Editorial: Hard-hearted VIA snubs Island

Editorial: Hard-hearted VIA snubs Island
AUGUST 8, 2013
Like a date who shows up late and doesn’t return phone calls, Via Rail is breaking the hearts of rail lovers who want to see passenger service return to the E&N line.
With a new deadline looming at the end of this month, Via is giving the Island Corridor Foundation the silent treatment, and it looks as if the rail company is hoping the persistent West Coast suitor will just go away.
Unless Via signs a service agreement with the foundation, which owns the tracks, and Southern Rail, the train operator, $18.2 million committed by federal, provincial and regional-district governments will continue to sit in limbo.
Passenger service hasn’t run on the line from Victoria to Courtenay for two years because the track’s poor condition raised safety concerns. Southern Rail is moving only freight, which can travel at slow speeds.
The foundation submitted a proposal to Via in April, and is still waiting to hear back. Graham Bruce, executive director of the foundation, says it’s an innovative plan. So innovative that he wishes he could release it publicly. For the time being, he feels bound to keep it under wraps while Via considers it.
If the Crown corporation is considering it.
Bruce does say the plan solves the main problem of the old service: The trains ran the wrong way.
The Dayliner went from Victoria to Courtenay in the morning, then back again later in the day. It didn’t work for people who wanted to commute into the city. The new proposal envisions an early-morning run from Nanaimo to Victoria, followed by the regular Victoria-Courtenay return trip, with another run in the late afternoon to take people back to Nanaimo.
Even when it ran the wrong way, Via’s service had average ridership increases of six per cent per year over six years.
Via has said it won’t agree to any service changes that cost the company more money. When the train was running, Bruce says, the agreement required Via to pay the difference between costs and revenues, a figure that ranged from $950,000 to $1.95 million a year. The new proposal, he says, should be attractive to Via because it would limit the size of that subsidy.
Bruce says he can only hold the various groups together until the end of August, so negotiations have to conclude by then, with or without an agreement. If the agreement is signed, track work can begin in November. If it isn’t, the foundation will have to consider “de-commissioning” the line.
Once the tracks are torn up, they’re never coming back.
The governments make encouraging noises but don’t do much. Nanaimo MP James Lunney has made the case to federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt. Provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone has promised to try to persuade Via Rail, although he hasn’t done it yet.
Via says it’s interested in restarting passenger service, but its actions don’t back that up. The corporation was eager to get out of rail service on the Island and seems equally eager to stay out.
Bruce maintains the Crown corporation has an obligation to provide passenger rail service across the country, and needs to live up to that obligation. The federal government doesn’t seem in a hurry to lean on Via.
The foundation, mindful of its public campaign that saved the tracks when CP Rail gave them up, is trying to drum up support again, urging the public to blitz federal and provincial governments and Via with demands for an agreement.
Romance can be hard, and unless they can thaw the hard heart of Via, Island rail lovers should prepare for more lonely nights waiting by a phone that doesn’t ring.
© Copyright 2013

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