An operating agreement signed Wednesday is set to restore passenger rail service on Vancouver Island.
"It’s a great day. Obviously a very big important step in the future of rail service for the long term," said an excited Duncan Mayor Phil Kent Thursday afternoon outside the city’s iconic train station.
The agreement is between Via Rail, the Island Corridor Foundation and Southern Railway of Vancouver Island Ltd., according to rail company president Frank Butzelaar.
Butzelaar said the agreements must still be ratified by each organization’s respective boards befor it’s a done deal.
Southern railway’s board is not scheduled to meet until August, he said.
The news comes as the strongest sign yet that rail service along the EN corridor between Courtenay and Victoria will resume again after ceasing in 2011 due to concerns with the safety of the track.
Kent said Island politicians and the Island Corridor Foundation "have been expecting that this agreement would be signed. It’s taken some time both in the admission of Via Rail and all the parties of the strength of the ownership by the foundation of the corridor, being able to find such a professional operator and to work to gather the funding together to make passenger service’s return a reality."
It’s one more step in the process to returning the rail line to vitality.
"I have to give a lot of credit to Southern Rail and Vancouver Island Rail to develop something that Via could support, that actually created changes and some flexibility in scheduling, which will be in the hands of the operator," Kent said. "That will also provide flexibility as we go forward, taking on the financial risk, of course, so that Via has a fixed subsidy to work towards operations and rail passenger service. That’s Via’s mandate in Canada, to provide rail service; I think
it’s important that they provide that same service here."
"The rail funding agreements for the infrastructure are underway as well in concurrence with all of this," Kent said.
Approximately $20.9 million in funding has been earmarked by the federal, provincial and local governments on the Island to replace over 110,000 deteriorating wooden ties along the rail link, plus steel repairs and upgrades for bridges along the route.
Negotiations with Via to resume the service have taken years to conclude. The Crown corporation has agreed to contribute $1.45 million per year to offset the operating cost of the service and will provide three refurbished passenger cars.
Trips are set to begin again in May out of Nanaimo with service to Victoria.
Full service to Courtenay and Qualicum Beach should be phased in by next summer.
"Via [Rail] was looking for someone to step in and underwrite the financial risk of the service, and that’s what we were prepared to do," Butzelaar said. "Via was looking for [an] operator."