Time continues to transform Port Stanley Terminal Rail (PSTR).
It’s still a tourism workhorse, but the former London and Port Stanley Railway (L&PS) is no longer hauling cool cats grooving to the swing beat of Duke Ellington or the Johnny Downs Orchestra. The rumble of wood and coal freight cars rolling down the line has also faded into history.
Intrinsically linked to the development of Port Stanley and its reputation as ‘Coney Island of Canada’, PSTR now carries only curious tourists and history buffs. They’re attracted to old stories about the Lombardo Brothers at Hopkins Casino, or tales of the spring in the L&PS Pavilion dancefloor, later famously called the Stork Club.
As volunteers rally today to overcome COVID-19 disruptions – hoping to at least return PSTR to tourism service in July – the railroad’s compelling history continues to generate interest.
Apart from the usual tourism queries, one question that refuses to go away boldly wonders whether the PSTR will someday return to service reminiscent of its glory days.
To some, that’s just a rhetorical question. For others, restoring what was once the heart and soul of the region – with connections between Port Stanley, St. Thomas and London – is well within the realm of possibility.
“The mandate from 1983 was to preserve the corridor for future rail use,” said Dan Vernackt, PSTR’s president and a volunteer since 1984. PSTR was formed in August 1982. “I feel through the hard work and dedication of our volunteers, we have accomplished that (and) I believe that in the not-too-distant future – as London and St. Thomas continue to grow – this will once again become a vital link. It’s happening in other communities not far from us.
“As far as PSTR operating a commuter line to London, we don’t have the resources to accomplish this (however) the line has been preserved to downtown St. Thomas and is within 2,000 feet of being reconnected to the national rail network,” added Vernackt, also proprietor at MacKinnon Electrical Services, in St. Thomas. “ … It’s intact to the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) property in St. Thomas – as in – not severed, or buildings built on top.
“I think when the London – St. Thomas population explodes in the future, it will become a viable link,” he added. “Look what’s happening in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, as well as Ottawa. These centres are laying the tracks back down that were removed 60-plus years ago. These things tend to go full circle.”
The L&PS was one of the first railways built in Ontario. Construction began in 1856. It was designed to move wood and coal, supporting U.S. trade and attracting investment in port facilities in Port Stanley.
Steam locomotives also brought people to Port Stanley beaches, resorts, and attractions, earning comical nicknames like Late & Poor Service, or Lost & Presumed Sunk, and Lean, Push & Shove.
By 1914, the line was leased by the City of London, which electrified it. The City bought the line in 1950, 36 years into its 99-year lease, however, in the ‘50s, the passenger service suffered in the face of competition from automobiles. Passenger service was suspended in 1957, CN bought it in 1965.
“The Port Stanley Terminal Rail line is an iconic and historic part of our community,” said Jeff Yurek, Member of Provincial Parliament for Elgin-Middlesex-London, and Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
“In order for the line to play a more significant role in intercommunity public transit, the affected municipal councils would need to indicate support for a potential project,” added Yurek. He noted that the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has already established a southwestern Ontario task force to study transportation across the region. “ … Potential projects like this could also be reviewed by that group. I will continue to work with municipalities to advance local transit priorities and welcome any new initiatives in this regard.”
It’s been an uphill journey for PSTR from the beginning. Vernackt said CN was at first reluctant to sell the line from St. Thomas to Port Stanley in 1982. Afterall, no trains had travelled south of Fruit Ridge Line since a major washout in 1976.
“The idea was born at a picnic table behind the train station of the Pinafore Park Railway,” recalls Vernackt. PPR owner Don Broadbear and two PPR volunteers – Brad Jolliffe and Greg Hume – were the founding PSTR directors.
Broadbear eventually formed a corporation and closed the deal with CN. Many of the shareholders in the private company are still active volunteers. A dividend has never been paid out as the shareholders-volunteers return profits to keeping the trains running.
PSTR bought seven miles of steel and ties, and the land was leased for seven years before it was also purchased. PSTR started with Locomotive L1, plus one open car. Over the years, more equipment was added. “All of this equipment was pretty much scrap when acquired,” added Vernackt, “and our volunteer forces have modified and rebuilt it to suit our needs.”
About 25 volunteers keep the railway running now. Many Ontario Southland Railway crews are also PSTR volunteers. Ridership has been as high as 40,000 a year in the early ‘90s. Before the COVID-19 disruption, it had fallen to about 15,000. PSTR has implemented online ticket sales for the 2021 season.
“I think we will see more traffic as people are looking to find things to do closer to their own backyard,” said Vernackt. The last train ran in December 2019. “We have lots of inquiries as to when we will be running, but we won’t until it’s safe to do so.”
The Central Elgin Official Plan approved by Council on February 21, 2012 “supports the continuation of a viable, safe and efficient railway network within the Municipality and the protection of the railway corridors for future generations. This includes the London & Port Stanley railway, which continues to operate as (a) tourist train between Port Stanley and St. Thomas.”
It goes on to say in part: “Central Elgin supports and encourages economic development opportunities associated with the rail network system, including any potential future inter‐modal facilities.
“Central Elgin will examine opportunities for the reuse of any abandoned rail corridors for potential re‐use in rail operations, or for trail systems and/or potential servicing corridors.”
Mayor Sally Martyn confirmed “nothing has happened since the plan was adopted,” although CE has helped PSTR reduce the railway’s costs in a number of ways.
“I don’t see it,” said St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston, a member of the Southwestern Ontario Transportation Task Force chaired by London Mayor Ed Holder.
“I would love it to happen,” added Preston, “but the hurdles are huge. It would take all levels of government to first find out how much it would cost, then determine who would pay.” Preston believes the investment cost would put ticket prices out of reach. “I think we’re far better off with a regional bus system.” In fact, Preston has requested Provincial funding for a bus system pilot project.
Freight traffic continues from St. Thomas to London although another rail service between St. Thomas and Aylmer was decommissioned in 2013.
Meanwhile, Preston said CN has offers little to no support to local municipalities affected by diminished rail service. For example, when St. Thomas asked CN for rail access, just to shuttle rolling stock to and from the museum, CN advised the City to get a crane.
“Dealing with CN does not really change over time,” said St. Thomas Councillor Steve Wookey. “Anything is a long, drawn out process, in the scale of years not months. They are a cross country corporation that has to deal with hundreds of municipalities and Elgin is fairly low on the pecking order for sure.
“I would say that it is unlikely that industrial use for PSTR will ever occur without big changes to rail infrastructure,” added Wookey. “But I could see a day where there is a GO station in Port Stanley, allowing a person to leave Port at 5:30 a.m., be in Toronto for a 9 a.m. meeting, and be back in Port at 7:30 p.m. That is, in fact my dream, to do a day trip to the Royal Ontario Museum, or a matinee Blue Jays game and make it back for a walk on the beach at sunset.
“I passionately care about healthy and active living options and we need to look at this as a region, not a city,” said Wookey. “So if I could do anything to encourage that along the PSTR corridor, I certainly would.
“I salute the visionary people who saved the railway link to Port,” he said. “They did something that will have generational benefits, but in the short term I think we are waiting on the province to pick up the ball on GO Transit, extending to London, south of the 401, and then we as a region can take up the torch and finish the job.”
When asked whether CN has studied the transportation needs in southwestern Ontario, and how PSTR’s assets may fit in, VIA Rail Canada public relations advisor Claudia Labelle said: “As we do not own the infrastructure … surely you understand we cannot comment.” Follow up questions went unanswered.
Postcard (at top) courtesy of the Heritage Port Stanley book entitled, Port Stanley’s Pictorial Postcards, Volume One, 1906-1925, by Craig Cole, from the collection of the late Sam Vary.