‘Premier’ Cecil Clarke Would Consider $100M CB Rail Upgrade

This couldn’t have been more timely: just as we’re all talking about ports again, veteran journalist and sometime Spectator contributor Rick Grant got in touch to say he’d attended the Halifax Needham PC Association AGM on June 20 and had taken the opportunity to quiz the four PC leadership candidates in attendance about upgrading the Sydney-Truro rail line to service a potential container terminal in Sydney.

Back in January, Grant reported for the Spectator on a study by the Hatch consultancy that said upgrading the rail line, which is operated by US-based short line operator Genesee & Wyoming (G&W), to Class III standards would cost $100 million. Such upgrades would increase the speed at which trains could travel the route as well as allowing for double-stack rail cars, both of which would be necessary to service a container terminal for ultra-large vessels (ULCVs) such as the one proposed for Sydney harbor.

The current Liberal provincial government under Stephen McNeil is paying G&W $720,000 a year to keep the company from applying to abandon the line from Sydney to St. Peter’s, which G&W has made clear it wants to do. But the McNeil government hasn’t ruled out the possibility of funding the upgrades. Shortly after the release of the Hatch report, then-Transport Minister now Business Minister Geoff MacLellan told the Cape Breton Post:

This is a private-sector operation so as they’re developing the business plan, looking at what’s got to be done at the port, what’s got to be done with the rail, attracting the investors to build it, attracting the shippers to keep the market flowing and actually have the business on the ground … like everything else, when an infrastructure request is made, we’ll consider it.

Fair game, then, to ask the contenders for the PC leadership what they’d do about the line.


Business case

Halifax Farmers’ Market executive director Julie Chaisson was not present at the Needham AGM, but of the four candidates who were — CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, Pictou East MLA Tim Houston, Kings North MLA John Lohr and Cumberland South MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin — Grant reports all four said they would need to see a business case for the investment.

Cecil Clarke (Source: Facebook)

Cecil Clarke (Source: Facebook)

That includes Clarke, who has spent the bulk of his five-and-change years in the CBRM mayor’s office leading the charge for a container terminal in Sydney harbor, but who apparently has yet to see a business case for the project. The world of international business is truly a strange place.

What Clarke said exactly, when asked if, as premier, he’d put taxpayer money into “restoring that railway” was that he would “put money into anything that has a business plan behind it that can add to the prosperity of the province of Nova Scotia.”

But Grant wanted an answer that actually referenced the rail line so he continued to press Clarke:

Grant: Specifically that railway, would you put money into it?

Clarke: I would put money into the Port of Halifax, I would put it into Melford for a short line and definitely, if the market supports something in the Port of Sydney. So what I know is, as governments, are we open in terms of Atlantic Gateway? Yes, I am. As a premier, I want to market all of Nova Scotia. As a premier, I want the right ferry service going to New England that’s going to market goods, not just people.

If you needed further proof of the strangeness of the business world, there it is: the head cheerleader for the Port of Sydney project finding nice things to say about both its rivals. But Grant still hadn’t got his answer:

Grant: Is that a long yes?

Clarke: My point is is that I would make the right investments based upon a business case and I’ll wait to see the business case.

Grant: And that includes the railway?

Clarke: Of course it does, otherwise we wouldn’t have been working on the study for the rail. We have to have defined numbers, you have to do those things to make informed decisions

And not only does Clarke see room for all the ports, he sees a role for all levels of government:

I think, quite frankly, whether there’s a development for the Port of Halifax, Melford or Sydney, governments both [sic]…at the municipal, provincial and federal levels all have a role to play. And [what] I know is we have three competitive port opportunities, we have current-generation port and there’s next generation and as we’ve seen in British Columbia, both of them have grown as a result of working together. And so…we have to look at Nova Scotia as a broader, global opportunity versus one against the other. In fact, one can complement the other.

So there it is, as premier, Clarke would be prepared to support three port projects and consider at least two rail projects.


East coast strategy

Maybe that’s the kind of thinking that inspired a recent Journal of Commerce (JOC) article by Hugh R. Morely about Canada’s lack of a port strategy on its east coast.

Madeleine Paquin (Source: Logistec https://www.logistec.com/team-member/madeleine-paquin-2/)

Madeleine Paquin (Source: Logistec)

Morely (in an article which I can link to but be warned: there’s a paywall) was reporting from the JOC-sponsored Canada Trade Conference in Toronto last month.

During a session entitled “Eastern Ports and Networks: Preparing for Growth,” he reports that Tony Boemi, the VP of growth and development at the Port of Montreal, argued for “some sort of control” over the port development process on the east coast. “Without that,” Boemi said, “there is definitely going to be over capacity.”

Morely noted the difference between the east and west coast approaches to port development:

That lack of consensus contrasts with the experience on Canada’s west coast over the last two decades, where the industry has leveraged public money to attract billions of dollars of investment in Canada’s Pacific Coast ports and infrastructure, and as a result has captured a growing share of US Midwest cargo from Seattle and Tacoma.

(Now, you might say this actually echoes what Clarke is saying about ports “complementing” each other and I could almost see a parallel between Vancouver/Prince Rupert and Halifax/Melford given that Melford, like Prince Rupert, is supposed to be a pure-rail port. But I’m not seeing how Halifax/Novaporte fits this model, let alone Halifax/Melford/Novaporte.)

Finally, Morely reports that during her keynote address Madeleine Paquin, president and CEO of Logistec, said that:

…any investment should focus on the nation’s existing key ports – Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver and Prince Rupert. She urged “collaboration” among stakeholders, adding that the concept had been noticeably absent from the proposal by Quebec City to build its own terminal.

I wonder what she makes of the level of “collaboration” here in Nova Scotia?

While you’re thinking about that, take a listen to the full exchange between Grant and Clarke, it includes some additional questions about how close port promoter Albert Barbusci is to a deal, whether Clarke still supports 99-year leases and whether the China Communications Construction Company is still in the picture:



Rick Grantl



Longtime CTV reporter Rick Grant began his television journalism here on the Island. He is now based in Halifax.