Notes from the first Island Corridor Foundation Liaison meeting

Today was the first get together of the Community Liaison Committee for the ICF which is a committee created by the ICF to more easily provide information to its member communities without having to worry about the conflict of interest issues of the Board reporting back.

Below I have organized the report in some pictures and then answers to questions.

We first had a brief presentation at the ICF office at the Wellcox (short for Wellington/Comox) rail yard in Nanaimo.

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image Click for larger images.

You can see the agenda and the attendance.  I believe all but one person attended including John McNabb director of the ACRD Beaver Creek area who is not listed. The hi-rail trucks were full.

Existing freight customers and shipments.

We first got a tour of the rail yard and the various transloading (where goods are moved from rail to truck or vice versa) customers in the Wellcox yard.  There are five.

SVI receives a barge regularly to the Seaspan controlled barge slip at the yard (the black square in the middle of the picture below). The slip is the only public transport connection to the Island.  It also receives truck trailers but that traffic will soon be moved to Duke Point which means the slip will be for the near exclusive use of Southern Rail of Vancouver Island which they see as a major plus. Their rail slip on Annacis Island connects to CN, CP, BNSF, and UP and so all points in North America.

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PRoduct #1

is delivered at the white tent above.  Western Aerial receives fertilizer there for forestry.

PROduct #2

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is delivered a little further in the yard.  The white rail cars are carrying fly ash for the island cement industry.

PRoduct #3

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is where telephone poles (on the left) are brought down from Courtenay (at great expense by special truck) and shipped to the mainland by rail (on the right) for treatment.

PRoduct #4

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Is the shipment for Top Shelf feeds in Duncan (straight ahead) that is the only large shipments of grain to the Island.

PRoducts #5 and #6image

are in the distance.  The first is latex for the Catalyst paper mill in Port Alberni, a large customer.  The second is a supply of water stored there for use by the BC Wildfire service for use in rural communities along the railway.

Product #7

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is propane shipped by rail to their Nanaimo depot near the Nanaimo Golf Club.

Track Maintenance and Repair 101

After the yard tour we all got into hi-rail trucks for a short journey up the Welcox spur to the main line.  We passed a few potential future customers at the veneer plant in Nanaimo and a gravel pit further south.

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We then stopped at a section of the mainline south of Nanaimo where 100 ties had been marked out.

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A few things to notice in the image above.  First, the tie bar in the far rail where you see the bolts is an example of an old style tie bar that will be replaced along the line.  Every old bar has been counted.  About 9000 will be replaced.

On the rail, you see red and green markings. These are not-good (red) or must-be replaced (red/green) ties.  Notice the red/green tie in he picture is quite split and rotted.  This is an example of how they will mark the entire line as the replacement program progresses.  The tie replacement will eat up the largest amount of the $20.4M at around $11M.

Enough ties will be replaced with the $11M to be compliant with Class 3, 40mph passenger rail and 30mph freight service and allow that to continue for 10 years with regular maintenance.

You might notice the tie right in front of the red/green marked rotted tie is in very good shape.  It is also not treated with creosote.  This is a new yellow cedar tie.  Yellow cedar ties are great and are often used near water courses so as to minimize impact from creosote on rivers and streams but unfortunately the supply of yellow cedar ties is limited because yellow cedar is in such high demand.

Every effort will be made to source ties from Vancouver Island mills (like Alberni Pacific Division) or to otherwise benefit Island businesses during the retrofit.

in case you are wondering what a $100 million investment would look like… That would easily replace every single tie and then some.  (If $11M will do every 4th tie then $50M would easily replace everything.).

That amount of work is not needed for either a return of fast enough speeds for passenger service, nor for freight service.

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Above is an example of what the Victoria to Courtenay line will look like after the $20.4M program is complete.  The big thing after replacing the ties is installing ballast… the rail term for rock under, beside and over the tracks.  This improves the drainage and the stability of the track (which also improves the ride comfort) and the process used will also realign and position the rails so they are where they need to be.

56,000 tonnes of ballast will be used costing around $2 Million.  This rock will come from Island quarries.

Questions, lots of questions.

That was the end of the hands on stuff.. we then went back to the Nanaimo train station for a lunch meeting where we had more presentations and Q/A.

I will include questions I was given before this meeting and the answers I got or gleaned throughout the day.

Transport Canada regulations and upgrades and changes to rail crossings.

SVI did a presentation on the implications of the new rail crossing regulations on the Island Railway.

The upshot is that the process for the federal railways (CP/CN) is going to happen first and has not yet occurred.

They do not know yet how these federal regulations will filter down for the provincial railways like SVI/SRY.  However, they estimate that about 85% of the more than 200 crossings between Victoria and Courtenay already meet the new standards.  50% of the remaining non-compliant crossings are municipal responsibility and are pretty evenly distributed along the railway. This applies to between Victoria and Courtenay.

Once they know what the provincial requirements will be and whether there will be any grandfathering then they will do a full assessment of the crossings but in the meantime any crossing work that they do they always make sure it meets the new standards.  They have also done crossings on the Island where they brought the crossing to the minimum and then put plans to bring it to a higher stanadrd once infrastructure monies are released.

The ICF now has a general policy of no net-new crossings.  They have strict requirements for requestors to meet if they want a new crossing.  They managed to resolve concerns in Langford by upgrading one crossing and closing another.  Since costs for a crossing can start around $750,000, the ICF is keen to keep those costs down and new crossings to a minimum.

The ICF has over 1000 contracts and agreements over the entire line that they manage.

1. What’s the current status of the First Nations Snaw-naw-as legal action (Nanoose).

The ICF and Snaw-naw-as are currently in delicate talks for a negotiated settlement.  Because the talks are ongoing Mr. Bruce did not want to give a timeline or any other indication but he did say communications have been had and talks are good but sensitive so no more details can be provided right now.  Judith Sayers also related that there are other options to pursue if talks failed like pressing the single issue of the definition of the railway being inactive which they believe very strongly is illegitimate.  But the first option is of course a negotiated settlement beneficial for all parties and sooner rather than later.

2. Has there been any movement on the part of the Federal Government regarding its commitment to provide $7.5 million?

Nope. Not without movement of Snaw-naw-as lawsuit.

3. What is the current status of municipal and regional district commitment toward the retention of the railroad as a viable economic entity?

I think as one could see from the representation at the meeting, which was from most of the municipalities and all the RDs there is still good interest and commitment and want to make it work and seek viable business as well as social plans for its use. Reps presented included those from recent sources of some skepticism including Parksville and Langford.

4. What is the current amount of freight using the railroad? What part of the railroad is currently being used? What is the economic value of this freight?

You can see the current products and customers at the start of this post.  Most are transloads within the Wellcox yard. One direct rail customer remains in Nanaimo at Superior Propane.  And that is the remaining part of the railway that is running a few times a week through Nanaimo.

I honestly forgot to ask about the value for those existing customers. Will do so.

There was also a lot of talk about partnerships and possibilities for traffic on the Port Alberni subdivision including Catalyst but also more broad shipping of containers and goods from the West coast through to the rest of North America through Nanaimo and the barge slip.  SVI said they continue in discussions with both ports.

Southern Rail employees also made it clear that they and the Washington Group including the owner Mr. Washington have taken a very long term view to their holdings.  They see a lot of growth potential for the railway due to a whole host of factors.  That is why they have stayed even though the ICF has struggled to secure infrastructure funding.  They are not making money on the operation currently.  When the VIA service was still running they employed 26 people.  They now employ around half that.

Once that funding is secured there will also be a new agreement between the ICF and SVI where the SVI will pay the ICF fees as operator of the track that will go towards its capital maintenance and administration.  This agreement is under negotiation now and should be ready soon.

5. Is there more that the ICF needs municipalities such as ours to do with respect to working toward long-term viability of this railroad?

From the discussions during the meeting it appears the most supportive thing we can do is keep advocating for the railway at senior government level and also at the public level wi factual information and be sure to include the railroad in all long term social and transportation planning.  We had a good chat about the use of Development Cost Charges as a way to push improvements to the line when new developments are proposed adjacent to it.

SVI also made it clear that their own thinking and that of many railways has changed a lot when it comes to the use of a railway corridor by trails.  In previous eras the whole right of way was considered off limits for safety and development reasons.  Now, they realize that having a trail right beside the tracks actually improves safety because it gives people a much better option than walking in the tracks and it also increases the profile and ultimate support for the railway.  So they now enthusiastically support the building of the rail trail system.  It also provides funding for things like new and better rail crossing hardware, so all transportation users win.

6. When will Port Alberni be involved and receive some benefit and what is its state?

As I already mentioned, SVI and the ICF continues in discussions with the Port Alberni and Nanaimo Port Authorities looking at opportunities that could arise and bring freight to that corridor.  They do believe strongly that a customer like Catalyst would have much cheaper transportation costs in the current transport framework if they went fully to rail.  They are already a customer for SVI as the latex for the paper making process is delivered by rail to the Wellcox yard in Nanaimo and then transloaded to truck for Port Alberni.  Shipments come in every week.

There has not been a very thorough assessment of the ties and bridges yet done on the Alberni sub but the general feeling based on the experience of the people at SVI (the roadmaster has 38 years) who also worked at CPR and RailAmerica before they left is that the Alberni sub will likely be in better shape as a whole than the Victoria-Courtenay line even though it has sat dormant for so long because the majority of the limited maintenance that CPR and RailAmerica did do was on the 38mile Alberni subdivision.  However, the bridge decks need more regular maintenance so since that has not been done, the bridges will require an assessment and work to make sure they are good to go again.  Structurally the bridges should not have any problems since they have not been under any load in the past 10 years.

I got the impression that once the infrastructure monies were in place and SVI was secure for that 10 year commitment, that they would turn their attention more fully to the Alberni subdivision for both freight customers and tourism in connection with the Alberni Pacific Railway.

7. “IF the Fed’s position is that the funding is not forthcoming until the railway is running. We have an impossible situation on our hands…. is this scenario 100% accurate?”

No. The feds current position is the money will be released once the Snaw-naw-as lawsuit has come to a conclusion that they feel comfortable with.

8. In light of the fact that no Federal money is forthcoming, as difficult as the situation is, what does the ICF plan to do about this?

Since the feds are not providing their funding and the whole $20M package rest on that, the ICF and SVI is currently pursuing two interim plans that they believe could be done even without the infrastructure monies.

#1: is the Excursion train for cruise ships at the Nanaimo Port Authority.  This was demonstrated in April this year and the train is ready to go.  They have a business plan and believe the economic impact to the region would be around $20 Million a year.

The train would depart the SVI yard (which is next door to the cruise ship terminal) and head to Chemainus for part of the day. Come back to the Nanaimo train station for food and enjoying the Nanaimo uptown area and then back to the terminal. They see this starting as soon as next cruise season.

Once the infrastruxture monies are in place then the excursions could also include bringing people to events all over the Island not necessarily tied to cruise ship visits but the public in general.

#2: There is a very interesting plan being worked on where the SVI and ICF would work with BC Transit to provide a pilot commuter service between Langford and Victoria during the McKenzie interchange construction period.  They are currently looking at suitable rail stock.  They feel the tracks could currently support 20 minute service between Langford and Vic West.  They say that BC Transit has indicated a willingness to shift or even change their bus routes or timings so that they met up with the train more smoothly.

I really hope to see this pilot come to fruition. It would be a major boost.

Both of these initiatives could happen without the $20M in funding.

9. Would they reconsider their “all or nothing” approach to getting the line repaired and renegotiate funding deals still on the table to at least get part of the line repaired and operational? Even the feds might consider funding if the plan for repairs doesn’t go as far as Nanoose.

I believe the answer to #8 covers this with the addition that SVI feels very strongly that the $20M will absolutely ensure the entire rail line from Victoria to Courtenay will be able to meet Class 3, 40mph passenger and 30mph freight standards.  The ICF board feels very strongly that the whole rail line cannot be considered abandoned due to a few years of inactivity as there is still activity on the line including maintenance as well as there being a specific definition to deactivating a railway that the Island Railway does not meet. Their intent remains focused on the whole railway even while they pursue small opportunities on some portions while they work on resolving the legal case.

10. An estimate of the timeline for the Nanoose lawsuit would be nice to have too.

They were unwilling to give a timeline because the negotiations are ongoing and sensitive.

11.  I’d tell them to immediately re start freight service to Top Shelf and the pole shippers, even if they have to run at a walking pace the public needs to see an active railway.

They can only serve customers that they can get the train to within the 12 hour working day.  Otherwise, due to transportation regulations, they have to change crews.  That is the main reason why both passenger and freight service has shut or been reduced to just Nanaimo.  At current operating speeds the train can’t get to the customers in a reasonable time, so this option isn’t viable.

12. I think it needs to be made clear that they need to have some sort of forward movement related to rail even if they need to create it themselves.

It does appear tey feel the same way and is why they are pursuing the two oportunities mentioned above and they say they are continuing to work on business plans that can stand on their own.

13. Another question. Is SVI / Washington Group willing to step in and front this 15 million to stop the line from being lost forever?

I honestly didn’t ask. However they are putting in their own resources to make the Chemainus and Victoria commuter pilot a possibility.

14. Could you ask the ICF to host a public forum in Port Alberni to discuss the future of the E&N Railway.

The ICF reps made it pretty clear they realize their public outreach hasn’t been up to par. They hope these liaison meetings will help and I think they would be open to hosting an information session in Alberni. I want to be work on this with them.

BC Wildfire Tanker Cost FOI – The Devil is in the -redacted- Details

Note: The FOI documents had to be run though an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program so that they would be searchable and copy/paste-able.  This causes some character (letter/symbol) errors with the original text that may show up in the quotes even though I have tried to catch them all.

The Big Three Air Tanker Companies

There are only three companies providing in-province fixed wing air tanker service to the Government of British Columbia.  Airspray, ConAir and Coulson.

Earlier this year I submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out the real costs of the Air Tanker program (excluding helicopters).  It took a few months but the request has been completed.  You can see the original request here and the full 297 page response here.

Continue reading “BC Wildfire Tanker Cost FOI – The Devil is in the -redacted- Details”

Old ideas die hard in the dark – the Plywood Site

Updated with my initial statement added first. And some grammar and other errors cleaned up.

Here are my thoughts on this issue… It’s not the direction I would have preferred simply because of past experience. Other communities have gone in different directions and have being growing while we stagnate. I can’t help but believe this direction will not help with our growth and evolution as a community and I hope it does not stunt the already raging successes that have come from the very modest investments at canal beach.

Addition:  For clarity and completeness I should add that the majority of Council voted to move ahead with this sale in order to give another chance for a maritime business to take hold or expand on that property as was the original intent of the covenant that restricted the property’s use to Industrial. My misgivings about process, direction and vision that I outline in detail below notwithstanding, I do see the merit of trying to attract more maritime business to the area.

Continue reading “Old ideas die hard in the dark – the Plywood Site”

After Public Input – Now come the hard decisions – Alternate title: Do you really want an 11% increase?

So over the weekend and today I’ve been going through the latest input from you, the public, about what you like and don’t like about the City, and what you feel needs to be done or not done.

If I thought before that that input would make my decision easier now I know for sure, it won’t. 🙂

You can see the results in Tuesday’s agenda here or click the image which shows some of the feedback from the public input session. Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 1.22.13 PM

And here is what the public budget survey looks like:

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And finally I have an excel spreadsheet that is also in the agenda.  Unfortunately only 25 people came to the public input session but 348 people did respond to the survey.  Overall it certainly isn’t a representative survey, but it does give us some ideas.

As I went through the public input I jotted down what seemed to be the projects that got the most, or least support.  These are my notes… broken down in “Yes”… “Yes But” and “No”.  With a couple thoughts from the survey.

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If I match that to the Excel Spreadsheet, here is the result:

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Notice the top line number.  Ouch.

If I take away the pool and Canal Beach….

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Still a hefty hike.  But one thing is clear… if we match up the budget to the input we got, we will have a significant increase on our hands.

Without question, the items that had the strongest support were upgrades to the Beach and to start on the Pool.  Also public bottled water stations and the repairs to the pilings at Harbour Quay.  What didn’t get much support?  Reduction in Transit… increasing Bylaw services… or Fibre Optic installation.

What to do?  Well… one thing that really stood out for me in the online survey was the very strong support for Parks and Rec as well as increasing economic development.

I guess we will just have to figure it out, that’s why Council is here but Council definitely has a lot of food for thought and a lot of tough decisions to make.

 

Breaking down the costs of commuting – now with two jobs!

Update: I’ve added the savings if someone was driving a car/truck that got more average mileage. (9L/100km or 26 US mpg)

As many of you likely already know, I commute to work at VIU five days a week. Yup, this means driving back and forth everyday in some fashion.

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Click to see the bus schedule

Since about 2008 (I can’t even remember anymore haha) I have been taking advantage of the Regional District of Nanaimo BC Transit bus from Qualicum or Parksville to Woodgrove and then on to VIU. It adds between 30 and 60 minutes to the trip a day. On a ‘normal’ day I leave Port Alberni around 6AM, drive to Parksville Civic Centre, hop on the bus at 6:45, transfer at Woodgrove and end up at VIU around 7:30AM. On the way back it is a longer journey because of a long layover at Woodgrove and a ‘milk run’ to Parksville so I generally leave VIU at 3:35PM and arrive home at 5:30PM.  If you’re wondering if I’m the only person on the bus, nope not at all.  There are other VIU commuters (employees and students), High School students going to Nanaimo, other workers, many seniors going for day trips either to Nanaimo or often to Vancouver and beyond and other regular bus users, like kids going to the Mall or people who likely don’t have a lot of money, especially First Nations.  The use of the commuter bus between Parksville and Woodgrove has grown noticeably, especially as gas prices have risen.

IMG_1914The cost of an RDN bus pass is $700 a year through the VIU “Pro Pass” program, which is pretty cool.  My pass is #0040.  I’m an early adopter… and as you can see from how grungy it is I use it a lot. The previous Federal Government also instituted a Tax Credit for all bus passes.  So I get 15% of that cost back ($105) so I am currently paying about $590 for the bus pass.

So why take the bus?

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Remember, I’m a geek. So I track my distance travelled with an App on my iPad called “Waze”.

I get this question all the time.  The answer is simple.  Money, and stress. As you can see on the side, the full trip from home to VIU is about 82km.  The drive to Parksville is 45km. I used to drive to Qualicum which is shorter but they changed the bus routes two years ago and made the trip much longer.  So I save about 35km of driving.  That doesn’t seem like much, but in terms of stress on both myself and my car, I find the drive along Highway 19 to be far more stressful, and potentially dangerous, than the extremely familiar Highway 4.

Ya I track that too at www.bcgasprices.com
Ya I track that too at www.bcgasprices.com

Even in a fuel efficient car like my previous 2004 Toyota Echo Hatchback and my even more efficient 2012 Toyota Prius C, this year I saved myself about 9730km of driving by taking the bus.  Not only does that mean 442L of fuel not burned and $505 saved on average, it also means 1.02 tonnes of CO2 not put into the atmosphere. (The buses would run anyway if I am on them or not of course).  Compared to buying a parking pass for either $400 or $600 at VIU and add in the wear and tear on the vehicle and the economic argument is easy as is the safety.  The time argument is the hard one but so far it works.

So now that you have two jobs….

As you might know, I decided to take on a new set of responsibilities (and have been honoured to be allowed to do so!).  So my burning question over the past 12 months in the back of my geeky and miserly brain has been… with the additional driving that I have had to do to attend to City Council business, does it still make sense to take the bus whenever I can?

Well here are the numbers for the past 12 months.

I parked at VIU 41 times = $175 daily parking fees
I drove to VIU and parked for free elsewhere 30 times
(this is my late classes on Wednesdays when I can’t take the bus…)

The only thing I don’t have exact numbers for is days I took the bus, but working backwards I figure I had about 139 “bus days”.  At $700 that works out to around $5 a day.  Which is exactly the same as the cash fare ($2.50 each way).

Average mileage of my Toyota Prius over 2015: 4.548L/100km = 0.04548 L/km (51.7 U.S. mpg).

Home to VIU distance: 82km
Home to Parksville distance: 47km
Difference: 35km

So this year the money I spent on driving all the way to VIU was:
35km * 71 days * 2 = 4970km extra driving past Parksville = 226L fuel *1.144$/L = $258.  Add $175 in parking fees and that’s $433.  CO2 emitted: 0.52 tonnes CO2.

For the bus trips the money I saved was: 35km*139 bus days*2 = 9730km avoided on bus = 442L fuel *1.144$/L = $505 saved = 1.02 tonnes CO2 not emitted.

So taking all of it together and comparing the two:
VIU Bus Pro Pass = $695.24 – $105 tax credit = $590 (15% tax credit)
Extra Driving = $258
Parking tickets = $175
Total with Bus = $1003
CO2 from Driving Parskville to VIU when needed = 0.52 tonnes

If I did not take the bus:
VIU “Econo” limited Parking pass = $400
Driving = $258+$505 = $763
Total without bus = $1163
If I get a VIU “Employee” pass, the cost rises to $600 and total is $1363.
CO2 from Driving from Parksville to VIU full time. = 1.52 tonnes

So I save $160 and 1 tonnes of CO2 not including wear and tear on the vehicle.

Update: You might be wondering how much of a difference the type of car makes.  The answer is a lot.  My Prius C gets 4.5L/100km or 51 US mpg.  If I instead took our 2007 Toyota Matrix which gets around 9L/100km or 26 US mpg the totals would be:

For the Bus: Fuel: 447L/$511 Total: $1386 and 1.03T of CO2

Without the Bus: 875L/$1001 (plus above) Total: $1912 and 2.02T of CO2.

So in an “average” mileage car I would save $526 and 2T of CO2.

Now these numbers are not going to be perfect but they should be pretty darn close to accurate. So even with the additional driving that I have had to do with the new City Council duties, it still makes sense for me to take the bus as much as possible both from a cost perspective and an environmental perspective.  And that does not include additional maintenance costs or consideration on safety.

Public Transit saves everyone money

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Click to see a full mockup schedule of a mid island commuter train service that I presented to the RDN in 2014.

Commuting isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Especially with home price differences so great between Port Alberni and other mid-island communities I believe we will see more commuters, not less.  This is why I continue to advocate for transit options to open up between Parksville and Port Alberni either with a bus like the one between Parskville and Woodgrove or using the Railway (see the link).  The cost savings are substantial both to people and to the taxpayer in terms of maintenance on roadways and safety, which means more money in everyones pocket to spend on other things. The benefit to the environment and overall safety is obvious.