Vancouver Island deserves and is ready now for 21st century rail transit
An open letter to Minister of Transportation Claire Travena and Opposition Transport critics Jordan Sturdy and Michael Lee, Government of British Columbia:
A recent editorial in the Cowichan Valley Citizen rightly bemoaned the fact that our response to urgent and exponentially worsening transportation issues on Vancouver Island’s urban municipalities including the greater Victoria/CRD area have to date been piecemeal and lacked any sense of a coordinated and comprehensive transportation strategy for the Island as a whole.
In particular, the article focused on the protracted and painful attempts by the Island Corridor Foundation to resurrect the former E & N service from Nanaimo to Victoria and the failure, to date, of the West Shore communities led by Langford to convince all levels of government that rapid transit/commuter rail services should be an urgent priority.
While it should be acknowledged that the former government, under the then Transportation minister Todd Stone, did take the need to improve both flow and safety of the Trans Canada Highway into and out of Victoria quite seriously, the efforts only represent one piece of a bigger picture that needs urgent attention.
The euphoria generated by the approval of the Trans Canada Highway/Mackenzie interchange has been replaced by pragmatic evaluation. Transportation analysts feel that although it will relieve congestion for a period of two to three years, increasing traffic volumes to/from the city centre of Victoria will eventually minimize its impact.
Already, there are calls to twin Highway 1 over the Malahat. But, geography and geology make this a prohibitive multi-billion-dollar project that would rival the Site C dam project in scale. A response to the increasing traffic congestion outside of Greater Victoria is also critical. The Trans Canada through Duncan, the Nanaimo Parkway, the “new” Island Highway (Highway 19) from Nanaimo to Courtney/Comox, and of course Highway 1 over the Malahat, are already subject to rapidly increasing traffic volumes and long travel delays.
Commuter rail services and light rail rapid transit, throughout the Capital region are an obvious strategic response. Yet political leaders of all persuasions seem incapable or unwilling to grasp the solution to our emerging vehicular gridlock.
The Netherlands, with the national railways Sprinter Services and the United Kingdom, particularly in the case of the Cross-Country rail company services, have proven that a rural/urban, frequent stop, moderate speed (100 km/hr) service can be highly effective at linking countryside, towns and cities by providing the rail infrastructure which promotes broader distribution of economic, social, and cultural opportunities.
The ongoing efforts of the Island Corridor Foundation are admirable. But resurrecting a quaint and antiquated rail car service with tourist appeal is of little value as part of the long-term solution to commuter and cross community travel needs. A complete “rail transportation solution” for Vancouver Island may cost from $250 to 400 million, but the economic and community development benefits would be immeasurable.
A system of about 20 station stops on a rail link from Campbell River to Victoria, including Comox, Parksville, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Duncan, Cobble Hill/Mill Bay, and Shawnigan Lake, coordinated with a spur line from Port Alberni to Parksville, connecting with two major LRT lines, one from the Westshore to downtown Victoria and the other linking the ferry terminal at Swartz Bay and Victoria International Airport to downtown, would impact tourism.
Some will argue that such a concept is a “pipe-dream”. Yet national and global experience says otherwise. I was fortunate, in the late ’60s , shortly after I came to Canada, to serve on one of the working groups that recommended to Ontario premier Bill Davis the concept of using underutilized CN lines to re-establish rail commuter passenger service between Pickering and Oakville along the Lake Ontario shore surrounding Toronto. At the time, the concept was decried by political and transportation experts as unworkable and too expensive. Yet with courage, the system was implemented in 1969. Imagine the impact on the GTA if the 400,000 plus who travel on the current GO TRANSIT were suddenly added back in their cars!
Similar resistance greeted the efforts to modernize and introduce rail transport in Europe. But, even in the U.K. it is now recognized that an effective commuter rail/rapid transport system is the backbone of a 21 century, environmentally sustainable, transportation/economic infrastructure.
We have a right-of-way from Campbell River and Port Alberni to almost the City of Victoria (one must recognize that the Blue Bridge boondoggle stripped the Capital of its most logical rail entry point). This is a project that would attract highly positive domestic and international attention, create employment, and more importantly, as it allows a total rethinking of transit and business/government locational decisions, secure the economic future of the whole Island.
If we can, as we should, looking positively at the concept of a high speed rail link between Seattle and Vancouver, there is no excuse for not taking this proposal seriously.