ACR on the Chopping Block?

(Note that this posting contains a LOT of supposition.)

Last week Trains magazine put out a news item indicating that CN plans to sell off a fair bit of low density branch lines in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario:

TRAINS: CN to sell 850 miles of low-density lines in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario

While the article text is behind subscriber access, the sub heading implies that most of the trackage is low traffic ex-Wisconsin Central lines, and it doesn’t take much supposition to guess that the former Algoma Central trackage is at least a candidate to be included in the “Ontario” part of this collection, with very few on-line customers other than the Essar Steel Algoma mill in the Sault other than a few pulpwood logging operations.

I’ve also been told by local sources that CN is currently not even operating trains between Sault Ste. Marie and Hawk Junction, only operating between Hawk and Hearst to handle bridge traffic between the interchanges/junctions at Hearst, Oba, and Franz. (I’ve been seeing some AC/WC pulpwood cars routing through southern Ontario recently as well which is a fairly new thing – probably taking the long way around to Wisconsin/Michigan with the south end of the ACR not operating.)

Will have to watch what happens with this one, potentially big changes in the Algoma region. Speculation abounds: Will CN attempt to abandon the line if no buyers found? Will they soldier on? Will Ontario Northland be interested? (Probably the best case for the line, but will ONTC go for it?) Will some other shortline company make a go? (G&W comes to mind, but they’re already claiming poverty on the operations of the Huron Central and threatening to walk away from that one without financial support for track upgrade/maintenance.) Will local interests try to put something together to save the line, similar to what they’re trying to do with the regular Hearst passenger train? (Although this has been dragging on seemingly unsuccessfully for several years now.) And of course, what impact will this have on the popular Agawa Canyon Tour Train? (although cancelled this year because of the pandemic.) Could a new operator other than CN actually be a boon to passenger service restoration if freight and passenger can be operated as a cohesive entity?

Lots to see, and nothing will happen quickly…

Wawa Wood Pellet Mill Closing

Not great news for the Wawa area.

Announced yesterday, it looks like the wood pellet plant south of Hawk Junction is closing its doors indefinitely due to financial issues and economic factors:

Cash-Strapped RenTech Pulls Plug on Wawa Pellet Mill

(Other articles are also indicating that the troubled company lost as much as 17% in stock value on today’s trading by the lunch hour.)

This facility is the one built just off Highway 101 south of Hawk Junction, near the old ACR Limer siding, in 1995-96 by Jaeger Strandboard to produce OSB (oriented strandboard) sheeting and was shut down by Weyerhaeuser, the then-current owner in 2008. In 2013 RenTech bought the idled mill to convert into a wood pellet manufacturing facility, and after some startup issues starting production in 2015, shipping pellets out by covered hopper via CN. And now it appears, closed again in 2017 unless another company decides to purchase the plant from RenTech.

Here we go again – proposals received for ACR passenger service

The deadline for new proposals for operating the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst passenger service has arrived and the local Sault Star newspaper is reporting on their web site that three proposals have been submitted, with a possible fourth to come from a late arrival to the process:

RFP results in proposals to run train service

After the first attempt at finding an operator which led to the selection of RailMark Inc., which for several complicated reasons did not end well, it appears that this time the working group will have all proposals reviewed by a third party consultant to compare the submitted proposals to the information contained in the RFP (Request for Proposals) and also do additional background checking of each company.

Once the proposals have been compared, they will then be reviewed by the stakeholder group and CN. Obviously CN, as the owner of the tracks, will have to provide their approval of the operator, and the group hopes to have the city’s nod as well, as the administrator of the federal funding, before a selected proposal is submitted to Transport Canada for approval. With a federal election and possible changes in the government just weeks away, it’s expected that such a submission will occur after the October election.

The article notes that some of the pre-conditions for approval (which RailMark notably failed to meet) will be the same this time around.

It’s also noted that the proposals at this time are strictly for the regular passenger service, not the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which CN has continued to operate this season, but is entertaining offers/proposals for that service as well. The article mentions that it is unknown whether CN has received any interest for the tour train, but the benefits of the same operator running both the regular train and tour train are obvious, as the two services can share equipment and connect the services in other ways as well. (Until last year CN offered a combo package with the Tour of the Line where you could ride the Agawa Canyon Tour Train to Canyon park, enjoy the park for a while and get picked up by the northbound regular train to continue the Tour of the Line experience. When I rode the train to Hearst in 2013, I just rode the regular train as the Canyon train was sold out, but my friend that I travelled with, having booked earlier, was able to take advantage of this deal.)

Anyway, we’ll see what develops out of the proposals. Hopefully for all concerned it works out this time. While communities, private cottage and camp owners and tourist outfitters and resort/lodge owners have certainly hurt from the cessation of service, it’s worth remembering that whatever issues there were, RailMark also lost huge when they got forced out due to the lack of financing after operating for several months at a total loss. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to have *all* the ducks in a row on this.

Last run of the ‘Algoma Spirit’ Passenger Train

This may seem like a late post, but I was on vacation up north last week and just returned home yesterday.

Today marks exactly one week since the last RailMark operated passenger train departed northbound from Hawk Junction. About a week before, CN had terminated their relationship with RailMark effective July 15, and accordingly, on Monday July 13 the last northbound run departed Hawk Junction, with the equipment later moved to Sault Ste. Marie on July 14.

I already had vacation booked and had been planning a railfan tour of the former ACR and the Ontario Northland when this news broke. As it turned out, the day I had already planned to be in Wawa ended up being the day of the last northbound departure out of Hawk Junction, so I was able to catch the last departure. I didn’t end up scheduling in a ride, but I was at least able to photograph and see it off.
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As an earlier post on this blog noted, for the last few weeks of service, the train was operating north of Hawk Junction only, with no service provided south of Hawk Junction, and occasionally erratic north of there.

The last run north on July 13 accordingly originated out of Hawk Junction yard where it had parked the night before. The engine uncoupled and ran around in order to be on the head end facing north and moved the train from its overnight storage location in one of the yard tracks over to the station platform to load passengers (3 or 4 people riding on a one-way ticket to Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort at Wabatong – planning to fly out later via float plane as there would be no more train service).

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The last run would depart Hawk Junction, run as far as Oba only, runaround and return to Hawk that evening. The next day, the equipment was scheduled to head to Sault Ste. Marie, officially ending service.

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In the wake of the service’s termination, everything just continues to give the impression of a huge mess. The EDC and passenger working group have indicating that they are trying to investigate other options to get the service running again. As RailMark was CN’s choice (from which the working group has tried to distance themselves), the city and working group publicly suggested that CN should step in to “clean up its mess” and operate the passenger service in the interim. CN for its part, has said they are not in a position to do so. Meanwhile, RailMark suggested a willingness to keep things going on a month-to-month agreement, even if another operator is ultimately chosen. The EDC rejected this proposal as unrealistic.

The impacts of the lost service and the finger-pointing and recriminations continue. Many blame RailMark of course, for not being able to prove they can run a proper service. Some blame CN for their choice of RailMark and question the due diligence , Some of the more conspiratorily-minded suggest it was CN’s plan all along to get rid of the passenger service without being the villain. For their part, just today RailMark fired back with a scathing missive against the city and the EDC, while admitting some mistakes on both sides, placing most of the blame squarely on bureaucratic rigidity and lambasting a “lack of leadership”, indicating that the line of credit which was a pre-condition of the agreement was difficult to obtain without the signed agreement, and suggesting that RailMark has become a convenient political scapegoat.

Here’s a few links to recent articles in the local media covering the ongoing situation:

Passenger Service to Hearst ending on July 15

Well, that’s it. Thanks to the lack of financing obtained by RailMark, it seems the passenger service will make its last run next week:

Sault-Hearst rail service to cease July 15

RailMark’s financing, in the form of a line of credit, was the Economic Development Corporation’s primary pre-condition for RailMark to prove their financial health and stability prior to having the city sign the agreement to transfer funding from the federal government and while at last report RailMark was still attempting to obtain sources of financing, it appears this is no longer forthcoming.