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The Rail Crisis: Will The E&N Stay on The Johnson Street Bridge?

Crowds greeted the first train to roll into downtown Victoria in 1888

March 29, 1888, was a “red-letter day in Victoria’s history,” wrote the Daily Colonist, “a day to be remembered by young and old alike for many years to come, an era in the progress and development of the city – the arrival of the first passenger train.”

In 1886, Sir John A. Macdonald drove the Last Spike on the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway. A year later, 117 citizens signed a petition to Victoria’s city council, asking that the line be extended to reach the city itself. Now the train had reached its “natural terminus,” downtown Victoria, thanks to the coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. “The day was observed throughout the city generally as a half-holiday,” the Colonist continued, “the public offices, schools, and business houses closing in honour of the event, and the public turning out en masse” to welcome Dunsmuir’s private rail car as it rolled over a new swing bridge across the Inner Harbour, and into the city.

But will the E&N’s historic rail link to downtown Victoria – and the promise of commuter rail – be preserved? The answer may come down to what Victoria’s council does this coming week.

As the Times Colonist has reported, this Friday, February 4 at 8:00 a.m., Victoria’s council will hold a special meeting about the progress of the new Johnson Street Bridge, and decide whether or not rail will be included in the project.

The pressure for this decision has been ramping up. On January 18, City staff told councillors that they had to decide about rail by the end of the month. With that in mind, on January 21, the Island Corridor Foundation (the nonprofit that owns the E&N tracks) emailed its supporters, asking them to encourage Victoria’s council to include rail in the new bridge design. “It is imperative rail continues to downtown Victoria,” wrote ICF executive director Graham Bruce. “It needs to be an integrated part of the larger regional transit and transportation system.”

But there seems to be confusion about whether this pressure is warranted, because the council’s own record says it has already committed to a process for trying to get rail on the bridge.

Back on June 14, the City’s engineers estimated the cost of adding rail at $12 million. Then on June 17, the majority of Victoria’s council – partly to keep borrowing for a new bridge to $49.2 million, thereby requiring no tax increase – passed a motion that included the following:

In light of the City’s ongoing commitment to commuter rail, should alternate sources of funding be identified or secured by August 12, 2010, Council will consider whether to include the rail crossing in the bridge project. (page 10)

August 12 came and went, but staff indicated that the council had until December 31 to decide about rail. Then, on October 13, the directors of the Capital Regional District unanimously endorsed the City’s application for $23.5 million in gas-tax money ($6.5 million of it for rail), and identified it as the #1 priority for gas-tax funds in the CRD.

On November 20, a majority of Victoria voters approved borrowing $49.2 million for a new bridge. Then, on December 9, Victoria’s councillors passed a motion – based on staff recommendations – to apply for gas-tax money for rail, and

That the balance of funding ($5.5 million) necessary to complete the rail component, if the application is successful, be allocated by deferring capital or other sources. (pages 6-7)

That same meeting, the council also passed a motion resolving to “seek partnering opportunities for the outstanding funds to complete the project.” The mayor then hit the newspapers, calling on the province, the ICF, and the mayors of Colwood, Esquimalt, Langford, and View Royal to kick in for rail.

Unfortunately, neither he nor the council provided a deadline, or indicated what (if any) portion of the $5.5 million would persuade the City to pay something for rail on its own bridge. They made no attempt to recruit the public to help. And they gave no hint that they would kill the rail if their Christmas fundraising drive did not succeed.

Ceremonial arch celebrating rail's arrival in downtown Victoria. The sign reads "Long Looked For – Come At Last"

Now, suddenly, there is a crisis. For some reason, the council is being pressured to decide immediately whether or not rail will be included on the bridge, months before its gas-tax application has been heard. The City apparently cannot wait a few more months for a crucial decision on a bridge that’s supposed to last 100 years.

Let’s be clear: We want rail on this bridge. One of the reasons why we argued for repairing the existing bridge is because that would guarantee preservation of rail. We agree with the ICF, and editorials in the Nanaimo Daily News and Cowichan Valley Citizen, that the link to downtown Victoria is essential for the future success of the E&N Railway. For that reason, last week we wrote to Victoria’s mayor and council, asking them to immediately and unequivocally endorse rail, to improve the City’s gas-tax application. (A PDF of our email to them is here.) As we pointed out, it will be far more expensive (some say $30 million) and complicated to build a separate rail span later on: it would have to be built immediately south of the new Johnson Street Bridge, blocking views of that “signature” bridge from the Inner Harbour, and likely so close that the bridge’s pedestrian walkway would have to be removed.

We’ve created a letter that you can send to Island politicians, including Victoria’s mayor and council, asking them to come up with the money to keep rail on the Johnson Street Bridge. We also call on other groups that advocated for a new bridge – such as the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, two-thirds of whose members support rail – to write to our politicians, and ask that they find the money to include the railway.

Downtown Victoria has been connected to up-Island communities via the E&N Railway for 122 years. The future of that link is too important to lose it now.

6 comments to The Rail Crisis: Will The E&N Stay on The Johnson Street Bridge?

  • Ross

    The recent history of the E&N certainly has been troubled. Some more historical background, from Robert Turner’s book Vancouver Island Railroads:

    CP Rail lost interest in the E&N service in the 1960s, and applied many times to abandon it. In 1972, it tore down the old downtown train station next to the Janion Hotel (at right in the top photo). In 1976, CP stopped bringing passenger trains across the bridge, and terminated the route in Vic West.

    The feds merged the passenger services of CP and CN into VIA Rail in 1977, and VIA took over the E&N in 1979. In 1985, VIA opened the current downtown station, and passenger trains resumed rolling across the Johnson Street Bridge.

    The fight over the E&N’s passenger service continued. In 1989, the federal government tried to shut it down, prompting a lawsuit by the province. In 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the feds were not obligated to keep running the service (see http://csc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/1994/1994scr2-41/1994scr2-41.html ), but VIA has continued it nonetheless.

    For how much longer?

  • Bill Irvine

    Bill Cleverley wrote in the Saturday, February 5, 2011, Times-Colonist newspaper: “Senior city staff are warning that timing for the project is tight and any delays could substantially increase the city’s risk to escalating costs on the $77-million bridge replacement project.”

    Forget ‘escalating costs’ — what about losing ownership and rights to the unused portion of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (E&N)?

    Donald F. MacLachlin’s The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway, The Dunsmuir Years: 1884-1905, p.53, states: “The act also provided that the Land Grant would be tax free until the lands are “used by the company for other than railway purposes, or leased, occupied, sold or alienated.” MacFarland goes on to state that the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Land Grant was one of many subsequent land grants the study of which could fill several books.

    For the purposes of discussing the future of rail traffic across the Johnson Street into the City of Victoria, suffice it to say once portions of the E&N right-of-way (RoW) are no longer used for purposes stated in the land grant, these lands may be lost for future public use.

    This may, in fact, be good news for citizen taxpayers of Langford and their progressive mayor, Stew Young, who would love to have the southern terminus of the E&N Railway be at their Langford Station. Stew Young and his supporters could parlay this into a goldmine! Langford Station already has space for approximately 100 free parking spaces beside the rails along Station Road.

    Remember, it was Mayor Fortin and the majority of Victoria city councillors who decided to get rid of the existing E&N Railway bridge crossing.

    Your call, Mayor Fortin.

    Bill Irvine
    Victoria, BC

    Footnote, from http://www.watershedsentinel.ca/CurrentArticle.htm:

    “The controversy surrounding the E&N land grant still haunts decision making today. In late October, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, representing six Coast Salish First Nations, asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to hear its complaint that 300,000 hectares of land converted to private property in the E&N land grant was ‘an act of egregious piracy.'”

  • Carmel Thomson

    It reminds me of a “Bait & Switch” 101 case study. You are attracted to a purchase by an advertisement for a bargain-priced refurbished bridge, “the bait,” that includes rail. Once your interest has been piqued, you are told that the refurbished bridge that was advertised is not available but a slick new bridge is and if you agree to purchase it right away you can get it at a lower cost; you’re told rail can be added later. The “switch” occurred when the seller manipulated you into purchasing the new bridge as a replacement. The seller would have successfully captured your hard earned dollars by luring you with an advertised bargain that was never intended to be made available.