Train attraction proposed to lure cruise tourists

The Nanaimo Port Authority and Southern Railway to launch feasibility study into new Island rail excursion.

Train-loving tourists could have another reason to board cruise ships bound for the Harbour City.

Southern Railway and the Nanaimo Port Authority have announced that they are looking into a new Vancouver Island rail excursion service for cruise ship passengers.

Negotiations between Southern Railway, the Island Corridor Foundation and VIA Rail have ended and VIA Rail reports an agreement to resume passenger service is imminent – a move that will trigger the release of $20 million to repair Island tracks. Passenger rail has been suspended since 2011 because of unsafe rail conditions.

With passenger service making a comeback, service provider Southern Railway is looking at the potential to add a new tourist train.

According to Singh Biln, Southern Railway’s director of community relations, the service would be for cruise passengers only and based at Nanaimo’s south industrial waterfront. It would give the rail company new business and another way to utilize the track, while giving the Nanaimo Port Authority another product to market. It’s unknown if the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority will also have access to the service.

“We are very excited about it and optimistic there is a winning formula,” Biln said. “Vancouver Island has so much to offer in terms of First Nation culture and history, industrial history, the arts and entertainment community and with all that’s going for it, we believe there’s a viable business for an excursion rail operation that would benefit not only us, but all the communities and, of course, the cruise industry.”

Southern Railway sees the new service as a way to boost the use of the tracks, which are only expected to see twice-a-day runs between Nanaimo and Victoria when passenger service first resumes. It will also give people a different experience than they will get on regular rail, which will use self-propelled cars.

The excursions are anticipated to be in passenger coaches pulled by a locomotive – possibly vintage or steam.

While the new train wouldn’t be the only solution to increase the number of ships docking in the Nanaimo harbour, it will get the port noticed, according to David Mailloux, the port authority’s manager of communications and public affairs.

The port authority saw the number of ships drop from two pocket cruisers and six major cruise lines in 2013 to two this year. The decrease was unexpected, but like any business, not everything can be predicted, said Mailloux, who mentioned that the port authority is trying to add product and fill gaps to position it for success.

“We can’t be a flash-in-the-pan styled destination where we try it and if they don’t respond to us right away, we go, ‘that’s it,’” he said. “We have to keep investing.”

The port authority’s cost to partner on the feasibility study has not been disclosed. The study, which will look at things like scheduling, price points and equipment, is expected to wrap up this September, with the service in full operation by 2015.