Halifax Regional Municipality, the Nova Scotia government, and an American businessman want to own a discontinued railway that’s more than a century-and-a-half old. The Windsor and Hantsport Railway is 90 kilometers of track running from Windsor Junction through Mount Uniacke, Windsor, and Hantsport to New Minas.
The American wants to be in the rail business, but he doesn’t have any customers for the line.
The Nova Scotia government wants part of the same railway, so it can twin Highway 101 around Windsor.
And the city wants another part, so it can build a trail from Windsor Junction to at least the Hants County line, but perhaps as far as Annapolis Royal.
Or it could remain an old discontinued railway.
Its American owner — Robert T. Schmidt of Alexandria, Virginia — is determined to hang on to the Windsor and Hantsport Railway and increase the amount of rail line he owns in hopes that better, more prosperous days may be somewhere down the tracks.
Schmidt now owns the valley section of the railway, from Windsor to New Minas, and he could block the Nova Scotia government’s and HRM’s plans, or at the very least make the realization of their plans more complicated and expensive for taxpayers.
The city’s trail plan
Schmidt wants to buy the 51 kilometers of the old discontinued line between Windsor Junction and Windsor from its current owner, CN, and he says he has first dibs on it.
The city wants part of the same section of the line.
HRM wants the rails ripped up on CN’s section east of Windsor, and the rail bed that’s left behind turned into trails for cyclists, hikers, and perhaps others like ATVs and horses.
A January 30 report written by city staffer Dave McCusker for Halifax council outlines costs and risks and makes recommendations.
A table of five options in the report shows only three acceptable to Schmidt. The “rails to trails” option — in which the rails would be completely removed and the city would own the corridor — is not one Schmidt will entertain.
But McCusker’s cost estimates found that the rails to trails scenario came out safest and cheapest — it was almost $1.35 million for construction of a 16-kilometre trail.
Schmidt’s preferred option is “rails in trails,” which doesn’t work for the city.
The report explains that “rails in trails” was done in parts of Kings County, where recycled asphalt was used to bring the trail flush with the rails. Were the city to use this method, construction costs would be an estimated $1.43 million; moreover, the city would likely spend even more for ongoing maintenance to prevent safety hazards. Also, the city wouldn’t own it. Taxpayers would have to pay an additional $40,000 a year to Schmidt to lease the corridor. As well, trains might eventually run over the trail.
The third option, “rails abutting trails,” is the most expensive, at nearly $7 million. It proposes that a 16-kilometre greenway be built on Schmidt’s property alongside what could be an active Windsor & Hantsport Railway. That scenario also comes with a $40,000 annual lease, plus $7 million in construction costs, all paid by taxpayers.
Schmidt says he could build it for less — about $800,000, plus the lease. He also suggests he could offer a discount on construction if the city and province wanted the entire 51-kilometre CN section — he might be able to price it below $2.55 million for construction, plus close to $130,000 a year for the lease.
Schmidt’s Windsor & Hants Railway has built about 12 kilometres of trail between Grand Pre and New Minas using all three options McCusker considered in his report to council: rails abutting trails, rails in trails, and rails to trails. Tracks and ties were torn up in the Greenwich area to convert the rail line to trails. Municipalities pay an annual lease to Schmidt.
McCusker pointed out two risks in particular in his report to council: potential for collision between a train and a trail user, and the possibility taxpayers would lose their trail infrastructure investment if the lease were terminated or not renewed.
Last Friday, Paul Smith, president of the Uniacke Trails Association, wrote the local MLA Margaret Miller (Hants-East) to say that Schmidt’s proposal is unacceptable —that the rail line is a public resource and “should be locally owned by the province or municipality and developed as a multi-use trail.”
Schmidt says he has an agreement with CN to buy the Windsor to Windsor Junction section of rail. He told the Examiner in an email that “the deal was negotiated several years ago and we made a good faith money deposit at that time.” And Schmidt was in Halifax this week meeting with CN officials “finalizing the Windsor Branch acquisition.”
He says “The only possible ‘opposition’ to our purchase that I am aware of is that a trail group would like the province or HRM to buy the line.”
In the January 30 report, however, McCusker recommended that council send a letter to CN and the Canadian Transportation agency expressing “HRM’s interest in acquiring the portions of this corridor in the Municipality.”
The Nova Scotia Government
Then there’s the 39-kilometre section of the railway that Schmidt already owns — from Windsor to New Minas. That’s where the Nova Scotia government’s interest lies.
Schmidt tells the Examiner that he had been approached about the possibility of selling part or all of the line by Transportation and Infrastructure’s Chief Engineer, Peter Hackett.
Schmidt says Hackett called him a while back “to see if we would be interested in selling a small portion of the railway or the whole railway to the province for the twinning project of the 101 at Windsor and Falmouth.”
By using the rail portion of the corridor on the causeway, the public would be able to avoid the enormous costs of building three bridges to get around Windsor.
The railway owner explained to Hackett that “ buying a ‘portion’ of the railway is the same as buying the whole railway.” Schmidt says Windsor & Hantsport Railway “would not be able to operate without a contiguous corridor. We indicated that we were still open to discussing a potential transaction.” He says there was no firm request made or price discussed.
Schmidt says he told Hackett that there were other ways to reduce the twinning construction costs, such as buying an easement.
Asked for comment, Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal spokesperson Marla MacInnis said Hackett cannot discuss issues involving the railway for legal reasons.
The Rail Line’s History
Although it has operated as one line for over a century, the Windsor Junction to New Minas rail line has always existed as two separate sections, with Windsor as the meeting point.
Constructed in 1858, the Windsor to Windsor Junction branch was owned by the Nova Scotia government but transferred to the Government of Canada at Confederation in 1867, becoming part of the Intercolonial Railway. In 1912, the Canadian Government Railways took it over and two years later, in 1914, leased it for 99 years to Canadian Pacific Railway’s subsidiary Dominion Atlantic Railways.
Then, in 1993, the federal government sold all of Canadian Government Railway’s assets to CN, for a loonie.
The other half of the line, from Windsor to New Minas, opened in 1872 as the Windsor and Annapolis Valley Railway and became part of the Dominion Atlantic Railway in 1894.
Schmidt bought part of Dominion Atlantic Railway’s Annapolis Valley assets in 1994. At the same time, he took over the remainder of the 99-year lease of the line from Windsor to Windsor Junction and started his Windsor & Hantsport Railway. Schmidt says business was good until the gypsum mines closed in 2010, which forced his line to cease operations.
Expired Lease Starts End Game
When the lease expired in 2013 on the Windsor to Windsor Junction section, CN took control of it and sought to abandon it and tear up the rails.
Before it could abandon the line, however, CN was first obligated to ask if anyone had an interest in operating a railway over it. It was Schmidt’s opportunity to unite the two sections under one ownership — his. He was the only one to put his hand up. Any chance local governments would have to obtain the property was gone.
Schmidt told the Canadian Transportation Agency at this time that he wanted to operate rail service over the line, even though the Windsor & Hantsport Railway hasn’t run a train on it since 2010.
Schmidt’s declared desire to operate train service prevented CN from abandoning its section.
In his letter to Miller, the Hants East MLA, Uniacke Trails President Smith argues that “this requirement has not been met. The rail line appears to be abandoned and [is] falling into further and further disrepair with each passing year.”
In an email to the Halifax Examiner, Schmidt claims he has personally pumped over $2 million into the line to preserve it.
The Examiner contacted CN several times for this story, but its public affairs officer, Jonathan Abecassis, made it obvious that the railway wouldn’t discuss anything about the Windsor Branch.
Schmidt says he needs the Windsor to Windsor Junction branch, so that the valley section of his railway can stay connected to CN’s main line at Windsor Junction and so that he can preserve the viability of the entire operation from HRM to the Annapolis Valley.
He says the last train ran in 2010 and concedes that there’s no obvious business that can be seen coming down the line. Still, Schmidt says he is working on several new freight initiatives.
Should Windsor & Hantsport Railway attract new business, he estimates that it would take three to six months to get the railway operational and inspected. He says he could have trains running at about 25 kilometres per hour, which he says would allow for the safe use of pedestrians, cyclists, and others on trails shared with trains or next to them.
The railway owner emphasizes that if the rails are torn up and the corridor used for something else, the railway is gone for good.
Dilapitated Line and Potential Consequences
Here’s the rub. Even if new business did spring up quickly — say, if the gypsum mines reopened — Schmidt still couldn’t run a train into the port of Hantsport or get to CN’s main line.
In fact, a section of the line is in such a state of disrepair that Schmidt now faces massive fines or perhaps even a jail term.
Over the years, washouts in Hantsport swept away a critical section, leaving tracks and ties suspended over the mouth of the Halfway River where it meets the Bay of Fundy. That’s on the section of rail line owned by Schmidt.
Not long after the photo above was taken, the Windsor & Hantsport Railway cut the rails for safety reasons. Gone too is an aboiteau, the sluice in the dyke that allowed for the Halfway River to flow into the Bay of Fundy at low tide but stopped the high Fundy tides from rushing up the river and flooding land behind it. Schmidt says it was destroyed 10 years ago.
On February 2, the combination of very high Fundy tides and the absence of the aboiteau control caused flooding that threatened the Halfway River bridge on the main entry road into Hantsport. The Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure temporarily closed the road.
Days earlier, on January 30, the Department filed the directive with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia ordering the railway to “remove the failed tracks that are suspended due to the failure of the aboiteau.”
The directive also ordered the Windsor & Hantsport Railway Company to stabilize the embankment and rebuild the aboiteau within six months of the order — that is, by July 30.
Schmidt says he’s been threatened with a $200,000 dollar a day fine or jail if he fails to comply.
Schmidt questions why he is the only private aboiteau owner in Nova Scotia; he claims over 200 other such structures are maintained by the provincial Department of Agriculture. He says the Railway Act “does not mandate that we serve as a dyke for inland infrastructure.”
Nova Scotia PC Leadership Candidate and MLA John Lohr (PC-Kings-North) seems to agree. In an email to the Examiner, Lohr says “The Minister of Agriculure has responsibility for all dykes and aboiteauxes in the Province.” Following up in a phone call, Lohr says “all means all.”
But Lohr also says now that because ocean flooding through the destroyed aboiteau can threaten the Halfway River Bridge and low parts of Highway 1, the province needs to act quickly to fix the problem before it gets more serious. He says if Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell believes the railway is liable, that can be settled later.
Schmidt says the railway owns less than a third of the entire 85 metre-wide aboiteau and offers that he’d willingly surrender full ownership of the aboiteau and permanently offer a free railway easement, “just like our agreement in relation to the Avon River Causeway in Windsor.”
Schmidt says over the last decade, his pleas for government help have fallen on deaf ears, and he believes that the departments of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Fisheries, Agriculture, and Environment should all contribute to the upkeep.
Schmidt says if there were business and a need, he could put up a rail bridge at Hantsport in a week or so.
The railway owner points out that the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway has received tens of millions of dollars in subsidies and continues to get up to $60,000 a month from taxpayers, while his Windsor & Hantsport Railway has received none.
And aside from the overall condition of the CN section, there is another problem.
Road Construction over Rails
Not far from Windsor Junction, where the branch meets CN’s main line, two sections of rail have been torn up so that roads can be built over them. The demolition appears to be very recent, and news of it came as a surprise to both McCusker and Schmidt.
Schmidt says the junction where CN and the Windsor Branch meet is a critical connection for the Windsor & Hantsport Railway.
The newly constructed roads, with concrete culverts built over the rail bed, lead into a new and expensive waterfront development called Windgate, where lots run from about $225,000 each. One new road was built about a metre or more above the rail bed on the section CN owns and which Schmidt says he needs and wants to buy.
Schmidt says the rail could be restored in a matter of days at Windgate, should his railway need it. But even so, it’s very likely emergency services like fire, police, and ambulance may have something to say about the railway potentially blocking their vehicles once people are living in the new subdivision.
It’s worth noting that HRM Council was presented with McCusker’s report on January 30, the same day that the province filed its directive about the aboiteau with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
McCusker’s report recommends buying part of the CN line, should it become available. There’s an estimated price for the CN section — three prices really, as follows:
Schmidt, the potential buyer (listed above as W&HR), says the land and track are worth $725,000. CN, the seller, says the land alone is worth about $1.9 million. The Canadian Transportation Agency puts the combined value at nearly $2.3 million.
Smith, the president of the Uniacke Trails Association, recommends that the province buy the line. “A ‘champion’ of this cause is required to make it happen,” he tells the Examiner.
Asked directly if he would sell his Windsor to New Minas section to the province, Schmidt said that he would prefer to keep the line open but made the point that he’s a businessman and it’s wise never to say never.
“Make me an offer,” he said.