GUEST COMMENT: Will rail survive on Vancouver Island?
By Graham Bruce
On the 125th anniversary of rail operating on Vancouver Island, it will be decided whether rail will continue to operate or shut down.
In October of 2010, the owners of the railway corridor, the Island Corridor Foundation, an organization of regional districts and First Nations, presented the federal and provincial governments with a $15-million infrastructure investment request to secure the future of Island rail.
As things stand today, without a commitment for the $15 million investment by late spring of 2011, ICF will have to develop a plan for an orderly shutdown of rail service.
What does the $15 million investment give us? It will replace more than 100,000 ties, track re-ballasting and provide $500,000 for a comprehensive bridge and trestle assessment. It maintains 26 rail crew jobs and provides construction and enhanced operational employment.
Not only does this secure the future of rail on the Island it allows for an enhanced VIA passenger service with an early morning southbound train from Nanaimo to Victoria. VIA Rail has committed that three newly refurbished cars will be operating on this line by March of 2012.
These new passenger cars will have bicycle carrying capacity, handicap lifts and a small refreshment galley.
It would also make it possible for a pilot intercity passenger service to be considered between Cowichan and Victoria. A business case is currently being developed by the ICF and BC Transit with cooperation of the Capital Regional District, Langford, View Royal, Esquimalt and Victoria.
Equally important it reinforces the efforts of our rail operator, Southern Rail of Vancouver Island, to attract new freight customers to make this a profitable rail operation and provide ongoing maintenance revenues.
One of the contractual obligations SVI has with ICF is to maintain the track at the current or improved grade level. SVI currently spends approximately $1 million annually.
SVI, through its sister companies, has also recently completed a new rail barge terminal at Annacis Island to improve rail barge service between Nanaimo and the mainland.
Because of the vision and leadership of several chiefs, mayors and interested parties this railroad was returned to the people of Vancouver Island in the early 2000s.
Prior to the corridor being transferred to the ICF, the railway had been allowed to deteriorate with the natural result of slower passenger service and less freight being shipped by rail.
In spite of this, rail service improvements have continued to be made and ridership has increased. A new train station at Nanaimo is under construction, a new four-mile bridge is in operation and numerous rail crossings, including the $5 million crossing at Admirals Road, have been completed.
It is ironic that with the substantial railroad improvements and service enhancement opportunities we are in danger of losing a viable transportation option for the people of Vancouver Island.
The debate is not rail versus car or bus; the discussion needs to be about better utilization of existing transportation alternatives. It needs to be broader than our momentary current view. It needs to recognize the end of cheap oil and the reality of higher gas prices. It needs to include the costs of additional land for road right of ways that will be needed and how that simply encourages more of us to continue to drive one person per car.
A $15-million investment in Island Rail to secure the continuation of rail service could very well be one of the most cost effective and important socio-economic decisions we can make for the future of Vancouver Island.
If you agree, let your MP and MLA know, write the federal and provincial ministers of transportation, e-mail the prime minister and premier, call your mayor and regional district chair and talk to your chief and council. Ask your favourite Island federal candidate to publicly support the $15-million infrastructure investment.
If you agree but do nothing, then that is clearly a decision to end rail on Vancouver Island. Your action will make a difference.
Graham Bruce is the executive director of the Island Corridor Foundation and a former B.C. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Minister of Labour.