Setting up a short-line railway takes a good deal of patience and determination, but Saskatchewan farmers are finding it’s a worthwhile endeavour.
“I think at the end of the day this is definitely going to be well worth it to our farmers,” said Wayne Bacon, farmer and president of Northern Lights Rail. Northern Lights Rail is on track to becoming the 14th short-line in Saskatchewan. The 37-mile track connects Melfort and Birch Hills.
At interview time in early June, Bacon hoped to be running cars by July, but he had to tie up a few loose ends. The short-line’s locomotive needed to be transported from Humboldt, and then certified. The short-line was also waiting on paperwork before its track could be certified. Bacon expected to have the locomotive and outstanding paperwork in place shortly.
“So I think things are getting put together here right now,” he said.
Bacon said the paperwork had been the biggest challenge to setting up the short-line. Other communities interested in purchasing a short-line should find a good consultant to wrangle paperwork, he said. They should also talk to someone who’s been through the process, he added. Northern Lights Rail worked closely with Ron Shymanski, chair of Torch River Rail, Bacon said.
Torch River Rail ran its first train in July 2008. But getting the short-line up and running wasn’t easily done. The RM of Torch River was tasked with buying the line from Canadian Pacific (CP). Under the Canada Transport Act, CP would have to sell the line at net salvage value to the RM.
But under the Act, the RM of Torch River would have had to accept the deal without knowing the purchase price. The RM council ultimately defeated the motion, according to information gathered by Saskatchewan Municipal Awards, which includes this project in its best practices library. The deadline passed, and CP was no longer obligated to follow the process laid out under the Act.
This left local farmers and municipalities to hammer out a deal with CP outside of the legislated process. No other group had successfully purchased a short-line this way in Canadian history, according to the Saskatchewan Municipal Awards.
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Ultimately they closed a deal with CP in late 2007 to buy the 28-mile stretch of track between Choiceland and Nipawin.
Torch River also needed a trained crew, a locomotive and other equipment.
“We didn’t have a screwdriver in 2007,” Shymanski said during a recent media tour. Shymanski also farms a stone’s throw from Torch River’s Choiceland facility.
But they made it work, Shymanski said. Key to their success was their first producer car loading facility, which cost $160,000. Torch River Rail paid it off in two years, Shymanski said, and only charged $400 per car.
Torch River Rail has been paying income tax from the beginning, Shymanski said. Their initial business plan called for 150 to 200 cars, but Shymanski said they moved 400 cars that first year.
Business has grown steadily since. The short-line moved 800 cars in the 2014 fiscal year.
Northern Lights Rail got started in February 2012, with an engineering study to assess the track.
That study wrapped in March 2013. The RM of Invergordon bought the CN line for net salvage value, Bacon said. Invergordon then turned over the line to Northern Lights Rail’s board of directors, which includes representatives from local rural muni-cipalities and towns.
Northern Lights Rail raised over $1 million locally. Bacon said 70 farmers threw money in, along with municipal governments. Northern Lights Rail also borrowed just over $500,000 from the provincial government, he added. The credit union worked closely with them, Bacon said, loaning money to the short-line and to farmers buying shares.
Northern Lights has producer car loading facilities in Beatty and Kinistino. Each location has four hopper bins. They plan to build a third facility in Birch Hills this fall, Bacon said. He added they may add legs to the facility if they think it’s warranted.
Running a short-line and producer car loading facilities is a big learning curve, said Bacon. “We’ve… loaded producer cars by augers but we’ve never really loaded a bunch of cars. So it’s going to take us a while to figure out everything, how we’re going to make things work the best.”
New facility “works slick”
In June 2013, Torch River broke ground on their new million-dollar loading facility. The facility has been running since June 2014. “It works slick,” said Shymanski.
The new facility consists of four bins, holding 14,000 bushels each. Computerized controls report bin levels. Farmers can unload grain anytime, thanks to a key-lock system.
Farmers are assigned a bin and a key. Inserting the key and pressing a button allows farmers to weigh their trucks and unload.
“When they’re done unloading, they press the button again. The equipment shuts down, the truck is weighed and they’re ready to go,” Shymanski said. Farmers leave a grain sample in a jockey box, he told reporters.
The system was built by Stockdales Electric Motor Corporation, a Regina company that builds industrial systems, including rail car weighing systems and handling facilities. Shymanski’s son, Carson, also helped design the system.
They also did some of the welding themselves, shaving a fair chunk from the total cost. Shymanski said he doesn’t know exactly how much they saved, “but it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Torch River Rail employs three staff, who do everything from running the locomotive to unloading grain. The short-line has equipment such as a snowplow, ballast regulator and tie changer to maintain the line.
Car supply is probably the short-line’s biggest challenge, Shymanski said. Some years they’ve had excellent service, he said. They’ve also suffered, most recently during the car shortage following 2013’s bin-buster. But Shymanski thinks service levels are back on track.
“We’ve got 50 to 75 cars left on the books for this year and we’re caught up until the new crop comes in,” Shymanski said.
Choiceland oats top-shelf
Bacon said there’s interest in shipping wheat on Northern Lights Rail. But he expects a lot of oats to roll down the short-line.
Six or seven years ago, Quaker started buying oats from the short-line. Quaker was looking for plump oat kernels for granola bars, Shymanski said.
“I don’t know why it’s special, but they tell us that Choiceland grows the best oats,” said Shymanski. Shymanski thinks the oat quality has something to do with the moisture and cooler nights.
Those plump, high-quality oats come from all over north-eastern Saskatchewan, but have been dubbed the Choiceland oats.
Quaker still buys Choiceland oats through Andersons Grain Group. Andersons also buys wheat from Choiceland, Shymanski added. Bunge and the CWB’s Mission Terminal are also customers.
These days roughly 50 farmers unload grain at Torch River Rail. About 90 per cent of the short-line’s business falls within a 40 mile radius, Shymanski said. They’ve also attracted farmers from as far as Shellbrook, about 90 miles away.
For more, visit the Saskatchewan Municipal Awards website for a description of the project.