Tourism train idea gathering steam

NANAIMO – An ongoing feasibility study has concluded a potential business case can be made for tourism excursion rail.

Southern Railway still has dreams of seeing a tourism train chug along Vancouver Island tracks, but it’s not likely within reach this year.

Southern Railway and Nanaimo Port Authority announced last year they were looking into the possibility of a new rail excursion service for cruise ship passengers, with plans to see the service in full operation in 2015.

Just over 12 months later, the company is still doing feasibility work and waiting on dollars to improve rail infrastructure for VIA passenger service – work that excursion rail hinges upon.

Don McGregor, project manager for railway infrastructure improvement with Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, said it’s full court press to getting the railway upgraded for passenger rail, but they are capable of multi-tasking and rail excursion is a real opportunity for the future.

The vision is to see a new tourism train, which can shuttle cruise ship passengers from Duncan to Courtenay, and possibly Coombs, as part of excursion packages. It could also be used for events including the Filberg Festival in Comox and Qualicum’s annual Seaside Cruizers Father’s Day Show and Shine, and possibly as a ski train to Mount Washington.

McGregor said the feasibility study has concluded there’s a potential business case for a tourism excursion rail, which could attract more cruise ship traffic to the region and better utilize the port authority’s improvements as well as have a general positive effect on tourism.

It’s also been anticipated to make greater use of the tracks and offer people a different experience. While passenger rail is run with self-propelled cars, these excursions could be in passenger coaches pulled by a locomotive, possibly vintage or steam.

Details like what additional infrastructure would be needed to handle excursion rail, as well as costs and scheduling, is still being worked on.

“Perseverance is the order of the day,” McGregor said. “We continue to work in the same direction and hopefully we’ll get there one day.”

The Nanaimo Port Authority is still interested in the idea, which would give it a “distinct advantage” when it comes to flexibility in how it presents excursions. They also have access to vintage cars that could be used here, according to David Mailloux, the port’s manager of communications and public affairs, who adds they would embrace the service as soon as rail upgrades occur.

The provincial and federal governments have yet to release money for the passenger rail upgrades which will cost $20.9 million. It’s unknown when an excursion service could begin.

“We hope to get there, it’s really become a question of when,” McGregor said.

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