Funding from regional districts key to the future of Island rail, says Graham Bruce

Graham Bruce of the Island Corridor Foundation spoke to the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce about re-establishing a viable rail service.

Graham Bruce

Graham Bruce

Why should taxpayers on Vancouver Island invest in the Vancouver Island Railroad?

Without a railway, Wayne Richmond wouldn’t be here.

Speaking to the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce Oct. 16, Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) chief operating officer Graham Bruce laughed as he told the story of how the 49th Parallel Grocery store owner’s father worked on the railway and met his mother on the train.

But Bruce wasn’t joking when he spoke about the need for investment in the Vancouver Island Railway.

The re-establishment of a viable rail service has been a priority for Island communities since 2004, when regional districts, municipalities and First Nations first rallied together to save the railway from closure, Bruce told the Chamber members.

Forming the ICF and acquiring ownership of the railway was the first step. Partnering with a successful rail operator (Southern Railway of Vancouver Island) was the second, and the third step is the incremental rebuilding of the railway to restore passenger service and expand freight service.

Now, the five regional district members of the Island Corridor Foundation — Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo, Capital Region, Alberni-Clayoquot and Comox Valley — are being asked to contribute $3.2 million for the structural repairs to the 48 bridges between Victoria and Courtenay.

“Our final piece is getting the five regional districts on-side,” explained Bruce. “If the regional districts don’t come up with the $3.2 million, we won’t hold Southern Rail. I think we will lose them. When you lose Southern Rail, I don’t think you find another rail operator … and we’ll start to pull the track up. Once you’ve lost the railway corridor, I think you’ve lost it for good. I think I can tell you with pretty great certainty that if the regional districts don’t invest, you won’t have a rail.”

Detailed studies have identified the need for approximately $20.9 million worth of incremental upgrades to restore service for a minimum of 10 years, according to the ICF.

The federal and provincial governments have confirmed a combined total of $15 million in funding for the railroad, which has substantially reduced the amount of funding required from member regional districts to 15 per cent of the total project cost — or $3.2 million.

Shared by all five member regional districts, the cost to taxpayers (based on assessment) would be approximately $0.43 per $100,000 of assessed value, according to the ICF.

The ICF has committed to spending $2.2 million through loans and fundraisers, and Southern Railway of Vancouver Island is pitching in $500,000.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD)’s share would be $515,000, and the CVRD has the ability to borrow that money over five years without going to the public through a referendum or Alternate Approval Process, explained Ladysmith Mayor Rob Hutchins, who is chair of the CVRD board.

Hutchins told Chamber members that the vast majority of homes in the CVRD would be paying less than $2 a year for five years, based on their assessment.

“If you live in the Nanaimo Regional District or the Cowichan Valley Regional District, you are a part owner of this extensive rail corridor,” said Hutchins. “Are we going to invest in it or turn our backs on it? I have not had one person over the last 10 years we have been championing this say ‘let’s turn our back on this.’”

The ICF’s planned improvements provide an incremental approach to restoring and expanding passenger and freight service on Vancouver Island.

The improved railroad will allow for a new train service agreement to be negotiated with VIA Rail. Bruce spoke about the potential for upgraded passenger cars and scheduling changes to provide an additional early morning southbound commuter run from Nanaimo to Victoria and an additional early evening run returning to Nanaimo from Victoria.

Bruce also spoke about turning each station stop into interest stops, where people could get off the train and eat and enjoy all the community’s attractions. He could see an excursion train coming to Ladysmith during the winter to bring people to see Light Up.

“There’s potential on the tourism side, on the passenger side of moving people from centre to centre, and on the economic side of freight service, which is good for all of Vancouver Island,” said Bruce.

Bruce says the ask has gone in to the regional districts, and he expects the funding decisions to be made in the next three to five weeks.

“It isn’t going to happen if you don’t do anything — that’s where we’re at,” said Bruce. “This is your railroad.”