Comment: Freeing E&N right of way from duty to provide rail

The E&N rail right of way has been held in public trust since 2006. The organization holding this trust has come under much public and institutional fire over its lack of progress in putting the corridor to use.

This task is made more difficult because of a fundamental problem with its mandate, which includes: “To contribute to environmentally sound passenger and rail service along the railroad.”

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This emphasis on rail service is preventing the organization from choosing the highest and best use for this important public asset.

The E&N right of way was developed in the late 1880s as a freight- and sometimes passenger-carrying railway by a private syndicate headed by Robert Dunsmuir. The final land grant to the winning syndicate was almost 20 per cent of Vancouver Island and included most of the best east-coast agricultural lowlands and some First Nations territories. This massive privatization of lands was the largest in the Island’s history.

In 1905, the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased the railway from Dunsmuir’s son, James. This was the first link in a chain of events that led to the right of way coming back into a public trust. In 2006, the CPR agreed to hand over ownership to a partnership of local governments and east coast First Nations in return for a federal government tax credit of $236 million to the CPR.

The organization that now holds the 230-kilometre corridor in trust is the Island Corridor Foundation. That this corridor has been saved intact is a great credit to the parties involved. That it is once again in public ownership is an amazing opportunity. It could also, however, be an opportunity lost.

An op-ed on Feb. 11 (“E&N line’s real value is as a trail, not rail”) argued, as has the CPR and many other commentators, that the corridor’s future as a modern railway is an unlikely enterprise. For many years, it limped along, heavily subsidized, as freight and passenger opportunities diminished and failed, before being finally shut down in 2011 because the track is unsafe.

Efforts by the ICF to find capital for upgrades, a credible rail-service provider and the massive subsidy required for the limited passenger and freight potential have come to nothing. This is not likely to change.

The greatest value of this corridor is that it retains its continuity, unbroken. The longer the corridor remains unused, the more danger that this continuity could be threatened by other uses. There is already one court challenge based on the absence of an ongoing transportation function over its whole length.

So what could the future of this unbroken corridor be? Continuous corridors without hills such as this one, which are no longer viable for rail service, offer amazing opportunities for alternative transportation, walking, cycling, horse riding, etc., as multi-use trails.

These trails exist all over North America, though few have the potential of this one. Trails such as this bring very good returns to the adjacent communities for modest investments.

Some positive developments have occurred. Both Nanaimo and Victoria have constructed short multi-use trails similar to the Galloping Goose alongside the now unused rail tracks. The heritage station at Nanaimo has been restored.

This is all within the mandate of the ICF. The problem is the ICF mandate to provide rail service.

This is a problem because an engineering study by the Regional District of Nanaimo has identified 41 locations in that region alone where joint use of the corridor by rail and trail is not practical.

So, we have a railway that doesn’t run inhibiting the creation of a world-class trail that will bring immediate and increasing economic, recreational, health and local alternative transportation benefits for modest investments because the mandate of the public trust says it has to run a railway.

If this mandate were removed, it would be free to do great things, including a spectacular, continuous multi-use trail all the way from Victoria to Comox through the tourist heartland of the Island.

It could even connect to Port Alberni, once the largest source of freight for the railway and now much in need of new opportunities.

It is time to enable the ICF, the communities and the First Nations to benefit from this unique and valuable asset. It is time for the ICF membership to remove the requirement to support rail from its mandate and allow the benefits to emerge.

Alastair Craighead is a former Victoria city councillor and regional director, and former chairman of the provincial LRT strategy in the Capital Regional District.

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