Railfanning Around Sault Ste. Marie

After (and, well, let’s face it, during) my day trip on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, and in between visits to the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, I tried to also take the opportunity to do a little railfanning around town. I also visited last July and September, and caught a few things then too, so while I certainly don’t have full information of everything that goes on, I’ve been reasonably successful for an outsider, and I’m starting to learn what’s going on and put together at least a broad picture of things.

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Obviously the most well-known rail operating in Sault Ste. Marie is the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. Departing daily at 8 AM during the summer and fall seasons from the Algoma Central Railway’s downtown station beside the Station Mall, the train runs north to Canyon and returns to the downtown station typically around 5:30 PM (although the schedule on the ACR web site says 6). If one is wanting to photograph the train at the station, the best sun angles will be in the afternoon due to the roughly north-west angle of the tracks at this location.

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About half an hour before train arrives back in the Sault, it will be passing through this curve just north of mile 10 on the railway. (Restricted speed through the yard limits in Sault Ste. Marie to the station means this final part of the trip through town takes a little time.) North of town the highway, river and rail line all parallel for a short stretch; this shot is taken from the shoulder of highway 17. This is another shot where the sun angles favour the afternoon southbound train as the highway is to the west side of the railway and river. A northbound morning shot could work here if it is an overcast day.

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Unfortunately I just missed the southbound regular passenger train from Hearst as it came in later; I was just returning to this spot and it arrived about the same time I did, so I chased it a bit closer to town and had to content with this shot at the highway 17 underpass at the north edge of town.

The regular train operates north from Sault Ste. Marie on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, departing at 9:20 AM during the current summer season from a track at the entrance to Steelton yard, in behind the shops facilities, rather than the downtown passenger station. The southbound train returns from Hearst the following day(s) – that being Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays – and is scheduled to return to Sault Ste. Marie at 6:10 PM, but will often be running a little late. So it should be around the mile 10 curve pretty much any time after 6. (I just missed it at about 7:30.) Note that Wednesday is the off day, where the train will not be running, and the equipment remain parked at Steelton yard.

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I missed catching the daily freight train from the US this time around, but it typically operates into the Canadian Sault in the early evening, around 7 PM or so, shortly before the southbound regular passenger train. I did manage to catch it last summer, so I can share a photo or two of that.

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Interestingly, this train typically runs with distributed power, with one engine at the front of the train and a second splice somewhere in the middle. The train handles iron ore for Algoma Steel from a mine in uppser Michigan and all manner of interchange traffic from Sault Ste. Marie, primarily southbound steel and pulpwood loads.

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The northbound train runs directly into the former ACR yards in Sault Ste. Marie, ON, and will perform some switching to break down the inbound train, fish out the distributed power unit and assemble the southbound train to the States. Once the outbound is prepared, it will head south again; often this will be near or well after dark, depending on the season.

(The two daylight shots of the northbound freight crossing the swing bridge and the old Canadian ship canal were taken in July 2013. The night shot is a time exposure of the southbound freight departing Canada taken in September 2013.)

Freight service on the line north of Sault Ste. Marie I’m a little less clear on, but the northbound freight seems to generally hit Hawk Junction around lunchtime, so would be out of Sault Ste. Marie very early in the morning, possibly just before dawn. When I rode the Tour of the Line back on the last day of September, our regular train met the southbound freight at Northland siding, with the tour train ahead of us meeting the freight at Wabos. However, when I recently rode the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, we encountered no other trains on the trip north.

I’m not entirely certain whether the freights do indeed operate daily (sources indicate yes, and I’m pretty much 3/3 for encountering the northbound freight at or near Hawk Junction) or whether it may be adjusted based on the traffic levels, and that single observation at Northland is not really enough data to say whether that timing is typical, or quite late (for what it’s worth, when I chased the tour train to Searchmont in July 2013, I never saw nor heard any sign of freight activity then either; the passenger train seemed to be having a completely unrestricted run north, just like my ride two weeks ago). Or whether the operating times simply vary wildly for some reason like crew availability at Hearst and/or Hawk Junction.

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Huron Central action appears to be typically (and reliably – I’ve shot them all three times I’ve visited the Sault over the past year) caught around mid-afternoon at their yard in the Sault, with the mainline freight to Sudbury departing a little before supper time. Theirs is a colourful operation, and you can quite comfortable watch them switching from the old platform of the former CPR passenger station at the east end of the HCRY yard. The bright orange of the G&W family colour scheme definitely adds a lot of colour to the experience. The westbound counterpart appears to leave Sudbury in the early evening, so this would arrive in Sault Ste. Marie well after dark.

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Along the south side of the Huron Central yard are a pair of tracks used for pulpwood loading. The cars loaded here are a mix of cars with Huron Central’s own reporting marks and cars with LRIX markings, that translating to the owner being “Lake Superior Eastern Rail Industries Ltd.” This appears to be a local freight car lessor, headquartered in White River, ON and their entire fleet of about 30 cars appears dedicated to service on the Huron Central. Both the LRIX and HCRY fleets consists of about 30 cars of varying designs and lineages. And since neither are really seen off of Huron Central rails, a quick peek at the pulpwood loading tracks in Sault Ste. Marie is an interesting stop for the freight car enthusiast.

Agawa Canyon Tour Train Ride

At the beginning of this week I just returned from another week long vacation north of Lake Huron, visting the former Algoma Central and the Huron Central and Ontario Northland railways.

Having previously ridden the Tour of the Line last October, on Monday July 28th, I had a ticket booked to ride the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. The tickets are booked over the phone (which the helpful ACR staff make quite easy – and it’s nice to hear them answer the phone as “Algoma Central Railway”) and can be picked up at the station the morning of the departure. The train’s scheduled departure is at 8 AM, and tickets can be picked up at the station half an hour before the train leaves. I think I arrived there a little before 7:30 and ended up beating the line. Eventually around 7:40 or so the train pulled into the station and we were able to board.

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The tour train at Sault Ste. Marie station. (This photo actually taken after the return to the Sault, when the sunlight is actually on the right side for photographs at this location.)

The train this day was a short 6 cars, including dining car 506, and one of the regular F40PHR locomotives was apparently away in Toronto for some repair work, so the engine on the south end of the train was a CN GP9Rm. The complete consist was as follows (from the north end):

CN 105 (F40PHR)
AC 5705 (Coach)
AC 5702 (Coach)
AC 5655 (Coach)
AC 5703 (Coach)
AC 506 (Dining Car)
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CN 4110 (GP9Rm)

The train left precisely on time and we slowly rolled through the downtown, past the huge Essar Steel Algoma mill and past the sprawling CN yards and shops before finally clearing the yard limits and entering the main line north of town. Then it was off into the wilderness north of the Sault.

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Typical lake view along the line.

Inside the coaches on the train there are video monitors throughout, which over the course of the trip play video commentary describing features of the line and its history. The video segments are apparently triggered by GPS location, so it tells you when certain notable features (like the Montreal Falls trestle for one particular example) are soon to be encountered, and also to spread out the history segments over the trip. While to an ACR historian like myself much of the information was known, I still found myself watching each segment when they played with interest, and it certainly gives an interesting background to the area you’re riding through. (Although a couple parts of the narration could use some updating as they refer to the St. Marys Paper Company as a current operation, while it has closed down a few years ago and the mill has been mostly demolished except for some of the remaining original sandstone structures dating from the 1890s mill.)

When the history segments weren’t showing on the monitors, the view was normally from a camera mounted in the front window of the lead F40PHR locomotive, giving a nice live view of the track ahead of the train. This was nice to see features ahead of the train, and was particularly interesting at one point where the train slowed because of a pair of large birds that when disturbed by the train simply flew along the tracks in front of the train for about a minute or so before finally gaining height and flying out of the way!

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The train skirts the shore of another small northern Ontario lake.

About half an hour after departure from the Sault, the dining car opened for breakfast, for which they called the various coaches in turn. I had made sure I had something to eat at my room before heading down to the station, so I did not partake of breakfast, but later when the dining car switched over to serving lunch (for which the kitchen remained continuously open until a little after 4 PM) the on-board service staff took orders for boxed lunches from those who wished it, and these orders were taken far enough in advance of the arrival at Canyon so that you would be able to take your lunch and have a nice picnic within the park environs. I ended up ordering one of these lunches, which I believe was about $15 and contained a sandwich (on a nice large Kaiser bun, which could be one of three options: roast beef, tuna or ham & cheese – I chose the ham & cheese), bottle of water, bag of chips, brownie and a hard-boiled egg.

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F40PHR 105 on the north end of the Agawa Canyon Tour Train at Agawa Canyon Park.

After arrival at Canyon, I wandered around the lower part of the park for a while, enjoying the area along the river, eating my lunch and taking a number of photos of the train in the park setting.

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This CN GP9Rm was the southbound unit on the train. There are no turning facilities at Canyon, and the F40PHR has to remain connected to the train as it is also the on-board power source, so the tour train is operated with locomotives at each end.

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Looking south from the train at Canyon.

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The tour train in its context at Agawa Canyon Park. The small car on the house track to the left of the train is the railway’s “camp car”, which car be rented for an overnight stay at the park.

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The rocky cliffs on the other side of the river from the train’s stopping location in the park.

Ultimately, the time in the canyon came to an end, and the whistle was blown giving the 5 minute warning to return to the train for departure. The northbound passenger train to Hearst was also running that day, and I had hoped to photograph it arriving at the south end of Canyon siding, unfortunately it did not end up arriving until after our train had reboarded, and we rolled slowly to the south switch to meet the regular train there, heading south as soon as it had cleared into the siding. So I was only able to see the train from the windows of my coach as it passed by on the adjacent track, and no photos. So that was my disappointment on the trip, from a railfan’s perspective, but the actual ride to and from the Canyon was relaxing and enjoyable, as I alternately read my book or watched the northern Ontario scenery with it’s unending forest dotted with rocky hills and myriad small lakes roll by outside.

Our return time to the Sault was approximately 5:30 PM, and with the sun now in the perfect position for taking photographs at the station, I photographed the train as the unboarding completed and the train pulled out of the station to head back to the yard for servicing, cleaning and overnight parking until the next day’s train. Once the train departed the station, I wandered past the Huron Central yard to photograph some of the pulpwood flatcars around there and then headed off to find some supper, a nice day of train riding completed.