Sunday, October 23, 2016

Railfanning Central Maine & Quebec Railway and Orford Express

Just a few years ago, taking such a blurred shot of a locomotive on ex-CPR Short Line between Maine and Quebec would have been impossible. But things are starting to change at a speedy pace over the venerable main line under Central Maine & Quebec Railway's tenure. It was time for us to pay a visit to that scenic road. For fans of Mike Confalone's Allagash Railway, CMQ is probably the closest thing actually in existence that reflects his fantasy miniature world.

CMQ #1 running at 25MPH in Cookshire, Quebec, October 15th 2016

Day 1 

Last weekend was an occasion to do some railfanning in group with long time friends. In fact, such an activity didn't take place since a few years with that "lineup". On the first day, Louis-Marie Huot, André-Pierre Savard aka "le p'tit gars à sa mère" (his mother's little boy), Mathieu Gosselin and I railfanned the Central Maine & Quebec Railway between the now infamous Lac-Mégantic and Sherbrooke.

This used to be Lac-Mégantic downtown, October 15th 2016

Most of them didn't railfan the area since the disaster and didn't yet visit the place after the disaster that killed 47 persons.

A "Blue Barn" leading CMQ #1 at Milan, Quebec, October 15th 2016

The sky was bright, the autumn colors were fantastic and the when we learned it would be the inaugural run of ex-CP "red barns" in the new CMQ paint scheme, we bolted to Lac-Mégantic.

CMQ #1 and railfans near Bury, October 15th 2016
CMQ #1 and railfans in action near Bury, October 15th 2016

While I had some reservation about the paint scheme, I must admit seeing it in real life is truly impressive since we were used to see a bunch of patched and heavily weathered locomotives on this road for over 15 years.

An ex-UP tunnel locomotive near Bury, October 15th 2016

When we reached Nantes (we the runaway train originated), we met Frank Jolin, a well-known railfan in the area and followed him until the sun set in Milan, Bury, Scotstown and Cookshire. By the time the train reached Sherbrooke, it was pitch black dark but we still followed the train. There, the Orford Express was readying itself to depart for Magog. During little chat at the ex-CP station with Donald Thompson, the famous OE conductor, we learned three trains were actually moving westward: a CMQ local, Orford Express and the train we've been chasing since noon.

The brick chimney landmark at Scotstown... I shoot half-a-second too soon...
We catched glimpses of the trains while criss-crossing Sherbrooke's streets for an hour then settle down at the hotel for the next day of activity.

CMQ #1 climbing the grade at Cookshire enroute to Sherbrooke, October 15th 2016

Some motive power resting at ex-CP Sherbrooke station

Day 2

On Sunday, other railfans in route for a trip in Pennsylvania joined us aboard the Orford Express for a gastronomic excursion in the dome car between Eastman. Among them was Jean-François Boudreau (Modèle B.T.) and his girlfriend, Dannick Fournier and Maxime Boulé. Saying the event was a funny one would be a serious understatement since you can't expect anything serious coming out of these people when you gather them together!

Orford Mountain overlooking Memphremagog Lake in Magog, October 16th 2016

It was personally my first time travelling aboard Orford Express and I must admit I was surprised by the quality of the experience and food served on board. No wonder this touristic train is still running strong after a decade of existence. In fact, they now own a ship cruising on Memphremagog Lake and acquired a large hotel. They are also planning to add new cars to the train which sounds promising.

Orford Express FL-9 and Budd car under the rain, October 16th 2016
When the train excursion was back to Magog at 5:45 PM, the railfan group going to Pennsylvania left while Mathieu and Dannick stayed with us. Donald Thompson having promised to dine with us on that day decided to give us an exclusive glimpse at the train. We visited every small spaces including kitchen, control cab, preparation room and much more. Then Thompson decided to show us the extremely complex series of tasks required to shut down the train for the night. This is a ritual he is doing almost every night and that take at least one hour and half.

Orford Express FL-9 nose, Magog, October 16th 2016

This procedure is of major importance to Orford Express because it could mean the train wouldn't be able to start the next morning, causing costly losses to the company and a hard blow to its outstanding reputation. Moreover, the fine exotic wood interiors are extremely prone to temperature and humidity variations. He shown us a spot where extensive damage to a wood panel was caused by the morning sun overheating the car stainless shell because the ventilation was accidentally shut down one night. In a matter of less than 3 hours, the panelling fireproof finish was ruined, turning grey.

Orford Express Dome Car fine interior, October 16th 2016

Donald Thompson was also extremely generous in his time answering our various questions and showing us the mechanical details of his nice EMD FL-9 which work decidedly like a clock. After closing the gates, we had a long discussion with Thomson at a local restaurant about the origins of Orford Express, CMQ tenure of the old CPR short line and François Rebello's future train between Montréal and Boston. Time went fast and at 10 PM, we parted ways. It was time to go back to Quebec City.

Central Maine Quebec Railway

A lot have been said about CMQ, including many seasoned railfans making the most ludicrous and gloomy predictions about the absence of future for this line. I had the occasion to railfan MMA a month before Megantic disaster when it was pathetic state of disrepair and trying to make up for losses by carrying crude. Then I went in the area last year during springtime when CMQ was trying to revive the line. What I saw last weekend was a different story.

MMA mainline full of weed near Scotstown back in May 3rd, 2013

First, long gone were MMA chipped rails and full of weed tracks. What I witnessed was a fine looking regional carrier with well-maintained tracks. Near Bury, a stretch of track I was familar with now had clearly visible superelevation showing the intention to run fast there.

CMQ well-maintained and superelevated mainline near Bury, October 15th 2016

The train we chased had well over 50 cars of various commodities. Locomotives were in good order and two of them sported the company's colors. Railroad crossing were improved in some places.

A boxcar patched for CMQ in Nantes, Quebec, October 15th 2016

Many will say CMQ didn't have the choice to step up its game if it wanted to get social acceptance after the disaster. But what I witnessed tells me a story of a company that is investing in its future. Will CMQ succeed were many others failed? That a thought question to answer, but John Giles was definitively the man needed to set things straight back on the Short Line. I hope him the best since he is doing a fine job of bringing railways back in the 21st century game. So far, his 25MPH trains testify of the great changes going on there.

Should I point out railfans unanimously said that day the Short Line was back being one of the finest railfanning experience in Quebec.


  1. Looks and sounds like a great time! I never railfanned in that area but it would be great to see the red (turquoise) barns in action!

    You can't go wrong standing next to Frank Jolin!

    1. Steve, Frank knows is trade better than any. While I have a good grasp of nice spots on that line, he was always selecting the right angle and lighting condition. A very nice fellow and itwas fun to finally meet the man behind the pictures. We also encountered another fellow railfan from Newport, Vermont at Cookshire. He made a special trip to see the blue barn.

      As forme, I prefer to enjoy the trip and watch the train, leaving better photographers document it.

      If you have the chance to see CMQ in action someday, take it! Eastern Townships + Trains = you can't get wrong!