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First Nation says it's the end of the line for Island railway

The chief of the nation that filed a court case in hopes of winning its land back from the railway right-of-way says there is no business case to re-invest in the corridor
The E&N Rail Trail and the unused train tracks near the Wilson Street crossing in Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIME COLONIST

The former E&N railway has served its purpose and now it’s time to explore other opportunities instead of spending nearly a billion dollars to repair the line and tens of millions in annual operating costs, says the chief of the Nanoose First Nation — the same nation that filed a court case in hopes of winning its land back from the railway right-of-way.

“We are now at the point where there is no business case to re-invest in the corridor,” said Snaw-Naw-As First Nation Chief Gordon Edwards, noting operating and repair costs have been unsustainable for decades.

The line stopped carrying passengers in 2011 because of the poor condition of its tracks.

The federal government has until March 14 to decide whether it will put money into reviving rail service between Courtenay and Victoria, as a result of a 2021 decision by the B.C. Court of Appeal. That decision came after the Snaw-Naw-As Nation sought return of land in the corridor’s right-of-way that was not being used for railway purposes any more. It lost its case, but appealed the decision.

The Court of Appeal set an 18-month deadline for the federal government to decide if it will fund infrastructure improvements on the corridor.

The right-of-way that cuts through Snaw-Naw-As lands was granted to the former E&N Railway in 1912 to create the rail line. Today, the Island Corridor Foundation, made up of regional districts and First Nations, holds the land.

First Nations have expressed concern about the Island Rail Corridor running through or next to their communities and traditional territories.

“Given the impacts of the corridor on some of these communities, there is limited interest in restoring rail service in its current location(s),” says a new First Nations engagement report from B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and the Island Corridor Foundation.

The report follows engagement last fall with 14 First Nations, some of which are making plans for alternative use of lands now held by the Island Corridor Foundation if rail service is not restored. Some nations are also interested in a joint or partial ownership of a new rail service, the report said.

Under the engagement process, First Nations pointed out the potential to develop parts of the corridor that cross their communities, but said informal discussions do not meet the Crown’s duty to consult.

First Nations cited health and safety concerns if rail service is restored next to their communities, the report said. They also warned of possible unintended consequences, including an influx of non-Indigenous people within their lands, impacts on animal-crossing corridors and flooding.

The engagement process heard from First Nations open to non-rail transportation use because of potential environmental benefits, but views on the best possible use vary.

Some favoured commuter transit such as light rail or rapid buses to cut back on vehicles on roads, while others want to see a corridor for cycling and walking. “However, use of the corridor for bikeways, trails or other forms of transportation should be secondary to nations’ interests,” the report said.

The Capital Regional District and three others on the Island are calling on the government to support rail.

Edwards, however, called on the Island Corridor Foundation and regional districts to start thinking about what else is possible for the corridor and “stop pursuing an unsustainable, expensive, Victorian-era fantasy.”

He said regional districts urging Ottawa to fund the rail line “have the gall to say that doing so furthers reconciliation.”

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