Rail-deal details need more work

Editorial: Rail-deal details need more work

APRIL 4, 2014
The Island Corridor Foundation announced Wednesday that a tentative agreement has been reached to restore rail passenger service on Vancouver Island, with only the details left to be worked out.
But the devil is in those details.
The ICF, which owns the E&N railway track from Victoria to Courtenay, said Southern Railway of B.C. will run the service while Via Rail will provide the train, insurance and a fixed subsidy. But the ICF’s announcement was tempered by Via Rail’s reticence to be part of the announcement.
“I’m not privy to the verbatim of what the announcement was earlier today [Wednesday],” said Via Rail spokesman Jacques Gagnon, “but I can only state that discussions are ongoing and, as of now, there’s no signed deal.”
Gagnon’s statement is not necessarily at odds with the ICF announcement — it’s a given that an agreement is not official until approved by boards with signing authority — but Via Rail’s response is notably lacking in enthusiasm.
No surprise. The ICF’s plans to restore passenger service have been held up for many months by the difficulty in getting an agreement with Via Rail.
Passenger service was suspended in 2011 because of concerns about the safety of the track. It was determined that it would cost about $20 million to restore the track to a minimum level of safety. The provincial and federal governments promised $15 million, and the rest is to come from the municipalities and other entities that are the partners in the ICF. The funding is contingent on an agreement with Via Rail.
Repairing tracks and bridges, expected to take nine months, can’t begin until the agreement is final. Then the plan is to offer round-trip commuter service from Nanaimo to Victoria, with the service starting in Nanaimo in the morning.
That remedies the criticism that the previous passenger service went in the wrong direction for those wanting to commute daily into Victoria, but it doesn’t explain how one rail car on one track making one round trip a day can be a viable commuter service.
A commuter service should be convenient, reliable, reasonably fast and cheaper than driving. It’s not convenient if commuters are forced to adjust their schedules to accommodate the rail service. If a passenger misses the evening train home, calling it an inconvenience would be an understatement.
The E&N is not intended as a light-rail commuter system. Light-rail transit systems that serve other cities operate on dual tracks, so trains can go each way, with service offered all day long. They exist because of demand, with the numbers to support them. Tracks and rolling stock are designed for high speeds — the E&N track was engineered 128 years ago for steam-powered freight trains.
The idea is to take people off the highways and put them on trains, but if a substantial number of the passengers are those who had been riding the buses, the number of cars on the road would not be reduced significantly. People in cars now have the choice to ride the bus, and most choose to drive because of the convenience.
The E&N line was built to haul freight between communities, not to disperse commuters to their various destinations. Passengers would have to take cars or buses to the train stations, and many would have to transfer to buses to complete their journeys. It would take far more time than driving, and very likely more money. “Why bother with the train?” would be an understandable reaction.
These are some of the details that need to be nailed down if the passenger service is to attract enough numbers to be viable. “Build it and they will come” makes a clever phrase in a movie, but it’s not a sound business plan.


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