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.

 

 

 

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!