Vehicle traffic at St. George Street and Princess Royal Avenue was backed up at the railway tracks on Monday afternoon. The crossing arm lowered for a passing freight car, then, after the train was long gone, raised and lowered three more times, inexplicably.
It was an apt metaphor, because truly, we have no idea whether the train is coming or going.
The Snaw-Naw-As First Nation made its skepticism clear, going to court to take back its rail right-of-way. Then, last month, the Regional District of Nanaimo, too, signalled a lack of confidence in the Island Corridor Foundation, voting to renege on a promise of $1 million for track restoration.
This public impatience was poor timing for the rail foundation, which is planning heritage train tours for this Friday (April 8). The round trips from downtown Nanaimo to Wellington are being billed as a celebration of 130 years of Island rail, and timed to attract VIPs in town for this weekend’s Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities convention. The heritage train could become a permanent attraction, a conveniently located tourist excursion for cruise ship passengers.
But the short, low-speed train trips are also a reminder of the limitations of Vancouver Island’s railway. The track needs $20 million in upgrades and there are suggestions that the actual cost of bringing the line up to standard could be magnitudes higher. And it’s hard to believe the business plans to bring back passenger rail without any indications of progress.
In the meantime, local governments – i.e., taxpayers – foot the bill for minor maintenance along the railway. It’s hard to argue against asset management. If we let the line deteriorate, we lose future rail transportation such as public transit that becomes more important as the population grows and the globe warms.
We aren’t ready for rail and yet we’re not prepared to give up on it, either. Which means, unfortunately, that for now, we’re tied to the tracks.