Windsor residents want 'overgrown' rail line turned into trail
Windsor and Hantsport Railway Company says it is finalizing purchase from CN Rail
A rail line between Windsor and Windsor Junction, N.S., will soon have a new owner and that's causing concern among supporters of a rails-to-trails project who want the provincial government to purchase the property.
The line is currently owned by CN Rail, which put it up for sale in 2013. The line runs roughly parallel to Highway 101, but no trains have used it in about a decade and its condition is deteriorating.
The Windsor and Hantsport Railway Company is owned by Bob Schmidt from Alexandria, Va. He said his company is in the process of finalizing the purchase over the next few months.
Schmidt said before any trains could use the line, there would be repairs needed.
"I would say it's a six- to 12-month project at a normal pace, just to get the entire 60 miles up and ready to go," he said.
As well, Schmidt said the cost of repairs could range widely, depending on what the line will be used for.
Commuter rail, he said, would require repairs that could cost millions of dollars. Less frequent uses, such as transporting aggregate or gypsum, could cost hundreds of thousands.
'It's all overgrown'
The last trains to use the line stopped with the closure of the Fundy Gypsum plant in 2011, and some residents think it's unlikely they will ever start again.
"It's all overgrown, the railroad ties are all rotted, it's just hasn't been maintained for years," said Paul Smith, the president of a local residents group, the Uniacke Trails Association.
"So the likelihood of being able to upgrade this to an operating rail line, if there was ever an economic need for a rail line, seems pretty slim to me."
The trails association is pushing for the line to be converted to a rails-to-trails multi-use trail like the Beechville-Lakeside-Timberlea Trail.
"A lot of people would like to be able to get outside, get some fresh air, do some hiking, some biking. There's some active ATV groups out here that are presently using the line now and they'd like to be able to continue doing that," said Smith.
The group hopes the province or municipality will step in to buy the land from CN.
"If a private owner takes it over, it's anybody's guess what could happen," said Smith. "There's other areas that trail organizations have been forced to negotiate and lease land from a private owner so they could put trails on it."
Local councillor Lisa Blackburn supported the idea of a trail in a motion to Halifax regional council in January.
"The rail line hasn't been used in a number of years and has, by default, become a really great place for people to take their dogs and walk a trail. It already is being used as a trail," she said.
Blackburn said the news of Windsor and Hantsport Railway's purchase agreement is "disappointing" to the trail groups.
"I think it's going to be a lot more difficult now that we have to deal with somebody out of the country," she said.
Schmidt said he has no objection to a trail that would run alongside the rail line, adding the setting is "beautiful" and he sees "ample opportunity" for a trail.
'We wouldn't be viable'
Schmidt said he has negotiated trail lease agreements with other towns for $4,000 per mile. He said he keeps this price consistent to be fair to all municipalities and, according to railroad tradition, it is given in miles.
While leases do help offset costs, leases alone aren't enough to make a rail line purchase pay for itself, he said.
"I would not buy this for the sole purpose of leasing it for a trail. We wouldn't be viable," he said.
Schmidt said he believes there's still a business case for the line and that it shouldn't be removed.
"It would be quite a challenge, as you could imagine, if today you wanted to start fresh and purchase a 60-mile contiguous corridor. The value is in preserving a rail corridor. There's an old saying in the industry, which is quite true, once the rail lines are gone, they're gone."