Rapid transit in Winnipeg: dream big.

Rapid transit plans could free up space for next-generation housing in the core areas of our city. All it takes is vision, action and planning by our leaders.

Carrying trains throughout the city. Photo by AJ Batac.
Carrying trains throughout the city. Photo by
AJ Batac.

In 1877, when the Countess of Dufferin locomotive arrived in St. Boniface on a barge towed up the Red River by the steamer, “Selkirk”, it was big news. It would inaugurate the first major land transportation system on the Prairies, the railway running north and south between Selkirk and Emerson. For the next century, rail would be king in Manitoba, and Winnipeg was the hub of it all.

Two years later, in 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway Act was passed, opening the way to tie the Dominion together by building the line westward across the Prairies. To grease the wheels, huge concessions were made to the railway, not the least of which was a payment of $25 million and with that two million acres of land, some of it located where cities have since grown up surrounding the networks. The railway since its very early days has been privately owned, though its structure and ownership arrangements have changed several times. Headquartered in Calgary now, it is publicly traded on the Toronto and New York Stock Exchanges.

A slash through Winnipeg’s heart

In Winnipeg, CP occupies almost 500 acres in the heart of the city, cutting the community in half both literally and figuratively. It is surrounded by a wasteland of tracks and empty warehouses as the nature of businesses in the city has changed. The neighbourhoods on either side of the tracks are among the least desirable in Winnipeg.

CP is not alone. CN has its own network of lines cutting though east Winnipeg, where there are major yards in Transcona and St. Boniface, and then through downtown and from there through the southern part of Winnipeg all the way to St. Norbert, and west through Tuxedo and Charleswood. Nor are we dealing only with CP and CN. There are a number of other players, including Via Rail, Burlington Northern, Central Manitoba Railway and so on.

Since the 1960s various groups have raised the issue of moving rail yards away from Winnipeg’s core. There are several precedents for this. Edmonton did it in the 1980s, with the removal of CN. This was followed by a boom in construction and development. What was wasteland is now prime land. Tax revenue rose with the redevelopment and the original investment has since been more than justified. Montreal recently completed its rail relocation and development. Its spinoff redevelopment paralleled that of Edmonton.

In 2012, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg reintroduced the idea with a study and proposal to remove the CP lines and yards and fill the space with housing. They reasoned that removal of the lines to a location north of the city was a sensible decision given the location of the transportation-hungry CentrePort development.

$700 million for the job?

It apparently costs about $1 million per kilometre to move the lines; local businessman and rail buff, Art DeFehr, thinks the total cost would be about $700 million, money that could be financed through the freed-up value in redevelopment.

The timing is auspicious. Under the leadership of Mayor Brian Bowman, Winnipeg is finally taking its first tentative steps toward creating a rapid transit system, servicing a very small part of the city from downtown to the University of Manitoba. But we need a system that covers the whole city.

Major growth is coming

Given that the mayor created the BOLD initiative for redevelopment of the city when he was chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, it is hard to see how he could turn such a proposition down!

The Conference Board of Canada has pointed out that the city is expected to grow by 180,000 people by 2031; not only will there be a need for an estimated 83,000 new housing units, there will be additional pressure on our transportation infrastructure. Strategically, it makes sense to utilize for public transportation the rail line corridors that currently serve private transportation needs. Indeed, the Social Planning Council proposal, which focusses a lot on housing, acknowledges the transportation needs that must be dealt with in any repurposing of the site.

Naysayers and the weak of heart will worry about industrial use site remediation, but we have experience with this at The Forks, not that long ago a 90-acre, industrial-age mess. Moreover, a great deal has been learned in the interim about the remediation efficacy of greenspaces and trees.

At an Assiniboine Chamber of Commerce luncheon in April, Don Leitch, executive director of the Business Council of Winnipeg, once again issued the challenge. It would be very good business. The economic and social benefits would be enormous.

So yes, we could have a network of rapid transit systems and freeways following the old rail lines throughout the city and yes, we could even have housing on the old railyard sites with some careful planning.

Do some planning

Will this be expensive? Of course, but all projects are. The housing will inevitably be built and that development will demand transportation infrastructure. Better to incorporate this into a long term plan for our city and begin the process now, taking advantage of the opportunity to clean up the core areas of the city and halt some of the urban sprawl.

Is this do-able? Yes, it is. It will take the co-ordinated efforts and leadership of the city, the province, the federal government and local business, but we can do it. Dream big or don’t dream at all.

It could be the salvation of an aging town that could use a big shot of renewal right at its heart.

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