Returning from Victoria on Thanksgiving Monday, I drove for 10 minutes past a lineup of idling vehicles creeping along the Malahat.
How many of those vehicles were on the road because passenger service on the Southern Vancouver Island Railway has been suspended due to needed track repairs? Why are we still awaiting federal funding of $7.5 million (to match the committed provincial matching funds) to get the train running again?
Mary Ashley of the Island Corridor Foundation notes that an ambitious plan awaits that funding. VIA Rail has committed to three completely refurbished cars, with snack bars and bike racks.
Even now, with almost no advertising, tourists from all over the world use the rail line, particularly Europeans, who are accustomed to rail travel. The Foundation envisions providing a network of transportation options, linking the rail to the ferry terminals and towns, in concert with the walking and biking trails that will run along the train right-of-way.
Tourists will be able to travel up and down the Island by bike or on foot, hopping on and off the train as they visit towns, bringing millions of dollars into the Island economy.
The train is also a vital commuter link in the national greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Students travel up and down the Island to three private schools, a university and several colleges. When the Malahat is treacherous with winter conditions, the train runs reliably through a scenic wonderland.
The Foundation’s plans for daily commuter service from Nanaimo to Victoria, as well as improved freight service, will take hundreds of vehicles and trucks off the Malahat. Eventually, same-day return to Courtenay, with possible dinner car service, has been proposed.
Our rail line is both a future asset, with the costly infrastructure already in place, and a charming link to our past. For $7.5 million, the federal government is getting a bargain.
But as time ticks by without a federal commitment, one grows increasingly concerned that budget cuts will be the justification for quietly shelving this project, which would be an enormous loss for communities all up and down the Island.
I ask your readers to voice their concerns to Prime Minister Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org, with a copy to Transport Minister Denis Lebel at email@example.com and our local MP John Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org.