Railway track that was laid 20 years ago to help move grain to west coast ports more efficiently is being torn up by Canadian National Railway.
The company is removing 64 kilometres of double-tracked line from its main line in and around Jasper National Park, leaving only a single line. CN says improvements to railway operations mean the double track is no longer needed and assures shippers it won’t have adverse impact on the shipments.
“It will have no effect at all on our ability to handle traffic to the West Coast, including grain,” said CN spokesperson Jim Feeny.
The track being torn up represents about 16 percent of the roughly 400 kilometres that were double-tracked between Edmonton and Vancouver in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The double tracking was laid to ease congestion in westbound traffic, but Feeny said that’s no longer the case, thanks to improved scheduling and planning, longer trains and longer sidings.
“There’s a fewer number of trains running on the track at once, so they don’t need to pull over as much,” he said. “Trains aren’t competing for track.”
News of the removal came as a surprise to some farm organizations and grain shippers.
Ian McCreary, chair of the Canadian Wheat Board’s transportation committee, said it’s unsettling that at the same time as freight rates continue to rise, CN is taking potentially valuable surge capacity out of the system.
“I hope that’s not the result, but it is a twinge of concern,” said the CWB director from Bladworth, Sask.
While the railway may not need the double track now, he added, that could change.
“There’s a whole bunch more productive capacity in Western Canada than is being put out in these last few years,” said McCreary. “If the market gives us a decent price, there’ll be a lot of volume to move.”
Feeny said the railway has taken that into account.
“We think the way we operate is so much better than it was that we can accommodate any foreseeable increase in traffic with no strain.”
Darren Qualman, executive secretary of the National Farmers Union, said CN is obsessed with short-term profits.
“It seems extremely shortsighted,” he said. “It just seems like one more unnecessary sale of assets and destruction of infrastructure for very little money.”
It would be one thing if the railways were losing money and were tearing up track as a matter of economic survival.
“But when they’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, then ripping up double track that was put in at the expense of taxpayers to send that to shareholders as well, seems really illegitimate and shortsighted,” he said.
Feeny said the double-tracked rail isn’t needed to run the railways and so it makes no sense to keep it and pay the related ownership and maintenance costs. He added the company will continue to review the future of other sections of the double track.