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Regional District of Nanaimo withdraws funding for Island rail group

The Regional District of Nanaimo has terminated its agreement to give close to $1 million to the Island Corridor Foundation in support of passenger rail on Vancouver Island.
Dormant E&N rail line in Langford. Photo
Dormant E&N rail line in Langford.
The Regional District of Nanaimo has terminated its agreement to give close to $1 million to the Island Corridor Foundation in support of passenger rail on Vancouver Island.

On Tuesday, the 16-member board voted unanimously to step out of its agreement to give $945,000 to the foundation, said board chairman Bill Veenhof.

“What the board wants the public to know is that after five years of waiting for the project to move forward, the board has grown tired of the delays and has lost confidence that the day-to-day operations of the Island Corridor Foundation reflect the interests of the RDN,” Veenhof said.

The ICF issued a statement Wednesday saying it will not comment until its board has met to discuss the matter.

Passenger rail service on Vancouver Island was suspended in 2011 amid concerns about track safety. In 2012, the foundation, which was established to preserve the 319-kilometre corridor, approached the regional districts for funding to help rail improvements.

The regional district agreed to contribute $945,000 for the return of passenger rail service, Veenhof said. In 2014, the district entered a contribution agreement with the ICF to disperse the funds.

“We taxed for that,” Veenhof said. “We had money in the bank. But when we voted in 2012, we were told we would see daily service north of Nanaimo to Victoria. That changed. It seems all we will get is weekend service.”

Veenhof said the district hopes to move forward and have “fulsome, collegial discussions” about the future of the ICF, the corridor itself and the possibility of exploring other uses for it.

“The discussions should recognize that our reality up north here may be very different from the reality down in Victoria,” he said.

“We may find that the Capital Regional District and the Cowichan Valley Regional District have very different interests and we need to respect those and support them.”

Board members are not the only ones concerned about the delays and lack of progress.

“I’m glad that now we’re going to pay attention to this,” said Langford Mayor Stew Young. “Here’s my fear: If we don’t do something now, this thing is gone forever.”

Young said he has been pushing for a governance review of the ICF for two or three years.

“We’re spending millions of dollars and the train’s not running. And I think people are starting to realize this,” Young said.

Politicians are in the dark about what the business plan is now, he said. If the cost of the railway goes from $15 million or $22 million to $80 million or $100 million, there’s no business case for it, Young said.

“Spending $100 million to move 1,000 people from the West Shore to downtown is not $6 a ticket — it’s $75 a ticket,” he said.

“I’m sounding the alarm bells now because we have to straighten this thing out now.”

The inactivity has led to a lawsuit filed by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation of Nanoose Bay. It is suing the ICF and the Attorney General of Canada in B.C. Supreme Court, asking for the return of land taken to build the railway, which runs through the reserve north of Nanaimo.

“I talked to the chief last week,” Young said. “He said he wanted his land back. And rightfully so. The train hasn’t run for five years. If that case is successful, it’s over.”

On the south Island, the line would help commuters, said Young, adding that he would be prepared to do a business case for service between Langford and Victoria.

“It’s almost like I want to take that section of the train and say we’re going to look at it at a regional level. That may have to happen.”