The idea of a railroad from Alaska to the Canadian provinces has been floated around since the early 20th century, but it recently took a small step towards becoming a reality.
Last week, an agreement was struck between the Alaska Railroad Corporation (ARRC) and the Alaska to Alberta railway development corporation (A2A) that outlines how the two organizations will work together to build a proposed 2,400 kilometre railroad, which would move through the Yukon and British Columbia on its way to Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Under the agreement, the state-owned ARRC will request the right-of-way for state land to be used for the rail. Once it receives the route, it will lease it to A2A, which would build the railroad and fund it themselves. The agreement also allows the railroad to connect with the current Alaska Railroad, which connects to tidewater.
The current proposed route is based on a 2013 study by the Van Horne Institute. Yukon municipalities the railroad would be close to include Pelley Crossing, Carmacks, Faro, Ross River and Watson Lake.
The total cost of the project is estimated at $17 billion ($13 billion US).
Proponents of the railroad argue that it can better connect the Canadian and American economies to Asian markets, that could ship their products to Alaska and have them transported around Canada and the lower 48 states.
“It will make the Cook Inlet Alaska ports the closest ports to Asia, which means that shipping containers to and from Asia could get there faster,” said Mead Treadwell, a consultant with A2A and the former lieutenant governor of Alaska.
“An example I use is that there’s an automobile plant in Windsor, Ont. that’s bringing in automatic transmissions in from Japan. The goods could be unloaded in the Anchorage area and put on a railroad and probably be at the factory before the ship is even unloaded.”
Those in favour argue that it can be used to ship Alberta bitumen to tidewater, effectively acting as an alternative to Vancouver ports. Although Treadwell listed Alberta bitumen as something that could be shipped using the railroad, he highlighted its other potential uses as well.
“A railroad has a diverse set of clients and customers. It could be passengers, it could be containers, it could be ore concentrates, it could be other resources like potash or sulfur carried in cupboard cars,” he said. “A pipeline only carries one product in one direction, and so a railroad can carry products in both directions.”
The project is currently in very early stages and needs to go through multiple approval processes before it can be built. A2A first needs to complete a full project description that outlines where precisely the train will go. This description is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.
Once that’s completed, they’ll then go through an environment assessment from both the U.S. and Canada. Afterwards, the railroad will need to be approved by the Canadian Transportation Board (CTA) and the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in the U.S.
A presidential permit is also required for the train to cross the Canada-U.S. border. Last April, Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy wrote a letter to U.S. president Donald Trump to request a permit for the railroad.
A2A has also been consulting with both American and Canadian First Nations whose traditional territories are along the proposed route, and they met with the Council of Yukon First Nations two months ago to discuss the project.
Shona Mostyn, communications manager for the Yukon Department of Economic Development, also said that A2A discussed the project with the Yukon government.
“Government of Yukon was one of a number of groups A2A met while they were here in Yukon. They spoke with Government of Yukon officials and gave a high level overview of the project. It’s in very preliminary stages yet and not yet at the point of evaluation,” she said.
Mostyn added that if the railroad were to become a formal project proposal, it would need to be submitted to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board for review.
Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston confirmed that A2A met with the council. However, he predicts that the environmental aspects of the project will make it infeasible.
For instance, he warned that it could be dangerous to build mass infrastructure such as a railroad over melting permafrost, which can make the ground unstable.
“We’re going through climate change at a rapid rate, (and) the ground is moving especially where they’re proposing to put this railway,” he said. “That’s why when you build a school in Ross River on permafrost, now 10 years later we’re wondering why it’s moving so much. (It’s) because the ground has been affected.”
Johnston also raised concerns about the railroad’s potential impact on animal habitats and migratory routes.
“All these things are very important to our environment. A dollar is important, but the protection of our environment is probably worth three times as much as that dollar.”
Contact Joshua Azizi at firstname.lastname@example.org