Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Vancouver Island railway running out of steam

with 4 comments

The Globe and Mail sets out the depressing recent history of the Esquimault and Nanaimo Railway. I have, of course, covered this before – with the same photo!

VIA6148 Victoria Stn BC Oct 1994

Victoria Station October 1994 - my photo

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.

VIA6133 Nanaimo Stn view2 BC Feb_1997

Nanaimo Station February 1997 - my photo

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.

VIA6133 Courtenay Stn BC Feb_1997

Courtenay Station February 1997 - my photo

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.

Victoria Station

Victoria Station - and the Johnson Street Bridge 1994 - my photo

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

Alberni Pacific 7 Port Alberni BC

Alberni Pacific at Port Alberni BC June 2010 - my photo

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.

St Kitts Scenic Railway

St Kitts Scenic Railway, December 2010 - my photo

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.

Rocky Mountaineer enters The Cut

Rocky Mountaineer June 2010 - my photo

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.

WCE 902 Vancouver BC 2005_0620

West Coast Express - June 2005 - my photo

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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Written by Stephen Rees

April 21, 2011 at 10:54 am

Posted in Light Rail, Railway

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4 Responses

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  1. It would be profoundly sad to see the E&N sink.

    And short-sighted. Here is an existing, intact railway corridor that serves Vancouver Island’s biggest cities (except Campbell River) just when we’re on the verge of seeing the decline of the automobile from sky-high prices (and eventually shortages) in petroleum fuels. Ditto intercity commercial trucking costs.

    A rebuilt and electrified railway (powered by Van Isle’s vast clean energy potential) for passengers and freight may not seem viable now, but folks in the much different economy of the 2020’s would undoubtedly make the E&N a profitable railway if very efficient, affordable and frequent commuter rail service was offered along with cheap feight rates just as people are pawning off their rusted out and abandoned family car for scrap, and truckers quit to take up computer programming.

    Further, there have been thousands of private forest company lands on Van Isle released to the market in recent years, much of it close to existing cities and towns. A lot of it was sold to developers of low-density rural residential lots, much to the consternation of regional planners.

    Perhaps some of this land could be purpose-developed for compact, transit-based towns interlinked with other towns via new commuter rail lines branching out from the E&N. If the land is going to be developed anyway, then why not do it with a better town-planning model? This is not to say the majority of the forest company lands couldn’t be reforested or devoted to agriculture where the soils are best.

    This of course requires vision and leadership. So far the vision is realized only by blokes like us who participate on blogs, or who write glossy academic reports. But one day we must inspire someone with half a chance of winning office to do something worthwhile early in this remarkable century.

    Decisions NOT made now could very well lead to pathetic and inadequate responses to climate change, or projects that would have been far cheaper to build if existing infrastructure was preserved and repaired (E&N) prior to some short-sighted wonk declaring them of no use, only to see them turn around and become of paramount importance when perfectly predictable changes occur to the economy.


    April 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm

  2. I stumbled onto this blog just now, and thanks, it’s an interesting article (and equally interesting response).

    I LOL’d at a couple points, like the author’s words “Once you got to Courtenay there was really nothing much to see”, but I assume (hope) that he meant, “if you stay on the train, there’s nothing to see”…

    As much as I hated Vancouver Island while I grew up here, there is no denying that it is a freakin’ beautiful place to live or visit, and that, even in Courtenay, there are infinite cool things and places to check out or explore.

    I agree that the train adds a certain rustic coolness to the island commute, and I wish it was feasible to travel by train, but we still need that highway!

    Nonetheless, I appreciate the authors nostalgia towards the train, and I, too, hope that some random investor will step up and fund full operation. The “right person” could stand to make a lot of money if they invested in the “right idea” with the ol’ E&N railway… especially with gas prices like they are now!

    Rob L

    April 22, 2011 at 4:02 am

  3. I totally agree with you..It isn’t has if having rail lines that are shared by all sorts of trains was a brand new idea. It has been done all over Western Europe for years now. There are lines where LRT share tracks with long distance passenger trains and freight trains.

    The French National Railways has a site with something like 40 trains, mostly for tourists. Trains running for a relatively short distance, some in winter only, others in summer only. They do bring life and business to remote places.

    In the past 15 years commuter trains around major European towns (many of them are well known but don’t have a big population) have became more popular than ever, due to both the high price of real estate in these towns (forcing young families to move farther away in order to afford a house with a garden) and the price of gas (much higher than here) that makes using a car just to go to work in town (then pay a lot to park it all day long) an expensive proposition.

    While Vancouver has only the WCE, with a few trains AM then PM, Euro towns that are much smaller than Metro Vancouver have more often 8 -10 lines of commuter trains.

    [Moderator’s note: I moved this comment from another post to the correct one. That is why my icon appears next to Red Frog’s name]

    Red Frog

    April 22, 2011 at 10:04 am

  4. Unless you decide to stay overnight somewhere and get the train back the next day, there is nothing within walking distance of the station worth visiting during the train’s “turn around” – assuming that once the track is repaired the train goes back to its former schedule

    If you intend visiting Vancouver Island I recommend using a car. There is no train now, but there is a bus service to Tofino, and BC Transit in most towns like Nanaimo or Port Alberni.

    Stephen Rees

    April 22, 2011 at 10:13 am

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