Losing track of the OBRY

February 29, 2024   ·   1 Comments

At the conclusion of Heritage week 2024, it is tempting to ask why the Town of Orangeville did not feature a retrospective on the (now abandoned) Orangeville-Brampton Railway (OBRY), since it largely explains the 150 years of Orangeville’s existence.

It may have had something to do with a major report submitted to the federal Ministry of Transportation last week outlining the harm done to Canada’s supply-chain efficiency and passenger movement when short-line rail operators (like the Town of Orangeville) rip up rail lines, sell corridors and discontinue an essential national service.

In the extensive Report prepared by ‘TAC’ (Transport Action Canada), the 2021 closure of the OBRY is singled out among seven other similar short-line operations, as posing a “serious problem (which)…negatively affects our national supply chain performance and global competitiveness.”

Starting sometime after 2018, Orangeville decided to abandon and sell the OBRY operations, along with the 55 km of rail corridor it owned between Orangeville and Mississauga, including its valuable rail yards in downtown Brampton. As sole private owners of the OBRY, it could be sold off through a regulatory practice known as ‘discontinuance and shedding’ of ‘non-productive’ rail infrastructure allowed under the Canada Transportation Act (1987).

Whether in fact, the OBRY was truly ‘non-productive’ is a case worthy of investigative reporting, however (as has been argued here before), Orangeville held no public consultations prior to the railway’s discontinuance, and has repeatedly refused to release any records detailing its sale to Peel Region and City of Brampton. Orangeville recouped more than $30 million for the sale of the OBRY in 2022, but taxpayers still do not know if they received fair compensation for the loss of the Town’s most valuable public asset, or if the railway was actually ‘non-productive’ to the local industries that relied upon it.

As the TAC Report highlights, too often the ‘shedding’ of railway lines in Canada has been done ‘without due regard to the national interest’ threatening Canada’s supply chain resilience, while also depleting the availability of future passenger rail infrastructure. Most often, this shedding is done at the local or short-line level… lines just like the one Orangeville surrendered in 2021.

Ironically, the shedding of smaller privately owned rail operations comes at a time when national freight rail operators CN & CP have never been wealthier, with each company raking in billions of dollars over the last decade for their shareholders. Under Canadian transport regulations, freight trains always take precedence over passenger trains. Across Canada, Via Rail has to share the tracks with freight trains, which must always travel at a slower speed and generally do not need to conform to a schedule. In 2021, 50% of all Canada’s exports travelled to port by rail, and since the pandemic, both CN & CP have been adding to their rail empires by purchasing major US rail operations, while passenger rail and commuter operations have languished for local commuters.

Furthermore, while CN & CP have invested in new track infrastructure across the country (primarily to service freight traffic), little investment has been seen for Via Rail, which now possesses an aging fleet, with many passenger cars approaching 70 years old. Indeed locally, GoExpansion operations have repeatedly told Orangeville that it has no interest in providing rail service to Caledon & Orangeville, and the local Dufferin-Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones and MP Kyle Seeback seemingly have no interest in advocating for it.

And so in 2021, any future for commuter passenger service to Caledon or Dufferin County died.

In a provocative January 2024 Canadian Geographic essay entitled “Losing Track: the importance of passenger rail corridors” journalist Tim Querengesser argued: “In the 28 years that Canada has been documenting its rail-network losses, we have dismantled or abandoned a distance equivalent to that between Halifax and Vancouver, with many more losses still in progress.”  Pointedly, Querengesser questioned the loss of the “extremely valuable” OBRY and the failure of the Ontario Provincial government to step-in to save the railway at a time when they are so willing to spend $8 billion on the construction of Highway 413. 

Citing the work of Waterloo University professor Brian Doucet & rail advocate Sean Marshall, Querengesser pointed out that the 413 “would serve several communities that could be served more efficiently by the doomed (OBRY) train corridor. The reasons for preserving rail corridors like Orangeville-Brampton were both economic and environmental… Indeed, the focus should be on supporting and expanding passenger services. 

Calling the loss of the OBRY a ‘missed opportunity”, Doucet and Marshall further focused on the commuter needs for Dufferin County, explaining: “… the Orangeville-Brampton corridor will not be the last to lose potential connections. As both passenger train and bus services dwindle, smaller cities are becoming less connected for anyone who can’t drive or doesn’t have access to a personal vehicle….Without governments protecting these rail corridors, all it would take is a building to go up in one parcel of land for the whole network to be compromised. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back. Without protection, …the likelihood of rail ever coming back (to Dufferin-Caledon) would be slim to none.”

It’s hard not to see the loss of the OBRY as a ‘missed opportunity’ for the residents of Caledon and Dufferin County, as Dr Doucet suggests. Neither Brampton nor Peel region are considering re-purposing the OBRY as a rail line – both seem intent on relegating the corridor to an ill-conceived ‘walking trail’ that few will use, and cost millions of dollars to design, build and maintain.

The TAC Report puts it this way: “Across Canada are many similar examples of where privately owned rail infrastructure has been dismantled and removed from the nation’s capital stock …. While the retention of some has not been justifiable even in the public interest, the (loss of railways like the OBRY) illustrate how current federal and provincial discontinuance and divestiture policies do not adequately support the dire need for a more robust supply chain, people mobility, tourism growth and transportation emissions reduction.”

For years, Orangeville’s stated Economic Development Investment (EDI) & Tourism Strategy was premised upon the success of the Orangeville-Brampton Railway. Beggaring belief at the time that the OBRY was sold in 2021, Orangeville’s EDI strategy was still using the OBRY to attract new businesses to town, positioning the Credit Valley Explorer & “Santa Train” as an example of our tourism success story – even though the Town had not run that train since 2016.

Despite (and perhaps illustrative of) Orangeville’s mismanagement of its OBRY operations, the TAC Report makes several important recommendations to the Ministry of Transportation in its final analysis: (1) to collaborate with the provinces to create a ‘Rail Bank’ to purchase “key corridors that have been discontinued, where they are preserved intact, either with or without the rail in place”; (2) to “establish a facilitating national policy on short line railway sustainability with particular attention to infrastructure in a state of good repair and crossing safety;” (3) to adapt highly successful models in the US and Europe where a ‘Surface Transportation Board’ would be established to regulate transportation “modal selection that preserves and optimises the private/public sector relationship;” and finally, (4) to encourage the federal authorities to make better “use of existing freight and passenger corridors by carefully scrutinizing all recent and planned discontinuations.”

Sadly, all of these recommendations come too late to stop Peel region from ripping up the OBRY tracks starting this Spring. Similarly, it will be too late for the Barrie-Collingwood Railway, the Fergus to Cambridge Subdivision, the Ottawa Valley Railway, Windsor to Fort Erie line or multiple other shortline operations nationwide. The TAC Report has laid bare the reality that such rail losses will continue unless citizens lobby their elected officials to change course.

Not a single Orangeville resident was ever asked whether the OBRY should be sold, and as with Orangeville, there was no public consultation process for most of these other railways either. One wonders why so many oppose the construction of Highway 413, are mad as hell about the Greenbelt scandal, and complain about the truck volume on Hwy 10, but care little for the loss of the OBRY…. maybe we just ‘lost track’ of it.

Neil Orford


Readers Comments (1)

  1. Jim Griffin says:

    And of course this line includes the Owen Sound and Walkerton subs which were originally part of the same system, and have already been lost.


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