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Save-the Rail plan under attack

VIA Rail’s two passenger cars are under wraps and have been in Nanaimo since May 10. - Black Press photo
VIA Rail’s two passenger cars are under wraps and have been in Nanaimo since May 10.
— image credit: Black Press photo

At the Wellcox railyard in Nanaimo, Via Rail’s two passenger cars have sat cocooned in silver plastic since May 10.

Their removal from storage inside Vic West’s Roundhouse has former advisors to the Island Corridor Foundation scratching their heads.

“It makes no sense to me,” said Jack Peake, former mayor of Lake Cowichan and former chair of the ICF board. 

Draping tarps over the rail cars will keep the moisture in, he explained.

“That’s a no-no, mildew will form,” echoed Jim Sturgill, who drove the train for many years.

Until recently, both men were volunteer members of the rail operations liaison advisory committee, tasked with advising ICF board members who have no background in the industry. 

Peake and Sturgill now find themselves following the evolving fate of the E&N rail line from the sidelines.

The five-member advisory committee’s role has ended — though they’ve received no official letters of termination from ICF executive.

Hostilities have boiled over at a critical time for the E&N. By mid June, the ICF expects to learn if a long-awaited grant needed to relaunch the passenger line will be awarded or denied.

The service was shut down in March for minor repairs, then indefinitely when more track problems came to light – though freight service continues.

“We’re at a crisis point … but we knew that was coming when we acquired the railway,” said ICF board co-chair Judith Sayers. 

“We’ve been lobbying for funds to try to up the infrastructure but have not been successful to date.”

The closure, however, only aggravated an existing rift between several of the ICF’s former advisors and its executive and board.

A major sticking point is the ICF’s $15-million grant application to the federal and provincial government. 

Whether it’s an adequate amount is the question.

“We identified many years ago that the true rehabilitation of the railway corridor required somewhere around $100 million,” said Peake. “The number of years that have gone by since that figure was identified, probably means the number is higher now.”

But ICF’s executive director, Graham Bruce, puts the disagreement in context.

“No one’s disputing that there’s not more that needs to be done,” he said. “($15 million) is what gets us back in operation, and secures the future safely for rail.”

Further track upgrades will happen incrementally as demand grows, he explained. 

Bruce has been executive director for two years. In the past, he has served as mayor of North Cowichan and a B.C. cabinet minister. 

The ICF board backs his plan.

In July 2010, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation released a viability study, concluding “current volumes of freight and passengers do not support significant infrastructure investment at this time.”

Three months later, the ICF recrafted its funding request. 

It abandoned its loftier pursuit of securing $104 million, and submitted a more modest request of $15 million, in part to address issues raised in a letter of non-compliance from the B.C. Safety Authority. 

The repairs, according to the rail operator, Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, would be adequate to ensure continued safe operation of the line. 

“The main issue with the track relates directly to the track ties,” said Don McGregor, general manager of Southern Railway. 

If gifted $15 million, one quarter of all ties could be replaced, steel joints repaired and the track straightened for a smoother ride. The money would also fund an in-depth assessment of all bridges.

Southern Railway employees have taken over the former advisors’ role, giving updates to the board on the Island’s rail operations issues.

Sturgill likens this to letting the fox guard the hens. 

Wayne Stewart agrees. 

The retired Canadian Pacific Railway officer resigned from the advisory committee in September.

“There was no expertise in trying to go out and find people besides Southern Railway to evaluate the track condition and to maintain it,” Stewart explained.

Sturgill also feels advisors’ concerns were sidelined. 

His requests to meet and review a safety inspection report was denied.

“None of these topics and safety matters are of concern to the committee,” Bruce replied to him by  e-mail, Jan. 20. 

“We also no longer need to use the committees.”

Last week, Bruce explained the reasons behind the move.

“We don’t need a volunteer advisory group,” he said. “I actually want to know from professional people, in respect to being able to advise the board, that we are … running a safe and reliable railway. 

“That doesn’t come from volunteers.”

Rail is a heavily regulated industry, he said, adding both the B.C. Safety Authority and Via Rail ensure the line runs according to standard.

Bruce also points to Southern Railways’ track record of safety and success.

“We’re very fortunate on Vancouver Island that we were able to … attract a railroad operator and a company that’s got a very high reputation.”

The company, McGregor added, is in “break even mode” because it reinvests any surplus into track improvements. 

“The reason we’ve agreed to do that is we believe in the future of the railway,” he said.

As for the passenger-car relocation issue, McGregor explains: Via Rail made the decision.

The Roundhouse, while covered, has suffered vandalism in the past, he said. 

In Nanaimo, the railyard is near Southern Railway headquarters and is surveilled by the Nanaimo Port Authority.

Possible moisture problems have been addressed, McGregor reassured. 

“Via said they would pay for us to do weekly inspections,” he said. “I can foresee us monitoring inside moisture and getting fans and heaters and having a periodic drying out of the equipment.”     — Rozan Holmen is a reporter with the Victoria News/Black Press

 

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