Just the Facts, Please

There are few things more discouraging than directing all your journalistic efforts to separating fact from fiction, only to discover that a wide swath of the public prefers the fiction.

How else to explain the opinion piece by Jim Guy and Mary C. MacPherson in the Saturday edition of the SaltWire newspapers?

Under the headline, “Cape Breton rail issue requires action,” the two — directors of the Scotia Rail Development Society — throw down the gauntlet to the would-be leaders of the provincial Liberal Party, inviting them to “take a position on the Cape Breton rail issue.”

Ironically, I am a fan of rail and would very much like to see it return to Cape Breton — and I agree with Guy and MacPherson on the advantages of rail over trucks in terms of both expense and safety and the environment.

Erosion of gypsum cliff supporting CBNS track at approximately mile 53

Erosion of gypsum cliff supporting CBNS track at approximately mile 53 (Source: Hatch report)

But if you’re going to build a case for rail, you need to build it on facts and, unfortunately, Guy and MacPherson build much of theirs on fiction — beginning with the notion that refurbishing the section of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS) between St. Peter’s Junction and Sydney will cost $135 million. I’m not entirely sure where the figure comes from, but the 2017 Hatch report, put the cost of bringing the line up to Class 3 standards at $103 million, and that work was stuffed so full of caveats if the final cost turns out to be four times this estimate, Hatch can say, “Well, we told you shoring up those gypsum cliffs along the Bras d’Or could be spendy.”

But my real gripe with Guy and MacPherson is their gob-smackingly naïve acceptance of everything that Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP), the firm founded by Barry Sheehy and Albert Barbusci, is selling.

I’m not even going to bother with their obedient recital of the jobs and wages and tax revenues expected from the first phase of “Novaporte,” SHIP’s proposed deep-water container terminal, except to say the figures sound like they’ve been derived from this 2016 InterVISTAS report commissioned by the Port of Sydney and all you need to know about them is that they are based upon the Port of Sydney’s (meaning SHIP’s) projections for container traffic at the new terminal. When Michael Tretheway, chief economics and strategy officer with InterVISTAS, spoke in Sydney, he reminded the audience his firm wasn’t hired “to say whether the plans are realistic or not” but to discuss “potential” economic impacts.

In other words, if you asked InterVISTAS to discuss the potential economic impacts of the discovery that Sydney harbor were actually filled with molten bullion rather than salt water, they’d do you up something.


Shipping lines

No, what I wish to focus on is this line from Guy and MacPherson:

Despite an ever-changing geopolitical landscape to which Novaporte has responded with swift and effective adjustments, the extensive work is in place, including the necessary shipping lines and port operators. The only holdup is an operating rail. And rail is essential to attract not just current but future global trade opportunities.

There is much I could take issue with here, but the real gem is the claim that Barbusci and Sheehy have landed shipping lines — plural — prepared to change the way they service the East Coast of North America and unload goods in the Port of Sydney and yet no rail operator is interested in the business.

Think about that: at the end of 2019, Brookfield Asset Management, a Toronto-based buyout firm, teamed with GIC, Singapore’s $440 billion sovereign wealth fund, to buy rail operator Genesee & Wyoming, the owner of the CBNS. GIC and Brookfield presumably see a future in rail — why else spend $8.4 billion to buy G&W, with its 120 rail lines across three continents?

So if you have — as Barbusci and Sheehy of SHIP have claimed, and as Guy and MacPherson are at least pretending to believe — convinced shipping lines — plural — to call in the Port of Sydney, why aren’t you looking to Brookfield and GIC for rail service? You’re businesspeople, we’ve been told repeatedly this is a private sector project, why not pitch it to other businesspeople? Why not pitch it to CN? (Actually, I have some insight into their attempts to pitch to CN, you’ll find them in this week’s FOIPOP article).

But again, I’m in a strange position in relation to this argument because I don’t actually have a problem with governments owning railways. Here is me, back in 2017:

Rail supporters probably shouldn’t hitch their train cars to the container terminal project. If there is a case for rail — and I think there is — it doesn’t hinge on convincing the widget makers of Germany that landing goods on the far, eastern edge of North America and shipping them inland makes economic sense.

It hinges on the need to reduce carbon emissions, the desire to improve road safety, the price difference between upgrading a mile of rail line and twinning a mile of highway. It hinges on thinking about the future and what it might look like and then laying some plans to help get us there…

I am a fan of rail. (I worked for VIA for a year!)

But I am also a fan of the facts, and in that capacity, I am distinctly uncomfortable with what these people are putting forth.