Rail travel reached its heyday in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, when a railway link could make or break towns and industries. By the 1940s, rail was in decline as the automobile took precedence. Now there’s an uptick in interest from a historical standpoint.
“You can see the interest just by the ridership on our train,” said Roy Broadbear, general manager of the Waterloo Central Railway and a fourth-generation railroader. “There’s quite a move afoot. People are finally taking an interest in preserving our railway history.”
The Waterloo Central Railway is operated by the Southern Ontario Locomotive Restoration Society. In addition to operating the train that runs between Waterloo and Elmira on market days, SOLRS acquires and restores locomotives and railway cars. Both of those operations are getting a boost with the construction of a new train station and repair shop in St. Jacobs.
Construction of the new building started in June 2009 and is essentially complete, with just the last interior finishing left to be done. The new shop will speed up the pace of restoration, allowing volunteers to work inside during the winter. The space includes a public washroom, lunchroom, equipment storage and display area.
The 55-by-90-foot building has a 24-foot ceiling and the floor is reinforced to hold the weight of heavy locomotives. There are two sets of tracks running through the shop, meaning two locomotives can be worked on side by side.
This week, the No. 9 steam engine sat waiting for its 10-year certification alongside the “pink lady,” a locomotive that was used as a switcher in a Niagara Falls rail yard. The pink lady was originally a reddish-orange colour, but the paint faded over years of sitting outside in a pile of rubble. When the owners sold the property it sat on, they had to clear out the locomotive and donated it to SOLRS. When refurbishing is complete it will be restored to its original colour, but until then, due to popular demand, the engine is staying pink.
The society has 20 pieces of rolling stock and each one has a story. The No. 9, a 1923 steam engine, was the last operating steam locomotive in industrial service in Canada, working along the Windsor waterfront until 1963. They’re hoping to have it in good working order by the end of the year and ready for special steam runs next summer.
“People are very interested in steam engines,” said Ron Dancey, president of SOLRS. “Everyone knows what a steam engine is, but almost no one has seen one operating.”
Ticket sales pay for the operation of the railway and maintenance on the train. They rely on grants and donations to acquire new cars and locomotives. To build the new shop, the society got a $483,000 grant from Industry Canada and put in $50,000 of its own money.
In another month or two, when all the finishing touches are put on the building and all the tools and equipment have been moved inside, the doors will be thrown open to the public for a grand opening.