NANAIMO — The majority of Nanaimo's council is on board with the idea of converting the E&N rail line to a multi-use trail.
Council endorsed a motion by coun. Bill Bestwick calling on the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) to coordinate with Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island (FORTVI) to work towards replacing the largely dormant rail line with a recreational trail.
Bestwick voiced concern over the cost of the rail line to Nanaimo taxpayers and his belief it's unlikely the service will ever return "in a productive fashion."
"I'd like us to entertain an initiative that would steer the rails to trails people to the Island Corridor to have the conversation...Without talking we'll never find out if there's a potential opportunity," Bestwick said.
Coun. Jim Kipp also referenced issues with cost and said while he supports protecting the corridor he doesn't believe in the "dream of the train" on the island.
The City's finance department reported they budget $125,000 annually for rail-related costs. Documents show $165,000 was paid to Southern Railway, which uses parts of the line for freight, in 2016.
However, if any capital projects take place near a rail crossing, the City is required to bring it up to new standards. For example, nearly half of the estimated $3 million cost for the Northfield-Boundary intersection upgrade is related to rail crossing upgrades.
Councillors Diane Brennan, Ian Thorpe and mayor Bill McKay did not support Bestwick's motion.
"I think there is a lot of value in trailways and I support them, but I would like to see those trailways working in conjunction with a rail," Thorpe said. "I think in terms of passenger, freight, commuter or tourism there are opportunities for parts of the rail to still be used effectively and to support our economy...Limiting our options simply to trails I can not support."
Brennan said the rail line is an important factor in a transportation network that needs to be configured on the island. "Either the rail or the trail. I just don't believe that's a realistic choice we have to make, I think we can have both," Brennan said.
Coun. Bill Yoachim also cautioned he sees other island First Nations joining a Snaw-Naw-As lawsuit against the ICF, which is before the courts.
Sherry Durnford, a member of FORTVI, said their group now has formal support from the City of Nanaimo, the Regional District of Nanaimo and the Village of Cumberland. The Comox Valley Regional District voted their proposed motion down, while the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District "listened intently" and wanted to consult with stakeholders.
Durnford said the Cowichan Valley and Capital Regional Districts turned down their requests to appear as delegations. Six-hundred people have signed FORTVI's online petition, supporting their initiative.
She said their effort is focused on removing the rails and creating the multi-use trail from Parksville to Courtenay, considering that section of the line as the least likely to see service anytime soon.
She insisted their movement is not about challenging, but rather working with the ICF to find better uses for sections where rail isn't feasible. "We don't want to convert anything that makes sense as rail," Durnford said.
As for concerns the E&N line could be a critical mode of transportation in the future as the island's population grows, she said there's no reason a rail line couldn't be installed again in the future.
"As soon as the population justifies and there's an indication the population would use it, we're 100 per cent supportive of that," she said.
Via Rail halted passenger rail in 2011 due to safety concerns with the condition of the tracks. Despite pledges of funding from all levels of government, there has been no tangible progress in several years.
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