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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ontario Northland employees ratify deal

After a tense month in North Bay, the ONTC and Unifor came to an agreement, which sees wage increases and more secure employment.

>>>Ontario Northland employees ratify deal | North Bay Nugget<<<

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Petition to Restore Algoma Passenger Service

If you can, please sign and share this petition to restore passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. Many communities along the line have not road access, and are completely isolated without the train.

Northern Ontario Needs Passenger Trains too!

Monday, November 16, 2015

ONTC Workers Locked Out Again

Following renewed negotiations on Friday, Unifor unit 12 workers have once again been locked out by the ONTC management since Saturday. Details here.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Continued ONTC Labour Woes

Over the past year or so, collective agreement after collective agreement has come up for renewal and has been successfully renegotiated at the ONTC. However, the agreement covering maintenance and refurbishment staff has proven to be much harder to resolve.

On the one side, the ONTC remains committed to building a new business in order to follow the government-mandated mission to become commercially competitive. On the other, employees represented by Unifor feel that their job security and current benefits are being erased from the proposal being put forward by Ontario Northland.

Things came to a head Wednesday when the Unifor unit 12 employees were locked out by management. Not surprisingly, employees saw this as an unfair bargaining tactic designed to force the new agreement. It seems that this view was shared by the Canada Industrial Relations Board, who ruled the lockout illegal and ordered that it be ended Thursday morning. It seems that the ONTC had given insufficient notice of the lockout and forced its workers off the job without the required warning.

Labour negotiations are often contentious, but while I think it is clear that the ONTC is here to stay, it seems that becoming "competitive" may override the wellbeing of its workforce.

Friday, November 06, 2015

ONTC Cuts Bus Routes

Citing low ridership, the ONTC is cutting back several bus routes in Northeastern Ontario effective November 15.

These include: Cochrane-Matheson, Cochrane-Timmins, Kapuskasing-Hearst, Timmins-Sudbury and North Bay-Timmins.

With many northern residents still taking stock of life without the Northlander, this latest round of cuts has further cemented the divide between southern and northern Ontario. As Gilles Bisson has rightly pointed out, those relying on public transportation were initially promised an enhanced bus service to replace the Northlander. Not only has the enhance bus service not appeared, but bus routes are now being cut.

There is no doubt that the ONTC needed to restructure in order to remain a financially viable entity. However, sustainability appears to have been confused with skeletal service.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ontario PCs blast Liberals for taking $61-million loss on Ontera sale

When the sale of Ontera was announced in late 2012, the numbers simply didn't add up. The unions representing ONTC workers were especially vocal, claiming that the telecommunications division was being undervalued. When the sale was finally approved in the fall of 2014, Bell Aliant acquired Ontera for $6 million, thanks to a government payment of over $50 million. Put simply, the Ontario government decided to sell Ontera - whatever the cost and potential consequences.

A year on, the provincial Tories are claiming that the sale was even more costly than first thought. While the sale garnered $6 million, the consultants who worked on the deal apparently received $6.5 million.

Whenever the government decides to reform the north of the province, things get messy. Throughout the long (and largely futile) attempt to privatise the ONTC, the government has repeatedly lost money while claiming that the sale would save money. In contrast, a properly-subsidised and modern transportation network across the north would ensure a more equitable treatment for people across the province. Of course, politics is rarely about fairness at the moment (despite the overuse of the term in speeches), it is about getting votes and trying not to step on the toes of private corporations.

>>>Ontario PCs blast Liberals for taking $61-million loss on Ontera sale - The Globe and Mail<<<

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Stop paying fees to southern Ontario's busing company, ONTC drivers' union says

The union representing the ONTC's bus drivers is calling on the government to waive the estimated $500,000 in bus terminal user fees the agency pays the government each year. According to the union, this is an unfair practice since the ONTC is being forced to make cuts, including the closure of several of its bus stations in northern Ontario.

The ONTC has been paying fees to the government for decades (the convoluted leasing arrangement for the TEE trains comes to mind), but there is an interesting point in the debate over bus terminal fees. While the ONTC is forced to pay GO Transit for the use of the Yorkdale bus terminal (I assume there are fees for the Bay Street terminal too, but I don't know who collects them), I am not aware of GO charging itself any user fees. Advocates for a publicly-funded ONTC have been calling for a merger between Metrolinx and the ONTC for years as a way to cut costs. Such user fee agreements simply reinforce the separation.

In the end, it comes down to the sort of transportation system people want to have in Ontario. Do we want government-funded public transportation available to all Ontarians, regardless of where they live? Or do we want to starve outlying areas and force people to move to Toronto, where transit infrastructure is reaching breaking point?

>>>Stop paying fees to southern Ontario's busing company, ONTC drivers' union says - CBC News<<<

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Passenger train service generating interest

Ever since RailMark took over, and was quickly forced to suspend, Algoma passenger service earlier this year, the hunt has been on for a new operator. In the interim, communities relying on the train have been stranded. While the bidding process is still ongoing, this article confirms that the ONTC is not among the interested parties.

I hadn't expected Ontario Northland to be interested, but now that I think of it, it would be an ideal candidate. Imagine: a reinstated Northlander; a passenger train between North Bay, Sudbury and the Soo; passenger trains from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst; a passenger link connecting Hearst and Cochrane. In other words, a return to the circle route lost decades ago. It isn't going to happen, but what an opportunity!

>>>Passenger train service generating interest | Sault Star<<<

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Thomas the Tank Engine visits Uxbridge

(Yes, I do share my name with the number 1 engine) Thomas the Tank Engine visits Uxbridge

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Corina Moore Appointed President and CEO of ONTC

Corina Moore is now officially in charge at the ONTC. Her appointment brings continuity to the Commission. Some will see it as a good thing, others won't.

>>>Corina Moore Appointed President and CEO of Ontario Northland Transportation Commission<<<

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Struggling up the grade

Struggling up the grade / Luttant jusqu'à la montée

Skrillex takes to the rails

Electronic artist Skrillex likes to travel by train, so when it came time to plan another cross-Canada tour, he opted to ditch the jet and the tour bus in favour of a chartered VIA train. The last time this happened, back in 2012, I didn't see the train. This time I did.

Skrillex Full Flex Express

Unlike the previous tour, the Full Flex Express is operating as part of scheduled VIA trains, including 61, which is pictured at Whitby en route to the evening's performance at Toronto's Echo Beach. The front of the consist was the standard train 61, with the second locomotive and stainless steel forming the tour train.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Union not too excited over new contract work at Ontario Northland

As Ontario Northland seeks more refurbishment contracts, a small number of workers have been recalled to meet demand. While job creation (or re-creation) is positive, this sort of 'yo-yo' cycle depending on a fluctuating workload is a problem. The goal (and I'm sure that the ONTC is working towards this) is to secure long-term contracts, such as Metrolinx passenger car refurbishment which will guarantee years of work, not job-to-job.

>>>Union not too excited over new contract work at Ontario Northland<<<

Algoma Passenger Service in Doubt Again

RailMark couldn't get funding for the continued operation of the Sault Ste. Marie-Heart passenger train. Result: no train, at least until some money/another company appears.

>>>Sault-Hearst rail service to cease July 15 (update)<<<

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

“Is there a legal issue here?” How police suspicion derailed my railway hobby

Over the past few months, a new term has entered the Canadian discourse. Once, “carding” meant a penalty on the soccer pitch, but now it has become synonymous with a broken policing system which sees black people disproportionately targeted by police without due cause. Within this discussion, Desmond Cole’s heartbreaking piece has become the central story. The question of carding has become part of the broader discussion of what police should and should not be allowed to do in this increasingly paranoid world. I do not believe that this heightened level of security and suspicion is warranted, but as demonstrated by the increasing militarization of police, somebody certainly wants me to think it is. While the black community certainly bears the brunt of this flexing of police muscle, other groups also feel it. Including railfans.

Railfanning is not well known in car-loving North America. People openly obsessed with trains and all aspects of the railway system seem much more likely to come from Britain, the undisputed capital of the hobby. Sociologist Ian Carter has estimated that between three and five million people in the UK (that’s nearly 8% of the population) could be considered railfans, rail enthusiasts, trainspotters, or whatever title they choose. [Ian Carter, British Railway Enthusiasm (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p. 1] There are no comparable statistics for North America, but based on magazine subscriptions and internet traffic, a conservative estimate would be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fans.

I have been a railfan for longer than I can remember. I have always loved trains. After I was born, I went home on a train. I can remember the excitement of riding on the GO train to visit my father’s office in downtown Toronto when I was about four. Back at home, my mother made me a cardboard mock-up of the train which I played with for hours. Some evenings, after my father returned from work, he and I would go down to the local level crossing for a few hours to watch the VIA trains speed past and the long freight trains rumble by. While most boys grow out of their love of trains, I never did, and have continued to be a devout railfan. Over the years, my interest has expanded into writing, photography, academic study and the world of model trains. Such dedication, however, comes at a cost.

I remember the first time the police took an interest in me. It was April 15, 2007, a grey and gloomy Sunday afternoon. Bored, I had convinced my father to drive the two miles to the level crossing so that I could photograph the afternoon parade of VIA trains. As he sat in the car, I stood up at the crossing gates. After a while, an unmarked Crown Victoria pulled up and stopped beside me. The officer inside rolled down the window and we started talking. The officer, with CN Rail’s police force, knew what trainspotting was and wasn’t too concerned about my watching trains. He claimed that he had seen me before, although I did not recognize him. His statement would become common throughout future encounters. Satisfied, he carried on his way and I went back to my photos. In school the next day, I felt that situation gave me a little more ‘cred.’

But then it happened again. On August 21, 2007, the OPP stopped me while I was taking photos from an overpass overlooking the tracks. Same questions, although this officer had never heard of railfanning. I asked him, “is there a legal issue here?” He said there wasn’t. I largely brushed off this second incident too.

As I became more proficient in my railway photography, I began to go trackside more often. I never trespass and always take photos from public vantage points. The more time I spent near the tracks, the more often police (not just CN and OPP, but the local police department as well) began to ask me questions. Since the first incident in 2007, I have been stopped about a dozen times. Compared to some members of the black community, this is nothing, but should it have happened at all?

In every case, up to the most recent incident, a simple “I’m taking photos of trains” has satisfied the police’s curiosity. A quick search of YouTube for “railfan police” shows that, compared to some incidents across North America, I have been fortunate in my experience. Back in 2010, the editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine was detained by the NYPD for taking photos on a subway platform.

Between 2010 and 2014, I spent most of my time in the UK pursuing my studies, only returning to Canada for holidays. On the whole, I enjoyed life in the most surveilled society on earth (where there are nearly 2 million security cameras), even if I found the level of security excessive. The British government’s controversial ‘stop and search’ provisions targeted photographers, leading to the “I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist” campaign. In a country where the transport system has been the recent target of terrorist activity, I expected the police to be all over my railway photography. Despite spending hours taking photos at stations and trackside vantage points, the police never once approached me, even though units of up to a dozen officers patrolled the platforms.

During my time in the UK, the VIA bomb plot made headlines in Canada. Two men were accused of plotting to blow up a bridge, which would have sent a VIA passenger train and its occupants plunging to their deaths. According to reports, police initially became suspicious after reports of the men taking photos of trains. During the trial, surveillance showed the two accused (and an undercover FBI agent) walking along a stretch of track east of Toronto, clearly trespassing, as they inspected a bridge. It was a location I had photographed before, but from public property.

As the story broke, I sent off a series of letters to railway companies and the media, reminding them of the benefits railfans bring to the security of the railway system. In the UK, the British Transport Police has clearly supported the extra eyes trainspotters provide. In the US, Amtrak and BNSF have adopted similar policies. The Toronto Star actually published my letter. Despite greater scrutiny of Canada’s rail network, I still went trackside whenever I could.

My most recent police interactions took place on December 16, 2013 and happened within five minutes of each other. I was back in Canada for Christmas and decided to head trackside to see some trains. After a while, an OPP officer rolled up and quite jovially told me that somebody had so much time on their hands that they had called the police to report me. Satisfied that I was indeed taking photos of trains, he headed off, but not before telling me that he was sure he had seen me before. Once again, I didn’t recognize him at all.

Less than five minutes later, the local police pulled up to say that I had been reported. This time, the officer (who was probably younger than I was) asked for ID. I complied and he went to run my details through the databases. It was a cold day as I stood there, wallet open in my hand. I didn’t dare put it back in my pocket in case the officer thought I was reaching for a gun. After a few minutes, the officer returned my ID. Obviously, no flags popped up, and we talked briefly about railfanning, which he had never heard of. He concluded by saying that he couldn’t see how I could avoid being stopped again, and drove away.

These last two incidents were over a year and a half ago, yet they still haunt me. Did someone really report me? Who thought that I was a threat? What do police databases say about me now? How could I avoid getting stopped again? The answer to the last one was simple: stop railfanning.

I used to go trackside at least once a week if I had the time, but since 2013 I have photographed trains less and less. I choose locations differently, seeking out areas where the police don’t patrol often. When I do go trackside, I spend less time there. I am far more aware of my surroundings and look over my shoulder constantly. In short, I have become a more “suspicious” character, which is surely what the police would have wanted to avoid.

Rationally speaking, I have nothing to fear. I am a white, well-dressed, articulate male. My four railway books, my thousands of photographs, my website and even my MA thesis (on model trains) would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not plotting something and that my interest in trains is completely innocent. Further, last time I checked it was legal to stand on public property. (Both GO Transit and VIA Rail have gone on the record with me to confirm that they do not object to non-commercial photography). However, no amount of rational thought can counteract the emotional stress of handing over my ID to the police and waiting for them to process it, all while countless cars drive by, their occupants trying to guess how many laws I must have broken.

In his piece, Desmond Cole spoke about how every police car makes him edgy. I am the same. Even seeing an officer on point duty makes me tense. Cole is right: the more police stop you, the more you start to think you have done something wrong. The more I think I have done something wrong, the more my body language suggests that I have, which then makes me a target. But surely standing near the railway with a big Canon camera strap around your neck isn’t suspicious.

Then there is the element of chance. While the police have stopped me about a dozen times, they have also driven right by me dozens more times. There is obviously a fair amount of subjectivity in who the police decide to interact with. I think it is quite understandable that I feel like I have been picked on without good reason. Railfanning, as the police have confirmed to me during my interactions with them, is not a crime in Canada. If I am not breaking the law, why should I expect to be stopped?

I’m not sure what the future of railfanning is, but I am cautiously optimistic that the future of policing is going to change. Thanks in large part to Cole’s article and the increasing prevalence of cell phone video, mainstream media are beginning to openly question how the police are allowed to interact with the public. Even the mayor of Toronto has questioned the random stops.

It isn’t a crime to be black (at least I hope it isn’t) and no one should be stopped for walking down the street. It isn’t a crime to take photos of trains either. While I realize that there is a difference between the colour of one’s skin and what one chooses to do as a hobby, it is time for the police to recognize that most people are minding their own business. In recent years, police forces have lost the trust and respect of many in the community. Now they must work to rebuild that trust. We must also be ready to discuss how we want our police force (we pay them after all) to conduct themselves.

Friday, June 26, 2015

City won't sign agreement with Railmark

As expected, Railmark's inability to secure credit has prolonged the uncertainty over Algoma passenger service. That said, the issue is (at least for now) bureaucratic, since Railmark is continuing to operate the train regardless. Next, stakeholders will be shopping around for other possible operators and Railmark will keep trying to get credit.

>>>City won't sign agreement with Railmark<<<

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tracks (Out) Ahead for RailMark?

I must confess that, with my fixation on the situation facing the Ontario Northland, the similarly precarious situation affecting the Algoma Central passenger operations has taken a back seat in my mind. Chris van der Heide is much more on the ball than I am when it comes to the situation on the ground in the Soo, so when he warns that RailMark might be heading for a fall, I take notice. If I understand the situation correctly, we appear to have a deadlock between government, CN, RailMark and creditors - an impasse which has now forced the cancellation of passenger service until at least Tuesday.

I must admit, I always thought that RailMark's claim that the passenger service would be self-sustaining within five years was ludicrous, but I had really hoped that this might work out.

So, what next? Sault Ste. Marie council meets to discuss the issue this week. Although they really don't want to take the passenger operation back, I reckon there is a good chance that CN may be asked/begged to do so.

In the mean time, take a look at Chris' piece on the issue:
>>>Tracks (Out) Ahead for RailMark? | Algoma Central in HO Scale<<<

Correction June 22, 2015: My original post suggested that the cancellation was related to the financial situation surrounding the train. However, as several comments have shown, the two are likely coincidental. Tonight's council meeting will hopefully shed some light on the subject.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Union Pearson Express is Open for Business

The first thing anyone visiting Toronto by air will notice is that Pearson International Airport is nowhere near the city. In fact, the airport is technically in Malton, a part of the City of Mississauga. If you are lucky enough to have family in the Toronto Area, they are probably waiting for you at the arrivals gate, and they will drive you to Toronto. If you don’t, you could either pay for an airport limo, or try the TTC’s airport shuttle to the Bloor-Danforth Subway. All of these options are at the mercy of traffic, as I have found on countless occasions. There are few things as frustrating as getting off a plane from the UK and being reunited with my family, only to be told that the traffic is especially bad and we are going to sit in arrivals for a few hours to wait for it to improve. As of this weekend, there is another option.

Looking at a map of the airport, it is quickly apparent that the CN Weston Sub (now owned by Metrolinx) is very close to the airport, yet Toronto has never had a passenger train connecting the city with Canada’s largest airport. The idea of a rail link to the airport has been around for decades, and plans to build one finally began in 2001. Several companies and setbacks later, the government-owned Union Pearson Express (UPX) finally began rolling this past weekend.

UPX 3002
UPX 3002 arrives at the Pearson station. The centre DMU cars are fitted with a driving cab, allowing the trains to easily run in 2 or 3-car formations.

The “UP” (as people call it) connects Pearson Airport Terminal 1 with Union Station between 5:30 AM and 1 AM, 7 days a week. Trains run every 15 minutes and the trip, which also serves the intermediate Bloor and Weston stations, takes 25 minutes, easily beating all existing transport links. The brand-new Nippon Sharyo DMUs, equipped with luggage space, electrical outlets and complimentary Wi-Fi, are sleek European-style trains which, according to rail staff, are a joy to drive. They are very similar units to the modern DMUs used in the UK, which brought back happy memories for me. Of course, all of these improvements come at a cost. A one-way ticket costs $27.50 (although PRESTO card users get a significant discount) and the entire project cost nearly half a billion dollars. However, when you consider the cost of flying these days, the cost doesn’t seem so bad.

Inside the UPX / A l'intérieur du train UPX
Inside the UPX.

The service officially began on June 6 and I decided to ride it. To save money, I started my journey on the Subway, opting to try the TTC option to the airport. After riding the Bloor-Danforth Subway to Kipling station, I boarded the 192 Airport Rocket bus, which whisked me to Terminal 1, where I promptly got lost. You see, I decided to ignore all the signs directing me to “Trains” and instead tried to find any UPX branding. Well, it turns out that “Trains” really did mean UPX after all. Having found the train, I bought a ticket and spent an hour looking around the new station and watching the new trains arrive and depart every 15 minutes.

Cake! / Gâteau!
Official cake-cutting for the UPX at Pearson Airport.

I arrived just before 11 and, quite by accident, managed to see the official cake-cutting ceremony. Lots of important-looking people took turns with the ceremonial knife for the media. Excitement over, I boarded a train and waited for my ride to begin. The coaches are quite spacious and the seats, complete with retractable armrests and tray tables, are comfortable. There is lots of luggage space in each coach and the whole ambience is a good welcome to the city. Soon, the train was off and slowly rolled along the nearly 3.3 km-long elevated section which connects the airport with the existing Weston Sub. Imagine: the only thing stopping trains travelling to the airport was this tiny stretch. That said, the elevated section is a feat of engineering. Reaching as high as 28 metres, it is the longest bridge in Ontario and gives you the impression that you are still flying.

UPX 1008
UPX 1008 on the elevated stretch approaching Pearson. 

Once the train joins the main line, you are treated to a view of Woodbine Racetracks, industrial and post-industrial wastelands and the shabby eclecticism of West Toronto. The train makes brief stops at new stations at both Weston and Bloor so that people don’t need to travel all the way downtown. Both of these stations are still being built (in fact, delays in station construction have pushed back the opening of the UPX, which had only committed to an opening date about a month ago). The train rolls under the West Toronto Grade Separation, which has seen the once-busy diamond transformed to allow trains to pass one on top of the other without delays. This was one of several construction projects needed to allow the UPX to work. At Strachan Ave., the level crossing has been replaced with a rail underpass to improve safety in what is becoming an increasingly populated part of the city. Beyond the underpass, the train rounds the curve past Fort York and coasts through the Union Station Rail Corridor to the new UPX station at Union.

UPX 1005 at Union / à Union
The new UPX Union station, in the heart of downtown Toronto.

The station at Union is the flagship for the entire service, featuring a gift shop, cafe and restaurant. Located in the Skywalk, it is a short walk from the main Union Station, offering a seamless connection to the TTC, VIA and GO Transit. The Pearson station is little more than an enclosed platform, while the Bloor and Weston stations are essentially tacked onto existing GO stations. 

Gare UPX Union Station
The UPX Union Station.

So often in Canada, new about public transportation is grim. However, I think we have a good news story for once in the form of the UPX. Of course, whether the UPX will succeed remains to be seen. The fares are high, especially compared to the TTC’s airport shuttle, and relying on more affluent travellers is a bit of a gamble. I don’t see anyone using it as a commuter route into downtown, so it will have to rely on air travellers and may not benefit ordinary Torontonians as much as has been advertised. With rising fuel costs and increased security, flying is more arduous than at any time in recent memory and all bets are off for the future of commercial aviation. Despite my reservations, this project shows that the current government is willing to built public transportation in Ontario (the south at least). For that reason, I think we should smile and praise the UPX for what it is - a step in the right direction.

Postscript: I am not a fan of the UPX’s new name. While the “UP” might be uplifting, the “uh” sound is also an expression of doubt. For what it’s worth, I would recommend a different name. To my mind, the Pearson Express Train (or PET for short) would be a more affectionate name and make it seem a greater part of Toronto. You can own a PET, but not an “UP”.

Post-Postscript: I am also not sold on the uniforms. They are a strange blend of rail, air and Soviet military. In fact, the one odd thing about the train is that it does try very hard not to be a train, but rather a continuation of the aircraft. Is this how you have to sell trains to North Americans?

3D Printing is the Future of Model Railways

Two-dimensional printing (in an efficient way, that is) dates back to Gutenberg. It revolutionized how people were able to disseminate information and began the slow process of democratizing knowledge (or at least making books cheaper, ergo easier for more people to access). Fast forward to today and 3D printing is trying to do something similar. Technically, 3D printing is over 30 years old, but it is only in the past few years that it has entered the mainstream. 

In theory, the process is very similar to a computer inkjet printer. Once the 3D design is fed into the machine, a combination of heat and material are injected into the correct place, slowly building up the object layer by layer. As the technology has improved, so the variety of materials has increased. Initially, only plastic could be printed. But now, it is possible to print metal, stone, even human tissue.

A long time ago, I used to wish that model railroaders could invent some sort of “shrink-anator” to make an HO scale copy of any object. When I first heard about 3D printing, probably a decade ago, I was excited about what the technology might mean for model railroading. Until now, if you wanted an HO scale object, you had two options: you could buy a ready-made version or a kit; or you could build it from scratch. This was fine, provided a manufacturer made what you wanted, or you had the required skills to make one yourself. Today, 3D printers offer a third option: become your own manufacturer.

Traditional plastic models were made by injecting a polystyrene plastic into moulds. This required moulds and the skills to make them. The process is long and expensive, but the level of detail is remarkable. Most model trains are still made this way. However, with 3D printing, most of the complex and costly mould process is eliminated. Provided you have a 3D design, simply feed it into a 3D printer and watch as your object is printed before your eyes. It is truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, even the most basic 3D printers are still hundreds - or thousands - of dollars and not worth it for the average person. Many companies, such as Shapeways [], offer to print objects from user-created files, but these can still be quite expensive. In their great tradition of allowing the greatest number of people free access to knowledge, public libraries have gotten in on the act too. 

I had recently received a set of Rapido Trains gondola cars. Given that I model northern Ontario, where the main freight is mining or forestry-related, I thought a set of covers for the gondolas would look nice, even if it did mean hiding some of Rapido’s trademark interior detail.

Gondola covers are made by a variety of manufacturers, notably Models by Dave [], but to cover my fleet would have cost over $50. The design seemed straightforward enough, so I decided to try designing one myself using prototype photos as a guide. As 3D printing has become mainstream, so the number of software applications to design 3D models has also grown. I opted for the free 123D Design [] from AutoDesk (of AutoCAD fame). It’s BIG - the Mac version is over 700 MB - but surprisingly fast and powerful for a free application.* Learning to use 3D design software is a little confusing: you need to build in order to cut away sections, but I soon got the hang of the basics thanks to AutoDesk’s helpful videos. [] My design wasn’t exactly to scale, but it looked good. Now I needed to print it.

Screen capture of the finished design, ready for printing.

First, I tried Shapeways, but their quoted price was over $20 USD per cover based on their most basic plastic material. I have no doubt that the quality would have been good, but it would have cost more than the commercially-available covers. However, I had a trick up my sleeve.

Recently, my local library acquired a MakerBot Replicator 2 [] printer so that patrons could use it to print their own objects. Even better, thanks to a grant, the service was (and still is at the time of writing) free of charge. All I had to do was send in my file, and wait for my turn in the queue.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 uses PLA plastic, which is derived from corn. It is heated, melted and injected layer-by-layer to build up the shape. Even better, because it is corn-based, the melted plastic smells like chocolate sweetness, rather than burning rubber. I sent in my design and waited.

Apparently, my design took about 2 1/2 hours to print. A few days later, I was able to collect the finished product.

The first gondola cover, fresh from the printer.

As you can see, the printer builds its own scaffolding-like framework to support the object during construction. This frame is designed to be easily broken away by hand, but a knife and sandpaper help. A rotary tool with a sanding attachment works even better than sandpaper, but will eat through the plastic quickly - beware! Except for the fanciest 3D printers, the grain of each layer of injected plastic is clearly visible (like the rings of a tree). For now, injection-moulded plastic still has the edge, but 3D printing will certainly win out one day, especially for rapid-prototyping or one-off designs. The technology eliminates the need for moulds altogether.

In all, I ordered four covers, which I collected over a period of about three weeks. Although not as quick as getting them printed professionally, I couldn’t argue with the price. In terms of quality, however, there was a price to pay. Two of the cover are slightly warped, one appears to be missing a layer of plastic (making a “stepped” appearance) and one was, confusingly, printed upside-down, meaning that all the framework was moulded onto the curved surface, which required additional sanding and filling to fix. However, once the covers are seen as part of a freight train, the blemishes soon fade and look really impressive on a fleet of really impressive gondolas. In the end, I was willing to compromise in order to take advantage of the library’s offer and most of the errors can be corrected, or ignored.

A string of gondolas enters Foulard Yard on my proto-freelance ONR Green Bank Sub.

Prototypically, most gondola covers are a slightly off-white colour. Since I could have the covers printed in white plastic, the finish was already complete. For the one printed upside-down, I disguised the worst of the damage under several coats of yellow acrylic paint. This also adds variety to the model.

Since the success of the covers, I have designed and printed a winterization hatch for my Ontario Northland GP38-2 and am in the process of designing a set of ramps ramps for the ends of a TOFC flat car.

As for future projects, I am currently out of ideas, but the next time I want to make something for my layout, I will look beyond manufactured parts and scratch-building and consider what the digital age offers me: the chance to be my own manufacturer by designing and printing my own models.

*The free version of 123D is for non-commercial use only, so you can’t sell your designs.

Monday, May 25, 2015

It's another shoo-fly!

Construction continues in Whitby / La construction continue à Whitby
A few weeks back, I went to the Hopkins Street overpass to see whether there had been any progress on the new South Blair Street underpass and the adjacent GO maintenance facility. There wasn't much to see, but I did spend several harrowing hours with thousands of flies.

Hoping that the flies had disappeared, I returned yesterday only to be accosted by another kind of fly - a shoo-fly.

Shoo-fly tracks are when railways build a temporary track diversion around construction, subsidence or any other obstacle. The GO Sub has featured a shoo-fly since last year to allow for the construction of the underpass and recently the north track of the CN Kingston Sub has followed suit. Here, you can see CN 8941 slowly leading a freight through the freshly-ballasted track. Operationally, this is going to be complicated because the north track now has a temporary speed restriction of 30mph for about half a mile through the construction. I expect the RTC will be routing as much traffic as they can over the south track.

Meanwhile, a new chain link fence has been built surrounding the site of the future GO maintenance facility (in the right of the image) and hefty gates have been installed on the access roads. It seems to me that the site has been levelled again, but otherwise there are few signs of construction continuing.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Northern roads make CAA "Canada's Worst Roads" list

Every year, the CAA asks motorists to nominate the worst roads in Ontario (so why is it called Canada's Worst Roads?). This year, Algonquin Boulevard in Timmins took 1st and 2nd places. The city's Riverside Drive came 8th. Highway 144 in Greater Sudbury came 4th. With 40% of the top ten roads in a part of the province with less than 10% of the provincial population, can somebody explain to me why driving in the north (as opposed to taking the now-cancelled train) is a better alternative?

>>>CAA - Canadas Worst Roads<<<

Read free excerpts of Call of the Northland! (3)

I have teamed up with Stan Sudol's Republic of Mining website to bring you several free extracts from Call of the Northland.

For the final extract, you can read about how the Ring of Fire might influence the future of the ONTC from chapter 14, "Transformation"! Click here.

Like what you read? Consider getting your own copy of Call of the Northland:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NEOMA supports First Nations' railway proposal

In its latest incarnation, the Mushkegowuk plan to take over and expand the ONR into the Ring of Fire is even more ambitious, and now includes plans to improve hydro infrastructure as well. However, as Peter Politis points out, provincial government support for the ONTC remains ambiguous at best. Even if divestment is no longer on the table, the transformation process has seen further service reductions. Under the Mushkegowuk plan, the ONTC (or at least the ONR) would probably be taken out of provincial hands altogether, essentially becoming a private entity.

At stake here is perhaps the distinction between a government-owned transportation network and a largely privately-owned one. The question is, which one will provide a better, more secure, service?

>>>NEOMA supports First Nations' railway proposal | Timmins Press<<<

Friday, May 15, 2015

Read free excerpts of Call of the Northland (2)

I have teamed up with Stan Sudol's Republic of Mining website to bring you several free extracts from Call of the Northland.

For the second extract, you can read about Cobalt, Ontario from chapter 4, "The North"! Click here.

Like what you read? Consider getting your own copy of Call of the Northland:

Read free excerpts of Call of the Northland! (1)

I have teamed up with Stan Sudol's Republic of Mining website to bring you several free extracts from Call of the Northland.

For the first extract, you can read the entirety of chapter 1, "First Steps to the North"! Click here.

Like what you read? Consider getting your own copy of Call of the Northland:

CEO confident 'Tidal wave' of work coming

As tank cars need to be retrofitted to meet improved safety standards, the ONTC is hoping that much of the work will come to North Bay.

>>>CEO confident 'Tidal wave' of work coming | North Bay Nugget<<<

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Corina Moore, you are ignoring history

This past week saw the interim president of the ONTC, Corina Moore, spoke at the FONOM meeting in Sudbury. Unfortunately, her comments were not helpful and have alienated workers at the 113-year-old transportation commission.

As reported by CBC, Moore explained that the Commission was in a "crisis situation". I couldn't agree more. As my research into the ONTC showed, it has been losing money for the past few decades as inadequate subsidies and the precarious economic and demographic situation in the north made for a difficult market to operate in.

However, Moore went a step further, saying that the ONTC needed a "culture shift" away from "entitlement" and towards a more competitive framework. This reflects previous statements she made regarding the need for a more competitive organization, but also suggests that the ONTC has been some sort of spoilt child. I disagree, my experience with the ONTC showed hard-working people who provided essential services connecting, not only northeastern Ontario, but also the north to the south.

My real issue, however, is a comment that the CBC reports Moore made to the effect that "the future will be challenging because the company hasn't seen much change in 113 years." As Call of the Northland argues, the past 113 years have seen enormous changes at the ONTC. As trucks became a threat to the railway's business, the ONR spent $600,000 to purchase local trucking firm Star Transfer, allowing for the integration of road and rail freight. Seeing the potential of tourism, the T&NO (the predecessor to the ONTC) took over boat excursions on Lake Temagami (in 1943) and Lake Nipissing (in 1945). Even more crucial was the introduction of the Polar Bear Express as a tourist trip in 1964. More recently, the ONTC ran its own airline from 1971 until the mid-1990s. This provided timely connections between communities. The  1977 introduction of the Northlander was a huge success. Even more recently, the ONTC's refurbishment division's work has been lauded as some of the highest-quality in North America. The company hasn't seen much change? Really?

Unsurprisingly, Unifor (which represents almost half of the ONTC's workers) was quick to criticize the statement. The president of Local 103, Andy Mitchell, was right when he said that "To publicly state that Ontario Northland has not changed in 113 years demonstrates either a lack of familiarization with ONTC or a deliberate scheme to undermine its value and purpose, with the ultimate intent to rebrand the sell-off of the ONTC as transformational".

A disturbing part of the ONTC divestment and transformation process has been deliberate misinformation. The Ontario government's claims about declining Northlander ridership were simply wrong. To say that the ONTC has not changed is simply to ignore history. The past few decades have indeed been very difficult for the ONR, the government has (until recently) cut back subsidies, industries have closed and the improvements to Highway 11 have made driving a slightly less onerous prospect. But, for Corina Moore to confuse the recent history of the ONTC with the agency's entire legacy is both inaccurate and a disservice to all of the people who developed winning strategies to keep the ONTC relevant to the north.

I would be remiss not to mention Metrolinx, the current darling of the government. The Toronto area is growing at an astounding pace and it desperately needs public transportation. I am happy to report that it has never been easier to get around the region without a car, but the development comes at a cost. Looking down from the north, how could northern Ontario not feel left out? As Toronto-area commuters are treated to improved train service, double-decker buses, new light rail lines and even an express train to Pearson Airport. Northern Ontario lost the Northlander three years ago and is losing bus stations as we speak. As Ontario Northland is told to become more competitive and efficient, Metrolinx seems to have an unlimited budget.

The ONTC needs to change - everyone agrees with that. However, what we need is constructive, accurate, dialogue. Recognize that the ONTC has changed before and that is can change again. I do think that there has been complacency recently, but that does not reflect the full story.

The transformation of the ONTC presents an exciting opportunity for positive change. A fair ammount of trust has been lost between the government, the ONTC and northern residents. Now is the chance for all sides to come together and heal the rifts which several years of bad decisions have caused.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Time for a New Tank Car: the DOT-117

Today, Transport Canada and the US Department of Transportation announced new standards for tank cars. The DOT-111 design has been roundly criticized for being unable to withstand the impacts sustained during a derailment. Even modified versions of the design proved inadequate, as this winter's derailments near Gogama demonstrated: both featured retrofitted cars.

The new design, dubbed the TC-117 or DOT-117, features more robust a heat-resistant construction, better shielding at both ends and stronger valves to prevent liquids from spilling in case of a derailment. This handy-dandy infographic shows off the new design. For those of you with detailed knowledge of car construction and engineering (so, that means not me!), Transport Canada has also posted the full nuts-and-bolts details.

As to whether the new design will work or not, only time will tell. The Transportation Safety Board has reserved comment for now, while CP has welcomed the new design.

Rail remains a safe way to transport most things, but rolling stock designs must keep up with changes in the commodities they will be carrying.

Rail idea in Ring of Fire gathering steam

The ONR isn't for sale, but maybe it should be. Read on to see what I mean: Rail idea in Ring of Fire gathering steam | Timmins Press

I still think that government-owned should be the way to go, but the idea of a First Nations-administered route which would bring economic and social benefit is a tempting idea. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

China train makers in talks with Bombardier rail over possible sale

Early days, but Bombardier might be getting out of the rail business. In the Toronto area, Bombardier is known for building the GO Transit bi-level cars, the new TTC subway cars and the new TTC streetcars. However, it seems that two Chinese manufacturers are teaming up to buy the rail division. All sides are very cagey about the details, and it is not even clear whether the deal might go through, but Canada might be losing one of its last stakes in rail manufacturing. Since the demise of EMD, not a single company in Canada has manufactured new trains - except for Bombardier. Things might be about to change again.

>>>China train makers in talks with Bombardier rail over possible sale - The Globe and Mail<<<

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

VIA Rail looks at private funds to build own tracks

Interesting article on VIA Rail's proposal to raise funds to build dedicated tracks in a bid to circumvent delays caused by freight trains. Metrolinx has now purchased a great deal of the trackage that GO transit uses, and the move has seen punctuality and frequency improvements. VIA's numbers are certainly enticing, shaving over an hour off the current Toronto-Ottawa and Toronto-Montreal travel times. However, I don't see any indication of where these new tracks would be built. Would they serve existing stations? Is there room to add more tracks to the existing right-of-way?

One point which surprised me was the assertion that VIA's on-time performance is actually slipping. Were these numbers calculated based only on the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle, or the entire VIA network (in which case, the lengthy cancellation of the Canadian certainly contributed to the issue). VIA and CN have worked together in recent years to add a third track to long stretches of the CN Kingston Sub in a bid to allow trains to pass each other. There has been a great deal of timetable modification in recent year, which I thought had actually improved things (although, I must admit, some journeys have been scheduled to take more time). Trackside, I have been seeing a growing number of on-time VIA trains since 2007, but maybe I am only watching trains on good days!

VIA's proposed new tracks are being touted as a cheaper alternative to high-speed rail. It strikes me as a more realistic and cost-effective alternative, at least for now. Show people that trains present a viable alternative to roads, and interest in high-speed rail may eventually follow.

>>>VIA Rail looks at private funds to build own tracks | Toronto Star<<<

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Crude Oil - ‘A Danger on Rails’

This post also appeared on under the title "Crude Oil Transportation: A danger on Canada's rails"

Anyone who has been trackside in the last few years will have noticed the increase in tanker car traffic. I can remember when ethanol unit trains were a photographic novelty, but today crude oil trains are the norm. They are easy to spot: long, eastbound consists of tanker cars, often with a mix of locomotives at the front. To be doubly sure, take a look at the little red hazmat labels on the tankers, "1267" denotes crude oil. Normally an upsurge in rail traffic would be cause for celebration, but the case of oil is different.

In the past few years, the increase in crude oil transportation by rail has seen an increase in spectacular derailments. Tanker cars are slightly top-heavy, which makes them unstable. Also, the DOT-111 tanker design, despite numerous design improvements, is not up to the task of carrying crude - it breaks too easily. The result, most dramatically in Lac-Mégantic, has been destruction, disruption, and a return to railways being public enemy number one.

Railway safety in Canada has long been a controversial issue. The fact is that we do seem to have a great number of derailments. Hardly a week goes by that I don't get a notification of a major derailment shutting a track down for days while crews clean it up. Thankfully, most of these incidents take place in remote, unpopulated places I have never heard of, but a few are near urban areas. It is this sort of urban derailment, where a crude oil train derails in a residential area, that industry watchers are waiting for. Statistically speaking, it is only a matter of time.

In Toronto, residents along the CP North Toronto Sub are becoming increasingly unhappy with their railway neighbour's daily crude oil train, fearing a Lac-Mégantic literally in their backyard. CN also moves one train of oil through Toronto each day. Neither company has much choice, their transcontinental lines must now pass through Toronto. Until 20 years ago, both had alternate routes (CP via Sudbury, North Bay, and the Ottawa Valley; CN via Cochrane, La Sarre, and northern Quebec) which have since been ripped up. Until this changes, it is Toronto or bust.

What can we do? The trucking lobby would love to see railways crippled with regulation. Highway 401's traffic congestion could certainly do with a few more jack-knifed tractor trailers to cripple the daily commute. The pipeline lobby would love to see controversial new projects built across unspoilt wilderness and aquifers. Besides, why worry about a 100-tanker car oil spill, when you can have a virtually endless one because a pipeline's safety valve failed?

The truth is, Canada's railways need to improve track inspections and maintenance. For every crude oil train that jumps the tracks, countless other freight trains (some carrying even more hazardous materials - chlorine anyone?) are derailing with little media coverage. Until we can learn to live without oil, we are going to need to move crude to refineries in order to feed our addiction.

Which finally brings me to "A Danger on Rails", a New York Times op-ed about the risk crude oil trains pose to Albany and New York City. Albany's refineries are the final destination for most Bakken (the name of the oil fields in the Dakotas) oil trains in both Canada and the US. Talking to a variety of conservation groups, the piece outlines the environmental and human risks that these trains pose. Missing, however, was any mention of the railway companies themselves.

I am always uneasy about the crude oil train debate. I am a strong advocate of rail, which makes me automatically wary of any group trying to criticise rail operations. However, I do believe that railway companies do need to take steps to improve the safety of their operations, be it better track maintenance, shorter trains, or the rerouting of dangerous goods. Further, I think that the DOT-111 tanker cars have sufficiently proven their inadequacy. As much as I believe that rail must play an important part in our future, we need to seriously rethink how we move oil by train.

>>>‘A Danger on Rails’ -<<<

Friday, April 17, 2015

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

New board, but same message

I think the headline says it all. New board, no new announcements. Time to wait (again).

>>>New board, but same message | North Bay Nugget<<<

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Canadian Rail Photo Spots Fully Updated!

My guide to good photo spots for railway photography in Canada has been fully revised and updated with new locations! Have a look here:

New Ontario Northland board meets Monday

Ontario Northland's new board meets next week. It is expected that the focus will be the North Bay-based refurbishment division, which has great potential for growth.

>>>New Ontario Northland board meets Monday<<<

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Metrolinx awards depot PPP contract

It might still look like a big hole in the ground, but work on the new GO maintenance facility in Whitby continues apace.

>>>Metrolinx awards depot PPP contract - Railway Gazette<<<

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Metrolinx return fares for late GO trains in record numbers

Train 15 minutes late? No worries, the Ontario taxpayer will foot the bill. But, if you live in the north of the province, your one train per day was just too darn expensive and has been axed altogether.

I have long thought that the GO service guarantee was an unfair perk for residents of the Toronto area, especially when you consider the cutbacks to transportation in northeastern Ontario, where even a late-running passenger train would be an improvement. Geography aside, doesn't a fare refund take money out of much-needed infrastructure improvements?

Metrolinx return fares for late GO trains in record numbers - CBC News

Monday, March 23, 2015

Three years on, the ONTC isn’t safe yet


Three years on, the ONTC isn’t safe yet

March 22, 2015

Three years ago this week, the Ontario government announced its plan to begin the divestment of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission. Although the government had since changed its mind and has pledged its support for the publicly owned crown agency, the future of the Commission its employees is far from secure.

Thomas Blampied, author of Call of the Northland, a book about the failed divestment plan, remains concerned about the future of northern Ontario’s transportation system.

“I am heartened that the government backed down from the divestment of the ONTC, but I am increasingly worried about the shape that the ‘transformation’ process is taking,” the author, who continues to follow the ONTC issue, explained.

Citing the recent announcement that the Matheson and Englehart bus stations will close in May, Blampied worries that transportation links in the north are far from secure.

“It’s one thing to cancel the Northlander and leave a bus service to pick up the slack. But it’s a totally different story to begin shutting down bus stations along that route. What’s next?”

Although Premier Kathleen Wynne has been more supportive of the ONTC, the government remains slow to provide real support for the North Bay-based crown agency.

“The government says it is committed to a publicly owned ONTC, but the Commission is shedding jobs in the refurbishment division due to the lack of work – work that the provincial government could be providing.”

Commenting on the announcement of a new board at the ONTC, which is to be chaired by former Timmins Mayor Tom Laughren, the author was cautiously optimistic.

“I’m glad that a new board will be in place at the ONTC soon and, while I know that ‘transformation’ means job losses and restructuring, it’s important that the ONTC isn’t cut back to the point that it can’t deliver the services people in the north rely on.”


Saturday, March 21, 2015

All Roads Lead North, Really?

A few weeks ago, there was a large mining convention in downtown Toronto, complete with lots of execs who looked like they had never been anywhere near a mine. As part of the publicity, Ontario Tourism put these labels on the floor of the Great Hall in Union Station and I simply had to photograph them. The message is priceless: all roads lead north, because there sure as hell isn't a train to take you there!

More job cuts at ONTC

Headline says it all.

>>>More job cuts at ONTC | North Bay Nugget<<<

Friday, March 20, 2015

Our Home and Miniature Land Open House

For several months, I have been following the progress of Our Home and Miniature Land, a project which aims to recreate scenes of Canada in HO scale. When they announced an open house in March, I jumped at the chance to tour the work.

The Toronto scene includes the city's iconic TTC streetcars.

While largely reliant on model railway supplies, much of the work is being done by architectural design firms, which gives a crisp and precise feel to the dioramas. To date, the Toronto scene is nearly complete, while the Hamilton and Welland Canal scenes are slowly being developed.

While HO scale trains look good going around a small home layout, it is only when you can fill an industrial building that you can appreciate what full-length model trains look like. As for the buildings and scenery, they are immediately recognizable as Toronto, with such landmarks as the CN Tower, Skydome, Union Station, the Distillery District, and the Bloor Viaduct. As a whole, the scene is really wonderful to take in, and the details close-up are just as delightful.

To see more photos of the work, see my full album of photos:

The full project will take several more years before it is ready to open to the public. Until then, I'm hoping for more open houses so I can check back on the progress.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Algoma Central Rwy Appears to be Safe

After several years of uncertainty, it appears that the Algoma Central Railway, operating between Sault Ste Marie and Hearst, is safe. Under a new deal, Railmark will take over operations of the railway from CN. Not only does the deal expect to reduce the line's need for government subsidy, but it should make the "remote rail service...self-sustaining within five years." This sounds quite optimistic to me, and I am a little wary of what a "higher-value purchase for passengers" would mean to non-touristy trips, but I am pleased to see that the Algoma Central should continue to serve the people and communities who rely on it for their link to the world.
>>>Railmark finalizes agreement to run ACR passenger rail service<<<

Friday, February 27, 2015

New board, chair announced for Ontario Northland

Having announced the impending closure of two bus stations, the transformation of the ONTC continues apace. Former Timmins mayor Tom Laughren has been recommended to take over as chair of the new ONTC board, which will replace the transition board implemented in March 2012 during the divestment attempt. While it is expected that current chair Ted Hargreaves will remain on the board, Laughren would bring a staunchly pro-ONTC voice to the fore.

>>>New board, chair announced for Ontario Northland<<<

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pan Am Torch Relay Snubs Northeastern Ontario

The route map for the 2015 Pan Am Games Torch Relay has been released and shows a glaring omission: apart from North Bay, the entirety of Northeastern Ontario is missing! Rather than follow the Highway 11 corridor, the route opts to go via Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury.

Normally, I wouldn't care about the route, and I certainly don't care about the games, but as the transportation network in the northeast of the province continues to shrink, I can't help but feel that it is being forgotten by the rest of Ontario.

>>>Pan Am Games Torch Relay - Route, Celebrations | Toronto 2015<<<

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ontario Northland closing motor coach stations

When Ontario Northland and the Ontario Government announced the "transformation" of ONTC services in April 2014, people expected that the uncertainty would end. Unfortunately, it appears that it will continue. As of May 22, Englehart and Matheson will lose their bus stations and New Liskeard, Kirkland Lake and Sudbury will see reduced hours at their stations.

When the Northlander was cancelled in September 2012, the silver lining was that all the towns served by the train would continue to have full bus service. While the buses will still be running, the stations will be closed.

Is the future of public transportation in the north secure? I don't know.

>>>Ontario Northland closing motor coach stations<<<

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Very Bad Weekend for Canadian Railways

This past weekend saw the windchill in the Toronto area push temperatures to below -40c. In the rail industry, however, tempers were really heating up after a lengthy list of problems.

Starting at Canadian Pacific, the railway's 3,000 engineers and conductors (represented by the Teamsters) walked off the job over unresolved issues surrounding breaks and rest between shifts. CP continues to run limited trains using its minimally-experienced management scab crews. True to its anti-union stance, the Canadian Government is expected to table back-to-work legislation Monday morning, effectively negating any power workers still had.

As a result of the CP strike, about 19,000 commuters in the Montreal area have no ride to work since the Agence Métropolitaine de Transport relies on CP crews to run three of its commuter lines. AMT is providing 60 buses to provide an alternative service, but that is less than 10% of what is needed.

Over on Canadian National's tracks, 29 cars of a crude oil train derailed in a very remote part of northern Ontario. Seven of the cars caught fire. Since there is no road access to the site, cleanup will be slow and delays significant.

As a result of the CN derailment, VIA Rail was forced to cancel trains 1 and 2 between Toronto and Winnipeg since the route was blocked.

To top it all off, VIA train 64 broke down near the outskirts of Montreal. In what appears to be a thoroughly botched response, the train sat without head-end-power for over three hours even though VIA's Montreal Maintenance Centre was relatively nearby. An investigation is underway.

All in all, it was probably a good weekend to stay at home.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Upcoming Roundtable: Activism and Academia

This isn't really rail-related but, as readers of Call of the Northland will know, activist writing and footnotes can go together. I have been helping to organize a roundtable discussion at the University of Toronto on February 24. Professors + Publics: A Roundtable on Academic Activism will explore how activism and academic work fit together.

The panel includes:
  • Prof. Nadia Jones-Gailani (University of South Florida)
  • Prof. Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto)
  • Prof. Melanie Newton (University of Toronto)
  • Melonie A. Fullick (York University)
  • Prof. Sean Kheraj (York University)
The roundtable will be moderated by the host of CBC Radio's Ideas, Paul Kennedy.

The discussion takes place at the University of Toronto Arts Centre at 1:30pm. You can register for free here.

It promises to be an interesting afternoon. Join us if you can!

Thursday, February 05, 2015

City eager to work with chiefs on rail link

Despite the provincial government insisting that the ONTC is not for sale, the Mushkegowuk First Nations is still looking to partner with TGR Rail to extend rail transportation beyond Moosonee to the Ring of Fire. Now, the City of Timmins has signed on, pledging its support for the proposed project, while also suggesting that the city would be an ideal location for a chromite smelter.

How things change! Native groups asking to buy the ONTC, the provincial government refusing to sell. Since 2012, there has been a complete reversal of positions.

>>>City eager to work with chiefs on rail link | Timmins Press<<<

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Windchill: -25c

Windchill: -25c / Refroidissement éolien: -25c

When cabin fever gets too bad, you just have to head trackside, even if it is freezing. GO 656 crosses over from the south to the north track with train 432 at Whitby on a freezing (albeit sunny) afternoon, 30 January 2015.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Province derails ONR acquisition bid

The province is reiterating that the ONR is not for sale. Confusing.

>>>Province derails ONR acquisition bid<<<

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ring of Fire Deal Looming Between Feds and Mushkegowuk Council

It would be an understatement to say that I am confused. Last time I checked, the divestment of the ONTC had been halted and Ontario Northland was entering the consultation stages of a major restructuring. However, according to reports out this week, the Muskegowuk Council and TGR Rail are poised to buy the rail divisions of the ONTC? What I find particularly unusual about this article is the certainty that a deal is near-completion. Somehow, I doubt it. Somebody somewhere isn't making sense. You can't buy something that isn't for sale, unless it is. These developments need clarifying!

>>>Ring of Fire Deal Looming Between Feds and Mushkegowuk Council<<<

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mushkegowuk might buy Ontario Northland Railway

This is an interesting partnership idea: TGR and the Mushkegowuk Council are reportedly looking to purchase the ONR's rail division. While this news seems like a positive and enlightened development, it is also very confusing. Last time I checked, the Ontario government was not looking to sell the ONR after all, has this changed?

>>>Mushkegowuk might buy Ontario Northland Railway | Timmins Times<<<

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Target to Close All 133 Canadian Stores: Good Riddance

In theory, I have no objection to American retailers setting up shop in Canada. In practice, I have very strong objections to the way they go about it: Home Depot and Lowe's drove many local hardware stores out of the market; Wal-Mart's prices killed Bi-Way and other discount department stores, all while degrading labour conditions and the place of unions in Canada. Target killed Zellers, and now it is killing itself.

Target's 2013 entry into the Canadian discount retail market was accomplished by buying out Zellers, then closing all the unionized locations. For instance, the popular Zellers at the Oshawa Centre never became a Target because it was unionized. The building's footprint is now a parking lot. With the unions safely out of the way, Target set about rebranding the remaining locations.

Many Canadians were excited to have a retailer renowned for its low prices coming to Canada. However, right from opening day, excitement turned to disillusionment. Prices were significantly higher than in Target locations south of the border and the selection was poor, with many shelves empty.

In what is a spectacular case of corporate arrogance, Target felt it could dupe Canadians by providing a retail store that was a lame copy of its American locations. They were wrong. Target Canada lost $1 billion in the first year due largely to poor sales. Future business textbooks looking for an example of 'how not to launch a retailer' need look no further than Target. Two years in, Target has decided to cut its losses and run. Good riddance to corporate greed.

That said, there are no winners here. Target is set to lose its shareholders yet another $500 million during the liquidation process; nearly 18,000 people will lose their jobs; Canadians will lose 133 places to shop; and Wal-Mart will increase its market dominance. Yes, there will be severance for the employees, but in an already iffy economy (thank you dominance of the oil sands), how much will that really help?

>>> Target to close all 133 Canadian stores, gets CCAA protection - CBC News <<<