Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Missing Link


The announcement this week that the U.S. had given approval to proceed with the Alaska2Alberta railroad has once again ignited hopes for a railroad that would open up the North and complete the transcontinental rail system between Canada and the United States. Since 1899 when the first railroad connecting Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon (known as the White Pass & Yukon line) was completed during the Klondike gold rush there have been numerous attempts to piece it all together. In 1903 the Alaska Railroad started laying track in Seward and by 1923 it was connected via Anchorage all the way to Fairbanks and has been running a combination freight and passenger rail service ever since. The White Pass & Yukon railroad is also still running.

In 1912 the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later to become BC Rail) started building a line that would go from Vancouver to Prince George and from there connect to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway being built across Canada to compete with Canadian Pacific (CP Rail) and Canadian National (CN Rail). By 1919 both rail companies were broke and there was only a stretch of line going from Squamish to Clinton. It wasn't until 1949 when the government stepped in that construction resumed and by 1952 the line to Prince George was completed and connected with CN Rail. By 1958 BC Rail had expanded to Dawson Creek and Fort St. John and by 1971 it was extended to Fort Nelson less than 100 miles south of the Yukon border.

Another route north towards Dease Lake had also been partially completed but, by the 1980's, it was closed due to lack of freight and profitability. The push northwards had come tantalizingly close. Even though an Alaska state study suggested a connection would be financially feasible, the BC government had lost its appetite for further financing and suggested it was up to the American and Alaskan governments to bankroll the expansion. Unfortunately the post war momentum had been lost and, while a railroad bill had been passed in the U.S. to negotiate an agreement with Canada, nothing further was ever done.

In 2003 BC Rail was eventually sold to CN which had also purchased the Mackenzie Northern Railway that connects Edmonton, Alberta to Hay River, Northwest Territories, the northernmost trackage of the contiguous North American railway network. A map of the North American Railway Network shows that while most of the continent is well connected, there is an obvious gap in the northwest corner that a connection from Fairbanks to either Fort Nelson or Hay River would complete but it would be at a $22 billion cost. In 2006, a U.S. released study validated the financial viability of a railroad connecting Alaska to the Yukon and N.W.T. as did a 2016 Canadian study, so once again the push is on to build a trans-national railway. 

Besides moving Alberta oil and other products through to the American port of Anchorage, and speeding up the delivery of Asian containers into the various corners of North America, this section of railway would also be able to carry passengers which, in turn, would be a tremendous boost for northern tourism. Between all the jobs created in the construction and maintenance of this railway, and the attendant stimulus for the communities in both the Yukon and N.W.T., the plan also calls for First Nations people to be stakeholders in the enterprise. Another welcome development.

Not to be outdone by the visionaries at A2A Rail, there are those who have even more ambitious plans for opening up the north. In this case they see the expansion of the railway going from Alaska to Russia via an underground tunnel in the Bering Sea, where a track could then be laid that would connect to the Trans-Siberian Railway system. So many possibilities for the north that are only limited by our imagination, but it all depends on completing the missing link we have been waiting on for over 100 years. 

1 comment:

  1. EXCELLENT roundup of what we're looking at in the rail department. Thank you very much for doing this, it has tremendously expanded my horizon on this topic. Let's keep our fingers crossed that shovels will be in the ground and muskek sometime real soon. I hope to make the trip when it is completed.