Editorial: E&N line needs new approach

Since passenger rail service ended on the E&N line in 2011, the Island Corridor Foundation has insisted it could be restored with $20.9 million in repairs.

Now the foundation has new numbers. Restoring the line from Victoria to Nanaimo would cost $42.7 million, the foundation says, more than twice its earlier budget for the entire E&N. Fixing the rail lines from Nanaimo to Port Alberni and Courtenay would cost another $52.4 million.

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Even the most enthusiastic rail supporters should have a hard time taking this proposal seriously.

The foundation has provided no business plan to back its request for $95 million in funding. It has released a “Strategic Priorities Operations Plan” that provides nothing to justify public investment — no revenue forecasts, no service plans, no market analysis. It is an embarrassing effort from an organization responsible for more than $300 million in assets held in trust for the public.

The foundation met Transportation Minister Claire Trevena this month, seeking the government’s support for an application for federal funding. A foundation statement said co-chairman Phil Kent, mayor of Duncan, “asked the minister whether the government supported Island train service and if so what is the response to the ‘Train Service & Infrastructure Plan’?”

The foundation hoped Trevena would “respond quickly,” Kent said in the statement.

A quick response would be easy. The foundation has failed to make any case for spending $43 million — or $95 million — on the line. It has no plan for passenger service that would attract riders, no forecast of freight service.

Trevena, rightly, ignored the foundation’s request. She did reveal the government had not gone ahead with a study of Langford-Victoria commuter rail promised by the previous government.

That was a mistake. The possibility of commuter service has been raised repeatedly. We need to know if the concept is feasible.

Trevena also said the government plans to look at the future of the entire E&N corridor, an overdue exercise.

That review should include the Island Corridor Foundation, which now counts as a failed experiment. It was created as a registered charity 14 years ago, when Canadian Pacific wanted to get rid of the railway lands it owned on the Island. CP donated the land and rail lines and received credit for a $236-million charitable donation, which saved it about $38 million in taxes.

The foundation has 12 directors — five from regional districts along the line, five from First Nations and two at large. They’re responsible for preserving rail service and managing a corridor running 225 kilometres from Victoria to Courtenay and 64 kilometres across Vancouver Island from coast to coast. It is a tremendous asset with great potential for trails, housing, parks, First Nations’ use and transportation.

Its track record has been dismal. Trains have not run. Municipal stakeholders have been increasingly frustrated; some have pulled funding. A consultant’s report done for the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities last year found a “significant majority” of regional district directors had lost confidence in the foundation.

The foundation has lost its way. Stakeholders have to accept the need for an entirely new approach.

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