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MP Lunney says there is a tentative deal between VIA and Southern Rail

Nanaimo-Alberni MP James Lunney said Thursday he has learned through "high-level discussions" there is a tentative agreement between Southern Rail and VIA Rail for the re-start of passenger rail service on Vancouver Island.

While VIA Rail officials say negotiations continue and there is no agreement of any kind to announce, Lunney said he was disappointed VIA didn't participate in the Island Corridor Foundation's news conference Wednesday that proclaimed a "tentative agreement" had been reached between VIA and Southern.

"It is disappointing that VIA didn't stand with the ICF at this time," said Lunney. "I have assurance from both ends that there is a tentative agreement. The agreement is there."

Lunney would not speculate on when any official announcement would come, but he said "there's no excuses for delaying anymore."

A VIA official reached in Montreal on Thursday said the ICF asked for VIA's permission to use the rail company's logo at the news conference Wednesday at Nanaimo's train station.

"That was out of the question," said Jacques Gagnon, VIA's senior manager of media and community relations. "(We told the ICF) no, we're not doing that."

"You announce when there is a signed deal," said Gagnon. "We're not going to play this out in the public domain. I don't know when (there will be an announcement), and I won't speculate."

Gagnon said discussions between VIA and Southern continue and "they (Southern) have to get back to us on some conditions."

The ICF is a federally-registered charity that owns the rail lines and corridor. It's board has representation from regional districts and First Nations adjacent to the corridor.

The ICF says it has secured $20 million in funding to improve the line to passenger-train-bearing safety standards, including $7.5 million from each of the provincial and federal governments and $3.5 million from the regional districts.

Southern Rail of Vancouver Island (SVI) is contracted by the ICF to operated the railway. SVI provides rail freight services to customers along the railway. It also operated daily passenger service from Victoria to Courtenay by arrangements with VIA Rail until that service was shut down due to unsafe rail conditions in the spring of 2011.

ICF CEO Graham Bruce said Wednesday the $20 million would be enough to bring the rail to a safe point for passenger service, although no timelines or schedules were released.

Meanwhile, Marc Lefebvre said Thursday he still intends to introduce a non-confidence-in-the-ICF motion to the Regional District of Nanaimo's board of directors on Tuesday night.

Lefebvre, a a city councillor who sits on the RDN board as Parksville representative, said Wednesday's news conference stage by the ICF didn't change his mind.

"It's obvious from the (comments) VIA made that the ICF press release wasn't genuine," said Lefebvre. "It further points out the lack of credibility the ICF has. I thought when you call a (news conference) you'd have something to say. Why would an executive director of a non-profit like the ICF call a (news conference) and state what they stated, when in fact it wasn't genuine? In fact, it was disingenuous."

Qualicum Beach town councillor Dave Willie, who also sits on the RDN board, said in an e-mail to his fellow directors the ICF's news conference was directed at Lefebvre's non-confidence motion.

"It's clear that there was an attempt to manipulate the RDN Board to rescind, or vote down the motion of non-confidence in the ICF board and its management at (Wednesday's) farce," Willie wrote. "There was never any agreement, no new news, no VIA Rail participation and even the province must have had an inkling as to the dog-and-pony show to be played — they didn't participate as they must have got wind of the ICF manipulation of facts."

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