By Ross Crockford, January 2012

What happened to the plans for commuter rail?

For a few hours in 2008 and 2009, residents got an idea of what it would be like to take a commuter train between Langford and Victoria. 

One Saturday in August, in both those years, Jim Sturgill ran a 70-passenger VIA Rail “Budd” car back and forth between Goldstream Avenue and the old CPR roundhouse in Vic West, as part of E&N Days, a summer celebration of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. “It worked very well,” says Sturgill, a veteran trainman who operated locomotives on the E&N for 30 years. During 2008’s one-day test, he made six round trips, taking about 25 minutes each way—a challenge for any car driver trying to reach the same destination by navigating the stop-and-go traffic on Douglas Street or Craigflower Road. 

In 2009, Sturgill made seven round trips, carrying 680 people. “There were so many people wanting to take the ride,” he recalls. “Four teenagers got on the train at Langford, and I asked them if they were going to E&N Days. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘we’re just doing this so we can catch a bus to the Mayfair shopping centre. We wish a train like this was running all the time.’”

Back then, that wish looked certain to become a reality. In 2006, Canadian Pacific donated the E&N to the brand-new Island Corridor Foundation, and ideas flourished along the tracks. In January 2008, a group of officials from Victoria, Esquimalt, View Royal and Langford called Communities For Commuter Rail (C4CR) released a study showing that an hourly train service would cost $16 million to build, and $2 million a year to operate—a sum requiring lower per-rider subsidies than BC Transit's buses. Riders would pay $5.

In the November 2008 municipal election, Langford and Colwood asked voters if they wanted the BC and federal governments to fund the E&N, and BC Transit to provide commuter rail; 93 percent said Yes. Two days later, an all-party finance committee of the provincial government said the E&N and commuter rail should be a capital spending priority. Victoria mayor-elect Dean Fortin chimed in: “Commuter rail from Langford to downtown Victoria is an idea whose time has come.”

Then it fizzled. In June 2010, consultants hired by the province to study the E&N’s viability issued reports stating it would cost $123 million to rehabilitate the entire line [TO COURTENAY], and at least $69.5 million for Victoria-Langford commuter rail, with new stations and trains—slamming the brakes on any immediate prospect of provincial investment. The ICF tried to get a pilot commuter service running that autumn, but the BC Safety Authority demanded new assessments of all 24 crossings between Langford and Victoria, even though VIA had used the same route for decades. The following spring, Victoria councillors voted rail permanently off the new Johnson Street Bridge. And all the while, BC Transit poured time and money into its $950-million plans to electrify the region with Uptown-centred Light Rail Transit.

Now the E&N is in a perilous state. Last March, VIA’s Budd cars stopped running because of poor track conditions, and in November, VIA shipped the cars off the island. The province has said it will give the ICF $7.5 million for track improvements, but only if the federal government does too—and the feds’ decision may hinge on a just-completed assessment of the E&N’s bridges, including the huge span erected in 1910 across Goldstream’s Niagara Canyon. Many fear that if the bridges don’t pass, the E&N is doomed. 

But would that automatically kill commuter rail? Maybe not. 

The fact is, we’ve invested considerable sums in the tracks already. CRD Parks says 30 percent of the $14 million it’s put into the E&N Rail Trail has gone to rail infrastructure, such as its new Four-Mile Bridge over the Island Highway. Langford has concentrated new developments around the tracks, including its new Eagle Ridge recreation centre. And Esquimalt and the province have spent $5 million on the rail crossing at Admirals Road, the potential site of a station for hundreds of people working across the street at CFB Esquimalt and Victoria Shipyards.

The key, rail advocates say, is to build up a commuter service incrementally, which would be far less expensive than the all-at-once, “platinum or nothing” mentality of the LRT plan. “Municipal operations is totally different from a provincial-scale, BC Transit way of doing things,” says Geoff Pearce, the chair of C4CR, and Langford’s former clerk-administrator. “We do what’s necessary, and if something doesn’t work, we fix it and then we go on. What we envisaged with commuter rail, starting small and growing, was quite different from what the Ministry of Transportation or BC Transit says, which is, ‘You’ve got to put in $60 million up front.’”

That incremental approach has worked elsewhere. Cash-strapped and desperate for transit, several American cities have converted old freight railways over to commuter service: one example is New Jersey’s River Line, which uses diesel-powered vehicles that roll into downtown Camden like streetcars. Another example, even closer to our circumstances, comes from Texas: in 1994, Dallas’s transit authority bought 13 Budd cars from VIA (used ones cost as little as $100,000) and started running them on a bankrupt freight line for a commuter service called the Trinity Railway Express. Today, TRE carries 9,800 daily passengers on new trains, and has loaned its Budd cars to build up a new commuter line in nearby Denton County. 

Local commuter rail does face challenges beyond finding vehicles and money. C4CR’s $16-million scheme depended on rail coming across the Johnson Street Bridge—and so far, the City of Victoria has refused to investigate whether the new bridge could have rails embedded in its roadway (an idea pushed by this author), fearing increased costs and construction delays. 

“It’s going to take somebody to say, ‘Hey, this is important enough, we’ll put in $30,000 to help Victoria look at that alternative. And let’s do it now rather than later,’” says Pearce, who wants to see the CRD create a regional funding formula for rail on the bridge. 

There’s also the question of which entity would run the commuter service. Southern Rail, which is currently contracted by the Island Corridor Foundation to operate the E&N, doesn’t have passenger insurance. Pearce says VIA would be the logical choice, if it brings back its Budd cars, and can be persuaded that connecting Langford and Victoria meets its intercity mandate. Alternatively, a whole new intermunicipal service could be created, or the rail system could be operated by the CRD or BC Transit.

Unfortunately, the last two bodies currently seem entranced by LRT. The CRD board, the regional transit commission, and some local politicians have already endorsed BC Transit’s shiny $950-million plan—without much worrying about whether austerity-preaching federal and provincial governments will actually pay for it, or already-public opposition from the CRD Taxpayers’ Association and businesses afraid of losing two car lanes along Douglas Street.

The LRT fantasy may also cost us opportunities that are staring us right in the face. Langford’s Westhills development has set aside $1 million for a commuter-rail station, and a park-and-ride system connecting it to buses. But there’s a time limit, and if rail doesn’t materialize by the end of 2013, Westhills will spend that money on other infrastructure.

Jim Hartshorne, the prime project consultant for Westhills and president of the Westshore Developers’ Association, sat on BC Transit’s community-liasion panel for LRT. “And I can tell you: I don’t understand the LRT proposal. It doesn’t make sense to me. It is, in my opinion, doomed for failure,” Hartshorne says, even though the LRT plans include Westhills. “We will have to spend millions just to acquire rights-of-way, and design a system for a billion dollars that doesn’t appear to have a population that could support it. With the E&N, we could use the track that’s existing, and spend a few dollars to upgrade it. It’s mind-boggling to me that that wouldn’t be the first thing we would do.”


Ross Crockford is a director of and the author of Victoria: The Unknown City.