Using Electricity to Haul Coal: The British Columbia Railway’s Tumbler Ridge Branch Line, 1983-2000

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Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a short series of showcasing undergraduate student research in energy history. Rebecca Campbell’s post is derived from a research paper written for the course North American Energy History, taught by Ben Bradley at UNBC.

After 18 years of operation, and with only 5 months’ notice, Teck Corporation permanently closed its Quintette coal mine at Tumbler Ridge, BC in July 2000.1 The closure left the single-industry town – which had been established in conjunction with the mine – in dire straits. The closure also made redundant the 130-kilometre electrified railway line that had been built exclusively to help transport coal from northeastern BC to steel mills in Japan. The provincially-owned British Columbia Railway (BCR) had built the branch line through the Rocky Mountains between 1981 and 1983. But by fall 2000, all seven electric locomotives that had been specially made for the BCR’s electrified branch line were in storage, and the railway had begun dismantling the line’s electrical power system, which it deemed to have no further use.2 BC’s experiment with using electricity to haul coal had reached its terminal point.

Shifting energy regimes have often created and relied on transportation networks, pushed forward industrial projects, and challenged (or reinforced) common concepts of modernity, as energy historian Christopher Jones has shown.3 The Tumbler Ridge Branch Line (TRBL) project followed this pattern, even as it mixed two energy regimes – coal and electricity – in a way that was unusual in North America. The TRBL was part of the larger Northeast Coal Development Project (NCDP), a mining megaproject developed in partnership between the province, Teck, Denison Mines, and the Japanese steel industry. The provincial government directly contributed to building the “instant town” of Tumbler Ridge. It also had the BCR construct a new branch line in order to transport coal across northern BC from Tumbler Ridge via Prince George to Prince Rupert, where it was loaded onto ships.

Construction and electrification of the TRBL followed a long line of province-building resource and infrastructure megaprojects conducted by Social Credit governments in BC since 1952. These included railway extensions and large hydroelectric dams.4 Like many of these projects, it involved modernization of the northern half of the province, and was promoted as symbolizing provincial identity. However, there were differences too. Instead of being overseen by a Social Credit government led by W.A.C. Bennett, it was his son Bill Bennett who was premier. And the project was developed in the contexts of the 1970s Energy Crisis, Japan’s economic rise, and an energy landscape in northern BC that had recently been transformed by massive hydroelectric dams on the Peace River.

Electric locomotive of the British Columbia Railway operating in the northern Rocky Mountains. Central British Columbia Railway and Forestry Museum, British Columbia Railway Tumbler Ridge electrification collection, 2000.07.

The northeast coal block lies east of the Rocky Mountains, west of the BC-Alberta border, and south of the Peace River.5 After years of exploration and development proposals, in 1981 Premier Bill Bennett signed an agreement that allowed the NCDP to proceed.6 The town of Tumbler Ridge was created to provide a living space for those who worked for the coal mining companies. It was incorporated in 1981 and after being built at a “feverish pace” was officially opened in August 1983.7 The creation of Tumbler Ridge was funded by the provincial government to promote and sustain the NCDP, and this, combined with the TRBL construction by the Crown corporation BCR, represented a continuation of the provincial government’s active role in modernizing northern BC by subsidizing resource extraction. The branch line alone cost about $450 million dollars.

By traversing mountainous terrain to link the coal fields with its north-south mainline at Anzac, the BCR would play an essential in the NCDP. In April 1982 a Coal Haulage Agreement was signed between the BCR, Canadian National Railways, and the mining companies, that planned for approximately 8.5 million metric tonnes annually over the branch line, with up to 9.35 million metric tonnes possible.8  However, the BCR faced a major challenge in how to ventilate two very long tunnels that it planned to build under very tall mountains: Wolverine Tunnel (6 kms long) and Table Tunnel (9kms long). To avoid the high cost of ventilation shafts or forced ventilation, electrified locomotives were identified as a possible alternative to diesel-burning engines. A consulting company conducted further studies in 1983 and concluded that electrification of the branch line would be a viable and affordable option, and could be operational by November 1983.9

Coal train exiting tunnel on the Tumber Ridge Branch Line in winter, showing catenary overhead wires and the locomotive’s pantograph arm. Central British Columbia Railway and Forestry Museum, British Columbia Railway Tumbler Ridge electrification collection, 2000.07.

When the electrification project was announced to the public, the reason given for it was that it placed the BCR at the forefront of renewable energy. However, the deciding factor for electrification of the TRBL was more pragmatically related to operating costs compared to diesel locomotives. While a variety of components went into deciding the energy base for the branch line, it evidently came down to cost of the line’s long-term maintenance. Estimated maintenance and repair costs per year were approximately $53,000 for ALCO 3000hp diesel units and $25,000 for electric units. The cost per unit of horsepower was approximately $17.67 for diesel-electric and $4.17 for the electric locomotive. Diesel locomotives (ALCO 3000hp) could run approximately 92,000 miles annually, while electric locomotives operated 64,000 miles annually. The total estimated annual fuel cost for diesel was $118,000, while electric was $97,000.10

Construction of the electrification infrastructure began in May 1983 and was partially completed (with limited electrified operation) by December.11 50kV power was chosen over the conventional 25 kV, because analysis demonstrated that catenary feeding sections could be increased to the extent that the entire line could be served through a single substation and BC Hydro transmission lines delivered 230 kV power from its Bennett Dam generating station to the coal mines located around Tumbler Ridge.12 With this, the BCR became one of the only three railways in the world to incorporate 50kV power in its system.13

BCR officials saw their contribution to hauling coal for the NCDP as a major step forward for both the company and the province. President Mac Norris declared that “we had a choice between using the non-renewable fossil fuel resource to power diesel engines or the renewable hydro-electric power source and opted for the renewable resource.”14 His statement presents the decision to be based on ‘green energy,’ as opposed to economic benefits. The BCR also used the TRBL for positive publicity, emphasizing the branch line’s size and complexity as a project and the speed of its completion. Vice-president Gordon Ritchie stated in an interview that the line was a “remarkable demonstration of the engineering talents of the railway and the ability of its management to embrace new technology.”15 Notably, the BCR tended to associate success and modernity with electrification rather than with coal.

British Columbia Railway officials and construction workers driving the “last spike” on the branch line between Anzac and Tumbler Ridge, November 1 1984. Central British Columbia Railway and Forestry Museum, British Columbia Railway Tumbler Ridge electrification collection, 2000.07.

The BCR’s decision to electrify its branch line to Tumbler Ridge put it at the forefront of railway technology and at the centre of discussions about energy use for transportation. However, there was considerable irony in its claims of having chosen a renewable energy source, given that the line was built for a single purpose: to help transport non-renewable metallurgical coal to a market on the other side of the Pacific, where it would be used to make steel for use (in part) in producing gasoline-powered automobiles. With more recent concerns regarding energy usage and climate change, the irony is all the more apparent. It is important to recognize how various combinations of energy sources were used in the past, and that many supposed innovations such as “green” railways have been considered and even used for many years and are not necessarily new. The rise and fall of the electrified TRBL also highlights how companies’ decisions to shift away from fossil fuels and towards hydroelectricity (and then back again, in this case) tend to be primarily dependent on business factors and economic benefits.

[1] Lana Michelle Sullivan, “The Geography of Community Crisis: A Case of Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia” (Master’s thesis, University of Northern British Columbia, 2002); Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum, 2000.07.58, J.S. Bilne, “Electrification Equipment Disposal of Surplus Assets” (Planning & Technical Services, 11 October 2000).

[2] Bilne, “Electrification Equipment Disposal.”

[3] Christopher F. Jones, Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[4] This pattern actually pre-dated Social Credit in BC. Following World War Two, the province’s Liberal-Conservative coalition government had begun encouraging expansion of resource industries into the north. John R. Wedley argues that although the W.A.C. Bennett administration was most responsible for promoting northern economic development, “all the basic elements of its development strategy in northern BC were ideas that had long been in circulation and which had come to the forefront of political and economic affairs during the coalition period.” Wedley, “Laying the Golden Egg: The Coalition Government’s Role in Post-war Northern Development,” BC Studies 88 (Winter 1991), 58, 91-92.

[5] Lorne Birch, Griffin Forest Consultants Ltd., Timber Resources of the Northeast Coal Study Area (Victoria: Province of British Columbia, March 1980).

[6] Charles Helm, Tumbler Ridge: The Human History (Tumbler Ridge: Loraine Funk and Tumbler Ridge News, 2013), 30.

[7] Tony Jackson and Barbara Illsley, “Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia: The Mining Town that Refused to Die,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 4, 2 (2006), 163; Helm, Tumbler Ridge, 31-32.

[8] Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum, 2000.07.26, British Columbia Railway, Tumbler Ridge Branch Line Electrification Conceptual Design Report (March 1983). The BCR had begun studies alongside the NCDP on rail access to transport coal to Prince Rupert, BC in the late 1970s: see Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum, 2000.07.30, John Popoff, “Tumbler Ridge Branch Line Electrification Interim Commissioning Report” (British Columbia Railway, April 1984), 1.

[9] Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum, 2000.07.07, Canadian Pacific Consulting Services, “British Columbia Railway Tumbler Ridge Branch Line 50kV Electrification Overhead Contact System Installation Specification” (1983), 16.

[10] Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum, 2000.07.28, Robe River Mining Co. Pty. Ltd. and International Rail Consultants, “Comparisons of Diesel-Electric and Electric Locomotives” (November 1987).

[11] Popoff, “Tumbler Ridge Branch Line Electrification Interim Commissioning Report,” 1.

[12] British Columbia Railway, Tumbler Ridge Branch Line Electrification Conceptual Design Report, 6.

[13] Chris Harris, BC Rail: British Columbia’s Great Train Adventure (108 Mile Ranch: Country Light, 1993), 90.

[14] “Coal Trains Set to Start Rolling,” Quesnel Cariboo Observer, 18 October 1983, 2.

[15] “BC Rail Touting Tunnel Market,” Alberni Valley Times, 31 May 1983, 5.

Feature Image: Central British Columbia Railway and Forestry Museum, British Columbia Railway Tumbler Ridge electrification collection, 2000.07.

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Rebecca Campbell

Rebecca has recently completed her BA in history from the University of Northern British Columbia and is currently working as the Curatorial and Operations Assistant for Huble Homestead / Giscome Portage Heritage Society. Rebecca’s research interests include British Columbia history, women’s history, identity, and history of commemoration.

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