BC Rail - it's one of the most unique regionals in North America, but it's also one of the least covered by fans. Fifteen years ago, it was still an Alco lover's Mecca, its mainlines and yards still populated with Alco and MLW Centuries, as well as RS18s. Now, in the early 2000s, BC Rail is a 1,500 mile regional, the third largest of the Canadian roads, connecting the industries of the BC interior with interchanges and markets at Vancouver and Prince George. It's a regional that has a very modern fleet of 6-axle GE power, along with smaller GE power for the branches and rebuilt RS18s and cut-down RS-3 slugs for the yards. It runs six daily mainline freights along the heavily trafficked North Vancouver-Prince George segment, along with a host of locals and branch jobs. Up until two years ago, it had a 50-kV electrified line from Tacheeda out to the coal mines at Quintette - the Tumbler Ridge Sub. Until late last year, it operated passenger service over a good chunk of its line with a fleet of Budd RDCs, along with a luxury "cruise" train and a dinner train out of Vancouver. It still runs through many variations of environments and terrain,
ranging from coastal rainforest along the Howe Sound, through 100 miles of tough mountain railroading up to Lillooet, and then northern pine forests for most of the rest of its run. Manned helpers are still a normal daily thing out of Pemberton. The best part? The railroad, while a Crown Corporation and thus strongly related to the BC government, is mostly profitable.
Despite being unique in so many ways, it doesn't seem to receive much coverage by fans. Largely, I believe, due to its perceived remoteness (or, in cases such as the Fort Nelson and Stuart Subs, its true remoteness) and the fact it doesn't pass through lots of large population centers, BC Rail doesn't get that much railfan attention compared to other similarly-sized or smaller regionals, like the MRL. Still, ever since a day back in the summer of 1989, I've been fascinated by it. When I saw that the Province was soliciting RFPs back in May 2003 for a prospective buyer for the line, I suddenly started to focus on one more trip.
That opportunity arose with a lull in my work schedule the week before Labor Day here in the US. On a week's notice and a lot of help from both fans and several employees (who I'll keep anonymous), I put together most of what I'd need for effectively railfanning the line. The plan was to drive up, spend a week on the line (in segments yet to be determined), and then drive back home, returning Labor Day evening. In the middle of the testing cycle for the October load, that was realistically the most time I could take away from work. Plus, the additional holiday would allow me to extend the trip by another day. While I'd wanted to cover as much of the system as I could, in the end that came down to the nearly 500 miles between North Vancouver and Prince George, mainly concentrating on the sections I'd never seen before.
At this stage, the process is down to three bidders - CP, CN, and BNSF/Omnitrax. While the government keeps making reassuring noises that they own the track and it won't be torn up, CN obtaining ownership would be utterly devastating to the line. Service south of the mills at Chasm could essentially stop, since CN connects at Vancouver and Prince George, and there really are no other regular customers until at least Squamish, possibly North Vancouver itself. This would leave 210 miles of railway without service. Worse, with CN's duplicated facilities at Prince George and Vancouver, a very large chunk (I've heard estimates up to 75-80 percent) of BC Rail's workforce could lose their jobs. CP would be better, since they could only reach the line in Vancouver and thus need the entire route, but they, too, would probably have duplication of workforce and could lay off some of the personnel. The third bidder, a partnership between BNSF and Omnitrax, offers some hope, since neither railroad really has much of a presence in BC.
If the government, which seems absolutely fixated on this sale, can't be dissuaded by its constituents, then I think I'd probably prefer BNSF/Omnitrax. At least then it would remain a mostly independent line, with little duplication. The railroad would probably stay similar to what it
is now, and the fewest employees would lose out. I hope... I really wish it would just remain BC Rail, but that seems less likely every day, and as an American, there's not much I can do to influence BC politics - that's up to those that live there. If you've ever wanted to go see the line, the time is now. Don't wait, don't delay, don't think that this can't happen - it certain can, and is about to. By the end of September, I'm told, we'll essentially know who won the bidding process, and by early next year, the BCR we know will be no more.