Province seeks contractor to assess condition of E&N Railway corridor

The provincial government is looking for a contractor to assess the 290-kilometre E&N Railway corridor, including the Port Alberni spur. It wants assessments done on railway infrastructure, including the rail line and bridges, according to documents on the B.C. Bid contractor-procurement site.

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure also wants a seismic assessment and to know what’s required for upgrades to support higher freight limits, and for creation of a commuter-rail service between Langford and Victoria.

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All 13 capital region mayors signed a letter Feb. 6 calling on the province to take quick action with the railway and to look at the potential for local commuter use. They also called for restoring service to the entire corridor through a phased approach that honours the wishes of First Nations.

View Royal Mayor David Screech, one of the letter’s signatories, said he is happy to hear that things are in the works. “I think it’s a good step, for sure,” he said. “I just hope that they get on with it quickly. What we would really like them to do is separate it and do the Langford-to-downtown [Victoria] study as one, and then do further up-Island as another.”

That could allow the “smaller chunk” of the railway in the capital region to get up and running faster, he said. “At any rate, regardless of that, it’s certainly promising to hear that they’re going after the study.”

The corridor, which runs 225 kilometres from Victoria to Courtenay, with an extension between Parksville and Port Alberni, is owned by the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation. The organization, a partnership between First Nations and local governments along the line, aims to preserve the corridor and rebuild rail service along it.

CEO Larry Stevenson has said the decision to undertake an assessment followed a December roundtable meeting of Island mayors, regional district and First Nations representatives, the ICF, and Premier John Horgan and Transportation Minister Claire Trevena.

Passenger rail hasn’t run on the E&N since 2011, when it was stopped due to safety concerns about the tracks.

Several officials, including Horgan, have suggested running a commuter bus on the line between Langford and Victoria might make more sense than reintroducing passenger trains.

In 2017, the foundation estimated that restoring the line from Victoria to Nanaimo would cost $42.7 million. Fixing the rail lines from Nanaimo to Port Alberni and Courtenay would cost another $52.4 million.

A statement from the Transportation Ministry said the assessments are part of an effort to find potential solutions to traffic congestion on the Island. “Safety is our main priority,” the statement said. “This engineering assessment will look at the current condition of the entire corridor, from Victoria to Courtenay and on to Port Alberni, and will explore the costs needed to conduct imperative safety work and a complete seismic risk assessment.” The assessment is expected to take about six months.

Reinvigorating the system would provide economic benefits for the region, reduce regional gridlock and lower greenhouse gas emissions, the mayors' letter said. 

Assessment of the E&N corridor would be in addition to work done under the South Island Transportation Strategy, which includes transit, cycling, walking, marine/ferry travel, rail and existing roads.

The ministry is also exploring potential emergency detour routes to be used in the event of a Malahat highway closure.

— With files from Bill Cleverley and Jeff Bell, Times Colonist

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