The news from Sioux Lookout

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, December 4, 2017

We left Toronto on VIA Rail’s Canadian at 10:45 Sunday morning, almost 13 hours late, due to the even later arrival of our equipment on our eastbound counterpart. There are roughly 60 of us spread over 13 cars, 30 each sleeping car and coach. VIA put us up at a so-so Toronto hotel (coach passengers included) Saturday night—that is, everyone but yours truly. I asked to go to the Fairmont’s Royal York across the street from Union Station, and my wish was cheerfully granted. Maybe it helped that I am the sole Prestige passenger. (VIA flew in a replacement on-board services crew from Winnipeg Saturday night after the inbound crew invoked its contractural right not to work its way back on short rest.) It’s cozy this Monday morning watching snowflakes fall on frozen lakes from my perch in Room B of car Kootenay Park.

There are two possible story lines today: First, are we going to get even later—really, really late—and cause me to throw away my return airline ticket from Vancouver? Let’s put that aside for now. Up here in Ontario and then across the prairies west of Winnipeg, things can change in a hurry, which is why I enjoy these adventures. The fact is, we’ve made up rather than lost two hours on our schedule thus far. We’ll probably make up another hour by the time we get to Sioux Lookout late this morning, because there’s not much coming against us for a while.

Far more interesting to me is how host railroad Canadian National moves freight traffic across Northern Ontario. In a nutshell, it pushes out 12,000- and 14,000-foot trains over a 1,200 mile expanse built for 6,500-foot movements. How it does so would amaze Class I railroaders in the U.S., who would not even attempt such a thing on this scale.

The plan each day allocates slots for nine westbound departures from Toronto’s yards. Five of these trains are allowed 14,000 feet (12,000 in the case of manifests). Three depart close together about 2 a.m. and the two other biggies 9 hours later. The other westbounds will fit the 6,500-foot sidings. Great effort is made to get these trains underway.

Now for the genius part. Across those 1,200 miles, there are a mere 25 places—brief double track segments, crew-change terminals and places with 12,000-foot sidings—to meet oversized trains. Some of those locales are 50 and 70 miles apart, and at six places trains must double onto back tracks to clear.

Eastbound freights from Winnipeg are inferior to the westbound oversized trains and held to 12,000 feet. Winnipeg allots seven specific times for eastbound oversized trains to depart. These times will get them to places where they can clear those two waves of westbound behemoths. It simply boggles my mind to imagine that, say, intermodal train 102 at 12,000 feet, leaving Winnipeg in the 2:30 a.m. slot, will know the precise places it will meet the two westbound superfleets the next 48 hours to Toronto. Trains of 6,500 feet or less can leave Winnipeg when they fit in.

Precision scheduled railroading? Gracious sake, yes! It has to be, or the Northern Ontario District would quickly come to gridlock. In the States, a Carl Ice or Lance Fritz would budget $1.5 billion of capital to lengthen all these sidings in two work seasons and make the problem disappear in a blizzard of cash. I suspect that the CN People in Montreal are content to keep their money in the bank as long as the rail traffic controllers (dispatchers) in Toronto continue performing the daily miracles.

Now loop back to VIA Rail No. 1 this Monday morning. I now comprehend why our lowly, 60-axle Canadian can get smushed in the goings-on of a railroad whose freights are too big for their britches. I don’t have to like it when we sit and wait and wait and wait, but I do understand.

We are crossing the Allanwater Subdivision at close to a mile a minute. If nothing’s holds us back, we’ll be in Sioux Lookout by 10 a.m. (Central Time). Now the bad news: The flight from Winnipeg carrying our relief engineers was cancelled, and these gentlemen won’t get to Sioux Lookout by road until at least 12:30 p.m., meaning all three hours of time we have made will be given back. While we wait on a back track, CN trains 114 and 106 and a quite late VIA Rail No. 2 may come and go as a dog pack. On the happy side, starting this journey at 10:45 a.m. instead of 10 p.m. put us on course for a four-day, three-night trip, the reverse of the usual, and that pleases me mightily. Let it snow. Life right now is fine in Room B, in the bosom of precision scheduled railroading.—Fred W. Frailey

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