Canadian Railway Adventure – Day 4 afternoon

It feels late in the day, but it’s only 4:25 in the afternoon. Today was strange – we were meant to arrive in Sioux lookout at 6 in the morning, but we didn’t actually arrive until the afternoon. We’re eight hours behind on paper, but since that means we arrive in Toronto in the evening rather than the morning, it feels like we’re a day behind. Sioux lookout, or “the Soo”, or “the little Soo” to contrast it from “the big Soo” – Sault Saint Marie – is named after a hill from which the local indian band would watch for their enemies the Sioux. It’s really a town in the northern reaches of  nowhere, hundreds of miles north of Thunder Bay. The most interesting thing about Sioux lookout is that it has an LCBO and a Beer Store, and that if the train is significantly late, passengers have time to run to purchase liquor.

Right now we’ve just momentarily stopped in Ennis, which is even smaller. The town seems to ha ea. hotel and a grocery, but not much many houses. These northern towns are supply points for northern ontario, but since there isn’t much in northern ontario, they are not very big ones.

Along the way the train often stops for no apparent reason.There is of course, a reason – it has to do with the track up ahead. The track is sectioned off into blocks, and the rule is, no two trains can be in one block at the same time. When the train comes to a block there are two lights, one over the other, which can each be either red, yellow or green. If there are two green lights, it means the section of track the train is entering is clear, as well as the one after that. If the lights show green over red, the section the train is entering is clear, but the next one has a train in it. Green over yellow indicates that the section is clear, and that the next section may be clear by the time our train reaches it. Or at least this is what I was told by one of the staff.

The basic reason that progress is so slow has to do with the style of rail freight in this country. To maximize profits, the railway runs freights which are as long as possible. This is not more efficient from an energy standpoint, because a train twice as long requires twice as many engines to push it. However, it means less crew is required – because a train twice as long has the same crew as a shorter one. And, when freights are longer than sidings, it is the shorter train which must pull over to let the longer one pass. This is not a matter of priority per say, rather it is simply impossible to give the passenger train priority over trains too long to pull over for it. The simple solution would be to run shorter freights, but that would mean more people would have to have jobs, which would reduce profits, which would be unacceptable. The expensive solution is to build longer sidings, and more double track sections of mainline. However, the cheapest solution – which I think will likely happen – is put into place the CN/CP reciprocal running agreement I mentioned earlier. This really would be the best use of our existing rail infrastructure in Canada – although it would also mean the end of “The Canadian”. Sure, they could keep the name and the equipment, and potentially do the run much more quickly – but it would lose its usefulness to the communities alongside it.

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