Since 1894, Ottawa has been connected to neighbouring Renfrew County via a rail line that was and is still known as the Renfrew Subdivision. Although its viability as a freight line has long since passed, the rail line continues to persist and may one day become an important piece of Ottawa’s rail future.
As it stands today, the Renfrew Subdivision extends from the end of the Beachburg Subdivision, at a point that was once known as Nepean Junction. From this point, the tracks travel roughly 43 kilometres west to the Nylene Canada plant at the edge of Arnprior. You’d be forgiven to think that this rail line is part of the Canadian National system, but it’s really not. The rails are owned by Nylene Canada while the actual land where the rails are laid is owned by the City of Ottawa. CN still delivers a weekly load of caprolactum to Nylene Canada, no doubt under contract, since the rail line itself is technically known as the Ottawa-Arnprior Railway.
You might wonder why this rail line has lasted so long, when most other secondary lines in and around Ottawa have been removed. The answer is Nylene Canada. This plant took the steps to buy this rail line because the management of the plant felt there was no other practical way to move caprolactum from Texas to Arnprior other than by rail. So, while CN still operates over the line, it’s only as a contractor. CN first filed to abandon the Renfrew Subdivision in 1987.
Due to its six-figure losses on the line, CN was given permission to abandon the line in December 1988. Shortly after, Nylene Canada predecessor BASF took steps to buy the rails while the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton purchased the land, with an eye to future transit uses.
In 1987, CN moved a total of 96 cars on the line, 95 of which went to Nylene (BASF), one to a customer in Carp, while a single car was shipped out from BASF. The railway reported a loss of $328,730 on the line for 1986. During the abandonment proceedings, CN was discussing the possibility of BASF being served via its old diamond connection with the old CP Chalk River Subdivision through Arnprior. Those talks didn’t amount to much and now, both lines are gone through Arnprior proper.
It’s interesting to look through documents from the abandonment proceedings at the time, since the Teamsters Union suggested that CN had two other customers on the line that were looking for better service, Sullivan’s Lumber (now a Rona outlet) in Arnprior and Carp Flour Mills in Carp. I doubt that three customers would make this line profitable, but it’s always interesting to see how differently these small rail lines are viewed, depending on your point-of-view.
When the Ottawa Central Railway took over freight operations in Ottawa in 1998, it inherited this line and ran weekly service out to Nylene Canada, sometimes on Thursdays and sometimes on Sundays. When CN bought out OCR in 2008, it resumed weekly operations to Nylene Canada, mostly on Wednesdays.
While the demise of this line as a going concern for CN is not all that uncommon in the years post deregulation, the line’s history and possible redemption as a future commuter line make its story worth exploring.
The rail line was completed in 1894 as the Ottawa, Arnprior and Renfrew Railway, one of many lines that dotted the Ottawa Valley at the time that railways relied on timber, natural resources and early small-scale industry to serve the valley. Three years before service started through Renfrew, the line was merged into the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway. In 1899, the line was merged into the Canada Atlantic Railway, which in turn officially became part of the Grand Trunk in 1914. The GTR was then combined with other struggling railways to form the Canadian National Railway in 1920.
What many people might not realize is that the Renfrew Sub once stretched from central Ottawa to Whitney, a distance of 145 miles or 233 kilometres. Going further back, it was once a key part of John Rudolphus Booth's empire that linked his timber holdings in the Algonquin Park area to Depot Harbour. The Ottawa portion of the line originally began by branching off from the Alexandria Subdivision just southeast of the old Alexandria alignment when that line proceeded up the Rideau Canal to the old Union Station downtown.
The Renfrew Sub generally ran east-west along what is now the Queensway. Even before most of the railway lines in central Ottawa were taken up in the 1960s, the Renfrew Sub between Deep Cut (its junction with Alexandria) and Chaudière Junction (its connection with the CP Ellwood Sub where the Queensway now stands) was taken up. CN operated its last train on this old right-of-way in 1952 and the rails were pulled the following year.
It’s interesting to note that the 80-foot strip that CN owned where the Renfrew Sub operated had to be expanded by 100 feet when the land was sold off to what is now the National Capital Commission. That meant having to negotiate with landowners in order to have the proper amount of space to build an expressway. That would never happen today.
Even while its downtown portion was being pulled, the sub hosted daily freight service in the 1950s between Ottawa and Renfrew. By the mid-1960s, the frequency had dwindled to three freights a week. By 1974, service was reduced to an as-needed basis. In 1983, tracks between Whitney and Renfrew were pulled up.
One of the few spots in the city where you can actually see the old remnants of this line is through the old Nepean Equestrian Park, now known as Wesley Clover Park. Just west of Moodie Drive, right off of Corkstown Road, you will see a recreation path running arrow straight toward the Beachburg Subdivision and the old Nepean Junction. The trail is known as the Watts Creek Pathway. That is one of the few visible portions of the old Renfrew Sub.
The decision to sever the downtown portion of the Renfrew Sub was an easy one. The line essentially paralleled the much busier Beachburg Subdivision through central Ottawa. Whereas the Beachburg Sub was an essential component of CN’s northern transcontinental line, the Renfrew Sub was already seeing its traffic wane, with a number of industries fleeing Ottawa’s central areas, as the beautification efforts began transforming the face of the city.
Looking at old railway maps, it’s fascinating to see how CN and CP operated in decades past, when carload operations were the norm, which often ensured the vitality of these small rail lines. Of course, now that CN and CP are focused on economies of scale, this approach to business is long gone. But the Renfrew Sub through downtown Ottawa at one time counted a fair number of small-scale industrial customers along its right-of-way.
Fellow blogger Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure pointed out an old photo of downtown Ottawa, where a gravel dock is clearly visible along the Rideau Canal on the opposite bank near the old Union Station. I have seen that photo before, but his message was a good reminder of why there were once so many rail lines dotting the landscape through the central part of the city.