by Edith Cody-Rice
That train whistle you heard in Mississippi Mills and Carleton Place on Tuesday last was the death knell of the Ottawa Valley rail line.
Sources have told the Millstone that Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), owner of the line, is taking up the track between Pembroke and Renfrew and that the train that passed through Mississippi Mills and Carleton Place will transport the rails and ties to Montreal. Local councils in Lanark County have fought long and hard to preserve this line, a valuable link for Valley enterprises to move goods to market and for potential commuters in the long term. It also has an important safety feature. Without the line, all rail goods must pass through the Toronto corridor. Should that corridor be blocked for any reason, the only alternate for rail traffic between western and eastern Canada is the Ottawa Valley route.
A little history
Fifteen years ago,the Ottawa Valley Railway(OVR) began operating a long-term lease on a 310-mile line from Smiths Falls to Sudbury owned by CP. In 1999, RailAmerica’s Canadian subsidiary, RailLink, took over the OVR for its short-line service to such customers as CFB Petawawa and the pulp and paper industry. In 2009, CP ceased using the OVR for its eastbound rail cargo, opting instead to rely exclusively on its main line through Toronto. As a result, car loads dropped dramatically from over 4,000 in December 2008 to under 1,000 in December of 2009.
RailAmerica terminated its lease with the OVR on Dec. 18, 2009. On Jan. 5, 2010 CP advised stakeholders, including local governments, of its intent to discontinue and sell the line. Ads were published in February 2010 after which municipalities aggressively lobbied federal and provincial governments and OC Transpo for assistance in buying the rail line to preserve the infrastructure. They were hampered by a legislative process that mandates strict time lines for bidding.
Private-sector interests set a six month negotiating period but no viable bids were presented for the 104-mile stretch from Mattawa to Smiths Falls. Federal and provincial governments as well as OC transpo declined to take an interest and the net salvage value, estimated at some $90 million, is too rich for local municipalities to finance on their own.
Final effort to buy time.
On June 6, 2011, in a last ditch effort to save the line, a group called Transport Action Ontario filed a formal complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency alleging that CP had not followed the proper procedure and should be required to repeat certain steps in the process, essentially buying time. Today, August 5, a quasi-judicial panel of the Transportation Agency rejected that allegation, stating that CP complied with the legislation in its discontinuance process, clearing the way for CP to tear up rails and ties and dispose of them as it sees fit.
Lanark County Chief Administrative Officer, Peter Wagland, who along with former Mississippi Mills mayor Al Lunney spearheaded the effort to find funds to buy the rail line, said that he did not take a position on the application to the Transportation Agency as it turned on a technical legal argument, but that that it was unfortunate that three levels of government had an opportunity to intervene, but wanted no part of it.
Al Lunney stated that not only has the government missed an opportunity to keep the lines to extend light commuter rail in the future, but the rail beds are a liability and this is a major concern of municipalities along the rail routes. "Railroads can treat their rail beds anyway they see fit" said Mr. Lunney. While CP has stated that the track has passed the federal government Class 1 Environmental Assessment, Mr. Lunney noted that the inspection for this assessment is cursory and gave as an example of concern the possibility that some hundreds wooden railroad ties and buckets of spikes have been simply thown in ditches.
If the counties take over the land, it will come under provincial jurisdiction and the counties may be responsible for environmental cleanup mandated by relatively strict provincial legislation. If they do not take the land, CP may dispose of the land as it sees fit, perhaps selling land to a developer or removing the railway bridge across the Mississippi River in Almonte.
Much of the rail line runs through bush, but the majority of the line that crosses urban areas runs through Mississippi Mills. Thus, the fate of the land is of significant concern to the residents and council of Mississippi Mills. The communities had wanted a first right of refusal on acquiring the land but it is not clear what a first right of refusal would tangibly give them, even were it a possibility.
Carleton – Mississippi Mills MP Gordon O'Connor called the development "sad" as once rails are gone, they are never replaced, but he said that no business plan was put forward to the federal government for a viable use of the rail line and the federal government will not consider action without a business plan. It cannot simply buy up abandoned railways when there is no plan in place for their continued use. He stated that the Department of National Defence was consulted about the value of the line to CFB Petawawa, and DND advised that it had alternate transportation sources and did not require the line.
CP did not return a call for comment from the Millstone .
The plaintive whistle of the trains will be forever silenced in the Ottawa Valley.