Islanders and Via Rail at odds over whether there’s a deal

Southern Railway of B.C. and Via Rail have reached a tentative deal to restore passenger service on Vancouver Island, the Island Corridor Foundation said Wednesday.

But it could be some time before trains run again.

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The non-profit foundation, which owns the E&N railway track from Victoria to Courtenay, said Southern will run the service, while Via will provide the train, insurance and a fixed subsidy.

The service will operate out of Nanaimo with at least one early-morning train departing for Victoria and returning later in the day, the foundation said.

But boards of all three organizations still have to approve the agreement and finalize funding before work can begin on fixing tracks and bridges. Repairs are expected to take at least nine months.

Once finished, one of the prime objectives is to provide round-trip commuter service from Nanaimo to Victoria, said foundation co-chairwoman Mary Ashley. “We’ve always been told the train starts in the wrong place,” she said. “So they’re definitely looking at at least part of the schedule being early morning service from Nanaimo to Victoria and then late evening service back again.”

Full schedule details could be known within a month, she said.

“It’s a great day for Vancouver Island and its communities,” said View Royal Mayor Graham Hill, Capital Regional District representative on the corridor foundation. “It means that we have the go-ahead for the engagement and development of plans with Southern and its rail operators to get to a schedule of repair and replacement.”

Via Rail spokesman Jacques Gagnon was less effusive. “As of today, there’s no deal that has been signed,” he said. “I’m not privy to the verbatim of what the announcement was earlier today, but I can only state that discussions are still ongoing and, as of now, there’s no signed deal.”

Asked about the foundation’s description of a “tentative deal,” Gagnon said: “I would leave it to them to describe what is a tentative agreement or an agreement in principle. We all know that, in business, a contract is valid from the moment both parties sign and we’re not there.”

Southern Railway did not respond to an interview request.

Passenger rail service was suspended in 2011 amid concerns about track safety. The Island Corridor Foundation has raised nearly $21 million for track improvements, but the money is contingent upon securing a passenger service agreement with Via Rail.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin has expressed concerns about millions of dollars in improvements that may have to be made to level crossings should passenger rail start up again.

“Cost estimates range from $3 million to $5 million per crossing and I think the City of Victoria has got five,” he said. “I think there’s 20 crossings from Victoria to Langford and I think the expectation is that municipalities are supposed to pick that up themselves.”

Coun. Ben Isitt said there will be a requirement to upgrade some crossings but he hopes Fortin and others will get behind the rail service and make it work. “There’s a number of federal grant programs in particular to assist local governments in upgrading their railway crossings,” he said. “So I think we would look for whatever grant opportunities we could find.”

Isitt also plans to ask city staff to advise on the feasibility of establishing a new train terminal in Vic West as close to Victoria Harbour as is possible. A rail crossing is not part of the new Johnson Street bridge project and the former downtown Via station has been removed. “We do have funds earmarked for the replacement station and it’s my view that the terminus of the E&N should be right up at the harbour’s edge to encourage employees, different tourists, shoppers to come to downtown Victoria,” he said. “I think it’s really important to the long-term health of the downtown.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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