The owner of the Island Rail corridor says the limitations of a single-lane highway justify an investment in trains on Vancouver Island, but a non-profit group says the costs are far too prohibitive to restore train service.
The Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island (FORT-VI) envisions continuous, multi-use pathways from Courtenay to Victoria, and Parksville to Port Alberni, along the corridor. It says active transportation trails would be more affordable than rail, and provide health, economic and environmental benefits.
“In this corridor, you have little communities dotted all the way up and down,” said Jim Smiley of Courtenay, vice-president of FORT-VI. “It will be used for a lot more than just tourism.”
In a recent presentation to the Comox Valley Regional District board, Island Corridor Foundation executive director Larry Stevenson said estimated rail prices for the Island are reasonable compared to Lower Mainland rail projects that cost $340 million per kilometre. Island costs would be $1.3 million.
In the Comox Valley, FORT-VI says 40 kilometres of trail beside the railway would cost $80 million. Each resident would be taxed $1,000 to build a trail beside the railway, which would take 20 years.
FORT-VI believes the ICF business case does not address two key issues. Firstly, it says no funds were allocated for First Nations reconciliation or consultation — though Stevenson said the foundation and the province “resolve to solicit opinions of each affected First Nation or local government about the corridor use through their area.” Secondly, it says trails are not mentioned in the business case. Historically, FORT-VI says the cost to construct trail beside rail is $2,000 per metre. Installing trails on a rail bed cost $100 per metre.
If rail is not reinstated, the group suggests railbanking — an agreement to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need it again for service — could be an option.
The federal government has granted $45,000 to FORT-VI for a feasibility study and business plan about trail on top of the railway. A Request for Proposal has been sent to engineering companies. The group expects the study to be complete before the end of the year.
“Hopefully the study we sought will begin to give us some answers, and government will be in a better position to make a more informed decision about the best use or uses of the right-of-way,” said Denise Savoie of Comox, a FORT-VI board member.
Smiley credits Savoie for creating a strong connection with Tourism Vancouver Island, which is interested in partnering with FORT-VI on the study. Those involved with the Vancouver Island Spine Trail also support the idea of converting rail to trail, Smiley added.
The CVRD has $392,000 that it will continue to reserve/allocate for the ICF to make rail line improvements. As directed by the CVRD board, this financial allocation will be reconsidered in April. They chose this date based on a March 2023 court-imposed deadline concerning an appeal from the Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) First Nation — which claimed its reserve land was wrongfully taken to build the railway, and now sits unused. The Snaw-Naw-As had asked for the return of the land, but the BC Supreme court dismissed the case in 2020, stating the ICF is attempting to restore rail on the land. Last year, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the decision. However, an allowance enables the Snaw-Naw-As to make another appeal.