One railway down, and one to go.
Canadian Pacific’s railway line through Renfrew County is being closed down, with parts being sold or used elsewhere in the railway business. And the same could be happening to the Canadian National’s Beachburg subdivision through or near such local towns as Pembroke, Beachburg and Portage-du-Fort.
For the last few years, a working group known as Transport Pontiac Renfrew, hoped to generate a business plan that would help Upper Ottawa Valley businesses (such as Trebio, the successor for the former Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper mill in Portage-du-Fort) and provide commuter traffic between the Upper Ottawa Valley and Ottawa.
The federal Ministry of Transportation announced $136,000 of funding toward a feasibility study in December 2009.
At that announcement in Portage-du-Fort, Pontiac MP Lawrence Cannon said the study would allow the government to “better plan transport solutions so that families benefit from quality infrastructure and the regional economy develops, particularly in tourism.”
But the rail’s future wasn’t helped when the Cannon, a supporter of the plan, was defeated in the 2011 federal election. Interest in the line remained for a while, but the lack of a buyer for the line appears to have derailed CN’s Beachburg subdivision line.
SLIM TO NONE
Chances of the line remaining in place for business of any sort are slim to none, suggests Louise Donaldson, a director with Transport Pontiac Renfrew.
She’s convinced the federal government could have turned the situation around.
The Ministry of Defence, she says, “should be playing a major role because of rail access and the importance of the rail to the military (at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa).”
CN’s proposed discontinuance of the Beachburg line that runs 29.3 miles from Portage-du-Fort to a point near Pembroke, was initiated later this year, following CN’s indications in February 2010 that it planned to discontinue the line if it wasn’t sold.
The asking price for the rail section between Portage-du-Fort and Pembroke is $12.1 million, an amount CN notes does not exceed the net salvage value of the railway line. The cost of the lower end of line, which is 44.9 miles from Nepean to Portage-du-Fort, is $21.7 million.
A good portion of that section runs through Ottawa councillor Eli El-Chantiry’s ward. The CN line’s future doesn’t look good, says El-Chantiry.
“The problem we’re facing is shortsighted government, whether provincial or federal,” he said. Any government who doesn’t see the future of the track is obviously short-sighted.”
However, if the section of the Beachburg line running through his ward doesn’t survive, he says the City of Ottawa needs to at least preserve the right-a-way of the rail line’s first 14 kilometres that start at the Walkley rail yard.
For the higher end of the Beachburg subdivision, deadlines for the federal government to make an offer expired Oct. 22, 2012. The Quebec and Ontario ministry of transportation deadlines expire Nov. 21, 2012. Deadlines for Renfrew County, the Renfrew County municipalities of Whitewater Region, Laurentian Valley and the City of Pembroke, the Pontiac Region, Litchfield and Portage-du-Fort are Dec. 21, 2012.
“Then CN will likely lift the railway for salvage,” says Donaldson.
“Frankly, it’s not commuter traffic, but it’s our jobs (in the area) that depend on the rail.” And discontinuance of the CN Beachburg line, said Donaldson, will mean another rural area is going to suffer.
“Nobody has wanted to step up to the plate,” said Donaldson.
“I am expecting total government inaction again. I am particularly disgusted by the federal government’s inaction.”
The final deadline for the lower portion of the Beachburg line, between Portage-du-Fort and Nepean, is Jan. 21, 2013.
One thing’s for sure. The County of Renfrew won’t be making a purchase offer on the line in its own backyard, and never suggested it would.
Paul Moreau, Renfrew County’s director of development and property, said the county wants to see the railway stay, but that the county is not in the railway business, and not in position to buy such assets.
“I can tell you,” said Renfrew County Warden Bob Sweet, “we don’t intend to buy it to run it as a railway. It’s not in our mandate, it’s not in our interest to do so, and we won’t be negotiating any options to operate it as a railway.”
At least efforts have been made to keep the rail line alive, says Donaldson.
We tried to get the charitable donation to work,” she said, alluding to participating municipalities’ who agreed to issue tax receipts to Canadian National if the land and rail assets were donated.
“CN suggested we look at a charitable donation, which we investigated at great lengths. We knew the municipalities couldn’t afford it, but if they were supported by the federal government and both provincial governments, it could have worked.”
But Revenue Canada turned down that proposal.
“Apparently it didn’t meet the acid test of Revenue Canada,” said Sweet.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
When it is suggested there aren’t any potential buyers for the Beachburg subdivision, Donaldson replies: “Private money, no. Several organizations have interesting ideas, but they involve somebody else’s money.”
Donaldson emphasizes, however, that TPR isn’t done yet, as far as the Beachburg line is concerned.
“We’re engaged in strategy on three fronts. I can’t talk about them, but the vision is now longer-term. We may have to shift the strategy and go back to baby steps. But the line isn’t done yet.”
If the railway does leave Renfrew County and the Pontiac, Warden Sweet says that will absolutely add pressure for the need to expand the four-lane Highway 417 across the county. At this point, 417 has only extended a few kilometres past the Arnprior exit. And the next phase isn’t even part of Ontario’s next five-year capital plan.