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Vancouver Island passenger railway return clears another hurdle

A Southern Railway of British Columbia passenger train - courtesy SRY
A Southern Railway of British Columbia passenger train
— image credit: courtesy SRY

The operator of the Island railway says it will assume the financial risk of VIA Rail Canada when an agreement is reached to restore passenger service from Courtenay to Victoria.

In a Tuesday presentation to the Comox Valley Regional District board, Southern Railway of British Columbia president/CEO Frank Butzelaar said VIA has agreed to divert $1.45 million in deficit funding to its subsidiary, Southern Railway of Vancouver Island (SVI), which would collect ticket revenues.

VIA has said it would not incur an additional operating cost deficit, which was $1.45 million in 2011 when it halted passenger service on the Island.

Senior and regional governments have committed $20.9 million to the project, pending ratification of 10 agreements, including a train service agreement between VIA and Southern Rail. The CVRD’s portion will be $392,000. The deal needs approval from VIA, SVI and Island Corridor Foundation boards, and from the Province. The ICF owns the railway.

“We believe it’s going to be a huge success,” said Butzelaar, noting negotiations with VIA are complete. “Twenty million dollars gets you 10 years of passenger service here on Vancouver Island.”

Tenders for bridge and track improvements could happen this year. Track work could begin in October, and bridge work is expected early next year.

Track work includes replacing 9,000 obsolete steel joints, renewing 110,000 wooden ties and adding 160,000 tonnes of new ballast material. Bridge work involves repairing and upgrading steel and replacing about 1,400 wooden deck ties.

The first phase of passenger rail service from Nanaimo to Victoria could begin after May, 2015. Service would then extend to Qualicum and to Courtenay in following months.

“To make this a success, we need ridership in Courtenay,” Butzelaar said. “Our goal at the end of the day is to load those cars.”

Butzelaar said there has not been a single derailment since Southern Rail came to the Island in 2006. At present, the company handles about 800 railcar loads per year along a freight corridor from Duncan to Parksville.

Along with the ICF, SVI hopes to help Island communities and First Nations develop a long-term plan for Island rail. Ideally, Courtenay would be the hub of North Island service, which SVI hopes to extend to Powell River. There will be employment opportunities for First Nations through a scholarship program.

“This can only do good for Vancouver Island,” Area B director Jim Gillis said. “So get on with it.”

reporter@comoxvalleyrecord.com

 

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