Rail service on Vancouver Island was given a $945,000 lifeline Tuesday night as Regional District of Nanaimo directors narrowly voted to provide their portion of the funding needed to get the track back up to snuff.
The issue was a contentious one, with opponents and supporters split mostly on rural and urban lines.
The debate was preceded by several late delegations, most of whom spoke against the project.
Errington residents Brian and EnidMary Sangster-Kelly both said they loved rail transport but argued that the cost estimate for the repairs to the rail line was far too low, meaning the RDN payment would not be a one-off, but rather just the first in a number of inevitable requests.
Terry Moore was also against the funding, arguing the rail line didn’t work before and there wasn’t enough potential to make it work now.
Mike Delves spoke in favour, arguing the current generation had the benefit of the infrastructure laid down by previous generations, but they have failed to maintain it, meaning the younger generation will be faced with either massive bills to bring it back up to standard or with the lack of that infrastructure altogether.
When the matter came up for debate, Nanaimo director George Anderson moved approval, with director John Ruttan seconding the motion.
That’s when the ties started to fly.
Nanaimo director Bill Bestwick, who supported the move at the committee of the whole meeting two weeks previously, changed his vote when he couldn’t get a guarantee that Via Rail would reinstitute passenger service.
Anderson said while he still supported the proposal, his support didn’t come without a lot of work.
“I’ve had some difficulty over the last few months making a decision on this and I’ve spoken to many individuals and read many, many reports,” he said. “I spent a lot of time making sure the decision I make is in the best interests of the public and the taxpayer. I will continue to support this because it is an investment and if we don’t support this it is the end of rail — this evening.”
He was echoed by Nanaimo director Diana Johnstone.
“Even if there is not a business plan in place at the moment, it doesn’t mean it is not worthy of financial support,” she said. “It’s a one-time investment for the constituents and in 10 years time the Island Corridor Foundation will have a very viable business case. I definitely support it.”
Coombs director Julian Fell wasn’t so sure.
“I am a fan of rail travel,” he said. “It pains me to vote against this rail restoration plan, but I’ve concluded it does not merit support in its present form. The amount needed is three times more than budgeted. The full expenditure of $15 million will not result in a completely safe track and we have no assurance that VIA will supply a train if it’s not fully safe. So it’s possible the expenditure of these funds will give no result.”
In particular, Fell noted the Niagara bridge at mile 14 on the track is of concern.
“It’s 130 years old and made of brittle steel — the same material the Titanic was made of,” he said. “The bridge is sagging and it has a dip in the middle. It has a 10 kilometre per hour speed limit and can’t be used at all if the winds are over 30 kilometres per hour.”
Deep Bay-Bowser director Bill Veenhof was also unconvinced about the project’s merit.
“The final number is more than the ICF is suggesting,” he said. “I am a fan of rail and would really like to see it, but I’m convinced this plan doesn’t get us there.”
Qualicum Beach director Dave Willie was the only person to vote against the plan at the committee of the whole and he remained firmly on the no side.
“I take exception to using grants in aid to fund a private company,” he said. “We are spending public funds to prove whether freight service will work, but the freight business has not been in bocars for 30 to 40 years. It’s all intermodal now, but there are no intermodal customers here to make it work. To suggest that a freight business that is doing less than a million dollars a year now can get $100 million to start repairs will not happen and can not happen — and unless freight can do that, passenger trains will not operate.”
Nanaimo director Ted Greves begged to differ.
“This is a work in progress and it needs public funding for the startup,” he said.
Greves cited reports from two experienced railway engineers who said the plan would bring the track up to and beyond the minimum safety standard needed.
“these are the professional people we are listening to,” he said. “They signed off on this. They say they can do it for this amount of money.”
Deputy chair Diane Brennan agreed.
“I firmly believe a no vote is a vote against rail,” she said. “There’s no question in my mind.
When it came time to vote, directors Marc Lefebvre, Dave Willie, Bill Veenhof, Howard Houle, Maureen Young, George Holm, Julian Fell and Alec McPherson voted against the motion while directors Joe Stanhope, Diane Brennan, John Ruttan, Diana Johnstone, Jim Kipp, George Anderson, Brian Dempsey, Bill Bestwick and Ted Greves voted in favor.
Because it was a weighted vote, which gives more weight to municipal voters than those in the rural areas, the final tally was 37 votes in favor and 24 opposed.