Relocation of rail lines

In the November 16 speech from the throne, Premier Greg Selinger promised to initiate a plan to move rail lines out of Winnipeg. The most massive of these projects would be the relocation of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Yard out of the centre of the city to facilitate the process of developing new housing, green space, commercial space and other urban infrastructure. The plan is to create a special committee that would include government and officials from the two major companies with rail yards in the city — Canadian National (CN) and CPR to come up with a viable scheme for the railway relocations. The announcement comes at a time when the premier and his NDP government are way down in the polls and fighting for their political life as the April 2016 provincial election fast approaches.

Rail line relocation has been advocated by many groups, past and present.  In making his most recent announcement, the premier told CJOB Radio that $1 billion could be saved by the city in replacing aging and deteriorating bridges, underpasses and overpasses. The best example is the Arlington Street Bridge over the CPR Yards which has to be replaced before it collapses. The premier said relocation of railway yards to CentrePort, the multi-million-dollar tri-modial inland port — road, air and rail connected to industry — near the Richardson Airport, makes sense.

The problem for relocation has been the indifference of railway companies (CPR is reluctant to make the change, saying its a major yard for their operations and plays a “critical and strategic role,” while CN has no plans to move its Transcona Yards) and the need to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to make the move, including federal, provincial and city government funding. Getting all levels of government to agree on a funding formula could be the greatest impediment, although the new Liberal federal government has promised billions in infrastructure funding that could be tapped for the project. But no one knows, at this stage, what the Liberals’ actual plan for spending the money will be.

Meanwhile, one of the great and longstanding socio-economic divisions in the city will continue to exist. Arthur Gunn, the owner of the Gunn’s Bakery on Selkirk Avenue, established in 1937, told CBC News that he thinks the plan to move the rail yards is a good idea that’s been a long time coming.

“The rail yards have always been a demarcation between north and south — it’s always stigmatized the people who have lived in the North End, the north side of the tracks,” Gunn said. “It’s always made them feel like the poor cousins of whatever else goes on the other side of the tracks.”

Gunn told CBC that if the rail yards were no longer taking up so much space in the core of the city, all that land could be converted into housing, parks and restaurants. That, he said, would provide services to residents that they currently may not have access to and could eradicate some of the differences between who lives on either side of the tracks.

“Once the tracks are gone, it’s like the whole thing is level, there’s no separation.”

The separation is actually the result of events that transpired well over a hundred years ago at a time when it made sense to locate railway passenger and freight near the heart of a city and the construction of a bridge was the first step. Just a year after its incorporation as a city in November 1873, concerned Winnipeggers, fearing their city would languish in obscurity when the railway crossed at Selkirk, began to petition the federal government for a railway crossing. A Citizen’s Railway Committee was established to head the movement for a Winnipeg bridge. But for seven years, the bridge was virtually in limbo, the crossing becoming a political football as the people of Selkirk and Winnipeg fought to have it built in their respective communities. In the end, Winnipeg’s city council held a mass meeting in February 1877 during which the citizens passed a resolution approving a cash subsidy of $200,000 to any company willing to build a railway bridge. This subsidy was upped when local businessman James Ashdown proposed a bonus of $300,000 toward the construction of the bridge. In 1879, city council by resolution accepted this proposal.

In June 1881, the CPR formally offered to build its workshops in Winnipeg and to build its railway through the city, provided a $200,000 bonus, land for a station and an exemption from civic taxation into perpetuity was forthcoming.

During a hastily called meeting of  local ratepayers, the CPR conditions were approved 130 to 1 in July 1881. City council followed this vote with a bylaw containing the conditions, and Selkirk had lost out in the railway sweepstakes.

The first Louise Bridge was completed on May 26, 1881. In 1904, the Louise Bridge was unable to bear the weight of the heavier trains of the day so a new railway bridge was built at a crossing point at the eastern tip of Point Douglas. The old Louise Bridge was replaced in 1909 by a traffic bridge which is still in use today.

During its early history, the North End was typically referred to as being on the “wrong side of the tracks” as the CPR yards and tracks separated it from other city neighbourhoods. George Ham in his 1921 book, Reminiscences of a Raconteur, wrote that the North End was for years a district apart from the city, isolated by the “level railroad crossing intersecting Main Street ... The streetcars did not cross the tracks and passengers for the North End had to transfer at the crossing, often waiting many minutes in all kinds of weather. Naturally, with such conditions ... those who located north of the tracks were not of a desirable class.” It was not until 1908 that the city’s streetcars began to cross the CPR tracks.

The CPR spent lavishly on a station, freight sheds, a roundhouse and other railway-related buildings in Winnipeg. The car shops which opened in 1883 alone employed 200 mechanics. By 1911, over 3,500 people were employed by the CPR. The CPR facilities became the dominant physical feature of the North End.

“All roads lead to Winnipeg,” declared Chicago journalist William E. Curtis after a visit to Winnipeg in 1911. “It is the focal point of three transcontinental lines of Canada, and nobody ... can pass from one part of Canada to another without going through Winnipeg. It is a gateway through which all the commerce of the east and the west, and the north and the south must flow ... It is destined to become one of the greatest distributing commercial centres well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”

While the CPR has contributed to the economic prosperity of the city, it’s physical presence today has an adverse impact on the area. Selinger is right — election or not — when he says it’s time to revisit proposals to relocation rail lines outside the city and free up space for other developments more compatible with an urban environment, but don’t expect it to happen for many years.