Recent Visit to Algoma Country – Notes and Observations

So this week I just got back from another visit to the former Algoma Central railway. I took my girlfriend up with me (who hadn’t really been up to Northern Ontario before and was looking forward to seeing the area) for a few days of camping, general scenic sight-seeing and of course, riding the Agawa Canyon excursion train.

Here’s a few of the railway-related observations from that trip.

Agawa Canyon Tour Train

Agawa Canyon Tour Train unloading at Sault Ste. Marie station. July 17, 2017

Passenger Traffic

With the loss of the regular Sault-Hearst passenger service just a few days over exactly two years previous, the current situation is pretty straightforward – it’s just the Canyon Tour Train operating during the summer/fall months. July is not the peak season for the train – that will come in September when the fall colours start to come out and the train runs at full capacity – so our train on Monday was a short five car affair. The full northbound consist of the train was:

CN 106 F40PHR
AC 5701 “Montreal River” Coach (the one we rode in)
AC 5655 Accessible Coach
AC 5703 “Chippewa River” Snack Bar Coach
AC 506 Dining Car
AC 5708 “Ogidaki Lake” Coach
CN 105 F40PHR

The tour train leaves Sault Ste. Marie at 8 AM, and is scheduled to arrive back at the station around 6 PM – often arriving between 5:30 and 6, although we were delayed a while on the trip south to meet a northbound freight at Frater. (Sun angles make the afternoon arrival the best option for one wanting to photograph the tour train.)

CN 573 at Hawk

CN 573’s power makes a switching move at Hawk Junction, with a long string of Herzog ballast hoppers in the background. July 19, 2017

Freight Traffic

Freights continue to operate over the line as 573 (north) & 574 (south) between Steelton Yard and Hawk Junction and 571 (north) & 572 (south) between Hawk and Hearst. The schedule (if there is such a thing) of the southbound 574 remains a complete mystery (probably entirely dependent on crew rest & availability at Hawk) – on Monday morning I heard a southbound pass our campground in the middle of the night, around 4 AM, but heard nothing the other two nights we stayed there, and on other trips I’ve heard on the radio 574 meeting the northbound tour train at Frater or Wabos, so it’s all over the map. 573 seems to be pretty consistently an early morning train out of the Sault with arrival at Hawk Junction in mid-afternoon based on my isolated sightings over the last few years. However Monday’s train was definitely delayed out of the Sault as we met it at Frater, so it would have been significantly later into Hawk Junction that day. On Wednesday, we happened across 573 arriving at Hawk between 3 and 4 PM.

Monday’s 573 had two engines and roughly 40-45 cars, with a large volume of copper/nickel concentrate from Michigan, steel products from Essar Steel and a few empty scrap metal, lumber and woodpulp cars.

Wednesday’s 573 was also a sizable train with a variety of cars including steel products, empty lumber flatcars and woodpulp boxcars, a few cars of concentrate, tank cars for sulphuric and hydrochloric acid, and others (I didn’t actually see the entire back half of the train as there wasn’t time to hang around for 571’s recrew.)

There was also a long string of woodpulp boxcars and pulpwood flatcars sitting in the Hawk Junction yard which had probably come off the previous day’s 572 and waiting to go south on a 574.

Pulpwood logs were being loaded at the large log spur at Mile 10 just outside the Sault, as well as at Regent and Frater sidings. At each of these locations, the majority of the flatcars seemed to have VRSX reporting marks – sadly I was not able to get photos of any of these cars. A few others had GROX marks, and some of the AC/WC marked flatcars were of course also mixed in.

Rounding out CN freight operations in the area, the freight that crosses the border from the United States still comes in in the evening, we managed to catch one on Monday night around 8 PM. This train brings in the iron ore for Essar Steel from Tilden Mine, as well as any other traffic for the Sault from the United States, mostly pulpwood and steel empties.

Abandoned railway

Abandoned Michipicoten Subdivision right-of-way.


That mostly concludes notes on current operations. We also took an opportunity to drive down the back road past the abandoned Sir James open pit mine (probably a separate post to specifically highlight this), and used the old Michipicoten Subdivision roadbed to loop back to Hawk Junction. The route is maintained (there were a couple places where a dip and change in the roadbed definitely seemed to indicate a washout that had been repaired long after the railway had been abandoned) for a snowmobile trail in the winter, and some locals have even established some remote camp sites back in the bush along the old right-of-way, so it’s definitely passable from Siderite to Hawk. We found this to be an immensely scenic drive with a lot of quiet and pretty lakes along the route.

Interesting travelogue and a bit more on that service disruption

Over on the Trains magazine site, this interesting two-part travelogue has been posted under one of the editorial sections. The writer traveled from Sudbury to White River on VIA Rail’s RDC (self-propelled Budd Rail Diesel Cars) train service and then intending to ride from White River to Franz and catch the southbound ACR service to Sault Ste. Marie. Unfortunately this happened to be on the day that the passenger train got held up, and he wound up waiting at Franz for no train. Fortunately there was a CN employee that was able to give him a ride out to Hawk Junction in a hi-rail truck. Check out both links, it’s an interesting re-cap:

In the second link, he includes this paragraph, which clears up a few other details about the situation that caused the cancellation:

A half hour later (around 1:20 PM), I called again, and the agent made it clear, without divulging details, that she felt it highly unlikely that the ACR train would complete its run that day. I later discovered that a formal complaint was filed with Transport Canada around 10:30 that morning against the crew of the ACR train, alleging that a violation of operating rules had occurred the previous day (the ACR crew was later cleared of any wrongdoing). Once such a complaint is filed, neither crew involved can legally operate a train during a mandatory 48-hour investigation period. That day was only the day after a new operator, Railmark Canada Ltd., had formally taken over the passenger train’s operating contract (replacing CN crews with its own). Since Railmark had not been able to hire any additional crew, it had no way of operating the train until the investigation was complete.

That’s a bit clearer than just “unspecified infraction” that showed up in the media articles which didn’t really have any more information, and I think wraps that all up rather nicely.

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.


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)
AC 5704
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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


Looking south from the train at Canyon.


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.


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.

Tour of the Line – Part 2

(This post is a continuation of a previous post describing my recent visit to ride the Tour of the Line over the Algoma Central Railway.)

At dawn on Tuesday morning, we got up, had our complimentary continental breakfast at the hotel and walked back to the “station” to catch our train back to Sault Ste. Marie.


As we arrived were our train was ready for boarding, there was an Ontario Northland GP38-2 parked on the ladder which appeared to be blocking things for the CN C44-9CW which had arrived some time earlier off of train 571. (This was one of the two engines seen switching at Hawk Junction the day before on train 573. No trace of the second engine was seen this day, so it must have returned to Sault Ste. Marie on a 574.)


After we boarded the train and waited to get rolling, the Ontario Northland began switching the yard tracks and the CN unit was moved out of the way onto side track next to the main, seen in the foreground of the above image. Leaving Hearst we could see that all of the yard tracks had been stub-ended on the west end, except for the first track which served as the siding/runaround.


At Mead there was this office building and a maintenance garage; this was once the site of a large sawmill, but that operation closed down in the mid 1980s. All traces of the mill itself are gone except for a large cleared area, but these two buildings and a portion of the south end of the spur into the mill area are still intact (and the switch to the spur is still in place). Clearly this location must have still been used for some time afterwards to load logs and pulpwood, even though the sawmill was gone. Satellite images of the area shows extensive signs of logging operations in the area.

At Oba and Franz we again crossed the CN and CP main lines. At Oba there were quite a few cars in the old ACR yard tracks, which had been entirely empty the day before. A number of these I recognized as havening been seen at Hawk Junction the previous day.


At Langdon, the first siding south of Oba (but clearly used now only as a log spur and not a passing siding) several new empty pulpwood flatcars had been added to the number of cars that had been there the previous day. For an interesting observation, note in the above photo how the switches to the old house track have been removed, but actually the siding track between them removed, so now the siding routes through the old house track. This sort of thing could also be seen at a couple of other locations.


And at Franz, there were a number of cars in the siding which blocked a good view of some of the structures on the west side of the tracks, so I wasn’t really able to get the good overview shot of the location (but fortunately I was able to shoot those buildings from the vestibule the day before when they were not blocked by cars, and I have establishing shots saved from others). Clearly train 571 had had a busy trip from Hawk Junction to Hearst. On our part, we stopped no less than half a dozen times at various locations (along the entire trip) to pick or drop off campers, and by the time we returned to Sault Ste. Marie our little one-coach train was actually relatively full.


And of course I would be remiss in not sharing at least one shot of the famous trestles across the bays of Oba Lake just south of the old Mosher siding and about 15-20 miles north of Franz. The bridge in the photo above is one of the shorter bridges which are both original timber trestles. These bridges are referred to as the “floating bridges.” When they were built, construction crews driving the pilings never did get them resting on solid bedrock, and the bridges essentially float in the mud and silt. The conductor was mentioning this to some of the other passengers while we were still approaching the bridges and remarked that from the ground you can actually see the bridge deflect several inches when a train passes over it! Both bridges have a severe 15 MPH speed retriction. The longest of the three bridges is almost 1200′ long and has at some point been replaced by a modernized version with steel pilings (you could see the old wooden pilings for the original bridge alongside – the water levels were high so these were just below the surface of the water – and also the causeway approaches were wider and showed signs of the realignment) and was not so severely restricted.


After passing through a much emptier Hawk Junction once more, we met the day’s northbound freight 573 at Perry siding. Today the train was short – just 8 cars.


And of course Agawa Canyon is scenic from any angle. Roughly halfway between Eton and Canyon, the valley abruptly narrows from a wide valley to a narrow gorge before widening again through the rest of the canyon. The above photo is taken just after passing through the narrowest point of the Canyon.

Climbing out of the canyon, our train made good time, screaming through the curves between Canyon and Frater. No really, the amount of flange squeal was pretty amazing. Particularly when you’re in the open shooting out the side window of the coach vestibule!


I’ll end this post with one final shot of the train passing through typical (for the south end) rocky terrain just north of Montreal Falls. It’s a long journey but it was enjoyable, and a very relaxed way to travel by rail, with a very different flavour to travelling on VIA or Amtrak!

Tour of the Line – Part 1

So earlier this week I was in Sault Ste. Marie again with a friend of mine to ride the full Tour of the Line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst.

First thing in the morning we went down to the station to pick up our reserved tickets and watched it depart and picked up our reserved tickets. My friend had booked a little earlier and was riding the Agawa Canyon Tour Train to Canyon and then getting on the Tour of the Line on a “Canyon Combo” package, allowing the tour of the line and also a short stopover at Canyon park. I booked a little later and the Canyon train was fully sold out, but ultimately this probably turned out for the best as shooting from the vestibules is not permitted on the Canyon train. The regular train to Hearst has a far more relaxed attitude. We definitely spent more time shooting out the vestibule window or the rear door of the coach than actually sitting in our seats.

The Canyon train was absolutely running at full capacity, so I finally got to fill in the missing names on my roster of the ex-“Ski Train” cars as every single one of them was in use on the train.

CN 633 Full consist northbound on Sept. 30, 2013:

CN 105 (F40PH)
CN 104 (F40PH)
AC 5700 “Achigan Lake”
AC 5701 “Montreal River”
AC 5710 “Agawa River”
AC 5705 “Spruce Lake”
AC 5702 “Lake Superior”
AC 5655
AC 5703 “Chippewa River”
AC 506 (Diner)
AC 5707 “Hubert Lake”
AC 5708 “Ogidaki Lake”
AC 5704 “Island Lake”
AC 5706 “Batchewana River”
AC 5709 “Mongoose Lake”
AC 5711 “Trout Lake”
AC 5712 “Goulais River”
AC 5713 “Rand Lake”
CN 106 (F40PH)

(3 engines, 16 cars)

After the Canyon train pulled out of town it was time to head over to the yard to catch my train. For the last couple of years now the regular train to Hearst has been boarding from the near the shops facilities rather than the passenger depot downtown. With all three of the F40PHs assigned to the Canyon train, the regular train to Hearst this week was powered by a CN GP38-2.


CN 631:

CN 4710 (GP38-2)
AC 78 (Power Car)
AC 312 (Baggage Car)
AC 5656 (Coach)

We hit patches of thick morning mist around the Heyden to Searchmont area, but otherwise the weather was generally clear, and the temperature quite pleasant:


At Northland, we pulled into the siding to allow the southbound freight to pass:


CN 574:

CN 2575 (C44-9W)
CN 2136 (C40-8W)
(25 cars – several coil steel cars and a bunch of empty gondolas)

At Ogidaki we dropped off a group heading to their cabin for a few weeks; this was pretty much our only northbound stop before Canyon. Much of the south end of the line skirts along a multitude of lakes and rivers, and many of these lakes are dotted with small private camps and cabins, accessible only by rail (and additionally in many cases, by boat across the lake from the railway stop.)


Of course a highlight of any trip on the ACR is crossing the famed trestle at Montreal Falls, made all the more spectacular by the peak fall colours:


At Canyon we passed the tour train, dropped off a young honeymooning couple who were going to be staying at the Camp Car which was set out in the house track and picked up half a dozen passengers (including my friend) riding on the “Canyon Combo” package.


After leaving the park at Canyon, it was a straight shot to Hawk Junction. As we pulled through Hawk, train 573, which had preceded the passenger trains out of Sault Ste. Marie (Steelton), was switching two full tracks of cars in the yard. Quite a bit more traffic than I saw in my July visit. A lot of these cars would be noticed the next day in the interchange tracks at Oba. (Those three gondolas being pushed by the power were the only cars in Hawk Junction yard the next day.)


CN 573:

CN 2562 (C44-9W)
CN 5631 (SD75i)
(no accurate car count as this train was actively engaged in switching, and there were long strings of cars on at least two tracks)

At Hawk Junction we boarded another small group and their supplies who travelled as far as Tatnall to a camp. That was our last stop northbound before Hearst. The CP and CN main lines at Franz and Oba were crossed without delay from cross traffic on the other lines. At Mosher, the old station and some signs of the abandoned pulpwood operations still remained:


We arrived at Hearst just after 8 pm, which made it well after dark with the shortening fall days. Tired and hungry (but having enjoyed the ride) we sought out our hotel and some dinner before preparing to do the whole thing in reverse.

I ended up taking at least 900 photos during the trip, so there’s far too much material to share here in one blog posting (and a lot of the photos are somewhat similar, but serve as some future modeling reference for some areas. I’m going to split the second day’s southbound trip into a separate post, and I may have enough material to organize into some additional related posts over the next week or so. I’ve tossed about about a dozen new header images into the random page header rotation.

For now I’ll pause to make some general observations from the trip:

  • Our timing worked out brilliantly. We were lucky enough to hit the absolute peak of the fall colour season in the Sault. A week earlier wouldn’t have been quite so colourful, and we could see that some trees particular on the tops of some hills and ridges were already dropping their leaves. Another week later and a lot of the colour would already be disappearing. We also lucked out with some beautiful weather the whole time. (It was a little overcast on the second day between Canyon and the Sault, but was otherwise mostly sunny and the temperatures were very comfortable.
  • About those colours: the south end of the line was brilliant with almost every colour of red, orange and yellow imaginable. The maple trees were bright, bright red. As the geography transitioned to the flatlands north of the canyon, the scenery became predominated by birch and evergreen trees, so the north end of the line was basically just two colours: yellow and dark green. This is an important observation to make for when I’m working on scenery on my future ACR layout. Getting that type of tree mix right will be a huge factor in pulling off the right effect.
  • There was a fair bit of interchange traffic at Franz, Oba and Hearst, but on-line industry north of the Sault is essentially nil today. The sawmill at Dubreilville appeared inactive, and while the Jaeger strandboard plant  south of Hawk Junction could not actually be seen from the main track, IIRC it closed down about 5 years ago or more.


  • (Quite) active log spurs at approx. mile 10, Eton (mile 120) – pictured above – and the siding at Langdon, just south of Oba, basically comprise the actual on-line traffic sources on the former ACR. Other sidings on the south end such as Batchewana, Mekatina and Frater and other places have been known to feature log loading operations in the past but these all appeared to be quite inactive for some time. There were also spurs at mile 132 and 155 that were still in place, but didn’t appear to be currently active. Still the above mentioned log spurs were significant current operations, and there did seem to be a fair bit of interchange traffic at Franz and Oba.
  • I’d been led to believe a few years ago that freight traffic over the former ACR had been reduced to only a three times a week service and that track conditions on the line had suffered to the point where almost the entire line was severely speed restricted. I wouldn’t have thought traffic levels to have actually improved since then, but today freight trains definitely are operating in both directions on a daily basis over the ACR, at least south of Hawk Junction. While there were slow spots here and there, over the majority of the line we regularly hit speeds of 40-45 miles per hour, very similar to what the old speed limits in ACR timetables were. While I’m certainly no track maintenance worker or a qualified expert on such things, the ROW generally appeared in decent shape, although I did notice some pretty horrifically shelled rail on at least one siding; however many old sidings have been removed or single-ended, and particularly on the north end of the line are pretty rare. The particular siding(s) in question probably hasn’t been used to actually execute a train meet in a decade. The only freights we passed on both days were south of Hawk Junction. There’s definitely a lot of jointed rail, but significant sections have actually been upgraded with CWR.
  • The meets our train made with opposing freight trains were handled by the passenger train either pulling into one end of the siding, waiting for the freight to pass, and then backing out again, or the reverse: backing into a siding to make the meet and then pulling out normally. Dispatching-wise this was accomplished by giving all the passenger trains “work” clearances, which allow a train to operate in either direction over a section of track, and the opposing trains were given “protect against” orders referencing the passenger train. Thus the two trains would actually set their own meet over the radio somewhere within that stretch of track.
  • Several maintenance foremen were also patrolling the tracks, and once or twice we were delayed waiting for highrail trucks to pull into a siding to clear our train.

I think that’s enough for now, we’ll continue with the southbound trip in Part 2.