The head of the Island Corridor Foundation says there is no need to shut down freight service on part of the E&N Rail line because of deterioration of the train bridge over the Chemainus River.
A Duncan company has been told it won’t be able to continue shipping freight from Nanaimo to Duncan on the line because of the deterioration.
Top Shelf Feeds says it received notice from Southern Railway of B.C., which operates the freight service, just days before Christmas, giving it about a month to plan for the change in service.
“Why didn’t they come to us sooner and tell us they have issues? We would have had more time to prepare,” said Top Shelf owner Robert Davison. “We tried to get back to them, but they’re all away on holidays.”
Davison said if he has to shift to trucks for shipping, he may go out of business or — at the very least — he may not return to rail even after the track has been restored.
But Graham Bruce, chief operating officer of the Island Corridor Foundation — the group representing the municipalities and First Nations that own the line — rejected suggestions that the bridge is not safe for rail traffic.
“Somebody put a story out that the bridge is near failure,” Bruce said. “It’s not near failure
“If there was a full shutdown coming, we would not be running full trains across there now — it doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a constant inspection going on.”
Bridge-upgrading work won’t result in a year-long shutdown, as was suggested, he said.
“There will be certain periods of shutdown for limited periods — maybe up to a week — but that hasn’t been determined.”
The last load inspection on the bridge was almost a year ago, Bruce said.
Another inspection is set for today to measure if there has been any deterioration, but Bruce said he’s not anticipating significant changes.
“The train and track crew monitor it visually weekly.”
Loaded cars are now separated by empty cars to reduce the amount of weight on the bridge.
Southern Railway president Frank Butzelaar said the company decided just before Christmas that it might not be able to continue moving freight to Duncan.
Before that, there was no discussion with owners of Top Shelf, which sells animal feeds.
“I don’t think we talked to them about what we were doing to get freight to them,” Butzelaar said. “I do know that we’ve gone way above and beyond to keep that freight service available to them.”
Top Shelf imports material from the U.S., Alberta, Saskatchewan and other B.C. locations. The shipments travel to the Lower Mainland by train and are loaded onto rail barges bound for Vancouver Island.
In Nanaimo, they are transferred back to rail cars and sent to Top Shelf in Duncan.
As of the end of this month, the products will still be shipped to Nanaimo by rail barge — but no farther south.
Once the rail service stops running south of Nanaimo, Davison will have to unload his shipments onto trucks, incurring additional costs. He will also have to pay for significant upgrades to his yard to accommodate truck deliveries.
Making matters worse, Southern Railway has increased the cost of rail service, even though the freight will be shipped only as far as Nanaimo.
“They’ve decreased our service and increased my fees,” Davison said. “I don’t understand that.”
Butzelaar confirmed that fees went up as part of an overall increase for rail service.
Top Shelf’s owners, who employ about 20 workers and ship products up and down the Island, have been staunch supporters of the E&N line, which has been on its deathbed for years.
The line’s future became much brighter when three levels of government — federal, provincial and five regional districts — put up $18.2 million to upgrade the track bed and the 48 bridges along the line.
Work is behind schedule because the Island Corridor Foundation took longer than expected to persuade politicians to come up with the cash.
Government funding is contingent on a new deal being reached with Via Rail to operate a revamped passenger service on the line between Nanaimo and Victoria.
Because of safety concerns, passenger service was halted in early 2011 and freight shipments have been limited to low speeds.
Davison said that even with Southern offering a loading area for him to transfer shipments to trucks in Nanaimo, he won’t be able to stay in business if the costs are too high.
If the business does survive, it might never return to rail, he said.
“We supported [Southern] and rail for a long time — and yet they drop this on us with no notice,” he said. “We need to re-evaluate how we’re going to send and receive product.”
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