Barricades blocking access to the railway tracks crossing the Halfway River in Hantsport have been installed in an attempt to keep the public safe.
The tracks, which for months were precariously hanging above the failed aboiteau (a dyke sluice gate), were also cut and removed.
Bob Schmidt, president and owner of the Windsor and Hantsport Railway Company Ltd., confirmed his company undertook the work on Feb. 7 after they received an emergency order from the provincial government demanding the aboiteau situation be addressed. Of immediate concern was the safety of the general public who continue to access the site, some getting dangerously close to the eroding edge of the river bank.
“We've notified the RCMP and would like to remind anyone that sees this article that the railway lines are private lands and we respectfully ask people not to trespass on those, especially that area, where there is soft ground or potential future erosion. We wouldn't want any adults or children in or around that area,” he said.
Schmidt, who has owned the railway for more than 23 years, said his company has been concerned with the situation for nearly a decade. Although the railway ceased operating in 2010 when its primary customer — Fundy Gypsum — stopped shipping, they maintained ownership of the railway for possible future uses.
Over the years, Schmidt said they have been in talks with various government departments to try to get the situation rectified.
“We are not saying it is not our problem. We've been concerned about this longer than anybody else has and we have been raising this to the attention of government longer than anybody else,” said Schmidt.
What he wants to see is a more collaborative, less hostile, approach to getting the situation addressed.
“To me, we're just one stakeholder or interested party in this watercourse at Halfway River. We happen to be a railway that, at some point in the future, would like to travel over (it),” he said.
“However, there are farmers upstream that, when the aboiteau gates were on, had their farmland flooded. There was the Department of Transportation that complained about their road and bridge flooding, as well as citizens, when the gates were on. The gates came off, the flooding went down, less complaints.”
The gates of the aboiteau were damaged nearly a decade ago due to storms and general wear and tear, he added.
A question of ownership
The aboiteau’s primary function was to allow water out at low tide but restrict excessive water from entering at high tide. With the aboiteau not functioning properly, Schmidt said that there has been increased erosion, which has resulted in the current washout.
“Those gates being removed, for a while, seemed to be favourable because there was less flooding of the road or the bridge, an increase in spawning of fish inland, and an increased restoration of marshland,” the U.S. businessman said in a phone interview.
“Everybody was sort of happy. But then we started to see increased erosion... and notified folks that things should be done and respectfully asked agriculture a little over a year, year-and-a-half ago, to look at this and seriously consider taking over responsibility of it. We did not have a follow-up or affirmative action.”
Schmidt said the Department of Agriculture is responsible for nearly every other aboiteau in the province — and that, he says, is a sticking point.
Not provincial responsibility
Marla MacInnis, a media relations advisor with the Province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, said the province currently maintains 246 aboiteaus on 81 agricultural marshlands under the Agricultural Marshland Conservation Act.
MacInnis could not confirm the number of privately-owned aboiteaus in Nova Scotia.
“Responsibility for the aboiteau rests with the Windsor and Hantsport Railway Company, who purchased it with the former Dominion Atlantic Railway assets in 1994,” MacInnis said in an email interview when asked why the province doesn’t have care and control over the aboiteau structure in Hantsport.
Schmidt said while the railway is responsible for the maintenance of a strip of land about 90 feet wide (27.4 metres) at the Halfway River, he says that accounts for less than one-third of the total width of the aboiteau.
MacInnis said the causeway area in Hantsport is approximately 150 metres (492 feet) and the aboiteau consists of three culverts, each one 36.6 metres (120 feet) long.
Schmidt said the Agricultural Marshland Conservation Act delegates the responsibility of maintaining structures in "areas prone to tidal flooding" to the government. He questions why his company should foot the entire repair bill.
Schmidt said he's not shirking responsibility but feels his company is being treated unfairly.
After a private meeting in January with employees of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, the Municipality of West Hants council instructed staff to write a letter to Schmidt about its concerns. That letter is expected to be ready to send Feb. 13, after the next council meeting.
Transportation department officials also issued an emergency directive advising Schmidt of what must be done and sought a court order.
McInnis said the aboiteau has not been working properly for several years; however, it wasn’t until 2017 that the situation required action.
“The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal became aware of the eroding railbed in the fall of 2017. We reached out to the railway company then to advise them of the issue,” she said.
Bridge still OK
Hantsport residents and politicians have been expressing concern since last fall, wondering if the Halfway River bridge is holding up structurally due to the flooding. MacInnis said TIR is monitoring the infrastructure closely.
“Because of unusually high tides and the loss of the Windsor-Hantsport railway structure, water reached the bottom of the bridge on Trunk 1 at Hantsport last Friday (Feb. 2). We briefly closed the bridge while our engineers inspected it. No issues were identified and the bridge reopened that same evening,” said MacInnis.
Several photos and video of the flooding were posted to social media that day by onlookers.
Schmidt said he's disappointed in how the situation has unfolded and is in favour of sitting down with all parties and developing a solution that will work for everyone involved.
“I really, passionately care about this. I like this business. I love the Annapolis Valley; love coming up. I'm not an adversarial person. I'm a consensus builder and a collaborator. I'm just so disappointed at the manner in which TIR has proceeded,” he said.
Schmidt said he’s been in talks with government officials over the years, and mentioned there are other options that could be explored that don’t involve an aboiteau.
Future of rail still bright
Schmidt says he foresees a day when businesses will once again see the economical benefits of using the railway to transport goods from Point A to Point B.
“I see how rail is important for businesses and economic development. The preservation of a rail alternative for other businesses is important,” said Schmidt, who considers himself an optimist.
Schmidt said rail is a cost-effective means for transporting heavy loads, be it gypsum or aggregate like gravel.
He said it wouldn't take long — just weeks or months — to get the rail line in good working order again if a business opportunity presented itself.
“If somebody said, 'Hey, I've got a two million tonne aggregate or gypsum move that needs to start in 60 days,' we will have it up and running,” he said.
There's plenty of products that are currently moving into and out of the Valley that could use rail, Schmidt said.
“The responsible movement of other products that are currently moving by truck that could be done potentially more safely and potentially less costly is why we think there should be a railway preserved there,” said Schmidt, adding he'd like to work with the government to further develop opportunities.