The Canadian Pacific Railway has an aggressive new boss who's already reviewing the company's operations, making this a perfect time to debate relocating the tracks that isolate the North End, says an industry expert.
CP's new president, Hunter Harrison, has spent his career overhauling railway companies and making them more efficient. That includes Canadian National, which Harrison ran until 2009 and where rationalization efforts are considerably more advanced than at CP. In recent years, CN has consolidated operations and vacated old, urban railway yards across Canada, allowing cities to redevelop them as new neighbourhoods or destinations such as The Forks.
Harrison is widely expected to take the same approach at CP.
"If there was ever a time to be talking about the future of those yards, this would be it," said Greg Gormick, a Toronto-based transportation policy adviser who was a consultant to CP for years.
Harrison has already begun touring the country, looking at CP's facilities to determine where rationalization might make sense, Gormick said. And many yards are out-of-date and in need of significant capital investment, he said.
The Social Planning Council of Winnipeg has recently made a pitch to all levels of government to fund a $1.5-million feasibility study to determine whether moving the yards and building an innovative new neighbourhood makes sense.
CP has refused to make any senior staff available for an interview.
"We have no intentions of moving or selling our Winnipeg yard, as it meets our current requirements for our company's operation," spokesman Kevin Hrysak said in an email.
Social Planning Council executive director Dennis Lewycky said his behind-the-scenes discussions with CP officials have been more positive, and others have suggested CP's strategy for years has been to balk at moving yards in order to leverage more government money.
CP has long considered moving its Winnipeg yards. For decades, the company owned about 400 hectares of land in the Rural Municipality of Rosser, northwest of Winnipeg. Whenever the rail-relocation debate popped up, that land was seen as the ideal spot for a railway yard. But the province bought the land from CP to help create CentrePort Canada.
Local railway experts say CentrePort is too small to accommodate new marshalling yards anyway, though a shared intermodal railway facility of some kind is envisioned for the area.
Generally, railway companies chafe at inner-city railway yards that are hemmed in by neighbourhoods. They lack space and face noise complaints, and trains must slow to a crawl through busy intersections.
Winnipeg businessman Art DeFehr, who helped author a 2008 report for Transport Canada on North American trade routes, says railways have no need to go through Winnipeg any longer, since very little is delivered directly to local industry by rail and it makes no sense to load and marshal trains in the centre of the city. The only reason tracks continue to criss-cross Winnipeg is it's expensive to move them.
"Taking them out of Winnipeg is by far the best solution," DeFehr said.
He said a possible location for a modern intermodal and marshalling yard is west of Winnipeg closer to Portage la Prairie, and it could serve both CP an CN. It could be a "game-changer" for Prairie trade and transportation, he said.
It's a huge parcel of land -- 195 hectares, including the Weston shops -- and redeveloping them could transform the city. What would you like to see built there? Housing? Shops? Community gardens? A water park? Come to the Free Press News Café and get creative. You'll have a chance to discuss the issue, hear from some experts and even sketch the outline of a new neighbourhood. You can start right now by downloading a map of the area that we've posted on our website.
When: Tuesday, July 31, 6 p.m.
Where: Free Press News Café, 237 McDermot Ave. in the Exchange District.
Who: Everyone. University of Manitoba city planning Prof. Richard Milgrom and Social Planning Council executive director Dennis Lewycky will kick off the discussion.
More information: wfp.to/offtherails