Upgrading the Sydney to Truro rail line to the point where it can handle double-stacked containers won’t come cheap, according to a study just completed for the Port of Sydney Development Corporation, but the fix is needed if Sydney’s dreams of becoming a major container terminal are ever to be realized.

Port CEO Marlene Usher told the Halifax Examiner and Cape Breton Spectator that a recently completely $100,000 study estimates the cost of repairs and upgrades to the Genesee & Wyoming (G&W) operated Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia (CBNS) rail line will run about $101 million dollars. The study was authored by Hatch, the firm contracted by the Port in September 2017 to provide a “detailed analysis of the condition of the CBNS rail line.”

The $101,000,000 is for rail and bridge upgrades and repairs. That’s over and above the estimated $1.5 billion cost of the container terminal.

Usher says the $101 million includes repairing and modifying the Grand Narrows and Fairmont Street bridges.

According to at least two previous reports, the Grand Narrows Bridge needs a major overhaul and is one of two bridges that cannot now accommodate double-stacked trains, even were the bridge in good shape.

Lord Stanley’s party

Grand Narrows Bridge, circa 1900. Photo: C. W. Vernon, Cape Breton at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Toronto: Nation Publishing, 1903

Mind you, it was a grand bridge and a grand day, when the bridge officially opened on October 18, 1890: Sir John A. MacDonald was Prime Minister.

They partied in Sydney that night to celebrate. Just hours earlier, Lord Stanley of Preston had driven the first locomotive hauling a five-car train across Nova Scotia’s longest rail bridge.

That was three years before that same Lord Stanley donated a silver cup to hockey that has since become the sport’s holy grail.

The bridge still stands today. It’s part of the Sydney subdivision in Genesee & Wyoming’s Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway.

For 124 years, trains ran over the rail line and the Grand Narrows Bridge. They don’t anymore. The trains stopped in 2014. Lack of business and the considerable costs of fixing the rail line were to blame, says Genesee & Wyoming.

The rail line today

The Grand Narrows Bridge today. Photo: Rick Grant

The old bridge looks just like it did in 1890.

No trains now run on the bridge, and Genesee & Wyoming wants to abandon it and rip up the rails on the entire line from Point Tupper to Sydney.

Several reports have been prepared for the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure on the condition of that section of the rail line.

Group ATN Consulting wrote in its September 2015 report for the Minister’s Rail Advisory Committee:

The company (Genesee & Wyoming) indicated that it does not see a future for this rail line and it is not part of G&W’s future business plan. 

Among the reasons given in the ATN report is “anticipated capital expenditures required to maintain the safety of the line.” And a Genesee & Wyoming executive told the consultants that the company “was not interested in making a significant capital investment to maintain the line.” However, the company did not provide any estimate of costs to fix aging bridges or other deficiencies.

Genesee & Wyoming made it clear the company didn’t want to continue even with a government subsidy — the company wanted to abandon the Sydney subdivision and get what cash it could from removal and salvage of the rail.

Nevertheless, two years later, in 2017, with the rails and bridges still in place, the Nova Scotia government decided to buy a delay in abandonment.

So now taxpayers fork over $60,000 a month — $2,000 a day, $720,000 a year — to Genesee & Wyoming, just to have the company leave the rails and bridges in place. The money is not used for maintenance or improvements on the rail line.

Cape Breton politicians at all three levels of government want a new container terminal built in Sydney, one that would rival Halifax and attract the largest container ships in the world.

Their ambitions of making Sydney a shipping container hub on Canada’s Atlantic coast are hooked like a rail car to the Sydney Subdivision and the railway’s Grand Narrows bridge — and 26 other bridges on the Cape Breton line.

A serious proposal for a container terminal capable of handling giant Post-Panamax ships that can carry 10,000 or more containers needs rail service on a line ready for double-stacked trains that are routinely three kilometres and more long.

However, reports prepared for the Nova Scotian government reveal that the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway is not capable of carrying those trains, and getting the railway to such a state would be very costly, and complicated. It would also take a lot of time.

For starters, a 2015 report prepared by Canarail of Montreal for the Nova Scotia government concluded that:

…based on the data on vertical clearance presented in PARSONS’ Individual Bridge Reports 2014 and the supplemental information provided by the Nova Scotia Department of Transport and Infrastructure Renewal, it appears two bridges do not comply with the Standards Respecting Railway Clearances as per Transport Canada.

Even the province concedes that the Grand Narrows Bridge and Fairmont Street Bridge do not meet Transport Canada standards for overhead clearance that allow for double-stacked container trains.

Usher says the Port Authority’s newest report included an analysis of the clearance problem and says there’s a belief that the issue can be overcome.

But clearance is just one of the problems at Grand Narrows.

In late 2017, I travelled to Grand Narrows from Halifax and made numerous stops to take photos along the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway.

The Grand Narrows rail bridge is over 516 meters long. The water beneath is very deep, with a strong current that presented the original 1880s-era engineers and builders with significant challenges. And the bridge has been ravaged by the elements over the century and a quarter since.

The abutment to the bridge. Photo: Rick Grant

The abutment on the west end of the bridge is seriously deteriorated; I could see it while standing next to it on the shore of the Bras d’Or Lake.

However, its worst elements were only visible by crawling beneath the bridge.

The bridge abutment is disintegrating. Photos: Rick Grant

A huge section of the concrete has separated from the abutment. Another huge concrete slab rests against the steel base of the bridge. Incredibly the abutment on which the bridge rests is so seriously eroded I could put my arm between the steel and the foundation that is supposed to support it.

Bolts on the bridge crumble when pinched. Photo: Rick Grant

What looks like the heads of bolts or nuts are really neither —they just look the part and are more of a mirage. The corrosion is so great that only the shape remains. When pinched, they crumble to dust.

Sections of steel are rusted through. Ties are rotted. That’s only the first of eight spans on the bridge. And, that’s what can be seen from above the surface of the Barra Strait.

The Parsons 2014 Bridge Inspection report “… did not include underwater inspection, inspection of buried components or load rating of structures. In cases where a specialized investigation is warranted, this is noted in our recommendations. “

The bridge is more than 127 years old after all.

However, it’s not the only bridge with problems, according to the Parsons and Canarail reports.

Canarail summarized Parsons’ observations on the Sydney subdivision:

27 bridges were inspected, for which 15 of them included in the immediate capital program (C1) 

C1 is a critical railroad classification. It’s explained in both reports:

The status of those 15 Sydney subdivision bridges C1 type are a threat to the structure’s ability to safely carry traffic.

The Parsons report identified four areas it classified as C1 on several spans of the Grand Narrows Bridge.

The remaining 12 bridges are in C3 condition which is “… sub-standard and may soon begin to impact the structure ability to safely carry traffic at timetable speed.”

Going on three and four years old — Canarail conducted a two-day inspection of the line in June 2015; Parsons’ inspection was done more than a year earlier — the reports recommend that the 15 C1 bridges be repaired immediately and the other 12 dealt with over a three-year period. No repairs have been undertaken.

There was a third inspection of the line done by Stantec in June 2014. At the time of the report, Stantec reported that it confirmed five primary locations between Point Tupper and Sydney identified by the railway where there are geotechnical concerns, such as the undermining of a rock cliff along which the railway runs.

Stantec’s definition of a primary location “is an area that has been identified of having geotechnical issues/concerns that is medium to high risk of having direct consequences to the business and/or health and safety of personnel and should be further reviewed within a moderate to progressive timeline.”

Besides the poor bridges, the reports identify considerably more deficiencies with the Cape Breton section of the rail line from Point Tupper to Sydney.

In the last few years that the trains were running, Genesee & Wyoming had a speed limit of 40 kilometers per hour on the Sydney Subdivision, with a number of stretches down to 16 kilometers per hour — well below Transport Canada’s allowable 65 kilometers per hour for freight on a Class III line — the basic classification for low-volume rail lines like the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway.

Photos: Rick Grant

Canarail’s report states that up to 40 per cent of ties on some sections are so rotted they have to be replaced. The reports identified concerns on some of the more than 200 curves on the Sydney subdivision. Some sections of the track are out of gauge. On a more positive note, the reports say most of the rails were produced by Sydney Steel in the mid-1970s and in general are in good shape.

Andre Lapalme, the vice-president of engineering for Genesee & Wyoming in Canada told the Halifax Examiner and Cape Breton Spectator that there has been no major maintenance done on the Sydney subdivision since 2014.

Fixing the rail line

Canarail also recommended that, “In the event of increased train traffic, it is important to undertake a structural capacity study of the bridges prior to any traffic.”

It’s not clear when the rail line from Point Tupper to Sydney was last inspected. The Nova Scotia Government is the regulator of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway.

However, there’s a great reluctance in government to talk about the Cape Breton section of the rail line.

After repeated requests to the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure for the last inspection of the Cape Breton portion of the line, we received an e-mail response from Public Affairs officer Marla MacInnis, who wrote:

The inspections are carried out by Transport Canada. I am still trying to track the date of the last inspection for you. The rail line is private property, and when not operating it’s only inspected from a public safety perspective.

Despite repeated requests for an interview with a Department spokesperson, none was offered.

We were promised an interview with Cape Breton Regional Mayor Cecil Clarke, but nothing materialized.

ATN Consulting’s final report prepared in September 2015 for the Minister’s Rail Advisory Committee concluded that:

The condition of the line, and more particularly, the speeds with which trains can travel and the turnaround time on the line between Truro and Sydney is a major deterrent to attracting more business, and the remedy would require significant capital investment and ongoing maintenance of the line as outlined in the engineering study. 

Lapalme says the railway does have an estimate for what it would cost to bring the railway up to a Class III rail but was unable to provide it when requested.

Parsons estimated in 2014 that it would cost about $13.5 million to repair the bridges, culverts, and fix geotechnical concerns — plus or minus 50 per cent. Canarail declared that estimate was too wild a swing and unrealistic.

Canarail did consider the nearly $15 million for track and signals and communications realistic.

So, there’s no accurate estimate of what the cost would be to bring the rail line up to Class III.

Photos: Rick Grant

But those numbers are now old. And tearing down and rebuilding the Grand Narrows and Ottawa Brook bridges would have an astronomical cost and there was no mention of doing that in the Parsons or Canarail reports. Usher, at the Port of Sydney, now says the latest report for the Port puts the total cost for bringing the line to Class III standards at $101 million. She says that according to the report, the work would take two years to complete.

Nova Scotia taxpayers spent over $20 million dollars in subsidies to keep the Sydney Subdivision maintained when the trains were running. They are spending $2,000 a day now just to prevent the tracks from being ripped up.

Genesee & Wyoming made it clear almost four years ago that it doesn’t want to spend any more money on the line and doesn’t want subsidies for it either.

So, if governments want the Sydney Subdivision rebuilt to carry double-stacked rail cars from a still non- existent container terminal, who will pay: private investors or the old reliable taxpayer? Asked who would pay the $101 million, Usher replied. “I can’t answer.” She did point out that there is infrastructure money available from the federal government.

And which will come first: the terminal or the railway? Usher says they would be done simultaneously. Usher says at this point, there is no cost estimate for building a container terminal in Sydney, but previous published reports place it at $1.5 billion.

There’s a risk that the Stanley Cup will make its way back to Canada before there’s another railway celebration in Sydney like the one in October 1890.

This is article is produced with the Cape Breton Spectator, via our Joint Investigative Fund.

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.

    Spending our money to build a terminal and railway in the hope great ships will come is lunacy. Just as much as it was for pacific islanders to build bamboo effigies of airplanes to lure planes full of treasures courtesy of the American air force to land again on their islands after the end of WWII.

    But, it often seems the lust for great personal gain overtakes the civic nabobs we are lumbered with in Cape Breton as much as it did those in polynesia.

    Congrats to Rick on a great, thorough and diligent piece of journalism–something not often seen in days like these.

  2. 100 million seems pretty cheap compared to a few kilometres of twinned highway. It’s also a great investment in sustainable transportation. No one cries when we dump millions of tons of tar on the earth and call it a road.

  3. Great work Rick. Par for the course for you. You were always a dogged and thorough reporter. Kings should hire you to teach the youngsters how to be a persistent and accurate reporter with no hint of political preference/bias.