Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ten New Miles (1993)

Ordinarily I wouldn't have bothered posting a short trip report like this, but at the time I thought folks would be interested in the fact that Norfolk Southern had apparently turned their excursion program around (in 1993.)

Jim Boyd (the late editor of Railfan and Railroad Magazine) had written an article blasting the Norfolk Southern Railroad excursion program and specifically Carl Jensen, manager of the program. As I've mentioned in other reports, the NS excursion equipment was in terrible shape, A/C cars ran hot, Jensen walked around with a permanent scowl on his face, dispatchers refused to cooperate with getting the train over the rail, etc.

On Saturday June 19, 1993, I had the good fortune to ride the excursion operated by the Ohio Railroad Museum (the folks at Worthington) Rails to Rollercoasters a one day excursion from Columbus, OH to Cedar Point and other activities at or near Sandusky.  My friend Rich Copeland and I had driven in from Pittsburgh the afternoon before and spent the night at a local Red Roof Inn.  The tickets said that boarding passes would be issued at 6:45am, the train would board at 7:30am, and we'd leave at 8:00am.  We arrived at the fairgrounds at 7:00am and found a good sized crowd there already.

My previous experience with NS at the fairgrounds was for an Independence Limited several years ago.  On that day we stood around in heavy thunderstorms awaiting a train late for boarding, then boarded soaking wet into a well air conditioned car.  Very uncomfortable.  This day the weather was perfect at boarding time (though it would get very hot later).  Not only that, but the train pulled in at 7:20am and we were on board before the advertised 7:30am. The train left exactly on time at 8:00am. The car was air conditioned and the air conditioning worked perfectly.  The cars had been converted to HEP (head end power) and had been refurbished somewhat.  All were painted tuscan red, so the train had a uniform (and very nice) appearance.

The NS line to Bellevue and Sandusky was an ex-PRR (Pennsylvania Railroad) line that the N&W (Norfolk & Western) bought in the 1960's when it merged with the Nickel Plate and Wabash to give it connectivity.  It was in good shape, and had long stretches of double track at the time.  Along the way to Sandusky we passed at least three freights that were waiting for us at the end of double track. This was in sharp contrast to recent years. In previous trips they'd done things like hold us at the end of double track while a train 50 miles away came toward us.  That so there'd be no chance that we'd hold up the freight before we got to the next siding.

Carl Jensen (sans scowl) stopped by and chatted with us for a while.  I hadn't had time to notice, but all of the ex N&W cars had train names on them: Pocahantas or Powhattan Arrow.  Carl said that as soon as he could get the decals they'll be putting appropriate train names on the other cars: Man 'O WarRoyal PalmSouthernerCrescent, and one other that escaped me at the time.

The train arrived in Sandusky (actually a yard about 3 miles away) at 10:57am. We were then faced with a problem: Rick and Phil Moser were driving our car to Sandusky so that they could ride the return trip and so that Rich and I could head for home.  They weren't scheduled to arrive in Columbus by air from Chicago until around 9am and by the time they retrieved our car and drove to Sandusky and found the train it would be sometime in the future.  We ended up waiting until about 1:30, the only ones on the train (to stay out of the hot sun and in the cool A/C...I can't believe I was able to say this about a NS train sitting on a yard track) before they appeared.  We zipped over to the local McDonalds and then dropped them back at the train and headed off to points East.

It was a really nice, smoothly run little trip that added 10 new miles to my mileage map.

Oh, and in case anyone really cares, the train was pulled by steam engine 611.
611 pulls a train on some other trip

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My 1990 Trip on the Via Canadian

In September of 1989 I learned that Canada's passenger rail service, Via was going to cut out 50% of its service on January 15, 1990. Like most railfans I thought about all of the trains I would never be able to ride.  In my case that would be most of the cut trains since my rail experiences in Canada had been very limited.  I had ridden the entire British Columbia Railway, the Atlantic from Montreal to Moncton, the Budd car from Moncton to Edmunston, the Adirondack, and the Montrealer.

Due to limited time and funds, I soon put thoughts of covering the soon-to-be-gone trains out of mind and went on to other things.  One day in December, a friend suggested a trip to Gaspe when he learned that the train was being cut to three times a week (which means a roundtrip would require a full day layover).  I made reservations to join him, but then realized that for only a little more money, and a few more days, I'd be able to take the Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, a train I'd always wanted to ride.

Our hero freezing his ass off
I booked a trip from Pittsburgh to Vancouver on American Airlines and back to Pittsburgh from Toronto using frequent flier miles. The return from Toronto involved flying through Chicago but, hey, it was free.

So it was that Neil Lang and I found ourselves on the Canadian departing from Vancouver on January 12, 1990.  The Vancouver Via station is the old CNR station on the outskirts of downtown.  We spent a few hours prior to train time exploring the station, the various trains out on the platform (#2, #3, and #4) and begging employee timetables off of CNR staff (we succeeded).  At about 3:30 we boarded our train which consisted of two Via F40's, two steam generator cars, a dead head coach, a baggage car, two coaches, a Skyline dome diner/lounge, a Chateau series sleeper (4 section, 5 bedroom, one drawing room, 6 duplex roomette), two Manor series sleepers (4 section, 6 bedroom, 4 roomette), and a Park series dome lounge sleeper (1 drawing room and 4 bedrooms I believe).

VIA Canadian awaiting its Vancouver Departure on 1/12/90
Since I hadn't experienced a night in a section (a section is the kind of accommodation that Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe shared in the movie Some Like it Hot) since my camp train days (not the one mentioned in the Trains article) we elected to try it again for one night.  We were assigned section 1 in the last of the Manor cars and settled in for the 3:55 on-time departure from Vancouver.  We then went back a car and found seats in the dome. Although the train was virtually full upon departure, we never had a problem finding dome or lounge seats when we wanted them.

This is not what it looked like in my section!
After a beer or two, it was time for us to head to the diner for our 3rd seating reservation (at 8:15). There were four seatings that first night.  The diner portion of the Skyline car had 6 tables of four and was full.  We were offered two selections for dinner, and they varied every evening.  The first night we had a choice between roast sirloin of beef or a baked sole.  I elected the sole and it was excellent. Dinner came with soup, a salad, rolls, dessert, and beverage, for $10.95.  After dinner we went back to the dome briefly and then to our berths.
Sleeping in a section is not very much different than sleeping in a bedroom except for three things.
  1. You have to change in the bed or the bathroom
  2. If you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you have to walk down to the end of the car (hopefully in your robe!) 
  3. The berths are wider than those in a roomette or bedroom, and to my thinking more comfortable.
At Field
In any event I had a slept extremely well...perhaps too well, because when I got up I found we were approaching the town of Field, BC and I had missed at least some of the Canadian Rockies.  Luckily for me the best was yet to come.  At Field I put on my boots and got off the train to take some pictures.  Although it was cold, it wasn't COLD.  There was an awful lot of snow on the ground. After Field came the rest of the climb and then the descent towards Calgary with stops at Lake Louise (gorgeous) and Banff (lovely) on the way.  I took pictures at all of them.

A stop in Banff
By Calgary a lot of groups had left the train.  From then on the train ran relatively empty (there were less than 40 coach passengers and 40 sleeper passengers out of Winnipeg).  Crew members told us that they had noticed a huge drop in loadings after about the 9th of January as people realized they'd only be able to travel one way.  It was sad, but it certainly made for a comfortable train.  The second night (BBQ Ribs and Chicken or Rainbow Trout) there were three sittings for dinner, the third (Chicken or Halibut) there were two sittings, and the fourth (Salisbury Steak or Scallops) there was one sitting.
Leaving Calgary on the 13th, we moved into the drawing room in the Chateau car. A drawing room has three beds, two lowers and an upper, and private washroom facilities.  During the day it has a sofa and two easy chairs.  Since there were only two of us we had it very comfortable.  The scenery from Calgary to beyond Winnipeg has been described as boring, but I think that is overstating the case.  True it is mostly farm land, but it has its moments.  In any event I wasn't bored by it.  We arrived at Winnipeg on Sunday morning (the 14th) 15 minutes late.  We had been on-time, but erroneously tripped a hot box detector (detects an overheating wheel which might lead to a serious failure) just before arrival.  At Winnipeg they service the train, re-stock food and beverages, and the crew changes.  This is scheduled for 50 minutes and they seem to use it all.  However, this day the train sat in the station for an extra hour or so due to a derailment up the line (nothing major, but they were fixing the track).  As a result we stayed 1.5 to two hours late most of the way to Sudbury.

A typical drawing room made up for night
Starting at Kenora (Manitoba? ... no I think Ontario) we found crowds at the station protesting the end of service.  We also learned that ours was to be the last Canadian that would make it into Toronto.  The following ones were to either be annulled at Winnipeg or converted to the new #2 and sent on to Toronto on the CNR route.  We were never able to confirm that this was really true...we kept getting conflicting information from Via and CPR employees.  Anyway, at Thunder Bay there were nearly 1,000 people standing in the cold and snow with candles and signs of protest.  This was around 10pm on Sunday night.  Also at Thunder Bay we again changed rooms, this time for the drawing room in the observation car (we had been unable to book a single drawing room the entire way).

In Sudbury
On Monday, we arrived at Sudbury about two hours late.  Just before we got there we learned that #2 was annulled at Sudbury (#2 goes to Montreal, the Toronto section runs as #10 out of Sudbury) and that passengers would be bussed the rest of the way.  The equipment for #2 which had come in from Montreal the night before was standing at the station.  Some men were spraying the front of the locomotive and we later learned that it had hit a pickup truck and killed a man and a women on its final run.  You could see where it hit the truck, and red stuff that I don't want to speculate on.  In any event we lost another hour while they switched things around and coupled the Montreal section onto our train.  That gave us an extra locomotive, an extra steam generator, and extra baggage car, and three extra coaches making for a very long train.  We headed onto Toronto through some very nice scenery and eventually arrived at Union Station at 9:30pm on Monday, 3 hours late.

Not sure I want to know what they are cleaning off the (annulled) Montreal section
We had flights home booked for around 10am the next morning, so we transferred to a hotel near the Toronto Airport. Neil was booked on a United flight to San Francisco. I was booked on an American Airlines flight to Chicago, connecting to Pittsburgh. We awoke to a foggy day in Toronto and also, apparently, in Chicago. We boarded our respective flights and they left their gates on time and we then spent the next several hours staring at each others airplane as they both sat in the "penalty box" while awaiting for the fog to lift. On my plane the pilot eventually got on the PA and said that if there was anything they could do to make our delay more comfortable, ask a flight attendant. I called one over and suggested that they find a way to feed us (it was past noon by this point.) Believe it or not, about 20 minutes later a catering truck approached the plane and snacks were delivered. Finally many of the passengers started complaining that they had no need to go to Chicago because they had already missed their meeting.

The plane went back to the gate around 2pm and people who wanted to get off were allowed off. I had a copy of the Pocket Airline Guide along and discovered that Canadian Pacific Airlines had a nonstop to Pittsburgh leaving within the hour. Following the maxim from my Grandmother ("if you don't ask, you don't get") I asked the AA rep if they could put me on the nonstop. Remember that I was on a free ticket so I did not expect what happened. They did indeed get me on the nonstop to Pittsburgh and I arrived home earlier than I would have had the flight to Chicago been on time!

It was a wonderful trip, and can't be duplicated.  There is talk of a premium service, privately owned ala the American European Express, running 8 times a month with a cost of nearly $1,500 a person. It is supposed to start this summer.  One can only speculate why the train they are keeping (renamed the Canadian by the way, and running three times a week as #1 and #2) is going to take the more northerly CNR route.  It probably has nothing to do with the fact that the president of Via is also the president of CNR.  Or with the fact that both are government agencies and the ability to do creative bookkeeping becomes easier.  It also probably has nothing to do with the fact that the northern route is less scenic and will attract fewer sightseers.  And it certainly has nothing to do with the lower population levels along the route.  I'd find it hard to believe that they were trying to discourage patronage so that a few years down the road they could say: "see, nobody wants to ride these trains anymore" and get rid of it altogether.  So there must be some other reason.  Any one out there have any ideas?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

August 1992 -- The New Georgia Railroad from Atlanta to Montgomery

Over the weekend of August 21, 1992, the New Georgia Railroad, an organization operated by the Georgia state government (particularly the Georgia Building Authority) ran a public trip from Atlanta to Montgomery and return. Although they ran a regular dinner train, I had never ridden it.  But I had been on two of their previous long distance excursions (one to Savannah from Atlanta, and the other to Atlanta from Brunswick) and enjoyed them thoroughly. They also provided the equipment and car hosts for an excursion between Etowah, TN and Copperhill, TN/McCaysville, GA via the famous Hiwassee Loop the year before.  Their equipment was among the best in excursion service in the country, and their staff friendly and ready to please.

One of the reasons I was able to go on the trip is that it didn't start until 1pm on Friday.  That meant that I could catch a Friday morning flight to Atlanta and still make the train.  So I boarded a USAir flight for Atlanta on Friday morning and got to Atlanta about an hour ahead of my friends.  My friend, Dave Ingles, who was coming in from Milwaukee, arrived on the same concourse as USAir, so I went over and met him.  We then took the airport train to the Marta station where we met up with three other friends from Chicago (Rick Moser), Minneapolis (Brian Cutter), and Kansas (John Arbuckle).

Marta was a quick and efficient way of getting to downtown Atlanta.  We got off at the Five Points station, and walked through Atlanta Underground to get to Milepost Zero, the location of the New Georgia Railroad's station.  The station was new, and actually had the original milepost zero inside of it.  The fourteen car train was awaiting us outside, and soon my party was guided to our car, an ex-Atlantic Coast Line business car, third in the train.  The first two cars of the train were American European Express cars (including the New York, nee Sandy Creek observation car) being used by CSX to entertain.  They were using the cars as partial payment for charges owed to them by AEE. The rest of the train consisted mostly of coaches, except for a concession car, a crew sleeper, and a parlor observation car "Blue Ridge".  The train was pulled by 290, an ex-Atlanta & West Point 4-6-2 heavy Pacific and an F-unit, placed in a back-to-back configuration.  The 290 was to operate on home rails for the first time since retirement (I'm told).

The Blue Ridge (photo take on another trip)
Our group settled into the "living room" portion of the business car, and soon were chowing down on lunch: shish kabob, chicken, shrimp wrapped with bacon, salads, and more, including some incredible brownies.  Did I mention that the Georgia Building Authority runs cafeterias in public buildings?  I didn't? Well that's because the food gave no indication of that kind of operation.  It was superb.

The miles flew by as we headed down the rails of the A&WP (now CSX) towards West Point where they would become the Western Railway of Alabama (also now CSX) on into Montgomery.  Unlike Norfolk Southern, CSX placed no special speed restrictions on excursion trains.  They were allowed to operate at track speed.  This meant that we exceeded 50 miles per hour at times.  The Pacific is one of my favorite steam locomotives probably because it reminds me so much of the locomotives that hauled the commuter trains that my dad would ride home from work in Chicago in the 1950s.  From the vantage point of the third car, and with an open platform to sit on, we were able to listen to the locomotive to our hearts content.

We made several passenger stops along the way, and one lengthy service stop at West Point, to re-coal the engine.  The train arrived in Montgomery about 70 minutes late, but no one minded.  It had been a great ride.  Everyone loved it...well almost everyone.  The CSX dispatcher was heard to say (over the radio) "this train has been a thorn in my side all day".

We walked the block or so to our motel, the Riverfront Inn.  This motel was a converted WRy of Alabama freight house, and had once been a Sheraton and once a Clarion and now was a nothing, with good reason.  The rooms were big and clean, but in my first room the AC was non-operational, and all the rooms were dark.  During Saturday they checked one of my friends out of his room because he had taken his bag with him and then gave him a hard time about finding another room for him!  The food there was mediocre at best, but there was nothing else to do in downtown Montgomery, and we were warned not to venture far from the hotel at night.

A&WP 290 at Milepost Zero
Saturday was an off-and-on rainy day during which the 290 pulled excursions to a siding called Sprague on the ACL line to Dolthan (route of the old Floridian).  The F-unit was on the other end of the train, and it operated in pull-pull style all day.  A series of five excursions were planned, and they were all sold out.  My friends and I hopped into a taxi cab to the airport where we met another member of our group (Mike Cohrs) and rented a Mercury Sable for chasing.  We then spent an enjoyable day taking pictures of the train, and various freights (in between rainstorms and a fire-ant filled location).  The excursions ran progressively later and later in spite of shortening the trip so that it returned well short of Sprague. The last one left after 6pm, when it was supposed to leave at 5pm.  I have no idea when it returned...we were off to dinner at a great steakhouse called the Green Lantern.  After dinner we started a game of Rail Baron in my room.  I drew an off-line trip at the start and was never able to recover.  We suspended the game until a later trip, but the handwriting was on the wall...I had about half the money of the leader and was not likely to win.

Sunday was a really nice day...perhaps the nicest of the weekend.  The train pulled out at 10am, with us back on the business car.  There had been a cooler failure on the train and the New Georgia apologized to us about the food. There were some store bought biscuits with bacon and eggs, sausages, danishes, fresh fruit, juices, etc. and it was all very good.  No apologies were necessary.

The return trip ran pretty much as the trip down, with one exception.  Something had happened to 290 during the excursions (we had heard a call on the radio to bring a welding truck at one point) and the F-unit Diesel did most of the work.  Not nearly as satisfying in the stack talk department.  We again made a series of passenger stops, and a service stop, and arrived in Atlanta about 6:15pm, about 75 minutes late.

A New Georgia Diesel (E-8, not the one on our trip)
We hiked over to MARTA and went out to the airport and rented a car for the night (split 5 ways it allowed us to stay at a cheaper motel than one with a free airport shuttle...it also gave us transportation for the evening.) We quickly cleaned up and two of us were dropped at Fulton County Stadium where seats sixteen rows behind home plate were awaiting us.  We watched the Braves get trounced by the Cardinals (so what else is new?) and then were picked up and taken back to the motel.  While we were at the game, the rest of the crowd partook of another railfan tradition...a visit to the nearest Steak and Shake.

The next morning one of my friends, who was to be the last to leave, had shuttle duty.  He dropped me at the airport in plenty of time for my USAir flight home, and I was back at work by lunchtime.

According to Wikipedia AWP 290 (of which I cannot locate any pictures in my personal library) made its last run before being taken out of service in 1992. This may well have been that last run. It is currently undergoing restoration and may be back in service in the future.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Disney World and the Nordic Empress - 1990


During the summer of 1990, Barbara and I had been dating for about 18 months and had already taken one vacation together. That year we decided to go on our first cruise preceded by a visit to Disney World. This is the story of that trip.

Saturday, July 28

We arrived in Orlando around noon, and by 2:30 were checked into our room at Disney's Caribbean Beach, a new, inexpensive (for Disney) lodging.  The room was slightly better than one would expect at a newish Red Roof Inn, and the setting was much nicer.  It cost about twice as much. Besides the nicer setting, having rooms on Disney property allowed us to make dinner reservations at EPCOT and MGM in advance.  It also allowed us to park for free anyplace in Disney World.
We reached EPCOT at 3:00 and much to our amazement found very little in the way of lines.  For instance, we waited a grand total of 5 minutes to get into Spaceship Earth, about 20 minutes to see Captain EO, and not at all to see the World of Motion.  The longest we waited was an hour for Body Wars.  After making it to the front of the line, I heeded the motion sickness warnings and elected not to ride. Instead the attendant let me watch Barbara ride on a little tv monitor they have at the control panel.  It was fascinating to watch people react to what was happening on the screen (and what the simulator was making them think was happening to their bodies!)  We had dinner at the Mexican exhibit (a fine meal I might add), and spent a little more time walking around other exhibits before heading back to the room and to bed.
Dinner at EPCOT

July 29

Sunday morning, bright and early, found us waiting to be admitted to the Magic Kingdom. By getting there early we accomplished two important things: 1) we managed to get lunchtime reservations at the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree, and 2) we managed to ride a couple of the more crowded rides without waiting in long lines. We pretty much saw everything we wanted to without terribly long lines except for the Jungle Cruise (where the wait seemed interminable). By about 3pm, the heat and lines had gotten to us and we decided to more or less forget Tomorrowland, and did a little shopping on Main Street.  We were back in the car by 4:30pm and in MGM by 5pm.

Our intention was to walk around MGM to say we had been there.  We had heard that the lines were incredibly long and were not at all interested in standing around waiting.  We were pleasantly surprised to discover that there were hardly any lines at all.  We waited at most 15 minutes for one of the rides, and much less for the others. We especially enjoyed Star Tour which apparently is similar to Body Wars at EPCOT, only better.  This one I rode (Barbara talked me into it) and I was quite impressed.  With this technology, I'm sure that the Disney folks could put together an "impossible" rollercoaster without having to actually build one.  For the Monster Sound Effects show, I was picked to do some of the sounds.  After doing the backstage tour, it was time for our reservation at the Brown Derby, where we had an excellent meal, before going back to our room. Instead of going right to bed, we walked around the lagoon a while.  A very pleasant evening.

July 30

Monday, bright and early, we checked out and drove to Fort Lauderdale airport.  There we were met by representatives of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines who arranged transportation for us to the M/S Nordic Empress at the Port of Miami. (The Nordic Empress eventually was retired from the RCCL fleet but is still sailing as the Empress as part of Pullmantur Cruises, a subsidiary.) We reached the ship about 2pm, and immediately boarded.  As approached from land, the ship looks more like a smallish Hyatt Regency than a ship.  Once on board, we were greeted by a hostess and a string quartet, and marveled at the multi-story lobby atrium complete with glass elevators...again, just like the Hyatt Regency.  Our room was on floor 9 out of 10 (they really referred to them as floors, not decks) and was quite spacious. The room was equipped with a closet, bathroom with shower, two twin beds (which were made into a double), two nightstands, a sitting area with a sofa, a chair, and a table.  The was a closet with a chest of drawers, and some shelf space.  Also, outside the glass door, a balcony with two chairs and a table.  Waiting for us in the room was a iced bottle of Champagne, sent to us by our travel agent.  Shortly thereafter, another bottle of champagne arrived, this sent by my parents.

The ship was not to sail until 5pm, so we took advantage of the time to become familiar with the ship, and to have a buffet lunch in the Windjammer Room on the 10th floor.  They offered hot dogs and chicken sandwiches along with salads and desserts.  Quite good.

At 4:45 the ship's horn sounded, for a lifeboat drill, and shortly after 5pm, the ship left port.  Barb and I opened the bottle of champagne and sat on the balcony watching Miami recede.

We had signed up for the second sitting for dinner, and at 8:30 found our table.  We were at a table for eight, consisting of four couples. Two of the other couples had just gotten married two days before.  The other couple was engaged. They were all somewhat younger than us. The dinner that night had an Italian theme, and was well presented and quite good.  There were five or six choices for each course, and I suppose they would have been happy to serve more than one of the choices.  Since there was ample opportunity to eat on the cruise, I can't imagine anyone being hungry enough for two entrees!
At Dinner on the Nordic Empress
After dinner, was an hour long musical revue, complete with magician and comedians.  It was very well done.  By the time we got out it was almost time for the midnight buffet.  Since we had just finished dinner at 9:30 or 10:00, neither of us were terribly hungry, so we just walked by to see what was on it.  We couldn't believe the piles of food we saw on some people's plates.

Regarding food: on a typical day there were the following opportunities to eat:
  • Breakfast: continental served in your room, buffet served most of the morning, or sit down, served in the dining room.  You could do all three if you were so inclined.
  • Lunch: buffet served from noon until 2pm, or sit down, served in the dining room.
  • Tea: a buffet with sandwiches, salads, ice cream sundaes, etc.
  • Dinner: two seatings.
  • Midnight Buffet

July 31

Tuesday morning found us in Nassau, where Barb and I spent a few hours shopping before returning to the ship to sit by the pool.  As we left the ship Barb spotted some vendors selling starfish. I tried to talk her out of buying one, but it was only $5 and she did. She named him Freddy. About 20 minutes later Barb turned to me and said (with a smile) "Freddy stinks!",  and about 5 minutes after that he found himself in a street side garbage can.
The short life of "Freddy"
In the evening, after the Captain's cocktail party, and dinner, we left the ship again, to go over to Paradise Island to win some money from Merv.  Having accomplished that goal, we returned to the ship just prior to its sailing.

August 1

Wednesday morning found us at an island owned by RCCL with lots of beaches.  We had a great time snorkeling, and otherwise enjoying the beach.  Late afternoon as the ship sailed, I was busily giving some of Merv's money to the cruise company at their three level casino.  (I eventually won it back.)  That evening, after dinner, there was another show, this time a broadway based review. Again, quite good.  This was also the evening of the Captain's gala midnight buffet, where the buffet was decorated with ice carvings, etc.

Snorkeling on the private island
August 2

Thursday morning found us in Freeport.  We took a taxi over to a place called the International Bazaar and enjoyed looking through the shops, though a heavy rain and thunderstorm made it less fun than it might have been.  We spent a few minutes in the casino at the Princess Hotel, and turned $10 into $22.50 before heading back to the ship for another afternoon of sun bathing, etc.  That night, was the farewell dinner, which had an American theme (other nights had been French and Caribbean). There was also a farewell show, which was excellent.
The formal portrait

August 3

The next morning, by the time we got out of bed, the ship had already docked at Miami.  We cleared immigration, went and had a final breakfast in the dining room, grabbed our carry on suitcase (the others had been picked up the night before), left the ship, found our suitcases, cleared customs, gave our suitcases to the USAir representative at pier side, and boarded a complimentary bus for the airport.  A few hours later we were back in Pittsburgh, exhausted, but having thoroughly enjoyed the vacation.

Would we do it again: you bet!  Would we take the Nordic Empress again: yes, if we wanted a four day cruise.  It appears to be the nicest of the ships in that marketplace (better, for instance, than the new Carnival ship, and much better than the old Carnival ship and the NCL Sunward II...though that ship looked very nice).

I would rather take a newish, small ship, with one dinner seating, for our next cruise, mostly to avoid the crowds.  But this was great, and the crowds hardly mattered most of the time.


About two months later I asked Barbara to marry me, and we tied the knot the following July. We've taken several cruises since that first one (all on much bigger ships) and have visited Disney World once more (this time with Lizzy, her half-brother Chris, and his family.) After that visit I told my daughter Lizzy that if she wanted to go to anything Disney again it would be with someone else!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

QNSL and friends: Railroads of the St. Lawrence Seaway

Note: I went looking for my trip report on this August 1998 trip to Eastern Quebec and could not find it. I then recalled that I did not actually write a report since the people I would write the report for were on the trip with me. Luckily one of my traveling partners, Dave Ingles, did write a report and with his permission I have taken it and added some of my own recollections of this wonderful trip. I have kept most of the report in the present tense as it was originally written. Where the first person is used it is Dave Ingles speaking unless otherwise identified.

You will notice a paucity of pictures in this article. From 1993 to about 2000 I switched from slide film to print film because I never looked at the slides. Unfortunately the photographs and negatives were packed away in a box when we moved in 2002 and I no longer know exactly where they are. My companions on the trip either did not take pictures or cannot easily get to and scan their photos. Thanks to Kalmbach Publishing Company., publisher of Trains Magazine and Classic Trains Magazine, I am able to use two photographs that Dave Ingles took while on the trip that have appeared in those magazines.


For several years, several of us railroad mileage-collectors who often travel together have talked about riding the Quebec North Shore & Labrador (QNSL) railroad. Now, thanks largely to the efforts of Rick Moser, who kept pushing the group for dates and other desires on the trip, and John Godfrey, a Montrealer who is fluent in French (well, Quebec's version of same), who acted as our Guide and Translator, we've accomplished it. The trip was enlightening, and successful enough, that John G. is giving thought to trying to organize a small tour in the North Shore ore country for other mileage collectors, especially if one or more of the freight-only carriers will bend and let a group ride.

Weekend of August 15-16, 1998

Three of us--Moser, Chuck Weinstock, and I--flew in to Montreal to gather with John G. on Saturday, Aug. 15. On Sunday, he gave us the $5 tour (i.e., complete) of the Canadian Railway Museum at Delson, where he is very active. We rode both a diesel-with-coach train and a streetcar, and inspected all the engines and cars, including some that are off-limits to the public. That evening, John Arbuckle joined us at Central Station, having come in on VIA from Windsor, Ontario. Chuck, John A., and I boarded the Chaleur, whose route Chuck and I needed north of Matapedia. Rick and John G. did not need that mileage and so stayed in Montreal overnight and drove our Alamo rental minivan north the next morning.

The Chaleur

Monday, Aug. 17

The combined Chaleur (to Gaspe) and Ocean (to Halifax) in that order out of Montreal was a whopping 23 cars behind 3 F40's. The Chaleur alone was one F40 and 10 cars: baggage, 5 sleepers, diner, Skyline dome lounge, 2 coaches. Owing to VIA's removing conductors from all trains, stops are longer than allowed in the schedule, and we were 1 hour down out of Matapedia, enabling daylight viewing of all the new trackage. We arrived at Gaspe 2 hours, 11 minutes late. This still gave time to taxi across the bridge into town, eat lunch and board our 330 pm bus to Matane.

The bus took the very scenic and hilly shore highway around the peninsula north of Gaspe, continuing our circumferential ride. I'd never seen the St. Lawrence shore up there and was impressed by its ruggedness. The meal stop was at St. Anne-des-Monts (St. Anne of the mountains -- St. Anne is the patron of sailors and there's a bunch of St. Anne towns up there, plus 4011-hundred other "St." villages; for those who haven't been there, each and every village, and some of 'em are bleak, are dominated by a Catholic church); we arrived in Matane on time at 920 pm and were met by John G. and Rick with the van and checked into a local mom-and-pop style motel for the night.

Tuesday, Aug. 18

We took the 805 am ferry sailing out of Matane, aboard the Felix Antonie Savard, for Godbout. This saved a bunch of miles driving up the 2-lane road on the north shore to the QNSL. Just before our departure, the rail carferry Georges Alexandre Label departed on its daily (weekdays) sailing to Baie Comeau, more on which later. The St. Lawrence is wide. Wide enough that they showed an onboard movie during the crossing (Men in Black---in French but with English subtitles when the aliens were speaking.)

We arrived in Godbout on time at 1020 and drove the 65 or so miles east to Port Cartier (car-tee-ay, NOT car-shee-ay) in time for lunch and our 1 p.m. pre-arranged tour of the Cartier Railway shops. The Cartier is a 260 mile railroad that runs from the port to a captive iron ore mine. No trains were nearby in action, alas, but we were able to shoot Cartier's coaches (used on a weekly employees and supply train) and about a dozen of its Alco diesels, both 6-motor and RS18.  A heads-up for Alco diesel fans -- the mine Cartier serves recently had its expected service life extended 20 years from 2002 to 2022. This changed the railroad's plans to stick with the Alcos for another 4 years, so they're scouting around in regard to replacement power.

After the Cartier tour, we drove on over to Sept Iles (7 islands), another 25 miles or so. The Comfort Inn in Sept Iles was our home for three of the next four nights – not consecutive. For donut fans, there are 4 Tim Horton's locations in town. We photographed the inbound QNSL passenger train from Labrador City at the highway overpass east of town; it had two RDC's. Summer schedules have two Lab City trains each week, and one to Schefferville. Other times it's one per week to each. 
The gang at the Cartier Railway shops.
From left to right: John G., Dave, Rick, Chuck, John A.
Photo courtesy of John Godfrey

Wednesday, Aug.19

We had two tours lined up, at the QNSL shops and at the Arnaud shops, about 10 miles west of Sept Iles. QNSL has extensive grounds, all fenced with cops at the gates. Even with our arrangements, we waited 20 min. at the gate for paperwork and our guide to arrive. No restrictions on photos, though. QNSL track is barely accessible around Sept-Iles; photographers would do better to fly up to Lab City for photos on the line up there, where there is a road, if they don't want to bother with advance permission. We shot about 5 SD40-2's, a couple of the remote-control GP38's, and several passenger cars stored in various locations. (Since the QNSL does not connect to the North American Railway system except by car ferry, when it quits using something, it just sits around -- why spend money to send it out?)

The Arnaud tour was next, pretty basic around the shop (1 unit inside) plus a look in the yard where the other 4 units sat on a train. Arnaud ore trains use the Wabush Lake RR from their mine north of Labrador City down to QNSL track, and QNSL units and crews handle their trains to Arnaud Jct., a few miles north of Sept Iles, where Arnaud's own crews go get the trains. Wabush Lake/Arnaud keep four or five Alco RS18's on each end, painted the same yellow and black but lettered differently. This railroad is publicly accessible at several places, but our timing was not coincident with road action, and John G. had arranged the visit.

Wednesday afternoon was free, so both Johns and I took advantage of the lull to take a chance and drive the 150 miles east to Havre St. Pierre, until recently the end of pavement on Quebec Highway 138. (Rick and Chuck rested in Sept Iles.) It's not a hard drive, but it's a long one. "HStP" is home to the Romaine River Railroad of Quebec Iron & Titanium, which when John G. had called, had outlined their operation for him but had said, sorry, company policy won't allow us to give you a tour on the property. QIT runs a passenger train 3 times each day up the 23-mile line to the mine, which is not accessible by road. The railroad parallels Highway 138 the last mile or so into town, and therein lies access! The first rain of the trip greeted us as we neared HStP, but John confirmed on the corporate office phone from the dispatcher that the passenger train, and an ore train (!), were both due in within the hour. We went west and swatted mosquitoes and dodged raindrops while waiting. At 4:50 the passenger train showed up, an MP15 in dark red with an orange stripe, towing 3 ex-GO Ontario "Tempo" style cars and a boxcar-power car. We got two shots, one at the converging point and one at the grade crossing by the shop. The sun even sort of popped out. Twenty minutes later came the freight, two similarly painted GP9's pointed forward on 40 true ore jennies, some new, some old. He stopped in the yard, allowing multiple photos and angles. Again the sun popped out, and there truly was also a rainbow! QIT also has an S4 on display by their office, and it's shootable. Supposedly QIT allows groups to ride the train during certain months, mostly local schoolchildren. Needless to say, John G. is investigating. Dave Ingles wrote about this particular afternoon in the February 2009 issue of Trains Magazine, which supplied the following photo.

The QIT passenger train near Havre St. Pierre. Photo by J. David Ingles used courtesy of Trains Magazine
On the return trip to Sept Iles, our Alamo van’s oil light went on. We pulled into a service station and discovered that when servicing the car between rentals Alamo had left the oil cap resting on the manifold. We added oil and put the cap where it belonged and the van gave us no additional trouble during the week of the rental. When reported to Alamo, they took a day off our rental (and of course paid for the oil.)

Thursday, Aug. 20

QNSL's weekly passenger train to Schefferville goes north on Thursday and back on Friday. There hasn't been mining at "S'ville" for a decade and a half, so this train and a weekly freight are all the traffic QNSL has north of Ross Bay Jct. (where the line to Lab City diverges), and it has turned off the CTC and decommissioned some sidings on its northern half. The service isn't endangered--social necessity--but S'ville ain't much, down from 5000 people in the mining heyday to 700 (in 2015 it is down to 250.) It's very French-speaking. John G. procured us reservations at the Royal Hotel, which has a restaurant, bar, and convenience store therein. The hotel isn’t much and at least one of our group reported what appeared to be bullet holes in the wall of his room. There are a couple of taxis in town; connect with the QNSL train crew and they're glad to help. In fact, we joined some of the crew on our return to the train the next morning.

The train is normally 5 RDC's, all self-powered. Vending machines provide sustenance (pop $1, sandwiches $3), but it helps to bring your own snacks etc. to augment those basics. In addition to the train crew, QNSL assigns three security guards to each train to avoid "cultural problems" (my words). Although we made sure we sat in the same car where the guards made their "office," we saw no signs of any problems, and the guards admitted to being bored most of the time.

A shuttle train operates from Ross Bay Jct. to Labrador City. On our northward trip, we also had the QNSL's dome coach 13510 on the rear, with a tour group. This is a singular car, having been Wabash-owned but painted yellow for UP's City of St. Louis, later N&W and then sold to Southern, which painted it Pullman green and used it on the Asheville Special. It's in fairly good shape, and the dome glass is reasonably clear.

Going north we left Sept Iles at 924 am, nominally 24 minutes late but "schedule" is relative up here; sat at Nicman for 1 hour 9 minutes for trackwork ahead; passed the weekly Schefferville freight at Oreway at 348; set off the dome at Ross Bay Jct. 432-507 pm; and pulled into S'ville at 834 pm, which the crew considered a decent day's run. En route before the junction, we passed 1 ore train and met 5 ore trains. At Ross Bay Jct., the crew was talked into letting us off for some quick photos. The shuttle train had an SD40-2 and the 6th Budd RDC; the diesel was because of the dome coach, we concluded. Sy Reich and friends, who drove up here in July and provided us some valuable advance info, found this shuttle to be an ex-Southern coach behind an SD40-2. For the day, we unloaded passengers at perhaps a half dozen stops. The whole operation (except with RDC's and encountering more ore trains), and the progression of geography, too, are reminiscent of the Algoma Central. While Schefferville is in Quebec, the railroad dips into Newfoundland and Labrador before it reaches it. For at least some of us this has been our only "visit" to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Friday, Aug. 21

From our booth in the hotel restaurant at breakfast about 730, we watched the weekly QNSL freight come in to Schefferville across the water. After checking out, we taxied to the depot, made some photos in the rain of the SD40-2's switching around the depot, and boarded the train for departure, which came at 904, nominally 4 minutes late. At Ross Bay Jct., we exchanged RDC's with the shuttle and added the dome car. John A. and Rick took the shuttle to Lab City to ride the 36-mile branch. At Lab City (which is English-speaking), they rented a car, did some shooting, stayed overnight, and flew down in the early morning to Sept-Iles on a commuter prop for $240 U.S.

With no tour group on the dome car, it was open to anyone, and perhaps a dozen of us enjoyed the dome most or all of the way down to Sept-Iles during changing sunny and cloudy weather. We met five ore trains, and arrived in Sept-Iles at 850 pm. Some runs have arrived after midnight, the guards said.
A view of our train from the dome. Photo by J. David Ingles used courtesy of Classic Trains Magazine

Saturday, Aug. 22

This was the day of the long, 375-mile drive to just outside Quebec City, at St. Anne-de-Beaupre, where we arrived about 5 pm. We broke up the trip with occasional photos, and made Baie Comeau the lunch stop, after photographing the isolated railroad there. As we pulled into town we could see the rail carferry heading across the river back toward Matane, and at the slip yard we photographed chop-nosed Geep No. 6055 (ex-EL 1217), painted blue and lettered for Donohue Corp., owner of the paper mill in the city. There are a couple of other customers, too. We also managed telephoto over-the-fence shots of the other two units, a switcher (ex-PRR 8537, an SW9M according to the "Canadian Trackside Guide," the Canadian railfan "bible") and ex-Roberval & Saguenay RS3 22, also both painted blue. The trip along this north shore includes a mandatory ferry ride across the Saguenay River near its mouth. Our vessel was the MV Jos. Deschenes. At Clermont we photographed the Quebec Railway's three ex-CN SW1200's parked by the office. This is the former CN line up along the river from Quebec City.

Sunday, Aug. 23

Some quick tourist time began the day in Quebec City, including a stop at the CN yard (one Geep), a round trip on the ferry over to Levis and back; and a shot of the big Quebec bridge. The highway to Montreal is an expressway, and we broke the ride up only at Trois Rivieres for lunch and a quick look at the Quebec Gatineau's facility; that's the new regional on CP in these parts, and they have a bunch of un-repainted CP Alco RS18's and C424's, and some SW1500's in Genesee & Wyoming family orange. We arrived in Montreal in mid-afternoon, dropped John Godfrey at home and Rick at the airport, checked into our motel by Dorval Airport, and went to dinner.

Monday, Aug. 24

Chuck’s flight was early Monday morning, but John A. and I had some time and did some train watching at Dorval depot, sightings which included the Home Hardware-painted yellow VIA F40 (a promotion), and one of three VIA F40's leased by the Montreal commuter authority for the CP-route trains (the F units are beginning to fail).

Thus endeth the Quebec saga.


The February 2012 issue of Trains Magazine had an update on the QNSL authored by Andy Cummings and our friend and guide John Godfrey. They report that seven years after the trip described above, the passenger train, now called the Expresse was operated by a consortium of First Nations tribes. As of the writing of this article the consist of the train had changed dramatically and was now a pair of F40s (the power on our Chaleur in 1998), a power car, baggage cars and coaches, all acquired from Amtrak. The passengers are mostly First Nations as well, and the train remains a lifeline to the wilderness dwellers who use it.