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Saving the Battle River Railway

Apr 1, 2010

To keep its rail link to Vancouver from being sold for scrap, a group of central Alberta farmers is ready to buy the local short line. The future of the region – and others like it – may depend on their success

by Murray Green | Photography by Ben Lemphers

For more visual context check out the web exclusive Google Map of the Battle River Railway.

On an evening late last October, the Community Centre in Forestburg, 180 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, buzzes with chatter. The spacious and modern hall in this rural village is filled with hundreds of people from all walks of life, not just the farmers who account for much of the productivity of the surrounding Battle River region. Even the politicians and business people have turned up, eager to hear about an opportunity to own a piece of a working railroad.

This kind of excitement is rare in east-central Alberta these days, given crop failures and continually depressed livestock markets. But it’s not every day that an isolated prairie village, population approximately 900, has a shot at being a gateway to the rest of the world. By virtue of lying roughly halfway along a ruler-straight, 80-kilometre railroad used by grain producers from the village of Alliance to the southeast to the city of Camrose to the northwest, Forestburg is preparing to embrace a new future as a starting point for the journey to the shipping docks in Vancouver and, ultimately, the rest of the world. With a tone of both invitation and urgency, Ken Eshpeter, president of a recently formed new generation co-operative, the Battle River Railway (BRR), addresses the audience.

“This project was truly a group effort to get to where we are today. Now the future of this project lies in your hands. Together we have tremendous potential. Rail lines are being pulled up and are disappearing in Western Canada, similar to the [grain] elevators. We are trying to be the exception,” says Eshpeter. “Buying the rail line is the only course of action for us to take.”

After using the short line since 2003, the producer group that now composes the BRR is currently positioned to purchase the track that Canadian National Railway recently put up for sale. It would be a first in Alberta: a group of agricultural producers taking ownership of the means to transport their product. The alternative is almost unfeasible, as it relies on trucking grain to corporate terminals along distant cross-country trunk lines, a costly process that eats into already meagre margins. The purchase would also open up the possibility of shipping any commodity along the line, thus establishing the BRR as a player in Alberta’s transport and logistics industry. The resulting economic diversity could strengthen the region’s communities and businesses and spur badly needed revitalization of rural Alberta.

Now, the dream of being rural railroad barons, and all the benefits that would bring to this part of the province, is within reach of the BRR. Back in August, it learned CN had accepted its bid to purchase the short line branching off the trunk at Camrose. All the BRR needs to do now – and the main reason Eshpeter stands before the Forestburg audience – is come up with the nearly $5 million that will prevent the line from the very real possibility of being salvaged for scrap.

Currently, railcars out of Camrose stop in the hamlet of Kelsey, and, heading southeast, the villages of Rosalind, Heisler, Forestburg, Galahad and Alliance, where grain producers fill them (with wheat, mostly, and a bit of barley) before they head back to switch to the track to Vancouver. Most of the communities have hoppers – those big metal silos – by the tracks that store the grain prior to the cars’ arrival.

“Rail producer cars are a really important option so we don’t have to rely on inland terminals,” says Reg Enright, BRR vice-president.

Without the short line, which as a purely agricultural service tends to cost large operators like CN more than it’s worth, producers would need to find their own way to move grain to Camrose. There, for a fee, corporately owned elevators along the trunk line load grain into cars bound for the Vancouver docks. By managing train transportation on its own, the BRR will save individual producers roughly $1,000 per railcar. That adds up quickly. Enright, a producer from the Rosalind area, usually ships about 15 cars a year. In the six years the producers used the CN-operated line, they moved 3,100 cars of grain gathered from roughly 180 farmers. In 2008, they filled 650, each car with a capacity of 90 to 100 tonnes.

Grain shipping alone could provide the boost to business the BRR is hoping will make the line profitable. “During the peak time in 1994, according to the Canadian Grain Commission, 2,000 cars were shipped in the area,” Enright points out. He’d like to see about 1,000 head out of the region annually.

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