The Island Corridor Foundation has a lot of work to do over the next year, according to its CEO Larry Stevenson.
Speaking at a recent luncheon hosted by the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce, Stevenson said that during the last few years, progress by the ICF on moving forward with its efforts to revitalize the Island’s train network has been stymied by legal challenges brought forward by First Nations.
The main one was a civil lawsuit brought by the Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) First Nation in 2015 that claimed its reserve land was wrongfully taken away in 1911 to build the railway, and now that the land sits unused, the First Nation is within its legal rights to ask for the return of the land.
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However, the court dismissed the case in 2020, and also an appeal in 2021, stating that the ICF is attempting to restore rail on the land, rather than leaving it indefinitely.
Stevenson said that when the case was finally dismissed, the judge attached a number of conditions, with the key one being that the federal government needs to determine if the Island’s railway is in the public interest and whether it will fund its rebuilding.
“The deadline for those decisions to be made by the federal government is March, 2023 and this timeline will impact us all as the conversation [on whether the railway will be revitalized] that we’ve been having for years will end next March,” he said at the luncheon.
“I think the federal government will back the railway and we’ve prepared a preliminary business case [that has yet to be publicly released] which they are reviewing that makes a great economic, social and environmental case for the railway. Some outstanding rights and title issues with First Nations still have to be settled before we can move forward, but that will be up to senior levels of government to resolve.”
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The ICF owns the deteriorating 220-kilometre E&N rail line that stretches from Victoria to Courtenay and is committed to resurrecting rail service on the Island.
Passenger train service on the rail line was stopped in 2011 due to track safety concerns, and freight service has also been discontinued on most parts of the Island.
In 2020, the ICF said that the foundation could have the Island’s railway back up and running for both freight and passenger service for about $254 million, and was hoping that senior levels of government would provide the cash.
The ICF estimate followed a report released by the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure that made headlines with its eye-popping estimate that more than $700 million in upgrades and maintenance would be needed to get the railway corridor running again.
Stevenson confirmed at the luncheon that the ICF believes it can still do the job for between $350 million and $400 million to return railway traffic to the whole Island.
“We’re not talking about just a dayliner, but a service that will have multiple trains a day, a commuter service in the Langford-Victoria corridor, freight trains as well as excursion [tourist] trains,” he said.
“Senior levels of government have made no commitments to anything yet and no cheques have been written, but we’ve been in discussions with them and are moving forward. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re optimistic.”
Stevenson acknowledged that some on the Island would rather see the rail lines ripped up and have the corridor used as trail systems, but he said many others have indicated that they want the railway restored.
He said there’s currently few alternatives to the Trans-Canada Highway to connect the Island over the Malahat, and floods and other natural disasters related to global warming are increasingly putting the highway at risk.
“We’ve become too reliant on it,” Stevenson said.
“The Island also continues to grow and government statistics are saying that if things stay as they are, travelling times on the Island will continue to increase. Currently it takes 43 to 70 minutes to travel between Mill Bay and Victoria at peak times, but that is expected to increase to about two and a half hours by 2030.”
Stevenson said the province has looked at a number of options to deal with this issue, but none have yet to come to fruition.
“I think they are taking rail seriously, and meetings are taking place in earnest as they look at our business case,” he said.