Thursday, February 20, 2014

Railways Becoming a Liability to Small Centers

Elevators in Beiseker, circa 1970s.
A hundred years ago, Canada's railways were the lifeblood of rural communities like ours.  Towns popped up like mushrooms along the rail lines.  Elevators were built on the newly constructed sidings and folks gravitated to the new urban center.   The new towns were often far enough apart along the track so that a farmer could load is wagon with grain and drive his team into the elevator, unload, conduct business in town, pick up the mail, and be home for supper!

Farmers would sometimes donate land - or sell it below its value - to rail companies so that tracks might be built into their area.  Passenger service was daily, along with mail and goods delivery.  Cream was shipped to far off dairies.  Railways really opened up the West!

Oh, have the times changed!  For most Alberta rural communities, the railway has become a nuisance to be endured rather than an asset.  The grain elevators have mostly gone, and most of the sidings have been ripped out.  Farmers have to drive long distances to deliver their produce.  For the most part, now, the trains just roar through town without even slowing down.

Freight trains passing through at speed become hazardous to traffic and local residents, requiring better signals to ensure safety.  But it is my understanding that a municipality must pick up most of the cost of installing flashing lights, barriers, etc. at controlled level crossings.  Villages like Beiseker can't afford that!  So the train blows its horn at all hours of the night, as it roars through town.

Now the stations are gone, and the section crews with their little yellow scooters are gone.  These folks were an important part of their communities!  I seriously doubt that an industry could convince a rail company to stop and pick up or deliver to these small centers anymore, either.  Even a service crossing for a water line costs money; the municipality must pay the railway!

The tragic disaster at Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec, last year is still in our thoughts as trains continue to whistle through our communities carrying huge quantities of who-knows-what!  Getting information from the railways on what those black tank cars are carrying, is like pushing a string.

Passenger service is now a distant memory, even though the tracks end up in the center of the big cities, and commuters could use trains and cut down on automobile pollution and traffic.  In the dying days of rail passenger service about 40 years ago, it was a joke.  The "Dayliner" left and arrived at very inconvenient hours at both ends, and was less than reliable.

Years ago, many abandoned rail lines were donated to societies to build biking and hiking trails on.  From my viewpoint, most are just growing weeds.  When Alberta Trail-net is asked to clean-up their abandoned trackway, they say they expect volunteers from the nearby municipalities to do it!  In Beiseker, the abandoned CPR line is leased by the Beiseker Rail Museum.  It's fast turning into the Land That Time Forgot running right through the middle of the village.  That has to change!

I believe it's time the railway companies cracked open their own history books and rediscover where they came from, and where they made their millions.  They must reconnect with the communities they pass through and are so much a part of, whether they like it or not!


  1. Great history lesson and commentary.

  2. Yes, it's sad how progress left behind the railway. Fixing up the abandoned tracks to become walking/bike path would be great, but small communities shouldn't have to foot the bill. I agree the railway companies should give back

  3. It's frustrating that the provincial government wastes time going back around to the idea of a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton, every few years. The cost is always in the billions of dollars, which is why the discussion always goes nowhere. Alberta's certainly not France, Japan or even California; we simply don't have enough people living here to support such a rail line.

    But the slower, less 'sexy,' and much lower-cost option of commuter rail - something like Montreal's AMT, Toronto's GO Train or Vancouver's West Coast Express - is barely talked about as an option for Calgary or Edmonton's metro areas, if it's mentioned at all. Those cities have proven that those sorts of regional passenger trains are viable. Why not here?

    1. Excellent point Rhys. Commuter trains zipping into the city from outer communities would certainly be a logical step. But in this province logic hardly ever enters the equation. We want bling and kaching; flash and money! They'll probably build their high speed rail between Calgary and Edmonton eventually. Then they'll have to build the QE II into twenty lanes each way to handle the communters!