Thursday, January 14, 2010

End of the line for OVR in using Ottawa Valley rail line

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While Paul Dulmage has never been on a train in his life, he still feels rail lines should be protected, EMC News reports. And the mayor of Carleton Place, Ont., Canada, will be doing his part to ensure that the Canadian Pacific former Ottawa Valley line, which passes through the town, is not disposed of or torn up.

"It is essential that line stay there," Dulmage said in response to the recent shutdown of rail service by Ottawa Valley Railway on the 342 miles of track stretching from Smiths Falls to Sudbury.

OVR entered into a long-term lease with CP in 1996 to operate on the line. OVR came under the control of RailAmerica following its takeover of RaiLink in July 1999. On Dec. 18, 2009, OVR said that it would be ending the lease.

While it is unknown when the last OVR train sounded its whistle on the tracks, CP has not run a freight train there since April 2009.

"There has been a significant drop-off in traffic on the line running northeast out of Smiths Falls and eventually connecting through to Sudbury," Mike LoVecchio, senior manager of media relations for CP, said in an interview in explaining the reasoning for the railway company stopping its transcontinental service on the line. Instead, LoVecchio said CP has "consolidated traffic" south on the line, from Smiths Falls to Perth and continuing on through Toronto to Sudbury.

The only rail service that will continue to be provided on the Ottawa Valley line at this point is between Temiscaming, Quebec and Sudbury to service Tembec's operations in Sudbury. According to LoVecchio, CP is seeking a new leasor for this portion of the tracks.

Once CP received notice from RailAmerica that OVR would be shutting down operations on this line, it has 60 days under the Canada Transportation Act to determine its next step. As to whether that will mean the end of the line for this section of tracks, LoVecchio said "not necessarily."

"Under the Canada Transportation Act, another operator can offer to purchase the line and continue the rail operations," he noted. "They have to make their desire known within the 60-day window."

If by the end of February, no one has come forward, the line can then be offered for sale to federal, provincial and municipal governments with the process taking 30 days per level of government.

Should there be no "expression of interest" after that time period passes, the line can then be deemed under the act to be discontinued.

"At that stage, the track can be pulled and recycled, and the right-of-way could be sold off," LoVecchio explained. He cautioned that because it was so early in the process, it was "probably premature to speculate" on what would happen.

CP representatives met last week with municipal officials along the rail line, including with Smiths Falls Mayor Dennis Staples, town CAO Wayne Brown and director of administrative and planning services Elaine Mallory on Jan. 5, to inform them of OVR's decision.

While LoVecchio made it clear that Smiths Falls, from CP's perspective, is not going "to see any change whatsoever" as a result of OVR no longer operating on the line, members of town council did not let the news go without comment at a Committee of the Whole session.

"I think we are missing the big picture here," Councilor Ken Graham stated. "I think this country has gone the wrong way with rail ripping up tracks." In contrast, in Europe, trains are the "lifeblood" of countries there, he said.

Staples suggested that council should consult its municipal colleagues along the rail line "to see how we can support them." The loss of the line to those communities will eliminate the prospect of rail being used for economic commercial purposes, he pointed out.

"I think we should look at a moratorium on removing the tracks," he said.

Although he doesn't have any concrete plans for the line at present, one suggestion the mayor of Carleton Place made was that, in the future, "we could come up with some kind of Wakefield train from Carleton Place to Petawawa.

"I think in the long run there will be a way to utilize that line," he remarked.

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