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Federal funding puts passenger rail back on track

Passenger rail service on Vancouver Island will be revived after the federal government committed to its portion of the $15 million needed to repair the E&N Rail line.

The Island Corridor Foundation, owner of the tracks, was waiting months for word that $7.5 million in provincial funding, announced last June, would be matched by Ottawa.

Now that the money has arrived, people could be using the passenger rail service as early as spring 2013, after more than 104,000 rail ties and ballast are repaired along the 234 kilometres of track between Courtenay and Victoria.

The ties alone will cost about $12.5 million to replace, and an additional $500,000 was already spent on a bridge and trestle study, the results of which are expected to be made public next week.

Graham Bruce, the foundation's CEO, hinted the study indicates repairs to the line's bridges and trestles will be "manageable".

"This was a crucial step in the business plan," said Bruce shortly after the announcement was made Tuesday in Langford. "Now [the funding is] there, it allows us to be much more focused on the development of both the passenger service improvements and rail freight. We weren't going to take the taxpayers' money without being able to complete the work. We're taking a very critical, incremental approach to make sure we can meet our objectives."

Passenger service was halted and the Via Rail Budd cars were removed from the line a year ago after it was deemed unsafe by the Transportation Safety Board. Freight trains were allowed to continue using the line under a speed restriction.

Renovated, smoother cars with amenities like bike and ski storage will be supplied by VIA Rail and an increase in freight investment is expected to go along with track improvements through Southern Rail, the track's operator.

A new schedule will result in an early morning southbound train from Nanaimo to Victoria to encourage commuting and tourism.

Ron Cantelon, Parksville-Qualicum Liberal MLA, said investment in rail  will benefit tourism opportunities.

"We want to see where this first upgrade takes us," said Cantelon. "We're anticipating we can capitalize on new tourism opportunities with this first step, and as demand increases we'll be able to make further upgrades in increments."

Bruce and the ICF board of directors received criticism from some groups for not asking for the full $100-plus million originally estimated to renovate the line more substantially.

Bruce said with funding in-hand, ICF can now focus on expanding its business plan.

"We've already got so many other pieces of this plan ready to go, this new funding allows us to push those green buttons and start some serious approaches without always having some doubt about funding in the back of our minds. It was always 'we can do this if', now we can say let's get on with developing the business plan because we know we're going to be here."

Bruce added the project will go to tender after red tape is dealt with and work will begin on the rail line as soon as possible.

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan made the announcement with the help of Cantelon, Nanaimo-Alberni Conservative MP James Lunney and Langford Mayor Stew Young.

reporter2@nanaimobulletin.com

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