VIA slow to table on island passenger rail

Island Corridor Foundation caught in catch-22 as VIA holds out on a new rail service agreement set as condition for repair fund.

Island Corridor Foundation CEO Graham Bruce is struggling to get needed co-operation from VIA Rail in the bid to return passenger rail service to Vancouver Island.

The Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) continues to do everything in its power to get VIA Rail on track with the restoration of an old train service agreement for Vancouver Island passenger rail.

The response has been limited, foundation CEO Graham Bruce conceded, but he’ll take anything he can get right now to move in the right direction.

“I’m encouraged by it,’’ he said. “We’re still hopeful they’ll get at sitting down at the table and we can cover off all the issues that are there.’’

Key issues Bruce identified that VIA has to deal with under the existing agreement before service can commence are: a new Victoria station and finding a train maintenance centre in the Victoria region.

VIA is responsible under the existing agreement for stations, property insurance and taxes, rail cars, maintenance facilities, marketing, scheduling and liability insurance. It also provides an annual subsidy to compensate for the difference between revenues and operating expenses.

The annual subsidy has ranged between $973,000 and $1,933,000 during the past decade.

Bruce acknowledged the lack of a Victoria station and maintenance facility makes it problematic for VIA to restart the existing agreement, but the ICF is prepared to help solve the problems.

Both issues were dealt with in a new comprehensive train service proposal put forward in April on behalf of the ICF by its train operator, Southern Rail, Bruce indicated. There has been no response to that proposal.

Bruce noted the plan addresses all the issues VIA identified.

VIA has also pegged track repairs as essential before any passenger service can resume.

The ICF has obtained federal, provincial and regional government commitments totalling $18.2 million for rail infrastructure improvements contingent on a new train service agreement with VIA.

“We all want a safe and efficient passenger service,’’ said Bruce. “Either VIA doesn’t understand the infrastructure funds are contingent on the passenger rail agreement or they are just trying to delay in hopes that the people of Vancouver Island will go away.’’

Bruce pointed out although the island rail service had been derailed by a poor schedule and old equipment, ridership climbed six per cent annually in each of the last six years of operation. That’s according to VIA’s annual report, Bruce indicated.

“With a little enthusiasm from VIA and all the parties working together, rail service could see continued ridership growth,’’ offered Bruce. “This is exactly why we are asking VIA Rail to come back to the table and work out the arrangements for a train service agreement.’’

He encouraged people to write to government representatives and VIA officials that might help fast-track the process.