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WCR chugging along at low speed

Matthew Schilling prepares for the arrival of the Budd cars as the Waterloo Central Railway uses some downtime to carry out work at its St. Jacobs headquarters. [Damon MacLean]

Its operations currently on hold, the Waterloo Central Railway (WCR) is very much looking for public health officials to get a vaccine program on track and rolling through the region, the sooner to get back to regular service.

Like many others, the non-profit operation has been sidetracked since last spring, and it appears unlikely trains will be rolling any time soon.

“I’m 100 per cent sure we will not be operating this spring. Our operations are going to be contingent on the progress of the vaccine program,” said WCR general manager Peter McGough, noting the idea of riding in a 90-foot-long steel car where windows don’t open may not be very appealing until the pandemic is under control.

Such concerns also extend to the volunteers who keep St. Jacobs-based operation up and running.

“Ninety-five per cent of the operation is run by volunteer, and the volunteers … don’t want to come back either until there’s a vaccine in place. So we want to make sure our passengers are safe and also that our volunteers are safe. The earliest we’re thinking right now is maybe the end of the summer,” said McGough, adding that a large number of the volunteers  are seniors, which means the consequences of contracting the virus could be more serious.

Under current public health regulations,  only a couple of volunteers are allowed onsite at a time,  causing a halt in some ongoing projects. Right now the, the essentials and general maintenance are the priority. Holding a ‘short line’ license from Transport Canada, the crew at WCR has to meet the same regulations as every other railway regardless of whether or not they’re in operation.  

The team is playing a bit of catch-up now due to the first lockdown last March. At that point, WCR decided to defer for another year an examination of a boiler in their steam engine, a routine inspection takes place every ten years under the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA).

“We decided to move it up a year since we were not going to be running anyway. And hopefully it will be done in the spring, early summer,” said McGough. The steam engine is one of three in the country.

The pandemic forced most of the WCR operations to shut down last spring, including its special train for the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival, which was cancelled. That program remains on hold, as the festival has opted to go virtual this year. The organization’s regular train schedule and bevy of special events also remain on the shelf.

Having to reduce capacity in the workshop and on the rail yard, WCR launched a newsletter back in the spring and continues to keep those in the community engaged. One of the newest additions coming to the site is a fleet of five Budd Rail Diesel Cars, which are currently being serviced in Toronto ahead of delivery to St. Jacobs later this year.

The new cars are part of WCR’s vision of expanded service down the road. Back in the 1930s, McGough notes, there were five passenger trains on route between Elmira and Kitchener, so there’s an opportunity to draw on the past. In that vein, McGough has expansive hopes for the future. The current location in St. Jacobs will stand, but there’s a possibility of a home base being built in someplace like Elmira as part of a five- and ten-year plan.

The organization is drawing on the experience and offerings of other historical rail operators such as the Strasburg Rail Road in Lancaster County, Pennslyvania.

“I think the sky’s the limit. We’re looking at a premium service on all our trains, offering up a chance to go on Strasburg Rail Road, southeastern Pennsylvania. They’re in the middle of Amish country, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to emulate. We want to put parlour cars in each train, have a premium service.” 

In the meantime, the goal is to get back to a stage where volunteers can do more work ahead of a return to service.

“We’re hoping that as some of the protocols are changed or lifted, that we can do more in the shop. We’ve monitored very closely what the province is asking – as far as the shop goes, we’d like to get two or three more people in there,” said McGough, adding the hope is for a return to normalcy as soon as possible.

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  1. A few errors; first, it’s “car”, not “cart”. Secondly, the standard rail passenger car length is 85 feet, not 90. Also, there probably were 5 trains, not cars a day between Kitchener and Elmira. Please add these corrections.

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