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Pacific Great Eastern Railway pushing towards Fort St. John

The Financial Post, Saturday, March 22, 1958

    The government-owned Pacific Great Eastern Railway is pushing through B.C.'s potentially rich northern frontier up to two miles a day.

    It expecis to drive the climactic spike at Fort St. John, 729 miles north of Vancouver, this summer.

    The economic effects of PGE's bold advance into the mineral and grain rich Peace River country promise to be wide ranging in this area and perhaps beyond.

    The line is being extended 259 miles from Prince George to Fort St. John, and another 65 miles from the junction at Chetwynd (formerly Little Prairie) to Dawson Creek.

    The direct line to Vancouver will cut 526 miles from the present 1,225-mile route via Edmonton.

    Most likely next goal for the frontier breakers: The Yukon and Alaska.

    As of today, the northeastern section of B.C. and its growing industries lean economically to the east. Much of the area's production heads into consumer markets over the Northern Alberta Railway which runs southeast into Edmonton and connects there with the transcontinental Canadian National Railways.

By Truck

    Some of the output, grain and lumber mostly, has been shipped out by truck, either east through Alberta or south through B.C. But until now there has been no direct rail outlet to Vancouver and other West Coast markets.

    The PGE's push into northeastern B.C. is expected to pare shipping costs into and out of the area and thus speed development. It's expected that freight rates on barley and wheat shipments to the west coast from the northeastern area will skid about 20% because the PGE will offer a much shorter shipping route.

    It will only need completion of the Wenner-Gren B.C. Development Co.'s proposed 400-mile monorail from Fort McLeod to the Yukon border for the PGE to become a backbone of major development.

    The Peace River district has become the scene of a mushroom development for the oil and gas industry.

    The railway line runs through fine timber country and huge reserves of semi-anthracite coal, hitherto untapped.

    In the Peace River district alone there are 283,000 acres of arable land and nearly as much again of limited arable land. A tremendous amount of grain is delivered every year at Dawson Creek. The potential freight traffic from agriculture is estimated at 223,000 tons annually.

    The timber of the central and northern interior represents an additional freight potential of 338,000 tons a year. Some 24 million acres of mature timber are close to the PGE line. Coal reserves are estimated at close to one billion tons. Asbestos, silver and copper are also known to be present.

    The railroad's drive into this frontier country is spurring renewed interest in another rail project. It's the long-talked-of railway to the Yukon and Alaska.

    The U.S. Congress has been studying the economic and military aspects of building additional highway and rail routes between Alaska and the continental U.S.

    The 1,671 mile Alcan Highway now is the chief land link between the U.S. and Alaska; air transport has played the more significant role thus far in the interior northland's economic development.

    At this stage the Yukon-Alaska railway is still a long way from reality. Although there's a good deal of discussion about it, there‚Äôs no clear idea of just how, where or when such a road should be built.

    One possibility being examined: Wenner-Gren's proposed 400-mile monorail that would hook up with the present PGE track and go up the "trench" between the Rockies and the coast mountains to the northern B.C. border. That would leave a gap of some 600 miles across the Yukon to Fairbanks.

    The Wenner-Gren plans are closely tied in with the PGE, which passes through For McLeod, the monorail's poposed starting point. Wenner-Gren envisages pulp and paper mills, hydro plants, major mineral and agricultural expansion.

Thought A Joke

    The PGE has been a feature of B.C.'s life since 1912. It took 10 years for the 347-mile line from Squamish to Quesnel to be built. It then became known as the railway that started nowhere and went nowhere. The line was extended north to Prince George in 1952. There it meets the CNR's transcontinental system.

    One year later B.C.'s Premier Bennett (who is president of the PGE) decided to take on the long-shirked job of joining the southern end of the line to North Vancouver. He was met by bitter opposition from almost all sides. The inaugural run was made in August 1956.

    Passengers can travel in modern Budd cars from Vancouver to Prince George in a little less than 17 hours, compared with the 25 hours on the former schedule.

    The PGE's financial background shows one of the many ways by which Premier Bennett breaks down cost barriers that hinder development. Five years ago the debt incurred by the PGE amounted to $152 million. This included $90 million in interest. The government wrote off the interest and cut the debt to $65.3 million. It then accepted some 653,000 shares at $100 par so that the bonded debt was written off completely.

    In his budget speech last month Premier Bennett asked for additional borrowing powers of $30 million, thus raising the bonded debt limit of the PGE to $110 million.

    The PGE's revenue has continued to increase. Gross freight revenue in 1945 was $667,494. In 1953 it had climbed to $3.8 million. In 1956 the figure was $8.2 million. Figures of the past year have not been made final, but in the first seven months of 1957 the gain was 6.6% over the same period of 1956. Total traffic showed a corresponding increase.

    Premier Bennett proudly noted in his budget address that passenger traffic in 1957 totaled 261,000, a 133% increase over 1956.

    In 1954, for the first time in the history of the railway, an operating surplus was earned. It totaled $265,000. PGE has shown an operating profit for four consecutive years, the premier notes.

    With an eye to greatly increased direct traffic between the Peace River area and Vancouver, PGE has been conducting piggyback transport experiments.