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STEVE DRAKE: Death of Cape Breton rail service revisited

Stephen Drake
Stephen Drake

There’s a reassuring fact about facts. They don’t change to suit political narratives or agendas. As you read further, keep this fact in mind: for generations, the viability of the only rail line to the Canso Causeway relied primarily on thousands of rail cars filled with cargo produced by our coal miners and steelworkers. Twenty-five to 30 smaller Cape Breton businesses added their fair share to a viable business model for the Sydney-to-St. Peter’s Junction line (SSPL).

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series.

For the most part, federal and provincial policy and politics emptied those rail cars and paved the way for the coal and transport trucks that inexorably ran the SSPL off the rails.

SYDNEY MINES RAIL

In the late 1970s, government policy cut a wide swath through the Boularderie woods and paved Highway 162 – the Prince Mine Road. The road provided a new link to Sydney via Highways 105 and 125 and to Port Hawkesbury via the 105.

Stephen Drake
Stephen Drake

Since Prince Mine coal was customarily transported on the old Point Aconi Road for transfer to CNR rail cars in Sydney Mines, it seems prophetic that the government had the foresight to pave an alternate route years before the Prince Mine Road would see any heavy volumes of truck traffic. A small and seemingly unrelated event? Unlikely, but not enough evidence for you to form your opinion – yet.

The wheels of “progress” picked up speed less than a month after Canadians elected a Conservative government on Sept. 4, 1984. Less than a month later, the Mulroney government sanctioned Devco’s abrupt switch from CNR rail cars to private coal trucks to transport Prince Mine coal along the Prince Mine Road, 105 and 125 Highways to the Victoria Junction Washplant in Sydney.

Credible options for a rail spur to Prince Mine and an underground or above-ground beltline, from the mine to Point Aconi Power Plant, were treated dismissively and abandoned. With no coal to transport, CNR abandoned its rail spur into Sydney Mines with a consequent loss of traffic on the SSPL.

Notably, in the early 1990s, the Prince Mine Road was paved an additional two kilometres to the entrance of the Point Aconi Power Plant. Today, the Prince Mine Road is largely used by private coal trucks loaded with foreign coal, imported on private coal boats docked at the privatized International Coal Piers for delivery to the privatized Point Aconi Power Plant — both of which are now owned by the privatized Nova Scotia Power’s parent company — Emera. Prophetic indeed.

DONKIN RAIL – PART 1

A map of the rail line from Donkin Mine to Caledonia Junction in Glace Bay showing the recommended rail route for Donkin coal.  CONTRIBUTED
A map of the rail line from Donkin Mine to Caledonia Junction in Glace Bay showing the recommended rail route for Donkin coal. CONTRIBUTED

 

Without question, the billion tonnes of coal in the Donkin block enhanced the business case for viable, long-term, operations at Devco and on the SSPL transportation corridor.

The essential question of coal transportation was directly addressed in a January, 1985 engineering study prepared by Associated Mining Consultants Ltd., (AR-78.3) on Donkin Mine. AMCL noted that Devco’s existing rail lines ran from Devco’s International Coal Piers, in Whitney Pier, to the Caledonia Junction in Glace Bay.

An older line linked Caledonia Junction to the No. 6 Mine Site, leaving just three kilometres of new rail line construction to complete the vital rail link joining Donkin Mine to Devco’s coal markets - including coal customers relying on the SSPL.

The AMCL report rejected on-road trucks because of proximity to residential properties, paving costs to upgrade roads, environmental concerns and the impassable obstacle presented by the low height of the #11 trestle on Dominion Street in Glace Bay. Sea barges were rejected due to uncertain route availability during the worst winter months.

The AMCL report recommended a direct rail link from the Donkin Mine to Caledonia Junction as the most attractive option for transporting Donkin coal to market.

All that remained was to put some miners to work and re-start Donkin Mine. Not surprisingly, further investment in Donkin was not part of the Conservative government’s exit strategy.

Fast track to 1992. After a taxpayer investment of nearly $100 million, including almost a decade of maintaining Donkin as Devco’s key contingency plan, the Crown Corporation bullishly shut down the Donkin pumps and flooded the two tunnels.

By corporate fiat, the existing rail lines were left intact for a future Devco mining operation at Donkin.

Between 1985 and 1993, the Mulroney government policy, to privatize Devco, was an abject failure. Buyer interest was non-existent. The Tory scheme was a hot button issue for local Liberal politicians who vehemently opposed it until they adopted it after they were elected to government in 1993. Keep track of the dates.

NORTH SYDNEY RAIL

In 1986, the Mulroney government “reorganized” CN Marine into Marine Atlantic and discontinued rail service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. CN Marine’s familiar rail car ferries vanished into obscurity and the tracks at the North Sydney Terminal were replaced with asphalt. As a result, CNR abandoned the rail spur into North Sydney with a consequent loss of traffic on the SSPL.

It is notable that the Mulroney government agreed to spend $800 million on the Newfoundland highway system to silence provincial government, and citizen opposition, to railway abandonment. Inevitably, on Oct. 1, 1988, Newfoundlanders saw their century-old railway system buried under mountains of asphalt; a fact not lost on Cape Breton rail advocates like Charlie Palmer, Leo Evans and one of our most prolific and astute letter writers, Alonzo Nearing.

SYDNEY RAIL

The abandoned Sydney train station stands as a stark reminder of the negative impact caused by the government decision to end VIA passenger service to Sydney. CONTRIBUTED
The abandoned Sydney train station stands as a stark reminder of the negative impact caused by the government decision to end VIA passenger service to Sydney. CONTRIBUTED

 

In 1990, the Mulroney government imposed a 50 per cent cut to passenger service on Crown owned VIA Rail. In a very public protest against the announced abandonment of the Sydney to Truro passenger service, Victor Tomiczek, a local union leader, chained himself to the last VIA train chugging out of the Sydney station. Despite his valiant stand, VIA abandoned the Sydney-to-Truro line with a consequent loss of traffic on the SSPL.

In October 1993, CNR sold the still viable Sydney-to-Truro line to Railtex, an American-based holding company.

Stephen J.W. Drake is a lawyer who was born and raised in New Waterford.

SATURDAY: Stephen Drake’s three-part series will conclude with ‘The fantasy of Novaporte.’

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