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AGAWA CANYON TOUR TRAIN : A journey of epic scenery and sustainability

The Agawa Canyon Railroad is a tourism rail operator based in North Ontario. Operating spring to fall, it departs out of downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Agawa takes visitors on a 114-mile (183 km) journey through the rugged beauty that is exclusive to the region. A wholly owned subsidiary of global transportation services provider Watco, Agawa Canyon Railroad (ACR), ULC is a member of the Railway Association of Canada. And as Agawa’s Laura McNichol told us recently, the company’s top priority after safety is to ensure it maintains the pristine beauty of the places it visits.   

Agawa travels through some beautiful, scenic country. Describe a trip for us through the Agawa Canyon.

As you settle into your coach, you can feel the pace of life slow down a bit. The ride evokes a sense of simpler times while raising expectations of the journey that lies ahead. Traces of city life soon fade away as the Northern Ontario wilderness begins to unfold outside the large-tinted windows. The seemingly unending mixed forests of the Canadian Shield open up as you skirt the shores of northern lakes and rivers, cross towering trestles, and set eyes on the same rugged landscapes and majestic views that inspired the Group of Seven to create some of Canada’s most notable works of art.

As the Agawa train winds its way through this one-of-a-kind terrain, you learn the rich history of the Ojibway, fur traders, explorers and entrepreneurs that opened up this vast wilderness. And to enhance the scenery outside your window, locomotive-mounted cameras provide an engineer’s ‘eye-view’ via flat screen monitors installed throughout the coaches. Just when you thought you’d experienced it all, the train starts its descent into the canyon at mile 102. As the rail line hugs the top of the canyon wall, you’ll descend 500 feet over the next 10 miles to the floor of the Agawa Canyon. This stunning area was created more than 1.2 billion years ago by faulting and was widened and reshaped by the last ice age that retreated 10,000 years ago.

What unique sustainability measures have Watco put in place for Agawa operation to ensure you minimize your environmental footprint and maximize your social benefit?

Watco published its first Sustainability Report this year, just a few months following the ACR’s start up on February 1, 2022. The report outlines measures our company is taking to leave this place better than we found it. You can find examples of Watco and its subsidiaries investing in available technologies to reduce our carbon footprint such as locomotive layover heaters, fuel additives that allow for cleaner burning engine locomotives, deployment of LED lighting to reduce energy consumption and replacing aging equipment with zero emissions models.

Specifically, on the ACR, we are prepping for the winter with the installation of layover heaters in our six freight locomotives in the Soo. These heaters keep fluids within the locomotive warm while the locomotive is shut down, which dramatically reduces emissions and fuel consumption in freezing temperatures. Since taking over the railway, the ACR has systematically replaced less efficient lighting with LED. We are about halfway through this replacement project with hopes to complete it by mid-2023.

Also on the ACR, we have a robust health and safety culture, which is a key tenet of any ESG philosophy. We have emergency and incident response plans and safety training to keep our team members and stakeholders safe while on property.

Watco will complete its first greenhouse gas inventory this year for Scope 1 and 2 emissions. We are eager to understand our carbon footprint and seek ways to make incremental improvement in reducing that footprint as technologies improve. As such, Watco hopes to complete the build out of its first two zero emissions switching locomotives for deployment in Texas.

Your guided tour makes clear that visitors are on traditional Ojibway lands. What approach do you take to Indigenous partnership as part of your ESG (Environment, Sustainability and Governance) program?

As a still new business, we are in the learning phase of our journey in Northern Ontario, including operating a business within the traditional lands of the Ojibway. The team is in regular contact with the Missanabie Cree First Nation, as well as the Michipicoten First Nation. We understand the Soo is home to the traditional territories of the Batchawanna First Nation and the Garden River First Nation as well. We are also seeking opportunities to partner with Indigenous communities in the various aspects of our business.

Some of the stops on your tour are only accessible by rail. What responsibility do you feel as the area’s lone tourism rail operator to keep these places pristine and preserved for future generations?

Simple, it is our responsibility to leave this place better than we found it by being good stewards of the land.