Seven years of unmet promises and inactivity has led to a sizable amount of skepticism about Vancouver Island’s rail future, or at least the people in charge of resurrecting it.
The Island Corridor Foundation is taking steps to change that.
The group — a consortium of Island communities and First Nation that owns the E&N rail line — has been hosting a series of open houses this month to answer questions and grow support for the restoration of Island rail service, which has been largely dormant since 2011.
The discussion was hosted by the ICF’s new CEO Larry Stevenson, along with Andrea Thomas, manager of corridor development, and Nicole Norris, the ICF’s First Nations liaison.
Stevenson wants to change the way ICF may be perceived.
“It’s no secret that the foundation had been kind of a closed door for some time,” said Stevenson. “It’s a first step of doing a better job of communicating with the public.”
“The whole thing was designed to have an open and interactive forum to discuss issues and what’s going on. I set these meetings up because I felt it was time the ICF get out there and get in front of people. There’s a lot of information out there and unfortunately not all of it is accurate.”
Town hall-style events are being held around the Island. One meeting was held in the ballroom at Nanaimo’s Coast Bastion Hotel last Monday. Black Press spoke to Stevenson following a meeting Thursday night at the Beach Club in Parksville — the fifth of seven scheduled discussions.
Stevenson was surprised by the amount of people – close to 200 – who showed up in Parksville.
“It was the largest turnout we’ve had so far for our town hall meetings,” said Stevenson, who talked about the ICF structure and the work they are doing to get the railway line back in operation and gauged the sentiments of the people in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area about the railway corridor.
“Parksville has not had a strong showing relative to rail so it was interesting to see them out there,” said Stevenson. “I think by far and large, most were being supportive of where we’re going. They have a lot of concerns and they’re valid.”
The issues raised at the meeting include the cost to get the railway running and the amount of taxes required to keep and maintain the service; the conditions of track (highlighted by several people from the audience who have worked in the railway industry at some point in their lives), environmental protection, the lack of a business plan that would show that the service was financially viable, the trails along the rail line and the utilization of the commercial activity at the port in Port Alberni to enhance the commercial aspect of the rail service.
To revive the rail service, Stevenson said, the provincial and federal governments needs to help with subsidies, similar to what they’re doing for the roads, buses and ferries.
“We as residents on this Island either want to have a transportation network that includes rail or one that does not include rail,” said Stevenson. “Of course I am biased and I think we need to have rail because any modern transporation system is built around a rail system in most cases. You look at Europe, the bigger cities. To me it’s a much bigger issue.”
Among those in attendance was Parksville Chamber of Commerce president Kim Burden, who was also impressed with the huge turnout and what he heard from the ICF.
“The ICF has provided some clarity and a greater willingness to get information out,” said Burden, who supports the restoration of rail services on the Island.
Stevenson believes there is a political will and support to get this going.
“I had discussions with the premier and minister of transportation and infrastructure and they recognize that we’re now at a point where it has to happen…” said Stevenson. “The time is now to start addressing the issue of transportation and not 40 years from now when we have all the people here.”