The gloves appear to have slipped off in the negotiations between the Island Corridor Foundation and Via Rail, concerning restarting passenger rail service on Vancouver Island.
Via Rail's silence following an April proposal by ICF executive director Graham Bruce spoke volumes about the corporation's views concerning further contributions towards the route.
An annual subsidy, fluctuating from just over $900,000 to just under $2 million per year, had been allocated to the service, which was suspended in 2011 for safety reasons.
B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone told the Victoria Times Colonist this week: "They are quite happy to reinstate the former track agreement and $1.4-million subsidy, but that's it. And the Island Corridor Foundation can revise its proposal to work within the subsidy constraint."
The ICF proposal asks for a $1.8 million annual subsidy. It sounds like a modest request to jumpstart what the ICF believes will be a successful return to passenger service.
Federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt promised to bring the matter up with Via Rail, and that meeting is to take place this week.
The clock is ticking. Regional, provincial and federal governments have committed more than $18 million towards track upgrades, although there's a catch: There must be a new deal struck with Via Rail. The absence of that may mean the funding dissipates, at least from the regional governments.
There is a notion that the federal government is constitutionally bound to operate the E&N line, although that is more of a "faint hope clause" than anything else. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that "Canada does not owe a constitutional obligation to British Columbia in respect of the operation of the Victoria to Nanaimo Vancouver Island rail line."
The only believable option is that ICF and Via can strike a deal that would allow the passenger service to begin again. Even if that happens, that only starts yet another journey.
Without question, revenues derived from passengers on any Island commuter rail service would only be a fraction of what is required in the overall operation of the line.
There aren't enough potential Victoria-Nanaimo commuters to make it a financial windfall. Any successful rail service requires regular commercial and industrial traffic. Without that, it simply can't work.
Figures like $100 million are more realistic when it comes to getting the entire line up to snuff for safety and long-term success on the rail.
We need to start asking if it is even worth it to invest that amount of money on such infrastructure.
Vancouver Island North MP John Duncan, the region's only cabinet minister, won't get involved in the dispute, which appears to be a sign the federal government isn't in favour of pumping more money into the line.
Running commuter rail on non-upgraded tracks is a risky proposition. Heavier industrial loads would undoubtedly put even more stress on the tracks and ties. The July derailment of the Lac Megantic, Quebec train shows the devastation that can occur when dangerous cargo goes off the rails. The spectre of similar trains going north and south on rickety island rails is less than comforting.
If Raitt's conversation doesn't yield concrete results this week, perhaps we're at the point where we may all have to take another good, long look at the railway and make a final decision to pull the plug, call it a day, and start exploring other options.
" We want to hear from you. Send comments on this editorial to email@example.com.
© Copyright 2013