Just over two months remains for the federal and provincial governments to make a decision on whether they will fund the restoration of rail service on the E&N corridor.
The E&N Railway was established on Vancouver Island in 1883, including on 10.78 acres of the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation reserve land.
In 1907, E&N paid $650 to be granted right of way for “the purposes of any railway” with the consent of the Governor in Council.
More than a century later, the railway has fallen into a state of disrepair as it has not been in use. Snaw-Naw-As First Nation has filed for the reserve lands to be returned to its people in 2020. Initially the First Nation lost, but filed an appeal.
On Sept. 14, 2021, Madam Justice Barbara Fisher set a deadline of 18 months for a decision to be made whether or not rail service will be re-established on the E&N corridor, and if not then the lands should be returned.
Now, as that March 2023 deadline draws near, the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), which has been the owner of the E&N railway since 2005, is hopeful that a favourable outcome is coming.
Larry Stevenson, CEO of ICF, says he expects the provincial and federal government will wrap up engagement this week, then conversations about making a final decision will start “in earnest” after that.
READ MORE: First Nations’ engagement focus for future of Island Rail Corridor
Stevenson says he is hopeful the government will choose to fund the restoration of rail service, and he says recent weather events have highlighted how beneficial it could be.
“When you look at one of the things that was an impetus for moving this conversation along, it wasn’t just a court case, one of the big impetuses is was the weather events we had in 2021,” Stevenson said. “You had a city, Victoria, that that was blocked, it was going to be running out of fuel, it was going to run out of food, and we only we have one way to get in and out of Victoria, and that’s a highway that was shut down.”
“Now, rail doesn’t cure all those ills, but it certainly should provide us with options that we can use in the event that those kinds of things happen again.”
He says he thinks that closure made government step back and want to look at other transportation options available on Vancouver Island.
An unused part of the E&N Railway on Vancouver Island is shown in this 2020 file photo.
Gordon Edwards, chief of Snaw-Naw-As First Nation says the rail was built to connect Vancouver Island to the Dominion of Canada and it has since served its purpose.
“The operating and repair costs for the E&N short line corridor have been unsustainable for decades. We are now at a point where there is no business case to re-invest in the corridor, just a subsidy case that approaches a billion dollars just for the repairs, and 10’s of millions in annual operating costs,” Edwards said in a statement to CHEK News.
“It could be a public relations nightmare for government to come up with almost a billion dollars for an abandoned short line railway when it cannot support our intercity bus system, or other strategic transportation investments on Vancouver Island. There are other opportunities to invest in and other opportunities to explore. The value in the corridor is now in its parts.”
B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says it is aware of the upcoming deadline for the E&N decision on whether or not to approve funding.
“The ministry is committed to finding the best use for the Island Rail Corridor as well as to supporting First Nations interests in discussions around its future,” the ministry said to CHEK News in an email statement, noting it continues to meet with ICF, the federal government, First Nations, local governments and other stakeholders to help make a decision on the future of rail.
Transport Canada, in an email to CHEK News, said the decision remains under consideration.
“The Government of Canada is actively considering the issues raised in the ruling and is committed to better understanding perspectives across Vancouver Island, including those of First Nations, regional districts, and other levels of government, to inform the path forward,” the email statement said.
Transport Canada says its decision will be informed by engagement being done by the B.C. government, and the B.C. government says it will “closely monitor” how the federal government responds.
Stevenson says he’s happy to see the government moving towards making a final decision.
“I think everybody is growing somewhat tired of the ongoing argument, because it’s been going on for a long time,” Stevenson said. “Passenger service stopped here in 2011, so I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
As the March 14 deadline for the E&N decision nears, Stevenson says he will continue to work with the governments.
“It’s critical to know that this is an extremely important decision, this is going to set the stage for every future generation on this Island. We’ve got this amazing asset out there that we can’t squander,” Stevenson said.
“The future is going to be determined for us in the next couple of months. People should be engaging in this, they should be talking with people if they believe it’s important. Contact your MP, contact their MLA. It’s a critical issue, and it’s going to get resolved in the next 60 days.”
Edwards, on the other hand, thinks it is time to stop considering re-implementing rail service on the corridor.
“Almost 20 years of the Island Corridor Foundation sticking a hand out for government money has not worked,” Edwards said. “The Board of Directors at the Island Corridor Foundation should move past their tunnel vision on rail and work to ensure that the foundations charity holdings actual benefit the people of Vancouver Island.”
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Read Gordon Edward’s full statement below:
-With files from CHEK’s Kendall Hanson