Railroading is an environment of almost constant change, even when things appear to be standing still, and the decades of the 1970s through 1990s exemplified that on the Algoma Central.
The 1970s was certainly a decade of renewal on the ACR, and seems to be where the Algoma Central reached its peak in terms of traffic carried. Massive upgrades to the ACR’s motive power and rolling stock fleet in the early 1970s transformed the character of the trains.
Motive power upgrades began in 1971 with the delivery of the railway’s first “second generation” high-horsepower six-axle diesel locomotives in the form of a trio of 3000HP SD40s, followed in 1973 by six more SD40-2 units. These big six axle units represented a huge change from the fleet of 1500HP GP7s the railway had been using since dieselization in 1952 and they would find a home primarily handling the heavy ore trains on the Michipicoten branch and between Hawk Junction and Steelton Yard in Sault Ste. Marie. In 1978, the ACR began attempting to rebuild the older 25 year old GP7s with a total of 9 units being remanufactured by GMD and CN from 1978-79. However by 1980 the decision was made to acquire new multi-purpose units instead of performing any more rebuilds and in 1981 six 2000HP GP38-2 locomotives were delivered and the remaining un-rebuilt GP7 and GP9 units were sold or scrapped.
Passenger fleet upgrades began in 1969 with a group of lightweight coaches acquired from Canadian Pacific. With the Agawa Canyon Tour Train just beginning to take off in popularity and the existing coach fleet dating from 1912, in 1973-1974 the ACR undertook a wholesale upgrade of the fleet with “new” baggage cars, coaches and dining cars acquired second-hand from such railways as Canadian Pacific, Denver & Rio Grande Western, Illinois Central, Central of Georgia, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. A new silver paint scheme with a black bear motif was also introduced, although some cars were placed into service by simply painting over the existing car name, thus several cars ran in Illinois Central colours until at least 1982. A few more baggage cars were acquired from VIA Rail in 1983. This equipment operated throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, until another round of equipment upgrades began in 1992 when more coaches were acquired from VIA Rail to begin replacing the ex-CP cars acquired in 1969-1974. Another new passenger paint scheme was introduced at this point.
The freight car fleet was certainly not to be left out either, and some major new equipment acquisitions here were also made during the 1970s. Several hundred brand new 100 ton hopper cars were acquired from National Steel Car in 1970, and 1974-1975 to replace older 55 ton cars which were starting to become in very poor shape, with many of them been acquired second-hand from multiple sources in the 1930s or ’40s and featuring build dates from before World War I. Another small group of second-hand hoppers were acquired from Ontario Northland around 1978. The ACR’s flat car fleet was also very outdated, and in 1975 25 new bulkhead end cars were acquired from Hawker-Siddeley, with a further 50 acquired second-hand from British Columbia Railway in 1980, although many of the older cars were kept in non-interchange pulpwood service to St. Marys Paper in Sault Ste. Marie. Another significant acquisition in the 1970s were 90 high-capacity woodchip gondolas acquired in 1974 for dedicated service shipping woodchips from the new Newaygo Forest Products lumber and chip mill at Mead to a paper mill in Appleton, Wisconsin, with another group of 23 cars added in 1981. A few hundred large 60′ gondolas appropriate for steel products and logs had previously been acquired in the mid 1960s.
The 1980s were a slightly more turbulent time. A recession in the early 1980s saw a slight decrease in traffic, and changing economic fortunes saw a significant change in the freight car fleets of the other Canadian roads that the Algoma Central interchanged with as the larger roads snapped up still almost brand new second hand boxcars at fire sale prices.
The most significant changes on the ACR were the closure of the Newaygo mill at Mead and pulpwood spurs at Trembley, Mosher and Coppell in 1985, offset by the re-introduction of rail traffic to the Dubreuil Bros. mill at Dubreuilville in 1986 or 1987. With Newaygo’s closure, the ACR’s big pale green woodchip cars were sold off, mostly to Newaygo to use in other operations in Wisconsin. When the previously dormant (at least as far as rail traffic was concerned) Dubreuil started up, some major track reconfiguration occurred at the mill including installation of a chip loading spur that had the capacity to load 10-15 cars a day, which were supplied by Canadian Pacific and shipped to a pulp mill in Marathon, Ontario, via the CP interchange at Franz.
Meanwhile, the car fleets of the other Canadian railways was changing throughout the 1980s. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National had the largest fleets of 40′ boxcars – with each railway’s roster of such cars still counted in the tens of thousands – which by this point were already practically extinct on American railways, partly due to a program in the 1970s called “Incentive Per Diem” which tried to encourage upgrading of the national box car fleet by allowing for higher daily rental rates for railroads that acquired brand new 50′ general service boxcars.
The IPD program, as it was known, kicked off a rather colourful boxcar boom from about 1976-1980 with many small shortlines (usually in conjunction with leasing/management companies like Itel and National Railway Utilization Company (NRUC)) as well as the new RailBox pool getting in the act and acquiring fleets of new cars, often literally in excess of what would physically fit on the railway if they all came home, hoping that those cars would in fact never come home, and spend their lives roaming the country earning per diem for their owners. With the economic recession of the early 1980s though, these cars did start coming home, as the other railways no longer wanted to pay the higher rates and started to actually send them home empty. This left many shortlines with a serious surplus car problem and thousands of brand new cars wound up on the second hand market.
CN, CP and even Ontario Northland got in on the opportunity and acquired large numbers of these former shortline cars, and thanks to the influx of new 50′ cars, and the loss of freight shed traffic to the trucking industry, by the end of the 1980s those massive fleets of 40′ boxcars were an endangered species. This would have an effect on the flavour of ACR trains as well, particularly with woodpulp (a processed precursor to making paper) traffic from mills on the CP being routed via Franz to Sault Ste. Marie and upper Michigan. Photos from the early 1980s show large strings of 40′ CP boxcars in some ACR trains; by the early 1990s, the boxcars in woodpulp service are a dog’s breakfast variety of CP and shortline 50′ cars.
So the mid-point of the decade forms a real turning point in terms of looking at the mix of traffic on the ACR. While the iron ore and steel traffic doesn’t change, nor does pulpwood shipments to Sault Ste. Marie, lumber and woodchip traffic makes a big switch between 1985-87, and while woodpulp and paper traffic doesn’t really change, it’s the middle of a transition in the types of cars used in that service.
Also, with the generally reduced traffic levels through the 1980s, the ACR would commonly lease a couple of SD40-2s during slow periods to a chronically power short Canadian Pacific, which would be frequently be hungrily snapping up rented units from just about all sources during busy periods like the fall/winter grain rush, which gives other Canadian modellers of the 1980s a perfectly valid justification for operating an ACR SD40-2 in just about any part of the country.