East is east and west is west. In simpler times there were certain cardinal rules that CN motive power managers abided by, and one of them was that the 9000-series F7s and the later-day 9150-series rebuilds were western assigned, and that’s where they stayed. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the CN F7As and F7Bs were western power from the time they rolled off the assembly lines at General Motors Diesel in London in the late 1950s. They turned northwest at Toronto and weren’t likely to be seen again.
So you can understand my disbelief when a friend called on a rainy November 1977 afternoon (38 years ago today) to say he’d just seen CN train 552 roll past the University of Waterloo, northbound for Elmira, with a pair of F7s. You mean FP9s I interjected; F7s simply didn’t stray into southwestern Ontario. “No,” came the response, “F7s, 9178 and 9179.” I hit about 2 of the 14 steps on the way downstairs as I raced to the car.
I made Elmira in record time, and came face to face with an A-A of F7s switching the Uni-Royal plant in the rain. More at home in places such as Endako, Kitwanga, Kwinitsa and Kitselas Canyon, than Elmira and Kitchener, the interlopers were so fresh from the west that they still sported portable Mountain Region ditch lights, appliances that were pretty much limited to use in the mountains of British Columbia.
As the crew finished up their chores in Elmira, I set out in search of a suitably identifiable location to photograph the southbound trip, ultimately selecting a rooftop in downtown Waterloo. I could have picked a better place to wait in the drenching rain and got soaked to the skin for my trouble. The clothing and cameras would dry, but a back-to-back set of Fs doesn’t come wandering through Waterloo Square every day.
Before my boots would dry, I’d learn that the Fs were no strays that had wandered unexpectedly far from home. They’d been summoned for snowplow duty out of Stratford. The first big winter storm was just days away. The adventure was just beginning.