While both the Island Corridor Foundation and the Friends of Rail to Trail-Vancouver Island claim the lofty goal of bringing Vancouver Island communities together, their object of their attentions — the 131-year-old E&N Railway — remains highly divisive.
Last week in Nanaimo, a delegation from FORT-VI successfully lobbied Regional District of Nanaimo directors to support in principal a proposal to tear up one or more sections of the rail bed and convert it into a multi-use, non-motorized trail system.
The RDN board vote itself was a split decision, with several directors suggesting removal of the existing rail would risk crossing a point of no return for an eventual restoration of any rail service between Victoria and Courtenay.
Mandating rail removal seems ironic, as a spanking-new multi-use trail system was recently opened alongside the existing track running between Coombs and Parksville.
That trail was undertaken with the approval of both ICF, the non-profit society that owns and manages the railway corridor, and its railway operator, Southern Rail Ltd. of Vancouver Island (SVI).
The RDN decision also comes as the ICF is developing its latest business plan, for which public input continues through the end of this month.
That plan makes clear the foundation still sees its mandate as restoring passenger rail service to Vancouver Island, through some combination of intercity passenger service, tourism excursions and commuter rail, along with an expansion of limited freight service currently running in Nanaimo.
The plan also notes the business of the ICF is focused on four areas — the actual rail, heritage train stations, corridor communities, and “Rail-with-Trails.”
That last item, which is exemplified by the new Coombs-Parksville multi-use trail, is actually quite unique among rail operators in North America.
The future of rail on Vancouver Island remains murky. The ICF has a multi-phase infrastructure plan in place to bring the railway back to operational condition, but necessary federal funds are tied up by a court case in which the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation is demanding the return of a one-kilometre stretch of the corridor that runs through its traditional territory.
If restored, eventual rail service may not look anything like the limited Victoria-Courtenay runs that were discontinued in 2011. A once-a-day excursion serving a mix of tourists and Island commuters makes little sense, and the big diesel engines may need to be replaced by something more akin to light-rail to create a sustainable mass transit option.
But for those discussions to even take place, there must be a viable rail system in place. We’re fully in favour of well-used, functional links between Island communities, whether as rail or trail.
Ideally, we could have both. Fully costed and budgeted plans from both ICF and FORT-VI would take us a long way down the trail to public acceptance.
— Parksville Qualicum Beach News