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New Island rail group envisions cargo and passenger service on the tracks

Island Rail Corporation estimates $1.5-billion price tag to restore rail
A freight train makes its way over the Black Bridge in Duncan, back when rail was still running on the E&N corridor. (Black Press Media file photo)

Restoring train service on Vancouver Island could carry a price tag of $1.5 billion, but is achievable in the short term, suggest rail proponents.

Dave Hayden and Alex Stuart, Island Rail Corporation CEO and managing director, respectively, made a presentation about their corporation and its aims at a Regional District of Nanaimo board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 9. The entity is separate from the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation which is responsible for managing the rail corridor.

Among the corporation’s requests is that the RDN pass motions related to the return of Island rail corridor lands to First Nations and support for the corporation’s efforts.

The ICF’s latest recommendations suggested the B.C. government provide $430 million in rail repairs, which Hayden said would be a “gross waste of taxpayers’ dollars.”

The corporation has devised “a detailed set of assumptions that justify the investment capital needed to rebuild [the Island] rail network between greater Victoria and Courtenay and between Parksville and Port Alberni,” Hayden said.

The corporation has identified cargo movement on what it calls the “iron highway” as a means to move cargo off a ship, onto rail, and to market, with potentially 144,000 car loads in the first year of operations. The proponents envision service relying on hydrogen energy.

“We’re here to make the business case for hydrogen-powered, net-zero technology that can move cargo and people and support tourism here on Vancouver Island,” said Stuart. “It’ll be the cheapest infrastructure investment we can make and though we’re pegging our cost at $1.5 billion, three times higher than that [of the ICF] to refurbish the corridor, it’s 150 years old. It’s got to be completely rebuilt from the ground up to accommodate contemporary technology.”

Leanne Salter, Area F director, expressed skepticism that service could start in 2024, as proponents claimed was a possibility with sufficient stakeholder support.

“Right now, you can operate a passenger train on 85-pound rail,” Hayden responded. “The existing rail is 85-pound from east to west and north to south – the east-to-west corridor is where the revenue is generated by freight.”

In terms of passenger service, Hayden said it is hoped it would operate from the Roundhouse in Victoria to the Malahat Skywalk. This would show people the benefits of rail infrastructure, he said.

Island Rail Corporation was incorporated federally and in B.C. and Alberta in March 2023.

In an e-mail, Judith Sayers and Daniel Arbour, co-chairs of the Island Corridor Foundation, issued a statement noting that the ICF is continuing its work.

“The Island Corridor Foundation continues to work with First Nation communities and the province to determine the best path for this amazing Vancouver Island asset…” the statement noted. “We want to make it clear that this new group called Island Rail Corp. has no affiliation to these efforts, nor any ownership stakes in the corridor.”

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Karl Yu

About the Author: Karl Yu

I joined Black Press in 2010 and cover education, court and RDN. I am a Ma Murray and CCNA award winner.
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