Blood on the tracks

By Ross Crockford, September 2013

The fight to save the E&N Railway enters the final round.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and the Malahat is jammed. The safety improvements are done, but it still takes 90 minutes to drive from downtown Victoria to Crofton. The highway is full of Islanders hauling groceries and building supplies, and I get stuck at practically every traffic light enroute. Judging by the growing numbers of mini-malls along the road, by 2030 the same drive will probably take twice as long.

Which is partly why Island Corridor Foundation CEO Graham Bruce is grinning when I finally meet him at the Crofton Hotel. Local politicians are desperate for an alternative to the Malahat, and Bruce has secured pledges from federal, provincial and regional governments of $20.9 million to fix the old Esquimalt & Nanaimo railway, owned by the ICF. All he needs to release the money is for VIA Rail to sign an agreement to run passenger trains on the line.

So far, VIA has refused. In April, Bruce sent them a 32-page proposal, asking for a Nanaimo-based train that would do four runs a day up and down the Island, and offering to take over VIA’s ticketing and administration—but VIA said in May that it will only renew its old deal to run a train from Victoria and back. Consequently, Bruce has taken to the news media this summer, blasting the Crown corporation’s “colonial” attitude and rallying politicians and more than 350 Islanders to send letters to the federal government to pressure VIA to sign. That support is why Bruce is grinning—even though he’s said that if VIA doesn’t get on board by August 31, the $20.9 million could be lost and the E&N will have to be decommissioned.

 

Island Corridor Foundation head Graham Bruce watches VIA cars leave the Island in November 2011. Will they return?

rolling stock

 

“There’s three-quarters of a million people on the Island, and half-a-million of those people live within five minutes of the railway,” says Bruce, noting the E&N showed a 45.6 percent increase in passengers between 2004 and 2011, when Southern Rail (the private company paid by the ICF to operate the railway) closed the track for safety reasons and VIA shipped its cars back east. “It’s already there, and you’ve seen an increase in ridership. So why wouldn’t you try to build on that?”

Bruce says VIA asked for a “creative” proposal, and his plan serves commuters, not just tourists. Besides, VIA has a duty to provide passenger rail across Canada, and it listed the Victoria-Courtenay run as one of its “mandatory services” in its 2011 annual report. But VIA says Bruce isn’t telling the whole story.

“It’s a complex file,” says Jacques Gagnon, a VIA spokesman in Montreal. VIA ran the E&N trains at a loss, so increasing their frequency would likely increase VIA’s deficit. Some 83 percent of the E&N’s passengers got on or off the train in Victoria, Gagnon notes, so it doesn’t make sense to start in Nanaimo. And the E&N really isn’t one of VIA’s “mandatory” lines, because those principally serve remote towns like Churchill, Manitoba, that are inaccessible by road. (In any case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1994 that the federal government has no constitutional duty to maintain a railway on Vancouver Island.)

The big worry for VIA, however, is safety. In 2009, a VIA train hit a car in Nanaimo, killing two people and permanently disabling their teenage son; their relatives and the province are suing VIA, the City of Nanaimo, the ICF, and Southern in a case going to trial next March, claiming the crossing was badly designed and maintained. 

Also, Vancouver Island isn’t the only place where VIA has suspended service because of deteriorating infrastructure, Gagnon says: In December 2011, VIA stopped running trains on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, citing safety problems with the tracks, which are owned by a nonprofit overseen by four Gaspé municipalities. “We are encountering similar situations in other parts of Canada, and we are invoking the same conditions. Because the tracks are not safe, we will not operate.”

Other parties have griped about the ICF, too. On Facebook and railfan.net, veteran railroaders have denounced Bruce and the foundation for making noise in the news media instead of actually fixing the rails. This July, Parksville and Qualicum Beach officials complained their towns respectively paid Southern $46,000 and $18,000 last year to maintain railway crossings, even though there is no VIA service. (Some freight service continues south of Nanaimo.) Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan recently told the Times Colonist he believes the ICF can’t gain traction in Ottawa because Bruce was busted in 2011 for violating federal lobbying rules, and that the ICF might need a different CEO. 

The ICF, founded in 2003, is overseen by a board representing five Island regional districts and 14 First Nations.The board has defended Bruce—but some directors of those regional districts are losing their patience. 

Late in August, Julian Fell, Coombs-Errington director for the Regional District of Nanaimo, sent a detailed memo to the five districts, asserting that the ICF recently enacted a new operating bylaw that “imposes high levels of secrecy” preventing any real oversight of how the ICF spends the $20.9 million.

“It’s a power grab, and I believe, an attempt to profit by the people running the show,” says Fell. As he notes, in 2010 the province’s Ministry of Transportation released a study stating it would cost at least $70 million to maintain the E&N corridor sufficiently to retain VIA service. “When [the ICF] said they could do it for $20 million, apparently some of the other regional districts just rubber-stamped their contribution. But when it got to Nanaimo, some of us looked at it in detail and said, ‘This is nonsense.’” 

The ICF plan will replace 110,000 railway ties and 9,000 joint-bar connections, and pour gravel ballast two inches deep the length of the E&N—but will not replace rails or fix crossings or rebuild stations, even though they were identified as concerns in previous reports. “This $20 million, you can spend it, but you’re not going to get the train for it,” Fell says. “They’ll do the work, consulting services and so on, and then when they’re done, they’ll just blame it on VIA for not giving us a train.”

In particular, Fell questions the state of the E&N’s 48 bridges, some of which are over 100 years old. In 2010, a consultant engineer analyzed the bridges, but his report was never released, and Southern has blocked freedom-of-information requests for it. The province then commissioned a second report, which said only $5.4 million is needed to repair all the bridges for passenger service—but millions more will be required after 2021, or if the bridges carry heavier freight trains. (This may prove troublesome, as the federal chunk of the $20.9 million comes with a condition that the ICF can’t ask Ottawa for any more money.)

Based on this information, last November eight of 17 Regional District of Nanaimo directors voted against funding the ICF plan; they were outvoted by City of Nanaimo directors, who want a train to serve Nanaimo’s new cruise-ship terminal. Now, in light of the surprising changes to the ICF’s bylaws, Fell says regional districts must reassert control of the ICF, and concentrate the $20.9 million on a few commercially viable sections of the E&N, such as a Langford-Victoria commuter line.

Bruce says that won’t work. “The proposal isn’t pick-and-choose,” he replies. “How do you build the freight side if you put all the money in one section? This gives us the opportunity to build on all of Vancouver Island, a whole host of uses.”

Reports saying it would cost $70 million or more to preserve the E&N are “old news,” Bruce continues, and the proposed work in the ICF plan has been certified by professional engineers. “For $20 million you get a service, and you give it life. $20 million is not very much money when it comes to transportation infrastructure.” 

The only holdup is VIA. Bruce admits he may have to agree to the old VIA deal (running a train out of Victoria) to release the cash, because it will be hard to create a passenger service without them: VIA receives some $400 million in annual federal subsidies to keep tickets affordable, and as a Crown corporation, it is self-insuring. But the City of Victoria demolished the old E&N station, and there’s no train maintenance facility in the Roundhouse any longer, so it makes more sense for VIA to be based in Nanaimo.

“If you want to stay with the structure as it was, we can work with that,” Bruce says. “But when you apply yourself to it, you’ll see that our proposal actually provides a better transportation system, and more service.”

Langford councillor Lanny Seaton, who was appointed earlier this year to represent the Capital Region on the ICF board, says he’s heard the complaints. He doesn’t know much about the changes to the ICF bylaws—his focus is on releasing the money and getting a train running, especially through Greater Victoria, to prove that it works. But will $20.9 million be enough to fix the E&N? “We need to start somewhere,” Seaton says. “Because people are getting to the point that they’re giving up on it.”

Ross Crockford is working on a book about a city networked by trains.