A Vancouver Island lobby group says a recent report on the cost of reviving Vancouver Island rail is a reminder that Island rail is an idea whose time has passed.
The Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island (FORT-VI) — a group advocating non-motorized use of the corridor — says the study puts numbers on what was already known.
“The corridor infrastructure is in bad shape,” a FORT-VI news release states. “The numbers range from $1/4 billion for one slow train a day to almost $1 1/2 billion for four trains and a commuter service.”
The B.C. government intends to use a recent Transportation Ministry study of the Island Rail corridor to inform future decisions on investments in the corridor formerly known as the E&N, which is owned by the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF). The report includes cost estimates for frequent train service between Victoria and Langford, and inter-city service between Victoria and Courtenay. Via Rail halted passenger service in 2011 due to safety concerns with the track.
FORT-VI says the numbers have doubled in a decade since the last study, before paying for the trains, and for fare and maintenance subsidies.
“That is a ludicrous amount to pay to restore an old Victorian railway that will take five-and-a-half hours to get to Victoria after leaving Courtenay at 3 a.m. A decent regular bus service would do the trip two hours faster and for a fraction of the cost.”
FORT-VI says the rail bed could be converted to a multi-use trail, which would develop active transportation, and develop tourism in a more sustainable manner.
“In the post-COVID world we are heading for, there will be change. Our actions in the near future will determine whether the changes will lead to safer, more sustainable communities.”
ICF executive director LarryStevenson questions the costs and times quoted by FORT-VI.
“In our view, you can rehabilitate and reinstate rail service on the Island for somewhere between $260 million and $300 million,” he said. “We are certainly not going to support that initial phase (Victoria to Langford) because, as they correctly point out, the service levels aren’t going to support it. (But) Nobody’s talking about trains leaving Courtenay at 3 a.m.”
He said the actual scheduled time from Courtenay to Victoria is three hours and eight minutes.
Stevenson feels FORT-VI is not taking into account the Comox Valley seniors who have appointments in Victoria, or students who travel to Nanaimo.
He also notes the ICF supports trails along the railway.
“We developed over 100 kilometres of trails. It’s our hope that that is going to continue up and down the entire island.”
FORT-VI notes the study talks about upgrading parts of the line for freight. However, the group also notes the mines for which the railway was built are long gone, and the last logging railway shut down years ago.
The ICF is talking primarily about freight from the port of Port Alberni.
“You have a massive port sitting there that’s so under-utilized, it’s a shame,” Stevenson said. “There’s an opportunity here to bring freight into the port of Port Alberni. Take it across to Vancouver. It’s kind of a release valve for Vancouver, because Vancouver is so clogged.”
Once things are restored, Stevenson said excursion, tourist and inter-city trains can start to run on the Island.
“There’s a lot of things you can do, and you can build this business over the course of time. I know people would get on the train and go to Courtenay that otherwise wouldn’t go. Is it good for the City of Courtenay? I would suggest it probably is.”
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