Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Final Days of CN's Northern Transcon

The end of the last remnants of CN’s Northern Transcontinental began with a closure of the Smurfit-Stone plant in Portage-du-Fort, Quebec, in the Pontiac Region. The mill closed in 2008, putting 200 people out of work. At one point, the mill employed more than 400 in the Pontiac and neighbouring Renfrew County in Ontario.

By 2008, the Beachburg Sub was essentially a sparsely used Upper Ottawa Valley rail line that served what few local businesses still required rail service. Ottawa Central Railway operated over the old transcon, but the economic recession was in full swing in 2008 and hit the short line hard. The customers along the old sub began to disappear. The Smurfit Stone plant was essentially the last remaining major customer and the rail line’s raison d’etre.

The end was nigh for the OCR as the short line struggled to cope with the impact the recession had on what little heavy industry remained in the Valley and in Ottawa. Just days after the mill announced its closure in October, OCR announced that CN would reacquire all of its former Ottawa-area properties from the company that owned OCR. That deal included the 156 kilometres of rails between Ottawa and Pembroke, not to mention the 40 plus kilometres between Glen Robertson and Hawkesbury that was once the Ottawa-L’Orignal Railway (purchased by OCR’s parent company).

It wasn’t long before the Beachburg Sub north of Nepean Junction was essentially deemed out of service and put on the chopping block. But the battle that ensued for the rail line meant that the old transcon hung on a lot longer than CN likely wanted.

The governments of Renfew County and the Pontiac fought to keep the old Beachburg Sub in the ensuing years. The first move was to organize an entity called Transport Pontiac Renfrew, which was aimed at retaining the rail line and finding a new operator for it, not to mention new uses including commuter rail.

OCR co-operated with TPR and ran a special Rail Day commuter train up the Ottawa Valley line, just before CN took over. The double ender included two classic CN coaches painted in the railway’s olive green scheme, with an old OCR MLW warhorse on each end, like these beauties below.

That initiative generated some interest in the media and goodwill. There was an appealing element to having a solid commuter option for residents of the Upper Ottawa Valley who might travel into Ottawa and Gatineau for work.

In the midst of this goodwill in the months and years that followed, Renfrew and Pontiac struggled to come to any agreement with Canadian National on a deal that would save the line and help their municipalities find a new operator.

It wasn’t until 2009 that it was revealed in the media that James Allen, the former general manager of the OCR, was in fact working closely with TPR to come up with a workable plan to move freight and establish some sort of long-term commuter vision for the Beachburg Sub.

I was lucky enough to be that reporter who broke the story in the now defunct At the time, what James Allen told me was a real departure from the dismissive or ambivalent attitude most people have toward railways in the city.

Allen pointed out that the Trebio wood pellet plant in the Pontiac was interested in rail service. He estimated that the plant would form the basis for upwards of 800 carloads a year. It wasn’t a huge number by any means, but it was a decent start.

Allen told me that the Trebio plant was the anchor in a strategy to develop a rail-serviced industrial park in the Pontiac. What was even more surprising was TPR’s plans to launch some form of commuter service over the old sub as well as tourist and recreational trains up the Valley. It all seemed very positive for Pontiac and Renfrew, two areas that are far too remote to attract large-scale economic development opportunities without this mode of transportation.

Unfortunately, not long after I wrote that article, which was not surprisingly dismissed locally, the deal to buy the Beachburg Subdivision fell through. That ended all reasonable hopes for the line to be saved. Depending on who you ask, there are various reasons why the line was ultimately killed. The biggest reason was likely cost. Politicians in the Pontiac claimed that CN had set the sale price well beyond the reach of Renfrew and Pontiac. In other words, it was priced far beyond the scrap value of the line.

Surprisingly, the Pontiac region fought on for several more years, even without any reasonable hope of success. The region’s tactic was to pass a local bylaw essentially designating the railway land as a key transportation corridor, which prevented any dismantling. The province of Quebec signed off on the bylaw, but CN fought the move in a higher court and won.

In fall of 2013, the last stretch of CN’s Northern Transcontinental route was pulled up from Pembroke to the Pontiac region, but the work was stalled when the region barricaded the tracks, preventing CN crews on a CWR maintenance of way train from stripping the rails. That stand-off was short lived.

There was one last-ditch effort to enlist the help of the City of Ottawa, since the Beachburg Sub still connected Fitzroy Harbour, in Ottawa’s northwestern boundary, to Nepean Junction, near Bells Corners. The efforts included enlisting the help of the city’s councillor for Kanata North and for West Carleton, the ridings where the rail line’s removal would happen.

Predictably, those efforts went nowhere as the city maintained that it was only interested in the land upon which the tracks sat, for possibly future use as a multi-use recreational trail.

That meant that the CWR train made its way into West Carleton and stripped the rails from much of the line, although various scraps were kept in place at level crossings, including one in Dunrobin, which meant motorists still saw disconnected crossing signals for a rail line that no longer existed.

By spring 2014, the line was completely dismantled all the way to Nepean Junction. Not long after the last train rolled through with the last bits of useable rail, the switch was removed at Nepean. The last little bit of the Beachburg Sub from Federal to Nepean Junction was then directly connected with the Nylene Canada-owned Renfrew Spur.

Today, as CN looks to leave the Ottawa region once more, the rails in the west end of the city continue to exist with a large question mark hanging over them. When CN first proposed discontinuing service to Arnprior, it was Nylene Canada's predecessor BASF that put the wheels in motion to purchase the tracks and continue service. That arrangement continues today, mainly because the company cannot find a way to economically receive what it needs by trucks. The main reason why rail service continues is because the chemical it needs, caprolactum, can only be transported via a specially insulated tank car. As it stands now, there is no way to have the same amount of this product delivered via truck at a comparable cost.

For what few rail enthusiasts there are left in west Ottawa, the question of what any future rail operator will do about Nylene Canada is a big one. There's also the larger question of who will step up to provide rail service in Ottawa when CN eventually leaves?

It's not a great time to be a railfan in west Ottawa, but that could change in an instant if a short line operator with a vision and a much better understanding of a carload freight based business model steps in to save the rails.

And, coincidentally, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if a revitalized freight railway could take a few trucks off our congested Queensway.

It's interesting that, in a city that struggles to cope with congestion and the onslaught of truck traffic in older neighbourhoods, a simple solution of encouraging a short line railway would go a long way to clearing the air. For Ottawa in particular, encouraging less congestion, especially downtown, is almost an economic necessity since it has a huge impact on the tourist experience. You would think that someone in charge would figure out what a benefit it is to have a healthy freight railway in a city of nearly 1 million people.


Matt S. said...

I'm East Ottawa, so I would love to see more action there, but would it make more sense for a new OLO RR to serve the industries in Hawkesbury, the rolling mill, and maybe McEwen in Maxville. A new shortline in Ottawa would just need to purchase Walkley Yard and the short sections connecting it to the Renfrew spur, and get trackage rights over the VIA line to Smiths Falls to interchange with the CP. facilities could be built at Walkley to unload trailers from piggyback cars, etc. Older EMD locomotives can be bought fairly "cheaply" Here's two CP SD40s for 150k each lol.

Keith Boardman said...

Hard to imagine that keeping the line open through Algonquin park wouldn't have achieved the efficiencies necessary to move freight on a co-operative basis between CN & CP, but I suspect that case was probably made, and didn't work out.

I caught an OCR local (wish I had a camera then) switching in Pembroke back in the fall of 2007. It was probably interchanging with CP. Had I known then, I would have made sure to have brought an actual camera, but I had no idea it's days were numbered.

Would have made a great tourist opportunity, and probably commuter line.

Eric said...

Your last paragraph is especially well-put, Michael.

Once they start turning the signals and removing cabling, you know it's over.

Thanks for sharing and Happy Easter to you and your family!

Michael said...

Thanks for the comments, Matt, Keith and Eric. I suspect Matt is right that, if there is any shortline resurgence here, it would likely be focused on the traffic remaining in the east end of the city and in the towns east of the city. The concept for a shortline in Pontiac and Renfrew had some merits, but it was a long shot at best, sadly. It's a shame because it seems as though too much has been done to effectively set up a new shortline operation for success.

AJ said...

Very great writeupas always!

I second Keith in that this line, through the Park, would have been fantastic today as a tourist railway. Considering how gung-ho the province was on getting everyone/everything out of towns like Brent, chances are it wouldn't have mattered much anyway. But it is nice to think about the what if.

I agree that a shortline would do very well in the city and would likely perform in the public good. It is these types of things that make me wish I had a bunch of cash to jump in and invest as not only do I think it would be a financially beneficial project, but one that would be enjoyable and worthwhile. The east end would be an obvious place to start building a core business and there is easily enough to places to build a good base. I am not giving up on the west end/Renfrew county/Pontiac however. I expect that if given an opportunity, there would be some value in providing a service in that area beyond general passenger service. If James Allen thought so, I trust his judgement.
As for the city congestion, your likely correct in that it would eliminate some congestion, but when it comes to areas like downtown, probably not. I know some truckers who have to go through downtown loaded (they hate it BTW), but they do so to reach the Quebec side. Unless there is a direct connection with Quebec, there likely is only going to be limited value in removing congestion.

Ultimately if enough people with resources and vision got together, this could be accomplished. It would be cheap enough as Matt pointed out, to purchase locomotives to get started (I suspect rolling stock would also be easy enough) and the existing infrastructure of Walkley Yard and trackage likely goes cheap as CN seems to want to dump it. Like I said, I feel strongly that it could be mutually beneficial. So it will be interesting to see where this all goes.

Kevin from Windsor said...

Thank you for yet another insightful article. I never understood why both the CN and CP lines through the Valley and into northern Ontario were abandoned. There must still be freight of some kind from western Canada that needs to move to an eastern seaport, like in Montreal. Is it not shorter to move that freight in a straight line across northern Ontario, rather than south to Toronto and northeast to Montreal? And if both lines had been preserved, they could have used directional running as is done between Toronto and Sudbury through Parry Sound. Was there not enough through traffic to make at least one of the lines viable? I guess that's a rhetorical question. On a different note, have you ever seen the National Film Board short The Railrodder, featuring Buster Keaton? I've loved that film since I was a little kid. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend borrowing it, buying it, streaming it or watching it online, however the NFB distributes their films these days. As Buster Keaton rides a track speeder across Canada from east to west, for the most part on Canadian National, I'm almost certain the scenes that appear just after Ottawa were filmed somewhere on CN's transcontinental line in Quebec or northern Ontario. At one point he passes a small named station, but as many times as I've freeze framed it, I can never read the station name. The scenes from Ottawa are fascinating as well, where he rides the tracks towards the old Union Station along the Rideau Canal.

Anonymous said...

The OCRR engines you refer to in your article are not geeps. They are MLW Alcos.

AJ said...

Great tip Kevin!
Had never heard of this before, but caught it on Youtube tonight. Really neat to see a lot of those places from back then (especially Ottawa).
I have to say, this makes me appreciate Adventures with Bill from Red Green that much more!

As for the the station, I think I was able to stop it fast enough - the sign said "Entrance". So it is either from Entrance Alberta (could be, I have been there, but don't recall seeing a station. The background environment does seem to fit that area before Jasper) or it is simply highlighting the entrance to the station on that end of the building (doubt it considering that signage as is, is basically a standard for identifying the station). Being in Alberta might be a hard sell since he gets the prairies right after anyway. My original thoughts would be one station up in Algonquin (probably Brent), but would have to go digging in pictures to see if I can find a match.

Either way, its worth 25 mins to check out.

Michael said...

Well written and informative post as always, Michael. I had no idea how hard Renfew County and the Pontiac Region fought for the Beachburg Sub, makes its removal even more upsetting. I completely agree about our need for more freight in this city. I travel a lot for my job and, especially in the GTA, there is no comparable city in terms of population that does not have a healthy amount of freight traffic to relieve congestion and trucks on the roads (ultimately making our travel safer). Ottawa seems to be an outlier in general in terms of our non-dependency on the rails which really is a shame. I'm making more of an effort these days to catch the Wednesday weekly run to Nylene as it's making me anxious to think one day it could be gone in a blink of an eye. I've been using film to do my photographing recently as well and I really find it captures the environment and surroundings more effectively. Going back to the old days!

Michael said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael. I wish I could say that better days were ahead for heavy rail in Ottawa, but I just don't know.

Cliff Wilkie said...

Unfortunately, the way today’s Class 1’s (& their shareholders) see it, it’s just not economical or feasible to operate excess trackage/subdivisions, especially long distance subdivisions (such as Beachburg/Alderdale or Chalk River/N Bay) with marginal gross ton miles (traffic). What happened here is both CN & CP found it would cost more to maintain the track than the revenue they would generate from it (called operating ratio by the railways). The entire Alderdale Sub from Capreol to Brent & the west end of the Beachburg from Brent to Pembroke was actually taken out of service on Nov 24, 1995 (one week after CN went public) & was subsequently abandoned & dismantled soon after.

Cliff Wilkie said...

Also, to add, CN actually found it more feasible to simply add a connection between the York Sub & Bala Sun in the northeast quadrant of the junction at Doncaster than to continue operating certain trains via Brent. A short section of the Alderdale is actually still in place between Nipissing Jct & the ONR connection at N Bay, which is now part of CN’s Newmarket Sub.

Cliff Wilkie said...

That’s exactly it. They Beachburg was once CTC between Federal & Nepean Jct. I imagine those signals were taken out of service & turned aside in Nov 1995, after the last through train (which was actually CN 114 on Nov 24, 1995, which arrived at Walkley that evening) passed over the Alderdale/Beachburg.

Cliff Wilkie said...

Honestly, the City of Ottawa doesn’t want any heavy-duty industry in the city, or anywhere near it. Nylene is the only rail serviced industry west of the city & Ivanco Rolling Mills is one of the few east of it serviced by rail (located on the L’Original Spur). The only thing really keeping any type of rail service anywhere near Ottawa is the fact that VIA owns the Alexandria, part of the Beachburg (east of Federal) & Smiths Falls Subs. If it weren’t for that, there would be nothing left at all for freight rail service in or near Ottawa in the present day.