The Battle River Railway is a little engine that could — and it just keeps chugging along despite challenges thrown its way.
“The grain business looks good. We moved 2,100 cars last year and we have every expectation of moving that much or more this year,” said Ken Eshpeter, the railway’s chairman and CEO and a director with the Friends of the Battle River Railway Society.
“We’re still trying to figure out where railroading begins and ends and where grain buying and handling begins and ends.”
The BRR, established in 2010, is a community-operated short line located in central Alberta and operated by a new-generation co-op. It has 50 miles of track, six sidings where producers load grain, and is in the process of completing its third grain-handling facility (built by shareholders in Rosalind, Heisler and Alliance). Each of the six sidings operates under a different scenario before interchanging in Camrose and transferring on the CN line to the B.C. interior, Prince Rupert or Vancouver. BRR officials are currently talking with several large grain buyers to try to establish a relationship or partnership to create more grain-handling facilities.
The railway has continued to grow each year, but it’s been challenging, said Eshpeter, who farms near Daysland.
“It’s been steadily increasing, but it’s always a fight because CN never wants to relinquish any control or help a young player out,” he said. “Last year was relatively terrible and we were 27 weeks behind at one time, waiting for some of our cars to go into the interior B.C. We were getting export cars last year, but the ones to service the domestic market were way behind.”
Fortunately, the railway was able to catch up by the end of the year.
“It’s really a frustrating thing when you have markets to serve and you can’t because you can’t get cars from general allocation,” said Eshpeter.
The railway continues to lobby CN, he said.
“Getting more cars and increasing our car allocation is the thing we work on, on a daily basis,” he said. “That’s just the way it is, unfortunately. We’re a little player, and CN has all the levers, so you can imagine what it’s like. But we would not have passed it up.”
Interest in the rail line has been growing because it is more willing to move specialty crops.
“Big grain likes to handle the easy stuff,” said Eshpeter. “So if a person has something that is a little bit different, like a different grade or a different type of wheat or a crop like faba beans or flax, the opportunity to move them through a major is quite troublesome.”
Because the people affiliated with the short line know some of these other markets, they’re able to market specialty crops. And some producers are fed up with the big grain companies and prefer to use the producer-owned short line instead, said Eshpeter.
“There are times when a guy is bringing grain 50 miles and he has to stand in the bloody lineup in the driveway and gets treated like a piece of you know what,” he said. “They’re tiring of that. We don’t do that. The arrangement is that if they come here, they’ll be able to unload when they get here.”
Prior to the end of the single desk in 2012, the CWB used to handle a lot of the logistics, but now the railroad has to be involved in contracting, car ordering, car allocation and tracking cars. Four part-time staff manage the grain-handling side, while two full- and one part-time employees take care of the railway side.
Eshpeter calls the entire project “fulfilling, but immensely frustrating.”
The Battle River group began loading producer cars in 2003 after CN threatened to close the rail line. A group of producers formed a new-generation co-op, purchased the line in June 2010, and hauled its first train of 50 barley cars later that year.
“We had this beautiful track out here and we weren’t going to let it disappear,” said Eshpeter. “We are a great grain-growing area, so it didn’t make sense that this line disappear and it didn’t get a huge amount of convincing of our guys to understand what we were attempting to do. We’ve had great participation.”
There are 153 producer shareholders, and a number of non-producer members who own shares in the co-operative. Eight times a year, the railway runs tourism excursions using a passenger car to move people to activities occurring in the different communities along the rail line, through the Friends of the Battle River Railway Society.