Back on the track: new life for Alta. rail cars

The province is leasing 125 hopper cars to the Battle River Railway, which will use them to haul grain near Camrose

Some of Alberta’s emblematic rail cars are getting a new life, hitting the tracks once again after sitting in storage for two years.

The blue and yellow hopper cars, bought by the province in 1980, have been leased to short-line Battle River Railway and will be hauling grain in the Camrose region of east-central Alberta.

“There is some sentimental aspect to this,” said Matthew Enright, general manager of the railway.

“It’s great that they are being used by an Alberta short line to move Alberta grain again rather than being parked in Manitoba gathering dust. They are back working for Alberta farmers and that’s great.”

The province is leasing 125 cars to Battle River Railway for eight years. The cars were initially in storage with Canadian Pacific Railway.

CP still has 360 of the cars in storage, while Canadian National Railway continues to use 398 cars.

“This is another example, although a small example, of what governments can do with existing access to help farmers,” said Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, noting the province wanted to find ways it could help get more grain to market.

“I know from both CN and CP, both carriers are purchasing 1,000 new cars over the next little while, so that’s good news as well. We’re going to need that capacity in every way as our yields continue to grow.”

Enright said he’s been eyeing the cars for some time. The company has been looking for ways it can expand its trains cost-effectively.

He explained the company is charged hourly when loading and keeping CN cars, but the Alberta trains don’t have car-hire charges, giving them more time to load larger fleets.

“We’re hoping for increased volumes for our rail line and increased returns for farmers,” he said, noting bigger volumes have reduced rates.

“We’re buying grain from our farmers and selling it to the export market. Farmers benefit when we do better.”

The hopper cars have a unique history.

Former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed used Heritage Fund money in 1980 to buy the 1,000 grain cars in an effort to boost grain exports, as well as investing in the Prince Rupert grain terminal.

Since then, about 117 cars have been lost due to derailments or other accidents, though the province believes they could last another 10 to 12 years if well maintained.

“Even though they are older, they are going to be in good shape when they get to Battle River,” Carlier said.

The lease agreement isn’t being disclosed, though Enright indicated the cars were affordable.

The cars will make about six to nine turns per year, he said, adding the company should be able to keep them in good condition.

“It’s a good fit for us,” he said. “Time will tell on what kind of deal this will be.”

He said the company hopes to lease more cars from the province in the future, likely another 125 units.

“Part of the long-term goal is to have enough of these cars so we can potentially ship to some of the new loop track unloaders in Vancouver,” he said.

“We’d have enough cars to build a whole train to go out there, as well as have our smaller amounts go locally.”

The province will review the lease agreement once the eight years are up, Carlier said, adding there is room to get more use out of the cars.

“They are not worth a lot of scrap,” he said. “The more we can use these cars, the more value we can get out of them and help agriculture.”

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