The Vancouver Island Railway: Shame or Opportunity?

By Transport Action | British Columbia

Jan 09
E&N Railway Station at Duncan, BC. Photograph by Karen bee Karen.

Maybe some politicians think that Vancouver Island is of little significance, possibly unaware of its rapid population growth, expected to exceed a million people by the end of the decade?

Transport Action Canada believes that the Esquimalt and Nanaimo railway corridor is of national consequence to Canada’s travel network and supply chain, and represents an opportunity to advance Canadian leadership in sustainable transportation. 

That this railway corridor has lain mostly dormant since 2011, only able to provide freight switching around the Nanaimo area, while traffic congestion grows and weather frequently renders the Malahat highway impassable, is a national disgrace.

Now Canada must make a decision: Either save the railway and take the opportunity to meet the transportation needs of Vancouver Island with a modern passenger service and access to rail freight, as envisaged in the business case prepared by the Island Corridor Foundation; or lose it. Possibly forever.  

The B.C. Court of Appeal has set a March 14, 2023 deadline for Canada to respond to its ruling in Snaw-Naw-As First Nation vs Attorney General for Canada and the Island Corridor Foundation. Failing confirmation that Canada is serious about using the transportation corridor, it will revert piecemeal to the First Nations of the island. The Court’s ruling was deeply critical of Canada for its failure to answer the original case, and for leaving the Island Corridor Foundation’s application for funding to repair the railway in limbo.

Transport Action has therefore written to federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra asking him to confirm that Canada wishes to retain the corridor for railway use, to secure the long-term future of sustainable transportation for all peoples on Vancouver Island.

Transport Action recognizes the injustice of the sweeping colonial-era land grants connected to the original construction of the railway and is respectful of the ongoing process to negotiate a Modern Treaty covering the Island, through which the First Nations hope to gain an increased land base and greater recognition of their governance powers over the land.

We believe that the narrow railway strip at issue in the Court case, alongside the now much wider highway corridor, would not materially address the need for a truly adequate land base nor contribute to fulsomely addressing the injustices inherent in the original Douglas Treaties. Moreover, the only other option to support the future growth of the Island’s population and economy would be the further widening of the highway at enormous cost in both land and money.

Forfeiting the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway’s designation as a Crown Corridor in the Modern Treaty process would mean forfeiting the opportunity for future generations of all peoples on the Island to have access to safe, affordable, and environmentally responsible transportation; and make it much harder to steer the development of the island away from suburban sprawl and traffic congestion that would further erode its natural ecosystems together with the Nations harvesting rights which have already been greatly impacted by development and urbanization.  

If the rail corridor is abandoned, the communities on the Island are being abandoned too, as is Canada’s profound moral obligation to ensure the personal safety of Indigenous Women and Girls, and all other people, when traveling on the Island. Should we fail to restore an effective passenger rail service and connecting bus network, all those responsible should hang their heads in shame and pray that no harm comes to the people they have forced to hitchhike.