Should the five regional districts that are part owners of the Vancouver Island rail corridor contribute to the rail infrastructure renewal project?
That is the question regional directors of Alberni–Clayoquot, Comox Valley, Nanaimo, Cowichan Valley and the Capital will be asking themselves over the course of the next several weeks and that is the question you should be asking yourself as Island residents.
What is at stake is the survival of rail on the Island.
The five regional district members make up half the ownership of the Island Corridor Foundation. The ICF holds the land and rails on behalf of the five regional districts and 13 First Nations.
The ICF has secured $15 million in federal and provincial funding. The regional districts are being asked to contribute $3.2 million as their share of the rebuilding plan.
The ICF will fund $2.2 million and the rail company will contribute $500,000.
If the project is lost, freight train service will discontinue and it is likely the rails will eventually be removed ending 126 years of rail operations. Once gone, probably gone forever.
The ICF has developed an incremental rebuilding plan as a result of the extensive ministry of transportation study completed in October 2010.
The ICF has also negotiated a 25-year operational agreement with Southern Rail of Vancouver Island.
The rail company, part of the Washington Transportation Group, will be responsible for all rail operations and maintenance plus the development of new viable rail services for freight, passenger, excursion and tourism. The operational agreement estimated value in track fees and maintenance to the ICF is $70 million over 25 years.
There will be 164 direct and indirect jobs during the 12-month construction project. A First Nation Trackman Training and Employment Program has been developed along with a First Nation conductor/engineer scholarship initiative.
It is anticipated the rail company will employ 15 to 30 people as business is increased.
An improved rail link through the new Annacis Island rail barge terminal on the mainland makes for a seamless connection to move goods through Island ports for Asian, North American and Island markets. This will help immensely for the expansion of freight service.
Direct rail connections to the new Nanaimo cruise ship terminal will aid in developing a stronger Mid and North Island tourism industry. Feature tourist trains and excursion trains have the opportunity to expand from this like the very successful Alberni Pacific Railway McLean Mill tourist attraction.
But this $20-million Phase I infrastructure investment is primarily focused on the reinstatement of a new VIA Rail train service and improved schedule between Victoria and Nanaimo. It is through this capital investment and service improvement that will give life to Island rail and the opportunity to maintain an important mode of transportation.
Some will argue against the regional contribution and if successful in influencing regional politicians they will be able to take credit in ending Island rail. People 25 years from now will shake their heads at the lack of foresight.
However, if regional board directors hear the voices of support for rail, it may encourage them to fund their $3.2 million share.
Based on assessment it would be approximately $0.43 per $100,000 of assessed value. For example, the cost for a property worth $400,000 would be around $1.72 per year, for five years.
The critics will bet there is no future for rail, they may be right and if the rails are torn up they will surely be right. But for the sake of a $3.2-million investment in a $360-million transportation asset it’s not a good bet.
Better to invest the money, repair the railroad, put pressure on VIA Rail for a new train service agreement and allow 10 years of aggressive rail development by our rail operator and then decide if there is a long-term future.
No doubt personal or regional agendas can easily override this pragmatic incremental approach to determine the future of Island rail. It will take Island-wide voices that speak in support of this commonsense renewal plan for Island rail service.
Your voice is important — write the regional district directors, the mayors and councillors and tell them how you feel. You can find their addresses at www.islandrail.ca.
Editor’s note: Graham Bruce is the chief operating officer of the Island Corridor Foundation and a former provincial cabinet minister of labour, and municipal affairs.