For two young rail fans, touring a servicing hub that helps keep GO Transit trains on track was an experience worth getting excited about. Especially as they spotted what they consider, a very rare find.
As some of their friends while away hours playing Fortnite, adding to the half-billion views for Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ music video or Instagramming their breakfast, teenagers Jake Hill and Willem F. are busy tracking a different pastime – ‘railfanning’.
How dedicated are the two 15-year-olds to a hobby that’s older than the first recorded automobile?
Together, they maintain two separate YouTube channels – one sponsored – that pay tribute to their pastime, are active in their ‘Young Modellers of Durham’ train club, have dedicated train rooms in their respective homes, and regularly hunt down locomotives and pieces of rail equipment as a joint-adventure.
Neither is totally sure what originally got them interested in all things rail-related. But after sharing photos and chatting about trains on Instagram a couple years ago, they decided to meet up in person in the hopes of outdoing one other with train knowledge. Instead, they became locomotive-fast friends.
On a recent summer morning, after commuting from homes in Scarborough and Ajax, Jake and Willem checked off a coveted and relatively rare accomplishment for rail enthusiasts – a guided tour of the Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility.
Metrolinx uses two massive service facilities to tend to the entire GO Transit rail fleet – the Willowbrook complex and another dedicated location in Whitby. Usually off-limits to GO customers – many of whom pass by them every day – the yards are used to park, service, fuel, clean and maintain dozens of GO locomotives and hundreds of coaches on a regular basis.
Outfitted in full personal protective equipment, and under the watch of Richard Wolfsgruber, Equipment Officer for GO Transit, the teens got up close to a locomotive at the Willowbrook facility, visited the wheel shop and watched as ‘consists’ – the name given to vehicles forming an entire train – were pulled through a wash bay.
“We know we have fans of all ages, but I was really impressed by their knowledge of GO and the train industry. I wouldn’t doubt seeing them find jobs in transit,’ said Wolfsgruber.
And he could be right.
“My future plans are to be a Royal Canadian air force reservist when I turn 16, and after a few years in the military I plan on being a police officer or work for the railway.” said Hill.
Willem is considering applying to the railroad in the future, and explained:“I think it would benefit me in the long run and it is my passion, I would really like to do something that involves freight trains.”
But that’s later. On the day of their tour, it was locomotive 561, quietly parked in the busy yard, that captured their imaginations – like amateur ornithologists suddenly spotting a Black Stilt (a rare bird found in New Zealand).
This locomotive is part of a series of engines that’s slowly being phased out of the fleet, a rail life fact that wasn’t lost on the boys.
“I’ve always wanted to see this locomotive up close,” said Jake. “It’s a rare sighting.”
As they were being led around, the teens were lost in the inner workings of the facility.
“We never thought we’d get to see the inside,” said Willem. “We’ve viewed the yard from the Islington Bridge many times, but this is way better.”
And what did the pair do once their tour was complete?
They didn’t get lost in their phones. Instead, they headed off to star-gaze freight trains for the rest of the day.
Story by Stacey Kenny, Metrolinx Senior Advisor, Communications and Stakeholder Relations.