Nova Scotia·Video

Cape Bretoners call for repairs to crumbling rail line

Some people want to see trains running across Cape Breton again, but say their dream might not be possible if the crumbling infrastructure is not fixed soon. Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia government is working on regulatory changes that would make repairs mandatory.

N.S. government says it is working on regulations that would make regular inspections, repairs mandatory

Cape Bretoners call for repairs to crumbling rail line

2 years ago
Duration 4:19
Some people want to see trains running across Cape Breton again, but say their dream might not be possible if the crumbling infrastructure is not fixed soon. Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia government is working on regulatory changes that would make repairs mandatory.

Some Cape Bretoners are calling for immediate repairs to the crumbling rail line that runs across the island, regardless of whether a proposed container terminal gets built in Sydney harbour.

Eleanor Blue Morrison said the railway is falling into a state of disrepair and fixing it could help spur economic development across Cape Breton.

"It's deplorable. It should never have gotten to this state to begin with," said the president of the Orangedale Railway Station Museum in Inverness County, N.S.

"I know it'll probably take a lot of money to get it back up to a good inspection level, but it can be done."

Blue Morrison, whose father worked on the railway, said she has seen missing and worn ties, varied spacing between the rails, the railbed eroded by rain or floodwater and saltwater deterioration of the railbed along the Bras d'Or Lake.

She would like to see trains bringing cruise ship passengers from Sydney to the Highland Village Museum in Iona, N.S., and farther down the line to the Orangedale station.

Eleanor Blue Morrison, president of the Orangedale Railway Station Museum Association, says any development that leads to investment in the rail line will bring benefits across the island. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Blue Morrison said she supports the Cape Breton Regional Municipality's efforts to attract a container terminal development because it could lead to investment in the rail line.

"There's going to be more than just one winner if the railroad is workable again and that's going to be everybody," she said.

Steve Smith, a Coxheath, N.S., resident who lives on Bungalow Road near the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway tracks, recently shot some drone footage of a huge washout near his home and another farther west toward Point Edward.

The railbed washed away in several spots after the Thanksgiving Day flood of 2016. The railway owner put up some concrete barriers to block access to the section and shored up the railbed to prevent further damage, but Smith said the washouts are still dangerous.

People aren't supposed to walk on the tracks, but Smith said he sees them regularly using the rail line to walk from the Cantley Village subdivision to the Keltic Plaza shopping centre or using nearby ATV trails that cross the tracks.

The washout off Coxheath Road also continues to pose a problem for local drainage because the culvert underneath the railbed has not been enlarged, he said.

Steve Smith, who lives near the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway tracks in Coxheath, N.S., says severe washouts are creating hazards for neighbouring properties and people. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

"The condition of the track, especially here near Bungalow Road, is really poor," said Smith.

"There's large washouts. The ties are falling from the rails into the washouts. You can barely walk around or get through and I find that it's a problem. It could be a safety concern for the public that's using the trail as a sidewalk and it's a safety concern because of water. You can't have water moving through areas that are filled with blocks and railroad debris."

Charlie MacLean, co-chair of the Scotia Rail Development Society, agreed. The society was formed in 2015, just as the rail owner, Genesee & Wyoming, stopped running trains across Cape Breton and signalled its intention to abandon the line altogether due to a lack of demand.

"We want to see trains running again and we would like to see the track and the track bed owned by the province and not by a owned-from-away company that can do with it as they wish upon their whim or other financial concerns," MacLean said.

Charlie MacLean, co-chair of the Scotia Rail Development Society, says the steel rails are in good shape, but the rest of the infrastructure needs a lot of repairs. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

"[The province] own the highways, they own the streets we drive our cars on. This is just another vehicle for conveyance of goods and people and we think if it's owned by the province, then they have more control over it and would presume that they would charge any company that used it a reasonable fee for use."

MacLean said the steel rails seem to be in good shape, but there are plenty of sections where the infrastructure needs to be repaired or replaced.

"The longer it's ignored, the more costly it will be to rejuvenate it and get it back in operation," he said.

In 2014, Genesee & Wyoming said rail traffic had fallen far below the amount needed to make the line economical and an annual subsidy of $2 million was not enough to keep it going.

The last train ran across Cape Breton heading for the mainland in October 2015.

Rail line critical

In the meantime, Cape Breton Regional Municipality was intensifying efforts to attract a container terminal to Sydney harbour and officials said an intact rail line was critical to make the proposed development viable.

If the line was abandoned, the owner could rip up the rails and sell off the right-of-way, but the provincial government changed the law and made that process more difficult.

It also negotiated a subsidy deal with Genesee & Wyoming to keep the rail line in place, with the province paying up to $60,000 a month for basic company expenses, such as staffing and insurance, but not for repairs and maintenance.

The subsidy was intended to keep the rail line in place in case CBRM's container terminal proposal ever materialized.

The Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway trestle in Ottawa Brook was named in a 2017 study as one of many pieces of infrastructure needing repairs. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Promoters of the project say they have lined up funding and builders for a proposed container terminal, but have yet to attract a shipping company willing to commit business to the port.

This year, the government renewed the subsidy for one more year, but capped it at $30,000 a month.

Meanwhile, the line has continued to deteriorate, with many sections of track in such bad shape that train traffic would be impossible.

In 2017, a study done for the Port of Sydney Development Corporation found the line needed at least $103 million in repairs to make it usable for container shipping.

Smith said he would like to see the railway owner fix up the line so trains can run again or else give up the line so it can be used for active transportation.

Promoters of a proposed container terminal for Sydney harbour say they have lined up funding and builders, but have yet to attract a shipping company. (Warren Gordon photo)

"If it's going to be a railway, then yes, they need to put the money into it and make it happen," he said.

"If they're going to keep the property and let the community use it for rails-to-trails or other projects, that's what I would like to see, as well."

In February, the province amended the Railways Act to make track inspections mandatory and repair orders possible.

Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines declined an interview request, but the department said in an email that gaps in the legislation make it "challenging for government to ensure railway owners maintain and repair their rail infrastructure."

Regulations still being drafted

The department said the last full inspection was done in 2014.

It said enforcement of the new rules hasn't started because regulations are still being drafted specific to active, discontinued and abandoned lines.

Once they are ready, the department said, the government will be in a position to proclaim the legislative amendments.

Andre Houde, a vice-president with Genesee & Wyoming, said he is not aware of any public safety issues on the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway line.

Necessary maintenance done, says company

"We have done the necessary maintenance to keep it according to the agreement we have with government," he said.

"If the development of business was to appear, there would be some more investment to be made there before we would run trains."

Houde said the company has been engaged with the provincial government on the development of new regulations.

"We are satisfied with the government's assurances that our concerns, when we raise them, will be addressed positively at that point."



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at


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