Saga of Vancouver Island Rail Corridor highlights BC’s difficulties in creating regional transit
In 2011, immediately after passenger service on Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway was suspended, the province estimated that $15 million would be needed to restore the line, which connects hundreds of miles of nearly all of the island’s major population centers .
Twelve years later, the price tag is up to $700 million, and the government is now spending $18 million on consultations to simply determine if restoring the route is viable.
“This is not the end of the road for the corridor,” said Premier David Eby, explaining why this round of consultations on the future of the Island Rail Corridor as it is now known would be different.
“This is just the beginning of working in a different way, in the way that all of our projects and land use decisions in this province must work in partnership with First Nations.”
While the government’s evolving views on First Nations land claims have been part of the story of the Island Rail Corridor, there are questions across the province that the modernization of regional transport is so slow.
“These are politically strained decisions, and it seems like sometimes the most appealing strategy at the provincial level is to just keep studying the issue,” said the former West Vancouver Coun. Craig Cameron, who served on the TransLink Mayoral Council.
“Keep the impression that you’re doing something without actually having to make hard decisions.”
Cameron’s frustration stems in part from the inability to get regional transit connecting Squamish and Whistler with Metro Vancouver, despite years of lobbying by local officials and a study completed in 2017.
“Here we are in 2023 and we’re no closer to that transit service,” he said, blaming the provincial government and BC Transit for failing to create new funding mechanisms or an increase in the gas tax.
“Various things have been discussed behind closed doors and it seems every time the province comes back and says, ‘Well, I’m sorry, we won’t give you any other tools.’ It’s kind of like that peanuts Sketch when they pull the football away.”
Much of the discussion about regional transport in recent years has revolved around the 2018 closure of the Greyhound bus routes that connected much of the province.
In the years since, the province has funded a separate North BC service that serves some, but not all, of the previous stops. The southern part of the province has a patchwork of different lines that have mostly replaced Greyhound service – some are private, some were created by BC Transit and some are currently discontinued due to business problems.
When Eby was asked why transit opportunities connecting different regions were worse than in 2017, he responded sourly.
“That’s just not right,” he said, before listing improved transit services in the Fraser Valley and supports to keep the service running during the pandemic.
“We know that expanding transit relieves roads of congestion… and supports our clean economy. That is why we have preferred this type of investment and we will have more to say about it in the coming days.”
…or by train?
But given Tuesday’s announcement, is there a way for improved passenger train service in BC?
Brendan Dawe, a planning consultant who has studied disused railroad lines across the province, is skeptical.
“The east side of the island was actually the strongest rail corridor in the province…there are a number of nicely spaced urban areas that you can imagine were developed around rail,” he said.
“And if the island corridor doesn’t work there, then there really is very little [possibility] in the rest of the province, where everything would have to be rebuilt and there is no old infrastructure.”
Still, he concedes that people – including the province following Tuesday’s announcement – will continue to keep the option open.
“It certainly captures a certain nostalgia, but it also captures the idea of making a collective good, not depending on your car to get around and do things, and I think that’s appealing to a lot of people.” , he said.
“I’m sad to see this continue to be kicked out in the streets… But it’s very understandable given that senior governments haven’t done much about it in the last 10 to 40 years.”