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.

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