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Les Leyne: Documents question E&N’s viability

Good news for the trainspotter crowd: The B.C.
An E&N Dayliner crosses Catherine Street at Esquimalt Road in 1998.

VKA-Leyne02832.jpgGood news for the trainspotter crowd: The B.C. government has just released 797 pages of information on the E&N Railway, a fresh compendium of all the twists and turns in the ongoing story of what’s happened — or not happened — since the Island passenger train abruptly stopped running.

The bad news is that the document dump was at the request of a law firm. If the lawyers are sniffing around, it means the E&N story is likely to get even more convoluted and prolonged than it already is.

Next March will be the sixth anniversary of the shutdown of the passenger train. It was abruptly ordered after a safety review concluded that moving people on the virtually derelict line, even at the snail’s pace it was reduced to adopting, was an extremely risky proposition.

What to do next has occupied the attention of all involved ever since.

The Island Corridor Foundation came up with a revitalization plan about the same time, which involves $15 million shared between the provincial and the federal governments.

That’s barely a start on what’s needed, but it’s been bouncing around the different bureaucracies for six years. The money hasn’t arrived, the ties are still rotting and the train still isn’t running.

Although B.C. has conditionally agreed to fund its share, subject to federal matching, Ottawa’s approval got sidetracked with the change of government last fall, and by a First Nations land claim in Nanoose that could involve part of the right-of-way. That might be why a law firm is asking for information.

The striking thing in the released documents is how far out on a limb Transportation Minister Todd Stone went last summer in committing $7 million to the line, because reports portrayed it as a very dubious proposition.

The independent B.C. Safety Authority wrote to the Transportation Ministry in January 2015 with a summary. The funding request was more than four years old then and the authority noted there had been little or no maintenance on major portions of the track.

As well, new federal regulations were coming in that would affect the 100 grade crossings on the line, meaning the E&N would have to meet even higher standards than the standards it hadn’t met in the past.

It also stressed the report by RTC Rail Solutions on why the planned upgrades wouldn’t be adequate. The authority said virtually every aspect of the rail line was significantly degraded and did not meet minimum standards, as the line had been shut down for years.

A briefing note prepared for Stone was partly censored, so the recommendations on what he should do with the funding request are not disclosed. But the background section casts doubt on the business plan for being based on unrealistic assumptions and marketing strategies.

It said the foundation doesn’t say how revenue streams will be achieved and doesn’t address the inconvenience of the proposed commuter run terminating in Vic West, rather than downtown Victoria. B.C. Transit’s No. 66 bus from Duncan costs $8, terminating at the legislature. The commuter train would have cost $16 and require a bus transfer or taxi from Vic West to get downtown.

The ICF cited population growth as a driver, but the ministry said that doesn’t translate to a higher demand for commuter trains.

Other parts of the business plan involving the intercity service and a tourism train were also scrutinized and found wanting. The tourism train would need to price tickets at $85 and run at at least 50 per cent capacity to break even. The “most troubling” parts of the plan were projections of five per cent growth in freight and passengers with no accounting for variability or where such growth will be derived.

Stone eventually decided to back the proposal, after seeking more information, but the $7 million is still hanging, waiting for Ottawa to match.

Just So You Know: Stone’s patience might be wearing thin. His office issued me a statement Tuesday saying B.C. remains committed to providing $7 million for the E&N corridor, “whether the funding is used to revive the rail line or on other priorities such as hiking or bike trails.”

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