Iron Butterfly Effect? How Killing Rail Sank Novaporte

In anticipation of the desperate ghosting of the Novaporte project during this municipal election campaign, I contacted Mayor Cecil Clarke and asked him for a written response on the current status of his transformative vision for a container terminal on Sydney Harbour. I also asked if he would be making a public statement to update voters on Novaporte — his Hail-Mary pitch for re-election in 2016.

Nope. Not a chance.

Albert Barbusci of HPDP (left) signs a piece of paper with a representative of CCCC.

Albert Barbusci of Harbor Port Development Partners (HPDP) now Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP) signs a piece of paper with a representative of the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) as CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke (standing, second from left) looks on. Beijing, December 2015.

The mayor’s 21 August 2020 automated response assured me that the “Mayor’s Office” would review my message and take appropriate action as soon as possible. To date, that appropriate action has amounted to a flat refusal to answer my questions –- which is, in itself, an answer (and a common trait in career politicians).

Contrast Clarke’s reticence with the prompt response I received from Marlene Usher, Port of Sydney CEO, confirming what most of us already know:

Novaporte cannot proceed without rail. Rail has been an impediment to the start of this project due to concerns of shipping lines who depend on rail service.

Here’s the rub: When Devco and Sysco were laid to rest in 2001, the Sydney to St. Peters Junction Line almost instantly went off the rails. Which raises the question: Was Novaporte ever anything more than a slick election prop?


Chaos Theory

Humor me and ponder this question if you will: What does a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world and creating a tornado in another part of the world have to do with the hot air and whimsical winds blowing an incessant gale around City Hall and the Novaporte Project?

November 2015 press release from Novaporte website.

November 2015 press release from Novaporte website.

In the literal sense –- nothing. However, if you believe that a small and seemingly unrelated event can lead to something much bigger over time, then you’re on track to establishing your own opinion about the Fantasy Island-style project called Novaporte.

Time to check some facts.


Divested Into Obscurity

Between 1994 and 2000, I had the privilege of representing my coal miner buddies as president of their union in eastern Canada. One important part of my job was digging into the politics of coal and shining a public spotlight on dubious decisions made in the halls of power. Some say I was relentless in that pursuit.

That spotlight eventually illuminated a fact-based argument that Conservative privatization policies of the 1980s targeting Crown Corporations (Devco was on the “never gonna’ happen, wishful thinking” list) so infatuated the 1990s Liberal Cabinet that they “divested” (code for sabotaged) our vital coal industry into a political black hole.

One example makes the point: In a decision dated 19 December 1995, the Minister of Natural Resources was asked to return to Cabinet with a privatization plan, and other options, to Dump Devco. (The end of the 1996 calendar year was the probable dumping date). One of those options was shutdown –-immediate or orderly. (Many will recall that the drive-by shutdown was anything but orderly and the casualty list was notoriously long.)

Ottawa Dumps Devco, CB Post headline, 29 Jan 1999

Ottawa Dumps Devco, CB Post headline, 29 Jan 1999 (Submitted by Stephen Drake)

The evidence proves that those types of non-consultative political and policy decisions played a major role in the loss of cargo on the Sydney to St. Peter’s Junction line (let’s call it the SSPL for short). No cargo means no traffic. No traffic means abandoned lines –- simple as that.

Of course, this is just my opinion on the impact of unilateral public policy decisions over time. Not much good unless you have some facts to back it up. Fortunately, the facts on rail versus asphalt are indelibly inked on the public record.

There’s a reassuring fact about facts –- they don’t change to suit political narratives or agendas. As you read, keep this fact in mind: for generations the viability of the only rail line to the Canso Causeway depended primarily on thousands of rail cars filled with cargo produced by our coal miners and steelworkers. Twenty-five to 30 smaller Cape Breton businesses added their fair share to a viable business model for the SSPL.

For the most part, federal and provincial policy and politics emptied those rail cars and (literally) paved the way for the coal and transport trucks that inexorably ran the SSPL off the rails.


Sydney Mines Rail

In the late 1970s, government policy cut a wide swath through the Boularderie woods and paved Highway 162 –- the Prince Mine Road. The road provided a new link to Sydney via Highways 105 and 125 and to Port Hawkesbury via the 105.

Since Prince Mine coal was customarily transported on the old Point Aconi Road, for transfer to CNR rail cars in Sydney Mines, it seems prophetic that the government had the foresight to pave an alternate route years before the Prince Mine Road would see any heavy volumes of truck traffic. A small and seemingly unrelated event? Unlikely, but not enough evidence for you to form your opinion –- yet.

Prince Mine Road highway sign

Photo by Stephen Drake.

The wheels of “progress” picked up speed less than a month after Canadians elected a Conservative Government on 4 September 1984. On 2 October 1984, the Mulroney government sanctioned Devco’s abrupt switch from CNR rail cars to private coal trucks to transport Prince Mine coal along the Prince Mine Road, 105 and 125 Highways to the Victoria Junction Washplant in Sydney. Credible options for a rail spur to Prince Mine and an underground or above ground beltline, from the mine to Point Aconi Power Plant, were treated dismissively and abandoned. With no coal to transport, CNR abandoned its rail spur into Sydney Mines with a consequent loss of traffic on the SSPL.

Notably, in the early 1990s, the Prince Mine Road was paved an additional two kilometres to the entrance of the Point Aconi Power Plant. Today, the Prince Mine Road is largely used by private coal trucks loaded with foreign coal, imported on private coal boats docked at the privatized International Coal Piers for delivery to the privatized Point Aconi Power Plant — both of which are now owned by the privatized Nova Scotia Power’s parent company — Emera. Prophetic indeed.


Donkin Rail – Part I

Without question, the billion tonnes of coal in the Donkin block enhanced the business case for viable, long-term, operations at Devco and on the SSPL transportation corridor.

The essential question of coal transportation was directly addressed in a January 1985 Engineering Study prepared by Associated Mining Consultants Ltd, on Donkin Mine. AMCL noted that Devco’s existing rail lines ran from Devco’s International Coal Piers, in Whitney Pier, to the Caledonia Junction in Glace Bay. An older line linked Caledonia Junction to the No. 6 Mine Site leaving just 3km of new rail line construction to complete the vital rail link joining Donkin Mine to Devco’s coal markets — including coal customers relying on the SSPL.

Donkin rail line.

Donkin rail line. (Source: AMCL report, 1985, submitted by Stephen Drake) Click to enlarge.

The AMCL Report rejected on-road trucks because of proximity to residential properties, paving costs to upgrade roads, environmental concerns and the impassable obstacle presented by the low height of the #11 trestle on Dominion Street in Glace Bay. Sea barges were rejected due to uncertain route availability during the worst winter months.

The AMCL Report recommended a direct rail link from the Donkin Mine to Caledonia Junction as the most attractive option for transporting Donkin coal to market.

All that remained was to put some miners to work and re-start Donkin Mine. Unsurprisingly, further investment in Donkin was not part of the Conservative government’s exit strategy.

Fast track to 1992: after a taxpayer investment of nearly $100 million, including almost a decade of maintaining Donkin as Devco’s key contingency plan, the Crown Corporation shut down the Donkin pumps and flooded the two tunnels.

By Corporate fiat, the existing rail lines were left intact for a future Devco mining operation at Donkin.

Between 1985 and 1993, the Mulroney government’s plan to privatize Devco was an abject failure –- buyer interest was non-existent. The Tory scheme was a hot button issue for local Liberal politicians who vehemently opposed it…until they adopted it after they were elected to government in 1993. Keep track of the dates.


North Sydney Rail

In 1986, the Mulroney government “reorganized” CN Marine into Marine Atlantic and discontinued rail service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. CN Marine’s familiar rail car ferries vanished into obscurity and the tracks at the North Sydney Terminal were replaced with asphalt. As a result, CNR abandoned the rail spur into North Sydney with a consequent loss of traffic on the SSPL.

It is notable that the Mulroney government agreed to spend $800 million on the Newfoundland highway system to silence provincial government and citizen opposition to railway abandonment. Inevitably, on 1 October 1988, Newfoundlanders saw their century-old railway system buried under mountains of asphalt; a fact not lost on Cape Breton rail advocates like Charlie Palmer, Leo Evans and one of our most prolific and astute letter writers, Alonzo Nearing.


Sydney Rail

In 1990, the Mulroney government imposed a 50% cut to passenger service on Crown-owned VIA Rail. In a very public protest against the announced abandonment of the Sydney to Truro passenger service, Victor Tomiczek, a local union leader, chained himself to the last VIA train chugging out of the Sydney station. Despite his valiant stand, VIA abandoned the Sydney to Truro line with a consequent loss of traffic on the SSPL.

In October 1993, CNR sold the, still viable, Sydney to Truro line to Railtex, an American-based holding company.

Train station, Sydney NS, July 2020.

Train station, Sydney NS, July 2020. (Photo by Stephen Drake)


The Sydney Port Access Road (SPAR) – Part 1

On 6 April 1994, at Centre 200, yet another grandiose vision for the economic recovery of Cape Breton Island was proclaimed by one of our local federal politicians. A few months after that soiree, I was approached by the Canadian Labour Congress and asked to sit as the Sectoral Chair for Labour at the resultant Economic Summit held at the University College of Cape Breton on 12 August 1994. I have the final report in front of me.

Aside from the grand failure of the grand recovery, two other things related to rail versus asphalt still stand out in my mind: 1) Devco’s discussion on the economic importance of our coal industry was cut short by the Summit Chairman (I called the Chairman out and the discussion was completed); and 2) The Economic Action Plan included “the construction of a highway to run parallel to the Devco railway to provide truck access to the International Coal Piers and Sydney Steel Docks to facilitate the loading and unloading of bulk materials.”

The report confirmed that construction of the SPAR was to fall under the Federal infrastructure program and federal/provincial agreements for the twinning and extension of Highway 125 into New Waterford. The project was recommended to begin in 1995 for a 1997 completion date. Pesky things, those dates.

I was wary of another “trucking road” plan, so we took the miners’ case public — for six years. The SPAR was shunted to the sidelines and the, still viable, SSPL trains kept chugging down the tracks.

Sydney Port Access Road (SPAR) sign

Sydney Port Access Road (SPAR) sign, 2002. (Photo by Stephen Drake)


Devco Rail – Part 1

By 31 March 1995, the Conservative government policy to end Devco’s annual subsidy was complete. From 1 April 1995 to the closure date in November 2001, the Liberal government imposed the same anti-subsidy policy, leaving Devco with an aging workforce and two old coal mines to generate sufficient revenues to make up for the $180 million shortfall –- a daunting, if not impossible, task for the miners. Ottawa knew that –- so did we.

To further complicate the challenges facing Devco, Nova Scotia Power demanded a “New Deal” and unilaterally slashed the price it paid for Devco coal. On 6 April 1995, Devco threatened a lawsuit “to protect the interests of this corporation and its employees.” In legal documents filed with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on 18 April 1995, Devco claimed that:

The implication of NSPI’s demands that it purchase only 400,000 tonnes of Prince Colliery coal and the balance of its supply as Phalen Colliery run of mine coal was, to the knowledge of NSPI, that CBDC would be forced to abandon deep mining at Prince Colliery and to close the Victoria Junction Coal Preparation Plant, the International Coal Pier and the Devco Railway and associated transportation centre.

The media dubbed it a coal war and chastised the Government of Canada — Devco’s shareholder — for staying silent while NSPI slashed the coal price by 20%, potentially costing Devco some $35 million per year. The sole intervention from Ottawa was to aid and abet the politicized exit of the key players leading Devco’s fight at the most crucial time in corporate history. In coal miner’s lingo, they were tossed in the gob.

The Liberal government then stood mutely by while the coal war was quickly settled in favor of NSPI.

As reported in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on 12 September 1995, NSPI “pretty much got the price cut it was seeking.” The 18% cut would be phased in (secretly) over the first three years of the five-year deal. Devco’s strong legal case against NSPI was dropped.

If we concede that the full price cut was applicable to the 2001 closure date, the total cost to Devco’s bottom line comes to about $150 million –- give or take a few million. Added to the $180 million in subsidy cuts, that amounts to an insurmountable shortfall of $330 million! The miners never had a chance.

Is this government-imposed shortfall unrelated to the demise of the SSPL? Is the political freight train picking up speed? A few more facts are necessary before you pass judgment on the fate of Novaporte.


Donkin Rail – Part II

While the Liberal Government of Canada and Devco were spinning a yarn that the credible union plan for reopening Donkin Mine was a non-starter, a different plan was in the political works in Ottawa.

AMCL Engineering was, once again, contracted to conduct an engineering study on Donkin Mine. The 14 April 1995 report for Public Works Canada concluded with this core recommendation:

A consortia should be formed to develop and implement a comprehensive research and development program with the objective of having a selective mining system available for use at Donkin Colliery by 1998. To achieve this time-table the program will have to be initiated in the first half of 1995.

There’s that pesky date again. Donkin was evidently viable –-just not for the miners or Devco.

Former site of the No. 11 trestle, Dominion Street, Glace Bay (Photo by Stephen Drake)

Former site of the No. 11 trestle, Dominion Street, Glace Bay (Photo by Stephen Drake)

By the summer of 1995, Devco was fully engaged in contracts that ran counter to the long-term viability of rail transportation for Donkin coal. In the October/November 1995 issue of Devco’s Employee Bulletin, Coal Picks, the Corporation trumpeted that it had successfully demolished the #11 trestle and reconstructed (and paved) the damaged section of Dominion Street, in Glace Bay.

Concurrent, and subsequent, rail-removal contracts targeted Caledonia Junction to Donkin and, in the other direction, through Glace Bay to 26 Colliery and out through Gardiner Mines. This effectively eliminated the Donkin rail line as a viable option for coal transportation to market. In 1995, when I questioned Devco on the trestle demolition and rail removal contracts, I got the usual spiel: it’s a corporate decision and we won’t be discussing it further.

With actual or tacit government approval, Devco eliminated the recommended rail option for transporting Donkin coal and cleared the way for the trucking option rejected in the 1985 AMCL Engineering Report. The railway crossings were paved over and the rail beds “repurposed” as ATV and walking trails, including the Gardiner Walking Trail. The planned rail connection between Donkin Mine and the coal markets was history. The SSPL was fast becoming collateral damage.


Standing the Gaff

The immediate and prolonged miners’ response to the obvious hacking away at our industry and our livelihoods was a six-year public relations campaign — Our Future Is Not For Sale, Which Side Are You On? Put Cape Breton Back To Work, One Miner Creates Four Jobs, Open Donkin Mine, Drop-In Centre Phone Bank, Three Senate Hearings on Devco, Centre 200 Rally for Jobs, Union Legal Action Against Devco, Wildcat Strike — that stopped the prospective 1996 “Dump Devco” plan dead in its tracks, altered the outcome of the 1997 federal election, grounded three significant arbitration decisions favoring the miners’ legal case and delayed the Dump Devco plan until 2000/2001. The miners’ fight made international headlines including in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

For those six years, our coal miners stayed on the job filling the beltlines with saleable coal, filling local cash registers with bankable cash and filling rail cars on the, still viable, SSPL.

The final Dump Devco announcement was made on 28 January 1999 and the last slice of coal at Prince Mine was cut by one of my best buddies, Davey Reashore, on 23 November 2001. Sysco had suffered a similar ignominious fate on 19 January 2001. The miners and steelworkers were gone and the last organized battalion of working-class heroes to Stand the Gaff for Cape Breton Island were relegated to legend. The runaway political freight train was nearing the end of the line.


Devco Rail – Part II

The heaters in the shacks at the bottom of Prince Mine were still warm when Devco signed away its valuable surface assets for a price not disclosed to the public. In a Fact Sheet date-stamped 19 December 2001, Emera announced it had purchased Devco’s International Pier, railway infrastructure, rail maintenance facilities and the Point Tupper unloading facility. Emera also leased the Victoria Junction Coal Preparation plant for two years.

Excerpt from Devco promotional materials, early 1990s

Excerpt from Devco promotional materials, early 1990s. (Submitted by Stephen Drake)

The 21 December 2001, Cape Breton Post editorial criticized Devco’s refusal to make the sale price public and suggested it meant only one thing –- NSPI got a great bargain. The Christmas Eve cartoon in the Post showed Santa climbing down Emera’s chimney with a huge gift bag marked DEVCO ASSETS. A small and seemingly unrelated event? Not according to what Peter Tousenard, general manager of Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS), told the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board during an application to abandon the line in 2002.

I attended the two-day abandonment hearings on 10-11 July 2002, for a first-hand account on the state of the SSPL. Tousenard was frank and said the Cape Breton line was losing $50,000 a month and cutting into the profits for the rest of the line to Truro. The 11 July 2002 Chronicle-Herald headline read: “Rail Line Pleads Poverty.”

The Herald reported Tousenard as testifying that the company tried to buy the Devco rail line but was shut out by the federal agency and never invited to make a bid. Had they had the chance, “we wouldn’t be here” he said. Referring to the shutdown of Devco and Sysco, Mr. Tousenard said the railway is the third Cape Breton “victim.”


Political Train Wreck

But for provincial subsidies and changes in ownership, there is no fact-based evidence to show that the business case for the SSPL has improved in the past 18 years. If you need more evidence on the current state of the SSPL, you can find it in the November 2017 HATCH Report to the Port of Sydney Development Corporation on the Novaporte website. The blunt message in the report is that the SSPL needed $103 million just to bring it back to operational standards in 2017.

The $360,000 (subsidized) question not answered in the HATCH Report is “Where is the traffic to justify that investment in the SSPL?” Tousenard said it disappeared with Devco and Sysco. Remember, no cargo means no traffic. No traffic means abandoned lines. RIP SSPL.


The Spar Road – Part II

On 27 September 2002, a Cape Breton Post headline read: “Province Approves Sydney Port Access Road.” The construction costs for the 5.2 km 100-series highway to the waterfront Sysco and Emera piers would be shared by Sysco and Emera. I kept an eye on the truckers’ road and even took a few pictures for posterity.

Oops, I almost forgot, (not really) the final bit of asphalt was laid in 2018, after American billionaire Chris Cline opened Donkin Mine and the Long Beach Road and Highway 255 were upgraded for heavy coal trucks. You paid for that. I popped over a few times to take some pictures and video for my memoir. I followed one of the coal trucks and smirked as it cruised –- unobstructed up Dominion Street — on its way to the American owned coal-handling facility (PEV/AMCI) at the end of the SPAR.

Think about the butterfly effect: Did the train wreck start with the seemingly unrelated paving of the Prince Mine Road and end with the paving of the SPAR?


Trust Your Gut

I started this letter about five weeks ago on a gut hunch that, come election time, the local Novaporte crew would desperately distance themselves from that massive elephant in the room. They have.

I watched it again this past week when Cecil Clarke, Marlene Usher and Stephen McNeil chose not to mention the “transformative” Novaporte Project or the SSPL in their grandiose comments on the wonderful opportunities on Cape Breton’s economic horizon. Has it become an inconvenient truth that Novaporte is no longer politically convenient? The takeaway is that politicians who make threadbare promises to get your vote don’t deserve it. As I did in the 1997 federal election, I’ll be marking my municipal election ballot with the elephant in mind.


End of the Line

So, there you have it, enough facts on the SSPL to form an opinion on the fiction of the Novaporte Project.

Think about this: Where is the evidence to prove that Novaporte was anything more than an election prop? Has Novaporte reached the end of the line? Is it time for new blood in City Hall?

You be the judge.

Featured image: Devco coal train leaving Phalen Mine, 1999. Photo by Stephen Drake


Stephen Drake

Stephen Drake is a lawyer who came to the profession by an unusual path: a fourth-generation coal miner, his first job was as a trade union electrician in the Cape Breton coal mines. He spent 25 years in the labor movement, serving as District 26 president of the United Mine Workers of America, in which position he fought the federal government’s plan to shutter the island’s Crown-owned coal industry and was the architect for three successful arbitration decisions. At the age of 45, he entered law school, graduating in 2004. Stephen was born and raised in New Waterford and brags about that fact at every opportunity.