The Trains Must Roll

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of science fiction. One of the classic SF short stories is “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1940. The gist of the story is that rolling roads (similar to airport luggage belts) have replaced conventional roads to move people and material around America. The technicians who maintain these roads go on strike because they feel they deserve greater recognition due to the important work they do.

You can say a lot about Heinlein and his personal views – many who read Starship Troopers might call him a fascist – but The Roads Must Roll is a compelling, tightly written story. In the story, the rolling roads are essential to the economy… much like trains are essential to today’s economy.

Despite the “polar vortex” that gripped much of North America in the first few weeks of February 2021, the trains must roll.

Rolling At Elie

CN 5654 getting underway near Elie
CN 5654 getting underway near Elie

I went out early on Louis Riel Day (February 15) to seek trains west of Winnipeg. It was about -20C – cold but not extreme – and fortunately there wasn’t a lot of wind. The sky was clear and blue, as it usually is at low temperatures.

I spotted the tail end of a CN container train leaving the city, and by the time I reached Elie, I saw it in the distance but I never quite caught up to it.

There were workers along one of the two tracks of the Rivers subdivision, fixing a track issue, so traffic was pinched onto one track in this area. The westbound train I had been chasing met an eastbound train just west of Elie, at Benard.

After the tail end of the westbound train passed, CN 5654 and partner started to pull. In the cold their exhaust gave them a semblance of a steam locomotive.

Just like a steam engine
Just like a steam engine

I decided to chase them to Dacotah. On the way, I pulled off to the shoulder to grab a few side shots of the train as it continued to accelerate toward Winnipeg.

Side shot
Side shot

I handily beat them to Dacotah and set up near the crossing. Here they are passing the signals at mile 25.1, right at the crossing in town.

CN 5654 rolling past the mile 25.1 signal
CN 5654 rolling past the mile 25.1 signal

Here’s the video I took.

CN 5654 East at Dacotah

It was a relatively short train.

Planning for Winter

CN has a winter plan where they spell out how they are going to keep rolling those trains. CP has its own plan.

The most interesting part of the plan to me is on page 19, where they spell out the maximum train lengths permitted at various ambient air temperatures. They start shortening trains at -25C (-13F) and they get progressively shorter as the temperature drops. The main reason for this is because at colder temperatures various components of the air brake system leak, so they can’t maintain air brake pressure on a long train.

For example, at -31C CN is in “Tier 2” where the maximum length of a conventional train (all engines on front) is 5000 feet, and a DPU-equipped train‘s maximum length is 7500 feet. If they add more air sources – locomotives or distributed braking cars – the train can be longer.

Off to CP

CP 9628 leading the charge
CP 9628 leading the charge

Back to the story. I returned to Elie and headed north to the CP main line at Marquette. I hung around for a bit, hoping for a train, and saw nothing. Eventually I decided to head east toward Winnipeg.

Soon I saw a headlight in the distance. I pulled off and set up not far out of Marquette to record CP 9628 West. As I was waiting for the train to arrive, a friendly CP foreman pulled over to let me know there were three westbound trains in total. Very nice of him to do so!

I photographed the approaching train, then turned to record them approaching the “high green” signal at the east end of the Marquette siding.

High Green
High Green

There were five locomotives on the front end, including one “ECO” unit. I suspect that locomotive was dropped off in Portage la Prairie to do local switching tasks. There was a block of “reefer” refrigerator cars that likely would be dropped off too, for McCain and Simplot in the Portage area.

This train had a distributed power unit (DPU), aka a locomotive in the middle of the train.

The DPU on the way
The DPU on the way

Here’s the video of that train.

After the train passed, I packed up and continued east toward Winnipeg, keeping an eye out for another westbound train. Near Meadows, I spotted it.

The Second Westbound

Next, CP 9781 West
Next, CP 9781 West, at mile 19

I caught the second westbound CP train at mile 19 of the CP Carberry subdivision, which is basically the middle of the Meadows siding. This train only had two locomotives on the head end; one of them was CP 7039, one of the bright red SD70ACu rebuilt locomotives.

This train also had a mid-train locomotive, and a lot of CSX hopper cars too.

CP 9731 as the DPU
CP 9731 as the DPU

The tail end of the train rolled off westward…

Tail end
Tail end

Whither the Third Westbound?

Building the loop track
Building the loop track

I continued west through Rosser to the Viterra grain elevator just west of the Perimeter Highway. Here crews were hard at work in the bitter cold, building a loop track for the new grain elevator that is under construction there.

There isn’t much above ground for the new elevator yet. I believe the foundation work has been going on for some time, and there will be visible progress soon. The loop track construction is a good sign that things are progressing well.

The current Viterra grain elevator at Rosser
The current Viterra grain elevator at Rosser

Viterra already has a grain elevator near Rosser, and the new elevator will be more or less “behind” it in relation to the CP main line. The current elevator has a few linear tracks but no loop track, and it has a capacity of 6,760 tonnes while the new one will store 34,000 tonnes of grain.

I never did see that third westbound train! I waited around for 20 minutes or so, then headed home. I’m sure it was coming but I didn’t have time to wait longer.

Just One More Thing

I read The Darkhouse by Barbara Radecki this past weekend. This is a page-turner! This mystery is set on a small New Brunswick island and features Gemma, a 15-year old girl who lives with her father, an amateur scientist. Her life is pretty boring, but the arrival of a young woman to the island sets events in motion that change Gemma’s life forever.

This isn’t a book I would normally read, but I wanted to read it because I contributed a bit of information about trains in New Brunswick to the author. I don’t want to say any more than that – read the book. It’s good.

You can visit the author’s web site for places to buy the book.

6 thoughts on “The Trains Must Roll”

  1. “It was about -20C – cold but not extreme”… ha! That’s record cold in my adopted home. Much appreciated that the railfan bloggers also roll, to entertain and educate their readers (had no idea that temperature affects train length, for example).

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff, temperature is all relative, I guess. I would feel like expiring in +40C humid weather, but I’m OK with -20C as long as it’s not too windy.

      Reply

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