Originally published in May 2005
by Edgar J. Lavoie ©
Part 1 – Longlac to Geraldton
There is some question about when the last run occurred on the CN’s Kinghorn Subdivision. Canadian National Railway Company (known as CN) has effectively closed the railway line between Longlac and Nipigon as of Sunday, May 15, 2005.
On a normal work day, one freight train heads west towards Jellicoe, and then later one heads east towards Longlac. On Sunday evening, around 8:30, Jim Marino, in Geraldton, observed what he termed a “work train” – the only train observed that day – pulling 25 empty cars that transport rails. It was headed west towards Jellicoe. About an hour later, Mrs. Laurenn Creese, in Jellicoe, was surprised to hear a train pulling in from the east. She believed that the last trains had passed through the day before, on May 14.
Earlier that week, I had received permission to ride the train. I picked Thursday, May 12, it being the only sunny day forecast until the following week. I took along a digital camcorder to document the trip.
I met the train at Longlac station at 1:30 p.m.; the two engines uncoupled from the cars and proceeded to put together another string of cars. I spent two hours observing and recording the shunting operations in the yard of Longlac Wood Industries (LWI). As he walked about the yard, Mike Rocnik, the conductor, directed the locomotive engineer, Ken Braden, and the brakeman, Dave Hughson (also on foot), by mobile radio.
Mike Rocnik had written orders from his home terminal, Hornepayne, with regard to which numbered car was to be “pulled” (become part of the train) and which was to be “spotted” (parked in a specific place in the yard). It was a complicated operation. Imagine, for example, if a car to be pulled was located in the middle of another string of cars, some of which had to be spotted in different locations.
The brakeman, Dave Hughson, threw the switches by hand to direct the engine along particular spurs, and oversaw the coupling and uncoupling of cars. The engineer, Ken Braden, was responsible for giving appropriate signals (whistle or bells) to traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian.
Finally, with my luminescent vest and safety glasses, I climbed aboard engine No. 5257 and ensconced myself in a swivel chair between the conductor on my left and the engineer on my right. The brakeman took position in the second engine, No. 5255, which was pointed east. At 3:50 p.m., the train moved slowly west. It moved at slow speed under the overpass, which was under construction, past the switch that directed trains north to Nakina, and past Long Lake Reserve 58 to the south.
When we entered the bush, the speed picked up. From the vantage of the cab, the tracks looked very narrow. The bush closed in on the elevated roadbed, and one strained one’s eyes to peer around every bend in the rails. If a moose or a man had stepped out on the tracks, there would have been a collision.
The speed was a mere 30 miles per hour – all railways in North America measure distance and weight using the Imperial system. Beside the track, on the engineer’s side of the train, black numbers on small white signboards marked off each mile from Longlac. Cruising speed on the line west from Longlac is mandated at 30 miles per hour. On the mainline through Nakina, the engineer guessed that it could be 50 miles per hour.
For most of the trip, Mike Rocnik, conductor, busied himself with paperwork. The train was pulling 64 cars (48 of them empty), weighed 5,011 tons, and stretched for 4,212 feet. Earlier, the train had brought to LWI a number of carloads of logs all the way from Sault Ste. Marie. It was now transporting one carload of logs from LWI to the Fort Frances area.
Part 2 – Geraldton to Jellicoe
After crawling through Geraldton, the CN freight proceeded west, speeding up to 30 mph again. Conductor Mike Rocnik put aside his paperwork, and offered me his window seat.
Ken Braden, the engineer, asked Rocnik to zap a lunch item in the microwave. No one on this trip used the toilet, located behind a narrow door a few steps below the cab floor. Braden had 32 years with CN, but had been working out of Hornepayne for only a year and a half. After this week, he hoped to transfer back to Halifax, his home.
Rocnik started with CN on May 29, 1990, acting as a crew dispatcher in Toronto. After a stint in the diesel shops, he became a brakeman in Thunder Bay in 1995, and a year later, a conductor. Before arriving in Hornepayne in February of this year, he did “road work” as a conductor in Edmonton, Toronto, and London. After this week, he hoped to go to London, and do either “switching” (yard work) or more road work.
We were riding in a General Motors engine, Model SD40-2W, 3,000 hp. From time to time I pointed the camcorder through the windows, trying to dampen the lurching of the engine by holding the camera. If I set the camera down, it vibrated. A tripod had proved useless.
Rocnik explained that a “pool” (a crew shift) works alternate days, with a start time each day that could vary from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Today they had started work at 7:45 a.m. in Hornepayne, and were aiming to get to Jellicoe by 5:45. If they worked more than ten hours without a break, they would be obliged to lay over in the CN’s “hotel” at Jellicoe for at least six hours.
At one point, the engine speeded up to around 40 mph, and I noted a sign for Zroback station where there was just more bush. My maps showed no such name. Apparently the cartographers have not caught up to CN’s nomenclature.
Rocnik resumed his seat and shuffled his papers again. During the trip, there were frequent radio messages that Rocnik and Braden had no trouble interpreting, but they were mysteries to me. Rounding the last curve before Jellicoe, the engineer cut back to 10 mph, for he had received notice of a section crew working on the tracks. However, the tracks were clear.
We passed the eastbound train, waiting on a siding, and our engine stopped precisely opposite the CN hotel, a one-story structure north of the tracks with bedrooms and kitchen facilities. The time was 5:45. This crew would not have to lay over, and once the necessary shunting was done, they would take over the eastbound and return to Hornepayne. The crew from Thunder Bay would take the westbound back to the city.
When did they expect to get home? “Hopefully before the bar closes,” quipped the brakeman, Dave Hughson. He had 15 years with CN, but this had been only his second run on the Kinghorn Subdivision. He had no idea where he was going to be posted next.
Hanging around the Jellicoe yard, I observed the shunting operations for about an hour and a half before my ride home appeared. I noted that the westbound train had a mixture of boxcars, tank cars, and what Rocnik told me were bulkhead cars for transporting material such as lumber and logs. Apparently many of the cars we had brought from Longlac were now being returned east – for what reasons I do not know – but it is apparent that there is still a lot I don’t know about railroading.
In a telephone interview with Graham Dallas, Regional Manager of Communications for Western Canada, I learned that the CN adopted a 3-year plan on December 6, 2004, to discontinue service on the Kinghorn Subdivision. This section of line runs from Longlac to Thunder Bay. December 6, 2005 is the earliest that CN can invite expressions of interest in purchasing the line, and the purchaser must express his interest by February 4, 2006, after which negotiations would commence.
Laurenn Creese in Jellicoe is managing the CN hotel. She said that her job was terminated as of the end of May. Meanwhile she is packing linen and cleaning out the premises, and a new padlock has already been installed on the door.
On Sunday evening, May 15, she had heard the westbound “straggler” arriving, and had seen a taxicab from Hornepayne “beat the train across the tracks”. It was picking up the crew to return them to Hornepayne. Some time later, a taxi arrived from Thunder Bay with the crew that would take the train to the city.
The only business in Geraldton affected by the line closure appears to be Pye Bros. Fuels Ltd., which used to get regular deliveries of 110,000 litres by tank car. According to Francine Larose, agent, the bulk fuel depot is now getting almost daily truck deliveries by a Thunder Bay contractor, 50,000 litres at a time. The agency itself has five trucks making local deliveries, each capable of holding 20,000 litres. She knew of no plans to reinstitute deliveries by rail.
Graham Dallas, the CN spokesman, said that the east-west trains from Thunder Bay will be handled by the Canadian Pacific Railway on the CP line. He made a point to mention that the trains will pass through Franz on runs to and from Toronto.
It is interesting to note that Franz, a ghost town near Dubreuiville, north of Wawa, intersects the Algoma Central Railway between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, and that the ACR intersects the CN line at Oba.
Jim Marino, railroading buff, reported that no trains have run since the Sunday the 15th. Graham Dallas stated that the last scheduled run on the Kinghorn Subdivision was indeed the run on May 15. It left Longlac at 1913 hours (7:13 p.m.) and arrived in Thunder Bay at 5.11 a.m. Monday morning.
So easily and so quietly does an era end.