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Can deal put E&N passenger service back on track?

Passengers could be climbing back on board the E&N Rail Line thanks to a deal announced Wednesday between Southern Railway and Via Rail. - Andrew Leong/file
Passengers could be climbing back on board the E&N Rail Line thanks to a deal announced Wednesday between Southern Railway and Via Rail.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

A tentative deal between Southern Railway and Via Rail could see the return of rail passenger service to Vancouver Island.

The new deal, announced today at a Nanaimo press conference, will allow the Island Corridor Foundation and Southern Railway to access more than $20 million in funding for track and bridge improvements through the partnership of federal, provincial and regional governments, according to foundation co-chairwoman Mary Ashley.

Freight and train operations will be based out of Nanaimo and will run as far north as Courtenay and south as Victoria, including an early-morning route to the provincial capital.

The schedule will have to go through some adjustments, however, and there is no set date for when everything will be up and running, said Ashley.

“There’s much work to do before the passenger train whistle blows again,” said Ashley. “The agreement is to be ratified by the three respective boards, funding agreements will be signed off, tendering and awarding of bids will proceed and there will be approximately nine months of track work.”

The foundation has stated it will cost more than $100 million for repairs.

Island Corridor Foundation chief executive officer Graham Bruce said the repairs will come incrementally over the next few years.

“The report of 2009-10, from the Ministry of Transportation, looked at an initial report that had been done and came back and said that there was no way anyone was going to put $110 million into the railway,” Bruce said.

“If we approached it on an incremental basis, there was a plan that could be developed and that’s what we developed with Southern Rail, to bring passenger rail back.

“So that gives us 10 years of operation and allows the rail company to expand out on other types of operations. There’s different examples that have been spoken about and how that might occur.

“Each one of them would have their own package, depending where they were running, of other infrastructure improvements and dollars would be found to look after that.”

Regional District of Nanaimo directors voted recently to withhold about $945,000 in funding to the foundation until passenger service returns to the Island and according to regional district chairman Joe Stanhope, while the announcement is good news, the funding will not be released yet.

“I still think there’s another bridge to cross and that is the infrastructure deficit is well over $20 million,” Stanhope said.

Passenger rail was discontinued in spring 2011 due to unsafe track conditions.

According to Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan, also a regional district director, $20 million is not enough to get everything fully operational, but it’s a good start.

“While we didn’t get all the money we wanted, $20 million will be enough to start the service and hopefully, as the passenger traffic grows and the freight traffic grows, that will enable the governments to look at a bigger investment, once the business case is built by actually running the train,” Ruttan said.

Others were more skeptical.

Dave Willie represents Qualicum Beach on the RDN board. He was at the announcement Wednesday and he was asked if he believed passenger rail service to and from Qualicum Beach is any closer with this announcement.

“Not a chance,” said Willie. “They (the ICF) know in their own studies they need $100-130 million over the next 10 years and they have no business plan to cover off the rest of that money.”

Willie also said he noted the absence of some key players at the news conference.

“There are two pieces of this puzzle that aren’t here today,” said Willie. “Via Rail isn’t here at all so I question whether there is any tentative agreement with VIA Rail. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there is. Number two — I notice that the province isn’t here.”

— Karl Yu, Nanaimo News Bulletin (with a file from John Harding)

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