OPINION: Second Track, Second Chance for Port of Halifax

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Posted January 26, 2019

Whether Halterm in the city’s south end has room for needed expansion has partly fuelled debate about moving the port to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. - FILE

By MURRAY METHERALL


In the week before Christmas, an inbound container train approached CN Rockingham on the Bedford highway led by two locomotives with one in the middle, and in total length stretched as far back as Clearwater Seafoods.

For CN, is this train a harbinger of things to come if the company is successful in its reported bid to purchase Halterm’s container terminal in Halifax’s south end?

In the Financial Post story before Christmas, CN Rail CEO Jean-Jacques Ruest is quoted as wanting to “make a terminal ready for bigger things” by increasing efficiency with the capacity to handle trains over three kilometres long.

From an autumn of uncertainty and angst on the waterfront as the ongoing port saga unfolded, 2018 ended on a more hopeful and optimistic note.

Disappointed over being excluded from port infrastructure funding while other Canadian ports received lavish federal handouts, Halifax Port Authority began expansion on its own, dredging and extending Halterm to accommodate two of the next generation of mega-ships. (One of the ultra class vessels with nearly 12,000 containers docked last weekend as dredge barges and shovels began work.)

Business and the shipping industry hate uncertainty, and this past fall with the terminal up for sale and the apparent lack of government support to the port, container line executives could have been forgiven for calling up the mayor’s office to ask whether the Port of Halifax was going to continue to be there in the future. Now, with December’s announcement, the deal to purchase and expand Halterm has the potential, says Ruest, to make Halifax “the Prince Rupert of the East.”

Prince Rupert


The Port of Prince Rupert, B.C. is significantly north of Vancouver, but more importantly, it is also to the west by about 500 kilometres by ship, making Prince Rupert the closest North American port to Asia, thus reducing average ship transit time by roughly a day. The port authority website notes that Prince Rupert is 36 hours closer to Shanghai than Vancouver.

For time-sensitive cargo moving inland and because it cuts customer costs, this gives the same advantage that the Port of Halifax has for trans-Atlantic cargo, as Halifax is the closest North American port to Europe. Water depth, as in Halifax Harbour, is a major asset. The rail line from Prince Rupert, at one time the Grand Trunk Pacific, has the gentlest grade through the Rockies, making for faster service to the midwest. Starting in 2006 as a container port and moving only 182,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, Prince Rupert has seen explosive growth, becoming the third-busiest port in Canada and moving its millionth container last year on Dec. 18. Halifax is now the fourth-busiest port with total volumes around 500,000 TEUs.

Money for an “off-dock intermodal yard” was included in the latest funding request for the Port of Halifax. - Contributed

Money for an “off-dock intermodal yard” was included in the latest funding request for the Port of Halifax. - Contributed


Whether Halterm in the city’s south end has room for needed expansion has partly fuelled debate about moving the port to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The comparative size of the Prince Rupert Terminal and Halterm is instructive, with both being 30 hectares or 74 acres. Further room to grow exists behind Halterm on the CN port railway lands and, as illustrated on the HPA website, with the permanent expansion plans to infill piers north of the present terminal.

With the CN bid behind it and its full-speed-ahead expansion plans, the Halifax Port Authority is looking for some good news in 2019, the last year of its CEO’s term. As it happens, the National Trade Corridor Fund, administered by Transport Canada and the Treasury Board, is accepting new applications this month for a second round of funding.

With a federal election in October and significant criticism for the Port of Halifax being snubbed first time around, the expectation may be that Halifax, with this second chance, will experience more of a team approach to preserve and grow this port city’s most important industry, now spinning off some 12,000 jobs. Added to this may be a more sympathetic voice from a new Treasury Board president, recently appointed.

Funding and location


The Halifax Port Authority’s initial infrastructure ask, as reported by local media, included funds to permanently expand the terminal northward to double the berthing capacity and as well, funding for an “off-dock intermodal yard.”

If this transloading off the peninsula is seen by the port authority as the ultimate solution to the Cogswell truck traffic issue (in addition to ramp loading now), and if this request appears again in its new application, it is, from Haligonians’ viewpoint, the right decision. CN may see this solution as the most efficient use of the rail cut.

A rail shuttle to an off-peninsula location for truck loading is common in other ports, according to Mary Brooks, shipping expert and professor emerita at Dalhousie’s Rowe School of Business. In a CBC interview on the CN Halterm offer, she noted “other cities around the world that have container terminals in their downtown core, that have a rail access, will put the boxes on a locomotive that goes once or twice a day out to a yard somewhere else and then they off-load the boxes and put them on the trucks there.”

When asked if changing the location of the truck pickup adds another step to the process and makes it less efficient, Brooks replied: “Yes, it does, but on the other hand, once you reach a certain size, that’s a more efficient way than having individual trucks rolling down city streets.”

Regarding moving the port to Dartmouth, Brooks says: “The issue is, there is a huge investment already made in that (Halterm) location and you’re not changing the demand for the traffic; all you’re doing is changing how it’s supplied and adding cost and so economically it’s not a good thing.”

For citizens of Halifax, what heartens her about the potential purchase is “it puts CN in control of the flow which may be thinking a rail shuttle now would make sense for handling (local) containers out of the terminal.”

For city residents living on or near the CN rail cut leading from Halterm out of town, a rail shuttle makes a lot of sense. Of the several hundred properties in multiple neighbourhoods on the peninsula, the majority are in Coun. Waye Mason’s district in the city’s south end, but many are in Coun. Shawn Cleary’s district in the west end. Residents along the rail cut live in homes — there are 38 properties alone in just one section between Quinpool and Jubilee bridges — but there are also a significant number of condo and apartment dwellers from Ogilvie Street off Young Avenue, to Olivet Street, to Bayers Road. A majority of the adjacent properties affected are working families and many with children going to school on the peninsula. Both city councillors have spoken in support of keeping the rail cut.

In the rail cut, there is room for a second track to handle the increased traffic a rail shuttle (and longer trains) may create. Remnants of the original double track still exist as sidings just before the Ocean Terminals and at the Fairview Yard.

According to Coun. Tim Outhit, former transportation committee chair and commuter rail proponent, CN has stated in its ongoing consultation with the city that a second track may be needed for commuter rail. While CN may not have capacity on the single track for permanently adding commuter rail, Outhit wonders if “a commuter rail pilot project could be run on the track that’s there now to see if it’s feasible, and then if successful a second track could be added.”

Depending on how a second track in the rail cut was cost shared, either with infrastructure funding or split between the city and CN, this becomes a double opportunity — to bring commuters smoothly onto the peninsula through sustainable transportation, and to have the efficient movement of goods to and from the port.

Source: The Chronicle Herald