By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor
Hosted by the West Coast Railway Association, the Fall Heritage Rail Alliance conference returned to Squamish, BC. HRA predecessor ARM had met there in 1999 and 2009. Much has changed since our last visit. The roundhouse/event center was under construction in 2009. Now finished, it’s the biggest venue between Vancouver and the Whistler ski resort farther north, hosting every kind of event.
Over 400 Australians were departing when we arrived. Equipment moves in and out as the space requires. It seems that rolling stock makes good room dividers, so multiple functions can take place at once. Unlike previous conferences, all the seminars, receptions, meals and meetings were held at the museum, rather than in a hotel.
The roundhouse has created a major new revenue stream, although it did so at a cost. Construction ran well over budget and the museum is digging out from several million dollars of debt. They expect to retire it in five years.
After Canadian National leased BC Rail in 2004, the Squamish shop complex across the street from the museum became surplus and WCRA leased the biggest building. They subleased portions to pay the rent and began using the rest, equipped with multiple overhead cranes, to increase the number of pieces being restored. The old wood car shop, moved onto the museum property years ago, became equipment storage.
This year, thanks to a major government grant, WCRA has purchased the shop building. The tenants are gone, although some space has been reserved to lease out. Active restorations inside the building include Canadian Pacific Baldwin diesel #8000 and BC Electric steeple cab loco #960.
There was a nice moment when Robbie Robinson and Peter Murphy of Montreal’s Exporail informed the CP #8000 crew that the locomotive’s brake handles had turned up in the recently acquired CP archives and would they like to have them.
The other big change, unexpected and unwelcome, was the sudden death of Don Evans. Taking nothing away from a capable and dedicated staff and membership, Evans was the museum’s guiding force. An organizational development consultant, he steered WCRA’s business plan, which was always based on achieving financial self sufficiency. As General Manager Gordon Bell said in a seminar, “gate receipts are the least of the revenue stream.” Evans was an excellent fund raiser, but the museum has gone beyond government grants to create a series of income streams that often have nothing to do with railway preservation. In fact, the conference theme was “The business of railway preservation”.
The event center is the biggest revenue generator. Beyond that, the museum has come up with some innovative ways to raise money, as described by Gordon and Craig McDowell at the seminar entitled “Thinking outside the box”. For example, they hung a movie screen on an exterior roundhouse wall facing the parking lot and show drive-in movies for $10 a car.
Inside a restored CP bunk car they’ve created an “escape room”, for which they charge admission. Once you’re inside, you have to figure out how to escape from it, and it can be configured for different levels of difficulty.
Fraser Valley Heritage Rail Society
For a pre-conference trip we bussed to Cloverdale, east of Vancouver to visit the Fraser Valley Heritage Rail Society. We were greeted in style by docents in period costume and led into the grounds by bagpipers.
Passengers depart from a replica of the original Cloverdale interurban depot. Between the depot and carbarn is a large pollinator garden presided over by the “Queen Bee”, a volunteer who dressed in yellow and black for the occasion and showed us around.They’ve acquired four big wood BC Electric interurbans, and restored two of them to operation. They operate on home rails. The interurban is now the Southern Railway of British Columbia and museum cars run on the three miles from Cloverdale to Sullivan. Next year they hope to extend another two miles to Newton. The cars are powered by generators on trailers.
Restored and operating are cars 1225 and 1304. After BCER quit in 1958, 1225 was saved by Orange Empire Railway Museum. It returned to Canada in 2005.
Car 1304 is also named Connaught. It was built in 1911 at the company’s New Westminster shops as a coach. 15 months later it was transformed into a luxurious private car for the visit of Queen Victoria’s son Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, for whom it was named. Afterward it was restored to its original configuration. The car burned down to the frame in 1945. The shop crews rebuilt it as a wood bodied car with arch windows. It was acquired by Seashore Trolley Museum in 1956 and then by Fraser Valley in 2009. It was cosmetically restored in 2018 and this year ran under its own power for the first time.
The whole site is new as of 2013 when the Society moved from a smaller property in Surrey that had no rail access. The carbarn can accommodate all four cars. Inside car the barn was 1207, the next restoration, up on blocks with the trucks removed. Well done displays line the walls.
The Society is only permitted onto the freight railroad on weekends, when freights don’t run. We visited on a weekday, so operation was restricted to a half-mile spur built along the main line by the Society.
The Society is a fairly young organization and has accomplished a lot in a short time. It was formed in 2001. The first carbarn in Sullivan opened in 2003. Car 1225 was restored there and work began on 1304.
Not content to be a static display museum, the Society purchased land in Cloverdale. The Cloverdale station replica was built in 2012. The new carbarn opened in 2013, along with operations on former BC Electric rails.
In 2016, car 1207 joined the fleet. It had run on the False Creek Trolley in Vancouver until the transit agency which owned the line shut it down. The car is currently being restored.
2018 saw the arrival of the other False Creek car, #1231, also under restoration.
Fraser Valley now has four of the seven surviving BCER interurbans.
On Saturday we traveled to Vancouver, toured the Rocky Mountaineer consist and visited West Coast Railway Association’s Locomotive 374 Pavilion.
This museum outpost is attached to the former Canadian Pacific Drake Street Roundhouse, now a community center and marooned far away from active rails and surrounded by high rise development.
Inside is CP 4-4-0 #374 (CP Montreal Shop 1883), the first engine to arrive in Vancouver. It occupies a couple hundred feet of track, can be rolled outdoors and hooked up to air for whistle blowing.
The Pavilion occupies the city-owned building rent free and functions as a visitor center, as well as an advertisement for the museum in Squamish. It is staffed by about 25 volunteers and open daily. Near the cruise ship terminal, it sees lots of visitors and generates modest revenue for the museum through the sale of merchandise.
On Saturday we returned to the museum and took a hour round trip that ventured onto the former BC Rail main line to the Squamish waterfront. Trailing the consist was former CP heavyweight business car Alberta, restored several years ago after being rescued from exile as a Chinese restaurant in downtown Vancouver.
That evening the conference ended with the traditional banquet and awards presentations.