The Port Alberni Santa Train broke an attendance record during its last run in 2018. (MIKE YOUDS PHOTO)

The Port Alberni Santa Train broke an attendance record during its last run in 2018. (MIKE YOUDS PHOTO)

BUDGET 2020: WVIHS rolls out five-year plan for Port Alberni heritage train

Port Alberni council considers options in budget preparation

MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Port Alberni City Council has three budget options to weigh as it considers Alberni Pacific Railway’s possible return to operation next year.

Choices range from an austere maintenance-only plan with the heritage steam train idled to a summer-long operation along Stamp Avenue, a route confined to city-owned tracks. A five-year plan designed to “rebuild the brand” would have the train resume its runs to McLean Mill National Historic Site in 2021.

Ken Rutherford, director of Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society (WVIHS), laid out the options at a committee of the whole meeting Tuesday. Volunteers behind the society that runs the heritage train make no secret which option they prefer.

“Hopefully, there will be enough love for that train that we get it going again,” Rutherford said.

Popular with residents and visitors alike, the train has been mothballed for the past year due to budget and equipment issues. Reading online of the attraction, tourists have been disappointed to find the train wasn’t operating once they arrived in town, Rutherford said. He cited Heritage B.C. research indicating that heritage attractions rank prominently among attractions for Canadian travellers.

READ MORE: City of Port Alberni cancels tourist train operations for 2019

The society’s preferred option, with a projected city cost of $151,000, would offer 162 runs in the first year using the 1929 Baldwin steam engine, pulling three passenger cars and possibly a restored 1929 CN caboose. There would be three runs on Fridays and four runs on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices would be lower, about $9.40 per passenger, than the trip to McLean Mill.

A second option would have the steam train restored but for operation would be limited to five “special weekends” through the summer, following the same truncated route. Operation would be based on events such as the Salmon Festival, Halloween and Christmas. The city subsidy for that option would be $75,000, though overhead costs would remain fixed.

The third option, costing roughly $30,000, would allow railway maintenance to continue along with restoration of rail artifacts with a view to eventually restoring service. Rutherford made it clear that without any city subsidy, the railway could not resume operation.

“If we’re just going to let it sit and rust, we’re not going to see the train running again,” he said.

With the preferred option, the city’s grant would increase to $186,000 in 2021, then gradually decline in successive years as passenger numbers and revenues build over time.

Rutherford said they would need to carry 20,000 passengers in order to break even next year, 6,000 more than their highest number when the train ran to the mill.

Mayor Sharie Minions said the city has had discussions with Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), a non-profit that owns all former CP and E&N railroads on Vancouver Island. ICF funding could provide in the order of $100,000 annually, said Tim Pley, the city’s CAO.

First reading of the city budget is scheduled for mid-January.

READ MORE: Port Alberni proposes 5.1 percent tax increase for 2020

Regardless of which option council chooses, railway maintenance continues. A crew of volunteers was busy on Saturday replacing ties along the city track.

While the society has more than 100 members, its active corps of volunteers numbers only 15. They welcome new volunteers, Rutherford said.