Larry Stevenson fears governmental delays could postpone plans for the return of rail service to Vancouver Island.
Speaking to the board at the Cowichan Valley Regional District on Jan. 23, Stevenson, CEO of the Island Corridor Foundation, said he was told by officials from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure at a meeting earlier this month that the planned assessment process of track and bridge conditions on the entire 220-kilometre E&N rail corridor would likely take until the end of October, 2019, to complete.
Stevenson, who became CEO of the ICF just six months ago, said the officials stated that the conclusions and recommendations from the assessment would then be rolled into the province’s transportation study for 2020, so work to begin to repair and revive the rail line won’t be happening anytime soon.
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He also said that, with a federal election scheduled for October, if there are no plans and financial requests ready to be handed in to Ottawa by mid-June of this year, plans for the railway would likely have to be put on hold until sometime after the election.
“There are timing issues around restoring the railway, so there is some urgency to move the project forward,” Stevenson said.
“We could have the planned repairs to the track between Langford and Victoria and that line up and running before that study is even completed. We need some clarity on these timing issues.”
A statement from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said that in order to explore the feasibility of investing in rail along the rail corridor, an up-to-date and in-depth track and bridge assessment is necessary.
The statement said the ministry must determine the “all in” cost of restoring rail.
“This includes the cost of imperative safety work, including a seismic risk assessment and a rock fall review to ensure any passenger rail service meets current-day safety standards,” the ministry said.
“The ministry is also committed to working with members from indigenous communities up and down the corridor to ensure all governing partners are a part of any future decisions surrounding this corridor. The ministry is prepared to start the process for the engineering assessment as soon as possible with a request for proposals on BC Bid. Once a contractor is selected, the ministry anticipates this process taking less than six months to complete.”
After almost 15 years of planning and discussions about restoring rail traffic to the Island, hopes were high that it could soon happen after Premier John Horgan and Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Clair Trevana held a meeting in December on the issue with almost every mayor, regional district chairman and First Nations from all along the E&N rail line that stretches from Victoria to Courtenay, as well as representatives from the Island Corridor Foundation which owns the rail line.
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Stevenson said after the meeting in December that he had hoped the province was committed to moving forward quickly with the track assessment.
“People who attended that meeting made it clear that they wanted a commitment to restoring the railway, they wanted it now and they wanted to get going on this project,” he said.
“There have already been at least 10 studies done on this rail line, which I believe is the most studies done on one line in all of North America, and I don’t know why there were so many. Now it sounds like we have to wait for yet another study to be completed.”
Passenger train service on the rail line was stopped in 2011 due to track safety concerns, and freight service has also been discontinued on most parts of the Island.
Both the province and Ottawa tentatively agreed several years ago to fund $7.5 million each towards rejuvenating the aging and dilapidated rail line, with local governments, including the Cowichan Valley Regional District, agreeing to come up with approximately $5 million.
The ICF presented a $42.7-million proposal to revive a major section of the railway to the new NDP government late in 2017, with the hopes that senior levels of government would split the costs of the major track upgrades between Nanaimo and Victoria, which is considered to be phase one of the overall project.
Neither the province nor Ottawa have committed to the plan at this time.
Stevenson said there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion around plans for the railway, and blamed senior levels of government and the ICF itself for that.
He said all the different studies of the track over the years have come up with different figures as to the costs of the rail line’s restoration.
Stevenson said it’s been determined that the base-line costs of making the rail line active again is approximately $150 million for the entire line.
“But that is just for a basic service,” he said.
“There are different needs in different areas where the rail line runs, so the requirements and the costs won’t be the same all over.”
Stevenson said there is ongoing grumbling about the costs, but people should be aware that overall transportation costs in B.C. is about $33 per citizen per year, and a “Cadillac” train system on the Island could be built for an average of $3 per citizen per year.
“The economic benefits of a restored train system would be massive, with more tourists and cruise ships visiting the Island, and the ability for Islanders to move up and down the Island with ease,” he said.
“The return of freight trains would also be great for the economy. Port Alberni’s port is almost empty of ships, but a restored railway there would bring in ships. There’s a pot of gold waiting there and if we can get freight trains operating again, the costs would take care of themselves.”