Islanders ignore fiscal realities as they rail to save decrepit E&N
By Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun
July 22, 2010
The B.C. Liberal government decision last week not to spend tens of millions of dollars on a rescue of the decrepit E&N railway brought an angry if predictable reaction in the provincial capital region.
An insult. A stark contrast to hefty funding elsewhere in the province. The government doesn’t spend nearly enough on transportation on Vancouver Island.
The previous New Democratic Party government spent $1 billion on a new Island Highway. And as residents of the southern Interior have noted, it was toll-free, unlike the Coquihalla Highway for the first 20 years of its existence.
In its current term, the government has seen a massive expenditure on capital construction for ferries and terminals, plus more than $1 billion in direct subsidies for the ferry service.
But as we say on the Island — I’ve lived here for most of three decades — “what have they done for us lately?”
Still, judging from the series of reports released by the government in support of its decision, it is hard to make the case that an E&N makeover would be the best use of public infrastructure dollars on the Island.
The line, 125 years old and neglected for decades, is in wretched shape. A third of the ties are already defective; many others are rotting their way to imminent ruin. “The bulk of the rail joints are in poor condition and not in compliance with the regulations.”
Some of the signalling equipment is so out of date, spare parts can no longer be purchased. (Rummage sales?) Plus, sad to say, “most frogs need grinding.” (Love that railway jargon).
More serious, from a standpoint of long-term reliability, “some bridges date back before the corridor and were reassembled here after being in service elsewhere in Canada in the 1800s.” (!)
Note that the government-funded stock-taking on the line did not include a seismic review. Maybe there are some instances where it is better not to know the true state of affairs.
Then, too, the line has some 240 level crossings, each a recipe for accidents, service interruptions, lawsuits and soaring insurance premiums. “Injury damage awards have been high, particularly for long-term debilitating injuries.”
In sum, without significant investment in upkeep, “the line will become inoperable.” Figure $70 million to maintain the status quo, between $200 million and $300 million if service is to be expanded. But the prospects for expanded utilization are, at best, iffy.
Freight? Current volumes on the line amount to about three carloads a day. The most likely prospect for growth would necessitate persuading industry, mainly the troubled forest sector, to switch back to rail from trucks.
Tourism? “Major tour group operators often did not view the Victoria-based tourist train as a high-profile enough rail excursion to include in their itineraries.”
Passengers? The line averages fewer than 300 trips per day at peak season, a mere 41,000 paying customers in an entire year. Improved service might reap a three-to fourfold increase in passengers, presuming an investment of at least $100 million, plus an annual subsidy of $1.6 million a year.
One of the reports suggested that at least part of the line could be transformed into something other than a historical artifact, by adapting a 17-kilometre stretch into a commuter rail service linking downtown Victoria to the communities west of the city.
Rebuild with double-tracking in some stretches. Construct four new stations and a maintenance facility. Improve safety at some two dozen level crossings. Invest in new vehicles like those on Ottawa’s O-train.
At an estimated upfront cost as high as $168 million in current dollars plus a subsidy of $3.5 million a year, commuter rail would not qualify as a low-budget option. Still, if you build it, won’t they come?
Maybe not. The E&N corridor is out of whack with regional travel patterns. The service would be oriented toward commuters going to and from work in downtown Victoria. But four out of five regional trips are by people headed elsewhere for other purposes. And even for the one in five headed to and from work, the track runs out annoyingly short of the employment and commercial core of the city.
Plus the one-way travel time, even on the refurbished line, would be 30 minutes. “This is a fairly slow service for a 17-kilometre trip and may cause many potential passengers to continue commuting by automobile.”
Still Victoria’s E&N boosters say transit is a chronic money loser and that hasn’t stopped government from expanding the network on the mainland. Look at the West Coast Express. Look at that nifty new Canada Line.
Okay, let’s look. The projected usage of the E&N commuter line is just over 1,000 riders per working day, fewer than 300,000 in a year.
The West Coast Express hauls the latter tally worth of commuters back and forth in a little over a month. The Canada Line carries that many people in three days.
I love my Island home. But from time to time, I do wonder at the fiscal logic of some of my fellow Islanders.
Islanders ignore fiscal realities as they rail to save decrepit E&N – Has anyone planned for TramTrain
The following item from the Vancouver Sun, is one of the most ill researched pieces of anti-rail nonsense I have seen in a long while. Mr. Palmer demonstrates his total lack of knowledge of ‘rail‘ transport and loudly supports the government line of not investing in the E&N Railway. It is so sad that the state of BC’s journalism concerning ‘rail‘ transit is so dismal.
What is obvious is that the BC government has greatly extended itself financially on vote getting projects like a retractable roof on BC, Place or spending $1.5 billion more for a truncated subway line instead of LRT for the RAV/Canada Line, or the needless multi-billion dollar ‘Gateway‘ Highways project, and just doesn’t want to deal with the E&N Railway. There is not enough Liberal support on Vancouver island to warrant any investment, which in turn, may lead to a Liberal rout in the next election.
“At an estimated upfront cost as high as $168 million in current dollars plus a subsidy of $3.5 million a year, commuter rail would not qualify as a low-budget option” is chump change for ‘rail’ transit projects in BC. Compare a $3.5 million annual E & N subsidy to SkyTrain’s annual provincial subsidy of $230 million or $168 million cost to rehabilitate the E & N with the gold-plated $1.4 billion, plus, Evergreen Line.
According to Susan Heyes research, the real cost of the RAV/Canada Line has now believed to have exceeded $2.8 billion and the cost to bring the RAV/Canada Line operation on par with LRT (the scope of the project was greatly reduced as the project was rocketing over budget), would need an investment of $1 billion to $2 billion more, yet the mainstream media remains quiet on more expensive transportation fiascoes in the province! The cost of the needless $140 million SkyTrain faregate/turnstile project would almost pay for the rehabilitation of the E & N railway!
Mr. Palmer continues with his tired anti-rail rhetoric, “Then, too, the line has some 240 level crossings each a recipe for accidents, service interruptions, lawsuits and soaring insurance “, ignores the fact that most of the level crossings are protected by lights and are safer than traffic intersections with no light control at all! Of course, there are thousands of such road intersections on the island that are also each “a recipe for accidents, service interruptions, lawsuits, and soaring insurance“! If one follows Mr. Palmer’s logic, he would have us abandon all roads, except divided highways!
In the rest of the world, railway tourism is very big and will draw many local and international tourists, but if the product is poorly maintained or lacks a draw like operating ‘live steam’ trains, the knowledgeable tourist will give it a pass.
What is needed for the E & N is an independent review of the railway, not a government orchestrated ‘kiss of death’. A TramTrain operation on part or all of the line could just be the tonic needed to get the grand old lady, the E & N Railway, back on firm fiscal ground. Maybe upcoming news about the RFV Vancouver to Chilliwack interurban may give impetuous for a rethink on the E & N. In fact, the government needs a complete rethink on ‘rail‘ transport, as the Department of Transportation and the Minister responsible, seem to be firmly stuck in the 19th century!
As for the mainstream media, they constantly embarrass themselves when they report on ‘rail‘ news and badly need to take a primer on modern ‘rail’ transport, including tourist trains, TramTrain, and more, lest they become nothing more than shills, rubber stamping propaganda from a largely discredited government, which is desperately spending the taxpayers money on multi billion dollar, voter friendly, mega-projects in the Metro Vancouver area.