E & N track does look abandoned these days. (Citizen file)

The E&N: Will ye no come back again?

Was Johnson Street bridge closure a death knell for tourist rail idea?

I’ve told you about my growing up beside the CNR tracks in Saanich, the start of a lifelong love affair with trains.

This includes our poor E&N Railway.

I’ve even walked most of it, with about 20 miles to go before I can scratch it from my bucket list.

On Friday morning, a rally was held at the downtown Duncan train station, which functions today as the Cowichan Valley Museum. It was in response to Premier Horgan’s recent announcement that he doesn’t see a revitalized E&N in his future, not even a limited Langford-Victoria West commuter system as has been proposed in recent years.

The fact that the new Johnson Street bridge can’t carry rail traffic as did its predecessor (meaning passengers would have to be shuttled to downtown Victoria by bus) is a crucial, even fatal, obstacle to any successful commuter service, he said.

For years now, since full operation of the E&N was suspended, the Island Corridor Foundation has been trying to resuscitate passenger and freight service.

For years now, many have promoted the idea of making the E&N a tourist train, particularly on the Port Alberni ‘Sub’ (spur) with its, among other assets, spectacular skirting of Cameron Lake.

Then there are those who say that any Island rail service is obsolete or too expensive and we should tear up the tracks to make the right-of-way a world-class hiking/cycling trail.

Personally, I’m torn between sentimentality and practicality. The costs of completely repairing the mainline alone are scary—until one compares them to the cost of highway infrastructure which, however expensive, never seems to bat a politician’s eye.

So, for today, I’ll leave the realities of restoring Island rail to others and dig into my fat file which contains numerous news articles about previous attempts to kill the E&N, beginning in 1968.

That’s when the E&N’s owners, the CPR, first applied to the Canadian Transport Commission to end the passenger service between Victoria and Courtenay as it was losing money. That’s when, spurred by news reports of the line’s possibly imminent closure, I first rode the Dayliner from Victoria’s Wharf Street to Courtenay. As it turned out, these predictions failed to materialise and the E&N struggled on for another two years when the CPR made a second attempt to disown it.

In August 1970, the Victoria Daily Times ran a full-page story under the seven-column-wide banner headline, “Presenting the good old E&N: Take a ride on it (while you can).”

Wrote reporter Don Vipond: “We have our own Rock Island Line. It could be a mighty fine line. But it isn’t.”

This was before VIA Rail took over and Vipond made it plain that the CPR’s absentee ownership showed, beginning with the Wharf Street station’s “shabbiness”.

Vipond went on to describe some of the highlights of the trip (particularly the all-too-brief glimpse of the Malahat and Saanich Inlet from the towering Niagara Canyon trestle) and concluded: “Too bad there isn’t a ferry trip down Georgia Strait [from the northern terminus] to complete the circle. Or a rail run down to Alberni, then ferry to Bamfield and back home.

“Too bad there isn’t a steam engine or an observation car or open windows or snack bar.

“Too bad.”

He then itemized the Dayliner service’s greatest failings: its arrival in Courtenay too late to make a bus connection; its return to Victoria too late to make a ferry connection. He echoed the biggest criticism, that which had been made by many for years: Why, instead of leaving from Victoria in the morning, didn’t the Dayliner “begin its run from Courtenay, lay over in Victoria for two or three hours of business or shopping then take up-Islanders home?”

That question was asked right up to the very day the E&N suspended service in 2012.

The tone of Vipond’s article and the cartoon accompanying it come across, almost half a century later, as being somewhat cavalier bordering on cynical. Fellow reporter John Slinger’s accompanying article, “Rails could be silver, spikes could be gold,” looked back over the railway’s 84-year history, from the day at Cliffside, Shawnigan Lake, when Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald drove the E&N’s last golden spike in 1886. How he and Mrs. Macdonald, and railway/owner and builder, coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, were met on that historic occasion by a bevy of ladies in hoop skirts and parasols and men in top hats and boiled collars. And how Macdonald was cheered when he referred to the new Island line as an extension of the just-built trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway.

Slinger reminded readers of the infamous E&N land grant which had included all mineral, timber and water rights, and real estate greater in extent than some European nations; all this in exchange for a railway that the CPR, which bought out the Dunsmuirs in 1905, now wanted to dump.

But this wasn’t news; the company had orphaned the line decades before. Slinger quoted Cobble Hill’s feisty George E. Bonner who raged in 1952 on behalf of the Vancouver Island Ratepayers Association: “The E&N service is convenient to no one, and its equipment is obsolete…

“If the E&N Railway had used all the money from sales of Crown-granted land and mineral rights for improvement of the railroad, we would have had a double track with rails of silver and spikes of gold between Victoria and Seymour Narrows.”

The CPR’s application to discontinue passenger service didn’t have the support of civic leaders. In 1968, Municipal Affairs Minister Dan Campbell reminded the CPR of its land grant which, he believed, bound them to a contract: the land and all its resources in exchange for a functioning railway. “The federal government [Transport Commission] should not break faith with the people of Vancouver Island,” he said, and the CPR backed off.

For two years. This time, other civic leaders stepped forward. Victoria mayor Courtenay Haddock said he thought the railway “could be a tourist draw;” Nanaimo Mayor Frank Ney thought it would work if the E&N revised its schedule.

The question facing the CTC was colourfully put by the Colonist’s Diane Janowski: “Should a goose that laid a golden egg be abandoned in its old age just because the egg has hatched into a gosling that would like to disown its heritage?”

No doubt to the CPR’s surprise and discomfort, the hearing was jammed to overflowing, with mayors from Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Duncan, an alderman from Courtenay, an army of lawyers and Islanders from Victoria to Courtenay who wanted to have their say in the matter.

Chairman D.H. Jones made it clear that the commission had accepted financial statements showing that the E&N had lost $100,000 in each of the three previous years. The issues at stake were: Should the CPR be allowed to discontinue the Dayliner service? Or was it in the public interest to order the CPR to “maintain the service, with a federal subsidy covering up to 80 per cent of the loss”?

The CPR’s chief of passenger services, T.P. James, stated that in his view there were no constructive changes that could be made to improve ridership; not even by turning it around and having the Dayliner start its run in Courtenay. He was forced to admit, under questioning, that the CPR had spent all of $150 from 1966-1968 in promoting the service. (Note: that’s $50 per year!)

T.G. Mathers, the CPR’s solicitor, said he thought there were superior alternatives to Island travel than an unpopular railway.

One outspoken critic termed the E&N application a “planned suicide,” and chairman Jones brought up the issue of safety after he took a ride on the Dayliner.

And so it went, making newspaper headlines all the way as complaints of shoddy E&N service, the deplorable condition of its stations (a photograph showed waist-high weeds shrouding the Qualicum Beach station) and tracks poured in.

As a public relations exercise, the CPR’s application to drop passenger service was a disaster, more headlines describing the company as inept and arrogant. Colonist columnist Gorde Hunter raged, “The utter cheek, the gall, the effrontery of the CPR, never ceases to amaze.” His damning conclusion: “The CPR couldn’t give a tinker’s dam [sic] about the whole kit and caboose.

“They want out and realize that the best way to get out is to let the operation deteriorate to the point that no self-respecting hobo would want to swipe a ride.”

This is the Island railway that the ICF has undertaken to rescue. It is no longer a corporate matter, but a political one. Only the willing financial participation of various levels of government—i.e. political will—can save it now before the tracks and trestles deteriorate beyond the point of viable economic return.


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