Unused railway continues to plague Cape Breton residents with fees

·6 min read
To run power lines, internet, and other utilities across the privately owned railway along Highway 223 in Cape Breton, N.S., residents must pay thousands of dollars. (Emily Latimer - image credit)
To run power lines, internet, and other utilities across the privately owned railway along Highway 223 in Cape Breton, N.S., residents must pay thousands of dollars. (Emily Latimer - image credit)

It's been nearly seven years since a train ran from Port Hawkesbury to Sydney along the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, but residents along Highway 223 are still paying hefty fees to get utilities over the privately owned railway tracks to their houses.

Some residents living between Little Bras d'Or and Grand Narrows are frustrated by fees paid to rail line owners Genesee and Wyoming, and they want changes.

Before purchasing land in Beaver Cove last September, Carole Young heard rumours about how much it might cost to power her home. She knew that she'd have to deal with the rail line owner.

Young paid nearly $30,000 to run power to her house.

"Everything that we were warned about had happened. But it just seemed like, wow, it really is this expensive," Young said.

There were the usual costs of poles and service wire spanning 403 metres — $6,810.20 paid to Bell Aliant  — and another $21,134.61  to Nova Scotia Power. Of that, $14,410 were classified as 'other' fees in the quote.

Fees add up

A Nova Scotia Power representative could not say how much of that $14,410 went to the rail line owners, but the 'other' category is broken down into three areas: costs to the rail line owner, costs associated with mandatory design and survey work under the Canada Transportation Act, and a fee charged by NSP to review designs.

Jacqueline Foster, communications advisor with NSP, said there are requirements under the Canada Transportation Act that must be met when a customer requests service that involves running power lines across a railway, and written consent from the railway owner is also required.

Application and right of way fees are passed through NSP and paid to the rail line owner.

Joan Weeks/CBC
Joan Weeks/CBC

André Houde, vice-president of human resources at Genesee and Wyoming Canada Inc., said in a statement that fees assessed by the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway to run power lines, internet and other utilities across their right of way are explained on their website.

"For private crossing agreements, fees are assessed on a case-by-case basis and depend on the size of the encroachment and type of easement granted," Houde said.

According to the website, residents must apply for a utility occupancy licence to begin the process. There's a $1,000 application fee and a $1,750 engineering review fee for processing. If approved, a right-of-entry permit must then be secured get onto railroad property — costs another $1,750.

For example, an application for overhead wireline crossings costs $4,500. The company also offers expedited processing for an additional $2,500.

Young never imagined it would cost so much to get power — both financially and mentally.

"No one's listening to anybody. No one's taking action. And this is a real sad situation," Young said.

Provincially regulated

Residents in the area have long fought for government to make changes to the fees.

In 2017, the Nova Scotia government paid a consultant $15,000 to study the fees charged by the railway's owner.

That report estimated costs to install new power lines across the railway line to be about $16,300, including approval from the railway owner and NSP's engineering assessment.

The consultant also found there is no standard fee for private crossings across the seven other Canadian provinces where short line rails operate, though OmniTrax in Manitoba has similar fees to Genesee and Wyoming for private grade crossing applications.

The Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway has been a provincially regulated railway line since 1994. It is also government subsidized.

A spokesperson for Nova Scotia's department of economic development confirmed the province renewed the Rail Line Preservation Agreement with Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway Limited for an additional year from April 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023 at $360,000 annually.

Residents who spoke to CBC News still want the fees to be regulated or removed by the government, especially since trains no longer run on the tracks.

Too costly for many

Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer

Ed Fedora has been a summer resident in Big Beach for 20 years. He's nearing retirement and wants to move there full time. But securing power over the tracks is an issue.

"We need power. The Nova Scotia government is in charge of regulating the railway as well as dealing with these power issues, and they failed to do anything," Fedora said.

Fedora knows of 50 families in the area who are without power because they refuse to pay the railway.

He said it's hampering development along the Bras d'Or Lake.

"The province has done nothing in 20 years. It didn't matter if it was Liberal, Conservative. They all passed the buck," Fedora said.

"If this continues with the high cost of getting power and things in here, I will probably have to go like many of my neighbours have now to total solar," Fedora said.

Barriers to internet connection 

Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer

It's not just power. Many residents who anticipated the 2021 fibre optic internet expansion into rural Cape Breton can't afford the added fees to the rail line to run fibre across the tracks.

"We had so many excited residents. And yet again, another hurdle to get those lines across," said Cape Breton Regional Municipality District 3 Coun. Cyril MacDonald.

"Most of the folks out there are seniors and simply just can't afford an extra several thousand dollars to run a line across the property to maybe get better Internet," he said.

A spokesperson for Bell Canada said there are significant costs associated with bringing fibre across railways, including surveys, construction and getting permits.

MacDonald said extra fees to the rail line confuses and frustrates residents.

"It seems like the rail line has this made up number and the money goes somewhere, but they're certainly not doing maintenance to the rail lines," he said.

"Where's that money going?" he said in reference to obstructions along the tracks, including deteriorating trestles and trees growing between the ties.

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the Canadian Transportation Agency has the authority to resolve disputes related to road, utility and private crossings, but that oversight only applies to federally regulated railways.

While there is no formal mechanism in place for disputes on provincially regulated railways in Nova Scotia, landowners are advised to contact Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board if they are unable to come to an agreement with rail line owners.

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