Mid-Island ponders future of rail service

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by Darrell Bellaart and Susan Down

Mid-Island politicians are holding back nearly $1 million in funding destined for track repairs the Island Corridor Foundation needs to restart passenger rail service on Vancouver Island. But that is only one of the challenges, including a First Nations lawsuit, as the ICF works to finalize a new era of rail travel here.

Island Corridor Foundation CEO Graham Bruce (left) and Don McGregor, infrastructure project manager at Southern Rail

Island Corridor Foundation CEO Graham Bruce (left) and Don McGregor, infrastructure project manager at Southern Rail

The Snaw-Naw-As First Nation in Nanoose recently launched a civil suit to take back ownership of land expropriated from its reserve, when the railway was originally built. ICF filed its response in February  “We are hopeful we can have some sort of conversation once all the parties had filed,” said CEO Graham Bruce, who added that the $7.5 million federal funding is still expected soon. “We’re quite confident. The money’s there. We just need the minister to sign off. We’re very close with a number of dark clouds we will have to deal with.”

As local governments grow impatient, Bruce and Southern Rail project manager Don McGregor made presentations last week to the regional district boards in Alberni Clayoquot and the Cowichan Valley.

Meanwhile the 17-member Regional District of Nanaimo board of directors voted unanimously against the release of $945,000 to the nonprofit ICF, which owns the rail line linking Courtenay to Victoria. Based on the region’s population, the RDN’s contribution is second only to the Capital Regional District’s portion.
The money has already been collected in taxes from residents of communities between Cedar and Bowser. The board held the vote March 22 during an in-camera meeting —not an unusual step, given the size of the grant and the topic, which amounts to a vote of non-confidence for the ICF.

Until now the RDN has backed the push to restore service by repairing the E&N Railway line track. Passenger service was stopped in 2011 over track safety concerns. “The board did its bit when it decided to spend taxpayer money to bring rail back,” said Bill Veenhof, RDN board chairman. “The board is, I think, fundamentally concerned about the day-to-day operations of the ICF.”

After the service stopped, ICF’s Bruce, pieced together a rescue plan that involved first getting the provincial and federal governments on side to jointly commit $15 million to track repairs. Next Bruce made an appeal out to the ICF membership—local governments served by the rail line—for another $5 million in cash and pledges.

Veenhof is not ready to proclaim passenger rail service dead. “People have asked me if this is the end of rail, and it’s not,” Veenhof said. “For me, it’s very much a starting point of discussions for what the future of the corridor is – what’s the future of rail, the future of the ICF and what’s the future of that corridor?”

The decision reflects the regional board’s concerns about a lack of transparency by the ICF, he said.
When the RDN voted to fund the project, it was “with the promise and expectation of train service between Courtenay-Comox and Victoria,” Veenhof said. “Somewhere in the intervening time, we were told; ‘Not really, we’re going to do service from Victoria to Nanaimo and you guys will get weekends.’”

Bruce and McGregor said the plan uses an incremental approach to add new city services gradually “to see when or not there is a long term future for rail,” said Bruce to the CVRD, adding that’s how they came up with the $20.9 million figure for passenger rail; it’s for the first 10 years. They believe the commuter and inter-city potential is big, suggesting that a 19-minute rail trip from Langford to Victoria would have wide appeal.

Southern Rail owner Dennis Washington is committed to this project, said McGregor. “It involves us as a company taking the risk beyond what VIA Rail has historically provided. Washington also cares about his reputation. We’re in it for 10 years.”

In the midst of this uncertainty, ICF is celebrating the 130th anniversary of Vancouver Island rail travel on April 8-9 featuring a train excursion from Nanaimo train station to Wellington and tours of the restored train cars from 1929-1956.  More information

The Vancouver Island Railway, first known as the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) Railway, was incorporated on 27 September 1883 by Victoria coal baron Sir Robert Dunsmuir, to support the coal and lumber industry and the Royal Navy Base as Esquimalt. Construction began on April 30, 1884 and after two years of construction, Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald drove the last railway spike into the ground on August 13th, 1886.

In 1905 Robert Dunsmuir’s son James sold the railway to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) who extended connections to Lake Cowichan, Port Alberni, Parksville, Qualicum Beach and Courtenay. At its peak the E&N railway had 45 stations on the main line, eight on the Port Alberni line, and 36 stations on the Cowichan line. Today there are four historic stations in each of Nanaimo, Qualicum, Courtenay and Duncan.

 

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