Canadian National can drop freight service between Campbellton and Moncton if traffic doesn't pick up in the next few years, according to an agreement the company signed with the former Alward government.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Bill Fraser says the agreement contains a "troubling" clause that could doom both freight and passenger service on the line.
"If the number of railcars decreases for two consecutive years below the levels of 2012, then [CN has] the right to get out of that agreement and discontinue the line," Fraser said Tuesday.
The previous government worked out the agreement with CN after the company came close to abandoning the line.
The clause that could put the line in jeopardy again comes into effect in 2019, when CN starts measuring the number of freight cars against 2012 levels.
Since CN performs maintenance and upkeep on the track, Via Rail passenger service depends on CN to survive.
Fraser said the government has put together a committee to work on the issue. His department and Opportunities New Brunswick are also going to hire a full–time consultant to act as a liaison with CN.
Northern economy struggles
Fraser identified economic struggles in northern New Brunswick as a major reason for declining freight traffic on the line.
"We've had some challenging times in the past years," he said. "Things are starting to turn around and we're starting to make investments into infrastructure in our province."
Fraser said he's had conversations with the Port of Belledune, which relies on the rail line, and with CN and Via Rail.
Other politicians are trying to drum up freight business and ensure the survival of passenger service in the area.
"The Chamber of Commerce has taken a leadership on this file for some time and is working with CN," said Miramichi Mayor Adam Lordon.
"The local peat moss industry is something that's been flagged in the past in terms of the CN volume. We think there are options and we're optimistic."
Big hopes for Via service
Fraser said he believes Via Rail is committed to expanding service through New Brunswick.
"The president of Via had said he'd like to bring in a daily service between Campbellton, Moncton, and eventually Halifax, as well," he said.
But Via Rail needs to deal with CN, whose priority is freight, not passengers, Fraser said.
Via can't increase the frequency of its service unless the rail line steps up a class or two, which would allow trains to travel at an increased speed.
The last federal government spent $10.2 million on the line between Moncton and Campbellton, but the money went to upkeep, not improvements.