Train study overlooks tourism

Tuesday, Premier Dennis Fentie unveiled the long-awaited Yukon/Alaska railway feasibility study. He was accompanied by Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.

Tuesday, Premier Dennis Fentie unveiled the long-awaited Yukon/Alaska railway feasibility study.

He was accompanied by Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.

The study cost $5 million.

Pulled together by 120 consultants, it includes 103 reports and 250 spreadsheets.

The report is 2,800 pages long.

It was supposed to consider all aspects of a 1,900-kilometre railway linking the Yukon and Alaska to the south.

The exhaustive study focuses on large-scale resource development and trade.

It forgot passenger service.

“You can tag me with the oversight,” said project manager Kells Boland on Tuesday, during a technical briefing.

“I just never considered it being that big a deal.”

It is.

And Boland is going to use the leftover $30,000 in project money to investigate tourism opportunities.

During his research, Boland looked at an Australian railway, built to stimulate resource development in the country’s remote areas.

“Like us, those areas had been dominated by trucking,” he said.

But what Boland noticed was the tremendous impact of passenger-train tourism.

“People were paying $1,000 a day to go across the desert,” he said.

Small communities without the means to host large groups overnight can benefit from short train stops, he said.

“And I overlooked this.

“I was thinking freight.”

If developed, the Alaska/Yukon railway could end up hauling over 50 million tonnes of freight a year and make almost $1 billion in annual revenues, said Boland.

But even operating at capacity, the railway would still be in the hole after 50 years, he said.

To build a railway linking Fairbanks with Prince Rupert will cost roughly US$11 billion, according to the report.

“And over 50 years, it falls short of paying for itself by 26 per cent,” said Boland.

“Although it does cover its operating costs.”

“Neither Alaska or Yukon have committed to build a railway,” said Fentie during Tuesday’s media briefing.

“The study provides government with the information required to make informed decisions on possible next steps.”

If the railway were to go ahead, the Yukon would need help, said Boland.

“There would have to be a public/private partnership,” he said.

And Alaska would have to be onboard.

Trouble is, Alaska’s government changed while the study was being carried out.

Former governor Frank Murkowski was a big proponent of the railway.

But Palin sings a different tune.

“While the Alaska railroad is an important part of the infrastructure in Alaska, a line to Canada is not a priority project for my administration at this time,” said Palin in a media release in early May.

On Tuesday, the News asked Palin about her commitment to the project.

“Governor Murkowski was real high on the idea of the rail — he wasn’t re-elected though,” she said.

“So with a new team in town we’re starting anew with this project and so many other projects,” said Palin.

“There is no firm timeline on the next steps,” added Fentie.

Rather than build the railway all at once, it could be built in stages, said Boland.

This would help cut costs.

The study foresees the railway running from Fairbanks through Delta Junction to Carmacks.

From there a line runs west to Skagway, and possibly Haines. Another track runs south to Watson Lake, then follows the Cassiar Highway through Dease Lake to Hazelton, where it will link with CP lines that run to Prince Rupert.

Moving from trucks to trains will allow northern mines to reach a higher capacity, said Boland.

“Long trucking distances are not viable when mineral rates drop, but trains allow for low-cost rail access,” he said.

By limiting the number of trucks on the road, train transport would also improve highway safety and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Boland.

The Yukon Port Access strategy was released with the railway study.

It examines the options available for Yukon shipping, focusing largely on Skagway and Haines.

“The Yukon’s only coastline is in the North,” said port project manager Roy Matson.

“And climate change in the North may make an impact on shipping.

“But unfortunately this is not an option yet.”

So, in the short term, the only choice is to use Alaska’s ports, he said.

Skagway’s port is compromised by its tourism industry, which relies heavily on cruise ships.

Haines could handle more volume and store iron ore and coal at its old tank farm, according to the port study.

The railway would link the Yukon directly to Pacific Rim markets via US ports, added Boland.

Fentie and Palin talk caribou

After clearing the railway study off the table, Fentie and Palin talked caribou.

“I invited Alaska to join us in developing a harvest management strategy for the Porcupine caribou herd,” said Fentie.

ANWR was also on the agenda, he said.

“But in protecting their critical habitat we won’t interfere in the purvey of other jurisdictions, just like we don’t want other jurisdictions interfering in our purvey.”

Palin and Fentie also discussed the recovery of the Chisana caribou herd, the Western Hemisphere travel initiative and its effects on tourism and travel, and highway maintenance issues.

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