VIA Rails’ latest comment about restarting the old train service agreement for Island passenger rail is at least an encouraging sign, says Graham Bruce, CEO of the Island Corridor Foundation.
“This is good news for Islanders wishing to once again use passenger rail,” Bruce said in a news release. “However, what is lost in the story is the fact that under the existing agreement, VIA has two significant issues to deal with before service can commence. One is the issue of a new Victoria station and the other is finding a train maintenance centre in the Victoria region.”
Under the existing agreement, VIA is responsible for everything including stations, property insurance and taxes, rail cars, maintenance facilities, marketing, scheduling and liability insurance. It also provides an annual subsidy for the difference between revenues and operating expenses. Over the past 10 years the annual subsidy has ranged between a low of $973,000 and a high of $1,933,000.
Because the Victoria station and rail car maintenance facilities no longer exist it is problematic for VIA to restart the existing agreement. The ICF is prepared to help solve those problems.
However, both issues are dealt with in a new comprehensive train service proposal put forth in April on behalf of the ICF by its train operator Southern Rail. VIA Rail has not responded to the proposal.
The new proposal was drafted after an invitation by VIA to do so. A February letter from VIA to the president of Southern Rail suggested that “ICF/SVI may want to consider an alternative plan whereby it would take over operation of the reinstated service.”
Bruce said the comprehensive plan addresses all issues identified by VIA Rail.
VIA also states that track repairs must be undertaken before passenger service can commence.
The ICF has federal, provincial and regional government commitments of $18.2 million for rail infrastructure improvements contingent on a new train service agreement with VIA.
A track and bridge infrastructure improvement plan was prepared in consultation with the Ministry of Transportation and BC Safety Authority, the railway regulatory body. An upgrade plan followed a ministry study, a third party report on the condition of railway infrastructure, and a bridge engineering Inspection/evaluation report.
“We all want a safe and efficient passenger service. Either VIA doesn’t understand the infrastructure funds are contingent on the passenger rail agreement or they are just trying to delay in hopes that the people of Vancouver Island will go away,” Bruce said.
VIA has a federal mandate to provide rail passenger service throughout Canada. Although the Island rail service has old equipment and a poor schedule, ridership increased six per cent annually in each of the last six years of operation, according to VIA’s annual report.
“With a little enthusiasm from VIA and all the parties working together, rail service could see continued ridership growth. This is exactly why we are asking VIA Rail to come back to the table and work out the arrangements for a train service agreement.
“The April proposal actually helps VIA in many other ways including limiting its revenue risks, so it is very hard to understand VIA’s reluctance to solve these issues through a new agreement,” said Bruce.
He said it is imperative for islanders who wish to see rail continue to write government and VIA officials. Pertinent information can be found on the island rail website.
– Island Corridor Foundation