The federal government will chip in $7.5 million to help fix the E&N rail tracks between Courtenay and Victoria, a deal that officials describe as critical to restoring rail operations on Vancouver Island.
Dozens of dignitaries packed Langford’s modest rail kiosk Tuesday morning as Conservative MP John Duncan (Vancouver Island North) pledged to match $7.5 million committed by the province last June.
“This will be a positive impact for communities and businesses the length of the Island,” said Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. “This will help restore passenger service and open freight options for Vancouver Island.”
The $15 million purse will allow the Island Corridor Foundation to replace 104,000 rail ties along 225 kilometers of track and reestablish a VIA Rail passenger service based out of Nanaimo. Last April the track was deemed unsafe and passenger service shut down, although a few low-speed freight runs remain.
“This is a historical corridor and a historical rail system,” said Langford Mayor Stew Young. “This is the day rail service was saved on Vancouver Island. I don’t think we could have let it go for another year.”
Getting the E&N on Ottawa’s radar
Duncan played a crucial role in lobbying his federal colleagues for the $7.5 million, but it wasn’t by chance the announcement was made in Langford. At Duncan’s request, Young made a quiet trip to Ottawa last November to press the business case with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office. The mayor described his trip as a “last ditch attempt” to save the E&N.
“We presented the case from an economic and green perspective, and the fact that if we didn’t do this, we’d lose the (E&N) forever,” Young said.
“I put my two cents in as best I could. We were received so well by the Prime Minister’s staff. They were very receptive to what we were saying. To me, the best move we did was to go back there (to Ottawa).”
Duncan wouldn’t say what was discussed in the meeting with PMO officials, but noted Young’s trip to Ottawa took place at a critical point in the effort to secure funds.
“Being the business man that he is, having (Young’s) support was important,” Duncan said. “His vision is the freight side of the rail line. There is a good case for freight on the E&N.”
Young envisions building truck-to-train transfer stations for commercial freight on either side of the Malahat to help remove heavy traffic from the highway.
“(The E&N) is the best corridor to get people up Island and for job creation,” Young said. “But forget economics, it’s worth it just to save lives. It’s a dangerous road. It was a scenic tour in the 1950s. Now its a deathtrap. We need to get heavy trucks off the Malahat.”
Currently, Southern Railway runs freight from Nanaimo to Duncan and Parksville four days per week, mainly industrial products such as fertilizer, propane, grains and latex barged from the Mainland.
Southern Railway president Frank Butzelaar said repairing the track and reestablishing passenger service signals to business and industry that rail shipping will be viable and affordable, especially for bulk items.
“Certainly we expect to see a resurgence in freight now that certainty exists,” Butzelaar said. “Those that use commercial freight shipping on Vancouver Island knows we are here for the long term and can plan to use rail.”
Fixing the track
ICF chief operating officer Graham Bruce expects the rail operator, Southern Railway, to start repairs by this fall. With any luck, a VIA passenger train could be on track by mid-2013.
Graham estimates about $12.5 million is needed to replace the 104,000 wooden ties and gravel ballast between Courtenay and Victoria. The steel rails themselves will not be replaced.
The ICF also needs to upgrade a number of bridges and trestles with money yet to be secured. Details of a bridge and trestle engineering audit are expected for release on Friday, but Bruce said passenger service won’t resume until a bridges between Nanaimo and Victoria are repaired. Some 48 structures in all need some level of updating.
It’s not clear where that money will come from – the federal government’s contribution comes with the stipulation that the ICF won’t ask for more funds.
Butzelaar, with Southern Railway, estimates repairing the track to be a nine or 10 month process, and expects “a year before trains are rolling.” He described the bridge and trestle repair as an order of magnitude smaller than repairing the track.
“I think everyone is very pleased with the condition of the bridges,” he said. “The work that needs to be done isn’t significant.”
When the track is deemed safe for passenger travel, Graham said VIA Rail has committed a refurbished three-car train. The tentative plan is to run the train from Nanaimo to Victoria early in the morning, make a round trip between Victoria and Courtenay, and then leave Victoria again in the evening to Nanaimo.
“Depending on how things go, perhaps by this time next year we’ll have a passenger VIA (Rail) system,” Bruce said. “Passengers from Nanaimo south can visit Victoria for the day and return in the evening. We think this will greatly improve ridership.”
At the same time, Bruce and the ICF will work on a business case for freight hauling gravel aggregate over the Malahat, and a case for a basic commuter rail service based out of Nanaimo.
The federal shipbuilding contract will only add traffic headed toward CFB Esquimalt, and the pressure is on for some type of intercity rail service. Bruce expects to approach communities along the E&N track with an initial plan by this fall.
“We’re working on a commuter system of sorts,” Graham said. “There is lots of growth on the West Shore. There is an opportunity to help take a bite out of that morning rush hour.”
125 years of history
Dignitaries at the announcement touched on the history of the rail line built by Robert Dunsmuir in the 1880s in exchange for a huge swath of Vancouver Island land, known as the E&N land grant.
Judith Sayers, Chief of the Hupacasath First Nation and chair of the ICF board, reminded the audience the creation of E&N line had deep ramifications for First Nations communities in terms of land rights and treaties.
”What we are trying with the ICF is to take away that negativity, to take something that was bad news for First Nations communities and make it to something that is good,” Sayers said.
“The ICF is about connecting communities. This is a dream come true today. Today the federal grant completes the dream. Now we can dream of commuter rail for (southern Vancouver Island) and maybe that bridge we need downtown,” she said to laughter, referring to the now dismantled Johnson Street rail bridge.
“The E&N has been here for 125 years , we’ve had a train on Vancouver Island for 125 years starting in the old coal mining days of Robert Dunsmuir,” added Mary Ashley, vice-chair of the ICF board. “Today we can see a future for rail, both passenger and freight for Vancouver Island.”