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Rail or road? Let’s weigh our freight options

By Greg MacLeod 
Published March 11, 2015
A tractor-trailer whizzes by on Highway 102 near Elmsdale. “It is time for the Nova Scotia legislature to undertake a very serious study of the pros and cons of freight transport by highway or by rail.”A tractor-trailer whizzes by on Highway 102 near Elmsdale. “It is time for the Nova Scotia legislature to undertake a very serious study of the pros and cons of freight transport by highway or by rail.”

Halifax, beware!

The railway service we take for granted may not be as secure as thought. Fifty years ago, Nova Scotia also had marvellous rail service, but gradually it has been cut back. Railway services were abandoned piece by piece.

In September, 1961, the last train operated on the round trip Maccan-River Hebert-Joggins, in Cumberland County. In that same year, the Cornwallis Valley Railway was abandoned. In 1981, the CNR abandoned the Liverpool to Yarmouth main line and the Bridgewater to Bridgetown branch. The latest is the attempt to abandon the Cape Breton line.

And the story goes on in Atlantic Canada of gradual abandonment of railways for freight in favour of trucks on government-subsidized highways. People should not assume that the line between Moncton and Halifax will continue in the long run if the trend continues. Passenger service has already been cut back and more freight is moving by tractor-trailer trucks out of Halifax and less by rail. CN is also reluctant to pay maintenance costs for infrastructure like bridges.

From a strict business point of view, CN will be more profitable if it concentrates on the corridor between Quebec, Montreal, Toronto and the U.S.A. Some might say that all of the Maritimes could be served by tractor-trailer trucks, which could link with the trains on the heavy traffic rail corridor. For freight transportation companies, this makes sense since they do not have to maintain highways and bridges. Taxpayers provide this service free.

But is this the best approach for the common good of society? Is it good public policy?

Construction and maintenance of highways is becoming more and more expensive. The government of Nova Scotia spends between $200 million and $300 million on highways every year. The bypass around Antigonish cost approximately $76 million. The bypass around Sydney cost approximately $46 million.

Besides construction costs, there is ongoing maintenance. Engineers estimate that a fully loaded truck causes more damage to a highway than 5,000 cars. According to a GAO study in 2009, one 18-wheeler is equivalent to 9,600 cars in terms of highway wear and tear. Maintenance costs are also rising. Most European countries and the U.S. maintain their highways through a system of tolls so that the user pays.

In Moncton, it is reported, 97,000 units are transferred from the train to heavy tractor-trailer trucks that travel to Nova Scotia. Will that trend increase?

It is time for the Nova Scotia legislature to undertake a very serious study of the pros and cons of freight transport by highway or by rail. It would make further sense if such a study were done jointly by New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

This should not be a partisan political issue. It concerns the common good and is a key issue for our economic future. HRM is considering a rapid transit system to reduce automobile traffic. That is a reasonable strategy. But perhaps these same leaders should widen their perspective to the whole issue of rail transportation as public policy.

There are approximately 40 people employed in the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. The choice between rail or track for transport is an important ecological question. Perhaps the province could engage this independent group with its qualified staff to compare the environmental impact of highway traffic and rail traffic.

We pride ourselves on the beauties of Nova Scotia, but it becomes somewhat obscured for tourists driving alongside an 18-wheel tractor-trailer on a four-lane highway on a rainy day.

Some European countries set aside some roads for trucks only and other roads for cars only and they also create bus-only lanes. Travellers in Europe are amazed at their rail services.

The economy, the environment and tourism are all impacted by the issues of transport. The free market will not resolve these issues in a way that will best serve the common good. That is the duty of our politicians.

Greg MacLeod is professor emeritus, Tompkins Institute, Cape Breton University

Copyright © 2015 The Chronicle Herald All rights reserved

Posted in News

Our Mission Is Fourfold:

  1. Explore various options for continuation of the rail service to Sydney, Cape Breton
  2. Demonstrate the vital importance regionally in order to support the continuation of the rail link to Sydney, Cape Breton
  3. Support efforts to ensure continuation of the rail link to Sydney, Cape Breton
  4. Secure in perpetuity the right of way of the line

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