True cost to upgrade rail would be way more than $43 million

A cost closer to $1 billion might be more realistic

True cost to upgrade rail would be way more than $43 million

The Island Corridor Foundation, along with many other well-meaning but not well-informed individuals continue to promote the resurrection of the E&N rail line from Victoria to Nanaimo. The article by Robert Barron in your Jan. 4, 2019 Citizen (“Province commits to rail, track, bridge survey”) quotes N. Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring, that “there appears to be more desire to restore the rail service, etc.”. None of these individuals, nor myself have the necessary expertise to do a thorough feasibility study on the proposed restoration.

Siebring quotes the 2017 ICF report proposing an existing $43 million fund for restoration; based on what evidence by what expertise? A cost closer to $1 billion might be more realistic, for consider the costs of other recent construction projects on the island: McKenzie interchange, $85 million; Victoria Bridge, $105 million (and the final costs are much higher). The ICF proposal to make what would amount to minimal cosmetic upgrades to the existing railway would be irresponsible with high risk of a major fatal disaster. It’s not simply a matter of replacing a few rail ties here and there, for much of that line, especially outside the various towns like Duncan, is totally deteriorated. Are they not paying attention to the original decision to suspend the Via Rail passenger service in 2011? That decision came solely because they “could not rationalize the cost of maintenance required”. Has that situation improved on its own since then?

What can one accomplish with a restored 1950s-style single-track railroad originally designed for slow-moving freight once daily? The tourist industry might love it, but it wouldn’t do much for year-round transportation on the island. The E&N cannot be resurrected for modern service without substantial upgrading to 2020 standards. Prior to the suspension of passenger service, the railway carried 40,000 passengers per year at best. That averages to 110 passengers per day, or less than 50 cars per day removed from the Malahat, which hardly justifies the ICF claim that “it would significantly reduce vehicle traffic on the Malahat”.

A December 2017 Times Colonist opinion editorial by James Crowley, a former consultant to Canadian National Railways, B.C. Rail and the Canadian Pacific Railway, put it in proper perspective: “It is beyond my imagination that some people believe that this 19th-century junk pile has any future as an operating railway. The E&N was built in the 1880s as a resource railway to haul coal and timber.”

Instead of arguing these points, the ICF board and the various municipalities along the route need to finance a professional feasibility study using modern rail design expertise from say, the German or Japanese rail systems. Neither the ICF nor the B.C. government have the expertise for designing modern railways, and should not be promoting the restoration without it. We don’t know for sure what the true cost would be to bring that line to modern and safe standards, but it sure isn’t anything close to $43 million. Stop stalling with committee meetings for another 20 years, and either get on with a valid feasibility study, or transfer those ICF funds into other needs that might do some good — perhaps remove the tracks and devote the line as a walking, bicycling, or other useful trail.

Geoff Strong

Cowichan Bay

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