Duncan’s Top Shelf hit hard by halt to rail freight

Rail freight on Vancouver Island has been suspended temporarily, with no word on when it will resume.

One of the largest users of rail freight service in the Cowichan Valley, Top Shelf Feeds, is treating the suspension as indefinite, and trying to find ways to continue operating without the train.

"I don’t know if temporary is the proper term," Top Shelf owner Robert Davison said. "I personally look at it as it won’t ever be lifted and rail is gone. We’re making arrangements that it’s not nine months or whatever we’ve been told."

According to Davison, he was informed late last week that Southern Rail of Vancouver Island, which operates the railway, and the Island Corridor Foundation, which owns it, were shutting down service.

"For them to tell us at the 12th hour that we were no longer getting rail cars was in poor taste and poorly done," he said, noting that the majority of Top Shelf’s product comes to its facility south of Duncan by rail. "This took us totally by surprise, especially after six months ago they informed us that any delays due to construction would not effect us and that they would make sure there was as little disruption as possible to our service."

Passenger service was suspended in March 2011 after rail conditions reached unacceptable safety levels. Freight, which can move more slowly, continued between Duncan and Parksville.

SVI and the ICF worked to secure $20.9 million in funding commitments from three levels of government to restart passenger service, with plans to expand existing freight business and develop new excursion rail services. Those funds are expected to be released in early 2015.

In the meantime, rail conditions have been monitored closely, leading to last week’s suspension of freight service.

"This week, after completion of a detailed risk assessment, it was determined that the safest course of action was to temporarily discontinue the freight service to Duncan and Parksville," says a statement posted on the Island Corridor Foundation website.

The service cancellation follows a recent track inspection jointly conducted with the B.C. Safety Authority, an independent organization responsible for safe installation and operation of technical systems and equipment, including railways, under the Railway Safety Act. Safety is a "shared commitment," according to an email from the BCSA.

"It is the responsibility of railway owners and operators to ensure the safe configuration and operation of their technical systems and equipment," said Quinn Newcomb, BCSA spokesman.

BCSA works with railway owners and operators to provide input into the development of their safety management systems – formal frameworks for integrating safety into day-to-day railway operations required for all provincially-regulated railways.

As part of its oversight program, BCSA railway safety officers routinely assess all operating railways, regularly audit railway operators against their own safety management systems, and has authority to issue compliance orders, findings and recommendations as a result of these audits. "We didn’t see this coming," Davison said. "We weren’t advised at any time that we had to look at alternatives. We want to stay here and we want to continue to serve the Vancouver Island agriculture community, so we’ll do whatever it takes."

For the time being, Top Shelf is having to transload rail cars when they arrive on the Island at Wellcox, and truck product to Duncan.

"That’s a significant expenditure on our part," Davison pointed out.

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