Earlier in 2014 this column described some of the improvements made by Canadian National Railway to its facilities in Fergus.
With the completion of that work in 1930, the railway network in Wellington County reached its peak. Cutbacks began only a year later.
With the coming of the Depression, those who followed railway affairs realized that Canadian National would likely reduce its service, particularly on the passenger side. The deficits generated by its passenger trains increased annually, and were certainly not sustainable by the publicly-owned system. That was particularly so in the view of the tight-fisted members of R.B. Bennett’s cabinet.
The situation did not look much better at the head office of rival Canadian Pacific. The accounting department still showed the passenger service on the company’s main lines, essentially the Montreal-Vancouver and the Montreal-Toronto-Windsor lines, was still profitable. The branch lines were quite another story.
Two of those branches served Wellington County: the Orangeville-Elora branch also served Erin, Hillsburgh and Fergus; and the Orangeville-Teeswater branch connected Grand Valley, Arthur, Mount Forest and Harriston with the outside word.
During the 1920s both those lines offered twice-daily service in each direction. A morning train on each line ran to Toronto, allowing Wellington County residents to go to Toronto and return later the same day.
At times of low traffic, the trains on both lines were mixed trains, hauling freight as well as passengers. That reduced the operating expenses for the railways. When traffic was heavier, the CPR added separate freight trains. Both lines had operated that way, with timetables that varied little from the time they opened more than 50 years earlier.
The schedules can best be described as leisurely. Passengers deserted in droves when residents purchased motor cars and the province provided better roads. Even the bus services offered better times than the trains. By 1930 the members of the train crews often outnumbered the passengers. Trucks ate into the freight business, particularly the lucrative small package and express business, leaving the railways with bulk shipments like coal, wood and grain. With the onset of the Great Depression, the situation deteriorated further.
Canadian Pacific officials began discussing service reductions in the fall of 1930. Initially there were no public announcements, but tidbits of information leaked out, feeding rumour mills in the towns that might be affected.
Arthur village, which only had service via CPR, was particularly interested.
The story, as it circulated at the beginning of 1931, was that the service had been discussed a number of times at head office, but that no decision had been made. One story was that the passenger trains on the Teeswater branch would travel only to Orangeville, rather than Toronto. That would reduce the crew requirements from three to two, while maintaining the old train frequency.
Service from Orangeville to Toronto would all use the line to Streetsville, rather than the old Toronto, Grey and Bruce line via Bolton and Melville Junction. That line, difficult and troublesome to operate, would be abandoned, along with four stations on the route. Another version of the story had that line continuing but with only one train each way daily.
Employees knew no more than what was circulating on the public rumour vine, and that began to have a detrimental affect on morale during the early months of 1931. To help quash the stories, the CPR announced in mid April that a restructured service had been developed, and that it would be announced by the middle of April.
By 1931 it seemed inevitable that service on the Elora branch would drop to a single daily train, and that it likely would run from Orangeville to Elora and back each day. Elora citizens and the village council became alarmed. The change would mean the elimination of a five-man operating crew, plus the night watchman and one or two other employees. The village then had a population of about 1,100, and the loss of seven or eight wage-earning men would have a distinct impact on the local economy.
Many in Elora were stunned. There was a widespread but ludicrous belief that the line was one of the CPR’s most profitable branches. Other noses were out of joint because Elora had “bonused” the railway to the tune of $15,000 when it was built, and the village had been promised service in perpetuity at the time.
Similar arguments were raised by the communities along the Teeswater branch, which had also voted for large bonuses when that line was built. Several municipalities took steps to appeal the service reduction to the Dominion Railway Board, but in the end such attempts fizzled. Communities on that line worried that the mail service that still operated would be a major victim, and that their communities would suffer.
Elora council discussed the situation several times, and Reeve Dick Mills wrote to the head office in Montreal asking the CPR to convey their intentions. When the railway replied, confirming the service reductions, Elora council requested that an official come to Elora to explain the situation at a public meeting, and to meet privately with concerned individuals.
The CPR announced its decisions, to its agents at least, by official letters on April 2. The changes would become effective with the summer 1931 timetable, as of April 27.
Only one train per day would operate between Orangeville and Teeswater, and it would be a mixed passenger and freight run.
It would depart from Orangeville in the morning to Teeswater via Arthur, Mount Forest and Harriston, turn at Teeswater, and return to Orangeville in time to connect with the Owen Sound-to-Toronto train.
Service on the Elora branch would operate on a similar pattern with a single daily mixed train. At the time that line hosted a morning mixed train between Elora and Cataract Junction and return. In the afternoon a passenger train made a faster return trip to Orangeville, where it connected with main line trains. The old TG&B line, via Caledon and Bolton, would have a daily mixed train pending a future decision on the viability of that trackage. The line was abandoned a short time later.
The crews based at Elora and Teeswater would be transferred to Orangeville, but junior men faced layoffs. Altogether, Canadian Pacific management estimated that the reductions in service would eliminate about 50 jobs, mostly train crew members, but some in the stations, most of which would become one-man operations.
On the Elora branch, which carried few passengers by 1931, the changes did not have a great impact, except to Elora, which lost a half dozen resident railroaders. The trains on that line had once carried mail, but the mail car had been removed earlier in the 1920s.
The service reductions came into effect as promised. Of the newspaper editors in Wellington County, only Rixon Rafter of the Arthur Enterprise News attempted to keep the issue alive.
He feared poor mail service, which still ran on that line’s trains, and isolation during severe winter storms when highways were blocked. Rafter urged the local MP, Dr. J.K. Blair, to take up the issue in Ottawa. But Blair could do nothing to reverse the changes.
The level of service introduced in April 1931 remained virtually unchanged until the late 1950s, when the CPR removed the mixed trains.
By then they had become a complete anachronism and were virtually unpatronized.