Sunday, June 26, 2016

Railfanning Roberval Saguenay Railway

Yesterday was an excellent occasion to railfan Roberval Saguenay Railway located in Saguenay City, Quebec. This industrial shortline is operated by Rio Tinto Alcan and serves 4 aluminium plants located with a 25 miles areas. Rio Tinto receives its raw material in La Baie harbour (formerly known as Port-Alfred) were large sea vessels find extensive unloading facilities there on the head of Saguenay Fjord. The railway mainly carry alumine, bauxite, coal, oil, chemicals and large aluminium lingots.

La Baie harbour (Saguenay)

It is interesting to note that the original charter of Quebec Montmorency & Charlevoix Railway was supposed to reach Saguenay and connect with Quebec & Lake St. John Railway. Noteworthy is the fact both lines were built in the same years by Horace Jansen Beemer and both were supposed to be originating from the same station in Quebec City. Had it been completed, it would have made one continuous loop around the Laurentian Mountains and would have probably made one of the most scenic railway in North American.

Several factors prevented this to happen. First, Q&LSt.J railhead never reached La Baie. It was merged into Canadian Northern a few years later and the connection to the depth water harbour only happened later as an industrial railway. On the other side, QM&C never extended beyond St. Joachim and only later the project was revived by Rodolphe Forget how originally founded the first pulp mill in Clermont. He would build the line from St. Joachim to Clermont, however, the difficult terrain and topography made the endeavour a thought one. Since the terrain was getting worst toward Saguenay river and that the fjord itself was the most unsuitable place to build a railway, the line never reached its original terminal.

With all that said, we left Quebec City at 7:30 in the morning and reached La Baie at 10:00 after casually driving at different railfanning key spots we would later visit again. The most impressive feature of this short railway is an impressive horseshoe curve climbing a very steep gradient. At this point, the track leaves the low lands of Mars River to reach a higher plateau on which the aluminium plants are located. Just to give you an idea, within about 5 miles you have a deep water harbour, a highway overpass over a yard, a small yard, a multiple span steel bridge, a tunnel under a road, a horseshoe curve with a wye located within it and a very steep gradient where you can see the train crawl on a cut made on the hills. That's quite impressive and given the fact the train pulled loaded cars (between 20 to 30 cars) against the hill make a very nice and classic sight. To be truth, this section of the line could make a very fine medium-sized layout with a wonderful stretch of main line.

Now, let's tour the key features of the railway in La Baie area. The first sport is a small storage yard located on the shore of the bay. This is where the QM&C (CN Murray Bay Subdivision) should have connected.

Roberval Saguenay owns many cars including these interesting bulheak flat cars used to ship aluminium lingots. They can be seen on CN Lake St. John Subvision quite often. They would make an interesting kitbashing or scratchbuilding project.

The highway overpass is strategically located over the harbour trackage. Not only it is a legal and safe railfanning spot, but the vantage point is excellent to see every aspect of operation in this area. Several bauxite and alumine warehouse and conveyor can be seen in the back. It must be noted the dust seems to be extremely corrosive and we observed severe weathering in the harbour area but also near the four aluminium plants. However, it must be noted RS property is neat and very well-maintained at Class I levels I had say.

At left there is a long oil unloading platform. Most of it didn't seem to be in used recently because the rails were heavily rusted.

The brown building in the middle is the railway offices. Coal gondolas await to be picked up by out train in the center background.

Some shots of the oil platform.

 The platform was lenghtened at some point in its history.

This is a general shot of the yard throat on the other side of the overpass (looking west toward Mars river). Notice the other oil (mazout) platform at right. This one is in frequent use. You'll notice most switches on Roverval Saguenay are remote controlled and heated, even on industrial siding. This make operations simpler and faster. The morning train we followed was built within less than 15 minutes. Very little time was wasted between moves and the locomotives were almost always running at a steady pace. As Louis-Marie summed it up, it was at "layout pace".

Almost under the overpass is a neat little brick mazout pumphouse by the reservoirs dyke.

The reservoirs are medium-sized and covered with corrugated steel. The weathering pattern is nice and these reservoirs could be easily bashed with cardboard tubes and finely corrugated cardboard found in art store at a very budget price.

Regarding the train we followed, it was pulled by a consist of 1 GE locomotive and 2 geeps. While they may look dirty from above, they were quite clean when seen from a normal angle. Their bright paint scheme makes them extremely easy to spot in the landscape when railfanning. The train itself was made of nine coal gondolas, four tank cars and seventeen cylindrical hoppers for a total of 30 cars. On the picture, the right spur leads to the storage yard by the bay.

The overpass was an excellent spot to make good roof shots. Weathering locomotives and cars roofs is hard when you don't have reliable sources of information. I thought it would nice to document that for the reader's sake. Here's the GE unit in all its glory. Note how the grimy weathering occurs on EVERY horizontal surface. Also, very clean and very dirty areas are quite contrasting and show that a coat of weathering should done in a uniform fashion.

Here are the coal (or coke?) gondolas with their extended  sides. It may sounds strange, but it was the first time in my life I ever witnessed a real coal (or coke) load moving on a railway! The large hydroelectric ressources of Quebec made coal almost irrelevant in La Belle Province since the late 50s and early 60s. You only see it in some industrial processes. To me, this very common fuel is among the most alien commodity you can think of!

The next shot is taken from about half a mile from the harbour. I was standing on the sidewalk of the road over the short tunnel. You can see Mars river bridge in the background at left.

An other shot from the tunnel road. Mard river can be seen at right. Unfortunately, the fields are now longer in culture and this railfan spot will be gone within two decades. Vegetation grow should never be underestimated. Many beautiful landscapes are only possible with agriculture keeping the panorama open.

 The tunnel was also another great railfanning spot and I though it would be a nice idea to shot cylindrical hopper roofs for the sake of weathering reference. Note the diversity of weathering pattern on the same batch of cars. Many of them are ex-Canpotex cars and you can see a ghost of the original lettering behing the grey paint.

After this point, the train sped up to gather momentum to climb the gradient of Mars river valley at horseshoe curve. From this point out, we chased the train and had very little time to stop en route. Roberval Saguenay may be a shortline, but forget about slow crawling trains. This is an efficient company with a signaled mainline (they use customized road signals for that purpose). It was almost impossible to take pictures at the horseshoe curve wye or on the grade. These are very photogenic spots but one have to carefully plan his shots ahead because there's no second chance and you can't railfan every spots in one chase.

I'd like to show some horseshow curves because the area have a feeling of West Virginia and other appalachian coal roads.

After a few miles we reach a large plant in Jonquières (Via Rail and CN terminal). Our train quickly left its cars in the yard and within a matter of a few seconds (not minutes!) a switcher picked up the cars and started to spot them. In a matter of 10 minutes, each car was spotted! If you look carefully, you can see the Montreal-bound VIA Rail train parked on a siding in the foreground at right.

Jonquières used to have extensive railway facilities including shops and a turntable. From that busy past remain an old turntable rotting in the middle of an industrial wasteland. It was still in use a few years ago to turn VIA Rail dome cars. While the wood ties are seriously rotten, an almost brand-new (let's say no more than 5 years old) motorization mechanism power the turntable.

 Nearby, there is one of those boring and spartan modern railway shops. While a ugly in real life, this building would make a very neat structure on any modern layout. The size is just right.

Unfortunately for us, we didn't see other trains that day. While Roberval Saguenay is usually a very busy line, it was Saturday... just after Quebec's national holiday thus it probably explained the very limited amount of activity. Nevertheless, what we saw was worth the 500 km round trip we did as the weather was fine (except a few local storms in Saguenay) and the Laurentian landscape inspiring.

Also, the Roberval Saguenay line is just like the Raspberry Branch in Eastern Township. Wild berries grow all over the place, including raspberries, will cherries, strawberries and  even gooseberries (my favourite). Only the strawberries were ripe for consumption . however they were excellent and among the largest wild strawberries I ever say in my life, some averaging almost 3/4 inches in lenght.

On the return trip to Quebec City, we decided to take a more obscure backwood road commonly called "la Route du Petit Parc" (The Little Park Road in reference to Laurentides National Park). This is a road linking La Baie to Baie-Saint-Paul and crossing some of the most impressive Laurentian Mountains including Parc des Grands Jardins. Mountain lakes and steep cliffs covered in pinetrees dominate the landscape while the road twist in the most improbable ways to cross water divide of several rivers including Malbaie River were Donohue gets its wood. More than once we encountered steep grade over 18% and sharp curves... I would definitely not drive there in bad weather.

Unfortunately, pictures utterly fail to represent the sheer majesty of this mighty landscape.

A typical landscape on Le Petit Parc road looking downward a 18% grade.
Next destination? Maybe Northern Maine in autumn along the CPR Moosehead Subdivision better known nowadays as the Central Maine & Québec Railway.


  1. Great trip report! That little railway looks very interesting indeed.

    1. Steve, I would definitely put it on my must see list in Quebec. Lots of action in a small package.

  2. Great chase Matt - love the photos and surroundings.

    1. Greg, it was really a perfect day for railfanning and the railway is fun to follow in its entirety. I only wish I could have taken picture at the horseshoe curve.

      Next trip is scheduled to be in Northern Maine and maybe New Brunswick.