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Keeping Track - The Rails of the Royal City

On May 2nd, I led one of the many Jane's Walks in Guelph on a route I called "The Rails of the Royal City". Not everyone wants to do a seven kilometer wet-weather walk, so my column for this month is the written version of the same tour. I hope you enjoy this little taste of Guelph's rich rail history.

History haunts Guelph's railways

Thunderstorms and miserable weather were predicted for that first Sunday in May. Still, a small group of dedicated people showed up for the Jane's Walk that morning.

It was my task to lead the walking tour of Guelph's rail network - and how great it would be, I thought, if I could show everyone this poorly understood bit of our city.

As we gathered at the Guelph railway station, the Via train pulled out of the platform on its way to Toronto. The station, once part of the Grand Trunk system, was once serviced by the streetcars of the Guelph Radial Railway. It served as a transit hub, and retains its strong heritage and functional value.

Via Rail train No. 85 departs for Sarnia in this March 16, 2008 photo. CN Locomotive 6167 is visible in the top right corner of the image.

Via Rail train No. 85 departs for Sarnia in this March 16, 2008 photo. CN Locomotive 6167 is visible in the top right corner of the image.

Across the tracks from the station, we looked at the soon-to-be-demolished cotton mill. Removed from the city's register of historic buildings, the site will instead serve an essential heritage and functional role in Guelph's restored transit hub.

We walked along Carden Street to the pedestrian overpass at Norfolk and along Kent Street, straddling the Guelph subdivision - better known as the north mainline - just west of downtown. We may never see another street quite like Kent, with its lane-rail-rail-lane configuration.

When we got to Edinburgh, we took Crimea to Alma Street. Just Alma Street - not Alma North or Alma South, because it is the tracks that are the north-south divider for street names.

There, the tracks leave the intersection of Alma and Crimea in four directions - to Cambridge, Kitchener, Georgetown and toward Fergus.

The tracks to Cambridge once led to a point near Brantford known as Lynden Junction, allowing Guelph residents a north-south connection to Brantford on the Great Western Railway.

Today, the same track in the direction of Fergus goes only as far as Woodlawn Road to the north, but once continued to Palmerston, which was a major passenger rail junction connecting much of the Bruce Peninsula and giving Guelph rail riders access to Owen Sound and many other communities.

The tracks to Kitchener and Georgetown still carry six passenger trains per day.

As we continued our walk, to the west lay Howitt Park and the Lafarge property.

We followed the tracks along Edinburgh northward as far as London Road.

Called the Guelph north spur, these tracks allow the Goderich-Exeter Railway to reach the industrial railway tracks in the Edinburgh-Speedvale-Elmira-Woodlawn roads block, which are shared with the Guelph Junction Railway. We hung a right and got on CN Spurline Park at London Road, walking along what used to be a connecting track between the Guelph Junction Railway and the Canadian National network.

This park, one of two former rail lines that now serve as walking trails in the city, runs from London Road along the south side of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School, across the northern tip of Exhibition Park, and curves sharply back to the Guelph Junction Railway at Clarence and Dufferin. The tracks along this alignment were pulled up nearly half a century ago, but the right of way remains clearly visible, a silent testimonial to the durability of rail.

While other tracks connected Guelph to Brantford and Owen Sound, the Guelph Junction Railway once continued north-west through Elmira all the way to Goderich.

We followed Dufferin and Cardigan streets along the Guelph Junction Railway as far as Eramosa Road. There, we were able to join the walking trail at John Galt Park along the side of the tracks, by the site of the old CPR station, now an apartment complex, and the Priory, the predecessor station. Along the way, we found a milepost: 32. I asked those along for the walk if they had any idea what we were 32 miles from. Nobody was quite sure. Hamilton, I told them, is 32 miles away. Railways still use miles

Hamilton, a city from which it is virtually impossible to visit Guelph without a car, has a direct rail line to our wonderful little community, but no service.

As we approached the River Run Centre, we noted the tourist trains. The Guelph Junction Express operates tourist and dinner trains along the Guelph Junction Railway. Waterloo, Tottenham, Orangeville, and several other communities in the area have similar services. Why has passenger rail been largely relegated to the status of a tourist attraction?

We approached the intersection of Macdonell and Wellington streets. There, the North main line has a large viaduct passing over the Guelph Junction Railway and the Speed River. The viaduct was built wide enough to support two tracks, showing excellent advance planning - far more than the 20 years we plan ahead for now.

The transit hub will have a platform that comes nearly all the way to this intersection. Why not build it just a bit longer to connect it to a platform along the Guelph Junction Railway? That would be planning for the future.

The last stop on our journey took us to CN 6167, the steam locomotive nestled in next to the Greyhound station. The locomotive will be moved to make way for the restored transit hub. Like the cotton mill, 6167 stands as a silent witness to our past successes - and will need to be removed in order for us to repeat them.

Posted at 09:33 on May 15, 2010

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