Western Canada looks to big improvements in its railroad service

Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government in Ottawa is going to do western Canada a favor, even though the Liberals have few votes in that part of the country. They are going to get rid of some 19th-century freight rates and hope the railways can move further into the 20th century.

The two Canadian railways - Canadian Pacific and the government-owned Canadian National - are starting to spend more on their western rail lines, since the federal government is finally scrapping the Crow's Nest Freight Rate agreement, enacted in 1897. It sets rail rates for grain moving off the prairies at half a cent per ton-mile, and those rates haven't changed since 1897. The Crow, as it is known, will be scrapped or revised later this year despite opposition ranging from prairie grain farmers to Quebec pig producers who like cheap grain to fatten their hogs.

The existence of the Crow has meant railways have not spent money on new tracks or on maintaining the old ones. More than half the tracks in western Canada were laid before 1920. The western rail system has left the railways poorly prepared for the growth in non-grain export markets.

The president of Canadian Pacific Ltd., William Stinson, says his company will commit itself to $3.1 billion in rail investment as soon as the new legislation on the Crow has been approved by Parliament in Ottawa. CP Rail (as the railway subsidiary is known) lost $200 million carrying western export grain last year. The government-owned Canadian National Railways lost $296 million doing the same job.

''If we can solve grain, we can put in new investment,'' says a senior executive at Canadian Pacific. Both railways are threatening not to spend any more money than they have to in western Canada until the Crow is repealed or about to be, but a lot of the repair work will have to be done anyway.

CN will have to spend an estimated $100 million to upgrade its rail line from Edmonton, Alberta, to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A new grain terminal and a new coal terminal are being built there at a cost of half a billion dollars. The coal terminal will be finished next year, the grain terminal in 1986. The new facilities at Prince Rupert are desperately needed to take the pressure off Vancouver, which is now hopelessly overcrowded. Ships have to wait at anchor for days or even weeks for space at a dock.

The new port facilities are being carved out of the wilderness at a natural deepwater port outside the small town of Prince Rupert near the British Columbia-Alaska border.

The coal terminal will be used to ship coal to Japan and other Asian countries from new mines which are being developed in northeastern British Columbia. The grain terminal will take western Canadian grain on the northern CN route, taking pressure off grain facilities in Vancouver.

CP Rail's spending program would increase its capacity to move bulk freight through the Rockies to the west coast by 45 percent over the next five years. When work is completed on the Rogers Pass Tunnel, that capacity will increase even further. The tunnel now has only one track to carry traffic both ways. Doubling its size will ease a bottleneck. The cost is $600 million and it will take four years to complete.

Across western Canada, single-line railways are a major problem, since freight trains have to sit on sidetracks to let other trains go by.

Prime Minister Trudeau once made a rash election promise about federal help to finance double tracking in an attempt to get western votes. The prime minister didn't get the votes - he doesn't have a single seat west of Winnipeg - and the west didn't get double tracking.

CP will be spending money to double track in the area of Revelstoke, British Columbia, as well as putting in a new railyard in Golden, British Columbia, which will service ''unit trains'' carrying coal to the port of Roberts Bank, where it is shipped to Japan.

Canadian National says that over the next five years it will lay 210 miles of double track between Winnipeg and Edmonton and 392 miles between Edmonton and Vancouver. This year about 125 miles will be brought into service.

Although grain shipments account for 25 percent of CP Rail's total tonnage - other bulk commodities have made the upgrading of the rail system necessary even without dumping the Crow. Potash and sulfur in Saskatchewan; petrochemicals and coal from Alberta; and coal and lumber from British Columbia have taken over for grain.

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