The Guelph Junction Railway (GJR) is a railway corporation wholly owned by the city of Guelph and was the first railway to be owned by a municipality in the entire British commonwealth.
The History of the Guelph Junction Railway
The Guelph Junction Railway has it’s roots in Guelph dating back to 1885. Unsatisfied with the service of the Grand Trunk Railway, local merchants from Guelph came together and formed their own railway in 1885, the Guelph Junction Railway. The Grand Trunk at the time was the only option for moving freight, and the cost was considered too high, so the new competition was viewed as the best way to get cheaper rates.
The goal of the new railway was to build from the CPR tracks at Campbelleville, Ontario, 15 miles to the south. The city of Guelph took a 70% share of the new company, to aid in the development of the railway. In 1887, the plans grew to expand the railway from Guelph to Goderich, Ontario.
Construction of the Guelph Junction Railway began in May of 1887, and was completed to Campbellville August 20, 1887. Rather than operating the lines themselves, the Guelph Junction Railway signed a 99 year lease with the Canadian Pacific Railway who assumed operations of the line. The CPR began operating twice daily passenger service, as well as freight operations. When the line opened the Priory building, the first permanent building in Guelph and former home of Guelph’s founder – John Galt – was used at the CPR station. The Priory was replaced with a new stone station in the 1900s.
The Guelph & Goderich
Construction of the line northwest of Guelph moved forward in 1901, with the creation of the Guelph & Goderich Railway, owned by the Guelph Junction Railway. This new railway would connect the namesake villages via Linwood.
The beginnings of the extension were not smooth, the Canadian Pacific Railway was hesitant to build the new line. They had completed the surveys of the route by 1903. Growing frustrated the Guelph Junction Railway petitioned the federal government in 1904 for a charter to build the railway between Guelph and Goderich by way of Linwood – Milverton – Blyth. The Guelph & Goderich was leased to the CPR for a period of 999 years, with the stipulation that no rail traffic could be diverted off the line in favour of other ones. The main reason for that provision was the City of Guelph received a portion of the profit CPR made on every single freight car that passed through Guelph.
The CPR finally agreed to this and began construction of the line in 1904. By 1907 the rails had finally reached Goderich, much to the relief of the City, and the first train arrived in Guelph from Goderich on August 26, 1907. Plans were made for branch lines to Stratford, St. Mary’s, Listowel, and Clinton, however only the Listowel Branch was built.
The Listowel Branch
Completed in 1908, the Listowel branch was 16 miles long, the same as the Guelph – Campbelleville GJR portion of the line. However, things were not as fortuitous for the Listowel branch. It was clear by 1908 that railway building in Ontario was no longer profitable and the small branch line never developed traffic as originally hoped. A small 1-bay engine shed held locomotive 7048, a small 4-4-0 type, which was the locomotive that ran the branch for its entire existence. Service on the branch was twice daily, excluding Sunday. It struggled along but the great depression proved to be the final blow for the small branch and the line was abandoned in 1939.
The Guelph & Goderich remained as a railway entity until 1956, when the line was sold to the CPR, subsequently being called the CPR Goderich Sub.
The Decline of the CPR
Traffic on the Guelph Junction Railway was on a steep decline in the later 1900’s. North of Guelph, traffic was not enough to support the operation of the CPR Goderich Sub, and service had slumped to tri-weekly between Guelph Junction, at Campbelleville, and Goderich. Carloads were down to an abysmal 1600 freight cars a year over the line with the CPR was losing over 500 dollars per freight car transported. Additionally, the majority of railway traffic originating out of Goderich was going by Canadian National Railway. The decision was made to abandon the line between Guelph and Goderich. A formal application to abandon the line was produced in 1987, and on December 1, 1988 approval was granted to abandon the line.
The final CPR train north of Guelph traveled the rails for the last time on December 16th, 1988. It was a load of road graders from Goderich.
Things Were Not Better For The GJR
Things in Guelph were not better for the CPR or the GJR. Service had been reduced and trains would often come to Guelph with only one or two carloads. As the CPR went through a number of internal restructures, its stake in the operating agreement was transferred to the Toronto Hamilton and Buffalo Railway, wholly owned by the CPR, on December 16, 1988. This meant the remaining portion of the Goderich sub was now operated by the TH&B. This change did not result in any positive change for the GJR, and things carried on in their slow decline.
CPR went through another restructuring in 1996, and the GJR was now operated by the St. Lawrence & Hudson Railway, again a wholly owned subsidy of the CPR. This was the final nail in the coffin for the struggling GJR. The city of Guelph had been relatively uninvolved in the railway operations, so they were quite surprised when the St. L&H suddenly stopped service on July 15, 1997.
The city began a legal battle with the St. L&H through the Canadian Transportation Authority, the governing body overseeing railways. It was found that the St. L&H did not have the ability to discontinue service or abandon the line under the original GJR 99-year lease and that they must continue operating the line so long as customers requested service. As a result, operations continued until the end of the year.
A New Face On The GJR
On January 1st, 1998, the 99-year lease between the CPR and the GJR was set to expire, and the CPR made it clear they would not be renewing the lease. The city began looking for a new operator to take over for the CPR, and the Ontario Southland Railway stepped in, offering to take over service of the line. The first OSR train ran on January 2nd, 1998. For the first time in 100 years a new operator of the line had taken over.
Now that OSR had taken over, the city also began taking a more active role in the GJR management. This coupled with the excellent personalized service of the OSR, a railway renaissance was about to begin on the GJR.
Over the next two decades traffic continued to rise on the GJR. In 2019, a record number of carloads was set on the GJR, at a whopping 5,192 over just 16 miles of track. Traffic has increased so much a second daily train has been required in addition to many expansions and upgrades to the existing infrastructure.
The Ontario Southland was a fixture of Guelph for over 20 years. Here OSR 1620 is seen switching the ‘lower yard’ between Stevenson Street and Victoria Road. Upper Yard used to be located where the River Run Centre is but was removed during the 1990s. Drew Goff Photo.
The Crew of the final OSR train pose for a photo. August 28, 2020. Drew Goff Photo.
The Guelph Junction Railway Today
In March of 2020 it was announced that the OSR would not be renewing their lease on the GJR, the final trains operating on August 28, 2020, and a new operator would be taking over. On September 1, 2020 the Goderich & Exeter Railway took over operations of the GJR.
The GJR today stands as one of the most important assets to the city of Guelph, providing many businesses in Guelph with service and by extension providing jobs for many of Guelph’s citizens.
Just a couple days into GEXR operations on the Guelph Junction Railway, the afternoon job, train 583, is seen turning their train on the Alice Street Wye. Jacob Patterson Photo