Corridor Foundation lays case on the line

If local governments don’t want Vancouver Island rail service back on track, they can do what the Regional District of Nanaimo did

  • Apr. 12, 2016 9:00 a.m.

If local governments don’t want Vancouver Island rail service back on track, they can do what the Regional District of Nanaimo did and withdraw their funding – that will effectively kill the project.

But before making that decision, the regions along the line might want to take a look at the opportunities they’d be derailing.

That was the subtext of a presentation delivered to North Cowichan council by Island Corridor  Foundation CEO Graham Bruce and South Vancouver Island Railway Project Manager for Infrastructure Don McGregor Wednesday, April 6.

They were making the appearance just two weeks after the Regional District of Nanaimo terminated its $945,000 contribution agreement with ICF, money that was being set aside for restoration of rail service.

Cowichan Valley Regional District Chair Jon Lefebure – who is also Mayor of North Cowichan – said after the RDN decision that the CVRD would not be following suit, and would continue to honour its $488,000 commitment.

And so far none of the other regional districts the former E&N railway passes through have withdrawn their support either, but the ICF still faces legal and financial hurdles before a $20.9 million project to get passenger rail service running again can begin.

The VIA Rail service was discontinued in 2011 due to concerns about the condition of the tracks. A $20.9 million fund has been established with the Federal and provincial governments promising $7.5 million each and local governments $5.9 million.

Federal funding for the project was not in place before last October’s election was called, which put the federal contribution on hold.

Bruce said the Liberal government remains committed, and was poised to follow though on the federal portion, but a law suit, filed by the Nanaimo-area Snaw-Naw-As First Nation in December, has put the federal contribution on hold again.

The Snaw-Naw-As are demanding the return of their land, which the corridor runs through, because no trains are running on the line.

Frustration has been building, and the RDN’s pull-out is symptomatic of people’s growing impatience, but Bruce warned the economic potential of an operating railway between Victoria and Courtenay will not likely be resurrected if the tracks are ever ripped up.

“If you pull it up, it’s unlikely that railway will ever be put down again,” he said.

That would mean projects that would benefit industry, tourism and potential passengers in the Mid-Island region will not materialize.

Among the projects being considered, and which Bruce highlighted, was tourism-excursion runs that would see passenger trains connecting with cruise ships in Nanaimo and taking visitors on a 30 km run to Chemainus.

He said a diesel locomotive that took politicians attending the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities convention in Nanaimo on an excursion last Friday, April 7, could be used for that service.

Passenger service ‘based in Nanaimo’, using ‘fully refurbished’  and ‘bike friendly’ Budd Cars that are available to be put back in service when needed, is on the table too, Bruce Said. VIA Rail, former operators of the line, is prepared to provide ‘deficit funding’ up to $1.45 million during the first year of operation.

Combined with potential freight services to the ports of Nanaimo and Port Alberni, Bruce said the tourism and passenger services of an Island rail system offer, “Greater economic potential for Vancouver Island than anything else I can think of.”