Thursday, 13 March 2014

Roxboro Revisited

(First written in spring 1993 for Branchline)

The CNR Montreal - Deux Montagnes commuter service must surely be the ultimate railroading oddity in Canada. It is by far the most archaic in terms of some of the equipment used and probably operates over the most politically studied 16.9 miles of railway track in Canada.

Through the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, various levels of government commissioned studies to determine whether or not services should be rehabilitated and modernized, or abandoned. During that time CNR simply made numerous threats, some written, to shut down operations on the line due to seemingly perpetual losses. Meanwhile the trains continued to operate and thousands of people travelled back and forth between Montreal and the suburbs; equipment failures, service interruptions, politicians, strikes, winter weather and CN management notwithstanding. (Anyone who has regularly used these trains will know this is the real meaning of the "Notwithstanding" clause.)

M.U. powered coach 6735, built in 1952, is on the rear of southbound Train 944 at Roxboro, Quebec, on March 18, 1993. Passengers are boarding the train which was about 8 minutes behind the scheduled 16:51 departure.

My final three years as a resident of Quebec, 1985 to 1988, were played out in Roxboro. Home then was just within sight of the train station and I was one of the Monday to Friday regulars on the trains. Those trains were oft referred to as saunas in the summers and refrigerators in the winters. Being a railfan, train nut or whatever, and knowing that the trains were made up from possibly the oldest operating railway equipment in North America (not in a museum) did not mean anything while waiting for late trains on early February mornings while freezing on the station platforms. Neither did being a rail enthusiast mean anything on the standing room only afternoon trains inexplicably late and standing idle between stations under the July sun. In the early 1960's as a youth, I heard my father curse these trains. In the late 1980's as an adult I truly understood why. If it is possible for a rail fan to have a love-hate relationship with trains, then this service certainly pushed the limits.

As a rail fan, the utmost irony for me was on one of the Bytown Railway Society's October 1201 Sunday excursions from Ottawa to Pembroke. I was surprised to see in the consist two CN passenger cars fresh from the Montreal - Deux Montagnes commuter service. That morning I was unaware that the BRS had acquired the pair. I found it amusing to know that the following morning I would take the train to work and travel in virtually identical cars hauled by power nearly twice the age of long retired steam locomotive 1201. And that would not be on a museum excursion! I was relieved to learn that my seat was in the Algoma Central coach.

The Montreal news media have reported that the Montreal - Deux Montagnes line will be shut down for part of summer 1993 for rebuilding. There have also been reports that Bombardier will be building new equipment to replace the existing roster. Similar rumours have persisted before. During the 30 years I have watched these trains, virtually only the paint changed until the VIA Rail cars showed up.

Perhaps distance and the passing of time changes one's perspective. March break was approaching and I was planning to visit my parents in Pierrefonds. (Adjacent to Roxboro) This would allow occasions to visit two excellent train watching locations; Dorval and Roxboro. I had been thinking about photographing some of the trains at Roxboro before the older equipment disappears. The March snow storm and record snowfall severely fouled travel plans, however, when I was finally able to visit Roxboro, the unusually high snow banks provided unprecedented photo opportunities.

The morning of March 19, 1993, was cold and clear. Radio station CJAD was reporting temperatures below minus 30C (without wind chill added to inflate) in Ste. Agathe and other places up north. Outside in Pierrefonds was only a balmy minus 22C (some things don't change over the years) so I headed over to Roxboro. By the time I arrived, southbound Train 926 had gone and the first section of empty Train 929 was disappearing northward. Leaving the warmth of my car, I climbed on top of the snow banks and waited for the second section of empty Train 929 to move. Mercifully there was no wind. Cars were idling in the parking lot as commuters were waiting until the last minute before venturing out into the cold. Pushing the second half of 929 into the station that day were boxcabs 6712 and 6711.

CN boxcabs 6712 and 6711 were built in 1914 by General Electric Company. 81 years later, both were going strong early in the morning on March 19, 1993, in spite of the cold temperature. This was the second section of Train 929, backing out of the north end of the siding at Roxboro, Quebec, to the station platform to enable shivering commuters to board. Later at 07:10, the pair of boxcabs would lead as Train 930 to Central Station in Montreal via the Mount Royal tunnel.

Train 929, which does not appear in the public timetables, is listed in CN employee timetables as a northbound deadhead empty equipment movement from Montreal to Deux Montagnes. What the E.T.T. does not reveal is that Train 929 is in fact two trains joined back to back with the motive power at each end. On arrival the train goes into Roxboro Sud (official CN name for the siding) where it is split into the two trains while waiting for southbound Train 926 to pass. Following 926's departure, the first section of Train 929 continues on to Deux Montagnes from where it will return later as Train 932. The second section of Train 929 backs out of the siding, crosses Commercial Street and stops alongside the passenger platform. After a short wait the consist will depart as 07:10 as Train 930.

There is one aspect of this Monday to Friday operation which goes unremarked yet a problem the train crews must contend with. The road crossing between the north end of the siding and the station platform is protected by flashing lights as well as barriers which lower. Many times I have witnessed car drivers going around the lowered barriers and crossing the track in front of the moving trains.

With Train 930 gone I return to the warmth of my car to wait for Train 928 to make its appearance. During the time that has passed since I was one of the regulars, the operator's position at Roxboro was abolished. What also quietly disappeared soon afterwards was the semaphore signal which was still in use while the operator worked there. The signal mast was across the track from the operator's shack. Entertainment on some warm summer evenings used to be taking Kimberly and David to see the trains meet at the siding. The bonus was watching the signal arms moving up and down. Yes, this was railroading in Canada in the 1980's. While the signal now was only another memory, a positive change also occurred. A new shelter for waiting passengers was built.

On March 19, 1993, and right in time at 07:39, centre-cab unit 6727 and unidentified sister lead Train 928 out of Roxboro, Quebec, toward Montreal. Both centre-cab units were built in 1950.

When the crossing bells started ringing, I left the car again and climbed on top of the winter hills. (Snow banks) Train 928 appeared right on time! Leading today was centre-cab unit 6727 with an unidentified sister unit. While the train made its obligatory scheduled pause at the platform, I paced around the tops of the hills; partly to stay warm and partly trying to decide where best to take my photos from. One shot was all I would have of Train 928. The sudden change from warm to extreme cold was affecting the camera.

Train 932 was due 25 minutes later. Rather than wait it out in Roxboro, I decided to try and capture a scene elsewhere. The bridge across Riviere des Prairies was inaccessible without skis or snowshoes, so my selected location in Pierrefonds was on the north side of the track as far as I could reach by car, the place where snow removal trucks had been dumping their loads. Again, winter hills were providing unusual persecptives.

Just like the old days! I was waiting for another late train in winter and shivering in the cold, only this time was by choice. At 08:01 I heard the train rumbling over the bridge about half a mile away and within a minute Train 932 was approaching. Boxcab 6724 was in the lead with its twin and a string of ex-Via Rail coaches in tow.

The early morning show was concluded and visions of a hot cup of coffee had displaced thoughts about more trains. Only by chance, I had managed to capture a scene of at least one electric locomotive from each group by years built. The photos of the M.U.'s taken the day before would complete the set.

Train 932 was about 8 minutes late at 08:11 when passing this location between Ile-Bigras, Quebec, and Roxboro, Quebec, on March 19, 1993. Boxcab 6724, built in 1926, and unidentified partner, were leading an octet of former VIA Rail coaches toward Montreal. Northbound an hour earlier, this consist was the first section of Train 929.

"What's the future of Canada's only mainline electrification? In its present form, CN's electric suburban service can be expected to be short-lived."

Verbatim, this almost obituary was written 18 years earlier, appearing on page 23 in the March 1975 edition of TRAINS Magazine.

While time may finally be running out for these trains in their present form, I am not about to predict their passing. These paragraphs are only some of my reflections about the trains I love to hate... or possibly hate to love.

The Oddblock Station Agent

Second section: A few extra scenes

Having departed the Ile Bigras station, a 3-car southbound CN commuter train is crossing the Riviere des Prairies en route to Central Station in Montreal. Next intermediate stop though is Roxboro. Photo taken in July 1992.

With a friendly wave from the engineer and having just crossed the Riviere des Prairies bridge, (in the background but hidden in by the train) CN6741 is leading a trio of cars southbound toward the next station, Roxboro, and ultimately to downtown Montreal. Photo taken in July 1992.

Life after retirement

CN6749 and two others like it are at the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway, New Hampshire.

CN6711 now resides at the Canadian Railway Museum in Delson, Quebec.

The last word on this subject - taken directly from the CN website. 

February 28, 2014

CN sells Deux-Montagnes rail line to Agence métropolitaine de transports for commuter rail service for C$97 million

MONTREAL, Feb. 28, 2014 — CN (TSX: CNR) (NYSE: CNI) today closed the sale of a rail line principally used by Agence m√©tropolitaine de transports (AMT) commuter trains between Deux-Montagnes and Montreal’s Central Station to AMT for C$97 million.

AMT, a government agency that reports to the Quebec Transport Minister, oversees public transport services in the Greater Montreal area.

AMT is acquiring CN’s entire Deux-Montagnes Subdivision, which runs from St-Eustache to the entrance of Montreal’s Central Station, including the Mount Royal tunnel, a rail corridor of 21 miles in total.

CN will retain freight operating rights over a portion of the line sold to AMT where freight customers are located.

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