Canada’s Supreme Court quashes CN appeal over bridge access

the saint james swing bridge in thunder bay, Ontario, has been closed to vehicles since 2013. photo:C Hanchey/Flickr

Canada’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from Canada National Railway (NYSE:CNI) today, forcing it to reopen a century-old bridge to vehicle traffic.

The country’s highest court ended a long-running legal battle between CN and the city of Thunder Bay. It stems from a 2013 fire at the Saint James Street Swing Bridge, which links Thunder Bay to the Fort William First Nation.

CN reopened the 492-foot single deck bridge to rail traffic within days of the fire. But CN kept it closed to vehicles, arguing that cars could fall into the Kaministiquia River below.

The closure has hit residents of the Fort William First Nation, who must take a six-mile detour to reach Thunder Bay.

CN estimated that it would cost C$4 million to C$6 million to make the bridge suitable for vehicles and that doing so fell outside of its maintenance obligations. (A Canadian dollar currently is valued at US$0.75.)

The Supreme Court upheld a 2018 Court of Appeals for Ontario decision that CN had to respect the terms of a 1906 agreement over the bridge’s construction.

Fort William, a town that later became part of Thunder Bay, paid CN precursor Grand Trunk Railways C$50,000 to support the project and included the “perpetual right to cross said bridge for street railway, vehicle and foot traffic,” according to court records.

CN argued that the 1906 agreement did not account for contemporary motor vehicle traffic, which the appeals court rejected.

The court also questioned CN’s justification for closing the bridge to vehicles after the fire, noting that it caused only minor damage.

“[CN] claimed that the Bridge could not safely be reopened for motor vehicles because of the risk an ‘errant’ or wayward vehicle would leave the roadway, go across the sidewalk and into the river. In the over 100-year history of the Bridge, no vehicle has ever done so,” Ontario appellate judge John Laskin wrote in his decision.

CN maintains more than 7,000 bridges across Canada, as required by federal law.

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Nate Tabak, Canada Correspondent

Nate Tabak is a journalist, editor and producer in Toronto. He covers Canada for FreightWaves, with a keen interest on the cross-border economic relationship with the United States. Nate spent seven years working as an investigative editor and reporter based in Kosovo. He covered everything from corruption to the country’s emerging wine industry. He also reported across the Balkans and investigated Albania’s multibillion-dollar marijuana industry with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Nate grew up in Berkeley, Calif. He enjoys exploring Toronto with his wife and is always looking forward to his next meal.

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