Expensive estimates to get the Island’s rail corridor back on track leave some key players scratching their heads.
On April 28, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) released an assessment of the Island Rail Corridor, formerly the E&N Rail. According to a summary report, the corridor is in poor to fair condition with issues such as uncontrolled vegetation, decayed ties and “older technology” that could impact track performance.
The report, done for the province by WSP Canada Group Limited, recommends improvements based on a phased approach with three phases plus an option to add commuter rail service between Langford and Victoria.
Phase three – which supports high freight and passenger volumes – plus the commuter service puts the cost of reinstating rail service at about $1.3 billion. About $595 million of that is for commuter rail but the corridor’s owner, the Island Corridor Foundation, says it can be done for less.
The foundation’s chief executive Larry Stevenson said that after digging into the report, he agrees with the condition assessment of the track, calling it a “good base” to work from.
He also said WSP Canada Group Limited was asked to provide an assessment with varying costs, looking at the restoration of rail service at different levels.
“What they’re talking about is essentially a first class commuter … with 24 trains a day,” Stevenson said. “The Langford and Victoria area isn’t ready for that, they don’t need that. Maybe they will in 20 years.”
As for the rail service throughout the corridor, Stevenson said the phase three “ultimate” model isn’t needed yet either. He said the phase two model, with four to eight trains a day and commuter service focused on peak transit times, is “more realistic.”
Even still, the report prices out the phase two model at about $552 million, leaving Stevenson with some concerns.
“They did some things in there that left me scratching my head,” Stevenson said, referring to a 50 per cent contingency cost built into the estimate. “That’s 50 per cent for an oops factor. If you can’t find a contractor to do this at a 20 per cent contingency you need to find a new contractor.”
Langford Mayor Stew Young said he would not be able to support a commuter rail that costs $600 million. He said he wants to wait for the South Island Transportation Study – to be released MoTI in June – before he makes any decisions.
“How do I support this? I can’t,” Young said. “There has to be a broader transportation study.”
Stevenson said he thinks Young is right, and that nobody will support the reinstatement of rail service at that high of a cost. However, he noted that resuming service can be done on a scale.
“You can build on all of this,” Stevenson said. “As the Island grows and the need comes up, you’ve already made the initial investment and you can build as you need. For right now, I can live with four trains a day.”
Resuming rail service on the corridor is also bigger than just the South Island Transportation Study, Stevenson said. He said it’s an infrastructure project that could preserve the corridor and potentially bolster the economy.
“This is an amazing infrastructure project that we probably are going to need in light of COVID-19,” Stevenson said. “You can create a lot of jobs really fast just by doing this.”