Provincial investments into short line rail infrastructure help to keep it moving

Highways Minister and Estevan MLA Lori Carr announced provincial funding Friday to support short line rails.

Representatives of the short line rail sector, along with local farmers and southeast RM reps, joined government officials at the Long Creek Railroad Company Inc. facility just west of Estevan’s city limits to talk about what $530,000 in provincial short line rail investments mean for the industry moving rural Saskatchewan goods.

“Short line railways play an important role in getting Saskatchewan’s food, fuel and fertilizer on their journeys to worldwide markets. This helps keep our export-based economy strong to sustain our quality of life,” Carr said. “A strong economy enables our government to invest in programs and services our residents need and deserve. Transportation plays a pivotal role in achieving that. That’s why our government’s latest budget continues to invest in various modes of transportation, including short line railways.”

The province has 13 short line railways operating on 2,123 kilometres of track.

Under the Government of Saskatchewan’s continuing Short Line Railway Improvement Program (SRIP), funding will assist with track upgrades and expansion, improved crossing surfaces and sightlines, bridge maintenance, track rehabilitations and other projects.

SRIP allocations for 2024-25 and their operating locations are:

  • Long Creek Railroad (west of Estevan); Northern Lights Rail (west of Melfort); Red Coat Road and Rail (Ogema area); Southern Rails Cooperative (south of Moose Jaw); Thunder Rail (Arborfield area); Torch River Rail (Nipawin to Choiceland area); and Wheatland Rail (Cudworth, Wakaw area) – $25,000 each;
  • Stewart Southern Railway (southwest of Regina to Stoughton) – $28,297;
  • Big Sky Rail, Delisle (Eston, Elrose region) – $87,035;
  • Carlton Trail Railway (Saskatoon to Prince Albert area) – $37,515;
  • Great Sandhills Railway (Swift Current to Leader area) – $43,089;
  • Great Western Railway (Assiniboia, Shaunavon, Coronach area) – $129,909;
  • Last Mountain Railway (Regina to Davidson) – $29,155.

Carr noted that the funding provides up to 50 per cent of eligible project costs and is determined based on how much track each short line owns. Networks with less than 80 kilometres of track receive at least $25,000. Larger networks receive a proportional amount based on how much track they operate. The railways are regularly maintained to meet the strict safety standards.

Long Creek Railroad (LCR) CEO Adriaan Lievaart noted that last year the LCR spent about $110,000 on rail ties and other spare pieces to maintain the track.

“The funding only covers a portion of the significant expense that short line railroads invest in their infrastructure each year. Our dream would be to see the funding program grow even larger. But we are certainly grateful,” said Rachel Mackenzie, communications and government relations director for the Western Canadian Short Line Railway Association (WCSLRA), an industry association of short line builders and railway supplier businesses across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

While secondary to major railroads, short lines add flexibility to the transportation industry and provide broader opportunities for rural Saskatchewan.

“Short lines are crucial in Saskatchewan and … we’ve created so many opportunities for trade, export and import in this province. Short lines offer the first and the last miles … First mile is when we put that freight in the car and it goes to port, and the last mile is when that rock, sand, steel or whatever else comes here and gets unloaded,” Lievaart explained. “We are an integral part of logistics in the province.”

He recalled the LCR was created 12 years ago by a small group as an experiment. Now they have three full-time employees, they move different kinds of freight from southeast Saskatchewan and also create other opportunities.

“We are and still remain a safe, reliable alternative for exporting/importing commodities in southeast Saskatchewan,” Lievaart said. “Last year alone, our shippers along with the fellas that loaded their own grain reduced the traffic on our highways by 2,500 super Bs … just in one fiscal year and that was on the grain side alone.”

Mackenzie outlined the many opportunities short lines provide for their communities.

“Short rail railways service loading sites and elevators are off the main line so it provides alternatives, drives the more competitive grain pricing and allows farmers … to spend more time on their farm and less time on their truck should they choose to do so. Short line railways also provide a really specific type of rail freight opportunity,” Mackenzie said.

“If you are a small business owner and you’re looking to explore rail as a form of transportation, in the case of Long Creek, you pick up the phone and you’re one call away from the general manager, who does amazing customer service and can really walk you into the world of rail.

“There’s a level of flexibility with short line railroad around the type of service you’ll receive and the frequency of service you’ll receive. … And if you’re a business wanting to build on a railway, the cost of building on a short line railway and the infrastructure requirements to do so are a lot more flexible.

“So, short rail railways create the opportunity for rail freight for small and medium-sized Saskatchewan businesses, for which otherwise the barriers to entry might be too large,” Mackenzie said.

She noted that the funding helps the Saskatchewan short rail lines to do the regular maintenance that often falls between the cracks of project-oriented grants, but is vital to the industry.

“The program design lets railroads determine what it is that they most need to spend money on and to prioritize in their infrastructure programs,” Mackenzie added. “A lot of it is not very glamorous – ballasts, ties and rails. It’s rock, wood and metal but those are the things that you really learn to keep maintaining and keep improving to keep your rail infrastructure safe and efficient.”

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