Railway supporters on the Island are still confident about the revival of passenger rail service, despite statements by Premier John Horgan that indicated the government may be leaning towards expanding bus service instead.
Horgan told business representatives earlier this week that a proposal to establish a light-rail service in the south Island doesn’t have a business case to support it, and that the government is more interested in building bus lanes.
On Wednesday, Transportation Minister Claire Trevena wouldn’t totally rule out the idea of getting train service going again on the E&N, but said addressing traffic woes from Langford into Victoria as quickly as possible is the focus.
“The premier’s statement that we need to get moving is right. But we’ve also got to realize, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We’ve got this corridor that really needs to be used to the best of its ability,” she said. “We need to get moving as fast as possible. The premier has given his preference, and that is clearly something that is going to be taken very seriously.”
Duncan Mayor Phil Kent is also the vice-chairman of the Island Corridor Foundation which owns the deteriorating 220-kilometre rail line that stretches from Victoria to Courtenay.
He said he would be disappointed if Horgan’s dismissal of light trains in the south Island in favour of more bus routes was the government’s final answer to the whole train debate.
“We’ve met twice with Transportation Minister Claire Trevena and have requested meetings with the premier on the issue,” he said.
“We’re not looking to solve all the transportation problems on the Island with rail, but it’s certainly a viable option in most cases. We just don’t know what’s in the premier’s mind until we talk to him. We encourage the premier to talk to all the leaders on the Island to get their perspective and not just listen to a few specific people.”
When asked Wednesday about plans for the rail corridor north of Victoria, Trevena had no definitive answer.
“We have to talk to the Island Corridor Foundation,” she said. “We also know that there have been questions from First Nations further up the corridor about access to the corridor. So it really is extremely complicated.”
She said the government is looking at other forms of transit for the corridor, and that a conclusion is “very likely” to be in favour of buses.
Jack Peake is a founding member of the recently formed E&N Railway Roundtable which is committed to coordinating efforts throughout the Island to help preserve and revive the E&N Railway.
He said he and other rail advocates had met with Horgan numerous times before he became premier and he was positive and upbeat at the time about reviving the entire E&N Corridor for train traffic.
Peake also said he and representatives from Cowichan Tribes met with the transportation minister on May 14 and Trevena asked pertinent questions about plans to revitalize the corridor and requested future meetings in which more information would be provided.
“She invited us to meet after a rally to support the rail line in Langford about three weeks ago,” Peake said.
“I don’t believe the minister and the premier talked about this before Horgan made his statements. The timing of this is atrocious but I believe the premier was just talking off the cuff.”
Peake said that despite his concerns, he’s heartened that Horgan was referring to not being in support of establishing a light-train system for passengers in the south Island, which has little to do with what his group, and the Island Corridor Foundation, are proposing.
Light rail is a passenger train powered by overhead electrical wires which has a lighter frame and smaller body than most other trains.
“A light-rail system would require a complete restructuring of the railway line while what we’re talking about is restoring what’s already there,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be a high cost and it’s estimated it would take about $14 million to restore the railway line from Victoria to Langford. What would be ideal is to restore the railway and borrow a few coaches from the West Coast Express (a commuter railway serving the Lower Mainland) for this passenger line. We could move hundreds of people every day. We’re not done yet and more rallies are being planned.”
Passenger train service on the E&N rail line was stopped in 2011 due to track safety concerns, and freight service has also been discontinued between Duncan and Parksville.
Both the province and Ottawa tentatively agreed several years ago to fund $7.5 million each towards the initiative, with local governments agreeing to come up with approximately $5 million, but ongoing court cases and government delays kept the project from proceeding.
The ICF presented a new upgraded $42.7-million proposal to the new NDP government last November, with the hopes that senior levels of government would split the costs, that would pay for major track upgrades between Nanaimo and Victoria, which is considered to be phase one of the overall project.
The new proposal would focus on service only between Nanaimo and Victoria and would provide inter-city Via passenger rail service, a tourist excursion train between the Nanaimo cruise ship terminal and Chemainus and an expansion of the currently operating freight service.
It would also provide the infrastructure support for a trial RDC commuter service between Victoria and Langford which the Capital Regional District would operate.
Neither the province or Ottawa has committed to the new project.
—With a file from Tom Fletcher