Letter to the Editor: Trucks versus Trains

I have been keeping a jaundiced eye on the Cape Breton coal trucking story since the 1980s when my friend Leo Evans was shining a public spotlight on the decision by Devco to “rubberize” a part of its coal transportation system.   Made no sense then – makes no sense now.

Think about this:

Donkin Mine is projected to produce about 2.75 million tonnes of coal per year once it reaches maximum production capability.

Lingan coal-fired generating station, Cape Breton (Photo by By Ken Heaton (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Coal train leaving Lingan coal-fired generating station, Cape Breton (Photo by Ken Heaton, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The present plan is to transport that coal by way of tens of thousands of truck trips to and from Donkin Mine. The math is simple: a standard coal truck carries 35 tonnes. Divide 2.75 million tonnes by 35 tonnes and you get — 78,571 truckloads leaving Donkin Mine each year. If coal is hauled five days per week that means a total of 260 trucking days per year. Divide 78,571 by 260 and you get — 303 trucks per working day. If they haul for 24 hours, divide 303 by 24 and you get — 12.6 trucks per hour. Admittedly, this is a ballpark estimate but a pretty good one. What the numbers mean is that a coal truck will leave Donkin every five minutes and pass right by someone’s home, business or pool party.

The Department of Transportation would have the exact numbers of how many back and forth trips it would require to transport 2.75 million tonnes of coal from the Donkin site. I’m sure if someone asked nicely those numbers could be made public before the rest of the rubber hits the road in the foreseeable future. Note: I see the coal trucks with increasing regularity at the Lingan Road/Spar Road intersection on my way to work in the mornings. I shake my head when a 3-tonne truck rolls into the Coal Piers while a coal train heads for the Lingan Power Plant hauling 2,100 tonnes of coal — in one trip. That math makes my brain hurt.

My understanding of the current coal haulage plan is that a road is to be constructed from Donkin through the back woods to the Old Airport Road. From there, the trucks will travel on the Sydney-Glace Bay Highway past residential housing, the university, Kyte’s Hill, the Mayflower Mall and the Big Box stores/strip mall then, ultimately, to the Coal Piers. There the Donkin coal will be transported by boat to the export market or by train to Lingan Power Plant (if a deal is struck between [Donkin Mine owner] Cline [Group] and NSPI [Nova Scotia Power Inc]). Is there a smarter way? Perhaps.


Coal Haulage Plan B

The proposed coal haulage road could easily be reconfigured into a rail bed as opposed to a trucking road. Similar engineering requirements with some minor modifications (I asked someone in the know).  Just add tracks and voila — truck traffic problem eliminated. Any additional costs can be amortized over the projected life of the Donkin Mine.

Here is how Plan B would work:

Instead of stopping the road at the Airport, extend it to the Drive-In Theatre area on Grand Lake Road and get the trains a-chugging. The Department of Transportation would install appropriate traffic lights at the Drive-In area. A coal train would leave Donkin with the standard 21-car complement of 100-tonne coal cars. That is conservatively 2,100 tonnes in one trip (the cars can handle more). The train would travel through the woods to the Drive-In area. A large parking pad called a “siding” would be constructed on the Drive-In side of the Sydney-Glace Bay Highway. The train operator would park the full coal cars at this location. On the other side of the highway there would be a similar siding for empty coal cars. On a set shift schedule — late at night — the train operators would haul the full cars across the highway and haul the empty coal cars back across to the location near the Drive-In. The full cars would hook up with the existing NSPI rail line to be hauled into the Coal Piers or to the Lingan Power Plant. The empties would be hauled back to Donkin. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. They do this all over the world with much success. The former Devco railroad workers and train operators could execute this plan in a heartbeat. Talented bunch of guys.

The beauty of Plan B is this: if you take 2.75 million tonnes and divide it by 2,100 tonnes you get 1,309 train trips versus tens of thousands of truck trips. The train is in the woods — out of sight and out of mind. This is almost exactly the type of route currently in use to haul imported coal from the Coal Piers to the Lingan Power Plant. Most people barely notice the coal trains. Obvious benefits include dramatically increased safety on the Sydney Glace-Bay Highway for residents, students and drivers and reduced wear and tear and expensive maintenance on a busy highway. What could be wrong with that?

It is not good enough to simply say this is not in the current plan. The current plan may not be the best plan for our community — that should matter to everyone. Think about it.

Stephen J.W. Drake
New Waterford



Featured photo of Kameron coal truck by Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith, CBC Cape Breton.




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