Even though the next provincial election is almost two years away, platforms to do with the E&N Railway are as likely to be political as physical in the coming months.
People attending a July 8 public meeting organized by Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Doug Routley at the Eagles Hall in Ladysmith were told the E&N Railroad will be a ‘platform issue’ when they get their next chance to go to the polls, and that it’s taking too long to get trains back on tracks, since passenger service was discontinued in 2011 over safety concerns.
Routley said getting the trains running again is a ‘policy decision’ that has to be made by government, as much as a financial decision to be based on the ability of the rail line to generate revenue. “It’s a public policy decision,” he said in his opening remarks. “Highways don’t make profits.”
Pointing out that every mode of transportation in BC is heavily subsidized, including highways, public transit, SkyTrain in Vancouver and BC Ferries, Routley said the fate of the E&N Railway should not be determined by any other standard. “We should not be shy in expecting that our transportation systems should be subsidized,” he said.
But the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s representative on the Island Corridor Foundation, Duncan Mayor Phil Kent, said playing with the trains is not the ICF’s responsibility; it’s job – as owner of the E&N – is to exercise ‘due diligence’ making sure a safe, viable, affordable railway is achievable – based on plans drawn up by the experts – before switching on the green light.
He argued for a sound financial plan amongst the complex considerations that have to be in place before reactivating the E&N. “If the funding was made available, would you go ahead if there was no business case?” he asked.
Routley told about 50 people attending the public meeting that the E&N has to be considered an integral part of Vancouver Island’s future. “We want to see a sustainable future for this island, with a sustainable transportation system,” he said.
He noted that a half-billion dollar asset was turned over to the Island Corridor Foundation when the CPR and Rail America exchanged their ownership of the E&N line for about $100 million in ‘tax receipts.’
“Canadian taxpayers have paid $100 million for this corridor,” Routley said.
Cost estimates for repairing ties and simply getting the railroad running again at the standard it was before the 2011 shutdown are in the $20 million range. The federal and provincial governments have said they would commit up to $15 million jointly to see that happen; member communities of the ICF have committed another $5 million.
Jack Peake, a former president of the Vancouver Island Association of Coastal Communities and of the ICF board, agreed with Routley that the present board needs to be restructured. “The ICF has turned into a board that is no longer doing what it was established for,” he said, recommending a mechanism be found for getting people with expertise in the operation of ‘short run railways’ like the E&N on the board.
He said the longer the railroad sits idle the more difficult and expensive it will be to get the railway back in service. “We’re running into crunch time now,” Peake said. “We need to get this thing on track right now.”
Among the markets that can be considered for development are: freight, inter-city passenger service, tourist rail, and commuter rail.
Routley said taking full advantage of those markets would require more money than simply reopening and operating the railway as it had been prior to 2011. Estimates range from $103 million to $120 million if bridges along the E&N line are upgraded to accommodate heavy freight.
One of the main benefits of expanding rail service would be a reduction in traffic on Highway 1, particularly the Malahat section and the congested approaches to Victoria. “We cannot plan for the future without considering an alternative to cars,” Routley said.
ICF Chair, Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay, reminded the meeting that the ICF Board has a decision making mandate, but is not in charge of operations. “I think it’s pretty important to understand that the board is a charitable foundation and the board itself is not in the railway business,” he said. “That’s why we have an operator (The Southern Railway of Vancouver Island).”