Confessions of a Railfan

To the railways themselves, we are generally another set of eyes trackside, helping to keep things running smoothly.

September 19, 2018 | Leisure

The recent changes to the Orangeville-Brampton Railway and the Credit Valley Explorer are of particular interest to me, as I am a self-proclaimed railfan, and I can trace it back to the specific, date time and location it all started.

La Platta, MO – watching the transcontinental US mainline; 75 to 85 freight trains a day moving merchandise between California, Chicago and all points between. Photo by Brandon Muir.

La Platta, MO – watching the transcontinental US mainline; 75 to 85 freight trains a day moving merchandise between California, Chicago and all points between. Photo by Brandon Muir.

September 11, 2001. A date in history now, but it was my second day as a truck driver, something I continue in a modified capacity to this day. I was making a delivery to a farm in Caledon, and was surprised to find a set of rusty train tracks across their private driveway. Mr. Steve Revell of Erin taught me all about the abandoned train tracks of Caledon in 1992, while I was sitting in Grade 7 history at Caledon Central. On this day I briefly wracked my brain trying to remember which tracks these may have been when headlights popped from the bush and rolled toward me. The air horn blasted the now familiar long-long-short-long pattern for a level crossing, and CCGX # 1000, the “Pride of Orangeville,” rolled by, dragging behind it empty tanker and pellet cars destined for refill.

It all started right then and there.

From there I discovered the entire length of the OBRY, bought my first camera, and found the CP mainline in the very eastern part of Caledon (the trains that could be heard at my childhood farm in Sleswick, but only if rain was in the forecast). From there it has continued to grow:

  • La Grange, KY – where the trains run right down the main street of town.
  • La Platta, MO – watching the transcontinental US mainline; 75 to 85 freight trains a day moving merchandise between California, Chicago and all points between.
  • Old Fort, NC – watching trains climb the spiral loops.
  • Dundas, ON – listening to the 12,000 combined horsepower of the locomotives being dragged down to 3 mph as they climb the Niagara Escarpment; the same scene repeated daily as the trains travel westbound through Campbellville.
La Grange, KY – where the trains run right down the main street of town. Photo by Brandon Muir.

La Grange, KY – where the trains run right down the main street of town. Photo by Brandon Muir.

As I read the article “Staying on Track” in the autumn 2018 issue of In The Hills, about what a railfan is, I was lying in my RV trailer in Douglas, Wyoming, halfway through a two-week journey across the US Midwest, including Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming. Train traffic in that area is down from its record highs of ten years ago, but still worth the trip for anyone with an interest. The Powder River Coal Basin still ships 50 or so trains of coal a day to the hungry furnaces of the world, and seeing trains with a hundred-plus cars being moved by four, five or even six locomotives is impressive, regardless of which side of the energy debate you’re on.

Old Fort, NC – watching trains climb the spiral loops. Photo by Brandon Muir.

Old Fort, NC – watching trains climb the spiral loops. Photo by Brandon Muir.

My camera is never far away from me, which serves me both good and bad. Many a rail employee has seen my camera and stopped to make conversation, occasionally granting me access beyond the reach of the general public. On the other hand, twice in two days a year ago, I was perched on a perfectly legal public vantage point in Palgrave, Ontario, and was asked to produce ID and explain my intentions – once to an OPP officer and once to a conservation officer, who was acting on a complaint, mistaking me for a hunter. Both encounters ended well, with my commitment to the officers to report any truly illegal activity I might observe. However, in a post 9/11 world, it’s not uncommon for railfans to have to explain their usually harmless intentions.

Palgrave, Ontario. Photo by Brandon Muir.

Palgrave, Ontario. Photo by Brandon Muir.

To the railways themselves, we are generally another set of eyes trackside, helping to keep things running smoothly. I have both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific police numbers in my phone, and I have reported trespassers, debris on the tracks, rail cars dragging equipment, and faulty crossings. There is, however, a small percentage of those intent on mischief, including trespassing (walking on the tracks, climbing signal towers), which I strongly speak out against.

Final run: Old School Road Caledon, Ontario. Photo by Brandon Muir.

Final run: Old School Road Caledon, Ontario. Photo by Brandon Muir.

The end of the Cando-OBRY relationship encouraged me to get back trackside to a railway I had largely grown tired of and forgotten. The few times I was able to get out between the announcement of the end and the final run I was reminded just how lucky I was to have the OBRY so close to me, and how I met Cando engineer Steve Bradley so many years ago – and how he was one who, just through pleasant interaction, encouraged me to pursue the hobby.

Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Brandon Muir.

Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Brandon Muir.

Probably the best story I have from all these years was from the period of my really intense train pursuit (also during the part-time employment, pre-mortgage days of my life) when I was a regular sight trackside for the OBRY crew. One crisp fall morning, I was perched high on the walls at the Forks of the Credit, not far from the site of the limestone kiln, set up for a beautiful shot of the massive trestle with the train crossing over it. The train slowed for the speed restriction and as it passed me, the locomotive cab window slid open and Steve Bradley hollered out, “Get a life!”

Comer, Georgia. Photo by Brandon Muir.

Comer, Georgia. Photo by Brandon Muir.

So many years later now, I find myself and my about-to-be-two-year-old trackside some evenings, just enjoying each other’s company and doing what dads and sons do. No different from hunting, fishing, car racing, sports, or whatever else you do to escape into some personal unwind time – any time spent with those who are likeminded is memorable time. And for those of you wondering, what does my wife do during these thousand-mile journeys to all points of the continent? She’s quite a willing passenger, content to read and watch the miles roll by. I have learned, however, during our travels if the words “Oh, look, a cemetery” come from the passenger seat, I best be finding the brake pedal, regardless if that means missing the next train or not.

Walter watching the final Credit Valley Explorer run through the railings of the bridge at the Cataract bridge. Just after this image was made engineer Steve Bradley gave on quick blast on the horn. It made me jump about a foot in the air, Walter only laughed! Photo by Brandon Muir.

Walter watching the final Credit Valley Explorer run through the railings of the bridge at the Cataract bridge. Just after this image was made engineer Steve Bradley gave on quick blast on the horn. It made me jump about a foot in the air, Walter only laughed! Photo by Brandon Muir.

I was one of the trackside photographers furiously documenting the OBRY’s last days, and I have included some of those images as well as others from some of the locations I mention here.


Brandon Muir is a railfan and previous contributor to In The Hills. He lives in Grand Valley.

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