Sunday, June 10, 2018

Trains & Grains: New books About Western Railways and the Grain Industry

After writing four books about VIA Rail—Trackside with VIA: The First 35 Years and Trackside with VIA: Cross-Canada Compendium, Trackside with VIA: Consist Companion and Trackside with VIA: Research & Recollection, Eric Gagnon has branched out on a different Canadian railway topic: Trains & Grains, Volumes 1 & 2.

In Volume 1, subtitled Trackside Observations in Manitoba 1976-1986, readers can see photos, data and text showcasing the observations Eric made on several trips to Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

Volume 2, subtitled Grain Elevators in Manitoba and Saskatchewan 1976-1986, covers the traditional wood grain elevators that were railway-served in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Many of them are now long gone.

I posed some questions to Eric about this new series.

Why did you write these books?

For a few reasons. I really enjoy the creative process, be it publishing a blog post weekly or these more infrequent projects on paper.  And I needed a fall and winter project that I could work on.  I decided to create Trains & Grains on the very day that my fourth book on VIA Rail was launched.

What motivated me to do this project was I had several years' worth of photos taken in Western Canada that I hadn't scanned nor shared yet on my Trackside Treasure blog. The Trains & Grains project would force me to finally get all these photo prints scanned and digitized.

This process was not only a pleasant diversion from the wintry weather, it also led me down memory lane reliving my railfanning days in Portage la Prairie.

Why that time period?

From the age of 12 to 22, I got hooked on visiting Western Canada. My aunt and uncle in Portage made a habit of hosting me and my siblings for vacations. While there, I was able to take many photos of trains.

In retrospect, it was a great time to be there. Those were years of great change to not only railway operations, but also grain industry operations ; the two are inextricably linked in the West.

After a long period of no change, the railways rehabilitated many branchlines and invested, along with the government, to keep grain moving. And even bigger changes were on the horizon, such as unit trains loaded at one high-throughput concrete elevators.

Did you have any help with the books?

In each of my book projects, I've made a point of bringing others into the fold—contributors whose expertise I respect and value. Each contributor adds more to a topic than I could alone.

For Trains & Grains, Mark Perry and Chuck Bohi provided photos to accompany the text pieces they contributed.

I'm also proud to include a foreword for each book from Winnipeg blogger and photographer Steve Boyko, and Randy O'Brien, who is modelling Portage la Prairie and doing some amazing modelling (although he lives in Niagara Falls).

How many photos are in the books?

I haven't counted the photos in the printed, finished product, but if anyone does care to count, there should be over 700 photos total!

Who are the books for?

For me, for a start. Like my blog, I am preserving photos and data in a form that I can easily access. If others can (and I hope they will) get something valuable from my efforts, so much the better!

For Trains & Grains, I set the bar rather low, anticipating ten such folks across Canada might be interested in owning a copy. For the most part, my early surveys indicated that readers who are interested in trains are indeed interested in grains, too.

What things might people surprising about trains and grains?

The linkage between railways and grain farming and marketing is a tight one. When I conceived this project, I naively thought that one book could contain all that I wanted to share. Though the material fit together well, I realized early on that the content was about to burst the covers.

As a result, I had to divide one book into two. There is no overlap between the two volumes, though I believe they complement each other. (Especially as they were intended to be only one book!)

How can this help someone who models the Canadian prairies?

There is not that much cohesive information available about what rolling stock was used on what train in the 1970s and 1980s. There are lots of stock photos available online, but specific details such as sample car numbers, and what type of train operated in what years, is not easy to find.

My books trace the transition from grain boxcars to the colourful cylindrical covered hoppers that are often called iconic items indicative of Canadian railroading. 

Though not a social history, my grain elevator photos place these purpose-built buildings in context with stations, other railway structures, towns, branchlines and yards. There is lots of material for modellers to mull over.

How have your previous books about VIA done?

They've done well! They are sold in Europe, the U.S. and across Canada. Over 1,200 copies have been purchased, all told. I am most proud that my books on VIA Rail have found their way into the hands of VIAphiles and VIA modellers, and that they help manufacturers such as Rapido Trains Inc. to make Canadian railway modelling achievable. 

Of course, much credit for this entire marketplace has to be given to Canadian Railway Modeller magazine for showing the world what we already knew: Canadian railroading is cool!

How much are the books? And how can they be ordered?

Each volume is available for $35, including shipping in a padded mailer to Canadian addresses. I'm committed to keeping pricing reasonable. For full ordering information, please see:

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