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Genesee & Wyoming, governments close to signing deal to preserve northeast rail freight service

Aid package would avert Montreal railroader from withdrawing at end of June
Huron Central 1
(File photo)

Efforts to save Huron Central Railway (HCR) operations between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury seem to have proven to be successful.

Though an agreement is not yet officially signed, “enough progress has been made, both at a federal and provincial level, that HCR is comfortable that it will in fact finalize agreements with both levels of government (to save the railway line’s operations between the Sault and Sudbury),” said Joe Fratesi, who serves as HCR task force co-chair.

The rail line, officially known as HCRY, is owned by Genesee & Wyoming Canada (GWCI), and is a vital rail link used by companies such as Algoma Steel, Domtar in Espanola and EACOM Timber Corporation in Nairn Centre to get their goods to market. Huron Central employs 43 people in the Sault.

Calling for the senior levels of government to assist in rail line repairs, GWCI had previously announced it would cease HCR's operations on Dec. 18, 2020, extending that to June 30, 2021.

The deal, when signed, will consist of $33 million in Huron Central Railway line infrastructure repair money, the federal and provincial governments and Genesee & Wyoming Canada (GWCI)/ HCRY, each picking up a third of that cost, Fratesi said.

"The improvements would be done over a period of seven years. That is the one (proposal) that seemed to get traction because it did not require large amounts of money from any one party all at once,” Fratesi said.

“The provincial government is all but nearing a complete agreement for their one-third…we’re very hopeful that the full and final announcement can be made of the full funding package. We’re not quite there yet, but there’s enough on the table and enough commitment and good will that Huron Central believes it can now move away from the June 30 date.”

It is believed the federal government’s share of the funding will come from a renewed National Trade Corridors Fund, delivered through Transport Canada. 

“Genesee & Wyoming Canada has received confirmation that the intention for the renewed program criteria would remove barriers that had previously prevented short line railways from eligibility,” GWCI stated in a release Wednesday.

“We’ve been very much involved almost on a weekly basis with (Sault MPP) Ross Romano and (Sault MP) Terry Sheehan and having them give us direction as to what programs we might want to talk about,” said Fratesi, former City of Sault Ste. Marie CAO, who co-chairs the HCR task force with former City Councillor Steve Butland.

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The task force, Fratesi said, includes representatives of stakeholders such as Algoma Steel, Domtar and the cities of Greater Sudbury and Espanola. 

The latest developments mark the second time HCR has been assisted with infrastructure renewal costs by senior levels of government, the first occasion in 2010.

“Short line rails (such as the HCR) typically are not able to do these things for the long term without some form of assistance (unlike long range rail systems owned by CN and CP),” Fratesi said.

Regarding timelines, Fratesi said: “we’ve probably missed the time frame for work to be done (to the railroad) this year, so it would be in all likelihood that the work would start in 2022.”

The railway responded. 

"Discussions with both levels of government have progressed significantly in the past few months. We are optimistic about the possibility of reaching agreements with both governments in the coming weeks/months. This is why we have decided to suspend plans to end operations on June 30...the application process for the renewed National Trade Corridors Fund has not started yet. We will be submitting our application as soon as possible once the process has been initiated," wrote Claudine Bois, Montreal-based Genessee & Wyoming Canada Inc. spokesperson in an email.

"I am happy that Genesee & Wyoming Canada are continuing to work with all levels of government to finalize an agreement that will help to accomplish our collective goal of long-term sustainability for this important piece of infrastructure in Northern Ontario and protect 43 jobs in Sault Ste. Marie," said Sault MPP Ross Romano in an email.

“I have always advocated and brought the message to Ottawa that the continuation of the HCRY short line between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury is critical for our region. We continue to work together to make sure that this important piece of rail infrastructure, which provides 43 families with direct jobs and which serves communities and businesses from the Sault to Sudbury, continues to operate,” stated Sault MP Terry Sheehan.

- SooToday