Province Studying High Railway Fees

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The Sydney Subdivision of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS) must be the most studied stretch of unused track in the country.

The Subdivision was the subject of three different reports (with a total price tag of $152,600) in 2015. It’s to be the subject of a $460,000 study for which the Port of Sydney Development Corporation is now seeking funding (although admittedly, that study will include an active portion of track, from Truro to Port Hawkesbury).

Mike Johnson, head of the CB Railway Victims Association stands near his unintentionally off-the-grid home. (Photo by Joan Weeks/CBC http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/genesee-wyoming-rail-fees-undeveloped-bras-dor-lake-1.3861133)

Mike Johnson, head of the CB Railway Victims Association stands near his unintentionally off-the-grid home along the CBNS rail line. (Photo by Joan Weeks/CBC )

And the St. Peters Junction-Sydney line is also being studied, even as we speak, by the provincial government.

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR) has engaged consultant Neil MacNeil (he of the famous “rejected” Sydney port report, the one that was hidden from Council for months) to look into the situation of landowners along that stretch of the track. As TIR spokesperson Brian Taylor explained to the Spectator in an email:

The consultant has been asked to gather information about the specific concerns of property owners, to gain clarity on the fees charged by G&W and for what purpose, to understand the federal and provincial policy and regulatory environment within which these fees are applied, to gain clarity on how these crossing fees compare with other crossing fees in similar situations across Canada and to consider options to help resolve or improve the perceived situation for property owners in Cape Breton whose properties are adjacent to the Sydney Subdivision rail line.

The consultant will be paid a flat fee of $15,000, plus reimbursement of reasonable expenses, and his report is expected early summer.

(The Spectator took an in-depth look at those fees last November.)

I asked Mike Johnson, head of the CB Railway Victims Association, a group representing the landowners, about MacNeil’s study and he told me over the phone that he was “initially optimistic” when he heard it had been commissioned in January 2017. Johnson says he hopes MacNeil will find a solution that encompasses Nova Scotia Power Inc, G&W, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB) and the TIR:

“I don’t care whether there’s 100 trains a day on that line or none,” said Johnson. “This issue has to be settled for the property owners.”

 

Complex

Geoff MacLellan, MLA for Glace Bay and TIR Minister in the McNeil government told the Spectator by phone on Tuesday that the decision to hire an independent consultant to look into the matter was made because the issues involved were so complex and confusing:

“We’d go to Nova Scotia Power and they’d say, ‘You have to go to the rail operator.’ We’d go to the rail operator and they’d say, ‘You have to go to Nova Scotia Power,'” said MacLellan. “We went to the UARB and they said it was outside their jurisdiction.”

(Let’s stop for a moment and imagine how different things might be were Nova Scotia Power still a publicly owned company and the Sydney Subdivision still operated by Canadian National. Okay, that was fun, now back to harsh reality.)

Part of the problem, said MacLellan, is that no property owner along the CBNS line in Cape Breton has actually been charged utility crossing fees by G&W because, faced with estimates from Nova Scotia Power like the one below, no one has actually gone ahead with construction.

NSP bill including Railway charges.

NSPI estimate including Railway charges.

As Nova Scotia Power Inc spokesperson Tiffany Chase explained to the Spectator in an email:

We are required to make an application to the railway company in order to install overhead wires that cross the railway to ensure it complies with regulations. The application includes a survey, engineering drawings and an engineering assessment of the proposed crossing.

The rail line charges Nova Scotia Power $4,000 to submit the application, which is then included as part of the overall customer invoice for the service installation.

And Chase confirmed what MacLellan said about the lack of actual case histories:

We have no records of railway applications being submitted along this rail line at the request of private property owners since 2011. There have been a few submitted to enable Community Feed-in Tariff (COMFIT) pole line connections along this railway, and those customers would have been billed the application and survey fees as they are above and beyond regular customer service requirements.

MacLellan, who has not yet seen a draft of the report, expressed faith in MacNeil’s ability to come back with “reasonable recommendations” to solve the impasse. Those recommendations, whatever they may be, must now wait until after the provincial election.

And since we are in the middle of a provincial election, I thought I’d ask the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats their position on the issue.

PC spokesperson Jenni Edge told me in an email:

We have reviewed the information provided to us by the association from their correspondence with the UARB, and we think Minister MacLellan is failing to enforce regulations that limit Genesee [&] Wyoming’s authority to enforce such fees. A PC government will consult the UARB and ensure that the only fees required of residents are those prescribed in our regulations.

We see these fees are having a huge impact on the ability of residents to build or renovate their homes. We see this as a disincentive and will work within the current laws to put a stop to it.

I have yet to hear back from the NDP.

 

 

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