Short-line railways sometimes get lost in the shuffle when federal politicians and policymakers look for ways to improve rail service in Canada.
But if a recent report from the federal finance committee is any indication, the interests of short-line railway operators in Western Canada are gaining traction in Ottawa.
On Dec. 10, the federal finance committee presented a report to the House of Commons recommending “significant and sustained funding for short-line rail infrastructure improvements,” in Canada.
According to the report, funding for short-line improvements would ensure that short-line railway operators continue to play a critical role in maintaining Canada’s transportation networks, facilitating export capacity and improving safety.
In a recent interview, officials with the Western Canadian Short Line Railway Association (WCSLRA) said they are pleased with the finance committee report and hopeful that its recommendation for stable, ongoing funding will be included in the 2019 federal budget.
“We’re really pleased with the efforts that Transport Canada and the minister’s office are making to include us in decision making and hopefully now to include some financial help,” said WCSLRA president Perry Pellerin.
“I think the (finance) committee recognized that short lines are a very big part of the transportation system and that they contribute a lot to the communities and municipalities in the (Prairies).”
Pellerin said short-line operators in Western Canada have a huge opportunity to support economic activity, attract private sector investment and help Canada reach its ambitious export targets.
But to do that, short-line rail infrastructure must be improved. That includes new and improved rail sidings, track upgrades and modernized interchanges with Class 1 railway carriers.
“In a lot of cases, when our members took over those lines … they were in rough, rough shape,” Pellerin said.
“What we really need is significant funding that would allow us to improve our infrastructure to the point where we can attract new business to our lines.”
Pellerin said short-line operators serve a variety of business sectors, including agriculture and the oil and gas industry.
Some businesses are considering investments near short-line tracks but they are looking for assurances that short-line operators can move products safely and efficiently.
Infrastructure upgrades would also lead to improved service from Class 1 railway partners, including Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, Pellerin said.
“In some cases, the services that short-line members receive from their Class 1 partners has been very good. But in other cases, service has been very bad,” he said.
“In some cases, our members are really suffering, and it has to get better.”
Modern interchanges are needed that allow Class 1 railways to connect to short-line trains quickly and efficiently.
Last October, the WCSLRA made a pre-budget submission to the federal government, requesting a long-term funding commitment of $90 million in 2019-20 and an additional $200 million over the following five years.
The short-line association also requested funding of $500,000 per year for three years, which it said would enhance the competitiveness of small and medium-sized shippers using western Canadian short-line railways.
Allison Field, director of government relations and communications with the short-line group, said a funding commitment of that size would have a significant and lasting impact.
She said short lines in the United States are highly productive and have excellent relationships with shippers and Class 1 partners, largely due to the fact that they have quality track and modern, reliable infrastructure.
“It would be phenomenal if we could end up with a system like that here in Canada,” Field said.
“There’s no lack of goods to move here in Western Canada. We just have to find the most efficient way to move them.”