When shortlines fail

At least one railway, Canadian National, makes much of its short line connections, terming them partners, as well as extensions to its far-flung network.

And by selling its unprofitable tracks to short line operators over the past few years, CN has undoubtedly emerged leaner, meaner and stronger.

But sometimes these unprofitable lines seem to fare worse under new ownership than they might have if they’d remained in the CN stable.

Consider the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, which took over CN’s line between Truro and Sydney, N.S. in 1993. At last report, the CBNS was trying to unload its right of way from Sydney to Port Hawkesbury on the Strait of Canso. The section reportedly needs a lot of work to bring it up to par. And the rest of the line, if this photo is any indication, may need upgrading too.

cape breton railway

Worn out rail on CBNS line near New Glasgow, N.S.

Then, there’s the Huron Central Railway, a 280-kilometre stretch between Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie, Ont., which was formerly operated by Canadian Pacific.

Although a vital transportation link for several industries in the area, the line is likely to be shut down by the end of 2018 unless the Ontario government coughs up some money

But the short line that’s likely in the worst state is the Hudson Bay Railway, which runs from The Pas in northern Manitoba several hundred kilometres to the port of Churchill, Man. on Hudson Bay.

Because of flooding in the spring of 2017, that portion of the railway between Amery, Man. and Churchill has been shut down, cutting the latter’s only ground link to the outside world. And although it appeared as if another company was recently ready to step in and buy the HBR, that plan has now fallen through.

 

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Lesson no. 1: Don’t believe the Press Releases!

If the pronouncements of Canada’s two major railways are any indication, both outfits are nimble, well-equipped and able to deliver the goods. Quickly.

Each press release seems to outdo the one before in describing the powerful new locomotives they’re  buying, the new track they’re laying down, or the upgrades they’re making to bridges, freight yards and signal systems.

So, it comes as a shock to hear that CN Rail and Canadian Pacific were recently clogged with grain shipments — so much so that Canada’s reputation as a reliable exporter is now on the line, while the country’s grain growers may be facing a cash crunch.

a-canadian-national-freight-train-loading-grain-cars-at-the-grain-F96GWA

A CN Rail grain train at Morinville, Alta.

Indeed, Canada’s Ag Transport Coalition says that during the week of Feb. 12, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific  together provided only 38 per cent of the rail cars ordered by grain shippers. More precisely, CP Rail  delivered 66 per cent of its orders; CN Rail,  just 17 per cent.

To clear the backlog, Canadian National is urging some of its workers to postpone retirement, while enticing some of its retired employees to come back to work!

It’s also deploying qualified managers to run extra trains, as well as adding crews in western Canada. Moreover, to boost its hauling capacity, CN Rail has leased 130 diesel locomotives.

Meanwhile, two Canadian cabinet ministers — Marc Garneau (transportation) and Lawrence MacAulay (agriculture) — have called the railways’ performance disappointing.

Canadian National’s sluggishness has already claimed one victim:  its CEO, Luc Jobin. Mr. Jobin abruptly resigned March 5, amid a statement from CN’s board of directors that the railway needed a leader who could “realize CN’s corporate vision,” as well as take the company forward.

 

It isn’t Art

Hideous. Embarrassing. An eyesore.

Graffiti on railway freight cars may be many things, but art isn’t one of them.  Just ask the railways.  Not only does graffiti often cover up identification numbers and other important information, but it reportedly costs at least  US$1,000 just to paint over each side of the lower half of a freight car. In addition, the daubs and pop-art lettering do little to enhance corporate image.

Freight_Whole_Car_Piece

But there’s another problem that troubles freight haulers and that’s the danger in which graffiti “artists” could find themselves.  Although box cars and other rolling stock may be standing still when the painters attack, a string of cars can start moving at any time, thereby endangering life and limb.

To date, though, the railways haven’t come up with any method of easily stripping off the graffiti. Or, if they have, they obviously haven’t been using it, as can be seen when any freight train in North America rumbles by.

 

 

 

Trudeau Rides to the Rescue!

Churchill, Man., Canada’s sub-Arctic seaport, is still cut off from the outside world by land.

The tiny (pop. 900) town on the south shore of Hudson Bay has always depended on a rickety rail line for freight shipments from the rest of Canada, there being no highway connection.

But the rail link was broken this spring when flood waters washed out whole sections of track. And Omitrax, the line’s owner, says it can’t afford the C$20-$60 million it claims it will need to put the line back into operation.

But the company may soon have to contend with Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister. Mr. Trudeau, who recently met with Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, says Omitrax must live up to its obligations.

“We’re looking at all options as we ensure that contracts and obligations are respected and fulfilled,” said Mr. Trudeau when asked if the Canadian government would sue Omitrax for breach of contract.

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Grain elevator at Churchill, Man. with rail connection to rest of North America

A Great Idea. But Will it Ever Get on Track?

Want to know why some passenger trains have been such a hit? They run on dedicated rights of way.  No sitting in sidings waiting for 150-car freight trains to rumble by. No commuter trains to hopscotch around.  Just passenger trains. And if the right of way is custom-built for high speed, so much the better.

Small wonder that Via Rail, Canada’s version of Amtrak, wants to get its own tracks between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto– lines it must share with Canadian National Railways, as well as with the commuter services in Canada’s two biggest cities.

But the exclusive right of way may be a long time in coming. The main reason? The high price tag: C$4 billion. At a time when the Canadian government is chary of coughing up billions of dollars to help Toronto expand its subway, it’s a good bet it won’t want to cough up even more money for Via Rail, a federally funded operation.

Then, too, where will Via build its right of way? The logical choice would seem to be alongside CN Rail’s existing main line since it serves more populated areas than the Montreal-Toronto line operated by rival Canadian Pacific06-05-VIA-673x427 (1).

But simply putting down another two tracks besides CN’s double-track line would be daunting. Overpasses, as well as bridges, would have to be widened. And finding space along the existing rights of way into both Toronto and Montreal would be hard.

Still, Via’s proposal is a gambit to stir the blood! Stay tuned!

 

 

On to the Bay . . . Well, not So Fast!

Hudson bay--damage
SUPPLIED A motorcyclist and adventure seeker from Colorado, rode a dirt bike along the bay line from Thompson to Churchill. Reached on Tuesday near Split Lake on the return trip to Thompson, Green said that when he began his expedition, he was already aware that rail service has been suspended because of flood damage. So, as he made his way up the line, he took photos. The photographs he produced – time stamped on June 14 and obtained by the Free Press – reveal a situation much different than the one described by Omnitrax.

Canada’s Prairie farmers can be excused if they’re shedding a few tears. The railway link across  northern Manitoba, one of Canada’s Western provinces, to the tiny port of Churchill (pop. 900) on Hudson Bay has been sliced and diced by recent floods. The damage reportedly is so extensive that the operator, Omnitrax Canada, says the line may be out of service for months.

The outage is particular poignant for the farmers. Not only did they agitate for years for the line to be built, but they saw it as a way of freeing themselves from the high cost of shipping their grain to the Lake Superior port of Thunder Bay, Ont., Canada’s main outlet for Prairie wheat. And even though the line to Churchill has never lived up to its promise, it was, for Western Canadians, still their very own line.

But Omitrax may be exaggerating the seriousness of the washouts. A Winnipeg Free Press story on June 20 (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/photos-from-the-ground-tell-different-story-about-hudson-bay-railway-conditions-429783063.htmlsuggests that because flood waters have receded, getting the line back on track may take less time than the company originally said it would.

Not only does Omitrax want to unload the line, but it has been trying to do so for more than a year to a consortium of First Nations.

“A deal in principle has been reached,” the Free Press reports.  “But the First Nations have stated publicly they need support from the federal and provincial governments to complete the purchase.”

Let’s Believe it When we See it!

High-speed passenger rail is taking the world by storm. Not only does it already exist in Europe, but it’s been munching up the miles in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

So, it’s no surprise that Ontario, Canada’s wealthiest and most populous province, is now trying to get on board. True,  Ontario’s proposal to lay down a line between Toronto and Windsor, four hours to the southwest, would cost billions. And the province doesn’t have that kind of money.

But Ontario is shelling out C$15 million to study the feasibility of such a service. And, well, ya gotta start some place, right?

The route the province is considering would snake through Ontario’s industrial heartland, tying together such cities as Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo, the centre of the province’s high-tech industry. The route would also link London, a centre for education and medical research, and Chatham.

HSR NETWORK

More important, the route would make Toronto’s rapidly growing bedroom suburbs that much more attractive to immigrants and young couples who can no longer afford to buy a home in the city’s overheated housing market.

Then, too, if Ontario can pull high-speed rail out of a hat, it will have done what no government in Canada has managed to do. Although high-speed passenger service has long been touted for the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, it has yet to leave the station.

In the late 1960s, Canadian National Railways introduced the turbo, a high-speed passenger service between Montreal and Toronto. But, plagued with mechanical

lorne perry turbo

All aboard?

 

 

An electrifying announcement?

GO Transit, which ties Greater Toronto together with commuter buses and trains is one step closer to converting its railway system to electric traction. Or, is it?

The Canadian government has announced it’s lavishing C$1.9 billion on Regional Express Rail, GO’s $13.5-billion expansion program which will see electric locomotives replace diesels on GO’s railway network.

But the Toronto Star story that announced the funding failed to say if any of the $1.9 billion would actually be spent on electrification.

It did say that more  than $750 million would pay for upgrades to GO’s line to Kitchener, a city roughly 90 km southwest of Toronto, as well as one of the centre’s of Canada’s high-tech industry.

And with faster, more frequent commuter trains to Toronto, Kitchener, along with neighboring Waterloo, could quickly become more attractive to folks who want to work in Canada’s largest city, but who can no longer afford to live there.

 

The Star also noted that the rest of the $1.9 billion would pay for upgrades to GO’s other rail routes: the line to Barrie, north of Toronto, as well as the lines extending both east and west along Lake Ontario from Toronto’s union station.

Still, when it comes to supplying the greater Toronto area with badly needed commuter service, any news is good news, right?

 Map of GO Transit’s train routes

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Hamilton is really getting on the GO

Mention Hamilton. Ont. and you think of  lunch buckets, bare knuckles and blue plate grub. That’s because the city of 520,000, roughly 60 kilometres west of Toronto, was for decades the centre of steelmaking in Canada.

But today, Hamilton increasingly stands to become a bedroom suburb of Toronto, thanks to more frequent train service.

With the widening of a bridge over the Desjardins canal just outside Hamilton’s downtown (see below), GO Transit,  Ontario’s commuter rail system, will soon provide the city with more frequent service.

And with home prices in Toronto continuing to skyrocket, good transit links will make Hamilton much more attractive to families who can no longer afford to live in Toronto.

But Hamilton isn’t the only locale that will benefit from the bridge widening. Ontario’s Niagara Region, which fans out from the city around the western end of Lake Ontario, will also be a beneficiary.

Indeed, GO eventually hopes to extend  its service to both St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. And when it does, both cities, now medium size, should also burgeon as bedroom suburbs.

Africa needs the economic blast that only railways can provide

Railways have historically been generators of economic growth, connecting new markets to existing ones, finding buyers in the interior for manufacturers on the coast. North America, for example, would never have become the economic powerhouse it became at the turn of the last century, had railways not laid down a dense web of lines. Indeed, by 1900, the rails blanketed the continent., their uniform gauge making possible the quick transfer of freight from Canada to the U.S. and vice versa.

But Africa is missing out on the economic blast that only railways can provide. More than 100 years after Cecil Rhodes dreamed of a Cape-to-Cairo line, the continent seems no closer than it was then to realizing Rhodes`dream.

And although dozens of rail lines run from various points on the coast to various parts of the interior, these tracks don`t even begin to suggest the likelihood of a continent-wide railway network — a network that will be difficult to build, given the different gauges that are now being used.