Work begins this week on a new section of railway through Cloverdale that will give the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society greater control over weekend passenger operations in spite of freight movements.
It’s the second summer the society has offered passenger runs on restored car 1225 from Cloverdale to Sullivan Station, thrilling those who remember riding on the B.C. Electric Railway as kids – and winning over a new generation of fans.
But due to the sheer volume of grain shipments to the coast, the heritage railway has been sidelined about half the time this summer.
Most of the cancellations have been on Saturdays, with the society not knowing until the last minute if the track would be clear on Sundays, too.
“Between the grain backlog, the bad winter and a bumper harvest, it was a perfect storm,” said FVHRS secretary Allen Aubert.
Saturday and some Sunday operations are subject to freight movements on the line due to increased grain handling activity, normally not a conflict on weekends. But since the Calgary flood in spring 2013, grain shipments to the coast have been an issue for the fledgling heritage attraction.
“We knew last year there could be some challenges,” Aubert said, explaining how the project’s partners came together after a successful debut season to look at how to mitigate the problem.
They realized they could eliminate the disruption altogether by building a new section bypassing the bottleneck in Cloverdale.
This week, work begins on a 2,000-foot-long section of dedicated track.
The bypass will join up with the existing line that runs to Sullivan Station at 152 Street and 64 Avenue, the round-trip destination for the society’s passenger runs for the past two seasons.
The bypass will be in place for 2015, allowing uninterrupted, scheduled passenger service for the society.
Commercial interruptions affected the society’s operations about 30 per cent of the time last summer, Aubert said. It’s been at least 50 per cent in 2014.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating because won’t know from one moment to the next,” whether the line will be free, Aubert said. “We’re open every weekend, but the big question is: Is the big train running?”
The new track was approved July 22. Getting the necessary approvals and permissions in place has taken 11 months.
So far this summer, more than 2,000 passengers have climbed aboard the Interurban for the 55-minute trip to Sullivan Station and back to Cloverdale, home to FVHRS headquarters. That’s about half of the number of passengers served last year, when ridership closed in on nearly 5,500.
“We’re down by 50 per cent,” Aubert said. “We’ll probably hit 3,000 by the end of the season.”
Turnout has otherwise been “terrific,” he said. “People are forgiving, provided there’s a solution.”
The weekend trips, leaving on the hour, run to Thanksgiving (Oct. 13).
“This season, we’ll have aggravation right to the end,” Aubert warned, reminding visitors to call ahead or check the society’s Facebook page.
Cloverdale Station, a replica of the 1910 original, is open on Saturdays and Sundays even if the train isn’t running.
Visitors are welcome to tour the station, and the car barn, where restoration work on BCER car 1304 continues, and take a short speeder ride on the railway track. Speeder rides have been a hit, especially with kids, Aubert said.
The passenger side of the FVHRS’s operations runs with the help of 125 active volunteers. Weekends, there’s a crew of 28 working four hour shifts as greeters, ticket sellers, guides and station managers.
“To make the experience real and wonderful,” Aubert explained. “That’s what it is all about – to give people a really excellent experience.”
Laying down 2,000 feet of new track represents about $1 million in terms of investment, but the actual cost to the FVHRS will be much lower, thanks to sponsors.
Partners on this leg of the journey are the City of Surrey, Southern Railway of B.C., B.C. Hydro, RDM Enterprises and PNR Railworks.