Rail link feasible, but not along Alaska Highway

Railroad routes must be drawn with dollars in mind, not “emotions” says Kells Boland. The Alaska Canada Rail Link project’s…

Railroad routes must be drawn with dollars in mind, not “emotions” says Kells Boland.

The Alaska Canada Rail Link project’s manager provided a sneak peek to his completed yet still-unreleased feasibility study Tuesday.

The goal is to link the Yukon and Alaska to southern rail lines.

But Boland recommends running it through the mineral-rich Tintina Trench, not along the Alaska Highway, as previously envisioned.

“The major focus when I started this study was, ‘We need a railway to support construction of the Alaska Highway gas pipeline,’” Boland told a news conference in Whitehorse.

“So, if you’re reading between the lines here, you’re seeing this route does not follow the Alaska Highway.”

Flanked by a map of the Yukon crossed by several proposed rail lines, Boland explained that most routes presented “essentially the same” challenges to build and operate.

That freed him to find a pathway that, if built, would run closest to potential iron-ore, coal and base-metal minesites in the Yukon, and avoid “a lower-cost route that didn’t go anywhere near where the traffic was.”

The proposed route would stay as close as possible to the Tintina Trench and would make Carmacks a railway hub, he said.

It would extend from the Alaska Railroad, which currently ends at Delta Junction, Alaska, southeast through the Tintina Trench to Carmacks, and run past the Casino and Minto mining claims.

From Carmacks, Boland proposes a second line following the North Klondike Highway south to Whitehorse, then on to Carcross, before terminating at either the deep-water ports of Haines or Skagway.

A third line from Carmacks could head east, shadowing the Robert Campbell Highway to Ross River before turning sharply south for Watson Lake.

From there, Boland proposes it could run parallel to the Cassiar Highway to New Hazelton, British Columbia, where an existing Canadian National railhead connects to the province’s deep-water ports of Prince Rupert and Kitimat.

On a map the proposed route looks like a wobbly ‘T.’

The departure from the dream of a railway running along the Alaska Highway was driven purely by economics, he said.

The only way to justify building a rail link is to build a “rail to resources,” he added.

“The pipeline market is for two or three years. The mineral market is for a much longer period. From a business point of view you go where the revenues are going to be generated.

“I think the revenues are going to be generated in the Tintina Trench, and Carmacks is sitting right in the middle of it.

  “I removed myself from emotions,” Boland said.

Though the route does not follow the Alaska Highway, a rail link could still provide logistical support to the pipeline, he said.

The proposed route should be built in segments, he added.

By breaking the project into three chunks, tracks could be laid at the right economic time “to capture the greatest revenues with, initially, the smallest amount of track.

“You don’t have to build this all at once. It’s the segmentation that will make this project feasible. I’m hoping they (politicians) won’t be looking at all three segments at once.”

Boland’s proposals are now being examined by the rail link’s financial advisory group to determine costs.

Boland was appointed as the Alaska Canada Rail Link project manager in June 2005 by Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie and Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski.

Fentie and Murkowski have attempted to get Ottawa to support the study, but Canada has steadfastly refused, leaving the Yukon and Alaska to cover the tab — worth about $5.5 million.

While the study provides both regions with a “legacy” of planning information, it does not provide a green or red light on the project, he said.

“This is not a decision document; it’s a document for decision making. There will not come out of this a go/no-go decision for the construction of the railway.”

Boland’s study is currently only available internally to the financial group and the rail link’s management working group.

The financial group, and the management group, made up of Fentie, Murkowski and Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill, will meet in Vancouver tomorrow to discuss the study’s findings, said Boland.

“I’m not sure when the management advisory group is going to provide this information to the public,” he added.