Notes from the first Island Corridor Foundation Liaison meeting

Today was the first get together of the Community Liaison Committee for the ICF which is a committee created by the ICF to more easily provide information to its member communities without having to worry about the conflict of interest issues of the Board reporting back.

Below I have organized the report in some pictures and then answers to questions.

We first had a brief presentation at the ICF office at the Wellcox (short for Wellington/Comox) rail yard in Nanaimo.

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You can see the agenda and the attendance.  I believe all but one person attended including John McNabb director of the ACRD Beaver Creek area who is not listed. The hi-rail trucks were full.

Existing freight customers and shipments.

We first got a tour of the rail yard and the various transloading (where goods are moved from rail to truck or vice versa) customers in the Wellcox yard.  There are five.

SVI receives a barge regularly to the Seaspan controlled barge slip at the yard (the black square in the middle of the picture below). The slip is the only public transport connection to the Island.  It also receives truck trailers but that traffic will soon be moved to Duke Point which means the slip will be for the near exclusive use of Southern Rail of Vancouver Island which they see as a major plus. Their rail slip on Annacis Island connects to CN, CP, BNSF, and UP and so all points in North America.

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PRoduct #1

is delivered at the white tent above.  Western Aerial receives fertilizer there for forestry.

PROduct #2

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is delivered a little further in the yard.  The white rail cars are carrying fly ash for the island cement industry.

PRoduct #3

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is where telephone poles (on the left) are brought down from Courtenay (at great expense by special truck) and shipped to the mainland by rail (on the right) for treatment.

PRoduct #4

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Is the shipment for Top Shelf feeds in Duncan (straight ahead) that is the only large shipments of grain to the Island.

PRoducts #5 and #6image

are in the distance.  The first is latex for the Catalyst paper mill in Port Alberni, a large customer.  The second is a supply of water stored there for use by the BC Wildfire service for use in rural communities along the railway.

Product #7

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is propane shipped by rail to their Nanaimo depot near the Nanaimo Golf Club.

Track Maintenance and Repair 101

After the yard tour we all got into hi-rail trucks for a short journey up the Welcox spur to the main line.  We passed a few potential future customers at the veneer plant in Nanaimo and a gravel pit further south.

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We then stopped at a section of the mainline south of Nanaimo where 100 ties had been marked out.

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A few things to notice in the image above.  First, the tie bar in the far rail where you see the bolts is an example of an old style tie bar that will be replaced along the line.  Every old bar has been counted.  About 9000 will be replaced.

On the rail, you see red and green markings. These are not-good (red) or must-be replaced (red/green) ties.  Notice the red/green tie in he picture is quite split and rotted.  This is an example of how they will mark the entire line as the replacement program progresses.  The tie replacement will eat up the largest amount of the $20.4M at around $11M.

Enough ties will be replaced with the $11M to be compliant with Class 3, 40mph passenger rail and 30mph freight service and allow that to continue for 10 years with regular maintenance.

You might notice the tie right in front of the red/green marked rotted tie is in very good shape.  It is also not treated with creosote.  This is a new yellow cedar tie.  Yellow cedar ties are great and are often used near water courses so as to minimize impact from creosote on rivers and streams but unfortunately the supply of yellow cedar ties is limited because yellow cedar is in such high demand.

Every effort will be made to source ties from Vancouver Island mills (like Alberni Pacific Division) or to otherwise benefit Island businesses during the retrofit.

in case you are wondering what a $100 million investment would look like… That would easily replace every single tie and then some.  (If $11M will do every 4th tie then $50M would easily replace everything.).

That amount of work is not needed for either a return of fast enough speeds for passenger service, nor for freight service.

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Above is an example of what the Victoria to Courtenay line will look like after the $20.4M program is complete.  The big thing after replacing the ties is installing ballast… the rail term for rock under, beside and over the tracks.  This improves the drainage and the stability of the track (which also improves the ride comfort) and the process used will also realign and position the rails so they are where they need to be.

56,000 tonnes of ballast will be used costing around $2 Million.  This rock will come from Island quarries.

Questions, lots of questions.

That was the end of the hands on stuff.. we then went back to the Nanaimo train station for a lunch meeting where we had more presentations and Q/A.

I will include questions I was given before this meeting and the answers I got or gleaned throughout the day.

Transport Canada regulations and upgrades and changes to rail crossings.

SVI did a presentation on the implications of the new rail crossing regulations on the Island Railway.

The upshot is that the process for the federal railways (CP/CN) is going to happen first and has not yet occurred.

They do not know yet how these federal regulations will filter down for the provincial railways like SVI/SRY.  However, they estimate that about 85% of the more than 200 crossings between Victoria and Courtenay already meet the new standards.  50% of the remaining non-compliant crossings are municipal responsibility and are pretty evenly distributed along the railway. This applies to between Victoria and Courtenay.

Once they know what the provincial requirements will be and whether there will be any grandfathering then they will do a full assessment of the crossings but in the meantime any crossing work that they do they always make sure it meets the new standards.  They have also done crossings on the Island where they brought the crossing to the minimum and then put plans to bring it to a higher stanadrd once infrastructure monies are released.

The ICF now has a general policy of no net-new crossings.  They have strict requirements for requestors to meet if they want a new crossing.  They managed to resolve concerns in Langford by upgrading one crossing and closing another.  Since costs for a crossing can start around $750,000, the ICF is keen to keep those costs down and new crossings to a minimum.

The ICF has over 1000 contracts and agreements over the entire line that they manage.

1. What’s the current status of the First Nations Snaw-naw-as legal action (Nanoose).

The ICF and Snaw-naw-as are currently in delicate talks for a negotiated settlement.  Because the talks are ongoing Mr. Bruce did not want to give a timeline or any other indication but he did say communications have been had and talks are good but sensitive so no more details can be provided right now.  Judith Sayers also related that there are other options to pursue if talks failed like pressing the single issue of the definition of the railway being inactive which they believe very strongly is illegitimate.  But the first option is of course a negotiated settlement beneficial for all parties and sooner rather than later.

2. Has there been any movement on the part of the Federal Government regarding its commitment to provide $7.5 million?

Nope. Not without movement of Snaw-naw-as lawsuit.

3. What is the current status of municipal and regional district commitment toward the retention of the railroad as a viable economic entity?

I think as one could see from the representation at the meeting, which was from most of the municipalities and all the RDs there is still good interest and commitment and want to make it work and seek viable business as well as social plans for its use. Reps presented included those from recent sources of some skepticism including Parksville and Langford.

4. What is the current amount of freight using the railroad? What part of the railroad is currently being used? What is the economic value of this freight?

You can see the current products and customers at the start of this post.  Most are transloads within the Wellcox yard. One direct rail customer remains in Nanaimo at Superior Propane.  And that is the remaining part of the railway that is running a few times a week through Nanaimo.

I honestly forgot to ask about the value for those existing customers. Will do so.

There was also a lot of talk about partnerships and possibilities for traffic on the Port Alberni subdivision including Catalyst but also more broad shipping of containers and goods from the West coast through to the rest of North America through Nanaimo and the barge slip.  SVI said they continue in discussions with both ports.

Southern Rail employees also made it clear that they and the Washington Group including the owner Mr. Washington have taken a very long term view to their holdings.  They see a lot of growth potential for the railway due to a whole host of factors.  That is why they have stayed even though the ICF has struggled to secure infrastructure funding.  They are not making money on the operation currently.  When the VIA service was still running they employed 26 people.  They now employ around half that.

Once that funding is secured there will also be a new agreement between the ICF and SVI where the SVI will pay the ICF fees as operator of the track that will go towards its capital maintenance and administration.  This agreement is under negotiation now and should be ready soon.

5. Is there more that the ICF needs municipalities such as ours to do with respect to working toward long-term viability of this railroad?

From the discussions during the meeting it appears the most supportive thing we can do is keep advocating for the railway at senior government level and also at the public level wi factual information and be sure to include the railroad in all long term social and transportation planning.  We had a good chat about the use of Development Cost Charges as a way to push improvements to the line when new developments are proposed adjacent to it.

SVI also made it clear that their own thinking and that of many railways has changed a lot when it comes to the use of a railway corridor by trails.  In previous eras the whole right of way was considered off limits for safety and development reasons.  Now, they realize that having a trail right beside the tracks actually improves safety because it gives people a much better option than walking in the tracks and it also increases the profile and ultimate support for the railway.  So they now enthusiastically support the building of the rail trail system.  It also provides funding for things like new and better rail crossing hardware, so all transportation users win.

6. When will Port Alberni be involved and receive some benefit and what is its state?

As I already mentioned, SVI and the ICF continues in discussions with the Port Alberni and Nanaimo Port Authorities looking at opportunities that could arise and bring freight to that corridor.  They do believe strongly that a customer like Catalyst would have much cheaper transportation costs in the current transport framework if they went fully to rail.  They are already a customer for SVI as the latex for the paper making process is delivered by rail to the Wellcox yard in Nanaimo and then transloaded to truck for Port Alberni.  Shipments come in every week.

There has not been a very thorough assessment of the ties and bridges yet done on the Alberni sub but the general feeling based on the experience of the people at SVI (the roadmaster has 38 years) who also worked at CPR and RailAmerica before they left is that the Alberni sub will likely be in better shape as a whole than the Victoria-Courtenay line even though it has sat dormant for so long because the majority of the limited maintenance that CPR and RailAmerica did do was on the 38mile Alberni subdivision.  However, the bridge decks need more regular maintenance so since that has not been done, the bridges will require an assessment and work to make sure they are good to go again.  Structurally the bridges should not have any problems since they have not been under any load in the past 10 years.

I got the impression that once the infrastructure monies were in place and SVI was secure for that 10 year commitment, that they would turn their attention more fully to the Alberni subdivision for both freight customers and tourism in connection with the Alberni Pacific Railway.

7. “IF the Fed’s position is that the funding is not forthcoming until the railway is running. We have an impossible situation on our hands…. is this scenario 100% accurate?”

No. The feds current position is the money will be released once the Snaw-naw-as lawsuit has come to a conclusion that they feel comfortable with.

8. In light of the fact that no Federal money is forthcoming, as difficult as the situation is, what does the ICF plan to do about this?

Since the feds are not providing their funding and the whole $20M package rest on that, the ICF and SVI is currently pursuing two interim plans that they believe could be done even without the infrastructure monies.

#1: is the Excursion train for cruise ships at the Nanaimo Port Authority.  This was demonstrated in April this year and the train is ready to go.  They have a business plan and believe the economic impact to the region would be around $20 Million a year.

The train would depart the SVI yard (which is next door to the cruise ship terminal) and head to Chemainus for part of the day. Come back to the Nanaimo train station for food and enjoying the Nanaimo uptown area and then back to the terminal. They see this starting as soon as next cruise season.

Once the infrastruxture monies are in place then the excursions could also include bringing people to events all over the Island not necessarily tied to cruise ship visits but the public in general.

#2: There is a very interesting plan being worked on where the SVI and ICF would work with BC Transit to provide a pilot commuter service between Langford and Victoria during the McKenzie interchange construction period.  They are currently looking at suitable rail stock.  They feel the tracks could currently support 20 minute service between Langford and Vic West.  They say that BC Transit has indicated a willingness to shift or even change their bus routes or timings so that they met up with the train more smoothly.

I really hope to see this pilot come to fruition. It would be a major boost.

Both of these initiatives could happen without the $20M in funding.

9. Would they reconsider their “all or nothing” approach to getting the line repaired and renegotiate funding deals still on the table to at least get part of the line repaired and operational? Even the feds might consider funding if the plan for repairs doesn’t go as far as Nanoose.

I believe the answer to #8 covers this with the addition that SVI feels very strongly that the $20M will absolutely ensure the entire rail line from Victoria to Courtenay will be able to meet Class 3, 40mph passenger and 30mph freight standards.  The ICF board feels very strongly that the whole rail line cannot be considered abandoned due to a few years of inactivity as there is still activity on the line including maintenance as well as there being a specific definition to deactivating a railway that the Island Railway does not meet. Their intent remains focused on the whole railway even while they pursue small opportunities on some portions while they work on resolving the legal case.

10. An estimate of the timeline for the Nanoose lawsuit would be nice to have too.

They were unwilling to give a timeline because the negotiations are ongoing and sensitive.

11.  I’d tell them to immediately re start freight service to Top Shelf and the pole shippers, even if they have to run at a walking pace the public needs to see an active railway.

They can only serve customers that they can get the train to within the 12 hour working day.  Otherwise, due to transportation regulations, they have to change crews.  That is the main reason why both passenger and freight service has shut or been reduced to just Nanaimo.  At current operating speeds the train can’t get to the customers in a reasonable time, so this option isn’t viable.

12. I think it needs to be made clear that they need to have some sort of forward movement related to rail even if they need to create it themselves.

It does appear tey feel the same way and is why they are pursuing the two oportunities mentioned above and they say they are continuing to work on business plans that can stand on their own.

13. Another question. Is SVI / Washington Group willing to step in and front this 15 million to stop the line from being lost forever?

I honestly didn’t ask. However they are putting in their own resources to make the Chemainus and Victoria commuter pilot a possibility.

14. Could you ask the ICF to host a public forum in Port Alberni to discuss the future of the E&N Railway.

The ICF reps made it pretty clear they realize their public outreach hasn’t been up to par. They hope these liaison meetings will help and I think they would be open to hosting an information session in Alberni. I want to be work on this with them.

3 thoughts on “Notes from the first Island Corridor Foundation Liaison meeting”

  1. Quite honestly Chris, that is far more than I expected. I attributed a lot of that to the fact your were prepared with questions to ask.

    How many other individuals were there with prepared questions or were they there for the associated festivities?

    Keep pressing them for the info session in Port Alberni.

    1. Hi Wayne,

      Thanks. It was a good meeting. It was very helpful for me that I had questions from people beforehand. There were good questions and comments from everyone. Most of my questions and concerns were answered through others so concerns were similar. Mayor Lefebvre of Parksville and Mr. Lefebure of North Cowichan had lots of questoons and good discussion in our truck with Mr. Kutaj as we went from point A to B. I am sure others had similar experiences.

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