MRC battles CN over tracks

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André Macron (tr. LT / NH)



André Macron (tr. LT / NH)

LITCHFIELD – On August 13, the MRC Pontiac publicly mobilized its battle to stop the Canadian National Railway Company from removing about 30 kilometres of railroad tracks that cross through the municipalities of Litchfield, Portage-du-Fort, Clarendon, Bristol and the Municipality of Pontiac. The MRC Pontiac sees the route as a strategic link in the future economic development of the area. The track originates at the Pontiac Industrial Park and continues to Ottawa crossing at Fitzroy Harbour, Ontario.
MRC Pontiac Warden, Michael McCrank, accompanied by elected officials, government employees, Transport Pontiac-Renfrew representatives, and a few citizens, gathered at the rail intersection on Highway 301 South near Portage-du-Fort. They blocked the tracks with an MRC Pontiac owned vehicle in an effort to prohibit CN’s track removal crew from coming into the area (photo page 2).
McCrank referred to the MRC Pontiac bylaw 192-2013, adopted this past March and Quebec government approved, which forbids any new land or construction use, “including the dismantlement of the track….” in the MRC Pontiac. According to McCrank, dismantling the rail line threatens 200 jobs directly and 400 indirectly in the area. CN however decided to carry on regardless of the bylaw and sent in its removal team.
“CN made its money on the backs of small communities like ours, now they are letting us down,” said McCrank. “In the past the company purchased the railway tracks for 1 million dollars. Today they want to sell them back for over 20 million dollars.” McCrank expressed indignation that CN would show such contempt towards the communities that helped them to build their multi-national corporation.
Jim Feeny, CN spokesperson, explained the push to dismantle this particular section of the network known as “The Beachburg Subdivision” that included the tracks between Pembroke and Beachburg that were pulled up this past spring. “Since 2009, CN has collaborated with the MRC Pontiac,” stated Feeny. “Our mutual objective has been to develop railway traffic and to find clientele who would be regular users of the rail line.” The track has not been used at all since the closing of Smurfit-Stone in 2008.
“It does not seem like the MRC has attracted any new clients,” continued Feeny. “We need to relocate those tracks to where the economic activity warrants their usage; put them where there is a need,” he emphasised, adding that CN purchased the tracks for 1 million dollars in 2008 from Quebec Railway. According to Feeny, the purchase price was based on the fair market value of the line along with other products and assumed debts.
Feeny further explained that Transport Pontiac-Renfrew’s objectives of having freight service combined with passenger light rail has not materialized. In addition, CN’s request to Canada Revenue Agency for a tax credit was rejected. Feeny is convinced that because the rails are under federal jurisdiction, CN has the right to dispose of them however they see fit. According to him, the office of the Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, has supported CN, “as it is a business decision concerning a private company.”
Charlotte L’Écuyer, Pontiac’s MNA, agreed with the MRC’s position that retaining the rail is necessary for Pontiac’s economic development, but her influence is limited. “Given what has happened recently at Lake Mégantic [numerous deaths from a train derailment], everyone is being prudent,” said L’Écuyer, noting that insurance costs would be extremely high. She recalled the fact that there was a dramatic increase in heavy road traffic after the rail line between Montreal and Quebec City was closed. “Ontario has the 417 to accommodate the transportation of heavy truck; our Highway 148 cannot, and on both sides of it are agricultural land, so expansion is limited,” she said.
Rémi Bertrand, MRC Pontiac director general, estimates that several local businesses are threatened, especially Trebio, the wood pellet manufacturing company located at the Pontiac Industrial Park, as well as developing the old Bristol Mines area.
He foresees increased costs for businesses that have no alternative but to ship by truck what they could potentially be shipped by rail.
Shortly after the August 13 protest, Bertrand, along with legal counsel, presented the matter to a court’s tribunal, which allowed for an August 20 hearing.
On August 19, about 80 members of the public and the media attended a press conference at the entrance to the Pontiac Industrial Park where the MRC Pontiac reiterated its stance (photo page 1).
It was announced the next day that CN has suspended dismantling the rails until the next court hearings, October 10 and 11. The MRC has since removed its vehicle from blocking the tracks.