Friday, January 17, 2020

CN's final days in Ottawa: Fact and fiction

I've seen a fair bit of chatter on a few railfan groups online regarding CN's departure from Ottawa. From what I've read, there seems to be a lot of confusion out there. In the spirit of clearing the air or at least starting a conversation, I decided that it would be fun to attempt a few answers. It also gives me a chance to share a few photos that were sent to me by some generous fellow railfans.

So, let's start off simply.

1. There will be no freight railway in Ottawa once CN leaves. FICTION

I say this with near certainty. Let's look at the facts. Ottawa and Eastern Ontario is an area with more than 1 million people. And there are some rail-served businesses that would suffer a great deal if rail service were to disappear. I can't foresee a scenario where no one wants anything to do with freight activity here. There are too many shortline railway concerns in Canada and the U.S. for there to be no interest in an operation here. Let's assume, as well, that the City of Ottawa ends up acquiring what little rail CN retains here in the region. To me, that is one less capital expense for a smaller operation to worry about. And remember that there are motivated customers here that depend on rail that cannot carry on business as they are now without rail. Think Nylene Canada in Arnprior. They have said repeatedly that they need rail.

CN's Coteau run sweeps through Carlsbad Springs with leased power on point. Contrary to what people have said, rail activity in Ottawa has not stopped. Thanks to Keith for sharing this photo, taken recently.

2. Freight activity has ended already. FICTION

I've seen a few comments where people think that CN's freight service has already ended. This is simply not true. Multiple blog readers have shared their photos or observations with me recently that prove it's business as usual for CN for the moment. We need to remember that catching CN's locals anywhere in the region is tough since the frequency is tiny. In my case, I have two chances to catch a once-weekly train that goes through my neighbourhood each Wednesday. That's it. We need to keep in mind as well that discontinuance notices are part of a fairly detailed process, which takes time. A railway can give notice of discontinuance and continue operating for some time afterward.

3. CN is going to rip up the Renfrew Spur. FICTION

This is something that is often forgotten when this subject comes up. The Renfrew Spur belongs to the City of Ottawa. Look on some maps and you will see this line is labelled the Ottawa-Arnprior Railway.

The rails themselves are owned by Nylene Canada. This arrangement predates the amalgamation of the City of Ottawa. It was actually the old Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton that partnered with the old BASF (now Nylene Canada) to save this line and keep freight service operating to the old plant on the edge of Arnprior.

This arrangement was the compromise when it was determined that BASF was not able to receive service from the Canadian Pacific from its old Chalk River Sub, which once connected with the Renfrew Spur in Arnprior. Of course, the Chalk River Sub is long gone and the Renfrew Spur barely makes it over the Ottawa-Renfrew County border.

If I was a betting man, I would say that this rail line will one day be a commuter line with freight service operating outside of commuting hours, which means likely at night or the wee hours of the morning.

To be honest, the only reason this line is still there is because of the deal that was made more than 20 years ago to save it.

My thanks to a reader who follows along from Yukon, who once rode these rails with his family when his Dad worked this stretch of track for CN. He recently visited the city and took some shorts of what's left in Kinburn. My thanks to him for sharing his photos. I've done a fair bit of writing on this track, but he reminded me of the old Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound lineage that this line boasts. It's a part of the local rail history I haven't done a great deal of research on, so perhaps that's next on my list.

4. CN will rip up more track in Ottawa and Eastern Ontario. FICTION

Quite honestly, everything that CN could remove has already been removed. This company owns almost nothing in Ottawa anymore, save for the trackage into and out of Walkley Yard, the old Ontario-l'Orignal Railway and the tiny stretch of the old Beachburg Subdivision that links the Renfrew Spur to Federal Junction. I can't imagine the railway would want to tear up any of this trackage if it was seriously considering an arrangement to sell it to the city or possibly hand it off to a short line operator. You will recall from an earlier post that the city has confirmed that it is in talks with CN to buy the remaining trackage it might need in the city. The only stretch of track I would keep an eye on is the old l'Orignal trackage. Given that this track is key to CN's main customer in Eastern Ontario, I would suspect it's safe for now. Keep in mind as well that the Alexandria and Smiths Falls Subs are both controlled by Via Rail Canada.

5. The city will own the unwanted CN tracks and will contract out freight services. FACT

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest this is what is going to happen. It makes business sense for a short line to provide a service while not having to maintain the track per se. The only question mark is over the l'Orignal trackage. I don't know who would want to own that track, as it is not strategically important to Ottawa. This might be the only stretch of track that a future short line would have to own and maintain.

6. There's already another company operating freight services here. FICTION

I've seen some people ask this question already a few times. Don't let the GATX leased units fool you. CN is still operating here. 

So, here's one final thought. Who is going to step forward and take over freight services for CN? We all know the names. I'd be curious as to what the experts out there think. I'm going to say that, whoever steps forward, James Allen of the old Ottawa Central will be involved in some way.You will recall that he was involved in the efforts to save the old Beachburg Sub as far as the Pontiac Region and Renfrew County. It wouldn't surprise me if he was involved in this process in some way. More on that later.


DaveM said...

I think that the track most say risk is the L'Orginal Spur since traffic out there is subject heavily to economic conditions.

IKO in Hawksburry looks to have construction on site, which is hopefully a sign of expansion and continued traffic (which will hopefully be good news for the Vankleek Hill Sub).


Michael said...

Agreed, Dave. I think l'Orignal is the only stretch of track that might be in play here.

AJ said...

Great summary of things. I think this sort of summary, based in fact and reasonable guestimation, is truly what is needed. I think there are too many rumours based on assumption.

I agree with you that the line screams commuter track and will one day likely serve that purpose (finally!!!!)

That was a great point brought up about the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound history. I don't think this is well understood much like it is in the valley in many of the small towns where the history is still noticeable. Frankly that was a feat in it's day and one which left a much more significant mark on the city (and the province for that matter) than people realize. I hope you do a bit of digging into that because I think you'll enjoy what you find.

And for what it is worth, I am hoping James Allen does come out of the woodwork for this line. Its the right thing for the city and a great way to grow the commercial and industrial base and create good jobs that don't necessarily rely on the federal government. I think it is economically viable and has potential. Could be an excellent way the city can partner with private interests who are proven, know the area and will do a great job. If I knew how to run a train, I'd probably be the first one jumping in behind him!

Michael said...

I always thought if I won the lottery, I would buy the local operation, call James Allen and get a team together. I can't believe in a city of 1 million that there is no market for rail freight service. I simply think CN's too big and too centralized to actually try and grow the operation here. And why should they? They're not a short line and don't think this way. Maybe it's time that a Cando or Ontario Southland to try their hand here.

Unknown said...

Just a minor correction (from the fellow who sent the photos to you), I am from the Northwest Territories (not the Yukon)! Anyhow, I marvel that this 35 mile section of railway -- which is the last vestige of the original Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway -- managed to survive. It reminds me of those photos one sees of a tornado-stricken area and where a single tool shed has survived the storm and for no apparent reason other than blind luck or circumstance. In a saner country that gives a damn about its history (which unfortunately does not include Canada), this line would be declared a national heritage site (or corridor as the case may be). I am grateful that a quirky economic situation has been the reason for its survival, but as we all know, economics is boom and bust. If Nylene ever folds, that rail line will be gone in a heartbeat. I wonder who one would petition to have this line declared a heritage corridor?

Spencer Hopping said...


I tried to attach a picture of CN 4807 in Arnprior this afternoon (at 1:00 pm sharp) as it was starting to move around several cars for Nylene just west of the Madawaska Blvd crossing. So much for no more rails on the Renfrew Sub. A gorgeous day. Not sure how to atttach pics but have a couple if you like. They aren't studio quality due to the sun facing the camera.

AJ said...

"I always thought if I won the lottery, I would buy the local operation, call James Allen and get a team together"

Me too Michael. Hey if I hit LottoMax, I'll be dropping you a line as well about this.

The Reginator said...

Thanks for posting this.
I've been wondering for a long while now about the health and/or existence of rail freight traffic in and around Ottawa.
I had always ASSUMED that there must be plenty of freight traffic, but I have not personally witnessed it for decades.
- Reg

Kevin from Windsor said...

If you're interested in the history of the O,A&PS, may I recommend the book "Over the Hills to Georgian Bay: The Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway" by Niall MacKay. The railroad was part of J.R. Booth's lumber empire and was intended to bring his product to western markets by rail, and then by ship across Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. There was also a tourist element that brought people to lodges in Algonquin Park. For a long abandoned railroad, it's amazing that the Barry's Bay station and water tower are both preserved. Are the remains of the Madawaska roundhouse still standing? I have photos of them that I took as a kid back in 1977.

The Reginator said...


Thanks for the reminder. I actually have that book but I have not cracked the cover in decades.

Take care and God bless,

Joel Racine said...

I'm a little bit late in the conversation but for what it's worth... I had a short conversation with the district manager the last time I went railfanning at Coteau in August 2019. He told me that someone had visited the Vankleek Sub (Glen Robertson to Hawkesbury/L'Orignal) the previous week to assess the line. They were showing interest in purchasing the line from CN.

Technically, the Vankleek Sub could be run independently from Ottawa operations. Just like the Ottawa Central did for a period of time, they could operate that line between Coteau and L'Orignal with running rights on the Alexandria Sub from Glen Robertson to Coteau. The OCR left the locomotives assigned on that line overnight either in Vankleek Hill or on the JP Grains siding in St-Polycarpe. Daily (except Saturday) OCR train 440/441 (Ottawa to Coteau) would exchange locomotives on a regular basis with the Vankleek Sub job for their regular maintenance at Walkley Yard.

If someone were to purchase the Vankleek Sub only and run it independently, I don't know how and where they would service the locomotives though. As previously said, I believe that there is still enough business for someone to purchase the Walkley Line in Ottawa and the Vankleek Sub and operate them like the good old Ottawa Central days. 90% of Walkley yard could be used for car storage, which was big business for the Ottawa Central.

- Joel

David S said...

Do you think that Brookfield Asset Management and Brookfield Infrastructure purchase of Genesee & Wyoming could be a factor. Considering one of Canada biggest corporation is now in the short line business in Canada? They also own Brookfield Rail in Australia.

Joel Racine said...

If only the Prince of Wales bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau was still in service, Genesee & Wyoming would be the logical choice to take over the former Ottawa Central territory from CN. They could interchange with the Quebec Gatineau Railway at Walkley Yard as was the case during the early years of the Ottawa Central from 1998 to 2001. But the construction of the O-Train put an end to that.

The Ottawa area (including the Vankleek Sub) desperately needs new ownership and any of the successful shortlines in Ontario or Quebec would be 200% better than CN. If the city of Ottawa is indeed successful with the purchase of the Walkley Line, rail freight service in Ottawa is anything but dead. I don't see the city managing a successful rail freight operation like the city of Guelph has done with the Guelph Junction Railway.

David S said...

Yes! But Canadian Pacific shares rail lines with Montreal LRT. So it doable. Also, brookfield has resources to reconnect Mattawa to Arnprior.

Dan Mann said...

I am almost certain there will be no freight railway in Ottawa after CN leaves. The reason I believe that is because it is the easiest option for all parties involved. Actually setting up a shortline takes effort and money to set up, and I just can't see that happening. As for Nylene, they will either need to switch to trucks, move, or shut down.