For more than 150 years the railroad has been a pivotal factor in the history and community and economic development of the City of Belleville and the broader Bay of Quinte Region. At one point in the early 20th century, more than 1,000 people worked in Belleville’s massive railyard, roundhouse and locomotive repair shop, making it the city’s largest employer.
While no longer the prime focus of transportation these days, in the 21st century railroads are still integral to the nation’s economic prosperity. With such a vast last, shipping goods by rail is still essential. Integrated intermodal transportation networks, combining shipping, truck and rail are keys to ensuring Canada’s competitiveness in an increasingly globalized economy.
And as our society becomes more environmentally aware there is resurgence in the number of people opting for rail transportation to travel for both business and pleasure. Individuals or families looking for a comfortable, scenic vacation experience, or less stressful, more cost effective way to travel to see family and friends on special occasions are turning to VIA as the way to get around the province and the country.
Between the increases in freight needing to be moved and a consistent uptick in the ridership numbers along the Windsor to Quebec corridor, CN Rail and Via officials realized that Belleville was a centre of significance and invested $18 million in building a state-of-the-art station and revamped platform.
The new facility, which was officially opened in September 2012, is located right next to the historic Grand Trunk Railway station that has been situated on that same site since it was built in 1856 from limestone hewn out of quarries near Trenton. It is Canada’s oldest continuously utilized passenger train station and was designated as a National Historic Site in 1973.
It was still in the one of the busiest stations in Canada in terms of traffic volume – a scenario that is expected to continue with the advent of the new station. The 5,500 building is fully accessible and features seating for 50 people, Wi-Fi, 120 parking spaces, large windows to allow plenty of natural light and also a chance to watch trains come and go. There are wider boarding platforms for both comfort and safety and a walkway that takes passengers to the second platform, which has been relocated, and provided with heated shelters. The building is constructed in such a manner is to have as low an environmental footprint as possible and uses LED lighting on all exterior light posts.
Back in 2012 Belleville’s then Mayor Neil Ellis said the new station would provide both short and long-term benefits.
“Beyond the immediate benefits of jobs and economic stimulus, this station will enhance the quality of service to our community. That means better access to and from Belleville, with service that is both efficient and environmentally sustainable for the future.”
Officials with CN, the company that owns the rail lines that VIA trains travel on, understood the importance of upgrading Belleville’s station as it was an important part of its nearly $1 billion long-term program to improve facilities, equipment and infrastructure. $350 million of that went to upgrade the CN Kingston subdivision between Montreal and Toronto.
In backgrounder material from VIA, the reasons for the new station become very apparent.
“The Kingston Subdivision infrastructure improvements include building additional lines of track which will allow passenger and freight trains to overtake and pass one another without needed to slow down or stop on a siding. One new main line is being added at Belleville. This means that a new ‘island boarding platform’ located between tracks was necessary at the station, reached by an overhead bridge by passengers to ensure their safety,” the VIA report stated.
“The existing station, built in 1856, could not be redesigned efficiently to allow for the overhead bridge and island platform facilities. In addition, passenger volumes have exceeded the capacity of the original station and are expected to keep growing. In a passenger network serving some 450 communities, Belleville is VIAs 10th-busiest station. It is a key access hub for the Kingston Subdivision which carries approximately 130 passenger, freight and commuter trains each weekday.”
VIA was established in 1977 as a federal Crown Corporation and operates 500 trains weekly on 12,500 kilometres of track, serving 450 communities from coast to coast and north to Hudson’s Bay. In 2012, VIA carried almost four million passengers. The Ontario-Quebec corridor accounts for 429 of those 500 trains, and more than 80 per cent of VIAs total ridership – meaning lots of people trundling through Belleville each year.
Examples of how busy this corridor is can be gleaned from some recent holiday statistics: Along the Quebec City to Windsor corridor, there were 41,000 passengers over the Victoria Day Long Weekend, up almost five per cent from the same weekend in 2013.
Over the Christmas holiday period, Dec. 18, 2013 to Jan. 7, 2014, ticket revenue and ridership jumped 12.4 per cent over the same period a year previous on the Quebec City to Windsor route, while nationally there was an 8.9 per cent rise. A total of 274,462 passengers rode VIA trains in the time span, with tens of thousands passing through, embarking or disembarking in Belleville.
With these numbers, the new VIA station can’t but help the overall community and economic development ambitions of not just Belleville, but the entire Bay of Quinte Region.
More riders means more visitors and tourists which is beneficial for everyone. Folks coming in for special events or for vacation generally want to explore beyond the community in which they arrived. Hotels, restaurants, car and boat rental facilities, as well as shops, galleries and other destination points, all benefit from increased customer traffic.
And, as with any other venture that brings new people into the region, some may choose to come back to visit again, some may decide to live her part time or even move full time, and others may choose to invest in real estate or business – all thanks to the next phase in Belleville’s railroad legacy.