Public urged to pressure rail company

NANAIMO – VIA Rail says conditions to restart service have not been met

The Island Corridor Foundation hasn’t met certain conditions needed for a passenger service agreement and until it does, VIA Rail isn’t willing to talk, says a representative for the Crown corporation.

Graham Bruce, ICF president, has launched a campaign urging the public to turn up the heat on VIA Rail, as the corporation remains mum on signing a passenger rail agreement. According to Bruce, the company hasn’t responded to a pitch for passenger rail submitted five months ago and the waiting game could put critical government funding at risk.

Passenger service was suspended in 2011 because of unsafe rail conditions. It can’t be revived until VIA Rail inks a deal to take on the service, triggering the release of $21 million in government funding set aside for trestle and track improvements. ICF members had planned on securing the agreement before September so it could start construction, but with no response and the clock ticking, it’s now calling on the public to pressure the Crown corporation.

Government and industry officials, like Seaspan, have already sided with the foundation with calls for VIA Rail to go back to the bargaining table.

VIA Rail spokesman Jacques Gagnon said the corporation is “more than happy to resume activities” with passenger rail, but it has given ICF detailed and specific conditions and none of them have been met. There are desires for a rail station in Victoria, maintenance centre and reassurance there will be no further increase in its operating deficit.

“If you are doing a business proposal through your partner and you don’t hear back from [them] … it’s because you have to amend your proposal,” Gagnon said. “We are not negotiating this in the public domain, but we are stating there are fairly specific issues that need to be addressed and if they are not addressed … how can we resume activities?”

ICF and VIA Rail have been in on-and-off again talks for 12 months about passenger service, which the corridor foundation says could be key to sustaining rail on the Island.

The corridor foundation – made up of First Nations and regional governments – believes Island communities could capitalize on significant economic benefits of rail, from redevelopment to increased port activity and tourism. It’s a critical link between half a million people on Vancouver Island, said Bruce.

But before the foundation can help unlock the Island’s rail potential, they need to ensure there’s an anchor service that can put any doubts of the longevity of rail to rest.

Federal, provincial and local governments have offered support for track improvements needed to restore passenger service, but it’s contingent on VIA Rail and ICF’s operator, Southern Rail, entering into an agreement.

Bruce is still confident a deal can be reached, but is concerned VIA Rail’s slow response could put funding in jeopardy. No government has threatened to withdraw dollars, but there is money set aside for this year and 2014. The longer construction is pushed back, the less likely the funding will remain in reserve, Bruce said.

The ICF president says the proposal they sent VIA Rail “isn’t rocket science” and the company had more than enough time to come back with some kind of response. The delay is very close to bad faith, according to the organization.

“This is all about political will now – both from the standpoint of elected officials … and the people of Vancouver Island,” Bruce said.