Vancouver Island rail service running out of time

Written By Geoff Russ

Demands for sustainable public transport have been growing stronger throughout Canada, but on Vancouver Island, rail advocates may be running out of time to see their dream realized. 

Proponents of a new Island rail line want to repair and modernize already-existing train infrastructure to bring rail service back to the island. However, a portion of the tracks pass through First Nation reserve land granted to the previous island rail service, and one nation wants that land back.

Rail advocates now have nine months to come up with funding for a new rail line before the courts will consider arguments to return the land to the nation.

For those trying to make modern island rail transportation a reality, frustration is growing as billions of dollars go to new museums, and trains in the Lower Mainland while already-laid tracks on the Island are sitting unused. 

Primed for rail

With billions in funding handed out by the federal and provincial governments for new commuter rail and other sustainable commuter travel across Canada, the atmosphere seems primed for rail to return to Vancouver Island.

“(Rail) promotes tremendous opportunities for people to travel in ease and safely up and down the island.”

Leonard Krog

“I think it is a tool, potentially, of reconciliation, economic development, environmental protection,” says Nanaimo mayor Leonard Krog. “And promotes tremendous opportunities for people to travel in ease and safely up and down the island without the risk that frankly comes with traveling in the standard passenger automobile.” 

Vancouver Island has not had passenger rail of any kind for more than 10 years, even as its population has swelled each year with newcomers from the mainland and beyond.

Greater Victoria, Nanaimo, and smaller communities like Parksville and Courtenay, have all grown, yet highways continue to provide the sole means of getting around the island for residents. 

Old Island Rail Corridor

Until 2011, the South Island had an intercity rail line called the Island Rail Corridor. The 289 kilometre-long collection of tracks brought freight and visitors from Victoria, up the Island, to Courtenay, with connections to Port Alberni and Lake Cowichan along the way.

One train from Victoria to Courtenay, nicknamed the “Dayliner,” stopped at Duncan, Nanaimo and Parksville. Tourists loved it, but the line began its route in Victoria and ended in Courtenay, rendering it not useful for those who commuted to work in Victoria or Nanaimo everyday. 

Furthermore, the Dayliner was well past its prime when the Island Rail Corridor’s passenger operations closed in 2011, mainly for safety reasons owing to its increasingly frail physical state. 

Paul Robinson is a board member of the Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition (VITCC), a non-profit society seeking to bring modern, environmentally sustainable rail service to the Island. He wants people to understand the VITCC has no interest in bringing back the Dayliner. Instead, the coalition wants to create something completely new by repairing the Island Rail Corridor, and upgrading it to meet modern standards. 

[Image VITCC]

Modernized rail service proposed

“People do have romantic notions and nostalgia about (the Dayliner), but we really are talking about something that’s different,” says Robinson. “We’re talking about modern, efficient and reliable rail transportation, commuters, freight, and tourism.” 

Modern commuter transit across Canada has reaped a windfall of funding over the last year.

The B.C. government committed $2.4 billion to expand public transit in Surrey in May, including a brand new extension of the Skytrain to neighbouring Langley.

In Quebec, the federal government is investing nearly $1.3 billion for new light-rail in the Montreal area. 

“Many jurisdictions our size had active rail service for many years, and some are getting new injections of capital.”

Paul Robinson

“There is no shortage of investment in rail and other infrastructure initiatives throughout the rest of the country,” says Robinson. “Many jurisdictions our size had active rail service for many years, and some are getting new injections of capital to put new infrastructure in the Lower Mainland for example, and they had to build that from the ground up.” 

The tracks of the Island Rail Corridor were not uprooted when the Dayliner closed, and the land on which it sits has not been redeveloped. Robinson said it is frustrating to see entirely new developments be announced in other parts of the province, while the Island Rail tracks continue to sit unused.

A fraction of the cost

Nonetheless, Robinson says it is encouraging to see demand for new rail in Canada, and notes just how inexpensive restoring the Corridor would be, compared to building brand new rail elsewhere. 

Since 2011, the corridor, and the land it sits on, has been owned and maintained by the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), a federally-registered charity. In May, the ICF released an estimate stating the cost of reviving the line was just $431 million. 

In Vancouver, the Millennium Line is one of the city’s rapid transit system’s two routes. It recently began work on a $2.83 billion underground extension across less than six kilometres of Vancouver’s western half. 

“(For) one section of that Millennium line that’s underground, we could implement the entire island corridor.”

Paul Robinson

“One section of that Millennium line that’s underground, we could implement the entire island corridor and get all of our lines reinstated in all 290 kilometres, for the cost of one kilometere of that Millennium line,” says Robinson. 

Along with the VITCC, the ICF is also committed to reviving rail on the island, and describes the corridor as “an irreplaceable asset and invaluable resource to the economic vitality of Vancouver Island communities.”

Rail funding deadline hinges on legal challenge

The Nanaimo Regional District is one of five such districts that governs the ICF, along with fourteen first nations. One of those nations is the Snaw-Naw-As. A section of the corridor lies on a part of their reserve in Nanoose Bay, just outside Nanaimo. They currently have no authority over that section, as it was granted to build the railway in 1912

Despite being part of the ICF’s governing body, the Snaw-Naw-As believe authority over that section of the unused corridor should revert to them if the land will not be used for its intended purpose. 

The Snaw-Naw-As made a legal case of their claim that went to the BC Court of Appeal. Last September, the court ultimately ruled the land will remain in the hands of the ICF, but gave them 18 months to secure government funding. If not, the Snaw-Naw-As can return their case to the courts.

The Snaw-Naw-As could not be reached for comment for this story. 

“We need to get on with it. The government, frankly, owes it to Vancouver Island.” 

Leonard Krog

“That is a significant decision and has placed some time constraints on all of this,” says Nanaimo’s Krog, and an enthusiastic supporter of island rail. “And we need to get on with it. The government, frankly, owes it to Vancouver Island.” 

Krog, a former BC NDP MLA, says Vancouver Islanders have not elected a single member of the opposition to the legislature in the last election, except for two members of the Greens. For decades, Vancouver Island has been a reliable bastion of support for the NDP, who have governed the province since 2017. 

“Surely people who’ve given the government this much support will instinctively look to the government to provide some reciprocating tangible thanks in the form of a very basic piece of infrastructure,” says Krog. 

Population boom

Nanaimo’s population, currently 170,367,  grew over 10 per cent from 2016 to 2021, and is projected to grow another 12% by 2026, with most of that expected growth being people aged 25-44. In nearby Parksville, the population grew by 10 per cent per cent, while Courtenay, the prospective railway’s terminus, saw its population increase by similar margins

“The Nanaimo region is the fifth fastest growing region in the country now,” says Krog. “So for heaven sakes, if there was ever a time to get rail up and running, particularly in the South Island, now is the time to do so.”

“If there was ever a time to get rail up and running, particularly in the South Island, now is the time to do so.”

Leonard Krog

Meanwhile, Greater Victoria has grown as well, especially in the growing suburban communities along the Westshore like Langford, which saw its population increase of over 30 per cent since 2016. Unfortunately, the growth of facilities offering medical services on Vancouver Island lag behind the soaring population, and many of these expanding communities are geographically far removed from easy access to essential services. 

“Rail is by far the most equitable form of transportation, it’s the more accessible form of transportation,” says Robinson.  “It closes a lot of social gaps that exist with access to medical facilities and access to affordable housing.” 

Despite the influx of younger people, Vancouver Island has a disproportionately older population than the rest of B.C. With no Dayliner, or even Greyhound buses, automobile travel on highways like the Malahat are the only choice for most people living outside the major centres when they need essential services. 

“You’ll have a lot of people who don’t drive, who can’t take the bus , who can’t take the train and don’t have local access to medical services,” says Robinson. “The train will be able to provide that.” 

Province noncommittal on rail proposal

The ICF has been in-contact with the provincial government regarding funding to restart passenger rail on Vancouver Island, and recently sent a business case detailing the $431 million cost of the project. Robinson isn’t privy to the conversations between the ICF and the Ministry of Transportation, but understands the government has been receptive. 

Responding to a request for comment regarding Island rail, the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure claimed to support the “best use” for the corridor. The Ministry also confirmed they had provided feedback to the ICF on the business case, while noting there was a lack of first nations consultation, or contingency on the proposed costs. 

“The Province has made no commitments to the future of the rail corridor.”

BC Ministry of Transportation

“At this time the Province has made no commitments to the future of the rail corridor. Further discussion is required to determine its best use,” read the Ministry’s statement. “The Province is also closely monitoring how the federal government responds to a BC Court of Appeal ruling related to sections of the corridor that lie within the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation Reserve.” 

Overgrown railway north of Langford. [Photo Panoramio]

Nine months have passed since the ruling, leaving just nine more for the ICF to secure the funding it requires to restart operations in the Island Rail Corridor. Krog believes restored rail would benefit everybody along the corridor, including first nations whose lands lie on the route, and says support for rail on Vancouver Island is huge. 

While the $431 million price tag for restoring the corridor may be ambitious in its frugality, there is clearly no shortage of willingness in the provincial government to spend money on public projects. In addition to the $2.4 billion for a new Skytrain extension in Surrey, the B.C. government is also spending $4.15 billion to build an eight-lane tunnel that connects the cities of Delta and Richmond. 

For Vancouver Island, the Ministry of Transportation touted its expansion of rapid buses in the Greater Victoria area as an example of the government’s commitment to improving transportation networks on the Island. The BC government is also spending nearly $800 million on replacing the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. Nearly double the ICF’s $413 million projected cost of repairing the Island Rail Corridor, which includes the 16km extension of rail to Langford, Greater Victoria’s fastest growing community. 

“This is not putting the Toonerville Trolley on track again, this is about building a modern transportation system,” says Krog. “This is where the world is going and we should be going there too.”