Railway relocation isn’t blowing smoke


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John A. Macdonald had a national dream. He would build a transcontinental railway that would expand the dominion and help secure Canadian sovereignty in the West.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/03/2015 (2922 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

John A. Macdonald had a national dream. He would build a transcontinental railway that would expand the dominion and help secure Canadian sovereignty in the West.

Today, the idea of moving rail lines out of urban centres seems like the impossible dream. So impossible, no one at city hall or the Manitoba legislature wants to talk about it.

Rail relocation, however, is one of those issues that won’t cry uncle.

The latest edition of this long-running story was delivered last week by prominent Winnipeg businessman Art DeFehr, who has penned an analysis of the benefits and costs of moving CP and CN rail out of Winnipeg.

Mr. DeFehr’s $1-billion estimate for the cost of relocating the rail lines might be on the low side, but the benefits to Winnipeg are almost priceless: No more expensive rail bridges and underpasses, faster movement of people and cars, improved safety and huge swaths of land that could be redeveloped. 

The railways, in turn, would benefit from faster movement around cities and possibly fewer regulations. Parliament is now considering a bill that would increase railway liability as a result of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, which killed 47 people.

Rail relocation is not unprecedented in Winnipeg or other cities. CN abandoned its East Yards in the 1980s to make way for The Forks. The surrender of other lines also made it possible to build Steve Juba Park, Waterfront Drive and other developments.

The problem — here’s the rub — is Canadian cities have more immediate infrastructure requirements that are not being met. It’s hard to demand cash for railway relocation when adequate funds aren’t available for the basics.

On Monday, for example, as interest in Mr. Defehr’s vision was fading, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was lobbying the federal government to invest a minimum of $1 billion a year in public transit.

Cities also need billions of dollars for roads, bridges and wastewater upgrades.

That’s undoubtedly why Mayor Brian Bowman said rail relocation wasn’t on the top of his agenda, while Premier Greg Selinger, an advocate of rail reform in his younger days, has remained silent.

The Harper government is investing $14 billion in infrastructure over 10 years, in addition to $2 billion it distributes annually from the gas tax.

But it’s a drop in the bucket.

As Free Press columnist Dan Lett argued recently, billions of dollars would have been available for infrastructure if Prime Minister Stephen Harper had not lowered the GST by two points.

The government is now focused on balancing the budget at a time when oil revenues have fallen dramatically. It means extra cash for national programs will be hard to find.

But what of rail-line relocation? Is there no point in talking about it when the city and province are broke, and Ottawa is focused on deficit reduction and tax cuts that will also drain the treasury of billions of dollars more in revenue?

Yes, and here’s why.

Railways control hundreds of acres of land in the city, both directly and indirectly. Their presence has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. Even the best plan for the southwest rapid transit corridor — a route close to Pembina Highway — had to be discarded because CN’s Letellier line was in the way.

Simply put, the railways are an obstacle to Winnipeg achieving its full potential.

That doesn’t mean every last rail tie must be removed. There may still be a place and a need for rail lines in the city.

Mayor Bowman and Premier Selinger should look for funds to commission a study that would provide some hard facts and numbers on the challenge. The railways turned Winnipeg from a frontier post into a booming metropolis. They have the power to remake it again. Let’s at least get the facts.


Updated on Tuesday, March 31, 2015 10:24 AM CDT: Publication page added.

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