Opinion

GUEST COMMENT: Call for railway cash needs more scrutiny by regional districts

By Jim Sturgill

The Island Corridor Foundation, the non-profit that owns the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, recently started asking regional districts up and down Vancouver Island for $3.2 million to repair bridges along the route.

Island taxpayers need to be concerned. A Capital Regional District report stated the $3.2 million won’t cover the upgrades needed for commuter and freight rail services. Worse yet, the ICF has not obtained any commitment from VIA Rail to resume basic passenger service.

Regional districts should think twice about handing over funds without asking hard questions about how the ICF will spend the money  and how it is governed.

First, the ICF’s claim that it will cost only $3.2 million to get all 48 bridges and trestles up to basic operational level strains credibility. A February 2012 report conducted for the Ministry of Transportation said it would cost at least $8.7 million to get the bridges operational and operating for 10 years. Has the ICF got any estimates from contractors?

Where is its business plan for this work? It seems the ICF has decided that only its board members and employees need to know what its plan is for this money. The public is supposed to provide cash, and not ask any questions even though serious questions need asking.

VIA Rail provided the railway with an annual subsidy of $1.2 million when it ran the passenger service. The ICF also receives $340,000 annually from Telus for telecommunications lines that run along its right-of-way. What happened to all those funds? Why has the ICF performed practically no maintenance to the railway?

I have been a member of the ICF’s rail operations committee for several years after it acquired the E&N from Canadian Pacific in 2006. In 2010, our committee began questioning the poor condition and overall safety of the railway, but were told this was none of our concern. In January 2011, the committee was told it was no longer needed and two months later, VIA stopped passenger service due to the poor condition of the track.

What concerns me is that safety violations had to be brought to VIA’s attention before anything was done to stop the train from operating. Now, ICF admits that it needs millions to bring that track up to basic operational safety – effectively admitting that the track was unsafe when passenger service stopped.

In its pitch to regional districts, the ICF has given the impression that the bridge repairs were unexpected. But the problems have been known for some time: in October 2010, a different consultant submitted a report about the state of the E&N’s bridges. That report, however, has remained a secret. What don’t they want the public to see?

Regional districts need to see the October 2010 report and ask why the ICF is claiming that the bridges only need $3.2 million for the next decade.

I want to see railway service return. However, I believe the regional districts should refuse the funding request until the ICF has a new executive, a transparent board, and a realistic plan.

 

Jim Sturgill is a railway consultant, a former E&N locomotive engineer and a member of the E&N Railway Action Group.

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