In retrospect, an armed invasion probably wasn’t the best way for Clayton Jones and his fast-growing railway companies to finally get noticed.
Last April, when COVID-19 tensions were running high along the border with northern New York, residents in the St. Lawrence River communities in eastern Ontario were alarmed to see dozens of Canadian military vehicles rolling down the streets. Rumours flew about the army locking down the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge, the establishment of a tent hospital for the infected and nearly every other topic that has made 2020 such a boon for the conspiracy-minded.
Tinfoil-hat fantasies were foiled, though. Instead of martial law, the line of armoured cars, troop transports and more was just the latest and most visible sign of the huge success of Jones’s Canadian Rail Equipment Works & Services (CREWS) and Jones Rail Industries companies.
These firms have been quietly expanding in recent years in the Township of Edwardsburgh-Cardinal’s Johnstown Industrial Park while showcasing how rail transportation can be a vital part of the regional economy – in this specific case through moving 140 rail cars of military hardware to locales all over North America.
“People think I’m a big gambler, but I’m not. I do not even buy lottery tickets,” says Jones while discussing his fervent belief in rail shipping during a recent tour of his sprawling facility (tucked just far enough off the adjacent County Road 2 that runs along the St. Lawrence River to be out of sight of motorists) filled with hundreds of rail cars and tankers.
“To me, this was not a gamble at all. I believed in the potential of rail here in this corridor in eastern Ontario. I laid the first track, and the floodgates opened wide with customers.”
After nearly 20 years in the rail industry, a career that included time at the St. Luc Diesel Shop in Montreal and the Ottawa Central Railway, Jones ventured out on his own in 2004 with Jones Team Mechanical, a locomotive and rail-car repair business.
He expanded into track repairs three years later, launching Jones Rail Industries. CREWS was formed in 2012 to offer rail car storage, switching services and transloading (moving products between rail cars and tractor-trailers) for some of the largest companies in North America.
"I laid the first track, and the floodgates opened wide with customers."
Jones purchased 96 acres of land in Johnstown along the main CN rail line between Toronto and Montreal for CREWS and Jones Rail Industries in 2018, and the company has been booming ever since.
Four different phases of development are currently underway on the site, which employs about 50 people directly and hundreds more indirectly. The area is a 24-hour beehive of activity, with rail cars and trucks constantly coming and going.
The Phase I rail yard can now store a minimum of 234 rail cars. Phase II features what Jones calls “the most state-of-the-art propane terminal in Canada,” with room for more than 200 cars transloading fuels for shipment to gas stations and other facilities across the country.
Phase III is all about assisting U.K.-based fuel giant Greenergy with its fuel services. All are still growing, and Phase IV – reserved for a new client that Jones cannot name yet – is just getting up and running, with that part of the site being cleared and prepped for more rail lines and facilities for the new customer.
CREWS is an operational ally of just about all of its neighbours in eastern Ontario. The firms that Jones can name include Air Liquide, BASF Cornwall, Ingredion, Greenfield Canada, Kriska and Next Polymers, which ship hundreds of millions of dollars of product in and out of the Johnstown facilities every year.
And, of course, another client is the Canadian Forces. Jones still chuckles about what happened when troops “occupied” the area in April. Security concerns mean that he has to keep a tight lid on the specifics of the incident, although he does “look forward to assisting the Canadian Forces in the future when they need to move more equipment from Petawawa to Alberta to the Port of Montreal for destinations overseas.”
All of this has been made possible by Jones’s commitment to rail shipping. He is a true believer when it comes to trains, to the point of proudly showing off the main locomotive used at the Johnstown site.
Not only is Jones committed to proving that railways can provide quick and cost-effective shipping for industry, he is also an advocate for how environmentally friendly trains are for transporting goods compared with tractor-trailers.
“The Montreal-Toronto rail corridor may be the busiest in North America, but railways are still underutilized around the continent overall,” says Jones. “This represents a huge opportunity for railway shipping that offers environmental efficiencies and economic advantages. Shipping by rail produces far fewer emissions than by truck. To be environmentally aware and to not use rail wherever and whenever possible is absolutely irresponsible today.”
Judging by how busy Jones’s operations are in Johnstown, he isn’t the only one to believe in the power of rail. The expansions will soon allow for hundreds of more rail cars on the site, while transloading numbers will shortly hit more than 20,000 truckloads per year.
Jones is also working on the development of additional sites across Ontario, Quebec and the United States as well as focusing on new locations in eastern Ontario.
So while it may have taken a literal army for the region to notice Jones and his budding railroad empire, the secret is now out for good on both this booming industry and how much rail has to offer the local economy.