Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Growing Opposition to Northern New Brunswick Rail Plan

VIA crosses the Miramichi. Photo by David Morris
Following last week's announcement that the provincial government would invest in most of the northern New Brunswick CN track, but leave the Bathurst-Miramichi segment out, opposition is growing to the government's plan.

Members of Parliament Yvon Godin (NDP, Acadie-Bathurst) and Dominic LeBlanc (Liberal, Beasejour) are both opposed to the government plan, according to this CBC article. The other eight MPs, coincidentally all Conservatives, have not said anything on this issue that I am aware of. I'm especially curious what Tilly O'Neill-Gordon, MP for Miramichi, has to say on the matter, and I have emailed her to ask.

Some accuse VIA Rail of "deliberately attempting to discourage ridership". Ted Bartlett, acting president of Transport Action Atlantic says that VIA's decision to cut the Ocean back to three trips/week and VIA's lack of marketing have led to reduced ridership (almost precisely half what they were prior to the cut, according to some accounts), and the recent CN-New Brunswick announcement "has presented VIA with a golden opportunity to get out of a service that they really don't want to operate."

Transport Action Atlantic's report "Revitalizing New Brunswick's Rail Sector" was released on December 30, 2013 and recommends a number of key points:
  • Explore options to retain CN's Newcastle subdivision;
  • Restore the Ocean to daily operation and establish VIA as a full Crown corporation with stable funding;
  • Revive Industrial Rail Services in Moncton.
CN has said that it would cost $10 million to restore the missing segment from Bathurst to Miramichi. A "spokesperson from Economic Development" (presumably the New Brunswick government) was quoted as saying it would cost $50 million to reroute the Ocean over the Edmundston-Moncton line. The cost to VIA was said to include the cost of buying land, building at least 5 stations, and installing signals. That cost sounds high to me but it would have to be studied and probably is being studied by VIA Rail.

I understand that VIA Rail does not have $10 million to spend on the Bathurst-Miramichi segment. Their budget has been squeezed by the federal government for the past few years and extra cash cannot be found.

I believe the federal government needs to step in and provide this capital cost to upgrade the line and retain service, just as they have stepped in to join provincial governments for a rail underpass in Winnipeg ($22.2m), rail widening in the Greater Toronto Area ($8.3m), port upgrades at Belledune ($26.4m, jeopardized by the soon to be very long rail connection to the rest of the world), rail upgrades for NB Southern ($9m), and on and on... the federal government needs to come to the table.

The Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt (Conservative, Halton), has been ducking this challenge. She spoke on February 3 to the Canadian Club of Ottawa as the Minister, and her notes contain not one word about VIA Rail. When asked by MP Bruce Hyer (Green, Thunder Bay-Superior North) about the future of passenger rail in New Brunswick and Sault Ste. Marie (also in jeopardy), she said, "We are monitoring closely. We are working with VIA Rail and with everybody who has an interest in these lines to get to the right place. That said, it is incredibly important to note that VIA Rail is an arm's-length corporation that makes its own business decisions."

With respect to the honourable minister, at the end of the day, VIA Rail answers to the federal government. They might be at arm's length but it is the federal government's arm that holds them accountable.

CN 8807 and CN 5414 in Miramichi

Time to step up. Write your Member of Parliament. Contact the Minister of Transportation. Get involved and make some noise, or this rail line will be gone forever.

4 comments:

oamundsen said...

Sorry that I cannot write to any legislator, since I live in the US. We have traveled in Canada on VIA every year for ten years, not only do we spend money on VIA, we stay at hotels, go to restaurants, have bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of Canadian art and have done this only because we enjoy traveling by train! We are not tourists who love a "tour train," we enjoy talking with local Canadians so we can better understand our neighbors, gain from their experiences and enjoy social exchange. Your present ruling party seems to want to emulate the worst of US politics including destroying the middle class citizen and one target seems to be national passenger rail service. Of course, they do this with the willing help of CN and CP, now both US companies in reality. A real shame.

Michael said...

There was a time when these missing links were retained not so long ago. Via's Smiths Falls subdivision into Ottawa is an excellent example, although it's a corridor route whereas the stretch in question in NB is not a high-density route. Still, federal policies on abandoning rail lines are laughable.

Anthony said...

Hi All, I am a bit confused here. So, if I understand correctly, "they" are thinking of abandoning the 70 kilometer long middle section between Nelson Junction and Nepisquit Junction, right? If this is the case, then this would effectively end the continuos rail line from Quebec to Moncton and onto Halifax along the Northern portion of the province. So, if CN had a major rail line issue on the Napadogen line, then where will they re route traffic? Abandoning this section and causing this Northern CN line to be cut off / rendered incomplete seems like a ridiculous idea. Surely the advantages of having two continuous rail lines flowing through a province is a good idea; no? (by two lines I mean the CN Napadogen line and the Northern CN line, I am not including the NBSR since it goes through Maine)

Steve Boyko said...

It is a shame, oamundsen.

Michael, agreed, federal policies are inconsistent at best.

Anthony, yes, the abandonment would end a continuous connection. There would be no detour possibility should there be a problem on the CN main line. Detouring via NBSR is not really feasible.