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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.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway

It's amazing how sometimes, even after living somewhere for ages, there are things you have never gotten around to doing. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR) was one of those things for me.

Thanks to spectacular countryside and its role in popular TV and films (notably Heartbeat and Harry Potter), the NYMR is one of Britain's most popular and prestigious preserved railways. Running 28 miles from Pickering to Whitby (exercising trackage rights on the Network Rail main line for the last eight miles between Grosmont and Whitby), the line meanders through valleys and moors, past streams and forests, all the way to Whitby's harbour.

61034 sitting at Grosmont

I met up with my friend David Horton, a signaller with Network Rail, for a day of exploring the line. In 2013, David had introduced me to Peak Rail, a much smaller preserved line, but one with equally beautiful scenery. I had never been to the NYMR and David hadn't been in years, so it what a good place to spend the day.

Grosmont station dwarfed by the landscape

Starting in Pickering, we travelled to Whitby before turning around to stop for lunch at Grosmont. Having explored the NYMR's main sheds, we got back on the train and travelled back to Whitby to use the rover ticket to our advantage. Turning around at Whitby, we travelled to Goathland, a village made famous as "Aidensfield" in ITV's extremely popular Heartbeat. Walking around the village is a very surreal experience - I had never been there, but I felt I knew it.

A timeless scene

After a long stop at Goathland, we got back on the train and headed back to Pickering, bringing to a close nine hours of travelling behind both steam and diesel locomotives. One of the nicest things about the NYMR is that it mostly runs through the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, meaning that the landscape has been spared from modern development. It is always strange on preserved railways when a steam engine passes the shiny new supermarket, but this doesn't happen on the NYMR. As a result, you really do feel like you have travelled back in time, with a slower pace of life and a closer connection to the countryside.

Climbing the 1-in-49 grade into Goathland

A day rover ticket for the line costs £25. Although this sounds like a lot, it does give you access to 28 miles of railway running through beautiful scenery and a full day out. If you haven't been on the NYMR, it is a journey to put at the top of your to-do list.

Edit: The original post incorrectly stated that the trip ended in Whitby. Of course, a round trip from Pickering would end in Pickering.

The Bucyrus Biography Boo-Boo

It's not often that I manage an alliterative title, but this one works very nicely. I have recently been studying the construction of the Panama Canal, specifically leisure and tourism in the American-controlled Canal Zone. Through my research, I came across an unfortunate mistake in Bucyrus' corporate history.

While the United States gets the credit for building the Canal, the project was in fact started by a series of French companies, notably the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. However, the French attempt failed due to a combination of inadequate machinery, financial problems and, most crucially, a lack of public health measures which resulted in thousands of deaths from Yellow Fever, Malaria and other tropical diseases. (McCullough, 239)

The successful American Canal project picked up where the French left off, but focused a great deal of attention on public health and the welfare of the workforce. As a result, rates of disease dropped dramatically, as did the associated death rates, and the project was completed in just over a decade, with the Canal opening to commercial traffic in 1914. Another important American innovation was the use of far more robust excavation equipment, including a fleet of Bucyrus-built steam shovels. (McCullough, 445)

One of the most iconic images of the Canal construction features President Theodore Roosevelt sitting at the controls of one of these steam shovels during his tour of the Canal construction in November 1906. He looks very much like a big kid playing in the sandbox in this image, and it fits his adventurous personality well. Not only did his trip result in an iconic photo, but it was also the first time that an American President had left the US while in office, changing the role of the Presidency forever.

Bucyrus, which has since been taken over by Caterpillar Inc., is rightfully proud of its role in building the Isthmian Canal, but one of its corporate history brochures makes two glaring errors about the project. The brochure, The Bucyrus Legacy, features the Roosevelt photo prominently on the cover and then goes on to explain TR's visit on the third page. The last sentence reads:
In 1908, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt climbed aboard a Bucyrus 86,000-kilogram (95-ton) shovel on an inspection trip to the canal.
Oops! Roosevelt's trip was in November 1906, not 1908. (McCullough, 492-502) Secondly, Roosevelt was in office until 1909, so even if the trip had been in 1908, he would still have been President. This is an unfortunate error and I hope that it can be corrected in future publications.


McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. London: Simon & Schuster, 1977.

Underwood & Underwood. President Roosevelt Running an American Steam-Shovel at Culebra Cut, Panama Canal. Photograph, November 26, 1906. Library of Congress.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Mayor hopes Ontera sale scuttled

Afters years of uncertainty, Ontario is going to the polls. What does this mean for the ONTC? North Bay Mayor Al McDonald hopes the election spells the end of the sale of Ontera to Bell Aliant. Personally, I see the sale as more bureaucratic than political, thus limiting the influence of the election, but time will tell.

>>>Mayor hopes Ontera sale scuttled | North Bay Nugget<<<