

And so, I have actually been part of making a model! My research has helped to shape it. While I am a long-time buyer of model railway products, I have never thought much about how models actually comes to be on the hobby shop shelf. One of the best things about Rapido is that their newsletters offer a very candid glimpse at the design and production of their models and the rationale behind their pre-order distribution model. How many companies can you name that actually publish photos of their factory and working conditions in China? Whenever modellers whine about how manufacturers didn't make the right model, or wonder why it is taking so long for the next highly-anticipated release, they should appreciate how much time and resources are needed to get that train into stores.

Skip ahead to the end of June. After months of speculation and building hype, Rapido (this time represented by Jason and his other colleague Bill Schneider) unveiled their APT-E model at the NRM's Shildon site to a very receptive crowd of modellers and the railway press. I have to admit, I thought Rapido trying to enter what is arguably the most saturated model railway market in the world was risky, but the reception has been very positive. Of course, I was there, lending a hand as photographer and general dog's body for the day.

Along with manning the display booth, I helped to film what is probably the most unusual model railway promo video in history. "Carry On APT-E" has remarkably little to do with the APT-E, but is excellent visibility for the Rapido brand. I helped film the great train chase, which mostly meant standing around for several hours and trying to reassure the drivers that Jason isn't actually as crazy as he seems. In fact, Jason and Bill spent three days filming the video (and sorting out admin for the project). They even managed to fit in a trip to York to visit the NRM. Of course, I served as their guide once again.

Jason isn’t crazy. Honest.

So ends my experience of helping to build a model train. I gained archival experience and got to see how Rapido works (at least a little). Thanks to Jason and Rapido for the opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Three big 'whoppers' told about the Ring of Fire

So, how big a deal is the "Ring of Fire" for northern development (and, potentially, the future of the ONTC)? Perhaps not as big as we first thought. That is not to say that there is no potential (because there is) but it is worth pointing out that many of the 'whoppers' are directly the result of a sluggish government.

>>>Three big 'whoppers' told about the Ring of Fire - CBC News<<<

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

ONR president steps down

This came as a surprise to everyone. Paul Goulet has decided to call it a day at the ONTC. From what I can gather, he was well-liked by staff. However, his departure does offer the chance to change the Commission with some new leadership.

>>>ONR president steps down | North Bay Nugget<<<

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Bell Aliant acquires Ontera

Ontera has been sold, with some conditions. The Competition Bureau felt the original deal was harmful to competition in the region. As such, much of the fiber optic network is being leased to Eastlink. Opponents to the sale are now contemplating their next move.

>>>Bell Aliant acquires Ontera | North Bay Nugget<<<

Labour negotiating for ONTC's survival

Negotiations for a new collective agreement for 350 of the ONTC's workers have begun amid continued uncertainty over the Commission's future. With recent layoffs (and more expected), one wonders what the government actually meant by "transformation."

>>>Labour negotiating for ONTC's survival | Timmins Press<<<

Monday, September 29, 2014

Call of the Northland - Out Now!

After more than two years of work, Call of the Northland goes on sale today. What started as an idea for a photo essay aboard the Northlander in April 2012 became a project to chart the history of the Ontario Northland and investigate the Ontario government's failed attempt to divest the corporation.

Throughout this endeavour, I met many interesting people and corresponded with even more. I am deeply moved by how many people believed in this project and offered all sorts of support to make it a reality. People I had never met sent me their research, unpublished manuscripts, old notes and other material to help make Call of the Northland the best it could be. I have tried my best to include as much of this material as possible. Thank you to everyone who helped make this book a reality.

However, this is about more than a book. It is about a government decision which left thousands of people wondering how they would travel, how they would connect with the rest of the world. After the dust settled from the divestment mess, a passenger train was gone forever, jobs and investment had been lost, and a telecoms company was still for sale. Was divestment the answer? Perhaps, but not in the way the government planned it. No money was saved. Jobs were lost. Government: you goofed. Big time.

More information and details for ordering Call of the Northland can be found at

I hope people enjoy the book and find it a useful source on Ontario Northland and the divestment issue. As always, please send me your questions, comments and corrections. Contact details can be found at

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Call of the Northland goes on sale Monday!


Failed ONTC divestment was flawed from the start, author claims in new book

September 25, 2014

Two years after the last Northlander pulled out of the station, a new book claims that the uncertainty and frustration surrounding the cancelled divestment of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission was unnecessary and that the entire divestment was flawed from the start.

"Even if the financial case for divestment had made sense, the McGuinty government's complete lack of transparency and public engagement meant that divestment could never have succeeded," said author and historian Thomas Blampied, author of Call of the Northland: Riding the train that nearly toppled a government, which goes on sale on September 29.

"I've spent more than two years trying to understand the rationale behind the divestment plan and I’ve concluded that the numbers simply don't add up. Divestment would not have saved money. The government's claim of stagnant ridership on the Northlander was inaccurate. In fact, I believe that ridership was growing."

The book argues that the Wynne government's decision to end the divestment plan (choosing instead to ‘transform’ the ONTC) was an important development. But questions remain about why it took so long for divestment to be halted and why Ontera is still being sold.

"After the joint management/union business proposal was tabled in February 2014, the government changed its mind within a matter of weeks. Why did it take so long to reach this point? Why did Northern Ontario have to suffer through two years of uncertainty?"

Call of the Northland is an account of the Ontario Northland's history, from its earliest days in 1902 to the end of the ONTC divestment in mid-2014. The narrative is woven through the author's journey aboard the Northlander from Toronto to Cochrane in 2012.

Call of the Northland goes on sale on September 29 and will be available to purchase online through and in select retailers across Ontario.

For more information, visit the book's website:


About Thomas Blampied
Historian, author and photographer Thomas Blampied has published four books about railways in Ontario and his photography has been published on three continents. He has studied extensively in both Canada and the UK and currently lives in southern Ontario, where he is a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Toronto.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

10 painters laid off at ONTC

According to the North Bay Nugget, the ONTC has laid off 2/3 of its refurbishment painting staff due to a lack of work. Transformation doesn't seem so optimistic.

10 painters laid off at ONTC | North Bay Nugget

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Two Industries, One Photo

Two Industries / Deux Industries

Rail meets the road: CN 8808 and 5691 pull a string of autoracks out of the CN Oshawa Yard. The GM Oshawa plant dominates the horizon.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Closing of Ontera sale extended

The sale of Ontera, originally set to wrap up this past Tuesday, is now likely to take until October. While the Competition Bureau Review is part of this delay, the complexity of the ONTC is once again causing the government to have to slow down in its attempt to make a little money.

>>>Closing of Ontera sale extended | North Bay Nugget<<<

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Obligatory photo of Toronto's new streetcars

TTC 4403

After years of anticipation, transit nuts can now ride Toronto's new streetcars. Even the CBC has caught the transit-spotting bug. Walking down Spadina Avenue last night, I was able to shoot both 4403 (pictured) and 4400. The new cars will gradually replace Toronto's streetcar fleet over the next few years.

Tree Bark Rocks

In the August 2014 Model Railroader, John Longhurst (of the CP Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision fame) had a very good article about using tree bark to simulate rocks, rather than using the more traditional plaster mould method. I was just about to start refreshing the ONR Green Bank Sub, and I wanted to have more rocks.

Essentially, the tree bark method involves finding pieces of bark that resemble rocky outcrops, cleaning them up, and blending them into the scenery on your layout. John found his bark along a riverbank, so I tried along Lake Ontario. Tree bark floats in the lake for years, eventually washing up on the shore. By then, it has taken on a grey colour and looks remarkably like rock from the Canadian Shield. I collected my specimens and brought them home, where they immediately went in the freezer.

Tree bark is organic material, and all sorts of different organisms might be living in it. Before putting it on your layout, it is best to inspect each piece for anything obvious (moss, bugs, leaves) and then to freeze it for a few days. Then, I take the additional step of baking the bark in the oven, a trick I began using years ago to sterilize soil for use on my layout. Baking bark is dangerous and needs constant supervision in case it starts to burn. For my specimens, I found 15 minutes at 200c followed by 5 minutes at 180c did not damage the bark, but sterilized it enough for use. One warning: the baking process smells awful (like campfire gone wrong). With the bark as safe as it can be, I installed it on the layout.
Tree bark rock serves as the focal point in the front yard of Dufort's Antiques in Heron. Another piece behind the barn helps disguise the supports holding the backdrop in place.

I model the Ontario Northland, which runs through the wilds of the Canadian Shield. Rocky outcrops are an integral part of the landscape, often in cuttings blasted to make way for the track. I cut holes in my plaster-bandage scenery to fit pieces of the bark, which I glued in place. After using regular scenery materials to blend the "rock" into place, the effect is amazing.

Thanks to John Longhurst for the great idea and thanks to the Canadian Model Trains Yahoo! Group for advice on killing organisms in tree bark.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Let's put the 'awe' back in 'awesome'

Anyone who has uttered the word "awesome" in my presence will probably have heard me rant about how the word is overused. "Is Niagara Falls awesome?"I will be heard to say, "Yes! But since you weren't actually talking about it, whatever you said cannot have been awesome." As such I never use it. When I actually do talk about something awesome, I will usually replace it with awe-inspiring for emphasis.

Because this is a railway-related website, allow me to point out that the last train you saw is unlikely to have been awesome. The latest train video online was almost certainly not awesome. But, the invention of the railway, which helped to create one of the most incredible changes in the history of mankind by shrinking time and space while industrializing society was awesome. So, in a sense, trains are awesome, just not the one that just passed you. Take it away Jill!

Jill Shargaa: Please, please, people. Let's put the 'awe' back in 'awesome' |

Trainspotting hobby 80 years older than thought

The National Railway Museum has found evidence of the first trainspotter - way back in 1861. It was a 14-year-old jotting down locomotive numbers as trains came and went from Paddington Station. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this discovery is that said trainspotter was a girl. I think this makes trainspotting thoroughly gender-neutral!

>>>BBC News - Trainspotting hobby 80 years older than thought<<<

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Call of the Northland: On Sale September 29!

After two-and-a-half years of research, writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting (you get the picture), I have signed off on the proof copy of Call of the Northland and I am delighted to announce that it will go on sale to the public on September 29, 2014! The book looks gorgeous and will appeal to anyone interested in the ONTC, railways, Ontario, history, politics or travel (and hopefully other tastes too).

The book will be available to purchase online or through selected local retailers across Ontario. If you would like to sell Call of the Northland in your store, it isn't too late to order (you don't even have to be in Ontario). To get in touch, contact me through the book's website.

Let the countdown begin!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Shoo-fly, Shoo!

A long-overdue update on the construction of GO Transit's maintenance facility in south-east Whitby. So far this year, crews have excavated the site (several times it seems), installed drainage and now built a large berm next to the tracks.

On South Blair Street, my beloved level crossing has closed forever. I am sorry to see it go since it was the first place I used to go to watch trains with my father 20 years ago. However, I understand why the crossing is impeding traffic flow and ultimately inconveniencing the railway companies as well.

In place of the crossing, a new underpass will be built over the next few years. To do this, the GO Sub has been replaced with a shoo-fly track at the former crossing site. A shoo-fly is a temporary diversionary track used by railways to bypass construction or other obstacles (such as a washout). Once the portion of the bridge for GO trains is complete, the Kingston Sub will also be shoo-flied (?) to build the rest.

This photos shows how the site looked as of the end of July. It was taken with a zoom lens at 250mm while standing on the Hopkins Street bridge to the east of the site. Incidentally, the bridge will also be a casualty of the construction as it will be demolished and replaced with an access road to the south of the site, thus destroying one of the best rail photo spots in the GTA. Nothing lasts forever.

Construction in Whitby / Construction à Whitby

Of interest in the image are (from left to right):
  • The CN Kingston Sub. Without a level crossing to worry about anymore, CN freights can now go right up to the signal bridge while working the Oshawa yard.
  • The red and black pile-driver at the former site of the South Blair crossing and future site of the South Blair underpass.
  • The GO Sub shoo-fly with train 916 not-so-slowly rounding the "s" curve on its run east to Oshawa. Temporary signals were installed when the original signal bridge (roughly where the pile driver is) was removed to make way for the construction.
  • The berm, marking the southern limit of the future GO maintenance facility.
Also gone with the construction is the classic sound of trains blowing through the crossing. I miss the horns, even if they can still be heard sometimes when trains approach the construction workers.

For more updates, see the Metrolinx Flickr account, which gives good updates on all the major rail construction projects in the Toronto area, including those in Whitby. Even better, no need to trespass!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ontera sale to close Sept. 2

Summer time, and the ONTC news is largely quiet. That said, the sale of Ontera continues, with the deal set to close next month. While most people are relieved that the bulk of the ONTC will remain in public hands, the sale of Ontera is not popular. Was the telecoms division undervalued? Why is Bell Aliant shedding upwards of half the workforce? What level of service will be guaranteed?

>>>Ontera sale to close Sept. 2 | North Bay Nugget<<<

Monday, July 14, 2014

North of the Border

I recently made a day trip to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland and one of Europe's great cities. There is so much to see, including one of Britain's largest railway stations: Waverley.

Edinburgh / Edinbourg

Waverley has 20 platforms and trains are always moving. The station is right in the middle of the city and there are good views from vantage points above each end of the station, offering the chance for good views of the railway flanked by the city skyline.

Scotland is different from the rest of the UK in that almost all of its rail service falls under one franchise: First ScotRail. Apart from trains running into England, everything is operated by "Scotland's Railway." In truth, it is just like any other privatized franchise, but it feels like a part of the growing feeling of Scottish distinctiveness, as seen with the newly-formed Police Scotland or the unique Scottish NHS and university funding systems.

Nobody has really talked about what might happen to the rail network should Scotland vote for independence. With most services under one franchise, a split would be relatively straightforward. Cross-border trains would be a different matter.

If mainline railways don't take your fancy, Edinburgh now boasts a tram system as well. While the cost went well over-budget took much more time than expected (and ended up with a much smaller network than planned), I saw many people waiting to board airport-bound trams along Princes Street.

Princes Street Tram / Tramway de la rue Princes

I'm not sure how successful the tram system will be in the long-run. Even if Princes Street is largely reserved for public transport already, the trams are struggling to find room with all the buses, meaning that the system often runs late. Hopefully, planners will be able to find a way to speed things up.

Edinburgh is an interesting place to visit, with interesting places to walk and lots of free museums to enjoy. I hope to return in the future and explore more of the land north of the border.

Thank you East Coast!

Britain's railway gets a lot of bad press. Unfortunately, a lot of it is deserved. To counter this, here is a good news story.

This past weekend, York station was jammed with tourists, ordinary passengers, race-goers and trainspotters. On such busy days, police and security impose a lock-down of sorts, with ticket checks to help regulate the flow of people through the station. I've rarely seen the station so busy, and the smell of alcohol hung in the air. In this atmosphere, I wasn't sure if I would be able to access the platforms for some rail photography.

East Coast came to the rescue, as is outlined in this thank-you note I recently sent them:

"I wanted to thank East Coast for providing platform tickets so that non-travelling members of the public could access York station yesterday.

York has been especially busy with tourists and race-goers over the past few days and, with many people arriving by train, police and security have been operating ticket checks to control the flow of people through the station.

However, York station is also a popular destination for railway enthusiasts, including those who live in York (myself included) and did not have a ticket to travel. Since I didn't have a ticket to access the platforms yesterday, an East Coast employee kindly provided me with a platform ticket, which allowed me to spend several hours with my fellow enthusiasts on the station.

While issuing platform tickets is an ATOC requirement, I have been laughed off station platforms and refused entry before for requesting one (not at York or any other East Coast station, I hasten to add).

I really appreciate that the staff at York station took the time to offer platform tickets yesterday. It demonstrates their commitment not just to their passengers, but also to enthusiasts and to the wider public who wished to access the station.

Thank you for being so thoughtful, it is really appreciated."

Thank you again for a very sensible approach to a busy station. Railway stations have long been an important social space. I'm glad that East Coast continue to recognize this.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

ONTC workers still wondering about their future

When the Ontario government announced the sale of Ontera to Bell Aliant, the ONTC unions wondered how may jobs would be affected by the move. However, initial estimates showed few job losses, at least in the long-term.

Yesterday, it was announced that 66 jobs would be lost over the next two years, a move which will dramatically reduce Ontera's workforce. The announcement, coupled with dwindling work for the ONTC's refurbishment division, calls into question the government's commitment to the ONTC. Further, despite championing the transformation of the ONTC, the government has not clearly set out what the future ONTC might look like. The uncertainty continues.

ONTC workers still wondering about their future | North Bay Nugget

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Down to Dawlish in a Day

As the current chapter in my studies draws to a close, so does my time in England. While my feelings about leaving this island are mixed, I will certainly miss the railway network and the ability to travel virtually anywhere by train. In between days of packing, I was able to fit in a trip to a popular trainspotting location that I hadn't managed to visit before: Dawlish.

Dawlish is an incredibly photogenic part of Brunel's great seawall stretch of what would eventually become the Great Western Railway. Rather than blast a route through the Devon cliffs, Brunel built his railway right on the edge of the sea. While the result is one of the most spectacular stretches of railway anywhere in the world, it is a constant maintenance nightmare. This past February, severe winter storms battered the Devon coast and the powerful waves broke through a short stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish. The power of the stormy seas quickly eroded the railway line, leaving the track dangling in mid-air. The damage closed the railway line (the only rail connection into south Cornwall) for several months while work crews rebuilt the wall, stabilized the land and repaired the track. With the line safely reopened, I wanted to see it before the weather did any more damage.

Devon Coast
A First Great Western HST slows for a stop at Dawlish. The colourful portion of sea wall in the middle-distance is where construction crews continue to shore up the damaged section from the winter's storms.

Trying to do Dawlish as a day trip from York is ambitious, but doable. Leaving York at around 7:30 in the morning, I changed trains in Birmingham and I alighted on the platform in Dawlish at around 12:30, giving me a good amount of time to walk along the sea wall and see the town. Construction work on the wall continues and a substantial portion of the wall remains off-limits to the public. Each end of the damaged section is protected by a security guard, who must have the cushiest job in security: sitting beside the sunny Devon coast all day long.

I walked back towards the neighbouring town of Dawlish Warren, taking photos as the trains passed me. The sea wall stretch has not yet succumbed to the ubiquitous metal security fencing which lines most of the British railway network. Instead, walkers find the sea on their one side and a low wall (only just taller than knee-height) separating them from the 75 mph mainline on the other. It is an experience every railway fan should try! I wandered back to Dawlish and them climbed up the cliffs to shoot the quintessential Dawlish scene with the town serving as a backdrop for the railway line gently curving around the coast. Having completed my photo checklist, I spent a few minutes wandering around the town itself.

Dawlish, railway and sea.

To be honest, I didn't think much of Dawlish as a town. While its railway is truly special, Dawlish felt like any retirement community. Maybe if I had had more time to explore it properly, I would have enjoyed it more.

Most trains during the afternoon had been running late, so I opted to catch a slightly earlier train back to Exeter St. Davids, where I would catch my train back to York (or at least the stretch as far as Leeds). Reassured that I would make my connection, I had some time to explore Exeter's main station. I have been used to northern stations for much of my time in England, so I enjoyed examining the GWR station's architecture and enjoying the cream and green colour scheme of the footbridge and trim. Exeter St. Davids is one of the most important stations in the southwest, but it feels like a quiet backwater. At the north end of the station is a level crossing, with cars and pedestrians being safely guided across the tracks by the crossing attendant. I can't imagine such an arrangement on the East or West Coast mainlines.

Exeter St. Davids
Crew change at Exeter St. Davids.

I caught my train to Leeds and enjoyed green and lush countryside speeding by outside the coach window. The long hours of summer daylight allowed me to enjoy the view until north of Birmingham, when the sun finally set after what had been a dry and sunny day.

I changed trains at Leeds (the messiest train I had ever seen, someone had poured styrofoam pellets all over the seats) and eventually arrived back in York just after midnight. I was tired, but happy, after a day exploring one of the most spectacular railway vistas the world has to offer.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Why Open Access Operators Matter

I recently had a lovely day trip to Robin Hood's Bay and Whitby. Having never travelled the Esk Valley line, I took the train from Whitby back to York, via Middlesbrough. I actually changed trains twice, once in Middlesbrough and then again at Eaglescliffe a few minutes later. From there, I took the Grand Central service to York.

43467 Pan
A Grand Central HST at York

So what? Grand Central have been around for years now and I have ridden them before. However, it suddenly dawned on me, while standing on the bleak Eaglescliffe platform, how crucial Grand Central is to the town. The key is that Grand Central is an Open Access Operator.

When Britain's railway network was carved up in the 1990s, the network was divided up into franchises, with each franchise comprising specific routes, (leased) rolling stock, station management and staffing. Naturally, operators favour stopping at their own stations, meaning that out-of-the-way places, such as the North East, often get overlooked.

Here is an example. While many different operators stop at York, it falls under the East Coast franchise: all the signs, station management and staff are East Coast. Virtually all East Coast trains north of Doncaster stop at York. However, Eaglescliffe isn't on East Coast's patch and so passengers need to change at York or Darlington in order to get to London.

Grand Central, on the other hand, has no stations or station staff, only trains and on-board crew. They fill in routes where they see gaps. As a result, Eaglescliffe, a relatively insignificant stop on the way to Middlesbrough, now has direct trains to London King's Cross. No need to change anymore. Not only is this convenient, but it also helps to attract business to the area because easy transport links are attractive. Grand Central has also brought this benefit to other places, such as Bradford, Sunderland and Pontefract.

Grand Central isn't alone. Hull Trains brought direct trains to the port city before East Coast finally began offering a few services. Some of the services to Heathrow Airport are also open access, as is Eurostar.

All of these operators are underdogs in the fight for space on the congested network, but their success shows that certain routes are often overlooked when the big franchises are planned out. Sometimes, taking a chance and running a train is the only way to find out whether a route will work or not. So far, Grand Central has shown that if you build it, they will come.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Steam at Whitby

Steam at Whitby / De la vapeur à Whitby

It's not every day that you see a steam locomotive in Whitby (Ontario, that is). In fact, it has been over a decade since the last steam train passed through the town.

Of course, residents of Whitby (Yorkshire) can see the North Yorkshire Moors Railway's "Yorkshire Coast Express" on most days during the summer months, such as this sunny 30 June 2014 afternoon.

Une locomotive à vapeur est rare à Whitby (Ontario). En fait, ça fait plus qu'une décennie depuis que le dernier train à vapeur a passé la ville.

Par contre, les résidents de Whitby (Yorkshire) peuvent voir le "Yorkshire Coast Express" du North Yorkshire Moors Railway presque chaque jour pendant l'été, comme cette après-midi ensoleillée du 30 juin 2014.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Quebec unionized Wal-Mart workers win Supreme Court victory

Wal-Mart has long been the most high-profile example of an anti-union workplace, citing the principle of Christian servitude as a substitute for a union. However, the speed with which any outlet heading in a union direction closes down suggests that the issue has far more to do with keeping costs down.

While the Supreme Court ruling is a victory for unions and all retail workers in Canada, the corporate power of Wal-Mart and the Harper government's anti-union stance will likely win the day.

>>>Quebec unionized Wal-Mart workers win Supreme Court victory - CBC News<<<

Sunday, June 22, 2014

ONTC wants to hear from Premier

New(ish) government, debate begins again.

>>>ONTC wants to hear from Premier | North Bay Nugget<<<

A Garden Photo

The Gardens / Les jardins

It has been quite a while since I posted a photo. Here is 47580 pulling a railtour past the Crichton Avenue allotments yesterday.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Influential Railway TV 3: Last Train Across Canada

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Last Train Across Canada (1990)

This two-part documentary was produced for PBS and features Murray Sayle taking the "last train across Canada." When I first saw it as a child, I barely understood it, but I now understand it as a very thought-provoking look at not just the decline of Canadian railways, but also as a portrait of Canada during a very uncertain moment for the country's identity. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the documentary was actually about Canadian identity, rather than a sweeping political decision affecting the national transportation policy. Questions of what it means to be Canadian, Quebec sovereignty and the draw of the United States come up throughout the journey, which ended on a rather pessimistic note, concluding that the demise of rail could well be the demise of the nation.

While its discussion of identity is fascinating and offers a valuable insight into the Canadian mindset of a quarter of century ago, its depiction of the railway network is completely inaccurate. Not to be pedantic, but I have never seen a documentary ride so roughshod over Canada's railway network and the country's geography. There never was a "last train across Canada" - or a first. Sayle's journey from Sydney to Vancouver has never been possible without taking at least three trains. In fact, he leaves out Newfoundland altogether (being a few years too late for its narrow-gauge railway). The journey is correct in that it was filmed on the eve of VIA Rail's massive cuts in 1990, which saw the country's passenger rail service halved overnight. The VIA Rail route he (largely) stuck to, via Maine and the CP's transcontinental route across Ontario and the Prairies, was indeed abandoned. That said, the crossing of the country remains possible (except for Halifax-Sydney, which lost all its service) with VIA Rail predominantly using CN's route.

According to the narration, Quebec City is next door to Montreal. Relative to Canada, this is correct, but it is still hours by train. Having visited Toronto, Sayle apparently rejoins the train just outside the city, by which he means Sault Ste. Marie. Not only is this the other end of the province, but Algoma Central territory, not VIA Rail. After a short visit with the Amish, we are back with VIA Rail briefly, before jumping across Ontario again to the Ontario Northland Railway's line to Moosonee, where he meets the Cree and finally acknowledges Canada's Native population. Throughout the show, we are constantly reminded of how empty Canada was before rail, yet this viewpoint erases centuries of Native habitation. While the documentary's perspective seems dated, Native visibility has improved considerably since it was filmed and a similar production filmed now would probably discuss Native people much more.

Jumping back to VIA, the journey skips to Churchill (missing Winnipeg and Thunder Bay completely). After polar bears, Sayle heads south and explores Prairie life, or an extension of Midwestern American life, hinting at the Prairie separatism that simmered at the time. Onwards through the Rockies and straight to the Pacific Ocean, neglecting Vancouver. In fact, the whole journey from Ontario westward feels rushed.

One particular gem in the show is a discussion about the place of railways in Canadian identity with Pierre Berton at Union Station in Toronto. Berton remained convinced that the railway was central to identity in 1990. Were he still alive today, I'm not sure he would be. In 2014, most Canadians do not travel by train at all.

As I have revisited this production over the years, the question of Canadian identity has come to be the most interesting element to me. The idea of a welcoming, multicultural society it portrayed sounds very much like a Trudeau-esque vision of Canada. It is, I think, overly simplistic. I cannot believe that Canadians in 1990 would have considered it acceptable to immigrants to never learn English or French, as Sayle suggests when he meets a Japanese-speaking cashier in Banff; they certainly wouldn't now. Canadians are portrayed as simple, somewhat parochial people. While the country remains parochial, the growth of the internet has made the world much smaller and impossible to ignore. In 1990, it was still possible to be detached from the world. In 2014, it is virtually impossible.

The people Sayle met across Canada were cordial and friendly, traits now relegated to the older generation and rural areas. Of all the stereotypes used to describe Canadians, politeness is the one I most wish wasn't disappearing. I find it increasingly hard to distinguish Canadians from Americans, but it seems Sayle found this was already happening decades ago.

Sayle's discussion of Quebec separatism was timely, as it returned to the fore with the referendum of 1995, but its urgency has since waned. The recent defeat of the Parti Québécois demonstrates that Quebecers value a distinct society and culture (something which has been largely achieved without independence), but not an intolerant one. The western provinces are still part of Canada too, but the ambivalence pulling the Prairies towards the US has grown stronger with the election of Stephen Harper who, while he pretends to "stand up for Canada," has systematically worked to dismantle everything that was distinct about Canada and has adopted sweeping American policies, from an increasingly militarized society to mass election fraud. Sayle spoke of the Prairies as empty farmland, but oil was already shifting the Canadian balance of power westward when VIA Rail pulled out of southern Saskatchewan.

Last Train Across Canada is a whimsical look at an era in Canadian railways which is now gone, even if the documentary completely butchered routes and geography in its portrayal of the "last train."  However, railway accuracy aside, it remains an important snapshot of identity across Canada in 1990 and looks at a society that was still connected with its railway - a fact I feel is no longer the case. Last Train Across Canada was released as a 2-tape VHS set but never as a DVD. A few poor-quality versions of the show can be found floating around cyberspace as well.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Liberals return to power with majority

Honestly, I did not see this coming. It seems that the electorate (or at least the 51-ish % who actually voted) have decided that Kathleen Wynne has officially separated the Liberals from McGuinty's scandals. Overall, the result is a clear statement that Ontarians did not want Tim Hudak's extreme right-wing agenda to win out and instead wanted a more centrist province.

On the Ontario Northland front, the major players are still in place. In fact, only Sudbury changed hands, with the NDP narrowly beating the Liberals. I would expect the status quo in the "transformation" to remain.

>>>Ontario election 2014: Liberals return to power with majority - Ontario Votes 2014 - CBC<<<

Thursday, June 12, 2014

History moves to a new site

Starting today, all new academic-like stuff will appear on my new history website, Pro Bono History. Anything already history-related on this page will remain.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Influential Railway TV 2: Love Those Trains

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Love Those Trains (1984)

A National Geographic TV special, this charted a romantic history of railways based largely on nostalgia and railway enthusiasts. Its depiction of the building of the American transcontinental line is devoid of any mention of Native people, although it does mention Chinese workers and high death tolls. The production focuses mainly on the United States, but also featured South American railways and a special chartered run of the Orient Express to Turkey.

One thing that strikes me looking back is how the show painted a love of trains as a largely elite pursuit, for those wealthy enough to own swaths of California land (for a live steam park), to ride the Orient Express, or take leisure trips to luxury hotels. When more common people do appear, it is either working for railroads, or at the hobo convention in Iowa. This perhaps reflects the target demographic for National Geographic in the 1980s, but it is worth mentioned that their specials were once prime-time viewing on network TV. In terms of gender, it was surprisingly mixed, suggesting that both men and women could both work on and like trains. Women could even train to be engineers (with the help of a rather hands-on Long Island Railroad instructor...).

Overall, Love Those Trains has aged badly, showing a world so black and white that it seems impossible. It does paint a good picture of attitudes from a pre-9/11, pre-global warming world, all from National Geographic's American-centric and piercing anthropological gaze. It was released as a VHS tape and is sometimes available as a DVD-R from National Geographic.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lac-Mégantic: Suppressing the Truth Behind Regulatory Failure

Canada's railway safety record has been a problem for years. Successive waves of deregulation led to a virtual free-for-all and, while the number of accidents has decreased, much remains to be done.

In the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic, it seems that the little guy will pay once again. Within days of the derailment, the head of MM&A Ed Burkhard, threw the locomotive engineer under the bus, blaming the entire derailment on him. The investigation into the accident has yet to be concluded, so Burkhardt's accusations were very premature. The United Steelworkers (who represent two of the three MM&A employees recently arrested over the derailment) has set up a legal defence fund to attempt to match the power of corporate lawyers the men will face in court.

This very thorough article outlines the sheer number of people, technologies and institutions that are likely to blame for the accident. Whatever the actions of the crew, Lac-Mégantic is the product of lax regulation, a government that didn't care and an industry that needs to wake up.

>>>Lac-Mégantic: Suppressing the Truth Behind Regulatory Failure | National Newswatch<<<

Edit June 3: My original piece incorrectly stated that the United Steelworkers represented all three arrested MM&A employees. They only represent two (the third is management).

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Influential Railway TV 1: Locomotion

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Locomotion (1993) 

In my opinion, this A&E/BBC series is the most informative and best-produced series of railway documentaries ever made. The four episodes brought together archive footage, interviews and a coherent narrative of railway history from a socio-economic perspective. The episodes detailed the history of American railroads; the enormous impact of the railways on Britain; the railways' role in turning cavalry-based fighting into modern mechanised warfare (I admit, I couldn't watch this episode until my teenage years); and the future of railways around the world.

The American railroads, chronicled in Engines of Enterprise, is the most economic of the episodes. It charts the construction of railroads across the continent, the opulence of Pullman and the Robber Barons and the slow decline brought on by regulation, trucks and aircraft. One of the advantages of Locomotion was that many people who were adults in the first half of the 20th century were still alive when it was filmed. This allowed first-hand accounts from pre-WWII union organisers and railway employees, which added a fascinating personal layer to the story.

While the economic narrative of railroads is the standard for American railroad history, this episode wove it into the broader social changes in the United States, making for a very interesting account. My one criticism was the decision to end the episode with the decline of streamliners in the 1950s. This meant leaving out mergers, bankruptcies, Conrail, deregulation and the resurgence in freight traffic (which had begun when the episode was made).

The second episode, Taming the Iron Monster, has always been my favourite and has shaped much of my historical study. Even when I was very young, the account of the early days of railways in Britain appealed to me. While Engines of Enterprise focused on economics, the British story focused on engineering, architecture and people. By considering engineering, the documentary is able to demonstrate how the north of England (through coal, terrain and personalities) shaped the development of railways around the world through being the test-bed for tunnels, bridges and locomotive designs. Stations were the public face of the railways, and were designed to exude confidence. Anyone who has visited a major railway station in the UK (and even many of the smaller ones) will understand this point. I suppose what appealed to me most was the discussion of people and how they interacted with their landscape. Social reform and the trade union movement were inextricably linked with the railways, as was an increasingly mobile society.

However, I do think this episode was overly-whiggish when it came to the battle for the Lake District, in which the likes of John Ruskin managed to prevent railway construction from destroying the countryside (in hindsight, cars have caused far more damage than carefully-planned railways would have ever done). Similarly, Ruskin et al. were far more concerned about hoipaloi being able to access the Lakes than about the development of infrastructure. This look at British railways concludes with the striking parallels between early railway building (and its public reception) and the Channel Tunnel, which was under construction when the show was filmed. Just as early railways provoked a mania, the Channel Tunnel has provoked a mania for high-speed rail in the UK, with HS1 absorbing the London-Folkstone portion of the line and the controversial HS2 being debated today.

I am a rather peaceful person and the thought that my favourite mode of transportation could be a vehicle for the evils of war is not something I wish to dwell on. Yet The War Machine shows how railways took technological determinism to the extreme, fuelling larger, more mechanised, longer wars through an almost assembly-line-like movement of supplies, ammunition and people. By focusing on three wars, the American Civil War, and the two World Wars, the documentary shows how railway supply lines both expanded the scope of war and isolated it. One of these instances, the documentary argued, was the systematic extermination during the Shoah. Railways allowed for the movement of millions of people efficiently, but also in such a systematic way that few people even knew the whole picture. In this sense, the Shoah was Fordist (perhaps appropriate since Ford was anti-semitic) as each small part of the Nazi machine played its part in the tragedy with little need for an understanding of the end result. Although it is my least favourite episode, it discusses its subject well and even spoke to Soviet railways workers and used Soviet footage (even if the narration described it as "propaganda"). Railways in war is not pleasant, and as such has been largely ignored outside the academic sphere, but The War Machine is a good grounding for a general audience.

I always felt that the final episode, Magic Machines and Mobile People, was a little out of place, not just because A&E clearly re-cut it for an American audience (complete with several monologues from Jack Perkins), but also because the content didn't fit well together. The first portion, looking at the influence of railways on space and time, has come to mean more to me as my interest of railways has moved towards people's perception of railway technology and travel. Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey was still a new work at the time and a cultural interpretation of railway history was a nascent area of study.

However, the show suddenly jumps to Florida. Yes, Henry Flagler did essentially create the state as a sun destination thanks to extensive railway investment, but it doesn't fit neatly with space and time, even if Florida is arguably a railway-created space. After the citrus state, we jump to Japan, apparently the one place where rail is still in its golden age thanks to punctual (perhaps too punctual?) service and extremely fast trains.

The show ends with the warning that railways, even in Japan, are usually money-losers, yet in a more crowded and urban world they will remain critical to future transportation infrastructure. This prediction has come true. As oil prices continue to rise, almost every developed nation is investing in new trains, better rail infrastructure and resurrecting long-abandoned lines. Sadly, Canada remains an exception and its absence from the television series is probably warranted.

My confusion about the incoherence of Magic Machines and Mobile People is explained in the credits, which hint that there were in fact two final episodes made, one for the BBC and one for A&E. I only noticed this recently, and was delighted to find Track to the Future, the real ending to the show. Whereas the A&E version is like a bad school essay, trying to cram lots of facts together and hoping that it makes sense (note to self, don't do that), Track to the Future presents a coherent analysis of a very simple question: what is the future of rail? Rather than jumping around, the show used three case studies, all suitably glum and postmodern, to show how rail in the early '90s was dying.

While the case study on Japan is virtually identical to the A&E version, the other two are not. The show begins looking at the ruins of the Argentinian railway network, which was once one of the greatest in the world. Decimated by cuts under nationalization, the infrastructure collapsed, literally. Privatized in a last-ditch attempt to rescue some lines, the network shed over 90% of its employees and abandoned large swaths of the population who didn't live on arterial routes. Since the show was filmed, Argentina has suffered crippling economic crises and has now begun to re-nationalize some of its network in order to save it for the future. The other case study looked at Los Angeles' legendary gridlock, ironically the result of a highly popular interurban railway network. Streetcars made the city's suburbs possible, but then chained LA to cars when the tracks were ripped up. This is perhaps the most optimistic case, however, because the city has begun to rebuild its railway network (and continues to this day). Whereas Magic Machines and Mobile People was whimsical and nostalgic, Track to the Future was much more sober and demonstrated how railways will play a leading role in our future megacities.

Overall, Locomotion is now dated in its views of private business and lingering anti-Soviet feeling, but much of what it says remains incredibly relevant and sparked my interest in the social impact of railways nearly two decades ago. Locomotion was released as a 4-tape VHS set and has more recently been issued as a Region 1 2-disc DVD set. Nicholas Faith, the consultant for the series, wrote an accompanying book called Locomotion, which is definitely worth a read.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why does TVO ignore the ONTC?

Ontario is in election mode and the ONTC is a more prominent issue than at any other time in recent memory (albeit really only in conjunction with the Ring of Fire). With the Liberals claiming that they saved (most) of the ONTC and the NDP vowing to reinstate the Northlander, the discussion seems to have been opened up to a province-wide audience. Why then, does the ONTC get so little time on TVO's flagship current affairs program, The Agenda?

When the ONTC issue first hit the news in March 2012, TVO said nothing. In fact, the first real coverage of the issue was in August 2012, when host Steve Paikin wrote an article about the demise of the Northlander on The Agenda's web site. I found the piece frustrating, because it accepted the Liberal's financial claims as fact (which the Auditor General later showed could not possibly make sense) and did not open up a discussion about the future of the ONTC. Rather, Paikin's article suggested that the train was dead, end of story. That said, it was an important article because he was the first journalist to report on the massive costs associated with the ONTC's pension liability. This did make people ask how much the divestment would cost and eventually led to the Liberals backing down.

At its core, however, The Agenda is a TV show. How much airtime has TVO given to the ONTC? By my count, next to nothing. In November 2012, dismayed by the lack of coverage, I wrote to TVO encouraging them to feature the issue on their show. I received the usual "thank you and we will consider it for the future" stock answer and nothing changed.

As I said at the top, this is election season in Ontario and TVO has finally given the ONTC some time. Recently, The Agenda did a live show from Canadore College in North Bay. The broadcast portion did not talk about the ONTC, but the web-only discussion segment did - just. An audience member brought up the issue of transportation in the north and Steve Paikin asked Vic Fedeli (also in the audience) to discuss the ONTC issue. This was, as far as I can tell, the first coverage TVO had given to the ONTC, which by this time was largely safe from divestment. The discussion, which lasted only a few minutes, essentially said that mobility in the north was harder, trains are expensive and the Northlander was toast.

Some more coverage came a few weeks later, when The Agenda held a debate on transportation in Ontario with candidates from the four major parties. I say transportation in Ontario, but for all intents and purposes, it meant Toronto and surrounding area. To be fair, Steve Paikin did apologize for running out of time, but the ONTC was given the last two minutes, just long enough to acknowledge that it existed and that the NDP wanted to bring back the Northlander. Wow!

More recently, TVO dedicated an entire hour of the show to northern issues, bringing all four parties together to talk about the north. While discussing the state of the roads (which do need improving), the cancellation of the Northlander was mentioned by the NDP candidate as a decision which did not make sense. In response, the guest host Piya Chattopadhyay said that the issue would be revisited if there was time at the end. Naturally, there wasn't.

So, by my calculations, the ONTC has received one article and about five minutes of airtime from The Agenda since March 2012. If I am wrong, I would be delighted for someone to correct me, I really hope there was a discussion that I missed. TVO is the provincial broadcaster, yet it seems incapable of discussing the ONTC. It isn't just a northern issue, the Northlander also connected Toronto and the Muskokas to the the north and the ONTC's buses still do. They have spent a good deal of time recently discussing the Ring of Fire and northern roads, but why can't rail be discussed too?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Two technological eras / Deux ères technologiques

Two technological eras / Deux ères technologiques

60009, Union of South Africa, pulls 1Z71 York-Kings Cross under the catenary at York, 22 May 2014. / 60009, Union of South Africa, avec le train 1Z71 de York à Kings Cross passe en dessous du caténaire à York, le 22 mai 2014.

Free the CBC from Harper's Interference

Despite writing a book all about a political decision to try and dismantle a government-owned railway, I don't normally get overtly political on this website. However, the CBC is a Canadian institution that I value greatly and I am dismayed by the current government's attempts to run the broadcaster into the ground. Although people don't often talk about the CBC, the majority of Canadians do value it and want the government to maintain it as a leader in high-quality programming and information delivery. Please take a look at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting campaign and get in touch with the government to tell them that the CBC isn't theirs to mess around with.

>>>Free the CBC from Harper's Interference. Please watch the video and sign the petition<<<

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The York Model Railway Show

Over Easter, I visited the 52nd annual York Model Railway Show, one of the largest and most established on the model show calendar. I was treated to some of the most popular layouts in the UK and I spent over five hours wandering through the three levels of layouts, demonstrations and trade stands at the York Racecourse.

One of the things that surprised me the most was the sheer variety of different prototypes that the layouts were based on: modern British to early steam, Japan to Australia, Austria to the US and everything in between. I had never seen such a variety of layouts at one show before and exhibitors had travelled from across the UK for the event. Many of the layouts had recently been featured in model railway magazines and I enjoyed being able to see them for myself.

Something which really impressed me was that many of the layouts (there were, according to the guide book, over 45) were either displayed near the Racecourse pavilion's large windows or had their own lights, ranging from builder's spotlights to diffused lighting fitted above the layout complete with fascia. This made photography much easier and allowed the skill and work of the modellers to be seen in the best possible light (pun intended). I have never seen layouts with lighting like this at Canadian shows and I would encourage modellers to start adding lighting, it really adds to the feel of a layout. Here are the layouts which I felt stood out in a very high-quality crowd.


It takes a few tries to be able to properly pronounce the name of John Illingworth's layout, but it is a delightful snapshot of German life in O gauge. Based on the 1960s, it models a fictional town in the last days of steam. Little details, like the sounds and the figures, made this layout a fun one to watch.

Bradstone Quarry

Roger Nicholls has captured a busy limestone quarry, complete with heavily-weathered rolling stock in a very small space. His OO layout also features very ingenious uncoupling ramps for use with tension-lock couplings: little tufts of long grass lift the coupling hook and thus uncouple the wagons. Clever!

Coyote Creek Railroad

This was my favourite layout at the show, not only because it made me homesick (quite a feat when I have never visited the US southwest), but because Ruth and Clive Monks were so much fun to talk to. This HO layout was built to capture Arizona scenery with the trains being secondary, a refreshing change from layout trying to cram too much track into the scenery. Using actual desert materials, they have done a brilliant job of capturing the essence of mainline American railroading dwarfed by its surroundings in the cactus-filled part of the continent. They also had one of the most effective uses of lighting at the show, using spotlights to make the rock glow.

Dawes Creek

From one hot climate to another, Dave Dawes' N scale layout depicts an Australian broad-gauge line and uses a lot of modified stock to accurately represent Australian trains.

Flemingsburg Jct

Another American layout, this one showing how much detail you can fit into O scale. Unlike Lionel's toy-like models, the Shipley MRS's layout features highly-detailed L&N locomotives that just look big and powerful, showing how much can be done in the larger scales. This layout was very popular and its fast-paced timetable kept my interest for a long time. The working train order signal at the station was one particularly effective touch.

New Bryford

The "cover" layout for the show is an example of what I like to call 'British social realist modelling' at its best. Basically the social realist school models contemporary Britain - no nostalgia. Broken windows, security fencing, graffiti, gangs, police, gritty and so forth. What I really liked about Mick Bryan's and Peter Taylor's layout (apart from the very effective apartment buildings) was the amount of rolling stock - it was like watching a 3-D model railway catalogue!

T Gauge

Think Z scale is tiny? Try T! Crazy tiny at 1:450, need I say more?

Widnes Vine Yard

I idolized Widnes Vine Yard years ago when I was still modelling modern British railways, but I had never expected to actually see it outside of cyberspace. Another gem of the British social realist layouts, the Wirral Finescale Modellers' OO layout also features working interlocking signals. Even the tiny track-level shunting signals work. Another excellent selection of rolling stock helped make this layout very popular with the crowds.

As you can see, there was something for everyone at the show. I haven't even focused on all the different steam layouts (including a club trying to resurrect the ill-fated Hornby live-steam range). They were just as good as the diesel layouts (if not better in some cases), but I didn't find the steam as compelling for me personally. I am very pleased that I managed to see this show and it is worth a visit should you happen to be near York around Easter. The £8 admission price was well worth it and the full-colour glossy show guide was incredible value at £2 (although it would be even better with more careful proofreading).

Many manufacturers were also at the show. If I still modelled modern British railways, my wallet would have been in serious trouble. Thankfully, there wasn't much Canadian stuff for sale (although lots of US and European) and I left the show with lots of photos and happy memories and only one freight car.