Last-minute deal revives E&N’s hopes


APRIL 3, 2014
Personal admission: I lost my faith in the E&N Railway several years ago.
It wavered for years as the relic Dayliner continued its slide into decrepitude.
And it dissolved almost completely in 2011, when the 125-year-old run was surreptitiously abandoned.
The first notice at the time said it wouldn’t run on a March weekend and would resume in a few days.
“Maintenance,” was the reason offered publicly. “Be back by Saturday.”
In the meantime, they provided service in a way that is impossible to satirize. They accepted train reservations from the handful of lost souls who managed to discover the service. Then they put them on a chartered bus for a trip to Courtenay and back. The cost was 48 cents cheaper than if the tourists had just booked a regular bus trip.
It was exactly the same train service as previously. Except it was on a bus. By May, they gave up pretending buses were trains.
By that time, it was clear the reason for the shutdown was a bit more complicated than just “maintenance.” It was an engineering study that found the long-neglected line was a disaster waiting to happen.
When it became clear how much work needed to be done, the political argument began on how get started, and where to find the money. That was a long, rocky road that lasted years longer than many expected. And a lot of other people lost faith along the way.
The disenchantment with the Island Corridor Foundation, the entity that owns the line on behalf of Vancouver Islanders, intensified steadily over that time.
Until Wednesday, when the ICF announced what looks to be a breakthrough. The private company that operated the passenger service — Southern Railway — has reached a tentative deal with Via, the federal body that subsidizes the service.
Subject to finalizing details, they’re not only going to restore the service; they’re going to schedule the service the way it should have been done years ago. The Dayliner will run from Nanaimo to Victoria and back, rather than the ineffective one daily return trip it made for years from Victoria.
It still has to be ratified by the ICF and the two companies involved. And it hinges on spending $21 million for a major upgrade on the Victoria-to-Nanaimo line. About a third of the ties have to be replaced before the Dayliner can proceed at anything above a snail’s pace.
But if all goes well, the passenger service could be restored nine months after work on the upgrades begins. Southern Railway will cover the marketing, operations, maintenance costs. Via Rail will contribute the train, cover the insurance costs and provide a fixed subsidy. Southern will assume the passenger-revenue risk if costs exceed the subsidy and fare revenues.
B.C. and Canada had already agreed to put up $7.5 million apiece for the upgrade costs. Five other deals with local governments bring in most of the rest of the money for the $21-million project.
ICF representatives acknowledged how tough it was to stay optimistic and keep everyone on side over the past three years as private talks thrashed out financial details. Federal negotiators drove a very tough bargain on behalf of Via. Last summer, it looked as if the ICF itself appeared to be succumbing to frustration. ICF director Graham Bruce accused Via of bad-faith negotiating and “treating us like colonials.”
But the parties stayed at the table and finally put a tentative deal together.
“It was a two-minutes-to-midnight deal,” said one party close to the talks.
The passenger service has been on the brink of death a few times over the years and avoided that fate. This time it was clinically dead for three years but looks to be ready to bounce back to life.
It’s a $21-million bet on the future of transportation. It will probably take 30 years to see if it pays off. Will a refurbished rail car offering a commuter option to Victoria workers who live up-Island be an instant success?
Hard to say. But it’s equally hard to write an obituary for the service, when it’s so hard to kill.

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