A heritage passenger cars used for an excursion tour sits at the Wellcox railyard on the Nanaimo waterfront.

A heritage passenger cars used for an excursion tour sits at the Wellcox railyard on the Nanaimo waterfront.

Time to move on from rail

Instead of looking to the past, Vancouver Island should look to the future.

It is hard to say goodbye to something that has always been there.For Vancouver Island residents that something appears to be rail, particularly, passenger rail and it is easy to see why.

The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway traces its roots back to the 1871.

According to the Nanaimo Community Archives, during the 1860s the Canadian government promised the construction of the railway connecting the colony of British Columbia, if agreed to join Canada.

After years of discussions, threats and frustrations the railway was incorporated in 1883 by coal baron Sir Robert Dunsmuir. The rail line offered regular freight and passenger services for decades until 2011 when Via Rail ended its passenger service from Victoria to Courtenay.Today, the only activity along the roughly 289-kilometre line is a limited freight service operated by Southern Rail.

Since Via Rail abandoned regular passenger service due to track safety issues, a noble effort has been made by the Island Corridor Foundation, the non-profit organization that owns the railway, to restore some kind of passenger service.

Over the years, ICF has worked hard to raise millions of dollars, $20.9 million to be exact, in funding commitments from all levels of government.

However the past few weeks and months have been particularly rough for the ICF and anyone who wishes to see any kind of passenger rail service restored.Back in December, the Snaw-Naw-As band filed a lawsuit asking the foundation to give them back their portion of the railway due to the fact that there were still no trains running.


Then late last month, the Nanaimo Regional District decided to cancel $945,000 in funds to help restart rail service again. On top of that, the ICF is still waiting for $7.5 million that was committed to it by the Harper government, for track upgrades and maintenance.

Plenty of municipalities are still in support of having passenger rail return, as was seen earlier this month when delegates at the Association of Vancouver Island and Coast Communities voted in favour of putting pressure on the federal government to release the $7.5 million.

Understandably, after years and years of work and effort by the ICF and numerous municipalities in the south and central Island, it is hard to simply give up on the idea of passenger rail.

“It’s been an incredible battle. If we walk away now, everything will fail,” Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula was quoted saying in a Black Press article.

But hundreds of thousands continue to be spent maintaining the track, and the process has dragged on for far too long.

It is time to abandon the idea of passenger rail service on southern Vancouver Island, and at the very least, in Nanaimo. The initial funding for $20.9 million for track repairs and upgrades does not guarantee passenger rail service would return long-term. In fact, a provincial government study in 2010 indicated that track replacement, repairs and upgrades for the nearly 289-kilometre stretch of railway would cost anywhere from $70 million to $130 million, if not more.To suggest sinking millions and millions of dollars into a rail line that may not even able to sustain regular passenger service for years to come is a waste of money. There are plenty of other infrastructure projects that millions of dollars could be better spent on, such as improving safety along Island Highway.

Leaving the railway as it stands now still costs money as the ICF is required to invest in the basic maintenance.

Other individuals have called for the tracks to be replaced by a beautiful trail that would stretch from Victoria to Courtenay, which could be used for generations.

However, there is a way to have both a transportation system and a trail. Instead of spending millions of dollars on rail, Vancouver Island should look to the Metrocable in Medellin, Colombia. The gondola-style lift system, which is more than 2,000 metres long, began operation in 2004 and carries more than 30,000 people per day. Aside from providing spectacular views of the Colombian city of more than 2 million people, the Metrocable was cheap to construct, costing around $26 million USD and is also far cheaper to maintain than rail. A gondola lift system could serve Vancouver Island as a form of public transit, as it does for the City of Medellin, or at the very least a tourist attraction and it could also provide room for a spectacular trail system underneath.

Communities and their needs change over time. Vancouver Island is no longer home to coal mining communities it once was and perhaps Vancouver Island is no longer a place where passenger rail service is viable.

Perhaps it is time to move on from rail.What are your thoughts? Tweet @npescod on Twitter.