Q&A: Island Corridor Foundation’s big pitch to revive Vancouver Island passenger rail

Island Corridor Foundation CEO Larry Stevenson explains why it’s time for First Nation, provincial and federal governments to come to a resolution regarding the land that was stolen to build the railway corridor.

This week, the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) released a business case that argues how, and why, Vancouver Island’s rail system should be revived to transport commuters, tourists and freight. The rail line was closed in 2011 due to deteriorating conditions, and ICF, which owns the 290-kilometre route on behalf of regional districts and First Nations along its length, estimates it would require a $431 million investment from the provincial and federal governments to get it up and running once more.

To understand what this business case aims to achieve and the significant barriers that remain to reviving Vancouver Island passenger rail, The Discourse caught up with Larry Stevenson, CEO of the ICF.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Discourse: There have been so many studies related to the rail line. What’s new about this business case?

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LS: There’s been a tremendous number of studies done;, I’ve got an office full of studies. And the problem with them, of course, is that they change every year. The numbers change and the views change. 

When the province came up with their assessment [in 2020], that was essentially a discussion about cost: This is the condition of the railroad and this is what it’s going to cost to bring it up to a certain level or standard. 

What the business case does is it takes that work and builds on it. It really kind of lays out, here are the issues that we’re having, these are the problems and the challenges that we’re facing, and here’s how we think rail can provide a solution to a number of those problems. 

It goes into this is what you’re going to get when we’re done. And of course, we took the 2020 numbers and applied an inflation factor to it, so that represents 2023 numbers. 

[If this plan goes ahead,] you’re going to have peak commuter service in the Langford-Victoria corridor, you’re going to have inter-regional trains that are going to run between Courtney and Victoria, you’re going to have freight service across the island, you’re going to have excursion services. And it shows the type of schedules it’s going to be that are going to be involved.

A central issue with advancing Vancouver Island passenger rail, of course, is the rights of First Nations to the land. What’s actually being done about that? 

You’ll see in the business case, on Page 9, there’s a whole discussion on First Nations. And there’s quite a lengthy history here. [The Discourse’s previous reporting] did quite a good job of outlining the impact of the land grants. Back in 1884, when the railroad was first being built, the government went out and they gave a private developer essentially a 20-mile swath of land that went from Esquimalt to Campbell River. 

And that land came out of the traditional territories of the Salish Nations along the east coast [of Vancouver Island]. They’ve been for years trying to work with the government to try to reconcile that issue because they lost a lot of territory. Now, today, the railroad is only 100 feet wide. It’s not the 20 miles anymore. [The rest has been sold off to other private interests.] And that’s the problem.

And so there’s two pieces. The Nations are saying, you need to work with us to reconcile the issues associated with the E&N Land Grant. That’s first and foremost. 

Secondly, you’ve taken this land for a railroad, if you’re not going to use it for a railroad, you need to give it back. So the court dealt with the second issue predominantly, which is, if you’re not going to use it as a railroad you need to give it back. 

What we’re bringing forward today is, look, we need the provincial and the federal government to deal with this issue with First Nations. So it’s really First Nations governments talking to provincial and federal government, not us, because we can’t do that. We can’t fix that wrong. You took that land in 1884. How do we resolve that now? And that can manifest itself in a number of different ways, through a number of different agreements, land trades, all that kind of stuff. So we’ve asked them to openly engage, do it in an open manner and get to it. Like, it’s time. 

But the second piece is on the engagement side. And that’s the part of the discussion we can have. What do we need to make sure that the Nations are getting value out of this railroad, that they are enjoying the benefits of this railroad? What are their concerns? Because in some cases, our rail line is bisecting their properties. And it’s close to people, it’s going through backyards. So that’s going to be part of the discussion, too.

Looking at the proposed Vancouver Island passenger rail timetable, it takes quite a while to get from Point A to Point B. How are you so sure commuters will get out of their cars?

A table from Island Corridor Foundation’s business case shows that it would take just over two hours to get from Nanaimo to Victoria.

So the time for the train is about 20 minutes to make it from Langford and Victoria. In 1886 the time was 20 minutes. So it hasn’t changed. And, of course, the commute by car or by bus is significantly longer during peak hours. It’s 15 minutes to an hour. And people say, “Well, you’re not going all the way downtown [Victoria].” Well, no, we’re not. But we tested that out. The railhead is literally within a five-to-10 minute walk to most of the places in downtown Victoria. So it’s not a hard case to make. 

And the same applies for Duncan. We know there’s 300 to 400 people a day that commute by bus from Duncan into Victoria. We can provide a very similar service. Will it be as fast? Maybe not in some cases. But you don’t have to park your car. You don’t have to buy insurance. You don’t have to do all those other things you do when you have a car.

What about other possible transportation solutions, like a ferry service or a gondola?

We need to take a look at an integrated transportation system for this island. And I am 100 per cent in favor of anything that’s going to improve the transportation system. Because we’re in trouble. And we’re going to be in huge trouble in the coming years. In the government report, they’re forecasting that by 2038, it’s going to take 2.5 hours to get from Mill Bay to Victoria. That’s not me saying that, that’s a government saying that. Like, we’re in trouble. 

So you know, if a ferry in Colwood makes sense, we should probably do that. If a train on the Island makes sense, we should probably do that. I’m not so sure about a gondola. But I’m not in a position to say that it is or isn’t a good thing. I think we need to explore every option that’s available to us.

Is there anything else you think we should tell our readers about this moment?

We have a limited time opportunity. This conversation has gone on for a very, very long time. And we’re kind of reaching the apex of it now. We’re to a point now where this is either going to happen, or we’re not going to have a corridor. And the loss of that corridor would be tragic. [end]

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