Popular Waterloo tourist train route cut short by LRT plan

CBC News has learned the historic trains of the Waterloo Central Railway will not be able to travel through Uptown Waterloo once LRT construction begins.

Railway board raises issue of 'long term future of the Waterloo Spur'

Waterloo Central Railway has been offering tourist trips from Uptown Waterloo since 2007. (Tudor Costache/Wikimedia Commons)

The historic passenger trains of the Waterloo Central Railway will not be able to travel through Uptown Waterloo starting as early as next year due to the construction of the region’s new light rail line, CBC News has learned.

Currently, the Waterloo Central Railway (WCR) offers tourist rides on its steam engine and diesel-powered trains from April to October along the northern portion of the Waterloo Spur rail line.

WCR’s passenger trains typically start at the group’s base station in Uptown Waterloo on Father David Bauer Drive, located minutes away from the city’s bustling core. 

The passenger train then runs northbound before ending their trips in St. Jacobs.

But a Feb. 26 report by DRE Transportation Solutions Inc., a rail consultancy firm hired by the region, states that LRT construction will force the WCR to move its starting point to the outskirts of Waterloo at a new terminus at Northfield Drive.

The Northfield Drive location is about five kilometres to the north of the current terminus at Father David Bauer Drive. The change would cut the passenger train ride to St. Jacobs by almost half.

The change stems from the fact that the new light rail vehicles will run alongside the tracks currently used by WCR trains up to Northfield Drive. The region says light rail and heavy freight vehicles cannot run on the same tracks simultaneously.

Once the LRT is operational, heavy rail traffic on the Waterloo Spur line will be limited to 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. ET.

"You do not want light rail and heavy rail on the tracks at the same time in the same place," said Thomas Schmidt, the region’s transportation commissioner.

"It’s a safety issue. We don’t want to risk having light rail and heavy rail having an accident. And there’s also legislation that would require us to have that time separation."

WCR future uncertain

Schmidt said the region has been signing one-year agreements to allow WCR access to the Waterloo Spur, and added that the group has been well aware their routes could be affected by the LRT plan.

WCR first started running passenger trains on the line in 2007. They've been on a year-to-year contract with the region since then.

"The agreements have been one year specifically because we are aware that light rail is coming," said Schmidt. "We have been completely upfront with them from the very minute [WCR] got here."

The region says it is exploring the idea of offering promotional ridership deals, where WCR ticket holders could have free access to the LRT. 

WCR, a volunteer-run organization, last week declined comment to CBC News, stating that it required more time to review the rail consultancy firm’s latest report to the region. 

But in a letter to regional council on Jan.10, WCR noted that the move of the southern terminus to Northfield Drive would be one of its "future challenges." Other challenges identified by WCR were "the cost and logistics related to this move and the long term future of the Waterloo Spur."

WCR says in 2012, its trains carried 18,128 passengers on 77 operating days. This represents a ridership increase over the previous year of 20.8 per cent. The group estimates that its economic impact on Waterloo Region is likely between $2.2 million and $4.1 million.

WCR has offered passenger trips to Elmira on occasion, but it is not clear whether this will become a regular route in the future after the move of the terminus to Northfield Drive.

Map by Kevin Gamble