President of Southern Rail says passenger service will return to Parksville Qualicum Beach

RDN chair says he's heard it could re-start in May of 2015; skepticism remains

The president of Southern Rail says passenger service will “absolutely” return to Parksville Qualicum Beach.

“It’s going to happen — there will be train service north of Nanaimo,” Frank Butzelaar said this week. “There will be service as far as Courtenay, but what the schedule will look like, I don’t know.”

When Joe Stanhope looks at the condition of the railway and trestle that crosses French Creek near his home, he says he has a difficult time believing $20 million is going to re-start rail service from Victoria to Courtenay.

After he attended the Island Corridor Foundation’s behind-closed-doors annual general meeting last week and listened to a presentation by Butzelaar, Stanhope said he feels a little more confident it can be done. A little.

“I’m not a railway guy,” Stanhope, the chairman of the Regional District of Nanaimo’s board of directors, told The NEWS on Tuesday. “He (Butzelaar) is carrying the ball and he figures he can do it for $20 million. But I think the infrastructure deficit is more than $20 million, even considering his presentation. I think $20 million won’t do it and that’s still my opinion.”

The federal and provincial governments previously committed $7.5 million each to re-start the rail. Five regional districts on the Island have also committed a total of $5 million. The RDN’s commitment was contingent on passenger rail service — stopped three years ago due to unsafe track conditions — returning to at least its former levels, which included service to and from Parksville and Qualicum Beach.

Butzelaar said his company — which operates the rail line owned by the ICF — will use the $20 million to replace 110,000 ties and do bridge repairs. Butzelaar said work to get the line up to safety standards will take nine-12 months, will start in Victoria and passenger service will re-start once the improvements are done as far as Nanaimo.

Butzelaar said the $20 million in upgrades “will sustain passenger rail for a minimum of 10 years.” He also said he’s confident the RDN will contribute the roughly $900,000 it promised.

“I don’t see anything that could put the RDN’s funding in jeopardy.”

Butzelaar also repeated what ICF officials declared earlier this month that Southern Rail and VIA Rail have reached a tentative agreement to re-start passenger service, an assertion VIA has not confirmed.

“It (the agreement) has to be passed by my board, the VIA board and the ICF board too,” he said. “There are a lot of hurdles to still go over, so that’s why we are calling it a tentative agreement.”

While Butzelaar would not provide a time frame on when work on the track would start or finish, Stanhope said Butzelaar suggested at the ICF AGM that rail and bridge work to Qualicum Beach would be done by May of 2015.

“There’s no question they (Southern Rail) figure they are here to stay,” said Stanhope. “It all depends, of course, whether they get the money ($20 million). They sounded pretty confident they are going to get it.”

Stanhope said he doesn’t understand why the ICF’s AGM last week was closed to the public and the media. He said there were only three items on the agenda: Butzelaar’s presentation, the confirmation of new board members and a presentation of the foundation’s financial reports.

“I don’t know why attendance was restricted because there was nothing there,” said Stanhope. “The agenda was small.”

The ICF issued a news release about the AGM on Tuesday. There were no details about funding or schedules for work on the rail or passenger service.

“The perseverance of our board and the commitment of our supporters will result in continued success as we finalize agreements,” said Judith Sayers, co-chair of ICF.

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