Farmers reluctant to buy rail line

The company trying to sell a rail line in southern Saskatchewan can’t understand why local farmers aren’t more enthused about buying Great Western Railway.

“If they don’t buy it and it disappears, it’s really going to cost everybody down there a lot of money,” said Ross Fraser, general manager of Westcan Rail Ltd. of Abbotsford, B.C.

If the line is abandoned, grain companies will no longer offer farmers incentives to attract grain to their high-throughput elevators on the main Canadian Pacific Railway line to the north.

That will mean higher costs for grain growers, said Fraser, whose company took over the track from CP four years ago.

“If the railway’s gone and there isn’t a competitive factor there, all of a sudden those incentives and trucking premiums are gone,” he said.

“There is a certain number of farmers that don’t seem to want to accept that.”

GWR, with headquarters in Shaunavon, Sask., operates grain trains over 550 kilometres of track southwest of Swift Current, serving a large area touching on the Alberta and U.S. borders.

Despite the closure of just about all of the grain elevators on the line, the railway has shipped as many as 2,590 cars in a year and is on track to hit 3,000 in 2003-04. Most of those are producer cars.

But Westcan has been losing money on the line and wants to get out of the short-line business.

A group of local farmers has been working since last fall to raise money to buy the line and keep it in local hands.

As of last week it had collected 221 pledges of $2,000 each, for a total of $442,000. That’s short of the $550,000 required for a down payment on the asking price of around $5.5 million, although a spokesperson for the group says it will probably try to proceed with the purchase anyway.

“I think the mind-set is we have to go ahead,” said Con Johnson, who farms near Bracken, Sask. “It’s taking a step 90 years backwards if we don’t.”

Most of the support for the fund-raising campaign has come from farmers at the southern end of the line, who face the longest haul to the main-line elevators.

Getting support from the northern end of the line has been problematic. The group recently distributed 1,000 brochures in the north, making the case for the purchase and asking for support. It generated six responses and no pledges.

“So now we’re of the opinion that we’re on our own,” said Johnson.

At a meeting in Shaunavon in late February, Westcan set a deadline of March 31 for a down payment. Fraser said he’s confident the local group will be able to complete the deal. Asked what Westcan will do if the deal falls through, he said it will “probably” apply to discontinue operations and abandon the line, but added he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“I can’t see them not going ahead with it,” he said. “It’s a great deal for them.”

If the line is listed for sale through the abandonment process, it would likely attract interest from companies eyeing the salvage value of the line, estimated to be $11-$13 million, more than double the reported asking price.

Stacey Wallis, general manager of GWR, said that if the local purchase falls through, another solution might be to divide the line in half, with the southern end abandoned and sold for salvage, and the northern end remaining in service.

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