Railways could provide cleaner ways

There have always been mutterings of a Yukon railway going deep into the Klondike since the time of the gold rush.

There have always been mutterings of a Yukon railway going deep into the Klondike since the time of the gold rush.

Robert Service even mentioned it in one of his poems, Bob Smart’s Dream. 

More recently there has been talk of connecting the Alaskan railway system to the tracks in central British Columbia.

This railway would have to cross the Yukon, and, in the process, provide rail access to many a nook and cranny of the territory.

This railway is mainly seen as a means towards greater industrial activity.

In the Yukon’s case it would be mining.

Moving low-grade bulky items is usually done most efficiently by train, as opposed to truck.

Within the Yukon, there are a lot of low-grade bulky mineral bodies, so a railway would facilitate their extraction and exportation.

But railways are not cheap to build.

With today’s high labour and material costs railway construction can work out to about a million dollars per kilometre.

For major river crossings and tunnels, that cost can often be multiplied by a factor of 10.

For this reason no private enterprise has yet built an Alaska to Canada railway.

Nor has anyone attempted to extend the tracks from British Columbia up into the Yukon.

One option to overcome the financial hurdle is for various levels of government to step in.

Therein lies a problem.

If this railway is supported by taxpayers, it ends up being a subsidy for a lot of marginal mines that would not open otherwise.

As can be imagined, there are many who oppose such a use of public money.

Those of an environmental bent are also not keen on this project.

Marginal mines probably do not have the financial wherewithal to operate in an environmentally friendly manner.

They also usually do not have adequate funds to undertake an ecologically adequate reclamation program at the end of a mine’s lifespan.

This has to be balanced against the environmental benefits of railways.

Depending on the type of material being carried, the equivalent of 40 trucks off the highways per train, depending on the type.

A similar statistic also holds for passenger buses.

Railways offer the opportunity to remove a lot of fossil-fuel powered vehicles off the road.

This is good for the environment as anything that reduces greenhouse gas emissions is a positive thing.

The combustion of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, which in turn causes human induced climate change.

One factor that is often overlooked by railway promoters when pushing the green aspect of trains is the huge amount of fossil fuels required to build new railways.

From clearing the right-of-way to building all the earthworks to laying the actual track means a huge amount of fossil fuels have to be combusted.

With existing railways, this construction carbon footprint can be mainly ignored.

Of course there is already an existing Yukon railway.

This is the legendary WhitePass and Yukon Route, and it is already built.

The track connects the Yukon’s capital city, Whitehorse, to the nearest port, Skagway.

This port provides connections to a ferry system that connects to British Columbia and the lower 48 United States.

It is also a deep-water port in the sense it can accommodate bulk ore carriers that can convey material over the Pacific to Asian markets.

Now the railway connection is not being fully utilized.

Its recent track record is not that good.

The trains only run half the distance of the laid track, from Skagway to the Yukon community of Carcross.

They only run in the summer, and they are only for tourists.

In the past, this railway ran year-round and it has moved ore from Whitehorse to tidewater.

With the recent jump in oil prices it might be time to investigate how to better use this existing rail system.

No new track would be laid, rather it would be a refurbishment of existing track.

If the decision were made to invest public money in such an enterprise, part of the payoff for taxpayers would be fewer greenhouse gas emissions from trucks and buses.

There could also be a tourism boost.

The WhitePass and Yukon Route Railway is already extremely popular among tourists.

Once word gets out that it is possible to take a train all the way to Whitehorse from Skagway, no doubt tourism figures would jump.

It is surprising the number of men, and yes they tend to be men, who travel the world just for the opportunity to travel by rail.

They are not necessarily interested in the destination. The are interested in the railway journey.

It is even possible that companies involved in resource extraction might make use of using the train to haul raw ore, as was done in the past.

Finally it must be noted that trains emit greenhouse gases.

One way to alleviate that is to electrify the route.

This would involve installing overhead wires that would run above the trains, at the head of which would be electric locomotives.

This form of power would permit the train to run on renewable energy.

The Yukon has surplus hydro power most months, so the greenhouse gas emissions of this existing route could be close to nil.

Of course, there are some months where there is no surplus hydro power.

But overall the railway route could be considered as running on renewable energy.

This would save a lot of fossil fuels from being consumed.

It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions currently being emitted by trucks and buses. 

And think how happy trainspotters would be.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist. He has a model train-set in his basement.