Rail Relocation From Urban Centres Benefits Both Cities and Railways: It would address safety and land use concerns while providing improved transit and operational efficiencies to rail companies

Commentary, Transportation, Mary-Jane Bennett


The rail tragedy at Lac Mégantic, Québec, has opened a debate about the safety of railway in urban areas.

One safety measure, some argue, would be the relocation of rail lines away from urban areas. Those in favour of moving the lines emphasise the risks to safety while those against make economic arguments about community sustainability and the high costs of relocation. While both sides are correct, the arguments for one do not negate the benefits for the other.

A 2007 study by the Texas Department of Transport concluded that the efficiency of U.S. cities and railways alike had been compromised by urban rail transportation and that rail relocation provided benefits to both. Delays, inefficiencies, increase in emissions, the greater likelihood of accidents at grade crossings could all be minimized by removing rail corridors from cities. The study argued that rail relocation to the outer limits of a community alleviates operational, safety and environmental concerns while maintaining the economic benefit of rail service to a community.

The Texas study tracked rail relocation in five diverse centres, ranging from the relatively small relocation in Marysville, Kansas to the large freight rail relocation of Union Pacific and BNSF Railroads in the Colorado cities of Denver, Pueblo and Colorado Springs. All five centres involved a public-private partnership and public sector funding. Although the Marysville, Kansas relocation allowed for greater use of major arterials formerly blocked by the Union Pacific mainline operations for up to 14 hours a day, the multi-city Colorado Front Range project uncovered further benefits of rail relocation, including the better use of land, greater quality of life in urban centres, enhanced safety and security and the provision of an orderly transfer to passenger rail.

The process for the rerouting and relocation of rail traffic from urban centres in Canada is provided in the Railway Relocation and Crossing Act.

The Act allows two forms of federal financial assistance to communities seeking to move rail lines from their cores.

Under the first form of assistance, the minister of transport may authorize the payment of up to 50 per cent of the cost of preparing an urban development plan. If the relevant province and the urban centre agree to a plan, they can apply to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) for an order permitting abandonment of lines, removal of structures, relocation of rail lines, elimination of crossings and all matters necessary to the re-routing. A second form of financial assistance allows the Agency to recommend a grant to cover up to one-half the net relocation cost. The grant is available provided the Governor-in-Council has set the money aside.

The CTA can order railway operations to cease and tracks, buildings, bridges and crossings removed to accommodate the relocation plan. It may also order the operation of public transit over the rail lines.

The key to a successful application is that rail companies neither benefit nor financially suffer from any government mandated relocation. The relocation itself should be economically neutral.

The relocation of rail lines away from urban centres can not only benefit a community, it can equally benefit a railway company. When Canadian National (CN) purchased the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern line (the “J” line) outside Chicago in September, 2007, it did so to enhance its own operations. The purchase involved 198 miles of track on the outskirts of Chicago and into northwest Indiana. CN purchased the line for $300 million and anticipated a $100 million track upgrade. Diverting its operations from the Chicago centre to the outskirts, claimed CN, would result in increased fluidity of its operations, improved transit times, enhanced operational reliability and greater future market gain. Before CN ran its trains in uncluttered suburbia, its transit time from North to South Chicago was about the same as a Chicago to Winnipeg run. The reduction in transit time, allowed CN to increase traffic capacity onto the line.

Some Canadian cities could benefit from the relocation of rail yards from its core. If we take Winnipeg as an example, the strategic location of its new transportation inland port, CentrePort Canada, makes the idea of rail relocation from the inner city worth serious re-examination. The earlier relocation of the CN East yards allowing the city to access its current cultural jewel, The Forks, provides insight into what can be achieved. Other benefits to Winnipeg would be socio-economic, safety and jobs.

The relocation of rail lines away from urban centres is achievable in Canada. In major centres, it would address safety and land use concerns for cities all the while providing improved transit and operational efficiencies to rail companies.