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Orangeville Council investigating potential sale of local railway line

July 25, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Baker

Orangeville Council has taken the first steps towards potentially selling, or decommissioning, the municipal-owned 55-kilometre Orangeville-Brampton Railway (OBRY) line that runs from Orangeville to Mississauga.

Coun. Todd Taylor introduced a notice of motion at last week’s Council meeting, on July 15, formally requesting Town staff to investigate any potential partnerships, or consider the sale of all parts of the Orangeville Railway Development Corporation (ORDC). While he was the one to make the motion, Coun. Taylor indicated to the Citizen that Council as a whole were “on the same page” regarding this issue.

“I think what we all committed to do when we came in as a Council was to be respectful, be professional and be fact based in our decision making, and I feel good that we’ve done that,” Coun. Taylor said. “The second part was to be mindful of our taxpayers, and to start thinking of different ways we can save money and think both strategically and long-term in the decisions we’re making. I believe, strongly, that this motion covers both of those aspects.”

The Town has owned the railway for 19 years. Back in 2000, council of the day approved the $3.5 million purchase ($2 million from the federal government, $750,000 from the County of Dufferin and $750,000 from the Town) of the OBRY line from Canadian Pacific Railway. That particular organization was announced, back in 1995, that it planned to abandon the railway – a move that would have left many local businesses in the lurch, without a way to transport raw materials to the community. It was reported, at the time, that abandonment of the OBRY could result in the potential loss of over 500 jobs in Orangeville. 

Today, OBRY is operated by the Trillium Railway Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of Gio Rail Holdings. They run trains two days per week, on Tuesday and Friday. Prior to Trillium Railway taking over operation of the line, short-line operator Cando Contracting provided freight service for industries along the line from 2000 to 2018. 

The future of the OBRY line was a hot topic during last year’s municipal election. Mayor Sandy Brown was open regarding his belief that the municipality should look to either sell, or deconstruct the line. Speaking to the Citizen this week, Orangeville’s mayor made it clear that opinion has not changed.

“The Town of Orangeville is getting no financial benefit from the railway at all, we just keep incurring losses. We lose around $450,000 every year and, to date, the municipality is around $10 million in the hole on this thing,” Mayor Brown said. “I’m interested in being fiscally responsible, and I’m not sure (continuing to operate the OBRY line) fits in with that interest.”

However, wanting to decommission the line and actually being able to do it are two completely different things. Mayor Brown noted there were multiple steps the municipality would have to take before any decision will be made.

“There is something called the Shortline Railway Act, which outlines the process in which one can dismantle a rail line. The initial stage of that is that the line has to be offered for sale,” Mayor Brown said. “Both the provincial and federal governments, generally speaking, don’t want to close up rail lines. They’d prefer to keep them open. So there’s a process you have to go through to exhaust all avenues of potentially keeping it open.”

Mayor Brown admitted, too, that the Town would need to talk to businesses in area that use the OBRY line, who, he says, are “lobbying hard” to keep it open. 

“We are going to have to listen to them to a point. But, at the end of the day, $450,000 represents about a 1.3 percent tax levy. That’s a big number. In the 2018 budget, we passed a 0.82 percent increase. If we hadn’t had the railway losses, we may have had an opportunity to cut taxes last year,” Mayor Brown said. 

While the Citizen was not able to connect with any of the businesses currently making use of the OBRY line, we did speak with Alison Scheel, General Manager of the Orangeville Business Improvement Area. She discussed the importance of redeveloping a tourist train on the OBRY line. The Credit Valley Explorer, which took riders on a three-hour, 75-kilometre scenic trip from Orangeville to Snelgrove and back, was a huge hit amongst area residents for its near 15-year run, stretching from 2004 to 2018. When Cando announced it was pulling out of its deal to operate the OBRY line, the Explorer was left in limbo, with the new operators yet to reinstate what was a popular tourist hotspot. By decommissioning the line, the Town would be eliminating any possibility of bringing the Explorer back in the future.

“The Credit Valley Explorer train was identified as the Town of Orangeville’s only iconic tourism product, largely because the tour train, as said in the Town’s 2010 Tourism and Marketing Plan, is the only demand generator in Orangeville, other than singular events such as the Blues and Jazz Festival. It had a proven track record of drawing out-of-town visitors, and acted as a trip motivator for people to come to Orangeville,” Ms. Scheel said. “The Credit Valley Explorer attracted about 14,000 annually.”

She added, “The OBRY is an important asset that provides Orangeville with a unique opportunity to build upon its success in the tourism sector with the resurrection and expansion of the CVE. The Orangeville BIA Board of Management encourages Council to continue to explore options and opportunities for a renewed tour train service.”

If Mayor Brown had his way, he’d like to transform the railway line into a recreational trail, connecting Orangeville to several municipalities to the south. He also stated he’d like to look into the possibility of selling a portion of land, located in downtown Brampton, that’s currently owned by ORDC. 

“There has been some previous discussions with Peel Region and the municipalities to the south, but not to run a rail line, to turn it into a recreational trail. That’s what’s happening all over North America,” Mayor Brown said. “These surplus lines, small short-line railways, are not viable and have been turned into recreational trails. We have the Elora-Cataract Trailway, which runs from Hillsburgh up to Fergus, and we have some former rail lines that go through Caledon. We need to investigate this and see where we’re going.”

Regarding the approximate five acres of land in Brampton, located south of the CN rail line, if it were to be rezoned for residential purposes, it could be worth “millions and millions and millions of dollars” according to Mayor Brown. 

Should the OBRY line fall by the wayside, he also discussed several potential projects that could be carried out on Townline, the location of the Orangeville railyard.

“We’re thinking about things like affordable housing. If we can clean up that land a little bit, it’s prime real estate right here in Orangeville. As a community, we’re running out of available land, so this could open up some opportunities” Mayor Brown said. 

While he was keen to press home the point that Council was nowhere close to making a decision regarding the future of the OBRY line, Coun. Taylor indicated the land could, in future, potentially be used to build a pipeline that would carry water to Orangeville, or develop a high speed fibre optic internet line. 

“A lot of decisions still need to be made here. Truth be told, we’re probably in inning two right now of a nine inning ball game. We’re still very, very early in this process,” Coun. Taylor said. “Next step for me would be determining who would even buy a railroad. It would be a very limited group of people interested. Then we need to figure out the value. If it’s worth $2 million, would you sell it? What if it was worth $12 million, or $15 million? That would be huge.”

He added, “I think this is the right thing to do to investigate this. The taxpayer is paying $450,000 a year on this and really it’s something we can ill afford. I think the taxpayers yelled loud and proud during (the municipal election) about how much they’re paying in taxes, and they’re still yelling just as loud now. We need to do things differently than we have in the past.”

Mayor Brown indicated he hopes Town staff will be in a position to provide a report and potential recommendations to Council by the end of September.



         

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