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City of Port Alberni gets closer to bringing back train

City is issuing a request for proposals for rail crossing repairs
The R3 diesel locomotive pulls out of the Alberni Pacific Railway roundhouse in July 2018, preparing to take tourists from the train station in Port Alberni out to McLean Mill National Historic Site. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

The City of Port Alberni is getting closer to bringing back rail operations for 2024, although the plan might not include the No. 7 steam train.

Back in January, before council began its budget talks for 2024, Mayor Sharie Minions asked the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) to come up with a plan for rail that does not include the steam train in order to save money.

During a committee of the whole meeting on March 18, 2024, IHS vice-president Richard Spencer brought forward a new plan, where the diesel locomotive will operate three days a week during summer months and for special events (such as Canada Day and the Santa train).

The train will only travel from the waterfront to Stamp Avenue, rather than travelling all the way out to McLean Mill, and ticket prices have been brought down to an average of $6 per rider.

Minions said on March 18 that she liked the idea of a smaller, community-focused train ride to start out.

“I think that could offer a huge amount of value to community residents and families in the city,” she said.

The IHS is asking for $60,000 in operating costs from the city. However, $40,000 of this is for insurance. The cost could be brought down if the city signs an operating agreement with the IHS and uses its own municipal insurance provider.

“We’re still waiting on those agreements to be done,” said Spencer.

In addition, the IHS needs $143,000 to repair two crossings between the train station and the roundhouse (at Athol Street and Dunbar Street). Both of these must be repaired before the train can operate.

During the city’s regular council meeting on March 25, council voted to refer further discussions about the railway to an April 15 committee of the whole meeting. However, they also directed city staff to work with the IHS in the interim to put together a request for proposals (RFP) for the crossing repairs.

“That doesn’t commit us to [the work],” said city CAO Mike Fox on March 25.

Councillor Debbie Haggard was disappointed to see the matter referred “back and forth” between council meetings and committee of the whole meetings, with no financial commitment being made.

“I feel like we’re not giving [the IHS] our firm support,” she said.

While councillors were not comfortable with a financial commitment for the IHS yet, Coun. Charles Mealey praised the work that has been done by the IHS so far. He pointed out that the train and the railways are technically the city’s assets.

“I’d like to give [the IHS] a chance,” he said.

Overall, Spencer said he is fairly confident that rail operations will be able to return this summer.

“There are lots of concerns about numbers, but I think we’ve given council exactly what they asked for,” he said in a later interview. “I think we’re on track to have operations return this summer.”

While the IHS waits to hear back from the city about funding and agreements, the society has also put out its own RFP. The IHS is looking for someone to put together a business plan and feasibility study that will see the steam train eventually return to McLean Mill National Historic Site.

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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