National Dream Abandoned
Cape Breton’s rail disconnect
Cape Breton Post, 14 Dec 2020, by Jim Guy
One of the most famous photographs in Canadian history was taken of Donald Smith, wearing his top hat and poised to drive in the "last" spike for Canada's transcontinental railway in 1885.
Railway abandonment in Cape Breton has damaged this island’s economy, says Jim Guy.
The newly completed railway fulfilled the dreams and promises of prime minister John A. Macdonald who had worked with Cornelius Van Horne to unite the country by rail from sea to sea.
By the 20th century that dream had become from "sea to sea to sea", making it a truly 'national' railway system. But can we still say that we have a national system today when Cape Breton is disconnected from mainland Nova Scotia and Newfoundland by rail? The national dream has been abandoned and rail no longer unites us from sea to sea.
As scandalous and controversial as it became, that 19th century promise was fulfilled, building the longest 'national' rail system in the world. Fast forward to 1991 when the federal government announced the end of the rail service in Cape Breton from St Peters Junction to Sydney. It was a myopic government decision to save money and using Cape Breton as an easy victim. But railway abandonment has damaged this island's economy to this day with multiple layers of negative economic effects.
It turned out to be a lot more than just a simple cost adjustment for the federal government. An eastern linkage within the transcontinental span had been disconnected, separating the services of two provinces, weakening the trade gateway to the United States and Europe, and adopting a much more expensive delivery system currently in place by truck. No longer coming regularly were 22,00 car loads of products, including coal, metal products, paper chemicals, drywall and limestone.
The federal Liberals had again sacrificed the economic development of Cape Breton by favoring more costly trucking over rail to deliver goods and services in a declining island economy. The rail disconnect made the island less efficient economically in addition to discouraging local and national business initiatives to invest.
The rail disconnect actually enabled trade barriers to be erected, affecting northeastern Nova Scotia. Public safety was weakened with the loss of rail and local businesses faced higher costs, making them less competitive to deliver their goods and services. Currently, Air Canada's services have been either cancelled or shut down, further weakening public safety. The loss of our airport is a distinct and threatening possibility, forcing us to approach all other levels of cash-strapped governments for assistance.
We know now that the significant increase in truck traffic added the burden of costly highway maintenance to the beleaguered provincial budget. Threats to the environment are occurring at a time when all governments have taken strong policy positions against that from happening.
It is remarkable how many local politicians and opinionated community leaders have for some reason failed to see the urgency of the rail connection for Cape Breton. Rail is the key to economic development of the island. In all other examples of economically viable communities across Canada, the presence of rail services goes without question. It is an essential feature of the infrastructure for economic development. And the federal government has placed some $180 billion over 12 years waiting to invest in projects that would include a short line.
The Grant Thornton Viability Study strongly recommended rail to improve accessibility to the region, pointing out that the Cape Breton Regional Municipality needs rail as a lifeline for survival. Geography has provided Sydney with a strategic location in North America, making it the first port of call at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway to transship products from everywhere. Rail is the only logical and viable transportation system capable of servicing the container capacity of Novaporte. With all that in mind we need to accept that Sydney is the gateway to the Atlantic.
Jim Guy, Ph. D., is professor emeritus of political science at Cape Breton University.
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