CN-BC Rail partnership makes sense

Next week, when the kids are safely back in school and the world of Realpolitik resumes, the B.C. Liberals will hold a provincial summit on transportation. And as Transportation Minister Judith Reid said while in Whistler last week, the Sea to Sky corridor is one of the province’s five priority areas. The corridor certainly didn’t drop down the list after this week’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee that the Vancouver bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics has made the short list of candidates.

Reid also mentioned while in Whistler that the province is re-examining the Indian Arm corridor and its commitment to BC Rail.

"We’ve made the commitment to keep BC Rail but there are consequences to that," Reid said. "One of the consequences to that is we don’t have money to invest. We made the commitment because we wanted to support the people who use BC Rail but the people who use BC Rail are saying while you made this commitment it’s not supporting us anymore so we want you to re-examine your commitment."

And the choices for BC Rail are limited. The provincial government doesn’t have any money to invest in the company and transportation is way down on the list of spending priorities among most British Columbians.

Meanwhile, CN Rail has become one of the most progressive and innovative railways in North America since it was privatized in 1995. The railway has dived headfirst into the environment created by North American free trade agreements, building a network of rail lines, partnerships and intermodal services that extend from Canada through central United States and into Mexico. The railway, the largest carrier of forest products in North America, serves the ports of Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Montreal, Halifax, New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, as well as such key cities as Toronto, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Duluth, Minneapolis, Memphis and St. Louis.

Look at a map of rail lines in B.C. and the synergy between CN’s lines and the BC Rail line become obvious. The two already intersect in Prince George, and it wouldn’t take too much to extend the CN line from Ashcroft, west of Kamloops, to the BC Rail line north of Lillooet, if further connections were desired – for example, if someone were to contemplate a passenger rail service, using CN’s line, from Vancouver through Whistler and on to Jasper and Edmonton.

But CN’s business is freight, just as BC Rail will soon become a freight-only railway, and the company has a record of working with smaller railways. In June of this year CN announced an assistance package to help Kelowna Pacific Railway finance increased track capacity and build a rail-truck reload centre. Kelowna Pacific began operating CN’s Okanagan Internal Shortline in 2000 and had increased traffic by almost 20 per cent by the end of 2001.

David Edison, vice president of CN’s Pacific Division, said in announcing the assistance for KPR: "…our short line partners are significant originators of CN traffic and key to our growth strategy." He also urged the federal government to join with railways in financing line improvements, calling it "one element of a more balanced national transportation policy" which would lower highway maintenance costs for governments and generate new regional economic development.

While Mr. Edison may be overstating the case – and downplaying the competition railways face from trucking companies – there is much in what he says and what CN has done that makes sense to both the federal and provincial governments.

But perhaps the greatest advantage to the governments of CN buying or partnering with BC Rail is the possibility of the Montreal-based railway building a new line from Squamish through the Indian Arm route to the Lower Mainland. The incentive for the railway, which would have to build a crossing from Ioco to Port Coquitlam, is to hook up with its existing line in the Burnaby-New Westminster area and thus gain access to port terminals near downtown Vancouver and on the Fraser River, as well as BC Rail’s own line to the Roberts Bank port near Tsawwassen.

To finance this new route through the Indian Arm BC Rail’s existing line through prime North and West Vancouver real estate could be sold off. That would make the BC Rail right of way from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish of little use to the railway – but it would be ideal for a two-lane highway. It would provide a long-term solution to highway capacity issues as well as address concerns about delays caused by construction.

As for passenger rail, that seems certain to be left to a private operator, likely one interested in the lucrative tourist/cruise ship business rather than any sort of commuter service. However, the Indian Arm route would allow a private passenger service to be offered from the Port of Vancouver right to Whistler and beyond. Currently passengers have to find their way to the non-descript BC Rail station in North Vancouver to ride the rails north.

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