The Vancouver Island Railway, first known as the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) Railway, was incorporated on 27 September 1883 by Victoria coal baron Sir Robert Dunsmuir, to support the coal and lumber industry and the Royal Navy Base as Esquimalt. Construction began on April 30, 1884 and on the 13th August 1886 Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald drove the last railway spike into the ground along the section above the Malahat Highway. The initial rail extended for 115 kilometres from Esquimalt to Nanaimo; hence the original name of the company.In 1888 the line was extended to the City of Victoria.
The E&N was to have fulfilled the agreement which brought British Columbia into confederation, to become a Province of Canada. Although it was never completed, it was still considered a small piece of the Trans Canada Rail System.
In 1905 Robert Dunsmuir’s son James sold the railway to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) who extended it to Lake Cowichan, Port Alberni, Parksville, Qualicum Beach and Courtenay. At its peak the railway had 45 stations on the main line, 8 on the Port Alberni line, and 36 stations on the Cowichan line. Today about 25 stations remain with the majority unused and in a state of disrepair.
In 1953, CPR discontinued the Port Alberni passenger service. In 1979 VIA Rail assumed operational responsibility for the passenger service but CPR retained ownership. VIA provided the rolling stock, passenger subsidy and ticket sales. Advertising was minimal so the railway was operating in isolation to the rest of Canada and North America. In 1998 CPR sold the east-west corridor between Parksvillle and Port Alberni to Rail America, and entered into an agreement to carry freight, which was taken to the barge facility at Nanaimo. At that time approximately 8,500 carloads of forest and paper products, minerals and chemicals were transported by rail each year.
More changes occurred when Norske company which owned mills in Port Alberni, discontinued the use of rail service, opting for truck freight instead. With the loss of this significant revenue stream Rail America announced its intention to cease operations and leave Vancouver Island.
The railway on Vancouver Island had been operating in uncertain conditions for a number of years. CPR neglected proper maintenance as rail in general declined. Only a few freight customers remained and the trend that saw a general downturn in railways in North America was reflected in this part of the Trans Canada Railway system.
Vancouver Island citizens were strong proponents of keeping the railway running and improving maintenance. Many groups tried to influence those who were responsible, but the decline continued. Finally, when Rail America announced that they would no longer provide freight or passenger service communities on the Island rebelled. Two conferences were held to find a way to turn the situation around before the deadline when service would be halted. A series of Roundtables on the Future of Rail on Vancouver Island brought all those involved together (some rather reluctantly) to find a solution. The Roundtables also created a forum for intense networking and discussions between all parties. In the interim the passenger service and some freight service continued.
Through the energy and the will of Vancouver Island people led by local governments and First Nations, the Island Corridor Foundation was formed in 2003. It is a non-profit society incorporated under Part II of the Canada Corporations Act, and registered as a Charity under the income tax act in December 2004. It is a partnership between First Nations and Regional Districts along the right of way who comprise the members of the Foundation. As a registered charity, the Foundation negotiated with CPR to acquire the rail lands in exchange for a tax receipt which the Foundation was then able to issue. It also negotiated with Rail America to return that section of the line and restore the railway on Vancouver Island to a single entity.
The vision of the ICF is to preserve and use the Corridor in perpetuity as one continuous corridor to connect and benefit all Island communities and First Nations along the corridor.
Its mission is to expand multi-purpose used within the corridor, connect to services beyond, and work with an rail operator to enhance freight, passenger and commuter services.
The corridor lands total 651 hectares (1610 acres). It stretches from Victoria to Courtenay over 234 kilometres (139 miles). It connects 13 First Nations territories, 14 municipalities who comprise 5 regional districts, and several unincorporated communities.
The Island Corridor Foundation found an extremely competent operator in 2006. Southern Rail Ltd. of Vancouver Island has continued to operate both freight and passenger services under difficult conditions. Further, it has opened the door for the Island to all of North American rail through construction of a new barge facility on the mainland which moves freight through the barge facility in Nanaimo. The Company has stayed because of the business case that has been built and the potential that exists for rail on Vancouver Island.
ICF with the support of communities and individuals has continued to work towards the presentation of a solid business case, to convince both Federal and Provincial governments that infrastructure funding would open the door to a restored and successful rail system. The business case was proven when the Province of B.C. committed $7.5 million to the project in the summer of 2011. $500,000 was used to study the existing bridge and trestle structures which have stood for 125 years. The study showed that almost all structures were sound and ensured the feasibility of continuing with the rail line. In April 2012, the Federal Government matched the Province’s commitment in a moving ceremony held in the City of Langford. The Mayor of Langford declared that “this is the day that rail on Vancouver Island has been saved!”
The history will continue to unfold as the rail is restored, passenger service resumes and opportunities for more freight grow with the help of Southern Rail, the operator. There is still much to do, but the people of Vancouver Island know that Vancouver Island Rail is a reality as far into the future as we can see, and beyond.