Northern Ontario adventure: Finding my way out of Franz

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, June 29, 2015

When I last left you, I was planning to attempt to transfer from one thrice-weekly passenger train to another at a junction point deep in the northern Ontario wilderness. The trains are VIA Rail Canada’s Sudbury-White River Budd RDC train (operating over Canadian Pacific’s east-west main line), and the Algoma Central Railway’s (ACR) regular passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst (operating over track owned by Canadian National), and the junction point is a place (not exactly a town, as it has no year-round residents, no businesses other than the two railroads, and no cell phone service) called Franz, Ontario (pronounced “frahnz”). Given the trains' schedules, there are only two days a week in both directions in which a same-day connection between them is possible. One of those is on Friday mornings, when the southbound ACR train departs Franz three hours after the eastbound VIA train arrives. (As a side note, the eastbound VIA train began operating two hours earlier than shown in the printed timetable about a year ago (the online schedule has only recently been updated). The westbound schedule remains as printed. Under the old schedule, the scheduled layover time between the two trains was exactly one hour.)

I was blessed with cool (upper 50s to mid 60s Fahrenheit) and dry weather when I awoke at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, June 19, in White River. I checked out of the White River Motel and walked next door to Catz Family Restaurant (seemingly the only eatery open in the town — and its flyers were available aboard the VIA train and in my motel room) for breakfast. Fortified, I then walked 15 minutes from the main highway down to the depot, and waited outside (the former passenger waiting area seems to be permanently locked up). The same three-car RDC consist on which I had ridden west the day before pulled in from the west at 6:50 AM. While two men loaded supplies for the lodges at Milepost 88 into the baggage car, I and three other passengers boarded the rear coach. 

VIA train 186 pauses while I detrain in front of the CP crew shelter in Franz, Ontario. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
We departed right on-time at 7:00 AM and encountered no delays, sandwiched between two eastbound CP freights in the running order. We paused about seven minutes at Milepost 88, seven miles west of Franz, where the Service Manager (who I had gotten to know the previous day) let me disembark to take photos while the supplies were unloaded from the baggage car and carted away in wheelbarrows. When I stepped down from the vestibule onto the ballast at Franz at 8:15, the Service Manager asked me to try opening the door to the small wood-frame building next to which I was standing. I did and it opened. She said I could wait and leave my stuff in there. She gave me a hug, wished me good luck, stepped back onto the train, closed the doors, and the RDCs roared off to Sudbury. Once it was out of earshot, it was silent save for distant bird calls. My ACR train was scheduled there at 11:15.

I left my luggage (a small roller bag and a backpack) inside the building, a dirty and obviously little-used shelter for CP track and signal maintenance crews that had electricity but no running water (though it had a non-functional sink and toilet, and was stocked with about 15 unopened bottles of water), and went exploring. I walked up and down both main lines a bit, photographing both in-use and abandoned railroad buildings and bush lodges. I also caught two eastbound and one westbound freight on the CP line, all three over a mile long. Pretty soon, however, the numerous flies and mosquitoes became a real nuisance, so I retreated to the CP building, sat cross-legged on the floor (there were no chairs), got out my laptop and did some writing. While there, I heard the beeping of a vehicle’s reverse signal. I looked outside to find the driver of a hy-rail pickup truck stopped at a point where wood planks lay parallel with the CP rails, lifting the truck’s rail wheels up and driving it onto the dirt. He drove up to the building and introduced himself as Richard, a CP signal & communications maintenance employee from Missinabe with a distinct Canadian accent. I told him my name and that I was awaiting the ACR train, and he said he’d seen a couple of others doing the same thing at Franz. He said he would be around a while, checking on the signal system. For the next three hours, he and I were the only human beings in Franz.

An eastbound CP mixed freight, loaded mostly with double-stack containers, rumbles by the crew shelter where I was camped out, about an hour behind VIA train 186. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
About 11:13 (having been told to expect the ACR train to run a bit late due to large numbers of passengers boarding at wilderness lodges farther up the line), I grabbed all my luggage and moved it to the patch of dirt next to the diamond, where I stood to await the ACR train. There once was a station building serving both railroads at this spot (click here for several historic photos); it was moved down the line to Dubreuilville and restored as a visitor information center. I waited 20 minutes, which turned to 40 minutes, then an hour, then 90 minutes. By this point, I suspected that the train had encountered an unusual delay. I walked over to Richard and asked him if he knew my train’s status. He said no (“not my railroad”). I asked him if he had a phone I could use. He said I could use the satellite phone in the small metal bungalow next to the signal and switch leading into CP’s short siding and yard track just west of the diamond. I looked up the ACR’s number, which I had stored on my iPhone, and dialed it on the satellite phone. I reached an ACR representative in Sault Ste Marie, who informed me that the train was being held at Mead (80 miles north) “pending an investigation.” She could not provide any further information, and asked me to call back in a half hour. Luckily, Richard was going to be around until 3:00, and said I could open the door to the bungalow and use the phone as needed. 

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.

A former (foreground) and current (background) employee house for the Algoma Central Railway (later Wisconsin Central, now CN) along the ACR main line at Franz, looking south.
I told all this to Richard, and asked if he could possibly give me a lift out of town. He said he could only take me as far as Missinabe, but that he knew a CN employee who would be coming south on the ACR line in a hy-rail truck, and was headed for Hawk Junction to finish his shift, then to his home in Wawa. I decided to try to hitch a ride with this CN employee, knowing that I could at least get a Greyhound bus in Wawa. I returned to the phone and reached a friend whoI was going to meet in Sault Ste Marie, and he graciously offered to come pick me up in Wawa.

I then grabbed my things and walked a short way down the ACR line to where I saw a hy-rail parked. There I met Jeff, a 21-year-old CN track inspector, who said he had gotten permission from his supervisor to give me a ride to Hawk Junction, 45 miles south. I loaded into his truck (he had to clear the passenger’s seat for me), and off we went down the jointed rail at about 30 mph. Jeff did not speak much, but offered to slow down to let me take photos (which did not come out well through the reflective windshield glass). He said he “didn’t know what to tell me” about the passenger train.

The CP-ACR diamond at Franz, looking westward on the CP line. A depot once stood on the left side of the CP track here. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Upon arrival at the brick depot at Hawk Junction (whose waiting room was closed for the moment), Jeff said I could sit on the platform or in a restaurant across the gravel parking lot (the only one in town) for about two hours while he finished his duties, after which he would take me to Wawa in his personal truck. But no sooner had I sat down on a bench at the depot then three middle-aged men wandered up. Upon introduction, one of the men said that he and his companions had been spending a few days at a lodge up the line and had been called and informed that the passenger train was halted, so they managed to book a last-minute flight to Hawk Junction, where they had parked their van, in a small plane. They were friends from Michigan, up there on a fishing trip. I asked if they would give me a ride to Wawa, and they obliged, as they would be passing through there anyway on their way home. I piled into the back seat of their minivan, and rode 15 miles west, where they dropped me off at a Tim Horton’s, where I spent almost three hours before my friend arrived from Sault to pick me up. 

Though I was deprived of a ride on the ACR (save for my first ever hy-rail ride on 45 miles of it) and had to rearrange the rest of my trip, the gorgeous ride down Ontario Highway 17 on Lake Superior’s east shore at sunset — during which my friend and I stopped several times for photos and short hikes in provincial parks along the shore — was a spectacular way to end a truly wild day. After a late dinner, I checked in to the Days Inn across from the former Algoma Central depot (now a bank building) in downtown Sault Ste Marie, Ontario at 11:30 PM. Were it not for the kindness of strangers and railroaders, I would likely have had to spend the night in Franz until the Budd cars came through westbound on Saturday afternoon.

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