It doesn’t look like the passenger train service on the E&N rail line on Vancouver Island is going to be restored any time soon.
When is it going to happen? Will it ever happen? Those are the questions some people are asking.
Unfortunately, the Island Corridor Foundation, a coalition of local governments and First Nation communities that owns the E&N rail line, is unable to provide an answer. The reason is mainly due to funding, which is a crucial component of the foundation’s plan for the rail line. It can’t proceed without it.
The federal and provincial governments have committed funds totalling $15 million to the ICF that will be used to fix the rail infrastructure and restore rail service between Victoria and Courtenay. That has yet to be delivered.
At its annual general meeting in late April, the ICF reflected on 2016. Chair Judith Sayers expressed disappointment they are still not able to acquire the much-needed federal funds of around $7.5 million. That quest for funding was dealt a major setback last December when the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation filed a civil lawsuit against the Federal Government and the ICF.
The Snaw-Naw-As want the portion of the corridor that passes through their reserve returned to them. They claim they have a revisionary right to have the traditional land returned to them if it is no longer used as a railway.
Sayers said the federal government has not shown leadership in negotiating this lawsuit. The ICF was told that no funds will be issued until this matter is settled. She added that the burden has been placed on the ICF to clear this issue.
“The taking of the lands for the E&N railway was an act of the federal government,” said Sayers. “They took the lands without regard for the fact that it was reserve lands. Though many First Nations have been trying for many years to have the federal government resolve the taking of huge tracts of lands for the E&N railway, the federal government has refused to work with them to resolve this long-outstanding issue.
“The federal government is now expecting ICF to resolve this issue they created. As you are aware, ICF acquired these lands from CP Rail who had operated on these tracks for many years.”
Sayers said ICF is open and willing to negotiate but the Snaw-Naw-As are not. The foundation is now looking at another legal recourse.
“ICF is working with our lawyer to bring an application to the court to determine whether or not the railway is still an operating railway,” said Sayers. “If the court concludes that it is an active railway, then the Snaw-Naw-As claim cannot proceed.”
Snaw-Naw-As chief Brent Edwards told the ICF board that it has been 14 years since the foundation was formed in 2003 and it has nothing to show for it.
“Everything seemed like a great idea then and it doesn’t seem like a great idea now,” said Edwards. “We are talking about 10 acres that you guys have not used and you will never use in the foreseeable future.”
Edwards asked the ICF board when the trains would again run north of Nanoose. That question was also made at the Regional District of Nanaimo board meeting recently by Qualicum Beach director and Mayor Teunis Westbroek, who asked how long the community must wait for it to happen. Westbroek also got the RDN board to support the idea to convert the rails to non-motorized trails from Parksville to Courtenay.
Sayers said the ICF can’t answer as it is still waiting for the federal government funding to come through.
Edwards said the Snaw-Naw-As are not benefitting from being part of the ICF. They want their land back.
“You’re in our way,” said Edwards. “You’re not using it for railway purposes. It was not expropriated for trail purposes. It was expropriated for rail use. It’s not going to be used for rail use north of Nanaimo.”
ICF CEO Bruce Graham said ICF has requested Southern Rail, the rail operator, to bring other options for incremental track improvements on the Victoria sub line. But that will not include the Snaw-Naw-As area of claim.
“However, whatever option is agreed upon, it will take a strong concerted effort to convince senior levels of governments to honour their commitments to fund track improvements,” said Graham.
For now, the ICF is working on updating its business plan. It is seeking input from stakeholders and the public on which goals and priorities the board should undertake in the future.
Sarah Morden, who was commissioned to draw the business plan, is currently collecting public feedback. The deadline for feedback was extended to May 19. The goal is to collect more than 400 responses for the survey to become credible. At the AGM, Morden said they were past the halfway mark.
Southern Rail, despite losing $5 million since it started operations in 2006, will stay on track with a goal of maintaining break-even status.
Graham said the key requirement for a successful rail operations is having a committed, well-funded professional rail operator and “this we have with Southern Rail.”
The rail operator has a “four pillar” business plan based on: VIA intercity passenger service; freight; tourism, excursions and rail-trail opportunities; and commuter service.
“The business case depends on (having at least) three of the four pillars, and this plan also depends on infrastructure funding for capital bridge upgrades,” said Derek Ollmann, president of Southern Rail.