Chelsea councillor steamed over 'premature' decision to rip up train tracks

In a dramatic vote held Monday evening in Chelsea, Que., the municipality's mayor had to cast the deciding vote on whether to tear up the old steam train tracks that have lain unused for the past six years.

With no real chance of a steam train rolling through again, council voted 4-3 to remove tracks

Chelsea's city council voted in a 4-3 vote Monday, June 5, to tear up the old tracks that a steam train used to ride along. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In a dramatic vote held Monday evening in Chelsea, Que., the municipality's mayor had to cast the deciding vote on whether to tear up the old steam train tracks that have lain unused for the past six years.

Facing a three-three tie, Mayor Caryl Green cast a fourth yes vote, paving the way for roughly 20 kilometres of tracks to be converted into a multi-purpose community trail. 

The historic steam train went out of business in 2011 after heavy rains washed out a stretch of track just outside Hull in Gatineau, Que. In its prime, the locomotive carried thousands of passengers from Hull to Wakefield, Que., along the Gatineau River. 

'A necessary decision'

Monday's vote confirms there will never be another steam train rolling along the scenic route.

Green told CBC Radio's All in a Day Thursday that she voted yes so that the municipality could proceed with "much-needed repairs" to the rail track, which washed out again during last month's heavy rains in western Quebec.

"In my mind, we need to manage the stormwaters and we have to look at managing the assets, the property that is the railway corridor," Green said.

"We've had washouts that could also put homes at risk along the railway corridor. So for me, it was a difficult decision, but I feel it was a necessary decision."

Coun. Barbara Martin, who was one of the three councillors who voted against tearing up the tracks, said the vote should not have taken place before all the facts were presented to council, citing three studies that are underway. 

"I voted against them because it's a premature decision," Martin told CBC Radio's All in a Day Wednesday. 

'Rushed decision'

The vote was held before officials had any sense of what will be learned from multiple studies on the old rail bed, including a geotechnical study, an environmental study on the consequences of lifting the rail, and a social impact study.

"We'll only have the studies in September, so taking the rails out now precludes having that information available to us," Martin said, calling the vote Monday evening a "rushed decision."

The old train was lauded as a magnet for tourists to the Gatineau Hills. Supporters of the rail-to-trail proposal circulated a petition to garner support among residents inside and outside the municipality. 

While Martin's no vote wasn't meant to save the train, she said it was a decision she made without having all of the facts.

"By taking the decision that we did on Monday, council is not being prudent and we're not being respectful of the environmental and social impacts because we have not assessed those at this stage," she said.

"So, in a sense, we are getting way ahead of what the people who signed that petition wanted and certainly ahead of any sense of what the wider community of Chelsea wants." 

Green said Quebec's environment ministry told both municipality staff and council that they don't have to wait for the results of the studies before holding the vote.

A municipal engineer has also said removing the rail ties will not destabilize the corridor, Green added.