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Railway bridge decision swings in Thunder Bay’s favour

CN Rail weighs options after court order to reopen span to vehicles
James Street swing bridge
The James Street Swing Bridge in Thunder Bay just days after a 2013 fire. (File photo)

An Ontario Court of Appeal has ordered CN Rail to reopen a century-old swing bridge in Thunder Bay to vehicle traffic.

The James Street Swing Bridge, a vital link between the northwestern Ontario city and the neighbouring Fort William First Nation, has been open only to railway traffic after it was damaged by fire in October 2013 in act of vandalism.

Trains were back crossing the span over the Kaministiquia River within days of the blaze, but CN barricaded the bridge to vehicle and pedestrian traffic citing safety issues around certain structural components.

“This is a good day,” said Mayor Keith Hobbs in a June 11 statement. “The highest court in Ontario has ruled in our favour, and we now look to CN to repair and reopen the bridge as they are obligated to do.”

“We are very pleased with today’s decision,” added City Manager Norm Gale. “We expect that CN will now carry out any necessary repairs and reopen the bridge.”

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron replied by email that the railway is “reviewing the court decision and potential next steps.

“Regardless of the outcome, CN wishes to continue to work with the city and Fort William First Nation to try and find a solution to the issue of the James Street Swing Bridge.”

The City of Thunder Bay had been holding the railway to account for a contractual obligation under a 1906 agreement signed between the then-Town of Fort William and the Grand Trunk Railroad — which was later absorbed into CN – requiring the railway to provide citizens with access to the bridge in perpetuity.

Last summer, an Ontario Superior Court judge dismissed the city’s application to force CN to re-open the road portion of the bridge.

On appeal, the city argued the judge "failed to understand what he was being asked to do" when he made his June ruling in favour of CN. The case was heard at the Court of Appeal last January.

The closure of the span has been a real inconvenience and has caused safety issues for both communities.

What used to be a two-minute trip between Fort William and the Westfort business district in Thunder Bay is now a 15-minute drive to access the reserve via Highway 61.

It’s resulted in highway accidents, some fatal, and longer response times for emergency services.

“It’s a real mess and Fort William is stuck in the middle of it,” Fort William Chief Peter Collins told Northern Ontario Business last spring.

Frustrated by the pace of litigation, Collins urged the City of Thunder Bay earlier this year to drop its appeal while he floated a plan to CN to construct a temporary Bailey bridge on top on the bridge abutments until a long-term solution could be worked out.

Last March, Collins anticipated neither community would emerge the victor even if the city won its case, expecting CN would appeal the decision to a higher court.

“At the end of the day, tell me who’s the winner going to be?

Collins said CN has “lived up to their obligation” in maintaining a structure that’s probably outlived its life cycle.

Close to 1,000 people commute to jobs on the reserve for work in government and First Nation administration, and for private sector jobs at Coastal Steel, Wasaya Airways and Resolute Forest Products, among other business and industries.

The chance of a new bridge being built likely won’t happen anytime soon.

Collins said there remains “a lot of work to be done” after their initial discussions with the federal and provincial governments for funding.

He estimated a new span would take a year of environmental assessment, another year of detailed design, and probably two years of construction.