The Great Sandhills Railway (GSR) in southwest Saskatchewan has received federal funding for a significant upgrade of railway infrastructure.

This short line railway company has been in operation since 2009 and its head office is located in Leader. 

“It's very exciting,” GSR General Manager Aaron Wenzel said. “It's our tenth year being in business and we couldn't have asked for a better gift on our tenth anniversary.”

The federal government is providing a total of $12.4 million from the National Trade Corridors Fund (NTCF) for two projects to upgrade railway infrastructure in Saskatchewan, and GSR will benefit from both.

The first call for proposals under this fund for urgent capacity constraints was launched in July 2017. GSR submitted an application after a third call for proposals was announced in January 2019.

“They started taking applications early this year for all types of transportation projects that would increase capacity or efficiency in the transportation sector all across Canada,” he said. “The team at GSR along with some help from the Western Canadian Short Line Railway Association put together an application to the NTCF, and we were successful.”

GSR has received about $4.6 million in federal funding for the one project to upgrade the track along the short line railway route from Burstall to the Canadian Pacific Railway main line outside Swift Current.

“It is a matching contribution,” he explained. “So the Great Sandhills Railway and its partners will match that portion that the government puts in, and actually a little more than what the government puts in.”

GSR operates 198 kilometres of track and the company serves freight stations in Burstall, Mendham, Leader, Prelate, Sceptre, Portreeve, Lancer, Abbey, Cabri, Battrum, Pennant, Success, Cantuar, and Swift Current. The infrastructure upgrades will happen along various sections of the track and it will include a significant number of railroad tie replacements.

“We will bring in contractors to do surface levelling,” he said. “They bring in specialized rail equipment that levels the track. … That's obviously all hand in hand. Once you change the ties, you have to put in ballast and surface the track. We do change a fair amount of ties per year, but we're talking about a number of tie change outs that will make a significant difference and that will not only make it safer, but will allow us to travel at a higher rate of speed.”

Another part of this project will happen in the Pennant area of the railway line, where CPR had previously removed some older staging tracks.

“Our thought is that we can build a staging track that will help provide surge capacity for the main line,” he said. “We'll have an 8,500-foot depot track that will be rehabilitated along with a wye that will be put back into service, which CPR had taken out of service when they still owned the line. So this will give us a lot of flexibility down on the far end where we interchange with Canadian Pacific.”

These upgrades along the railway line will allow GSR to increase the number of trips on the line, depending on demand for service.

“Right now, our two biggest products are grain and energy products,” he said. “They're about equal now. I think the energy products will probably surpass the grain by fall of next year, and we also do fertilizer products, both liquid and solid fertilizer products. We move concrete products for the local concrete construction group, and we also do car storage for the entire rail network when customers have too much on line. They can send cars to us, which we also store.”

The upgrading of this short line railway infrastructure is happening at the right time, because GSR is anticipating a growing demand for service from a new customer, Pembina Pipeline.

“So we'll be able to support that vision they have, as well as attract new business,” Wenzel said. “As our service becomes better and more consistent, we have a lot of space available and right now some people have questioned the long-term viability of short line railways, but this will solidify that and put potential new small to medium businesses at ease that the rails are going to be there for a generation and they can make investments. We've already fielded some calls from interested parties that would like to set up a small to medium business that's not possible on the main line. They can come to us and we can help them grow and grow together.”

The federal funding in support of upgrading the GSR railway infrastructure will help to increase confidence in the long-term future of not only this short line, but in short line railways in general.

“It's long overdue for the government to recognize short lines in not only Saskatchewan, but in western Canada, and the vital role they play to serve big industry,” he said. “It's nice of them to recognize it. We're happy and this will just accelerate the process to make the track safer and more efficient.”

GSR is currently operating a fleet of seven locomotives and the company employs around 30 people. He is expecting the company will employ another four or five people over the next year as a consequence of this project to upgrade the railway infrastructure.

“It is a direct result of the work we're going to be doing and then the additional volume of railcars we'll be shipping next year,” he said.

The project is expected to be completed by October 2020, and the upgrading of the track will create some temporary employment opportunities.

“A lot of it is specialized, because it's rail contractors, but we're going to draw from multiple vendors as far as steel suppliers and the hardwood tie suppliers and the actual contractors that come to do the installation of the ties and the surfacing,” he said.

According to Wenzel it is difficult at the moment to determine how many jobs will be created during the construction period, but there will be work crews of up to 20 people in different local communities, and they will stay in hotels and visit restaurants.

“So I think it will be a nice spinoff when the crews come to do the work,” he said. “There will be some economic benefit for the entire area, because the work is not situated in one place. It's in multiple areas. So it will get spread out.”

GSR will also be involved with the second project that is receiving federal funding for railway infrastructure improvements. This project will include the construction of three loop tracks and a repair shop at North West Terminal outside Unity.

“We are involved in the track work there and helping them set up loop tracks for loading of both oil and grain products at North West Grain Terminal, as well as we're helping to develop a locomotive repair facility that will be a hub for that area,” he said.

This project will help to reduce congestion on the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific main line tracks in the corridor between Saskatoon and Edmonton.

“We're really excited about the opportunity to have a repair facility there,” Wenzel said. “That will be a full-service repair facility and also there's a significant amount of track that we'll be involved in building up and maintaining.”

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