A post-CN PEIR

What if the railway on Prince Edward Island Railway hadn’t ended in 1989? It’s a simple question. I remember the debate and also the parallel debate regarding the building of a bridge to replace the ferry service connecting the rest of the world to the Island. They were so closely linked it was difficult to navigate between them. We moved to the Island in the 1980’s and, as I’ve confessed, the railway became a close friend that meant so much to me. As I watched it fade from reality I’d think of ways it could have been saved. “Saved” in this context is probably as much about emotional insulation and salving a melancholic sense of loss as any ‘inspiration for a model train layout’ or pragmatic use case for the Island. Most folks have heard one iteration of my vision, in one form or another, and I wanted to mark out my ideas here in a blog post. I’ll link this, by category, to my all the other content here linked by the PEIR category but I’m also going to start a new category here called “post-CN PEIR” in which I’ll gather this and related Prince Street thinking on the subject.

“Late summer 1989”

In my nurtured vision of a PEIR that survived I try to keep it ‘realistic’ in the context of what could have actually happened. I like the boundaries established by what was happening on the Island in those first years and since 1989. In exploring this idea it’s excellent fodder for a ‘someday’ model railway and also a way of respecting the very real thing–for me, the restrictions of trying to keep this as close to reality as possible are a way to respect the railway as I chose to remember it.

  • I’m interested in the years 1989 through 1992 in this first study. This places this scenario during an era of change in all Canadian shortlines and the dawn of this new shortline era.
  • By keeping the scenario in this era I can study what was happening with those branchlines that did transition into shortlines and adopt in details from their development.
  • By capping it around 1992 I can also ignore things that didn’t work out and retain an delicious shred of optimism.
  • Among those ‘other’ Canadian shortlines I’m interested in what did happen on the CBNS or W&H. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the Québec Railway Corporation shortlines.
  • I think I can draw heavily on what is happening on today’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo railway even in its current truncated form as a terminal company operating mostly within the confines of their Wellcox yard since their traffic sources are a lot like ours and their connection, like mine, is by water.

What happened in 1989?

In short, the Government of Prince Edward Island inherited the entire PEI railway from CN. This doesn’t require much imagination since this happened and it’s what we now use as the Confederation Trail–the big ‘edit’ I’m using in my scenario is we kept the rails in place as they were on the last day of CN operation.

  • CN agreed to interchange cars with this new railway
  • CN retained the Tormentine Subdivision terminating in their yard at Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick. We however operate the trackage from the yard to the Strait and we are responsible for loading and unloading our car float as well as the operation of our car floats.
  • The railway and its lands are owned by the Province of Prince Edward Island
  • The railway as an operating entity is a designated operator over publicly-owned track
  • The railway operator is responsible for maintenance of the railway
  • We have the complete Charlottetown shops complex which is a massive asset in our favour but I’m not sure if we really need to use it all? CN ran the whole Island out of Borden yard and I think we’d be prudent to do that too as it offers us the flexibility of having engines strategically placed.

We have all the track that was in place when CN made their exit in 1989. By subdivision and based on my 1988 CN Employee Timetable. In the following list I’ll link out to each page of sidings as I had previously transcribed:

The above list includes some missing components:

  • Montague Junction to Georgetown is in place but not operable
  • Murray Harbour Subdivision from Uigg to Murray Harbour is also in place but not operable
  • Murray Harbour Subdivision includes the spur to Mount Herbert and is operable from Lake Verde to Mount Albion
  • Kensington Subdivision includes the spur serving CFB Summerside. It’s interesting to consider “what if CFB Summerside hadn’t closed in 1991 but I am not considering that question since it’s in service ‘enough’ to suit my 1989 to 1992 timeframe and we use it to deliver car loads of fuel for the power plant on site that would eventually be a real life utility owned by the City of Summerside.

Connection – the world to the Island

The foundation of this is how does the railway connect to the mainland? If we can’t there’s no future in this scenario at all. At the time the Confederation Bridge was being built I worked on an architectural model of the bridge commissioned by the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and was invited to look at a lot of neat design and engineering drawings from the bridge. I’m no engineer but have heard, numerous times, that the bridge that was built is built well enough that it could easily have railway track laid down its center and support trains running over it. I don’t think we need that rail connection and we could suffice on a water connection alone so I’m choosing to ignore this. Who knows, maybe in the future (after the end of my scenario in 1992) things have worked out better than expected and we actually do lay down that track? Someone with more imagination that I can pick up that chapter.

My PEIR uses car floats. Canada’s other island railway still uses a marine connection to connect (what’s left of) the Esquimalt & Nanaimo to the rest of Canada. If they can, we can. The ferry approaches, aprons, etc. are all still in place today so it’s conceivable that we could have saved it for use. The actual ferries were two level so the ramps to load them were too. Since we only carry railway rolling stock we don’t need that ramp so retain only the rail level ramp. We can buy a barge “somewhere” and a tug as well.

  • Ice is an issue in the Northumberland Strait. I don’t know how we keep the ferry aprons clear of ice in the winter.
  • Our barge and tug does not have ice-breaking capacity. Is this an issue?

Traffic

It would be really nice if we could return potatoes to the rails as a traffic source but CN killed that off so we compete with their trucks in our territory for outbound agricultural stock. Three main groups describe what is left and what we move:

  • Propane
  • Fertilizer and like inbound agricultural bulk commodities
  • Crushed stone

Among those proponents in the corner of maintaining rail service on the Island, in real life, were the propane dealers and those dealing in what I’ve grouped as “inbound agricultural products” like fertilizer. The propane was steady traffic right up to the end, as was fertilizer, and even that last train from PEI was one returning propane tank cars. Just as in real life we bring both propane and fertilizer across in blocks of cars like unit trains and we dispatch them as loose cars as required from our yards.

There is no stone on PEI so all gravel is imported. What I imagine as rail traffic in a quasi-unit train actually happens each summer. A barge of gravel lands from Mulgrave, NS and is unloaded into a mile of dump trucks. This is traffic that actually excites me the most since it’s traffic the real railway never served yet it’s such a massive industry on the Island. That parade of dump trucks is a very real thing and it marches, ever summer, from the Prince Street wharf in Charlottetown to wherever Island Construction is storing their gravel and crushed stone for another season of road construction. Buying a set of lousy “not suitable for interchange” hoppers would be easy and cheap and ours never leave the Island. The risk to this actually being a traffic source is admittedly political not practical since in moving this by rail we’re competing against individual truck drivers and I don’t fancy our odds in that battle since we’re undermining their family’s incomes.

Locomotives

Engines, as an example, our supply of secondhand engines would have been what CN or CP had and didn’t need. I think we would pay a premium for them but a lot of the CN sw1200rs fleet was being released from service as CN contracted its entire branchline network. They’d be trying to sell us RSC14’s because they had no use for them but I’m worried about parts so we pay more for the sw1200rs’s and they become our locomotive of choice for this post-CN PEIR.

CN 1988 Table of Locomotive Groups

CN had undertaken a track rebuilding program and this lead to the retirement of the last of the 70 tonners. As such, this created some flexibility in terms of what CN engines could be used on what lines:

SubdivisionEquipment Restriction(s) from the 1988 CN ETT
Borden SubdivisionLocomotives in groups A, B, and C only
Heaviest auxiliary crane permitted 120 ton capacity
Heaviest car permitted gross weight 220,000lbs.
Kensington SubdivisionLocomotives in groups A only
Heaviest auxiliary crane permitted 120 ton capacity
Heaviest car permitted gross weight 220,000lbs. between mileage 0.0 and 19.1 and 177,000lbs. elsewhere.
Souris SubdivisionLocomotives in groups A only
Heaviest auxiliary crane permitted 120 ton capacity
Heaviest car permitted gross weight 220,000lbs. between mileage 0.0 and 0.8 and 177,000lbs. elsewhere.
Montague SubdivisionLocomotives in groups A only
Heaviest auxiliary crane permitted 60 ton capacity
Heaviest car permitted gross weight 177,000lbs.
Lake Verde SubdivisionLocomotives in groups A only
Heaviest auxiliary crane permitted 60 ton capacity
Heaviest car permitted gross weight 177,000lbs.

As I read through that table it’s easy to see that even though CN’s track rehabilitation program had provided capacity in places where it didn’t exist before the Souris, Montague, and Lake Verde subdivisions are still very light. As much as I want to see our small fleet of sw1200rs’s in operation we really can run the whole Island easily with a set of 10xx series GMD1’s. It’s easy to find photos of four, five, and six engines on the point of a harvest season train but we’re not there yet so maybe we’re making do with a set of three GMD1’s? The E&N uses a pair of GP9’s consistently and their traffic patterns are whole lot like ours so three GMD1’s is probably enough for anything we need.

Canadian National 1002 in Port Mann in September 1987–photo from Wikipedia.org

In my summary of what we look like during year one I propose that even though we have the Charlottetown shops we run the railroad out of Borden. I also noted that while CN still operates on the Tormentine Subdivision we are responsible for ‘the last mile’ and loading and unloading the ferry and that means we need an engine on the New Brunswick side.

  • Option 1 is we rent an engine from CN
  • Option 2 is we buy something dedicated for this alone
  • We need every spot on that car float so I don’t see ferrying an engine across with its train

The railway, by subdivision, for traffic

As much as I want to run to Murray Harbour the line in 1989 doesn’t reach much east of Kinross. My hope here is we can continue to serve Vissers by rail and this is one example of potato traffic we do retain.

Souris is a valuable option as a port and it was seeing winter loads until the end. While I don’t see much traffic along the way to Souris I do see touching that port as an important thing.

Georgetown and Montague are interesting but the business we might try for is the grain elevator at Roseneath. That said the trick here is the lousy track. Since we have the sw1200rs’s we bought two 10xx GMD1’s as well as they’re similar but lighter so can be used east if needed.

What’s next?

My scenario ends in 1992 though it’s optimistic so carries forward an energy of success well past 1992. James, Andrew, Andrew, and me and others are starting to talk about a really interesting what if that considers an alternate future for Terra Transport asking: “What if CN’s Terra Transport inherited other railways like Newfoundland’s and emerged into an operating unit not unlike CP’s Canadian Atlantic?” In that scenario CN is still privatized in 1995, three years after the end of my scenario, and I think that in 1995 Terra Transport is still doing well but not a part of a privatized CN so is broken off and emerges as a new shortline operator. James has already decorated two models for this new Terra Transport and they look incredibly attractive. Maybe the PEIR is folded into this new Terra Transport? Maybe our GMD1’s inherit a layer of green paint and look every bit as crisp as James’s SW1500 looks? What?! you haven’t seen James’s SW1500? You should. Check it out in this blog post over on his blog: https://paxton-road.blogspot.com/2021/04/terra-transport-sw1500.html

Some points I’ll consider next address gaps in the above, some things that make me curious, and also where does the story go after 1992:

  • I was a founding member of the Prince Edward Island Railway Society. Though we were mostly model train people we’d actually formed the society, in the mid-1980’s, with the aim of preserving the railway including operating part of it as a tourist operation. Our interest was in operating a tourist train from the railway museum in Elmira to around Munn’s Road or even as far as Baltic or Harmony. This track is in place in my scenario but there’s still no real rail traffic (freight) so I ask: do we run a tourist train?
  • In addition to the PEIRS a group of Montague folks were attempting a similar scenario to preserve part of the Montague Sub. for their own tourist train. In my scenario we have operating rights right into Montague though we only need to go as far as Brudenell. The line, along the Montague River, is stunning so maybe it’s here we run our fledgling tourist train?
  • I identified crushed stone as a commodity that originates and terminates on-Island and I’m interested in exploring this further. The 1974 list of sidings includes a number of fuel terminals that were connected to the railway and I think this is something of note. Today, Irving deliver all fuel to PEI and resell it on-Island to the other brands. We’re already playing well with Irving for propane and fertilizer traffic and we could do the gasoline and home heating oil movements too.
  • The railway track is owned by the Province but this operating company? Our biggest client in Irving who, in New Brunswick and Maine, operate the former CP line so would they be a logical operator for PEI too?

I find writing through a scenario like this to be a powerful tool both in my professional work and here on hobby time. Rereading this as story helps me see the gaps in the story and I can already see some opportunities for follow-up posts that are more focussed in content.

As mentioned, this post will link to future posts on the subject and they will all be gathered by the “post-CN PEIR” category: https://princestreet.wordpress.com/category/post-cn-peir/

And, no, the On30 Victoria project has not stopped nor is it dead. post-CN PEIR will have to wait until we are in the new, as they say “basement” with a house over top.



Categories: My Favourite Prince Street, post-CN PEIR

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. One sentence suffices:
    I L O V E A L L O F T H I S !

  2. I mean really, since it is a fiction, you can include and discard whatever you like and still make it believable. Short lines around North America took this scenario and reinvented themselves so it isn’t that far fetched.
    That was a great read…👍

    • Great to hear from you. You’re absolutely right. It is my scenario and my imagination so there really is only me guiding what fits or doesn’t. Prototype modellers, especially those who converted from freelance railroads, always remark how they liked the framework and guide that a prototype and adherance to it relieved them of always guessing at the story. I want to fabricate this story to be as realistic as possible even though its foundation is fiction. I guess it’s a way of respecting the original idea: to save my friend in its eleventh hour so we could go on together. I want it to feel like the PEIR but if the idea wanders too far from the plausible it becomes too foreign. As I write this reply I think we stumbled on a thing that distinguishes Canadian shortlines from the more popular American ones. A shortline in the United States has a crazy variety of places to buy engines from or other railroads to work with. In Canada, even my independent PEIR is still connected to CN. Reading the history of the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia, Goderich & Exeter, or any like era shortline shows how powerful and influential that connection can be. Those upstart Canadian shortlines have to work harder against in a very conservative environment. So, because we talked about it, this is a way to celebrate the story of all those upstart shortlines but in a language I grew up learning.

      Chris

  3. I’m losing track (pun questionable) of time as it is over this past year and then this happens!

    Great research, Chris, and thanks for sharing!
    Eric

    • You and me both. A sense of time and place are really blending into one thing. I was always a Doctor Who fan and wonder if this is what it was like to travel around in my own quarantine edition TARDIS?

      Getting this first post into production feels really good. It needed to be written down. Having done this I now see all these neat little opportunities to explore gaps in the story and tease at a sense of the timeline of all those parts of Island life that would be altered if the railway ran beyond 1989. It feels like a lot of fun.

      Always wonderful to hear from you. Thank you Eric.

      Chris

  4. I love this idea. I love how you’ve thought it through and how it could be at least somewhat realistic.

    The things that kill shortlines is capital expenditures and loss of traffic. Bridges in particular are huge capital expenditures for short lines. There aren’t a lot of significant railway bridges on PEI to my knowledge – unlike, say, the Gaspe with its dozens of bridges. Obviously the meandering rails on PEI are somewhat expensive but as long as the shortline is willing to go very slow, it can tolerate some pretty bad rails and roadbed.

    Loss of traffic is a different matter. The commodities you list – gravel, fuel, fertilizer – are good ones for the railway as they aren’t really dependent on any single major industry on the Island. You could add a few tank cars of canola oil for Cavendish french fries, or maybe some special hopper cars or tank cars for the bioscience industries around Charlottetown.

    I like the idea of a tourist railway as an excuse to run passenger cars. I don’t see any potential on PEI for a commuter line.

    This is great… looking forward to reading more.

    • We are lucky in the PEI example because, save for the obvious risk to this plan’s success (that connection over water) we don’t have large bridges or similar structures to maintain.

      In traffic sources I have avoided loose carloads. A story I didn’t know when I first started thinking about this but have learned in the time since was that any load that we interact with on our railroad is one that starts or ends on another railroad. Too often shortlines struggle because they can’t complete that ecosystem and connect both ends of the load or the number of interchanges. I tried to stay within carloads that we could collect a lot of and both ends of the system were ones that elsewhere appear to be those that we can connect.

      I like the loads for Cavendish and don’t think of those but certainly they should be on the railroad. We can move those every bit as easily as we can fuel or propane loads. Brilliant!

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.

      Chris

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