Island’s E&N rail repairs on hold during provincial review

Long-delayed plans to return passenger rail service to Vancouver Island remain on hold while the provincial government reviews the project.

The Island Corridor Foundation, which owns the former E&N line from Victoria to Courtenay, had hoped track repairs would begin this winter.

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But the B.C. Ministry of Transportation wanted to make sure there was sufficient money set aside to cover repair costs identified back in 2012, said Graham Bruce, the foundation’s chief executive officer.

“It took three years to get each of the funding components in place and the Via Rail agreement, so [the province] wanted to ensure that the $20.9 million that we have raised would complete the work,” he said.

The foundation hopes to get the province’s answer soon, Bruce said.

Southern Railway of Vancouver Island will run the service, while Via Rail will provide the train. Passenger rail service was suspended in 2011 amid concerns about track safety.

The Island Corridor Foundation’s board of directors said the government has asked the British Columbia Safety Authority to update its three-year-old assessment of the project.

Board chairwoman Judith Sayers said the directors met recently with Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

She said he remains “fully supportive,” but needs to ensure the project meets safety standards.

“I don’t see any issues with the province,” Sayers said. “They’re just doing their due diligence.”

The ministry issued a statement Monday affirming its support for the project.

“Government’s $7.5 million is still very much on the table,” the statement said. “This is going to hinge on safety.

“The B.C. Safety Authority has conducted a review of the corridor and has identified a number of concerns or challenges that will need to be addressed.”

The ministry did not elaborate on those concerns, but indicated that it remains in discussions with the foundation and Southern Railway.

“The ministry is very hopeful that this project will come together and we’ll see the resumption of passenger rail service on Vancouver Island,” the statement said.

After repeated delays over the years, Sayers said the foundation has stopped speculating on when that might happen.

If the province signs off on the plans, the federal government still has to confirm its commitment before Southern Railway can put the work out to tender.

“The real proof in the pudding in all of this is once you can get to tender,” Bruce said.

Doug Routley, the NDP MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan, said there’s still strong public support for the project, but the province needs to get things started by releasing its share of the money.

“There’s enough money on the table to get some service going right now, and that’s what they need to do: Show that there’s life on those rails and that it’s a viable operation,” he said.

“Maybe even start with a much-reduced service with the money available, even from the Cowichan Valley to Victoria and back and gradually expand.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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