On a bed of rails: Part 1 Winnipeg’s past, present and future collide in relocation debate
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/09/2016 (2275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This is the first of a two-part series exploring how Winnipeg can co-exist with an entrenched railway system built a century ago. Read Part 2: Rail relocation seems to benefit all parties, so what is Winnipeg’s hold up?
So, you’re stuck in traffic at Marion and Archibald streets, again, waiting for what seems like an eternity, waiting for another train to clamour through the city. With the right of way, of course.
You don’t know what the train cars whizzing past contain. Maybe potash. Maybe oil or wheat. Maybe hazardous waste.
And the only alternative to not sitting in your car and fuming is an underpass proposed by the City of Winnipeg that could cost, depending on the nature of design, somewhere between $250 million to $500 million of your tax dollars.
Or maybe move the rail lines outside of the city limits altogether? Everybody wins, right? Except the estimates for relocation begin in the billions and would take decades to complete.
This is a dilemma that has plagued Winnipeg for almost 50 years: how can an evolving city co-exist with an entrenched railway system built a century ago for needs of another era?
What will be the cost to taxpayers — from overpasses/underpasses to traffic congestion to potential derailment issues — as urban sprawl continues to create logistical and expensive challenges to that co-habitation?
And just who is at fault for this seemingly intractable problem?
One former chief city planner has an answer: “John A. Macdonald did this to us,” said Harry Finnigan, now the founder of MacKay Finnigan Associates, consultants for urban redevelopment and revitalization.
Finnigan is only joking. Sort of.
A quick history lesson: Macdonald was the prime minister in the early 1880s when the city’s founding fathers were loading up the war chest to convince both the federal government and Canadian Pacific Railway officials to run the main line of what would become the transcontinental railway through Winnipeg.
That main line was supposed to be built through Selkirk, at the strict insistence of the railway’s engineers, because the Winnipeg area was under water about every generation or so from flooding of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
But that didn’t stop Winnipeg businessmen, led by Donald A. Smith, from essentially hijacking the main line. Smith was motivated. As a principal shareholder in the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned more than 1,700 acres of land in the fledgling prairie burgh, Smith, and his associates, stood to reap millions of dollars in real estate profits from attracting the CPR line to Winnipeg.
According to a paper by University of Manitoba economics professor Ruben C. Bellan in 1961 entitled Rails Across the Red — Selkirk or Winnipeg, the HBC produced five local agents to testify to railway officials “the Red River had not flooded in the recent past to the extent reported by other sources.” (Ahem.)
Meanwhile, the citizens of Winnipeg had already agreed to pony up $300,000 to erect the Louise Bridge (named after Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter) over the Red River to Winnipeg from St. Boniface. The citizenry later voted to pay CPR a $200,000 bonus to locate the syndicate’s workshops and railyards in the city. They even offered to exempt the railway from paying property tax “into perpetuity.” According to Bellan, the local ratepayers voted in favour 130-1.
Canadian Pacific Railway took the bait. The ratepayers footed the bill (CPR offered to pay full property taxes to the city in 2005). And the Hudson’s Bay Company profited untold millions when real estate properties in the city soared to prices matching Chicago and New York.
But it was always a two-way track between Winnipeg and the railways, right from the first spike.
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The iron horse arrives
Take the arrival of the Countess of Dufferin steam locomotive to the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers on Oct. 9, 1877, a seminal moment in the city’s history. The Countess was ferried up the Red River from Minnesota on the SS Selkirk (yes, ironic) and met with hundreds of giddy Winnipeggers who were awed by the machine. The Manitoba Free Press described the crowd’s reaction as “wild, unearthly shrieks… and the continuous noise and din proclaimed loudly that the iron horse had arrived at last.”
“When the Countess of Dufferin came to Winnipeg there was a 21-gun salute at the Canadian border,” said Doug Bell, president of the Manitoba Railway Museum, located at The Forks. “When she got to Winnipeg, it was declared a holiday… and every church that had a bell rang it and every factory that had a whistle blew it.”
In securing the main line, Winnipeg’s future was forever changed.
If not for the CPR, said Bell, “The sign (on the city limits) would read, ‘Welcome to Winnipeg: Pop. 20,000.’”
The Countess was the steam-powered mule that laid track west to Golden, B.C., east to Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay, Ont.) and south to the United States border. The old iron horse now rests comfortably in retirement at the Manitoba Railway Museum.
“The history of railways is the history of Canada,” said Stephen Cheasley, president of the Canadian Railway Museum, based in Saint-Constant, Que. “The railways were there, especially in the West, first. Every village wanted one. The railways were built and then the cities developed around them.”
Railways mapped out the West. The trains were the engines that transported populations into the provinces and carried the raw materials and grains out. For example, Canadian Pacific Railway, which was granted 25 million acres by the federal government, lured thousands of immigrants from across Europe to places such as rural Manitoba for $2.50 per acre.
The money helped finance the enormous cost of rail infrastructure. The settlers provided the necessary population base. And the tracks laid clear to the Pacific Ocean formed the economic foundation of a vast, resource-rich nation.
“It’s a little bit like the Internet of today,” Cheasley said. “The Internet is moving information quickly and cheaply. Up to the time of the railway, the fastest that people moved was the speed of a horse. The railways provided they could move things faster and cheaper than ever before.”
And Winnipeg, thanks to the shrewd manoeuvring of city forefathers, developed into a hub.
“This is a very important railway city,” said Barry Prentice, a professor at the Transportation Institute at the University of Manitoba. “If anything, Winnipeg was founded as a railway city. It’s the only place in Western Canada where Burlington North, CP and CN meet. And they all have to pass through here. This was a city based on railways.”
At the turn of the last century, railways dominated the city: Canadian Pacific, Canadian Northern, Northern Pacific and Manitoba, and the Winnipeg Hydro Tramway (to Lac du Bonnet), joined later by Grand Trunk Pacific and Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway (to Shoal Lake).
At that time, Winnipeg had the largest freight yards in North America (five in total). The CPR’s Weston shops were the largest privately owned rail yard in the world, said Bell.
In 1914, 20 per cent of the population in the northeastern U.S. worked for the railways. In Winnipeg, the percentage was closer to 35.
Union Station (at Main Street and Broadway) at its peak had 58 passenger trains pass through daily. The Northern Pacific station on Water Street had seven passenger trains depart for the U.S. every day.
“It was a major, major hub of activity,” Bell said.
Entire neighbourhoods were raised around the rail, such as Weston (nicknamed CPR Town) and Windsor Park, located west of CN’s Symington Yards. Transcona has for decades been synonymous with the rail industry.
Then came the decline of what was then Canada’s third largest city.
The Panama Canal — the man-made waterway that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans — devastated Canada’s rail industry after it opened in 1914. The ability to transport goods to the populated east coast could now efficiently be accomplished by ship.
“Everything crashed,” Bell said. “It virtually brought Winnipeg to its knees.”
Up until that time, Winnipeg was the linchpin for goods moving not only from west to east but also the central United States. The city’s Exchange District warehouses were a storehouse for the world.
But after the canal opened, Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific — along with hundreds of other small railways — went bankrupt. CPR laid off thousands of employees. Freight yards were either drastically cut or eliminated.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that Canadian National Railway emerged from dozens of bankrupt companies purchased by the federal government to ensure key transportation links.
Of course, it wasn’t just a ditch in Panama that affected railway growth in Winnipeg. There was the First World War, the General Strike of 1919, the growth of rival western cities that cut into Winnipeg’s role as a central national warehouse.
Video: Winipeg’s economic engine
The Canadian rail industry continued to decline after the Second World War. Passenger traffic all but vanished as cars became the mode of travel. Those who didn’t drive flew. Pipelines were built to more efficiently distribute oil. Live animals were transported by a burgeoning long-haul trucking industry. Boxcars were outdated and inefficient.
Railways across North America were declaring bankruptcy. Both CN (then a Crown corporation) and CPR were bleeding money. The railways that built the country’s Confederation were becoming diesel dinosaurs leaving abandoned tracks.
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The renaissance of rail
Long gone are the heady days when Winnipeg’s rail yards were teeming when shops manufactured their own parts and jammed passenger trains pulled into the city’s grand, ornate stations — the CN’s Union Station on Main Street and the Canadian Pacific Railway Station on Higgins Avenue.
“It’s very clear now that the CPR and the Weston shops, they’re not what they used to be,” noted then-Manitoba premier Greg Selinger in an interview prior to April’s provincial election. “There was a day when everybody lived in those neighbourhoods. They lived there, they worked there. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs. This was the core economy for places like Weston and Point Douglas. Even in the Logan (there were) tons of railway workers. That has all changed now.
“Where you had thousands, you may have hundreds now.”
In the late 20th century, however, the economic landscape for rail evolved. Federal deregulation allowed CN and CPR to abandon tracks that were unprofitable. CN was privatized. The Crow Rate controlling the price to transport prairie crops was abolished. Financial outlooks improved.
At the same time, the ability to transport intermodel containers in enormous volumes by sea, and distribute the freight through ports using highly mechanized storage and unloading systems, was a godsend for rail.
“Containerization has invigorated the railway,” Prentice said. “And the second thing is climate change.”
Former federal transport minister David Collenette (who held the post from 1997 to 2003) believes rail will benefit from increasing pressures to reduce global warming — which has already led to railway expansions in China, India, and Australia.
“Rail renaissance is a worldwide phenomenon,” Collenette said in an interview from his Toronto office, where he serves as the Ontario government’s special adviser on a project to establish a high-speed passenger rail corridor between Windsor and Toronto. “It’s become more fuel-efficient, more land-efficient to ship by rail. So you’ve got this rail renaissance in the U.S. and Canada on the freight side. You even have it in Britain and Germany.
“Even though diesel-hauled freight is polluting, it’s not nearly as polluting as hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks,” he said. “The chance for an accident involving dangerous goods on the highway is much more prevalent than rail, but moving more volumes onto rail has to be thought through. Given that main railway lines cut through the heart of towns and cities, this poses a real problem that requires regulation.
"These rules can’t be anti-railway, but, at the same time, the railways have to be sensitive to the issues that municipal politicians have… Rail will continue to be the best way to move bulk goods. Just like 100 years ago.”
Collenette has evidence to back his forecast. In April, the Conference Board of Canada predicted the average annual tonnage of commodities shipped by rail will grow at a faster rate, rising 30 per cent to 260 million tonnes by 2025, up from 200 million tonnes in 2011.
The board cited shifting trading patterns that would put additional pressure on railways and ports to meet the growing demand for Canadian wheat, forest and energy products.
“If not for the railway we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” said Prentice. “The railways are absolutely critical to our Canadian economy. They carry about half of all the freight that’s moved in this country (by weight).
“In many ways, the railways are literally the lifeblood of our economy. That’s one of the reasons they have so much power is because they’re so important to us… They (railways) don’t employ as many people as they used to, that’s for sure. But just go back and look at the strikes: if you have any more than a three-day (railway) strike the country starts to go into a panic. It’s that important.”
CN alone has 2,000 employees based in Winnipeg in the Transcona shops, heavy car and locomotive repair facility, automotive distribution facilities, rail plant and intermodal terminal. In addition, the Winnipeg-based CN Campus, which trains all current and new employees from across Canada, has played host to more than 10,000 employees since opening two years ago.
“We don’t want the railways to become unhappy with us,” Prentice said. “Believe me, we need the railways. They bring a lot of tax base. They’re critical for our industries. It’s important to us that they do well.
“In some ways, Winnipeg’s fortunes have improved as the railway’s fortunes have improved.”
In its April report, the Conference Board of Canada said major investments in both rail and port infrastructure will be required to meet demand for exports bound for Europe and Asia.
Predictably, perhaps, railway industry proponents believe such analysis cements their contention rail corridors in the West, in particular through urban areas, need to be safeguarded, if not enhanced.
“The reality is I think the railway sector needs protection,” said Lee Jebb, vice-president of railway operations for the Brandon-based Central Manitoba Railway. “I think we need to do a lot better job of protecting the corridors from encroachment, from congestion. They’re so important to the country’s well-being. If we keep making it difficult for them to operate, it’s harming us all.”
The Central Manitoba Railway runs short lines from Winnipeg to Carman and Pine Falls. The company builds track, repairs cars for other railways, and owns an old CPR yard in Transcona. The CMR also operates lines across the West and Ontario, including a couple of jurisdictions in the United States.
“Remember, we’re talking about a national transportation system,” Jebb said. “You have to protect corridors or you simply can’t do business. You certainly don’t want to be trucking all the potash in Canada to the southern U.S. You just can’t do that.”
Not surprisingly, the CEO of the Railway Association of Canada concurred.
“We like to call it the backbone of the economy because 70 per cent of the freight that travels between cities travels on rail. Everything moves by rail,” said Michael Bourque. “We’re blessed with a lot of geography in Canada. We produce all kinds of goods and we have the potential to produce more.
"What do we do? We’re a very small nation with a lot of stuff. And we have to sell it to other people, other countries. We need to have a good transportation supply chain.”
Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, believes the city’s relationship with the rail industry remains critical to Manitoba’s economic future.
“Looking forward, the same applies,” Remillard said. “Rail is one of the best, most effective ways to get a vast quantity of goods out of Manitoba and into the trade markets. If we’re going to grow our economy, we have to find a way to get them to a market of more than 1.4 million people.
“Unfortunately, most people’s exposure to rail is when they’re either parked at rail crossings or when we’re having discussions about major infrastructure investments — underpasses, overpasses and the like. What’s lost in that context is all the benefit, all that rail provides for our community and our quality of life. There is an awareness disconnect, unfortunately.”
That “disconnect” could be both physical and cultural.
In 1880, for example, the train was not just a provider of goods and services — it was the prime mode of transportation for anyone arriving or leaving Winnipeg. It was the lifeblood of countless rural communities. Rail lines at the turn of the century stretched from Winnipeg across the Manitoba prairie like spider webs, located about 25 kilometres apart.
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For decades, rail had a direct impact on people’s — or more accurately, passengers’ — lives. There was no Trans-Canada Highway. No James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. There were other ways to move information far and fast, like the telegraph or, later, the radio. But people? Not so much.
Even well into the 20th century, rail was romanticized in film. Cary Grant took the train. Depression-era hobos rode them. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed them. Heck, murder mysteries could be solved on them (the Orient Express).
But in urban environments of the 21st century, trains are the things blocking your way to work. And always at the worst time. They’re the reason your municipal taxes are always going up. They’re not taking you anywhere, just rolling through town carrying who-knows-what-toxic-waste through the heart of your city.
“I like to call it the ‘invisible industry,’” Prentice said. “Nobody even seems to know it’s there until something goes wrong. Then it’s front-page news… until it’s corrected. Then we all go to sleep again.
“There’s no question in my mind railways don’t get the respect from the general public. They never think about them. As a result, we take them for granted.”
That trains are seen by some as transients offends Bourque. “It’s a terrible thing to say these goods are only going through my city, therefore they have nothing to do with me,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
Meanwhile, Bell is a little blunter in his assessment of the urban public’s view of rail.
“What the people of Winnipeg have done is kick them in the groin,” he said. “They treat them like dirt. Toxic. They want them out. They would be just as happy if they went away. The attitude is, ‘Go away, we don’t need you.’”
So fair enough: the railway is critical to the economic health of the city and Canada.
Collisions at rail crossings
But if it’s true the industry’s “renaissance” is only going to mean even more trains carrying more goods — both safe and hazardous — through the bottleneck that is Winnipeg, how is that going to play out? How is the city, also growing, going to continue to co-exist around the steel veins running through its core?
Let’s be clear: Canada has about 73,000 km of track and some 37,000 highway/railway crossings. According to a Transportation Safety Board report in 2012, the vast majority of train collisions and accidents happen off main tracks, in rail yards and terminals, when trains are travelling at speeds of less than 16 km/h. The report stated in 2012 just seven per cent of all 1,011 reported accidents were main-line derailments or collisions. The five-year average was 107 a year.
The vast majority (69 per cent) involved freight trains, four per cent were passenger trains. Dangerous goods were involved in 118 of the accidents, with two resulting in cargo being released into the environment (the five-year average was three).
But that was before Lac-Mégantic, Que.
On July 6, 2013, a runaway train loaded with 74 tankers of highly explosive crude oil derailed, causing massive explosions that gutted the heart of the community of 6,000 and killed 47 people.
Overnight, the level of concern over rail lines through urban areas skyrocketed.
It’s also why former St. Norbert MLA Dave Gaudreau still vividly remembers the day in April 2014, when several rail cars derailed from the CN line near Highway 75, at the south end of the city. There were no injuries. The cars that left the track contained plastic pellets and steel pipes.
But to Gaudreau and other St. Norbert residents who live along the line — many houses are within 100 yards — a harsh reality was confirmed. Accidents happen. The potential damage is left to fate.
“The railways have changed,” said Gaudreau, who lost his seat during the recent Progressive Conservatives election victory. “They used to ship lumber and things that weren’t as flammable and dangerous. It’s huge safety concern for all Winnipeggers.”
The emergence of the Alberta oilsands had led directly to an unprecedented amount of crude oil transported by rail. According to a Railway Association of Canada study, crude in Canada had been historically moved by pipeline — until 2012. Over the next three years, full tanker cars containing oil jumped from less than 6,000 to less than 18,000.
By 2014, more than 15 per cent of Canadian crude oil (in gallon-miles) was being transported by rail, the study showed.
Some now call the railway "a moving pipeline."
As Gaudreau speaks, he is sitting in a parked car along Highway 75, just across the street from a school and daycare. The playground is well within the radius of one kilometre. Hundreds of homes along the track are well within the same distance.
Gaudreau’s concerns are practical: is there a financial advantage for CN to run that line through the city, where it eventually slows to a crawl on a high line near Union Station and Shaw Park, the baseball stadium that is home to the Winnipeg Goldeyes? And will the city continue to foot the bill for infrastructure as Winnipeg’s urban sprawl, especially to the south, continues unabated.
“If we stopped trying to build under- and overpasses on rail lines at $500 million or $200 million or $300 million a pop… because when the city expands we’re going to need more,” Gaudreau said. “Because the traffic will become heavier, there’ll be more wait, people get upset.”
At the same time, he said, “Derailments happen… This isn’t about getting rid of rail lines. This is about moving them to make them more efficient and safe. The rail industry is a huge part of Winnipeg, right?… We need a plan that works for them.”
Bourque acknowledged the Lac-Mégantic disaster shook the industry. Operating rules and regulations have been tightened. Railways have worked hard to advocate for tougher standards for tank cars, which are primarily owned by customers and leasing companies, and those cars with enhanced safety features are being being put into service while older ones are phased out. In addition, they are required by law to provide lists of dangerous goods being transported through communities to emergency responders. (When asked why such information could not be made public, Bourque said in the wrong hands, it could turn the rail cars into targets.)
“We’ve had to up our game on a number of fronts,” he said. “That was a pretty catastrophic accident and it’s fresh in people’s minds still. They certainly have the right to ask for it not to happen again.”
The tragedy of Lac-Mégantic will continue to cast doubt about rail in densely populated areas for decades to come, regardless of the odds of a similar catastrophe reoccurring elsewhere. How could it not?
But when it comes to the present-day issue of rail relocation, one undisputed aspect of the debate is largely unspoken: the railways were here first. Never forget the Winnipeg vote in 1882 was 130-1 — the city’s forefathers practically begged, borrowed and stole for those tracks.
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Close to home
The lines running through Winnipeg were there long before the suburbs swelled in all directions and the downtown skyline rose above Portage and Main. So it’s fair to ask how the railways could be the bad guys when it was the city that had every opportunity to develop and expand at an arm’s length.
“The history in Winnipeg is to ignore the track. It’s a fixture of the environment,” said Bruce MacLeod, owner of MR Consultants Inc., a real estate firm that has represented railways.
MacLeod said the city, over the years, has been lax on establishing buffer zones. Only now is the municipality amending bylaws calling for increased setbacks and buffer zones similar to those on new roads along Peguis Trail, east of Henderson Highway, and Inkster Boulevard, west of Keewatin Street.
“The city and province have to respect those rights, but they don’t,” MacLeod said. “If they did you wouldn’t be talking about the issue today.”
MacLeod said in the 1960s, city planners envisioned the population growth in south Winnipeg and recommended Waverley Street be expanded two lanes north of Taylor Avenue. An underpass or overpass would be required at the intersection of the CN line.
“But it’s easy to make a quick cheap crossing over the track and worry about paying for it later,” MacLeod said.
In February, city council approved going ahead with an underpass at Waverley and Taylor — used by 30,000 vehicles and 40 trains each day — at an estimated cost of $155 million.
According to MacLeod, the history lessons regarding urban and rail co-habitation are self-evident. “The planning needs to be 100 years from now, not 50 years,” he said.
So why would it not be prudent for Canada, as a whole, to take a similar long-range approach to future rail development?
In February, the long-awaited review of the federal Transportation Act — compiled by former cabinet minister David Emerson over an 18-month period — attempted to do exactly that, setting out 60 recommendations to improve the country’s highways, rail, and marine transport systems.
Mary-Jane Bennett, a former board member for the Canadian Transportation Agency, said several recommendations were designed to “basically separate cities and railways.” For example, one recommendation called for Ottawa to fund rail relocation to reduce the risk of residents in densely populated urban areas. Another called for establishing a national corridor protection program within five years.
“That’s exactly what Emerson wants, that we just have these trade corridors, almost like pipelines,” said Bennett, who is currently involved in rail relocation efforts in White Rock, B.C. “We increase our competitiveness. We increase our GDP. We increase our productivity. There’s a benefit to Canada.
“Railways don’t want to do anything that is going to impact their day-to-day operations until there’s a plan in place,” she said. “(But) I think if you put together a package and you had the right people in place, the right conversations going, you’d find railways would have buy-in because they would want to move their goods as efficiently (as possible) to port.”
To bolster her position, Bennett has cited a Texas Department of Transport study, conducted in 2007, which concluded: “The efficiency of U.S. cities and railways alike had been compromised by urban rail transportation and that rail relocation provided benefits to both.”
The study said, “delays, inefficiencies, an increase in emissions, and the greater likelihood of accidents at grade crossings could all be minimized by removing rail corridors from cities.”
How times and attitudes have changed.
When the last spike of the Pacific railway’s first line to St. Paul, Minn., from Winnipeg was pounded on Dec. 5, 1878, the Manitoba Free Press gushed: “The long-looked for and anxiously awaited event, of so much importance to this north-western land, has at length been consummated; and Manitoba takes another stride in the march of progress which will result in her assuming a higher and more influential position in the sisterhood of Confederation.”
Rail lines into the city meant prosperity. They meant economic power. They were a lifeline to the world. And still are.
But the days when Winnipeggers would joyously celebrate the appearance of a locomotive with a 21-gun salute have gone the way of the steam engine. Just consider this Winnipeg Free Press editorial written last year on the subject of rail relocation:
“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.”
Some say rail relocation is a pipe dream that will never happen. Others say it must.
Either way, who would have thought a city built by the grace of the rail would even consider a future without one within its limits?
“Now we’ve come full circle to get the railways the hell out of town,” Prentice said, with a wry chuckle. “Go to Selkirk, we’ll say.
“If nothing else, it’s ironic.”
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.