Commuter train service ended on Vancouver Island nearly a decade ago, due to safety concerns over track and bridge conditions. The BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s (MoTI) recent condition assessment report found restoring the line from Victoria to Courtenay could cost anywhere from $326 – 728 million.
The CEO of the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), a nonprofit working towards restoring commuter rail service since acquiring the corridor in 2006, said the numbers seem high because the provincial government added a very large contingency factor to the budget that effectively doubles the cost of the project.
“I think anybody in the construction industry would tell you that a contingency of 100 per cent is a little bit dramatic. Most construction projects will use about a 20 per cent contingency,” said Larry Stevenson, CEO of the ICF.
The report outlines three potential levels of rail service and the projected costs of each. According to Stevenson, the lowest phase would not be viable because the frequency of trains would be too low to attract riders and the highest would involve a higher frequency than would be practical now. He said the only viable option right now is the intermediate phase.
“That’s where you can get down to that $350 million dollar/400 million dollar level,” he said. “You’re still going to get a commuter service between Langford and Victoria. But the commuter service is going to be more like 5 or 6 trains a day, versus the 21 trains they put into the study.”
The report done by MoTI provides information on the condition of the line and cost estimates for returning to service, but does not indicate any specific action or funding from the provincial government. It builds on previous assessments, completed in 2003, 2009/2010 and 2012.
The rail corridor travels through the land of 14 First Nations and five regional districts. The Snaw-na-aw (Nanoose) First Nation want to retake ownership of 10 acres of land that were expropriated for railway purposes. Council member Brent Edwards takes issue with the seemingly indefinite review period and with a lack of inclusion of First Nations on the part of ICF.
“That organization and its mandate does not reflect the First Nations’ values, First Nations’ interests, First Nations’ concerns about the railway itself,” he said. According to Edwards, no more than four of the 14 First Nations were present at the last four annual general meetings.
“Holding onto a Victorian era fantasy — that’s not reconciliation. We’re trying to reconcile interests. Nanoose has interests and our interest is access. It’s not the trail or the railway.”
Edwards said the railway is blocking the development of about 90 acres of land on Snaw-na-aw (Nanoose) First Nation.
“That’s part of the reason we’re trying to take it back. We can’t develop our property,” he said.
Edwards said it does not make sense to develop capital infrastructure to go over, or under, to accommodate the inactive railway.
“That’s what we’re trying to argue in court, is that it was taken up for railway purposes and stopped being used for railway purposes. We’re supposed to be able to have our property back.”
The nation recently lost a case in BC Supreme Court to gain right of way, which would have allowed them to develop the 90 acres around the section of the rail corridor on their land. It received letters of support from 8 other First Nations, whose land is intersected by the corridor.
Justice Robert Punnett dismissed the case, but in the court document acknowledged the railway may never return to service:
“ I accept the future of the Railway is unclear and will depend on funding from various levels of government which is uncertain. Indeed, the likelihood of its future use for rail traffic may be bleak given it depends on the largess of government.”
Stevenson said as the island’s population grows, a railway could significantly reduce traffic and congestion on the highway.
“I think it’s a march north. You start in Victoria and you work your way north and you make sure you carry it all the way through to the entire island,” he said. “There’s very much a need for alternative transportation methods here and rail is really the only one left.”
Stevenson shares Edward’s frustration with the drawn out process and lack of progress on the railway.
“The province was concerned about the cost — well, the assessment is now done. Then they were concerned about the fact that we had an outstanding lawsuit, well that’s now over. There’s not really any reason today to hold it back,” said Stevenson.