Comment: Do E&N rail service right, or call it a day

The Times Colonist editorial of July 29 (“Temporary rail service is dubious”) raises some valid issues regarding the proposed Vic West-Langford commuter rail service on the mothballed E&N line. However, it fails to adequately consider the railway’s long-term potential and the proven methods to realize it.

After too many years of meetings, sunny political statements and excuses all around, no real progress has been made to restore the suspended service to Courtenay. This process has been akin to the work of the mythical committee that set out to design a horse and produced a camel.

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There is a case to be made for both the commuter service and restoration of the full route, but it can’t be done in half-steps. The E&N is an exhausted railway. The answer is not a patch-up, but the complete replacement of the life-expired infrastructure on an irreplaceable right-of-way.

The rolling stock is also obsolete and not worth reviving. At a cost of about $2 million per car, federally owned Via Rail Canada rebuilt three Budd rail diesel cars as part of a fleet renewal program that ran late and over budget. The diesel cars were revolutionary when the first one hit the rails in 1949, but they are now expensive holdovers from a bygone era.

Gathering dust in Ottawa are three modern self-propelled trains that would be ideal. Built in Germany by Bombardier, these three-car Talent trains served reliably on Ottawa’s O-Train commuter line for 15 years until superseded by newer equipment last year.

Alas, there is one thing no amount of money, track rehabilitation or new equipment can alter. Of the seven federal Island ridings, six are held by the NDP and none by the Liberals. Provincially, the score is 11 NDP, one independent and two Liberals. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that this political lay of the land is the real reason for the inaction is dreaming in Technicolor.

Sadly, this is a factor in the approval or disapproval of rail projects all across Canada. Attempts to get the federal and provincial governments to tackle rail problems invariably hit a brick wall when the ridings are held by the opposition parties.

If there’s a bright note in this situation, it’s that a credible freight operator is already on the line in the form of the Southern Railway of British Columbia. But no amount of professional freight expertise is going to make this side of the business succeed unless it’s underpinned with modern infrastructure and an absence of political and amateur citizen interference, no matter how well meaning.

The answer to that problem can be found in California, where numerous publicly funded rail systems are entrusted to joint-powers authorities composed of representatives from the municipalities they serve. That’s the governance model required to end the gridlock on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in Canada.

With the California approach, the feds and the province would sign the cheques for their share of the costs and then vamoose, leaving the implementation and day-to-day operation to the new, locally based agency, its qualified staff and its contracted service providers. The upper levels of government would hold this single authority accountable, using the caveat that no further funds would be provided if the new authority didn’t deliver on mutually agreeable business and operating plans.

Why should all this effort and public expenditure be considered? Websites are full of data proving the economic, social and environmental payback from investment in modern rail passenger and freight systems. The latter point should be especially appealing to those in the federal and provincial governments, provided their statements endorsing the urgent need to address climate change are sincere.

More than a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions are due to automobiles and trucks, and one of the solutions is giving travellers an all-weather alternative to driving with safe, frequent and affordable rail service. Doing it right on Vancouver Island would require a one-time capital investment of about $150 million. That’s a bit more than the cost of one kilometre of Vancouver’s Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension.

The E&N is at a crossroads. Either do it right or call it a day. If the politically driven answer is the latter, then Vancouver Island will be out of step with the rest of the industrialized world. That decision should be considered carefully, but quickly.

Greg Gormick of St. Marys, Ont., is a rail consultant and government policy adviser whose clients have included Via, CP, CN and numerous public agencies and elected officials.

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