For more than 400 years, explorers, merchants and governments have sought a navigable sea route to Asia through the Canadian North.
The Northwest Passage was seen as a route that would carry ships from the tidal waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific coast, through the Arctic.
Seafarers have successfully made the crossing, but the passage is not viable for shipping raw materials, like oil and ore.
While it lacks the mystique of sailing the northern sea, a group of Yukoners and Alaskans are trying to open an alternate trade route — the Alaska-Canada rail link.
For those in favour of the controversial railroad, laying ties from Beaver Creek to Watson Lake is a way to open trade by land and sea.
It would create a land bridge, connecting the Alaskan coast and the Yukon, with rail systems in BC, and, by default, all of continental Canada and the US, said Alaska-Canada Rail Link Feasibility Study project manager Kells Boland.
“Ultimately the rail link would provide an international trade route from the North to the East Coast,” he said in public meeting this week.
Linking Alaska and northern BC ports with the Canadian National Railway Company’s railhead in BC would also open a direct sea route to Asia, said Boland.
It could provide trade routes to Japan, Korea and China, he added.
A thoroughfare to China, the manufacturing heartland of the planet, could be of particular interest to miners, seeking to ship ore and raw materials from the northern reaches of the Americas, past Russia and Japan, to China.
The problem is there is no evidence of cargo, according to the federal government.
Under the heading The Business Case is Frail, Transport Canada’s final report says there is not enough potential load to justify the link.
“Available material … identified large amounts of potential traffic, but these volumes are almost entirely speculative, lacking specificity with respect to origin, destination and market needs that would be fulfilled,” the report says.
Without the promise of substantial freight why plunge into such a costly project?
“The nebulous and conditional nature of the projected market demand makes it virtually impossible to specify a route and define an operation such that reasonable estimates of costs can be made,” the report continues.
While this report was written five years ago, Ottawa maintains this position, according to Transport Canada communications officer Cathy Cossaboom.
The recent Conservative sweep of federal offices has not changed the government’s view on laying track across the territory.
For one thing, conducting a feasibility study before an economic development assessment is putting the cart before the horse, said Cossaboom.
“We would look at what opportunities currently exist in the area in terms of current development and industry and then we would determine what kind of railroad or marine facilities would be appropriate,” she added.
The feasibility study takes the opposite approach.
First, it decides on rail, then works it into the current economic situation and existing infrastructure.
“It’s sort of: ‘If we build it they will come,’” said Cossaboom about the feasibility study.
However, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski and Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie argue the opposite is true, said Boland.
Ottawa has refused to fund the project. But Yukon and Alaska are splitting the cost of the $5.5-million study.
“It’s not so much the traffic we have now; it’s the traffic we could have,” said Boland.
Where would this theoretical freight come from?
Largely, the Alaska pipeline, any runoff from the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in NWT and from mines, said Boland.
With Yukon on the verge of opening numerous mines, they will generate the need, he added.
“Certainly it would be most attractive to all the mineral projects if the railway were in place.”
But, mining doesn’t rely on a rail link, says the Transport Canada report.
“It appears that none of the potential development projects is dependent on a railway for its feasibility,” the report states.
“Not one of the prospective mineral development projects in the Yukon will be advanced or delayed on account of the Alaska-Canada rail link.”
It’s a question of volume.
Even in a boom year, one that produced upward of three million tonnes, trucks would likely be remain the primary mode for moving minerals, the government says.
This issue has not gone unnoticed by Boland.
Mining in the potentially iron-ore rich Bonnet Plume River region would be the feather in Boland’s hat.
“If you can get Bonnet Plume into production, my railroad’s a slam dunk,” he said to one of about 30 people who attended the meeting.
Part of the Peel watershed, the prospect land lies near the Yukon-NWT border.
There is potential for extracting 10 to 15 million tonnes of ore from that site per year, said Boland.
“The sort of traffic that would come out of Bonnet Plume would make a railway project a winner automatically,” he said from the Visitor Information Centre in downtown Whitehorse.
“That’s the silver bullet you would like to see if you were building a railway.”
While there are a host of environmental concerns surrounding both the railroad and Bonnet Plume, few were raised at the public meeting.
One person asked which route would leave the largest amount of wild land intact.
“It’s an intriguing idea and one that I endorse — a multi-use corridor with a limited footprint from the environmental perspective,” said Boland.
There are two possible routes through the Yukon.
Both would start at Beaver Creek, on the Alaska border, and converge in Watson Lake.
The first route would generally follow the Alaska Highway and the pipeline.
The second, called the Tintina Trench route, would follow the Robert Campbell Highway.
The Alaska Highway route would likely cause less damage to the surrounding environs, said Boland.
The Tintina Trench route, however, passes by the Yukon’s mine-heavy regions.
“I have to take the view of where the traffic will be after the pipeline is built,” said Boland.
There are also two possibilities for BC.
Beyond Watson Lake track could travel due south to Dease Lake, or it could cut diagonally southeast to Fort Nelson.
The Canadian government has made no promises, viewing negligible value in opening up sea routes with no clear cargo.
However, it will review the feasibility study once it is complete, said Cossaboom.
Boland’s study is due to be complete this summer.