By Andrew Henry
Our neighbours in the Pontiac are fighting for their future, their economic existence. The battle they need to win is to keep the rail line that links them to Ottawa, the rest of North America, and the world.
CN began lifting the rails from the line it owns between Pembroke and Ottawa, a line that crosses the Ottawa river twice, taking it through the Pontiac.
Starting in Pembroke, CN stripped the rails as far as Portage du Fort, but ran into Pontiac’s municipal leaders, who recognize that without a rail line it will become very difficult to attract business investment to their communities. Town mayors from across the Pontiac barricaded the rail line, leading to a temporary reprieve, buying time and, hopefully, a positive resolution.
Folks in the Pontiac are right to be concerned, as they simply have to look to Pembroke to find an example of how the lack of rail access discourages investment.
Without rail, the added cost of shipping materials by highway has already discouraged a $48 million investment in an idle fibreboard plant, which would have brought 180 well-paying jobs to Pembroke. Here’s how the potential investor stated his reason not to invest in Pembroke: “The loss of the rail line makes a big difference in the cost of bringing in raw material and sending material out, particularly to our European markets.”
It’s pretty clear that without the affordable transportation option, which rail provides, businesses will be discouraged from investing in the Pontiac. Going forward, without a rail line, the Pontiac may also be faced with losing already established businesses.
Separate papers from economists at both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecast oil prices doubling by the end of the decade. Should oil reach those heights, can goods produced by the agricultural and forestry sectors in the Pontiac compete if the only option is to ship by truck?
As well, adapting to climate change requires a transition away from fossil fuels. Switching the transportation system from liquid fuels to one powered by electricity, produced from renewable sources, is likely the most challenging aspect of this transition. Electrifying a rail line to power electric locomotives is something that can be done now, with existing technology, whereas transporting heavy loads over long distances by highway with an electric powered truck isn’t a foreseeable option.
Without a rail line, the Pontiac will have difficulty attracting new investment, may have trouble keeping existing businesses, and will be without the transportation infrastructure that can be adapted easily to meet climate change commitments.
The Pontiac is fighting for their future, but if you think about it, you might realize that they are fighting for our future. We are going to need a robust, and ultimately electrified, rail network to give us the resilience to adjust to rising oil prices and the ability to adapt to climate change.
The problem is the rail network is a public good, and unfortunately it’s in private hands.
Ed. note: Andrew Henry is from Chelsea, Quebec.