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Shortline rail’s outsized contributions to Canadian supply chains

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Case study: Southern Railway of British Columbia

Shortline railways are key links in Canada’s supply chains and in getting Canadian products to market.

Case in point: Southern Railway of British Columbia Limited (SRY), which uses its 201-kilometre (125 mile) network to provide vital rail services to businesses across southwestern B.C., from the coast to the Fraser Valley.

“We see ourselves as having a key role in the supply chain being able to support the Class 1s given our unique position,” says Emily Mak, SRY’s Director, Corporate Affairs and General Counsel. “With the connectivity of our rail network and our strategic land holdings, we support the Class 1s to optimize their operational efficiencies and intensify their rail activity in the Lower Mainland.”

SRY tracks connect with four Class 1s (CP, CN, BNSF, and UP) and to the U.S. at the Abbotsford-Sumas border point while running through the heart of B.C.’s most densely populated areas.

(SRY’s related company, Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, offers freight service on Vancouver Island and is connected to the Lower Mainland by rail-barge at SRY’s Annacis Rail Marine Terminal.)

Access to SRY’s shortline railway and Class 1 connections offer businesses the benefits of the lower transportation costs of rail and reduced GHG emissions. It’s estimated that, on average, freight trains are three to four times more fuel efficient than trucks. A freight train can remove up to 300 trucks from the Lower Mainland’s already congested highways and roads.

One fifth of the millions of carloads that originate in Canada each year get their start on shortline railways.

But that’s not to say that SRY and other shortlines don’t run into issues getting goods and resources where they need to go.

For SRY, operating in an urban landscape requires them to navigate increasingly residential and non-industrial developments on neighbouring lands (which is some of the most valuable in Canada), among other challenges.

Shortlines like SRY have a different scale of resources compared to Class 1s but face the same challenges. Mak describes the shortline railroad world as a microcosm of the Class 1 world.

“We deal with mountain grades, winter snow conditions, extreme weather impacts, and public grade crossings at every block in the cities through which we travel. We also maintain several bridges over waterways that have to meet the same strict standards as all bridges,” says Mak.

The November 2021 ‘atmospheric rivers’ that washed out critical mainlines for CN and CP also impacted SRY’s rail lines in Abbotsford and Chilliwack. Like the Class 1s, SRY crews worked tirelessly to restore service , dulling the storms’ economic hit.

Being based in the Lower Mainland also means that SRY must redouble efforts to attract and retain talent because of the higher cost of living in the areas they serve.

SRY and other shortlines power through to uphold their end of the supply chain bargain. And they strive to educate others on the rail industry while doing so.

SRY’s community engagement efforts include educating people on railway operations, the realities of Vancouver being a major port city, and how shortline railways benefit all Canadians.

“Trade is the foundation of our economy. Vancouver provides access for Canadian farmers, manufacturers, and industries to the Asia-Pacific Gateway. We need transportation and industrial land uses to support a prosperous, trade-based economy,” said Mak.

Shortline railways already play a critical role in transporting goods around the country safely and reliably, and SRY’s sustainability efforts will help ensure it remains a vital contributor for the long term. SRY is currently piloting the use of 100% biodiesel in its locomotives in active freight service, which significantly reduces lifecycle GHG emissions.

No matter the challenges, shortline railways like SRY will continue to innovate and support local economies and carry vital resources to support the supply chain.