500 LOCAL JOBS ON THE LINE
VERNON - Industry players believe a niche production hub and some 500 jobs have been thrown on the tracks with the closure of rail service between Vernon and Kelowna.
Kelowna Pacific Railway went bankrupt in July, and while Canadian National has since resumed service on 75 per cent of the track, the section between Vernon and Kelowna was deemed unfit for operation and too costly to upgrade.
It’s a loss that the region’s manufacturing industry isn't taking lightly. Ashland Chemicals, located just north of Kelowna in Lake Country, depended on the rail network to send and receive materials. The company produces fibreglass and plastic polymers which are used by a host of Okanagan businesses for building RVs, boats, water slides, and household fixtures like shower stalls and bathtubs.
“It turns out there’s quite a cluster of these businesses in the Okanagan and North Okanagan,” Barry Penner, former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister and current legal counsel for Ashland says. “You can see how the impact could quickly grow if their operations are impacted and Ashland can’t provide service anymore.”
Penner recently filed a request to the Canadian Transportation Agency to reopen the line but that application was turned down. It means CN is able to continue its 60-day process to sell off the line. With first right of refusal being offered to government Dec. 3, it’s a tight window for opponents determined to regain the rail. If neither municipal, provincial or federal governments wish to buy the land, adjacent landowners will be given the opportunity to expand their property.
“We need more time than what CN is currently intending,” Penner says. “We’re already more than halfway through the... process.”
Once CN liquidates the property, there will be no getting it back—rail service will disappear from Kelowna forever and take businesses with it, Penner says.
Following the abrupt closure of the railway in July, Ashland turned to trucking to meet its shipment needs. But plant manager Kelly Brown says it’s not a feasible alternative in the long-term.
“I think it would be too burdensome to support trucking,” Brown says. “If our customers can’t support the higher cost structure, we’ll have to move to (Los Angeles).”
As a multi-national company, Ashland won’t die in the Okanagan; it will move to one of its other bases. But what of the other Okanagan businesses left in its wake? Campion Boats in Kelowna, FormaShape 3D Architectural Design in Winfield, Kohler Canada in Armstrong, and others depend on it. Brown says at least a quarter of all their material goes to Okanagan manufacturers.
“Directly, the rail might affect only a small percentage of people, but indirectly, it affects a large amount—around 500 jobs,” Brown says.
The potential domino effect if Ashland is forced to leave is something the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters has its eye on.
“With Ashland as a supplier, Kelowna has this neat edge of being sort of the centre of composite fibres and plastics in the province,” vice-president Marcus Ewert-Johns says. “These companies have grown there because of their similarities, they feed off each other. That’s why we’re saying look at the long term impact.”
Ewert-Johns recently sent a letter to the City of Kelowna, urging them to consider what the loss of rail service could do to small business in the Okanagan. Combined with other pressures on the industry—the re-introduction of the PST, increasing utility rates—he says the loss of rail service could be the final tipping point for Okanagan businesses.
“Do you want to save these jobs? First you lose 35 then you lose 100 then you lose 500,” Ewert-Johns says.
If efforts to resume rail service fall through, there are other possibilities for the track. Vernon resident and Okanagan College economics professor Brad Clements created the Rail Trail Society to investigate the idea of a multi-use path along the railway. He stresses that the initiative would only be pursued if resurrecting the railway is no longer an option. In Clements' words, it’s a plan B.
The group is on a short timeline: If the railway does not resume operation and if local, provincial and federal levels of government pass up their chance to buy the land, homeowners bordering the railway will get their chance to absorb it. Then the corridor will be lost.
The society will present to the Regional District of North Okanagan board of directors Wednesday afternoon, detailing the health, economic, and environmental benefits the trail would bring.
“You’d have a pathway connecting communities,” Clements says. “There are 14 parks along the railway, from ball diamonds to beaches. You’d be linking all these community resources.”
He’s encouraging the public to show support for the initiative. The society has also expressed they would like to have an economic analysis done to see if a recreational corridor would make sense for the region.
“The main engine in the Okanagan is tourism, and the trail would only drive that,” Clements says, noting the route could be used by all ages and skill levels due to its absence of hills.
The trail is something those at Ashland believe could co-exist alongside an operating railroad.
“Keep the rail going for business, but also use that real estate next to the track for cyclists and recreation,” Brown says.
Clements agrees that might be an option, but says investigation would need to be done to ensure there is in fact enough space for both uses. Click here for more information from the Rail Trail Society.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (250)309-5230.
— This story was edited at 1:15 p.m. Nov. 6 to clarify the position of the Rail Trail Society.