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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<<<