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E&N rail service doomed without huge injection of government cash says operators

Apr 27 2011

NANAIMO — The publicly owned E&N Railway could come to a permanent halt without a multi-million-dollar investment from senior levels of government, say operators of the historic and decaying track.

The Island Corridor Foundation applied last October for federal and provincial infrastructure funding to the tune of $15 million, but a B.C. Liberal leadership race put that application on hold. Then came the federal election and more delays.

That money will save the line, said Graham Bruce, the foundation's executive director. The ICF took over the 225 kilometres of track in 2006 and have been operating it with Southern Railway of Vancouver Island.

The foundation stopped running passenger rail last month and slowed freight service to 25 km/h in order to ensure safety on the aging line that turned 125 this year.

The decision to suspend passenger service means plans for improvements have also been put on hold, said Bruce.

"Without that funding, we're done," Bruce said. "We've kept it alive, but everybody knows the state of the line. We're on borrowed time." Mayors of Vancouver Island communities met two weeks ago to discuss the track. More than 50 Island communities and regional districts passed an emergency resolution, demanding a meeting with Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Blair Lekstrom and Premier Christy Clark.

Lekstrom plans to meet with members of the ICF on Monday afternoon to finally get some confirmation about the political will to support the E&N. The infrastructure costs would be divided by the province and Ottawa, but Lekstrom has already stated that his government does not have $7.5 million required for the upgrade. If that stance does not change, the railway will die, Bruce said.

Plans for the line include adding new passenger cars in 2012 and relocating the main terminus station from Victoria to Nanaimo. This move would allow for passenger rail to travel to the provincial capital early in the morning, with an evening run to Courtenay.

Bruce hopes Lekstrom will support the project and take the lead on trying to get money out of the new federal transportation minister once the election ends Monday.

The $15-million investment will stop the decay of the track and bring it up to date, according to Don McGregor, general manager of Southern Railway on Vancouver Island.

The line had experienced about 20 years of referred repairs, he explained, by the time the communities of Vancouver Island took ownership of it five years ago. Southern Railway is committed to about $1 million in annual upgrades, but major restoration work is needed before.

Inspections conducted over the past month indicate that about 104,000 railway ties need to be replaced. McGregor said pulling the passenger service as of March 19 was a difficult decision, but the right call to make.

"It was a disappointing moment, and a hard decision, but of course safety is paramount on the track," he explained.

Freight service has been slowed from its usual 50 km/h. Reducing the speed of the train will ensure that cars stay on the track.

A government investment in the track will allow the ICF and Southern Railway to improve and expand its service. VIA Rail has committed to refurbishing passenger cars and could introduce them on the E&N as early as March 2012, explained McGregor. He would like to see passenger service up and running by the fall and the improved Nanaimo-to-Victoria run by the following spring.

"We're hoping for new investment, new passenger cars and new service," he said.

The ICF has invested about $30 million in the past four years, according to Bruce. That investment includes tax exemptions from the communities who now own the line through the foundation.

E&N BY THE NUMBERS

$15 million needed to upgrade tracks

104,000 ties need to be replaced ($12.5 million)

$500,000 for engineering audit

125 years the E&N has been operating

225 kilometres of track, Victoria to Courtenay

2006 -- Island Corridor Foundation took over

40,000 people a year ride the passenger rail

800-900 freight cars a year travel the line

DSpalding@nanaimodailynews.com