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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.