Great Sand­hills Rail­way re­ceives fed­eral fund­ing for in­fra­struc­ture up­grades

Prairie Post (East Edition) - - OPINION - By Matthew Lieben­berg mlieben­[email protected]­t.com

The Great Sand­hills Rail­way (GSR) in south­west Saskatchew­an has re­ceived fed­eral fund­ing for a sig­nif­i­cant up­grade of rail­way in­fra­struc­ture.

This short line rail­way com­pany has been in op­er­a­tion since 2009 and its head of­fice is lo­cated in Leader.

“It’s very ex­cit­ing,” GSR Gen­eral Man­ager Aaron Wen­zel said. “It’s our tenth year being in busi­ness and we couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter gift on our tenth an­niver­sary.”

The fed­eral govern­ment is pro­vid­ing a to­tal of $12.4 mil­lion from the Na­tional Trade Cor­ri­dors Fund (NTCF) for two projects to up­grade rail­way in­fra­struc­ture in Saskatchew­an, and GSR will ben­e­fit from both.

The first call for pro­pos­als un­der this fund for ur­gent ca­pac­ity con­straints was launched in July 2017. GSR sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion after a third call for pro­pos­als was an­nounced in Jan­uary 2019.

“They started tak­ing ap­pli­ca­tions early this year for all types of transporta­tion projects that would in­crease ca­pac­ity or ef­fi­ciency in the transporta­tion sec­tor all across Canada,” he said. “The team at GSR along with some help from the West­ern Cana­dian Short Line Rail­way As­so­ci­a­tion put to­gether an ap­pli­ca­tion to the NTCF, and we were suc­cess­ful.”

GSR has re­ceived about $4.6 mil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing for the one project to up­grade the track along the short line rail­way route from Burstall to the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way main line out­side Swift Cur­rent.

“It is a match­ing con­tri­bu­tion,” he ex­plained. “So the Great Sand­hills Rail­way and its part­ners will match that por­tion that the govern­ment puts in, and ac­tu­ally a lit­tle more than what the govern­ment puts in.”

GSR op­er­ates 198 kilo­me­tres of track and the com­pany serves freight sta­tions in Burstall, Mend­ham, Leader, Pre­late, Scep­tre, Portreeve, Lancer, Abbey, Cabri, Bat­trum, Pen­nant, Suc­cess, Can­tuar, and Swift Cur­rent. The in­fra­struc­ture up­grades will hap­pen along var­i­ous sec­tions of the track and it will in­clude a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of rail­road tie re­place­ments.

“We will bring in con­trac­tors to do surface lev­el­ling,” he said. “They bring in spe­cial­ized rail equip­ment that lev­els the track. … That’s obviously all hand in hand. Once you change the ties, you have to put in bal­last and surface the track. We do change a fair amount of ties per year, but we’re talk­ing about a num­ber of tie change outs that will make a sig­nif­i­cant difference and that will not only make it safer, but will al­low us to travel at a higher rate of speed.”

Another part of this project will hap­pen in the Pen­nant area of the rail­way line, where CPR had pre­vi­ously re­moved some older stag­ing tracks.

“Our thought is that we can build a stag­ing track that will help pro­vide surge ca­pac­ity for the main line,” he said. “We’ll have an 8,500-foot de­pot track that will be re­ha­bil­i­tated along with a wye that will be put back into ser­vice, which CPR had taken out of ser­vice when they still owned the line. So this will give us a lot of flexibilit­y down on the far end where we in­ter­change with Cana­dian Pa­cific.”

Th­ese up­grades along the rail­way line will al­low GSR to in­crease the num­ber of trips on the line, de­pend­ing on de­mand for ser­vice.

“Right now, our two big­gest prod­ucts are grain and energy prod­ucts,” he said. “They’re about equal now. I think the energy prod­ucts will prob­a­bly sur­pass the grain by fall of next year, and we also do fer­til­izer prod­ucts, both liq­uid and solid fer­til­izer prod­ucts. We move con­crete prod­ucts for the lo­cal con­crete con­struc­tion group, and we also do car stor­age for the en­tire rail net­work when cus­tomers have too much on line. They can send cars to us, which we also store.”

The up­grad­ing of this short line rail­way in­fra­struc­ture is hap­pen­ing at the right time, be­cause GSR is an­tic­i­pat­ing a grow­ing de­mand for ser­vice from a new cus­tomer, Pem­bina Pipe­line.

“So we’ll be able to sup­port that vi­sion they have, as well as at­tract new busi­ness,” Wen­zel said.

“As our ser­vice be­comes bet­ter and more con­sis­tent, we have a lot of space avail­able and right now some peo­ple have ques­tioned the long-term viability of short line rail­ways, but this will so­lid­ify that and put po­ten­tial new small to medium busi­nesses at ease that the rails are go­ing to be there for a gen­er­a­tion and they can make in­vest­ments. We’ve al­ready fielded some calls from in­ter­ested parties that would like to set up a small to medium busi­ness that’s not pos­si­ble on the main line. They can come to us and we can help them grow and grow to­gether.”

The fed­eral fund­ing in sup­port of up­grad­ing the GSR rail­way in­fra­struc­ture will help to in­crease con­fi­dence in the long-term fu­ture of not only this short line, but in short line rail­ways in gen­eral.

“It’s long over­due for the govern­ment to rec­og­nize short lines in not only Saskatchew­an, but in west­ern Canada, and the vi­tal role they play to serve big in­dus­try,” he said.

GSR is cur­rently oper­at­ing a fleet of seven lo­co­mo­tives and the com­pany em­ploys around 30 peo­ple. He is ex­pect­ing the com­pany will em­ploy another four or five peo­ple over the next year as a con­se­quence of this project to up­grade the rail­way in­fra­struc­ture.

“It is a di­rect re­sult of the work we’re go­ing to be do­ing and then the ad­di­tional vol­ume of rail­cars we’ll be ship­ping next year,” he said.

The project is ex­pected to be com­pleted by Oc­to­ber 2020, and the up­grad­ing of the track will cre­ate some tem­po­rary employment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“A lot of it is spe­cial­ized, be­cause it’s rail con­trac­tors, but we’re go­ing to draw from mul­ti­ple ven­dors as far as steel sup­pli­ers and the hard­wood tie sup­pli­ers and the ac­tual con­trac­tors that come to do the in­stal­la­tion of the ties and the sur­fac­ing,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to Wen­zel it is dif­fi­cult at the mo­ment to de­ter­mine how many jobs will be cre­ated dur­ing the con­struc­tion pe­riod, but there will be work crews of up to 20 peo­ple in dif­fer­ent lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and they will stay in hotels and visit restau­rants.

“So I think it will be a nice spinoff when the crews come to do the work,” he said. “There will be some eco­nomic ben­e­fit for the en­tire area, be­cause the work is not sit­u­ated in one place. It’s in mul­ti­ple ar­eas. So it will get spread out.”

GSR will also be in­volved with the sec­ond project that is re­ceiv­ing fed­eral fund­ing for rail­way in­fra­struc­ture improvemen­ts. This project will in­clude the con­struc­tion of three loop tracks and a repair shop at North West Ter­mi­nal out­side Unity.

“We are in­volved in the track work there and help­ing them set up loop tracks for load­ing of both oil and grain prod­ucts at North West Grain Ter­mi­nal, as well as we’re help­ing to de­velop a lo­co­mo­tive repair fa­cil­ity that will be a hub for that area,” he said.

This project will help to re­duce con­ges­tion on the CN and CP main line tracks in the cor­ri­dor be­tween Saska­toon and Ed­mon­ton.

Photo by Ted Ra­fuse

Great Sand­hills Rail­way lo­co­mo­tives pro­vide ser­vice along 198 kilo­me­tres of track in south­west Saskatchew­an.

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