It’s been a full decade since passenger service stopped running on Vancouver Island’s E&N rail line and it will take a minimum nine-figure investment to get it running again.
But the owner of the rail corridor says the cost to restore service from Victoria to Courtenay would be a sound investment.
A 2020 condition assessment done by the B.C. government pegs a cost ranging from $326 million to $1.3 billion. Island Corridor Foundation CEO Larry Stevenson estimates the price at $300-$350 million, saying the baseline cost assessment was accurate but the methodology to estimate final costs was flawed, resulting in over-estimates of construction costs.
Most respondents (79 per cent) in a 2020 ICF survey believe rail would be positive for tourism and the economy, he added, noting 84 per cent of 3,000 respondents support continued development of trails beside the rail.
“The public wants to see rail service restored to the Island,” Stevenson said in a June 15 address to the Comox Valley Regional District board, noting support on the North Island was 68 per cent.
Stevenson said an ICF-commissioned report on the economic impact of construction, using a base investment of $304 million, determined the impact would be $147 million in labour income, 2,200 person years of employment and $470 million in total economic benefit.
The Friends of Rails to Trails-Vancouver Island (FORT-VI) — a group advocating for non-motorized use of the corridor — has said the cost to restore rail service is prohibitive.
“Expensive compared to what?” Stevenson said, noting significantly higher prices for rail extensions in the Lower Mainland. He said the ICF does not believe that converting the ine into a trail will address transportation issues. The foundation foresees a multi-purpose corridor to serve all walks of life.
“We need to get people out of cars,” Stevenson said. “That’s the biggest reason why we are not in favour of a trail-only type of situation…I think the train does provide an alternative service level.”
Courtenay directors Melanie McCollum and Wendy Morin questioned if train service is needed in the north Island. McCollum sees the sense in a Duncan to Victoria run. She has trouble imagining how train service will get people out of cars, but thinks electrification of the bus system and frequent trips will “get us there sooner.”
In terms of commuting from Courtenay to Victoria, Morin sees the allure more from a tourism perspective, as opposed to travelling for a medical appointment.
“To me, there’s a lot of pieces missing,” she said. “The feasibility may not be there for this part of the island.”
Andrew Gower, a local engineer and advocacy chair for the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Stevenson that restoring rail is not a complex project. He said the planning of transportation infrastructure in North America has been flawed for at least a century, because the focus has been about moving cars and trucks, not people and goods. He noted that all transportation infrastructure is subsidized.
“This isn’t a case about what we can afford or not, it’s what we choose to pay for,” Gower said, noting the province spends $4.4 billion a year on highways.
In terms of business opportunities, he said there’s a market for 15,000 freight cars per year. Gower also said commuter rail produces lower carbon dioxide emissions than cars or buses.
The BC Chamber of Commerce consists of 36,000 businesses and 120 local chambers/boards of trade. A CV Chamber-led rail policy recommends B.C. work with the federal government to ensure the Island corridor remains intact and designated as a transportation corridor with priority for rail infrastructure. It also recommends funding of phased improvements to the E&N corridor, and a commitment to ongoing, operational funding.
Looking to the future, Area C director Edwin Grieve said the corridor is an irreplaceable asset.
“It’s a no brainer,” he said. “Why don’t we support this as much as possible?”
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