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Sask. mayors pitch Via Rail plan that offers tantalizing possibilities


A group of Saskatchewan mayors were in the province's largest city to pitch a long-shot plan that could transform the province.

Lloydminster mayor Gerald Aalbers led the delegation presenting to a Saskatoon city council committee on Tuesday, flanked by his counterparts from Warman, North Battleford and Yorkton

Their proposal is simple, but with potentially far-reaching possibilities: if Via Rail were to shift its transcontinental line north — travelling along another set of existing tracks — it would connect Lloydminster, North Battleford, Yorkton and Vegreville, Alberta to the rail line.

"For generations, passenger trains were the Cadillac of service commute across our great country. The mode of transportation has certainly pivoted to today. Yet some Canadians do not own their own vehicle and look to affordable public transportation for service," Aalbers said.

Beyond connecting communities, Aalbers argues the change would create opportunities to attract international tourists, many of whom he says are seeking opportunities to learn about Indigenous culture.

"Could you imagine being a foreign tourist waking up in a tipi on a First Nation, coming out of that tipi surrounded by grazing buffalo to the smell of fresh bannock cooking in the morning? What a tourist opportunity and that's just one of many from traversing down the North Saskatchewan River by canoe and other things and enjoying powwows and things like that," Aalbers said.

Aalbers also said the plan could pay off for Via Rail as well, as its on-time rate lags due to increased commodity traffic on the current line its passenger trains use to traverse Saskatchewan.

"A regular occurrence is finding a Via Rail passenger train sitting on a side giving way to a freight train that has been given priority as our commodities and production continues to increase across the prairies," Aalbers said.

But the plan would also see towns like Watrous and Unity as well as Wainwright, Alba. lose their stations. Aalbers said while leaders from those communities understood the reasoning behind the proposal, "they would likely oppose it."

Saskatoon would also see a change under the plan, with its Via Rail station moved north to Warman.

Warman mayor Gary Philipchuk said if the plan moves forward, his city could take steps to ease the transition.

"I think we would have to build capacity in the city of Warman, knowing that we'd have to have a place where people get off and ultimately that transportation network between the two cities we would have to have happening," Philipchuk said, adding that he believes an increase in passengers would pay off for Saskatoon.

"Ultimately, most people that are getting off Via Rail are probably going to want to head to the core of Saskatoon and then probably back out to Warman and to catch that train," Philipchuk said.

While Aalbers admitted the proposal is still in its "infancy," he and the other mayors hoped Saskatoon might help bend the ear of Via Rail and the federal government, which have been lukewarm to the plan so far.

"We ask for the City of Saskatoon's support to help move this forward so that we can actually garner the attention that it needs and make it an issue that Western Canada would like to see addressed," Aalbers said.

(Source: Prairie North Rail Passenger Train Inc)

Following the presentation, the council committee asked city administration to develop a tentative report on the idea.

"I hear frequently about problems getting on the train, leaving the train, the Via passenger train being hours off of schedule. That's why I think, even though potentially this could mean moving the station from Saskatoon to Warman, which is you know, a tough one ... that's something that could have an overall benefit," Mayor Charlie Clark said.

"I'm not looking for administration to do a massive amount of work on this just but to have that initial engagement and to provide us with some level of information so council can determine where to go from here," Clark said.

Ward 2 Coun. Hilary Gough said while she thinks "exploring options" is a reasonable step, she doesn't think the city should necessarily advocate for the plan.

"Certainly we want to be collaborative with our provincial counterparts, (but) I think we're being asked to weigh in on something," Gough said.

"Trust that both the federal entities and others managing this proposal will engage as appropriate." Top Stories

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