By Dorothy Dobbie (photo by Robert Linsdell)
In 1877, when the Countess of Dufferin locomotive arrived in St. Boniface on a barge, towed up the Red River by the steamer “Selkirk,” it was big news. It would inaugurate the first major land transportation system on the Prairies – the railway running north and south between Selkirk and Emerson.
For the next century, rail would be king in Manitoba – and Winnipeg was the hub of it all.
Four years later, in 1881, the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway Act was passed, opening the way to tie the Dominion together by building the line westward across the Prairies.
To grease the wheels, huge concessions were made to the railway, not the least of which was a payment of $25 million – and with that, two million acres of land – some of it located where cities have since grown up surrounding the networks. CP, as with all early Western Canada railways, was a private entity that was heavily subsized – it is now headquartered in Calgary, and publicly traded on the Toronto and New York Stock exchanges.
In Winnipeg, CP occupies almost 500 acres in the heart of the city, cutting the community in half both literally and figuratively. It is surrounded by a wasteland of tracks and empty warehouses as the nature of businesses in the city has changed. The neighbourhoods on either side of the tracks are among the least desirable in Winnipeg.
The Canadian National (CN) Railway has its own network of lines cutting though east Winnipeg, where there are major yards in Transcona and St. Boniface – and then through downtown through to the southern part of Winnipeg, all the way to St. Norbert (and west through Tuxedo and Charleswood).
And we’re not only dealing with CP and CN. There are a number of other players, including Via Rail, Burlington Northern, Central Manitoba Railway, and so on.
Since the 1960s, various groups have raised the issue of moving rail yards away from Winnipeg’s core, and there are several precedents for this.
Edmonton did it in the 1980s, with the removal of CN. This was followed by a boom in construction and development. What was wasteland is now prime land. Tax revenue rose with the redevelopment, and the original investment has since been more than justified.
Montreal recently completed its relocation and development, which was accomplished over the last decade. The redevelopment paralleled that of Edmonton.
In 2012, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg reintroduced the idea with a study and proposal to remove the CP lines and yards, and fill the space with housing. They reasoned that removal of the lines to a location north of the city was a sensible decision given the location of the transportation-hungry CentrePort Canada development.
The timing is auspicious. Under the leadership of Mayor Brian Bowman, Winnipeg is finally taking its first tentative steps toward creating a rapid transit system, servicing a very small part of the city from downtown to the University of Manitoba. But we need a system that covers the whole city.
The Conference Board of Canada has pointed out that the city is expected to grow by 180,000 people by 2031; not only will there be a need for an estimated 83,000 new housing units, there will be additional pressure on our transportation infrastructure. Strategically, it makes sense to utilize the rail line corridors that currently serve private transportation for public transportation. Indeed, the Social Planning Council proposal, which focuses a lot on housing, acknowledges the transportation needs in any repurposing of the site.
Naysayers and the weak of heart will worry about site remediation, but we have experience with this at The Forks – not that long ago, a 90-acre, industrial-age mess. Moreover, a great deal has been learned in the interim about the remediation efficacy of greenspaces and trees.
So yes, we could have a network of rapid transit systems and freeways following the old rail lines throughout the city, and yes, we could even have housing on the old rail yard sites with some careful planning.
Will this be expensive? Yes, but all projects are. The housing will inevitably be built and that development will demand transportation infrastructure. Better to begin the process now, taking advantage of the opportunity to clean up the core areas of the city, and halt some of the urban sprawl.
Is this doable? Yes, it is. It will take the co-ordinated efforts and leadership of the city, the province, the federal government, and local business, but it is more than doable.
It could be the salvation of an aging town that could use a big shot of renewal right to its heart.