As several local rail enthusiasts have noted in recent weeks, Canadian National has listed all of its Ottawa-related trackage on its three-year abandonment list. That includes the entire Alexandria Sub, the section of the Smiths Falls Sub where is operates with running rights from Via Rail, one mile of the old M&O, its Vankleek Spur, L’Orignal Spur, its connections to Walkley Yard and the last remnants of the Beachburg Sub.
Here's a link to the CN page, where you can find the PDF report.
What does this mean? Well, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen, but it’s obvious that CN no longer wants to foot the bill to maintain what little trackage it does own in the Ottawa area, not to mention in Eastern Ontario (not including its Kingston Subdivision main line through Prescott).
There are many possible scenarios and consequences at play here, depending on what does happen. No doubt, CN will argue its operations in this area are no longer viable to its bottom line, which is probably fairly accurate, given the scale of the operation and the massive overall structure of the company itself.
This is how I see it, from my limited knowledge of CN and railways in general.
1. CN will sell what little trackage it owns on the Alexandria Sub/Smiths Falls Sub corridor to Via Rail. There is no question this will happen. On its abandonment list, it’s not clear to me if CN owns any of this trackage anymore. Someone with more information than me can fill me in. It is listed with an operating rights designation, which likely means it's not theirs.
2. Depending on what’s left to be sold off and what CN still owns in the city, is there a chance CN would continue operating freight services here on a strict running-rights basis? I don’t think so, but I’m raising the point for someone who knows more than me. If CN doesn't own much of anything, it would make no sense to continue on a running rights basis.
3. The opportunity for a new shortline railway to take over CN’s operation is now very real. For this, I reached out to the former General Manager of the much loved Ottawa Central Railway, James Allen. This is what he told me via email: “Can a go be made to operate traffic from Arnprior, Ottawa and L'Orignal/Hawkesbury...I think so. However much due diligence is required.”
We can only hope that someone as professional as Mr. Allen would step in and refocus all local efforts from a more effective shortline mindset. Ottawa will never again be a freight railway hotbed. But, Ottawa Central’s success from 1998–2008 is proof that a freight railway can succeed here.
If CN does indeed pull out, the question becomes who steps in? Is there an existing shortline company or company along the lines of Genesee & Wyoming (G&W's Goderich-Exeter Railway seen below near Mitchell, Ont.) that would be interested in Ottawa? It all depends on what is actually left and what new business could possibly be attracted.
4. If a shortline does step in, then the question of what to do with Walkley Yard becomes a moot point. I’m guessing a number of interested parties would be watching this situation carefully, including OC Transpo, which uses a portion of the yard as maintenance facilities for its fleet of Alstom diesel light rail trainsets that ply the Trillium Line. That line, as you know, will be extended as part of the second phase of the city's LRT expansion.
5. This development causes another headache for one of CN’s sole remaining customers in the west end, Nylene Canada, in Arnprior. This company has stated in the past that it has to have its caprolactum delivered via insulated tank car, given the nature of the substance. Trucking is not an option. A shortline would no doubt continue its weekly deliveries to Arnprior, but the company must still be uneasy.
It’s hard to see CN’s pending departure from Ottawa as anything but inevitable. I once tended to agree with those who stated at the outset that CN was only interested in OCR for the scrap value of the Beachburg Sub from Nepean Junction to Pembroke. That’s a lot of rail, worth tens of millions of dollars that it was able to retrieve and use elsewhere on its system. And I’m not mentioning the other assorted pieces of track it has removed in the last several years in and around Ottawa.
But, given that CN has been operating in Ottawa for 10 years now that argument doesn’t seem to hold up. If the company was only interested in rails only, then why would it stay in Ottawa so long? Maybe the opposition from Renfrew County and the Pontiac Region in Quebec held up its plans for the Beachburg Sub longer than it would have liked. Maybe the OCR acquisition was something CN had to shoulder as part of its purchase of the entire Quebec Rail Corp. portfolio in 2008.
As a railfan and major proponent of regional commuter rail, I’m hopeful that a shortline operator can step in and make a profit here. From a very selfish point-of-view, it would great to see more than one train a week on the railway tracks going through my neighbourhood.