The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) is putting its support behind the return of rail to Vancouver Island.
During a meeting on July 27, the ACRD board of directors agreed to support the Island Corridor Foundation’s request for the federal and provincial governments to work together to advance rail as a transportation option on Vancouver Island.
The Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) owns the 289-kilometre rail line that stretches from Victoria to Courtenay and Parksville to Port Alberni. Passenger train service on the rail line was stopped in 2011 due to safety concerns and the poor condition of the tracks, and freight service has also been discontinued on most parts of the Island.
The ICF wants to see rail service resurrected and has proposed a business case to restore the transportation option for a total cost of about $431 million.
Island Corridor Foundation CEO Larry Stevenson says he believes the railway could be economically viable, between passenger service and freight, with some funding help from senior levels of government.
However, the ICF is on a tight schedule.
A civil lawsuit brought against the ICF by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation in 2015 claimed that reserve land was wrongfully taken away in 1911 to build the railway. Now that the land sits unused, the lawsuit argued, the First Nation is within its legal rights to ask for the return of the land.
Although the case was dismissed by the B.C. Supreme Court, as well as an appeal in 2021, an allowance was made for Snaw-Naw-As to bring the matter back before the court if the federal government does not make a decision about the railway in the next 18 months. The deadline for this decision is March 2023.
Stevenson emphasized on July 27 that recent extreme weather events, which resulted in the closure of the Malahat highway, exposed the lack of transportation options and fragility of supply chains on Vancouver Island.
“It was a graphic display of the risks of reliance on a single highway,” he said.
Since then, he said, the ICF has been in discussions with the province’s Ministry of Transportation and the federal government, but no action has been taken. Stevenson asked the board for their support in influencing higher levels of government.
It’s not the first time the railway has come up at an ACRD board meeting this year. Representatives from the Friends of Rail to Trail Vancouver Island also attended a board meeting in May of this year, proposing the re-purposing of unused Vancouver Island rail lines as multi-use trails. The proposal, they said, offers an alternative use for the Island corridor if rail doesn’t return.
The delegation asked the board of directors to provide a letter of support for funding opportunities through the federal government in order to conduct a case study.
However, the ACRD board didn’t make any decisions related to this delegation. Director Ron Corbeil said at the time that their support depends on whether or not higher levels of government decide to pursue the return of rail.
“If, in fact, the federal government doesn’t believe that the railway’s in the public interest, and isn’t going to fund it, then I would wholeheartedly support what you’re doing,” said Corbeil. “At this point, I think it may be a little premature.”
On July 27, director John McNabb noted that the issue of the railway has been on and off the agenda for more than 10 years, and a decision needs to be made.
“It seems like it’s neverending,” he said. “We really need to get through the hurdles that have been in front of us.”
The board agreed to support the Island Corridor Foundation’s request for the federal and provincial governments to work together to equitably settle Indigenous claims within and along the rail corridor and create a multi-disciplinary team to advance rail as a transportation option on Vancouver Island. A similar resolution was also passed by the Capital Regional District back in June.
“From an economic standpoint, access to reliable transportation is the most important factor in people escaping poverty,” said ACRD board chair John Jack. “If you can’t get to work, if you can’t get to your appointments, you can’t escape the poverty trap. If we create alternatives in a period of high energy costs, people will use them and people will benefit from them.”
Despite the support from regional districts on Vancouver Island, B.C. Premier John Horgan said during a press event on Aug. 4 that he isn’t confident that the vision for the Island Corridor is achievable. He noted that the federal government’s lack of support has slowed things down.
“I don’t have any hope to offer today, because the cost of providing a service just from the West Shore into Victoria is profound,” Horgan said.