In 1883, Victoria coal baron Sir Robert Dunsmuir (E&N) launched the longtime rail line that is valued by many Vancouver Island residents.
Now more than a century later, its fate will be determined by a verdict due in a few weeks.
A vote set for mid-March will determine whether the 115 kilometer stretch of rail from Esquimalt to Nanaimo will receive much needed repairs.
According to the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), this rail line will shape accessible transportation for years to come.
“We are about to lose this opportunity, the reality is today we’re in a bit of a pickle. My concern is that it’s easy to talk about today. It’s easy to say well, we don’t have enough people at this very minute. It’s not a matter of right now but rather the future of accessible transportation for Vancouver Island,” says Larry Stevenson, CEO of ICF.
For Stevenson, the rail line represents an essential means of public transportation for a growing population on the island that can’t afford or choose not to assume the responsibility of a vehicle.
“There are huge social equity issues here. We need to find ways to provide options to people to be able to move about and do things that they need to do. We’re talking about the low income folks, elderly people, young people and those that just don’t want to have a car,” says Stevenson.
After more than a century since the rail line has been in operation, the railway has since fallen into disrepair, requiring an estimated $431 million to effectively restore.
In 1907, E&N paid $650 to be granted the right of way for “the purposes of any railway” with the consent of the Governor in Council.
Over the course of the next century, the ownership and use of the rail line would pass onto several owners until 2005 when the ICF assumed ownership of the E&N railway.
Since then, the ICF has worked alongside the First Nations community and the general public in an effort to launch a renewal project for the rail line.
In 2020, the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation filed for the reserve lands to be returned to its people. Initially, the First Nation lost, but have since filed an appeal.
For the project to meet the expectations of the government, First Nations, and the general public, Stevenson says it will take time to ensure the necessary steps are taken to make sure the project serves everyone.
“There’s a history that can’t be ignored, it shouldn’t be ignored. The government has got to address the historical issues with this rail line,” said Stevenson.
After a significant debate in favour of the project, Madam Justice Barbara Fisher set a deadline of 18 months on September 14th, 2021, for a decision to be made whether or not rail service will be re-established on the E&N corridor, and if not then the lands should be returned.
As the March 14th vote draws near, Stevenson says he will continue to work with the provincial and federal government to see this project become a reality and encourages the public skeptical of the proposal to consider the long-lasting benefits a rail line would offer Islanders.
“We’re not talking about an entire rebuild of the railway. We have an existing portable. Effectively, what we need to do is refresh it. It’s not an entire rehaul and it’s not going to cost a billion dollars, it’s $431 million and a significant investment, says Stevenson.