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Use it or lose it: Decision deadline looms for Vancouver Island's railway tracks

By court order, federal government has until March 14 to declare its support for an Island railway service.

The Island Corridor Foundation’s chief executive is “encouraged” about the possibility of a revived railway system even though there’s no government commitment yet as the decision deadline looms.

The federal government has until March 14 to inform the courts about whether it will support a rail system.

Asked about his “gut feeling,” Larry Stevenson told a Tuesday Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce online presentation called “Getting Island Rail Back on Track” that federal or provincial officials are not indicating what the decision will be.

But he is “very encouraged” because of the work he’s seen the province carry out. They “asked the right questions, they’ve been through the detail, they’ve gone through the minutiae, they’ve had it out for review.”

“My sense is that they understand that losing this corridor would be a huge mistake, first and foremost.”

He believes that the province is taking a 50- to 100-year view of the value of the corridor.

“I think we are going to get the right result. I could be wrong.”

The corridor has not been used for passenger rail service since 2011 because of the poor condition of its tracks.

It is owned by the Island Corridor Foundation, consisting of First Nations and regional districts.

Stevenson has been fighting for what he believes could be a modern efficient rail service between Victoria and Courtenay and out of Port Alberni. It would include a commuter service between Victoria and Langford and bring in revenues from both freight and passenger service.

The requirement for the federal government to state its intentions is the result of a court case brought by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation, whose land is divided by the corridor. The Nanoose nation said the corridor is blocking development.

After the nation was unsuccessful in the Supreme Court of B.C. it appealed the decision, which led to the deadline being imposed.

Island Corridor’s plan for 289 kilometres of restored rail service would cost $381 million for infrastructure and another $50 million for equipment.

Paul Robinson, of the non-profit Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition, which advocates for rail service on Vancouver Island, said an online petition has gathered close to 10,000 names.

There’s overwhelming support for rail from a number of organizations, including the Association of Vancouver Island Municipalities, he said.

In the future, “we do know that we are going to be looking at a high degree of densification in major centres throughout the 21st century. It is already happening.”

Bruce Williams, chief executive of the Chamber, asked if it is realistic to think that the system could run without some kind of a subsidy.

Stevenson replied the proposal is unique because most areas of the country don’t have the luxury of a freight system combined with a passenger system, giving it two revenue streams. “They are totally reliant on their passengers.”

“There’s an opportunity here, I think that we can have a much more balanced situation.”

Even so, Stevenson said, “I think there is going to have to be subsidies for some time.”

The expectation is that Via Rail would play a role in the system, likely funding, he said. “I’m not sure that they are really interested in running the train.”

If approved, “It’s not going to take us very long to restore this rail line,” Stevenson said. “This is really a maintenance issue.”

Work can happen relatively quickly provided materials are easily available, he said.

“It’s not going to take long to start putting this together once we have the plan,” which still needs to be developed, he said. “We are not talking about a complete redesign of the system. We are talking about improving the system that we have.”

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