The untouchable, non-profit Island Corridor Foundation, which manages the E&N Island Corridor, could have provided a greater public service in preserving the corridor had it not spent the past 10 years hiding behind legalistic obfuscation and its own internal railway bias.
The expression of public will that Larry Stevenson, newly hired ICF director, was looking for in his recent seven “open houses” on the future of the E&N was nowhere in evidence over his November rollout. The typical takeaway was that the Island sorely needs a transportation plan, but just what part, if any, rail might realistically play in any such plan remained as tantalizingly vague as ever.
These are just some of the issues that more could have been said about:
• The feasibility of hybrid buses for the Langford commuter run to get passengers into Victoria instead of “a short walk across the bridge.”
• The impact on the Alberni Inlet and Island residents of cross-shipping freight via rail from Port Alberni to Vancouver.
• How servicing seasonal cruise ships and tourist trips might be integrated with regular commuter service.
• The number of passengers and at what schedule would be required realistically to ease congestion on the Malahat. (Has the minister of transport even been consulted?)
• A ballpark cost for service — at what speed and at what frequency, to which towns, by what date?
No word on the poor geometry of the line designed for low-speed freight, the high number of level crossings, the deteriorated infrastructure and so on. Was Stevenson’s mention of a 30-year vision meant to be reassuring in the absence of any plan — even an unexpectedly bold plan?
These issues have been around for too long. The ICF should have been looking into them over the years instead of continuing to offer only fragmented ideas, mere suggestions instead of examined plans. The long-suffering public cannot be expected to accept every obstacle as just another chapter heading for a magical, still invisible business plan.
If there was any new message in the ICF open houses, it was that Stevenson remains as undaunted by these issues as he is by any potential cost to taxpayers: “All services are subsidized.” The fact that he offered no new estimates, ridership projections, operating plans, etc., makes one wonder why he is so optimistic about his upcoming meeting with the premier and district chairs, the real stakeholders. Let us hope the government learned something from the fast ferries.
Failing to address the long-standing issues facing reintroduction of rail, the ICF should have been investigating other alternatives — if only to have a fallback. While the corridor land was originally assembled for rail and remains defined federally as such, the stakeholders and public recognize that the true value of this near-level right of way is that it connects so many Island communities. Yet every reputable study to date has concluded that there is no demand for traditional transportation over most, if not all, of the corridor, and the ICF has failed to demonstrate otherwise.
Frustrated with the ICF and recognizing the essential intercommunity value of the corridor, community members formed Friends of Rails to Trails, Vancouver Island, in 2016, taking the position that a continuous, near-level, mixed-use community/tourist trail would make best use of the corridor.
Trails connect everything they pass through, not just the few stations served by rail, and they can generate economic spinoff along the way in many forms.
The great success of the Galloping Goose trail and dozens of other converted rail lines in Canada, the United States and Europe demonstrate low-cost new uses for abandoned rail lines with substantial economic and civic benefit, both regional and local, with ever-increasing appeal to tourists.
FORT-VI is now supported by more than 3,000 Island residents. In addition, the City of Nanaimo, the Regional District of Nanaimo and the Village of Cumberland have also sent letters of support to the ICF.
If the ICF has any excuse for its years of inaction, it is simply the belief that keeping the corridor intact requires maintaining its railway designation and the fear that, without rail, the corridor would be taken apart. If history can be our guide, the districts and First Nations of the Island have more sense than that, as they might soon have an opportunity to demonstrate.
The Snaw-Naw-As First Nation of Nanoose, with other intervener First Nations, is suing the federal government over corridor ownership. Many anticipate a decision in their favour.
Let us hope that might open up possibilities for different and more imaginative uses of this valuable Island asset. A trail might be just the answer.
Too bad the ICF won’t be prepared.
Wilfrid Worland is a director of the Friends of Rails to Trails Society. He lives in Qualicum Beach.