Officials from the Island Corridor Foundation met with the province’s new Transportation and Infrastructure Minister, Clair Trevena, Nov. 9 to discuss the long-anticipated railway project.
There were growing concerns within the ICF, the non-profit organization that aims to restore rail service to the Island, that the new minister is planning to commission another study on the initiative and further delay the province’s financial commitment to invest in repairing the track on the railway corridor.
Phil Kent, mayor of Duncan and vice-chair of the ICF, said the intention of the meeting was to clarify the new government’s position on the planned upgrades and repairs to the rail line. At press time, details of the meeting were not available.
Due to track safety concerns, the passenger train service on the E&N Railway line was stopped in 2011 and freight service has also been discontinued between Duncan and Parksville. The federal and provincial governments have committed $7.5 million each, on top of the funding from local governments, to fix the railway line.
But the ICF, which owns the increasingly dilapidated 220-kilometre rail line that stretches from Victoria to Courtenay, and Southern Railway, which runs the rail operations, have been facing delays from the senior levels of government as to when they plan to release the funding they’ve promised.
One reason for the delay is due to a civil lawsuit filed against the ICF and the Attorney General of Canada by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation over the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, which runs through its traditional territory.
The First Nation claims the land was wrongfully taken from it years ago to build the railway and is seeking to have it returned.
Lately, there are some businesses that have been looking at other uses of the idle E&N corridor. Recently, the China-based BYD, which specializes in electric buses and vehicles, has indicated that the railway between Victoria and Langford could possibly be transformed into an electric-bus, rapid-transit route. It would require BC transit taking over the route from the ICF.
Qualicum Beach director and Mayor Teunis Westbroek feels it’s time to explore other options for the the railway, such as turning it into a trail.
“There is a strong desire, generally, to see the rail (corridor) being used for a trail,” said Westbroek. “The main thing is to always protect that corridor, to stay intact. Maybe 20, 50 years from now, people will find a way to use light rail and we can use it for that. But right now as it is considered, the old train system the way it was, to maybe have one or two trains a week, I can’t see anybody justifying the expense to upgrade the track the way it is now. So let’s use it for something else.”
Westbroek feels many people realize that the ICF’s plan is unlikely to happen. The ICF has been wading for years through the bureaucracy of numerous layers of governments and First Nations in its ongoing effort to gather support and raise the money needed to restore train service on the Island but, despite commitments, hardly any senior government money has been forthcoming to date.
“I think it is going to be more difficult for the federal government to still give out the money that they had, at one time, available,” said Westbroek. “In the province, there is no money in the budget for this. So, you see the writing on the wall. I think it’s just a matter of time.”
There is also a fear among some government officials that the cost estimates of repairing the tracks and the line are wildly out of sync with reality, and government would be stuck with skyrocketing costs if it commits to the project.
— NEWS staff with files from Black Press