Decision on future of Vancouver Island rail line delayed once again

VIA Rail operated the daily service on the Vancouver Island rail line until 2011.  (Alasdair McLellen/Wikipedia - image credit)
VIA Rail operated the daily service on the Vancouver Island rail line until 2011. (Alasdair McLellen/Wikipedia - image credit)

Twelve years after passenger train service ended on Vancouver Island, the provincial government has announced more consultation over its future.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said Tuesday that B.C. will spend $18 million for planning along the Island rail corridor, a day before a court-ordered deadline for the federal and provincial governments to declare their intentions for the line.

"We recognize how important this corridor is and we would like to see it preserved as much as possible," said Fleming in a statement.

"If the corridor is broken up and built over, it will be lost forever, and future generations will likely be unable to assemble a continuous transportation corridor of land like this again."

The court-ordered deadline concerned a land claim by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation on a small section of the 290-kilometre line that links Victoria to Courtenay and Parksville to Port Alberni.

Federal Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra announced in a separate statement that the government had decided to give that portion of the land back to the Snaw-Naw-As as "the first step in the process of developing a shared vision for the future of the corridor with First Nations."

Karey Brooks, a lawyer representing the Snaw-Naw-As on the case, said "this has been a long time coming."

"The rail hasn't been operative for over a decade now and there's been no commitment by the federal or the provincial government to restore the rail," she said.

"The Island Corridor Foundation has been hanging on to this dream that one day there will be train service along the corridor again.

"And that could still be the case. But at least now Snaw-Naw-As gets their land back."

Years of debate, little action

The Island Corridor Foundation owns the length of the rail line, which has not been in passenger operation since 2011, or freight operation since 2014.

Since then, the future of the corridor has been tied up due to a lack of funding and agreement between local First Nations and different levels of government over what to do with it.

WSP Canada
WSP Canada

In 2017, after the Liberal government commissioned another study of the line, future premier John Horgan said he would make restoring the line a priority.

"Let's get this thing done," he said.

"It's an unused transportation corridor we can use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get more people out of cars and into public transit, and yet, the government has steadfastly refused to do anything."

But his government only did a further study of the line, showing it would cost anywhere between $227 to $728 million to bring back rail along the corridor.

Since then, work has languished, while desires by some local First Nations to take back their portion of the land in lieu of a long-term solution has increased.

"Whether or not [the future] is rail or something else, that remains to be seen," said Brooks.

"But the decision, obviously, in our view, was the right one for the government to recognize that reconciliation demands that this land be returned to the control of the First Nation."

Premier David Eby said he was optimistic this round of consultation would lead to a new result.

"This is not the end of the line for the corridor," he said.

"This is just the beginning of the work in a different way, in the way that all of our projects and land use decisions need to work in this province in partnership with First Nations."