Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Lament for a lost shortline operation

I’ve written a fair bit in this blog about a fascinating railway called the Goderich-Exeter Railway in southern Ontario. In recent years on family trips to areas where GEXR operates, I’ve tried to capture some activity on this shortline with little success. That changed in 2017 when I finally caught a little activity in Kitchener, including this train working the Kitchener yard.

… and this pair of engines that had just pulled up into the GEXR offices next to the Kitchener Via Rail station on Victoria Street.

Without getting into the history too much, the GEXR took over CN’s operations on its Guelph and Goderich Subdivisions in 1998 and, by all accounts, did a great job attracting more business along the line.

I have also mentioned in this space that I once lived in Kitchener and often saw the railway in action, but I never bothered to photograph it, since I was not in the habit of taking rail photos at the time. When I was working for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record newspaper, I planned to do a business magazine feature on the GEXR right around the time when I was laid off. What might have been…

So it’s with a little bit of sadness that I learned recently that CN resumed operations along the Guelph Subdivision last year once GEXR’s 20-year lease on the rail line expired. I’m only mentioning it now since I recently travelled in the area where GEXR still operates.

The good news is that GEXR still maintains operations between Exeter, Goderich and Stratford, which is one of the areas where I was recently (closer to Stratford, actually). However, I can’t help but wonder how much of the railway’s revenues were derived from this stretch of track. To my uninformed eye, I would imagine that the Guelph Subdivision accounted for the lion’s share of the revenues. It makes me wonder if GEXR parent company Genesee & Wyoming will be terribly interested in maintaining the old Goderich Subdivision as a standalone operation. I hope so.

The bad news is that I have seen first hand what happens when CN takes back shortline operations. Now, I won’t get into what happened to the remnants of the old Ottawa Central operations, since there is a massive difference between OCR and GEXR, but I think it’s still a fair comment. CN is great at being a mainline transcontinental railway. As a local service operator in smaller centres? Well, I can’t imagine many people would think that service will improve along the Guelph Subdivision. I hope CN maintains the level of service and finds ways to keep expanding, but I am skeptical. Does any major railway know how to do carload business effectively anymore?

I also wonder what will happen to the Waterloo Central Railway, which operates on part of the Elmira trackage in north Waterloo. That rail line’s freight operations, such as they are, have been handled by GEXR for years on an as-needed basis outside the hours where the Waterloo Central would operate. I'm not sure what the fate of this line is, as it is, generally speaking, not essential to CN's goal to use the Guelph Sub as a through route.

It should also be noted that CN also took over the majority of the operations of the Southern Ontario Railway, which operated in the Hamilton-Caledonia-Nanticoke area. That was another line I recently saw.

It’s an interesting trend that flies in the face of what we typically see today. Most Class I railways are not in the habit of taking back their former operations on secondary lines from shortline operators, but CN is the exception. I suppose an optimist would suggest it’s a good sign that the economics of operating on these lines has attracted a big player like CN again, since that obviously speaks well of the regional economy.

Truthfully, I worry about this move, purely from a railfan point of view. I think freight railways have an important role to play in moving goods in an environmentally friendly manner at a time when we are looking to reverse the effects of climate change. Railways also help maintain the economies of towns that otherwise cannot attract big business. Ask Renfrew County or the Pontiac Region in Quebec how their efforts to attract big business are going now that they have no rail access.

Here in Canada, there is no turning back from rail abandonment. We have no effective legislation to preserve rail lines as they do in many jurisdictions in the United States.

So this summer, I was pleased to finally see some GEXR activity when I was in the Stratford area (stay tuned for that post). I have always been a fan of the underdogs, which is why I had a real affinity for the GEXR. I hope CN treats these operations better than it did to the old OCR operations in Ottawa.

One can only hope.


Steve Boyko said...

My feeling is that CN was asking too much for the lease renewal, and the GEXR walked away. I don't think CN wanted to operate it at all. Just my opinion.

palpcaso said...

I assumed that CN took it back so they could sell the Kitchener-Georgetown section to Metrolinx.

Michael said...

Such a cynical move, but I suppose it makes business sense. The Kitchener-Georgetown part of the line will likely see increased GO Train activity as the years go on. The only reason I've heard for this move is that CN wanted it as a relief route for its traffic that can't be accommodated easily on its main line between Toronto and London (Dundas Sub, Strathroy Sub et al). That would jive with what you're saying, Steve. The line was quiet when I visited earlier this summer.

Keith Boardman said...

The OCRR was part of a larger package as well. CN didn't really want it but it was bundled, at least it appeared this is what happened, so they took it. What a shame!