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Vancouver Island civic leaders see rail as a solution to Malahat woes

Business plan from Island Corridor Foundation includes rail corridor from Victoria to Courtenay
A new survey found strong support for the revival of rail service in the Greater Victoria area. (Black Press Media file photo)

Local civic and transportation leaders want to see renewed consideration for investing in rail infrastructure in the wake of the challenges of moving commuters and cargo created by the recent traffic disruptions along the Malahat.

While Malahat mudslides limited Hwy. 1 traffic to one lane, created supply chain concerns and stranded commuters for a matter of days, those affecting the Shawnigan Lake’s rail corridors last used by passengers in 2011 were inconsequential and cleared in a matter of hours, said Jake Peake, president of the Vancouver Island Transport Corridor Coalition.

“Had this corridor received the investment that it should have many years ago, we could be running passenger trains and even freight as far as Nanaimo, Duncan, Victoria or wherever necessary (following the Nov. 15 rain event),” he said.

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A business plan currently being developed by the Island Corridor Foundation expected to be released to the province this year would see currently rail-equipped corridors from Victoria north to Courtenay, and running laterally from Parksville to Port Alberni, serving passengers and shipments daily, said Peake. Basic service would have two three-car trains travelling between Victoria and Langford from 6 a.m. through rush hour if the plan were funded.

Peake, a former mayor for the Town of Lake Cowichan, said he’s heard from dozens of upper-Island residents who would prefer rail travel to keep medical appointments or limit their gas spending. Several producers, including a grain supplier in Duncan, already have the infrastructure to ship and receive via rail. “Many crate users would be happy to see freight rail back in place,” he said.

“(Victoria) Council has endorsed rail on many occasions … and is definitely on record calling on senior levels of government to invest in intercity passenger transport and for freight trains,” said Coun. Ben Isitt. “All levels of government need to step up and make the investment.”

The investment required to make commuter trains a reality is $2.6 million per kilometre of track, Peake said, for the installation of 115-pound rails and continuous welding. Of the half dozen proposals to improve the Malahat section of Hwy. 1, Peake said each averages more than $19 million per kilometre.

“Every year the province of B.C. spends literally billions of dollars on transportation,” Isitt said. The McKenzie interchange, for example, came at a cost of $96 million when completed in September 2020. “They choose to spend that money on highways rather than on rail.”

With the population of the Cowichan Valley Regional District swelling from 65,000 to 85,000 during his time in civic office while the Island grew from 650,000 to 850,000, Peake said continuing to develop highways as opposed to getting people into public transit would be hypocritical of the region’s sustainability goals.

“There’s a very strong business case for investing in the renewal of the Island rail. Our highways are getting increasingly clogged, we see fuel prices only going up. I don’t think tearing out forests to put in highways that are going to get washed out in storms is a good policy,” Isitt said. “So the efficiencies of moving people by public models of transportation I think are only going to be more and more clear.”

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