Critical crossroads for rail on the Island

By Roszan Holmen, May 2016

Island politicians support rail—but not rail management.

Canadian Pacific locomotive at NanaimoWITH ITS ICONIC ROUNDED NOSE, the vintage Canadian Pacific F-unit locomotive cut a striking figure, parked outside the Nanaimo train station on Selby Street. 

For the volunteers who poured years of energy and millions of dollars into rebuilding the historic station, the sights and sounds of a working train were cause for celebration. 

On a July-feeling weekend in early April, families, train enthusiasts and politicians gathered to check out the train, take turns on the pumper cars, and enjoy some cake to mark the 130th anniversary of rail on Vancouver Island. Twenty-five dollar tickets quickly sold out for the hour-long amble to Wellington and back.  

“Really what made it special was seeing reaction from people along the highway,” said Chris Alemany, a councillor in Port Alberni. “People were stopping on the side of the road and waving and hanging out of their sun roofs.”

Of course, the train isn’t here to stay. It’s just a loaner, barged in from the mainland for the special occasion, but the weekend celebration served as a happy reminder of the potential and promise of a tourist train once again. The pitch: a new Central-Island excursion train for Nanaimo cruise passengers, bringing more than $20 million in economic development. 

And the target audience arrived just on time to catch the message, along with a free ride on the train. Municipal politicians from across the Island gathered in Nanaimo April 8-10 for an annual general meeting to debate and vote on issues of common concern. 

Many of the special invitees, however, were unmoved by the publicity stunt.

“If you need all that money to fix the rail, why are you spending all this money foolishly?” opined Langford councillor Denise Blackwell, in the media.  

Others described it as a distraction from the facts: It’s been more than five years since the last train ran on the E&N, and there is no good-news funding announcement in sight. 

While the anniversary event may have been designed to whip up nostalgic support for rail, our political representatives sent a very different message when they got down to business at the Nanaimo conference centre. A strong majority supported a resolution from Langford calling for an audit of the Island Corridor Foundation, the non-profit society mandated to manage the E&N corridor and to preserve and develop the railway. 

While the resolution may be toothless, it makes clear that long-simmering frustrations with the management of the corridor have reached a boiling point. It’s also the latest in a series of attacks against the ICF, which have the potential to unravel all the efforts to revive rail on the E&N. The future of rail is at a critical juncture.

 

THE FIRST ATTACK CAME IN THE Fall of 2015, when Langford tired of paying ongoing corridor fees and rail-infrastructure charges despite having no train running the tracks. The municipality pulled its permissive tax exemption to the ICF, which responded in kind by charging the municipality $50,000 for the right of way to build a bike trail. The tit-for-tat quickly escalated into a pissing match in the media. Soon after, Langford handily passed a motion calling for a financial and governance review of the ICF. The same motion passed at the Capital Regional District before making its way to the AGM of the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC) in April. 

The second blow came in December, when the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation launched a civil claim against the ICF. It argues that land once taken from the reserve to build a railway should be returned, now that it’s no longer being used for that purpose. If successful, the suit could effectively cut the rail corridor in half. But even if the suit doesn’t win in court, it could still prove fatal by triggering more delays to long-promised federal funding to upgrade the tracks. Without this signoff, matching provincial funding remains locked up indefinitely.

The third setback arrived in March. That’s when the Regional District of Nanaimo pulled the plug on its contribution agreement with the Island Corridor Foundation. 

“We don’t think the train is ever going to run North of Nanaimo,” said Bill Veenhof, RDN board chair. “We’ve requisitioned tax dollars for that…and if we don’t believe that the taxpayers’ money is going to be used for what it was intended, then it’s time to move on.”

The regional district withdrew its $945,000 pledge, and went public with their list of grievances. Among them: a lack of communication and transparency by the ICF; a lack of faith that $20.9 million is adequate to upgrade the tracks as the ICF claims; and disappointment in the train schedule as proposed by the ICF.  

“We were told we were going to get daily service north of Nanaimo to Victoria,” said Veenhof. “That’s not happening…we understand that it’s weekend service for some time.” 

The official response from the ICF was strangely muted. A written statement said it is disappointed but optimistic federal signoff is close at hand. “The ICF Board will investigate other funding and operational alternatives,” it read. 

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The five regional districts that share the corridor signed contribution agreements contingent upon the participation of all five. When Nanaimo pulled out, it invalidated the contribution agreements signed by the Capital, Cowichan Valley, Comox Valley and Alberni Clayoquot regional districts. That resulting shortfall equals $3.2 million, unless all these districts recommit their funding under new terms. 

“We understand all of that; we know what’s in front of us,” acknowledged Judith Sayers, co-chair of the Island Corridor Foundation board. While the board hasn’t had time to formulate a strategy, Sayers said “it is urgent and we will be addressing it.” 

 

THE PROSPECT OF RE-OPENING a debate on funding contributions is far from the minds of Barb Desjardins and Jon Lefebure, chairs of the Capital and Cowichan Valley regional districts respectively. Both are rail advocates, and both are pinning their hopes on Nanaimo reconsidering its decision. 

Lefebure calls the regional-funding issue a moot point, given that federal funding is on hold for the near term. He preaches patience.

“In local government, we often have to wait a long time to accomplish something we want to accomplish,” Lefebure said. “If you have something that’s worth doing, you have to have perseverance.” 

Barb Desjardins argues the opposite. 

“The snail’s pace of government decisions for this is really shocking,” said Desjardins, who is also the Capital Region’s member representative on the ICF board. “Either you’re going to give us the money or you’re not.”

The federal government agreed to contribute $7.5 million in April 2012. The delays have thrown the business case into question, she argued. In the meantime, municipalities have invested millions of dollars in rail crossings that may never be used.

“It’s not fair to…withhold your funding for the number of years this has occurred,” said Desjardins. She agreed it’s time to move on, one way or another.

The annual general meeting of the AVICC provided a gauge on the political climate. On the one hand, politicians clearly voiced a lack of confidence in the management of the rail. On the other hand, a solid majority expressed strong support for rail itself, noted Chris Alemany, from Port Alberni. 

As evidence, he pointed to the success of his own municipality’s resolution: To petition the federal government to release funding for track upgrades. Similarly, politicians struck down a proposal to explore alternatives to rail on the corridor, such as recreational trails. 

Desjardins said the Island-wide resolution to audit the ICF provides direction. “These are protest moves to make them understand that we are very serious,” she said. 

The motion leaves Judith Sayers at a loss.

“What are we auditing?” she asked. “We’ll be producing our next audit at the end of the month, if you’re talking about a financial audit.” To the politicians who have lost confidence in the ICF, Sayers says she would love the chance to hear them out. “What are their questions? I have no clue what it is they’re disturbed about.” 

Already, the ICF has taken steps to better communicate with municipalities. Mayors have all received invitations to appoint someone to a new local government liaison committee, giving them a chance to ask questions and air concerns at two meetings annually. 

Desjardins called it a huge step. “I think this is great news,” she said. But the reception hasn’t been so warm across the board. It might prove too little too late.

The Regional District of Nanaimo won’t be won back into the funding agreement so easily. The RDN rejected the invitation, and passed a motion saying it “does not support the retention or continuation of Granneke Management by the ICF Board.” 

Graham Bruce is the polarizing executive director of the Island Corridor Foundation, and the head of Granneke Management. He has staunch supporters and vociferous critics, who accuse him of running nothing but a gravy train for the contractors paid, year after year, not to run a real one.

Bruce’s contract is up May 30, and directors will decide whether to renew the contract by consensus. Recently, the board signalled its intention in a press release: “The governance of the ICF is sound and is managed according to the goals and objectives the stakeholders originally agreed to.” 

Sayers explained: “We work with management; we direct the management. If anybody looks closely at what the ICF has accomplished over the years, we’ve done a lot.”

But can management win back the trust of its members? Without it, the ICF cannot be successful in its mandate to revive the train.

“So the question is, [are the trust issues] just about not getting the federal funding in a timely manner?” asked Sayers. “Is that something we can blame on one person? Those are hard questions and it’s a question the board will have to deal with. It’s not going to be easy to figure all this out.”

 

Next time: Roszan Holmen will take a closer look at the civil claim by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation. At the heart of the issue is a) whether they have a historical claim on the land, and b) whether they can make a case there is no realistic prospect for the return of rail. What could a win in court mean for the corridor, and for all First Nations who share the corridor?

Roszan Holmen is the talkshow producer for CFAX 1070. Her feature report “E&N railway: more red lights ahead” in Focus’ December 2014 edition won a Jack Webster Award for Community Reporting.

 

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