Living a mile away from CN's Cataraqui Spur, with its dubious record of recent derailments, it was not a surprise when CBC's Dan Taekama recently contacted me about his report (below). Dan's report was published on September 14, in the wake of an access-to-information request by CBC that garnered 22 pages of Transport Canada inspection reports of the Cataraqui Spur. At the time of the most recent Cataraqui Spur derailment, the third in as many years, Dan had interviewed me for background information on the condition of the track. Knowing how long it takes government agencies to provide information, I'm not surprised that it's already four months later!
Back in May, I expected CN to initiate a maintenance blitz with new ballast, a major tie program and surfacing, maybe heavier rail installation, and a new trestle north of Bath Road. Only by pouring money into the infrastructure on the spur would CN stop pouring chemicals and cars heading to Invista into sensitive wetlands, and perhaps onto bystanders and vehicles waiting at level crossings.
The spur runs between the CN Kingston Subdivision mainline and the Invista nylon plant on Lake Ontario, crossing the Little Cataraqui Creek and wetlands by at least four trestle bridges. Dan's reporting shows that CN knowingly ignored deteriorating conditions in the structure and condition of the trestle over the Cataraqui Creek. No plan, monitoring or ongoing evaluation of its capacity and condition was in place. Transport Canada safety inspectors raised 40 points, 32 of which dealt with signals and level crossings, four with track, and four with the bridge.
And who knew the trestle involved in the most recent derailment is scheduled for repair this November...
A 2020 underwater report did not meet the standard of CN's own Bridge Safety Management Plan (BSMP), but remained without follow-up by CN. Following the derailment, another underwater inspection this year did not deal with the condition of the riverbed, nor the lack of sampling of the wooden bridge supports. However, a 2022 inspection by CN noted some bridge bents were in poor condition at that time.
A 2022 CN inspection rated some bents — the piles and base that support a bridge over water — near Bath Road as being in poor condition, according to Transport Canada. CN performed subsequent inspections in November, 2022 and March, 2023. Indeed, Transport Canada noted that CN was not following its own BSMP reporting or recordkeeping standards.
Not surprisingly, CN provided little information for media requestors, giving a boiler-plate answer about regular inspections and prompt action when issues are identified on its network. Following the derailment, CN said (and it's OK to cover both ears, and repeatedly say "la-la-la-la-la" as you read the following because that's the response that this carefully-crafted corporate clap-trap deserves) that the railway has completed a "thorough exploration" of the track structure using its automated technology, replaced railway ties, added crushed rock to the rail bed and made other repairs.
Really? I routinely drive over the level crossings on the Cataraqui Spur and all I've seen is a single pass by a brush-cutter on both sides of the spur. Perhaps this was to satisfy Transport Canada requirements for visibility at crossings (also making it easier for the clean-up crews to reach derailment sites!)
Dan reports that four months after the derailment, "..it's still not clear whether the bridge collapse caused the cars to crash, or if it was the derailment that caused the bridge to break. Transport Canada said it has received CN's response to its inspection, including corrective actions, but those changes are considered businesses decisions, so it cannot share further information."
Business decisions? I greet that with derision. I'll be listening for the rumble of heavy equipment and the buzz of track gangs as further evidence of CN's maintenance blitz on the spur, and its bridge repairs supposedly scheduled for this fall. In the meantime, I decided to do my own, citizen's track inspection of the upper part of the Cataraqui Spur. Not wanting to have a blog post about my interaction with a CN Police constable, I limited my photographic vantage points to the four public access points/level crossings: Centennial Drive, Armstrong Road, Tanner Drive and Gardiners/Golden Mile Road.
Centennial Drive looking east toward Armstrong Road behind Frontenac Mall (above) with evidence of a rail changeout. Looking west there is evidence of tie replacement at some point....in the past. The 'new' ties only look 'new' because the old ties are so bleached, like the bones of a whale skeleton on some long-forgotten seashore.The small-size ballast looks too undistrubed for it to be recent tie replacement.
A camera zoom view looking up the grade to the mainline. There is a trestle mid-way. Look at those joints!
Armstrong Road looking west toward Centennial Drive behind the Riverstone Apartments. Miscellaneous track materials and a low joint (blue arrow - above). Looking east toward the long trestle, aka the derailment site, this Armstrong Road-Bath Road stretch has had special attention. The ballast has been groomed, but the grooming ends just before the crossing.
A camera zoom view shows a rise up to the west end of the trestle (blue arrows).
Tanner Drive camera zoom view looking east to Centennial Drive behind Arbour Heights Long Term Care Home. A rise up to the trestle, stretch of new ties mid-way but again...those joints!
Looking just east of the Tanner Drive crossing (above) it appears the weeds are overtaking the ballast. Looking west toward Gardiners Road (below) there's that small, granular ballast again! The switch takes the spur to the right, up to the mainline connection at Mi 178.0 Kingston Sub, with the team track, runaround and CN compound to the left of the cellphone antenna tower, which is on the flight path for Kingston airport runway Two-Five.
Notice the run-off allowance and culvert at left in the camera zoom view (below) with a substantial tie pile (double-ended blue arrow at right) perhaps from the derailment clean-up in May.
The scene at the CN compound (fibre-optic installation, team tracks and runaround track) at the top of the Cataraqui Spur. This is located at the end of Golden Mile Road off Gardiners Road. Three track machines, a CN equipment mechanic and an excavator right were here for some reason. I'm guessing for the Cataraqui Spur maintenance blitz, but maybe more likely mainline maintenance!
Knox Kershaw KSF 940 ballast regulator (above) and Harsco Mark IV HD production/switch tamper (below).
CN mechanic working on what looks like a Railavator:
My citizen's track inspection report reveals little evidence of what CN claims it has done, except perhaps at the derailment site at the long trestle north of Bath Road! Although professional railroaders will say the branchline trackage is safe for the expected train speed of 5-10 mph, I would suggest that for thrice-weekly CN service to a regular shipper of chemicals, through a protected wetland, with a regrettable record of disastrous derailments, this is NOT the best CN can do and definitely does not bear out its claims of adequate, recent maintenance.
Thanks to Dan Taekama not only for the link he sent, the tenacity of his reporting, and for keeping this important story in the local news headlines!
While this post includes my modest efforts at documenting railway infrastrucutre, here's a nice page of vintage Portage la Prairie, MB post cards here. It's always been an important railway and grain-handling point! Closer to home, Kingston photographer Paul Wash has been very busy prolifically preserving for posterity a plethora of Kingston construction projects, including the John Counter Boulevard overpass.
Paul kindly 'gifted' me with his Dad's copy of Ralph Beaumont's excellent book on the heretofore-unknown photography of Grant Heckman. I already spent one afternoon immersed in Heckman's documenting of CPR infrastructure, and I'm looking forward to many more. Thanks, Paul! (As the author recounts, the prolific photographer of long ago did NOT photograph the CPR's Kingston & Pembroke Railway!)