Conductor Kevin Hunter welcomes members of Chamber Opera Chicago to the steam train in 2018. ELENA RARDON PHOTO

Conductor Kevin Hunter welcomes members of Chamber Opera Chicago to the steam train in 2018. ELENA RARDON PHOTO

PROGRESS 2022: Fresh ideas sought for City of Port Alberni’s train station

City still wants to see passenger train service run out of heritage building

The City of Port Alberni may be looking for someone to lease its historic train station, but there is still hope for the future of tourist train operations in the city.

The city issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) on March 30, 2022, inviting businesses, individuals and organizations to submit their proposals with a new, commercial vision for the building.

“We think it’s a phenomenal opportunity for somebody to showcase their business,” said Pat Deakin, the city’s economic development manager.

The site is essentially a “shell,” with the original 1911 rail station building and the adjoining 1950s truck garage included in the offering. The RFP also includes the paved courtyard outside and the attached parking lot.

The successful applicant will be able to transform the train station interior, but because the building has heritage status, there are some features that cannot be altered.

Deakin says the city is “wide open” to any responses that might come in.

“We’re fully expecting one or more brewpubs or restaurants to be interested,” he said. “But we thought it would be a great space for an outdoor recreation business, too.”

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said it has been “mostly food service” ideas coming forward so far.

“Which we think is exciting and fits really well with the values council is trying to accomplish down there,” she added.

Minions describes the train station as the “coolest building” in the community.

“It’s such an asset,” she said. “Yet we’ve never really been able to go in and out of it on a regular basis. It’s been closed, other than the odd special event. What I’m looking for is vibrancy out of that building, the public being welcomed into that building day by day. And just for it to add to the community.”

But the change in operations does not necessarily mean the passenger train service is going anywhere.

“We’ve been telling proponents that their response must allow for train operations again in the future, should they come to pass,” explained Deakin. “Council intends that the train would be operational again at some point in the future. We hope that it will be.”

The RFP specifically states that proponents must be prepared to operate their venture alongside a passenger rail service. Proposals must describe how operations might facilitate train operations—for example, allowing use of the washrooms and facilitating ticket sales.

“It’s important to note we do envision there still being a train ticket centre there,” said Minions. “We hope to get the train up and running and the tracks repaired at some point. We want to make sure whatever goes in there, that we’ll be reserving space for that when needed.”

The city will remain as the owner of the train station and grounds.

The train station was built in 1911-12 to assist with passenger and freight rail travel in Port Alberni in the first half of the 20th century. Some additions were made in the 1950s, including a brick exterior and metal roof. The Canadian Pacific Railway closed down the train station in the 1980s as truck freight traffic took the place of rail.

The City of Port Alberni purchased the property in 1990 and the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) restored the station to its original wooden appearance.

“We wanted to convert [the train station] back to its original look,” said Ken Rutherford, one of the IHS founding members. “That became the home of the Industrial Heritage Society and the tourist hub for operating the steam train.”

Over the years, the IHS has run tours on the railway tracks, including tours out to McLean Mill National Historic Site. The society transformed the upper floor of the train station—which originally hosted bedrooms for the station agent—to a meeting space, while the lower floor was reserved for ticket sales, souvenirs and displays. The IHS also used the truck garage to store some of their restored trucks and artifacts.

But in 2018, the city’s No. 7 Baldwin steam locomotive had to be shut down, as it was in need of a boiler replacement. In 2019, Port Alberni city council put a temporary halt to tourist railway operations due to budget concerns. Council budgeted to bring back the tourist train for a shortened run in 2020, but these plans were halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By October of 2021, the IHS was required to vacate the building so that repairs could take place. The train station has been undergoing some seismic upgrades over the past few months after the city received a grant of almost $400,000 in provincial funding to undertake the work.

The city started to issue a request for expressions of interest for the train station in 2020, but this changed after city staff discovered the amount of restoration work that had to be done for the train station to be occupied.

“We decided we were going to take care of those ourselves,” said Deakin.

In the meantime, Rutherford said the steam train engine has been rebuilt, and the No. 7 is ready to go. The city put “a considerable amount of money” into getting it back up and running, he said.

However, the track and rail cars—which have been sitting unused for several years—will need some maintenance before the passenger train service can return.

Minions said the city did not receive a budget request from the IHS in 2022, so she does not have a timeline for rail service.

“I know [the IHS] has made some great progress there,” she said. “But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Rutherford says the IHS is still interested in getting the train back up and running.

“To have an historic steam train taking visitors out to an historic steam sawmill and see an historic steam logging show—that is unique to anywhere in the world,” he said. “Nobody else has that. And right now, we’ve lost that.”



elena.rardon@albernivalleynews.com

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with files from Susie Quinn, Alberni Valley News

Port Alberni

 

The E&N Railway Station on the corner of Argyle St. and Kingsway as it looked from 1952 to 1990, prior to restoration. (ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM / PN14127)

The E&N Railway Station on the corner of Argyle St. and Kingsway as it looked from 1952 to 1990, prior to restoration. (ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM / PN14127)