Sunday, January 24, 2010

Going downtown by Rail

Been a busy week at city hall and I'm just now getting to some of the comments that have come up in the last several days.

First up will be the rail issue, and I'll save some of the other issues raised around Blue Bridge costs in another post.

Bringing rail into downtown across the harbour is critical to the success of commuter rail and other services planned for the E&N. That's the clear message from the new owners of the railway and the operators they are contracting with.

The E&N used to be the property of CP, who had no interest in a successful rail service. They would have been just as happy to let the rail fail so they could take the land and sell it off for development. VIA, the federal operator of our passenger service likewise has had little commitment to service here. Their focus has always been on central Canada where the high volume passenger services connect Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. The further you get from these centres, the less interest they have in maintaining service levels.

A few years back everything changed for our little E&N line when CP, in exchange for a sizable tax writeoff, turned over the line to the Island Corridor Foundation, a partnership of regional districts and First Nations from Victoria to Courtenay and west to Port Alberni. The new foundation, along with new operators Southern Rail, have been working diligently to identify the upgrades needed to support a variety of services that could operate on our railway.

Those services include freight, tourist excursions and commuter rail service. Freight opportunities might include things like gravel hauling, which invariably travels by truck over the Malahat from up island quarries and Texada Island off the Sunshine Coast. Moving the stuff by rail would be safer and more efficient.

Tourism services could include ski trains to Mount Washington, or day trips to various stops up and down the Island. For that service to be successful, a downtown, visible and accessible location is crucial.

Likewise, commuter rail service, and the Island Corridor Foundation is firming up plans right now on some proposals, planned to be a couple of trains running south from Nanaimo in the morning and back again in the afternoon, could appeal to the several thousand commuters traveling to and from the Nanaimo area and more particularly the Cowichan Valley northwest of Victoria. Moving the station to somewhere west of the bridge in Vic West, which has been suggested by numbers of commentators, will make the commuter run much less accessible and much less appealing. It's a recipe for failure.

Commuters are headed downtown to nearby workplaces, and a nice walk for a few hundred metres from a west side station isn't part of their plans. Like most commuters they are headed for a destination that they will want to get to in a timely manner and with the least amount of inconvenience. Regional transit planning that may include a downtown or pedestrian circulator would help disperse more of these commuters to nearby workplaces, but moving that transit or (potentially) a streetcar service out of downtown, becomes much more complex and much less appealing as a viable transportation choice for longer haul commuters.

Critics will continue to argue that people can walk across the bridge or get on a bus at the Roundhouse. But transportation planners need more certainty than what people "can" do. It's more a question of what they "will" do. In that sense, we need to look less at what works for us as individuals, and more at what is effective at attracting the significant numbers of commuters that will be necessary to support a viable commuter rail service.

For the experts who study rail transit and the new operators, who are committed to a successful rail service, making sure the rail comes across the bridge into downtown is essential to their business plans. Our plans for the bridge and our commitment to a diversity of transportation options that provide choice and continue to support a working city and a vibrant economy gives us clear direction - the rail stays downtown.

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