The little railway that could – From the Globe and Mail

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Food for though; has anyone ever thought of buying the old interurban railway? Would the current owner consider selling?

Patrick White

Darlingford, Man. From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Wednesday, Jul. 01, 2009 02:56AM EDT

The jangle of crossing bells never sounded so sweet.

They echoed across the town green in Darlingford, Man., Tuesday, to a spot of weed-lined railroad where farmers clad in suspenders and John Deere hats marvelled at their newest asset.

“People said it would never happen,” said local farmer Kevin Friesen, staring up at a locomotive and two grain cars. “They said we’d never see this day.”

The Boundary Trail Rail Company is Canada’s newest railway and also one of its shortest, stretching across 37 kilometres of southern Manitoba farmland. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for in symbolism.

“These small branch lines have been disappearing for decades and farmers have had to haul farther and farther,” said local producer Geoff Young. “This is our way of fighting that trend.

The real seeds of this story germinated decades ago. Since the early 1960s, CP and CN have been abandoning many of the branch line capillaries that once connected every small Prairie town and elevator. Canada’s railway network has shrunk by nearly 20 per cent since then. From the mid-1990s on, the rail giants have given up over 3,000 kilometres of money-losing track.

That contraction has coincided with the loss of small local elevators, leaving many farmers with long truck trips and pricey elevator fees just to get their crops to market.

That was exactly the scenario Mr. Young was facing recently. With CP closing down the line next to his farm near Darlingford, he’d been trucking his crop an hour and a half, losing time and money in the process.

“It was a huge expense,” he said.

Recently, CP sold off 80 kilometres of the western portion to a salvager. With the scrap company ripping up three miles of track a day, farmers in the area knew they had to act quickly if they ever wanted to see cars rolling on the line again.

With gas prices soaring last summer, the resilient farmers of the Boundary Trails region came up with a somewhat idealistic solution: They would buy the railway themselves.

“We had a meeting about a year ago and we managed to raise $135,000 in one night,” said Mr. Friesen, who is also president of the new company. “That’s when we thought this could really happen. There were doubters right from the very beginning. There still are.”

They sought out Winnipeg lawyer Art Stacey, who’d worked on similar rail abandonment cases in Saskatchewan.

“The railway is so crucial in places like this,” Mr. Stacey said. “I’ve been in little Saskatchewan towns where, because the railway has left town, there are literally tumbleweeds blowing through town.”

In all, they raised around $4-million, the bulk coming from area farmers, three levels of government and local philanthropist John Buhler.

They couldn’t save the 80-kilometre western portion, but did rescue the 37 kilometres between Manitou and Morden.

Starting yesterday, the line will serve four rural municipalities. The goal is to ship at least 500 cars a year east to Morden, where the track meets up with a CP artery. It is the first producer-owned branch line in the province.

“I’m only about four miles from the rail, so this will making a huge difference,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Young, who helped lobby all levels of governments on the project, said politicians couldn’t resist the green aspect of his argument.

“The biggest truck can haul about 40 tonnes,” he said. “This locomotive moves about 12 cars of 90 tonnes each. The math is pretty convincing.”

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One Response to “The little railway that could – From the Globe and Mail”

  1. David Says:

    The current owner is BC Hydro and with our privatization manic provincial government it’s actually quite likely that they’d entertain an offer. However, when the City of Vancouver tried to buy the Arbutus corridor from CP they were met with a price tag calculated on the development potential of the land, not its assessed value as a railroad line. I imagine Hydro would pull a similar stunt with full support from the Premier’s office.

    Zweisystem replies: It is my belief that the Arbutus corridor could have been bought for “scrap value” if a passenger (read LRT) service were to be established. Instead the city wanted to purchase the rights-of-way with no intent on operating any rail service at all, thus the CPR wanted residential and commercial market value.

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