Brockville Railway Tunnel Committee kicks tires of Morrisburg train; Runciman open to site as new home

At left, the Brockville Railway Tunnel, and St. Lawrence Parks Commission Chair Bob Runciman. Zandbergen photos, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

BROCKVILLE — When did this train really leave the station?

Weeks before the St. Lawrence Parks Commission board officially kicked off a suitor selection process to rid itself of its vintage train, key representatives of the Brockville Railway Tunnel Committee toured the deteriorating locomotive and two attached cars with an eye to bringing them to the City of the 1000 Islands.

“I know the Smiths Falls Railway Museum, I’m led to believe, is also interested,” reported SLPC Chair Bob Runciman in a June 25 interview with NVN. “Mind you, the train should stay somewhere within the corridor of the Parks Commission,” he added.

However, the Chair also said there was “no final plan” on the train’s final disposition when quizzed on the possibility of seeing the train moved to Brockville’s popular tunnel, and Runciman expressed a preference for keeping it in South Dundas, although not its current location.

Smith photo, Nation Valley News

Smith photo, Nation Valley News

If the local municipality “feels it’s important to their history, and if there’s minimal or little cost to them to relocate it, to an appropriate location where it can actually be a tourism attraction, that would be the way I would lean,” he said.

“But if that’s not possible, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to seeing it go to Brockville,” conceded Runciman, who lives in the city. “But I was more encouraging the Brockville folks to look at the passenger car, which … could be used for various purposes. You could use part of it as an office. You could use part of it for selling train whistles, train hats and that sort of thing. They don’t have a revenue generator at the tunnel right now, just a donation box, and this would give them that and tie in with the history of the tunnel itself.” 

“They were interested in the engine, but I was trying to encourage them more to the passenger car that I think would be more of an asset, he said, describing the tunnel “as an enormous attraction” and acknowledging he would “like to see Brockville get something out of it” if the Municipality of South Dundas proves uninterested. 

Explicitly asked if, as a resident of Brockville, he would like to see the train moved to his hometown, Runciman replied that he preferred it stay in South Dundas — just not at the current site — “because that [South Dundas] is where the history is.”  He acknowledged, though, that the Brockville Tunnel Committee let it be known that they are interested if a way isn’t found to fulfill the South Dundas option. 

Citing their responsibility to local taxpayers South Dundas Council rejected the idea of getting involved with a train project on July 16. 

Armed with a consultant’s hefty estimate to fix up the train, the SLPC announced July 22 that it was seeking expressions of interest on taking the train off the hands of the provincial agency. 

A former senator and former longtime Tory MPP for the Brockville area, Runciman made it clear that he believed divestment and removal of the train from the current site represents the only way forward — even if it’s just a move within the same Municipality of South Dundas.

He acknowledged pitching the deputy mayor on relocating the train within the municipality, during a May meeting with Kirsten Gardner, who was heavily involved with a previous successful mission to save the train from SLPC bean counters two decades ago. “I said … you should have first dibs if the thing is going to moved,” Runciman recounted. “Put it in the township and maintain it, in the way it should be, and the baggage car could be a tourist spot, and find an appropriate location in the township, maybe in front of the town hall or something like that.”

“That’s my own initial gut: If the local people want to keep it and maintain it in the way it needs to be maintained [after moving the train to another site] that would be the direction I would be supportive of,” Runciman emphasized. “I told the Brockville people that the other day as well, because they did call me to say they were going down to look at it and have an expression of interest — I think is the way they framed it.”

He insisted the unit’s poor condition “is a problem” for the SLPC — even in light of its function as a static display accompanying the Aultsville Station at the entrance to the Crysler Marina. “It’s image if nothing else,” said Runciman. “You just leave it sitting there, it’s not an attraction, it’s not a revenue generator in any way, shape or form. And no one goes there. I suppose if they stop their car and walk across the grass, they might take a peek at it. But that’s about it. ”

Named to the SLPC post by the Ford government in February, Runciman had helmed only one board meeting by the start of the summer, and he acknowledged “barely getting his feet wet” on the issue.  Still, he placed the locomotive and cars’ repair estimate of “at least $700,000” alongside the SLPC’s broader “financial challenge” of finding $32-million for necessary water and sewer upgrades.

The  station — moved to the site from the lost village of Aultsville— has “historic relevance,” according to Runciman, “but I don’t think the train and cars do.”

The combination of station plus 1910 Mogul engine, passenger coach and baggage car has been a fixture off County Rd. 2, west of Upper Canada Village, since the late 1950s. Underneath the machine is a preserved section of the original Grand Trunk railway.

Today, the train falls far below the “A1 standard” demanded of SLPC property, the Chair said. “And we’re just not in a financial position to remedy that. So let’s look at people who can upgrade it, and put it in an appropriate location.”

Asked about the possibility of the community mounting a campaign to raise the funds and bring the train up to standard where it sits, Runciman said the SLPC would have to “consider” such a proposal — if it involved an “ongoing” financial commitment. He flatly rejected the idea of another “one-off” effort. “Apparently, that’s what happened 19 or 20 years ago, and again it deteriorated over the past couple of decades. I think it would have to be, ‘You take over ownership at that site, sort of thing.’ I suppose that could be a possibility.”

Relocating at least the baggage car elsewhere in South Dundas, to be used as a spot visited by tourists, “makes more sense to me,” he said. “But I guess we’re open to any suggestion, that’s my view.”

The SLPC is prepared to assist with the cost of moving the train, he said. “Not without limits, of course, but I think they would be willing to help.”

“It would be nice to keep it in Eastern Ontario,”  said Brockville Tunnel Committee Chair Brian Porter of the orphaned train earlier in June. Porter confirmed that members of his group had travelled to Morrisburg to check the train out this spring.

“Our committee has expressed some interest in the engine and tenders,” Porter said.

“If it was to come here, we would look to put it at the north end of the tunnel,” he said, describing the Brockville tunnel site as “unique in all of Canada.” 

Similar vintage trains would have travelled through the tunnel in its heyday, he added.

Meanwhile, an effort to “Save the Train” for the second time in two decades is gathering steam in South Dundas. The Save the Train (Grand Trunk 1008 – Aultsville) Facebook page has amassed over 1,300 followers since July 25.

This article was edited to fix a couple of spelling errors.

 

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