Sunset on the Algonquin Route

The radio snaps to life with the voice of a distant Montreal Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) as he issues an Occupancy Control System (OCS) Clearance to CN Train 101:

"Clearance No Two Fifty Five 255 to the Extra Ninety Six Nought One 9601 West.  Proceed from Nepean to siding west W E S T switch Portage-du-Fort. Restrictions are Nil, over." ....... It's the
conductor's   repeat,   and   then   .......
"That's complete at Nought Six Fifty 0650, RTC's initials JLO, over."   .......
"That's complete at Nought Six Fifty, copied by Conductor Gaffney, over." ....... "Thankyou RTC out."

With a new operating authority now in hand, engineman Bob Colyer throttles ahead a notch or two and his train of 5,868 feet, 4,803 tons, 78 loads and 2 empties dutifully responds. At 07:05 the Extra 9601 West leaves CTC territory at Nepean (suburb of Ottawa) and begins its journey up the Ottawa Valley.

It's Friday, November 17, 1995, the dawn of what would be a historic and hectic opening day of trading for Canadian National Railways shares on both domestic and U.S. stock markets. The next day headlines in the Globe and Mail newspaper would read, "CN Rail issue burns up the tracks .... first instalment jumps $4 on the first day in one of the hottest stock debuts on the TSE."

The moment had finally arrived. CN Rail, often criticized for having been a drain on the public purse in the amount of $95 billion since 1940, had stridently embarked upon a Referendum-delayed journey into the world of privatization. The Federal Government's offer to sell the CNR for $2.2 billion or $27 a share was now a reality and potential investors were excited and eager to become stakeholders in the company's future.

There is little doubt that some of the day's enthusiasm was predicated on a promise by CN's management that the company would accelerate cost-cutting measures, thus allowing it to play a more competitive role in North America's surface transportation sector. Most assuredly a reduction in overhead expenses would translate into further rail line abandonments. Those lines not considered to be pulling their weight in terms of traffic generated, or not considered to be essential bridge lines over which priority traffic must travel, would either be dismantled or sold off as shortlines. The process would be accomplished quickly, aided in part by forthcoming changes to government regulations permitting Canadian railway companies to more easily divest themselves of non-profitable rights-of-way. Today's reality recognizes that there is just too much capacity available across the system relative to CN's current and projected traffic needs. This situation contributes to an unacceptable operating ratio, a comparison of operating expenses to revenue, which analysts consider to be a key measure of a railway's efficiency. The current 89.3%, reported in 1994, must be reduced. By comparison, U.S. railroads had an average ratio of about 78.6% for the same period.

In Eastern Ontario the die had finally been cast for CN's Beachburg Subdivision. Combined with a failed attempt at creating a co-production arrangement with rival CP Rail System in the form of the CNCP Ottawa Valley Partnership, the decision was made to close that portion of the line west of Pembroke through Algonquin Provincial Park to a point east of North Bay at Nipissing Junction. The last run-throughs would operate in both directions on November 24, and the service changes would coincide with the closure of Ottawa's Walkley Yard as a home terminal for the local running trades. The terminal would now take on out-post status with six employees remaining behind to protect local assignments. In the end, approximately 70 employees in Ottawa would be affected, with shock waves felt in other terminals such as Montreal, Brockville and Belleville. Principally I it's into these centres that employees from the nation's capital would exercise their seniority (bump), to start new lives for themselves and their families. A small number of employees, fortunate enough to consider retirement, were to be offered buyouts in an amount viewed by many to be more than fair considering the economic climate of the day.

But enough of this doom and gloom. Today, far removed from brisk opening day stock trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange, I have the privilege of riding with the crew of Train 101 as it glides westward over the well polished steel rails of CN Rail's other (for the moment) transcontinental mainline: the Beachburg Subdivision. Climb aboard as we celebrate 80 years of railroading "Up the Valley".

The early morning line-up indicates that today the Beachburg Sub. will serve the company well. In addition to Train 101 in the westward direction, there are three eastward movements. They include Train 204 that originated in Winnipeg on November 14, and two Trains 114 that departed Calgary earlier this same week. Added to the mix will be Train 529/530, an Ottawa to Pembroke way freight. This assignment serves customers along the line five days a week, returning to Ottawa the same day. Tuesday's and Thursday's have the local travelling only as far as Portage-du-Fort to set off and lift cars for the Stone-Consolidated paper mill, the line's primary customer. After the trans-con's are routed over onto the Bala, York and Kingston Subdivisions between Capreol and Montreal, this will remain the only train on the mainline west of Nepean.

Near Dunrobin mileage (M) 26, we take another clearance that will authorize us as far as Pembroke. It's there that the RTC will have us meet the Extra 9495 East, Train 204.

The winter's first snowfall weighs heavily on the boughs of the numerous evergreens that cradle the right-of-way as it nears the Ottawa River west of Fitzroy. The morning sun, a rarity of late, is gaining strength and even though most of the trees are still in shadow, the tops are fully illuminated. It's a scene befitting a Christmas postcard. We begin to make a brake application. Review of our Tabular General Bulletin Order (TGBO) reveals that a speed reduction to 25 MPH is required between M 36.4 and M 37.4 due to track conditions. A further reduction to 10 MPH will be necessary a short distance further because of a permanent slow order on the bridge at M 38.7. Once across the Ottawa River the next 21 miles of running are in the province of Quebec.

At M 40.2 we pass a short siding at Pontiac. It's here that ballast is loaded into waiting railway cars after having been trucked from a nearby abandoned open-pit mine at Hilton Mines. Numerous proposals have been advanced over the years as how to best use the old site along with its 870-foot hole in the ground that's now almost completely filled with water. One scenario called for the creation of a waste disposal facility with garbage in part arriving by rail. The mine owner had even excavated a rough road-bed up from the mainline in anticipation of its approval. But alas, a public out-cry ensued and the idea died for environmental reasons. Regional waste issues still remain unresolved on both sides of the Quebec-Ontario border.

West of Bristol at M 49.9 the locomotive cab reverberates with a report from a line side Hot Box detector that everything is running normal on our train. This is the first such transmission since leaving Walkley Yard. Our TGBO indicates that in addition to the detector back at M 19.5, detectors at Hiam M 92.9 and Achray M 123.0 are also not operating.

East of Portage-du-Fort we are saluted by a pair of hunters prowling the right-of-way in search of deer. This would become a common sight along our route up to a point where the railway enters Algonquin Park at approximately M 108.5. The conductor chuckles as we give them a good dusting with freshly fallen snow. I think it amusing that a short distance further along there's a number of white-tails bounding around in the woods well out of rifle range. Is it possible that they might have taken a survival training course?

The holding tracks at Portage-du-Fort are well stocked with box cars waiting to be brought into the Stone-Consolidated paper mill by its resident switcher engine. On a weekly basis it is not uncommon to have 60 to 80 loads of finished product shipped by rail. Combine this traffic with incoming movements of chemicals such as sulphuric acid and caustic soda, and it is easy to see why CN values the business generated at this mill and plans on continuing to provide dependable service.

Shortly after departing Portage we return to Ontario at M 60.1. The bridge is substantial and as was the case near Fitzroy another 10 MPH slow order is in effect. Once across, it's mostly 50 MPH running all the way to Pembroke with our progress slowed only once by another slow order west of Forester's Falls. As we roll effortlessly towards the detector at M 77.3 east of Finchley, John prepares to take another clearance. This portion of the line is not putting much of a strain on our power because for the last five miles beginning at the west switch Beachburg, we have been descending the line's controlling grade in the eastward direction.

"Clearance No Two Seventy Five 275 to the Extra Ninety Six Nought One 9601 West. Do not leave until Extra Ninety Four Ninety Five 9495 arrives at Pembroke. Proceed from Pembroke to mileage One Sixty Two 162 Beachburg Subdivision. Restrictions are Nil. Rule 104 (b) WARNING - You may encounter the following switch lined and locked in the reverse position: Siding west, WEST switch Pembroke, over."

I'm pleased with what I've just heard. It means that unless things change, we'll have a straight shot to Brent with first Train 114 not departing until after our arrival. The prospect of having a day trip in both directions appears to be good. It's not something you'd expect at this time of year with sunlight being at such a premium. If a good connection had not been possible I would likely have returned to Ottawa on the later Train 114, expected to arrive at Brent around 18:00.

At mileage 82.7 our train passes over CPRS's Chalk River Subdivision. We look to see if our westbound counterpart, Train 471, is in sight, but a nearby block signal is dark indicating that if he's not already by us, then he still has not passed Cobden, situated a few miles to the east. Moments later we're in view of a work site on the south side of the Beachburg, where a new MacMillan-Bloedel fibreboard plant is under construction. I'm told that a spur will be built in the spring to service the plant. It's good news and leads to speculation by the crew that Train 529 may eventually run daily five times a week as far as Pembroke.

Train 101 meets Train 204 at the east siding switch at Pembroke, Ontario, on November 17, 1995. Photo by Raymond Farand.

Approaching the east siding switch at Pembroke, 9495's dimmed headlight is faintly visible in the bright morning sun. Conductor Lawrence, who will make his last run a week from now, is already trackside preparing to make an inspection of our passing train. Today we'll get the red carpet treatment all round because in addition to the east switch, the sectionmen have the west switch cleaned, lined and locked in the normal position. Now that's service! Engineman Colyer notes that the section foreman has recently bumped in from Lake Traverse. Sadly shutdown in the Park is only days away.

We report ourselves clear of the west switch Pembroke at 09:10. Moments later at M 88.67 I'm looking down at the interchange switch located on the edge of town. A diverging connection track extends northwards for a distance of 1.5 miles to join up with the Chalk River Sub. This location will become
significant in the coming days because soon it will represent the end-of-track for the Beachburg Subdivision.

Not far from the Old Alice Pit, Train 101 leaves civilization and begins a seven-mile climb up Indian Hill, the controlling grade in the westward direction. At M 99 we sound our final 14(1). There will be no further need "to make any noise", as Bob refers to it, from here to Brent, a distance of roughly 60 miles. Approaching Indian we encounter another hunter alongside the tracks, standing next to his four-wheel ATV. He's quick to give us a friendly wave. Might he be aware that the iron horse will soon be extinct in this part of the forest? Near M 106 we pass a trackside hunting cabin that the railroaders refer to as "Bachelor's Paradise." It would appear that the remoteness of the location has added to its reputation over the years. Take it from me, a mountain hunting lodge it's not.

Mileage 106.6 sees Train 101 crossing the Indian River for the third time since leaving Pembroke. In this area the topography is quite pronounced with the railway and the river pinched closely together at the bottom of a^ ravine that continues for the next two miles. Somewhere east of M 108.5 we enter Algonquin Park. We're not sure of the precise park limits because the boundary is not demarcated in any manner. The terrain is stunningly beautiful as we proceed westward on what appears to be in excellently maintained roadbed. Between M 108.5 and M 121.9, 50 MPH running is permitted, and even at track speed the ride is Cadillac smooth. One by one, station name boards at Dahlia, Kathmore and Achray (a popular camping location), Gordon and Brawny all disappear in the swirling snow kicked up by our passing train. At Lake Traverse the old station structure is conspicuously absent having only been recently demolished. For years it provided living quarters for lonely operators whose duty it was to copy and pass along those all important train orders. Any romantic notion of railroading as it used to be would be a hard sell for the poor souls assigned to this remote outpost.

West of Lake Traverse the railway parallels the Petawawa River for a distance of approximately 11 miles. As we first engage the river's shoreline, just west of Devil's Cellar Rapids, the line appears to be cribbed to prevent undercutting by the swift flowing water as it washes against the lower portions of the right-of-way. The scene is captivating as it advances and then disappears on either side of our office windows. I turn and exclaim to John, who is busy with some paperwork, "You're missing this!" "Missing what?" was his reply. "The scenery ... it's absolutely incredible. There's a picture around every curve in the track. You can't help but wish that you could run out ahead of the train snapping photographs all along the way." The words were barely out of my mouth when Bob pipes up, "Well as far as I'm concerned you're welcome to go ahead and try!!!" The cab erupts in laughter and I quickly realize that some ideas are best kept to oneself. Turning to John once again I mutter, "I'm starting to change my mind about your mate."

Near Radiant the Montreal RTC contacts the crew to ask if they can take first Train 114 back to Ottawa immediately upon our arrival at Brent. Without hesitation they agree to the request. Somewhere between Odenback and Acanthus we tone the RTC in Toronto. It's at Brent that westbound trains enter into the Great Lakes Region. Even though our TGBO gives us permission to proceed as far as the west cautionary limits at M 165, a crew member is obliged to communicate with Toronto RTC for yarding instructions prior to entering the east cautionary limits at M 162. It's indicated to us that today Train 101 will hold the mainline.

Train 101 meets Train 114 at Brent, deep in Algonquin Provincial Park, on November 17, 1995. Photo by Raymond Farand.

At 11:25, we glide past a half dozen structures nestled together on the north shore of Cedar Lake, and come to a stop in front of the old operator's shelter located just a stone's throw from the bunkhouse (a.k.a. the Brent Hilton). A short distance away on the near passing track is the headend of the Extra 9494 East. As the crew disappears into the bunkhouse I hastily take a number of pictures to suitably record the moment. Who knows, I may be the last photographer to have this opportunity. It's during these brief moments, as I stand alone on the platform, that the reality of what will soon happen hits home. After 80 years of operation, the railway will be shut down and erased off the company's system map.

It was on November 23, 1915, that the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) officially opened the "Valley Line." Thanks largely to the efforts of two Canadian railway contractors, Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann, there would now be a competitive alternative available for shippers who chose to do business with a company other than the CPR for the movement of goods between Montreal and points west of the Lakehead. It was they who realized that the CNoR could only compete with the CPR for transcontinental traffic if a parallel route was constructed through the Ottawa Valley. Initially it had been necessary to forward everything to and from Montreal via an Ottawa to Toronto routing, before turning northwest towards Capreol.

Today's economic realities are such that the company can no longer justify the expense of maintaining the Beachburg Subdivision as an option for the movement of goods to and from the West. In addition to the Bala Sub. from Toronto to Capreol and points west, the new Sarnia Tunnel now makes it possible for CN to provide seamless doublestack intermodal container service between Halifax and Vancouver. Albeit for the moment, the latter can only be accomplished with help from the Burlington Northern Railroad, (soon to be Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.), between Chicago and Duluth.

It's ironic that the extra distance CN must absorb into its transcontinental service via Northern Ontario is approximately 165 miles, almost identical to that of a one way trip from Ottawa to Brent. The new routing in some respects mirrors what had been deemed unacceptable over 80 years earlier. But time changes everything and in this case CN is hoping that modern technology and extended running territories will overcome the handicap, thus allowing it to remain competitive with rival freight carriers. Management feels confident that the current number of 25 crew changes it takes to run a train between Halifax and Vancouver can be done with 16. In theory the extended runs mean that CN can reduce transit times on the Toronto-Vancouver segment of the journey to a truck competitive 75 hours. With a new northeast connection at Doncaster, (junction of the York and Bala subs.), opening in the spring of 1996, a Montreal to Vancouver trip of under 85 hours becomes an attainable goal. If successful, the advantage of operating over the "Valley Line" will have been neutralized. I hope that Old Man Winter was consulted when drawing up the service design specifications!

Can it be only a coincidence that Canadian National's decision to truncate the Beachburg has been closely followed by a CPRS request to the National Transportation Agency (NTA), that it rescind its order to permit abandonment of large portions of both the Chalk River and North Bay Subdivisions. Realistically the situation may simply be a case where the timing is not right to eliminate all through service in one fell swoop. In all likelihood the clock is still ticking on the other Valley railway corridor. In fairness, supporters of rail transportation in Canada should wish CN the very best of luck as it deals with tough economic times on the road to the 21st century.

Train 101, powered by GP40-2L(W) 9601 and a sister, plus a 7000-series GP9RM pauses at Brent, Ontario, on November 17, 1995.
Photo by Raymond Farand.

At 12:15 the Extra 9494 East, Train 114 begins a pullby inspection. The journal shows it to be 5,641 feet, 3,417 tons, 46 loads and 32 empties. After a short delay at the east switch waiting for Train 101 to clear, we're on our way with a clearance to Indian at M 105.4. The Park is every bit as beautiful in the eastward direction. East of Dahlia the RTC issues the following instructions:

"Clearance No Three Nineteen 319 to the Extra Ninety Four Ninety Four 9494 East. Clearance No Two Ninety Eight 298 is cancelled. Proceed from Dahlia to Finchley. Restrictions are Nil. Rule 104 (b) WARNING - You may encounter the following switch lined and locked in the reverse position: siding east EAST switch Pembroke, over."

At 14:23 we announce ourselves clear of the east siding switch Pembroke. Because we are running behind Train 530, it will take four more clearances before we once again enter CTC territory for the remainder of the trip to Walkley Yard. Conductor Gaffney reports our train by Nepean at 16:09, with arrival back at Walkley at 16:35. It's almost 10 hours to the minute since our Ottawa departure earlier in the day. Neither Bob nor John can remember when they've made a faster turn to Brent. I'd like to think they couldn't have done it without me.


On November 21, Train 204 set off a boxcar at Brent. During the latter part of the final week of operations, all of the company's possessions from the bunkhouse were loaded for forwarding to Capreol.

On Friday, November 24, 1995, CN Extra 9551 West, Train 101, departed Walkley Yard for a final time and became the last transcontinental freight train to operate through Algonquin Provincial Park in the westward direction. Later the same day, CN Extra 9542 East, Train 114, operated for the last time in the eastward direction. After Train 114's departure from Brent, the incoming crew made an engine-hop back to Capreol, in all likelihood taking with them the boxcar filled with company material. The line would be silent now, surplus to requirements west of Pembroke, with eventual dismantlement sure to follow. And so it came to pass:

....... that after eighty years plus a day, the work was done in every way.

GP40-2L(W) 9542 and a sister pull Train 114, the last eastbound train through Algonquin Provincial Park, to a stop at Walkley Yard in Ottawa on November 24, 1995. Photo by David Stremes.

I sincerely wish to thank former Ottawa Trainmaster Rheal Belanger, and of course the crew of Train 101, for making this tribute possible. My best wishes go to each and every Ottawa Terminal employee with whom I've had the pleasure of knowing and in some cases working, thanks to those memorable BRS 1201 excursions. HIGHBALL!!

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, January 1996, page 8.

Follow up Letter in Branchline by Jim Stanzell

PARLIAMENTARY SPECIAL, OCTOBER 12, 1915: This is a follow-up to Raymond Farand's "Sunset on the Algonquin Route" in the January 1996 Branchline, and commemorates the beginning of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) service over the same line that recently came to an end.

The CNoR ran special trains from Quebec, Montreal and Toronto and headed west to Port Arthur and then on to Winnipeg for the start of service. The schedule for these special trains was issued by the Office of the General Superintendent in Toronto, 11 October 1915, as follows.

A connecting train from the Intercolonial Railway arrives at Quebec at 12:40 PM, Tues 12 Oct. and the special Canadian Northern train departs at 1:30 PM. This train consists of (head end to tail end) Baggage car 3202, Diner 69, Sleepers Radisson, Gladstone and Toronto and arrives at Joliette at 6:15 PM.

The train from Montreal leaves at 5:10 PM and consists of a baggage car, Sleepers Quetico, Aberfeldy, Lloydminster, and Athabaska and arrives at Joliette at 6:25 PM. This train, less the baggage car, is coupled to the rear of the train from Quebec and the combined train departs at 6:30 PM and arrives at Ottawa at 10:45 PM.
A reshuffled train departs Ottawa at 11:15 PM (crewmen Hicks and Finkle) and consists of Baggage car 3202, Quetico (Secretary and Officials), Diner 69, Aberfeldy (Press), Lloydminster (Members from Montreal), Radisson (Members from Quebec), Gladstone (Senators) and Athabaska (Officials from Ottawa).
(Interestingly, there is a note of a train from Toronto to Ottawa, but no details are given). At Brent we have the first mention of an engine, 1405 (Currie) and a reserve engine but no arrival or departure times. The schedule time at North Bay is 07:30 AM, 13 Oct. and the train continues on to Capreol, 144 miles from Brent, arriving at 11:00 AM.

The train from Toronto departs at 11:15 PM with engine 1400 (Napier and Burke) and consists of Baggage car 3205, Colonist 1244, Diner 68, Sleepers Bristol (Press), Bombay and Canterbury (Members from Toronto), Rosseau (Entertainment car) and the Atikokan which was the President's car. The train arrived at Parry Sound at 5:00 AM, 13 Oct. Engine 1404 (Gauvereau) couples up and the train leaves at 5:10 AM arriving at Capreol, 129 miles from Parry Sound, at 10:30 AM, 13 Oct.

The combined train departs Capreol at 11:30 AM consisting of 14 cars: all that arrived except baggage car 3202 and the Athabaska, pulled by engine 1401 (Gordon). At Sellwood Jet. engine 1363 (Drewitt) is on standby. Arrival time at Foleyet, 148 miles from Capreol, is 5:30 PM. The train departs at 5:45 PM, engine 1402 (Boyd) and arrives at Hornepayne, 148 miles from Foleyet, at 11:45 PM. Departure is at 12:00 Midnight, with engine 1398 (A. Stewart). Engine 1080 is on standby at Fire River, with 1078 on standby at Caramat. The train arrives at Jellicoe at 6:00 AM 14 Oct. and departs at 6:15 AM with engine 1371 (McFall). Engine 1082 is waiting at Nipigon and the train arrives at Port Arthur at 12:15 PM Eastern Time. This is the end of the run for this Special train.

There is a departure time from Port Arthur at 12:00 Noon Central Time arriving at Atikokan at 6:00 PM, Fort Frances at 9:45 PM and finally arriving at Winnipeg at 7:00 AM 15 October 1915.

In the summer of 1995 I visited Capreol, Ontario, my hometown. They have a small railway museum there, the main item on display being "6077", a CN bullet nosed Betty, which I might add is in very good condition.

While there I asked for and was given a copy of a map on which is written all the information I used in writing the article, detailing this First Scheduled Train Operation on the line. Details appear to have been transcribed after the fact as CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAYS is mentioned in bold letters.

My Father was an engineer for the CNR from about 1929 until he retired in 1961. Prior to moving to Capreol he worked in Ottawa and in Trenton after returning from the war. Probably because I grew up with steam engines coming and going through town all the time, I think steam engines are the most fascinating machine ever invented. [Jim Stanzell]

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, July-August, 1996, page 18.

Home    Circle    Articles