Vancouver Island railway running out of steam
I came to Vancouver Island in 1994, when I worked for the BC government. The railway was, of course, an issue then. That really has not changed very much except, like the railway, the position has steadily deteriorated. In fact one of the last things I did before I left was buy myself a round trip ticket for the ride from Victoria up to Courtney and the back again. I was pretty sure I would not have the opportunity again – and at present it cannot be done. The once a day train has stopped running – and in fact has not been allowed into Victoria for a while.
While I lived in Victoria there was a lot of interest in running a train into Victoria in the morning and out again in the evening – just like West Coast Express. That, it was said, would give people an alternative to the “Colwood Crawl”. Unfortunately the government of the day was committed to the Island Highway – an idea born of the previous SoCred government. Nanaimo being a centre of NDP support – and of course the bingo scandal – they wanted the highway much more than any upgrade to the E&N. On that last ride in 1997 I got see the raw wound of the new highway carved across the scenery. At one time the E&N was one of the more scenic railway rides. It seemed to me at the time that the Island Highway project had damaged much of that.
Once you got to Courtenay there was really nothing much to see – and anyway the single car train simply reversed direction and went back the way it came. There was no catering on the train. A coffee truck came out to meet it at Nanaimo – and there was time to get a cup of something very like coffee and some thing else which was almost edible.
But there was never any consensus – especially among supporters of doing something. The commuter train was not supported by those who wanted light rail for Victoria. Others thought that it should be a tourist attraction. Something like that has been running at the extreme end of the old E&N in Port Alberni. It uses an old steam logging loco and converted cabooses and is run by volunteers
This is also an idea that was adopted on St Kitts with their narrow gauge round the Island line left redundant by the abandonment of sugar growing.
They of course now have tourism as their only industry – so their minds were much more concentrated. But enthusiasts in many countries have started successful railway preservation projects – perhaps none more so than in Great Britain where Dr Beeching provided them with plenty of opportunities, and there was a considerable body of enthusiasts and experienced, retired railwaymen. Some of these operations quickly expanded beyond the gricer and Thomas the tank engine markets into real transport service – and are now known as “community railways”, with the opportunity for government support for socially necessary services.
Victoria is, of course, a cruise ship port of call. You cannot expect the cruise ship companies to come up with excursions themselves but everywhere that cruise ships operate there are small tour operators keen to tap the deep pockets of cruise ship passengers. Alaska, for instance – and the Yukon – both offer train rides to them. BC has one of the best tourist railway operators since VIA gave up on the finest scenic passenger ride – the Kicking Horse pass to Banff – which has allowed Rocky Mountaineer to become very successful indeed and expand with services to Whistler and beyond.
If we had governments who could get the heads out of highways for a moment, they would see that the lower end of the E&N could become very useful both for moving commuters and tourists. Indeed this market segmentation strategy is essential. Virgin brought that expertise to British railways from its airline business and has doubled passenger traffic on its route (the West Coast Main Line). Running trains for people is a different kind of business to running trains for freight but unfortunately North American railways are dominated by those who understand freight alone.
It is not beyond the wit of man to come up with a structure that would allow for different types of train service that will attract commuters and tourists – just not at the same time. And freight trains could be fitted in between them, even without huge investments in signalling. As Bombardier was saying, the time is right for trains: if only because they are far more fuel efficient per passenger kilometre than most other modes.
UPDATE BC Transit announced today (April 26) that “Light Rail Transit (LRT) has been identified as the preferred technology that will meet the goals and objectives of the Victoria Regional Rapid Transit Project.”
In 2010, the rapid transit alignment was approved and endorsed by all directly‐affected municipalities (Victoria, Saanich, View Royal, Colwood and Langford), the Victoria Regional Transit Commission and approved by the Board of Directors. The alignment follows Douglas Street between downtown Victoria and Uptown in Saanich, then runs parallel to the Trans‐Canada Highway and the Galloping Goose Trail to 6 Mile/Colwood Interchange, along the Island Highway to Colwood City Centre, then into Station Avenue in Langford via Goldstream Avenue.
In May 2011, the business case with the recommended technology will be submitted to the Victoria Regional Transit Commission for endorsement and then to the BC Transit Board of Directors for approval in May. If approved, the business case will be submitted to the Province of BC in June. The timeline for the project will be finalized once BC Transit receives approval and funding for the project.
The cost of the preferred technology along the entire alignment is estimated at $950 million.
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