With potential upgrades to CN infrastructure throughout Fort Frances entering the planning phase, Mayor Andrew Hallikas has concerns around safety and compensation for the town.
The Ranier Railroad Bridge was constructed in 1908 by the Canadian Northern Railway (CN) and the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg Railway. It’s a single-track lift bridge that crosses the Rainy River between Rainer, Minnesota and Fort Frances, Ontario. However, CN is proceeding with an application for geological testing in the area, with the Minister of Transport, under the Canadian Navigable Waters Act.
Today, it is one of the busiest freight border crossings in Canada, seeing more than 30 trains a day that pull between 100 and 200 cars filled with a variety of goods.
“And what I’ve heard from CN is that they plan on increasing the number of trains, and also the length of the trains,” alleged Mayor Andrew Hallikas.
He said that the town hasn’t been formally notified about any changes with Rainer Bridge.
Hallikas hopes that there will be some discussion with the town of Fort Frances, neighboring municipalities in the Rainy River District and First Nation communities that also have railway lines going through them.
“I really hope that that happens, that [the changes] isn’t something that gets decreed without consultation with stakeholders,” he said.
Public consultation is currently open for the geological testing application. The plan, which includes soil samples and boring, can be found at cps.canada.ca under Registry NPP file number 2006-400705.
The Times reached out to CN for more information regarding potential railway changes.
“CN is currently in the preliminary or conceptual stage on plans for changes to its network on the Canadian side of the border that would include the tracks from Fort Frances to Ranier, Minnesota,” said Daniel Salvatore, manager public affairs for the Ontario & Atlantic Canada Corporate Services. “However the design stage has not yet begun so we would not be able to comment at this time.”
Hallikas is concerned by how railway changes may impact the town, the risk they pose to the community and the lack of compensation.
Hallikas points out that some of the goods transported through town across the railway are hazardous and derailments can pose a risk to the community.
In February 2020, a CN train carrying crude oil derailed outside Emo, Ontario. Police reported no risk to public safety, but homes within an 800 meter radius from the site of derailment were evacuated.
In July 2019, two trains at the McIrvine road crossing in Fort Frances collided causing five train cars to dislodge from the tracks. The McIrvine Road crossing was closed while crews worked to remove the derailed train cars.
“The point is that trains have derailed around our community. And so there’s a lot of risk,” Hallikas said. “If there was a derailment and a spill, that would put the residents of our community in danger.”
“And one of the things that I live in fear of is the fact that if there was a hazardous spill, … we don’t have a hazmat team in Fort Frances. So if there was to be a spill, we would have to get a hazmat team from Thunder Bay, which would be a minimum of six hours, so that’s a concern.”
About twice a year, the Emergency Management Group in Fort Frances undergoes training with CN on how to respond to derailments. “And there’s a cost of that training. So that costs the community money, time and effort.”
Hallikas said that CN does not pay taxes but rather a fee per acre of property they own in town.
He said CN pays around $11,000 a year in lieu of taxes because they own around 100 acres of property each owing around $110 per acre.
“But that’s a lot of property in town, 100 acres. You can imagine the amount of taxes on a one acre lot would probably exceed what CN is paying on their 100 acres.”
“I don’t believe that CN is reimbursing communities commensurate with the risk of what the community undertakes. We’re undertaking significant risks, but the community is not in return, getting remuneration that compensates for that risk,” Hallikas said.
“Just as an example, the town has a lot of insurance, we contract that out. Our insurance goes up almost yearly as risk or prices go up. But the amount of money that CN pays to municipalities in Ontario isn’t doing so, and that’s just not right.”
“So that’s something that the government needs to change. They need to look at how a company like CN pays municipalities when they run trains through their municipality. And it shouldn’t be by a flat rate like an anchorage. It should be, perhaps by how many tons of materials go through [town], then more should be paid to the community because the risk has increased.”
In addition, Hallikas noted that the risk for emergency vehicles blocked or delayed from crossing town should be considered in the compensation.
Under normal circumstances the maximum time that a vehicle should be delayed by a stopped train is five minutes, as reported by CN, but Hallikas noted that in the situation that both railroad crossings are shut down, emergency vehicles will have trouble getting from one side of town to another.
“To go from the south end of the community to the north end of the community, there’s only two places where you can cross. We have an underpass where we can go under the tracks. And then in the west end of town we have a level Crossing.”
“But occasionally, one of those will get shut down for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the underpass and heavy rains have flooded or maintenance has to be done on it so it has to be closed down, CN itself does work on that level crossings, sometimes that’s been shut down.”
“If for some reason, both of those crossings were blocked, or inoperable, then we couldn’t move from north to south, or south to north, in our community. The risk in terms of emergency vehicles getting from one part of the community to the other needs to be factored into the compensation that CN pays a community.”
Hallikas said that the municipality has brought up concerns to various ministers in the past and a bit of change has happened, such as the increase in payment to around $110 per acre of property owned by CN, but he said that changes have been slow and not enough.
“There is a recognition that they’re not paying enough,” he said.
“If we increase the number of trains coming across, and we make those trains longer, then the risk is gonna go up. And then the municipality incurs the cost, as well as absorbing that risk. And I think that CN needs to compensate the municipality appropriately.”