Southern Railway of Vancouver Island

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Southern Railway of Vancouver Island
SRY logo.png
Southern Railway of Vancouver Island at Chemainus.jpg
The railway running through Chemainus
HeadquartersNanaimo, British Columbia
Reporting markSVI
LocaleVancouver Island, British Columbia
Dates of operationEsquimalt and Nanaimo Railway 1883-2006
Southern Railway of Vancouver Island 2006-present–
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge
Southern Railway of
Vancouver Island
E&N Malahat
(Fort Victoria)
tunnel (50 m)
Strathcona Lodge
Cobble Hill
(Drinkwater Road)
South Wellington
Nanoose Bay
Qualicum Beach
Deep Bay
(Gainsburg Road)
Buckley Bay
Union Bay

The Southern Railway of Vancouver Island (reporting mark SVI), previously the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (E&N Railway), is 234 kilometres (145 mi) in length, and is the only remaining railway on Vancouver Island, after the formal closure of the Englewood Railway in November 2017. The Southern Railway's line runs from Victoria to Courtenay, with a branch line from Parksville to Port Alberni. In 2006, the Island Corridor Foundation acquired the railway's ownership from the Canadian Pacific Railway and RailAmerica.

Both freight service and the crown corporation Via Rail passenger service have been suspended indefinitely due to deferred maintenance on the rail line.[1]


Vancouver Island joining Canada[edit]

The history of an island railway[2] and a functioning island railway in perpetuity, started with the colony of Vancouver Island joining British Columbia in 1866, and the Canadian Confederation of 1867, and the incorporation of British Columbia into Canada in 1871. The terms of union required that within two years, the federal government was to start the construction of a railway from the "seaboard of British Columbia" joining the new province and Victoria with the railway system of Canada. On its part, British Columbia was to grant a band of public land of up to 32 kilometres (20 mi) in width along either side of the railway line to the federal government for it to use in furtherance of the construction of the railway. The Pacific terminus of the railway was not specific but the proposed plan would have the railway cross the Rockies by the Yellowhead Pass and reach the BC coast at Bute Inlet. It would cross Sonora Island and Quadra Island and reach Vancouver Island by a bridge across Seymour Narrows. Through the influence of then BC Premier Amor de Cosmos, this plan was adopted by Order in Council by the federal government on 7 June 1873. Two shipments of rail were even delivered to Victoria from the United Kingdom. In 1873, Prime Minister of Canada Sir John A. Macdonald had stated that Esquimalt, the site of a naval base, would be the terminus of the "Pacific Railway". However, both the federal government and the Canadian Pacific Railway placed a low priority on construction of an island railway, as it had low traffic potential and would duplicate an existing steamer service.

Port Alberni Station is today only used by the heritage Alberni Pacific Railway

In 1874 British Columbia threatened to withdraw from Confederation and Premier Walkem petitioned the Queen for relief from these delays. Then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie and Walkem agreed to accept arbitration of the dispute by the Earl of Carnarvon, the Colonial Secretary. His award, given 17 November 1874 gave an extension of time for the construction and required that a railway be built from Esquimalt to Nanaimo. Despite the promises of both parties to be bound by his ruling, the federal government bill approving the award failed in the Senate. British Columbians were indignant and withdrawal from Confederation was raised again.

In 1879 Lord Dufferin was sent to BC to assess the situation. His efforts produced no resolution. Governor General Dufferin, upon arriving in Victoria, had to take an alternate route rather than pass below an arch across the main street that bore a banner reading "Carnarvon Terms or Separation".[3] Walkem was sent to Ottawa to press for the Esquimalt to Nanaimo section. This issue was pressed again in 1880 by Amor de Cosmos and when that failed, another petition to London was presented in 1881.

The father of Canadian Confederation Sir John A. Macdonald in the House of Commons in 1881 gave a speech on the CPR and criticized Alexander Mackenzie for tinkering with the preconditions of British Columbia and Vancouver Island uniting with Canada.[4] The old chieftain said, "Both the Government of which I was the head and the Government of which he was the head were bound by the original resolutions." Macdonald said,"It was admitted that it was a sacred obligation; it was admitted that there was a treaty made with British Columbia, with the people and the Government of British Columbia, and not only was it an agreement and a solemn bargain made between Canada and British Columbia, but it was formally sanctioned by Her Majesty's Government. It was a matter of Colonial policy and Imperial policy in England that the road should be constructed."[5]

Land grants[edit]

Coal baron Robert Dunsmuir[edit]

Robert Dunsmuir, the Nanaimo coal baron and a member of the provincial legislature, was interested in owning the railway project and in the province's coal reserves. The fact that Dunsmuir was a member of the provincial government that was making the deal aroused some suspicion about corruption. Dunsmuir and three partners (Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford of California) incorporated the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (less formally the E&N Railway) with Dunsmuir president and owner of one half of the shares. The company estimated that it would cost $1.5 million to construct. Dunsmuir planned to integrate the railway with the systems being built in Washington and Oregon with a ferry link from Victoria.

Lewis M. Clement

The first Prime Minister gave British Columbia the choice of Dunsmuir or Lewis M. Clement[6] of San Francisco, Chief Engineer of the Western Division of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, for the contract. Dusmuir travelled to Ottawa in 1882 with letters of introduction from John Hamilton Gray, one of the Fathers of Confederation and Joseph Trutch the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, both men in favour with Macdonald.[7] After a visit to Ottawa, to present himself directly for this project, Dunsmuir went off to Scotland. While in Scotland, Dunsmuir received the news that the provincial government had chosen the Vancouver Land and Railway Company controlled by Clement for the job. Dunsmuir was surprised that Clement would take the contract without a cash grant in addition to the land and commit to building the railway to Seymour Narrows, near Campbell River.[8] When Clement and his company failed to come up with the necessary financial security, Macdonald quickly moved to accept Dunsmuir's terms.

Settler rights[edit]

The court ruled that this grant did not entitle the railway to dispossess existing settlers, the company applied for compensation and received a further grant of 86,763 acres (35,112 ha) between Crown Mountain and Seymour Narrows. In 1883, the British Columbia government signed a contract with Dunsmuir to build a railway between Esquimalt and Nanaimo in exchange for the same grant of land that Clement had negotiated, amounting to 800,000 acres (323,749 ha) plus a cash grant of $750,000 from the federal government. Based on an average value of $10 per acre for the land the E&N received, it cost the government $626,660 per mile to build the railway, which, when complete, was in private hands. The railway was given a massive amount of old-growth forests.[9] Proceeds from the land grants helped build Craigdarroch Castle. The grant amounted to almost 10% of Vancouver Island and included mineral rights and all known coal deposits. All the land grants to the E&N railway from 1884 to 1925 amounted to 20% of Vancouver Island.[10] The company was to receive a grant with the following boundaries (Muir Creek is about 6 km (4 mi) west of Sooke):

On the south by a straight line drawn from the head of Saanich Inlet to Muir Creek, on the Straits of Fuca:
On the west, by a straight line drawn from Muir Creek, aforesaid, to Crown Mountain:
On the north, by a straight line drawn from Crown Mountain to Seymour Narrows: and
On the east, by the coast line of Vancouver Island to the point of commencement.[11]

The grant was facilitated by BC's introduction of the Settlement Act (An Act relating to the Island Railway, the Graving Dock and the Railway Lands of the Province) in December 1883, in which surface rights of existing "squatters" were acknowledged and protected.[12]


The bridge over Niagara Creek Canyon. This cantilever suspension bridge was built in England in 1883 and first used in Canada crossing the Fraser River at Cisco where it became known as the Cisco Bridge. It was moved to Vancouver Island for the present crossing in 1910.

The last spike was gold and the hammer was silver.[13] On 13 August 1886, the last spike was driven at Cliffside, about 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of Victoria. Construction of the island railway took three and a half years. Prime Minister Macdonald drove the last spike, during his only visit to British Columbia. The railway was extended to Dunsmuir's mine at Wellington in 1887, and into Victoria in 1888. It was extended west to Port Alberni in 1911, west to Lake Cowichan in 1912, and north to Courtenay in 1914. The E&N Railway was to have been built all the way to Campbell River, but that plan fell through due to the outbreak of World War I.

The present-day bridge 17 km (11 mi) north of Victoria, over Niagara Creek Canyon (48°28′57″N 123°33′27″W / 48.4825°N 123.5574°W / 48.4825; -123.5574), formerly crossed the Fraser River at Cisco, BC, and was moved here 300 km (190 mi) ca.1910. The cantilever suspension bridge was pre-fabricated in England in 1883 and shipped to Canada.[14] It replaced the original wooden trestle bridge, which was damaged in a washout on 12 November 1886.[15]

CPR years[edit]

In 1905, Robert Dunsmuir’s son James Dunsmuir (former Premier and soon-to-be Lieutenant Governor) sold the E&N Railway to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR built the railroad to Lake Cowichan, Port Alberni, Parksville, Qualicum Beach, and Courtenay. At its peak, the railroad had 45 stations on the main line, 36 stations on the Cowichan line, and 8 stations on the Port Alberni line.[16]

Between 1905 and 1999, the E&N Railway was owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Via Rail took over operation of CPR's passenger train service, called The Malahat, in 1978, while CPR demarketed its freight operation, claiming that freight traffic was declining. In 1996, CPR reorganized the E&N as an "internal short line" named E&N Railfreight while the railbarge operations were sold to Seaspan Intermodal. In early 1999, shortline operator RailAmerica purchased the route from Nanaimo to Port Alberni, and leased the balance of the line. At that time, approximately 8,500 carloads of forest and paper products, minerals, and chemicals were transported by the Southern Vancouver Island Railway each year.


A Budd RDC train operated by Via Rail at Qualicum Beach

In 1998, CPR sold the middle part of the corridor to RailAmerica. Despite the purchase by RailAmerica, freight traffic continued to decline and the future of the E&N was still in doubt. RailAmerica sought a sale for its acquisition due to unprofitably and deferred maintenance issues. Restrictions from Canadian Pacific on the lease/sale agreement, and major reconstruction of Highway 1 from Victoria to Nanaimo and the new freeway from Nanaimo to Campbell River, led to reduced driving times for the full length of the E&N. This development also affected the privately owned rail line, which did not have the benefit of the provincial subsidies accorded to its competing highways. Freight traffic dropped to about 2000 carloads a year after the loss of their largest freight customer, a Catalyst Paper pulp mill in Port Alberni. RailAmerica ceased to operate the E&N on 30 June 2006, with the Washington Group's Southern Railway of British Columbia taking over operations the following day under the name Southern Railway of Vancouver Island.

Pacific Wilderness tourist train[edit]

In the summers of 2000 and 2001, Ross Rowland managed on Vancouver Island the Pacific Wilderness Railway, which operated on the tracks of the E&N Railway from Victoria to the top of the nearby Malahat summit. The operation consisted of a few coach cars, which were pulled through Esquimalt, View Royal and Langford by a couple of GP20s, which would then make their way up to the top of the Malahat, before turning around and heading back to Victoria.

Despite PAW's ad campaign promising grand views and stunning scenery, riders were often disappointed to discover[citation needed] that the views of Saanich Inlet were largely obscured by thick old growth forest along most of the route's right of way. Rowland attempted to remedy this situation by chopping down large portions of old growth trees along the Malahat portion of the right of way, but this only succeeded in incurring the wrath of area residents,[citation needed] without having much effect on the overall view. Questions were also raised about the Malahat being chosen as the northern terminus, due to its isolation.[citation needed] Apart from a crude shelter/platform that Rowland built in the wilderness with untreated lumber, the terminus lacked even basic service such as refreshments or washrooms. The nearest location that offered these services was a tiny gas station over 10 km (6 mi) away.

Via Rail[edit]

In 1978, Via Rail assumed operational responsibility for the E&N Railway passenger service. Post ICF ownership, the rail operator agreement had the private company Southern Railway operate the daily inter-city passenger service from Victoria to Courtenay on behalf of Via Rail. Train tickets had to be purchased three days in advance to avoid an increase in the cost of the fare. In 2011, due to the disrepair of the railway, Via Rail and Southern Railway suspended indefinitely the Dayliner passenger service, the Victoria–Courtenay train. The train had scheduled stops at Duncan, Nanaimo, and Parksville, with many other flag stops (stops on request) along the way. Via and Southern Railway did offer a bus service for several months after the closure, but the service was discontinued August 7, 2011. Via's bus tickets had to be bought three days in advance and fewer than ten people a day used their temporary bus service.[17] The Via passenger service used Budd-built Rail Diesel Cars (Dayliners). Those rail cars are no longer on Vancouver island, and at least one is now owned by Rapido Trains, a model railroad company[18]


Until 1996, it was called the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (which it is still called by people living on the Island). It then spent three years as E&N Railfreight, an internal short line within then owner Canadian Pacific Railway. Operations were then sold to RailAmerica. The RailAmerica subsidiary was named E&N Railway Co (1998) Ltd. (reporting mark ENR), thus maintaining the historic name associations for the Vancouver Island line.

Island Corridor Foundation[edit]

A Via Rail RDC in Nanaimo

Tax gift[edit]

The not for profit Island Corridor Foundation is a partnership between the Cowichan Tribes and local governments along the SVI line. After years of work and negotiations, the ICF came to agreements with the Canadian Pacific Railway and with RailAmerica to hand over its Island rail assets to the foundation for tax credits.[19]

In February 2006, the Canadian Pacific Railway donated its 234 km (145 miles) portion of the SVI right-of-way, which averages 30.48 m (100 ft) in width between Victoria and Courtenay, to the Island Corridor Foundation. The donation tax credit exchange was estimated to be valued at Cdn$236 million and encompasses 6.51 km2 (2.51 sq mi) of land, six historic railway stations and a number of trestles. In addition, CPR also supplied $2.3 million in "seed money" to the Foundation. Lands were also given that produce non-rail revenue generated by property leases and encroachments on the line.[20]

On 22 March 2006, RailAmerica donated ownership of the Port Alberni to Nanaimo portion of the SVI to the Island Corridor Foundation.

No trespassing policy[edit]

More people are starting to walk, hike and use off-road vehicles on the right of way[21] Railway and ICF officials are asking people to stay off the tracks for their own safety.


ICF chose Southern Railway of Vancouver Island (SVI) to operate the Island railway on Vancouver Island, after ICF’s acquisition of the railroad.[22] The operator agreement started on July 1, 2006. In January 2010, the Southern Railway of British Columbia new train ferry terminal started operating in the Fraser River on Annacis Island shipping to Nanaimo via the Seaspan train ferry. The new train marine terminal was built with the help of $4.6 million in federal funding and cost $11 million. It increases the mainland's capacity and speed to load and unload railcar barges from the island.[23]

The amount of freight traffic in 2008 and 2009 was about 1,000 cars per year. According to the Rule of 100,[24] a generally accepted economic formula for short-line railways, a minimum of 100 freight cars per mile a year is required before a line is profitable due to depreciation accounting. The old E&N route averages about 6.6 cars per mile. The ICF has estimated there is a potential business of 22,000 rail cars of freight each year on Vancouver Island.

An ICF development strategies report estimated that 35,000 to 40,000 carloads per year, as the amount of business that would be required to bear the full capital cost of upgrading the railroad and maintain operations on a sustainable basis. If the capital costs of upgrading the railway are excluded, the business of 8,000 carloads per year would be required to pay for basic operating and maintenance costs. The most significant potential revenue is the Raven coal mine (west of Fanny Bay) needing up to 10,000 carloads per year. The foundation report noted the market potential for sourcing of aggregates like gravel for the Victoria market from alternative reserves up-Island. However, this market would be extremely competitive due to the availability of shipments of aggregate by barge from the Lehigh Materials (part of Lehigh Hanson) facility in Sechelt and the new Johnson Street Bridge providing barge access to downtown Victoria.[25]

In November 2014, SVI freight service along the entire Duncan-to-Parksville segment of the line was suspended following a risk assessment after the disrepair of the track had been continuously slowing train speeds down. No timeline was known for when service will resume.[1]

As of 2018, the only operational trackage left is a truncated 7-mile strip in the Nanaimo area, servicing the Superior Propane spur in north Nanaimo.

The ICF is a partnership of the various local governments and First Nations communities along the railway, including 14 municipalities, 5 regional districts and 12 First Nations.

SVI Rail operator of railway[edit]

The Washington company Southern Railway of Vancouver Island (SVI) is the operating railway for Vancouver Island freight and passenger services, and works under a haulage arrangement with Southern Railway of British Columbia (SRY). SVI provides rail freight services to various customers on Vancouver Island railway offering connections to the continental railway network. It also operates daily intercity passenger service from Victoria to Courtenay by arrangements with Via Rail Canada. SVI employs 22 people and has a wage bill of 1.25 million a year, as well as spending another 1 million for rail operations as part of the Island economy.[26]

Rail line closure and delayed re-openings[edit]

Alberni Pacific excursion train, June 2013

Beginning March 18, 2011 passenger service between Victoria and Courtenay was suspended indefinitely, due to safety concerns about the poor condition of the tracks. In April 2012 the Federal Government announced that it would match a $7.5 million grant offered by the BC Provincial Government, providing the required $15 million for basic repairs and upgrades to reopen the rail line. The line was expected to reopen, and rail services re-commence in 2013, as early the spring,[27] but was delayed due to failed negotiations between the Island Corridor Foundation and Via Rail.[28] In July 2014, an agreement was signed by Via Rail to resume operations with plans to have services resume in the summer of 2015,[29] but in April 2015, the ICF stated that the resumption of service has been put on hold while the BC Ministry of Transportation and provincial government review the funds for covering repair costs.[30] As of March 2020, passenger rail still has yet to reopen.

2020 restart[edit]

A new non-profit society, the Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition (VITCC), announced formation on July 7, 2020 to facilitate the return to rail service to Vancouver Island. The VITCC mandate is to promote modernizing the former E&N rail corridor as the backbone of the Island's future transportation system for commuters and freight alike, integrating with all other forms of transportation.[31] They also seek to expand the cycling/pedestrian trails alongside the railway from the current more than 100 kilometres.[32]

In 2020, a second annual Vancouver Island Christmas Toy Train will be run as a special excursion to bring gifts to children.[33] The 2020 event will be focused primarily on the sections of railway around Nanaimo.[34]

Bike path beside E&N in Victoria and Nanaimo[edit]

A bike path named the E&N Rail Trail is being built beside the E&N tracks from Vic West to Six Mile in View Royal, while allowing rail service to continue. In April 2007 the Island Corridor Foundation agreed to lease its land in Greater Victoria to the Capital Regional District (CRD) for development of the bike trail.[35]

In Nanaimo an 8 km (5.0 mi) trail was built in the 1990s. The E&N Trail is a multi-purpose paved trail for cycling, walking, roller blading and wheelchairs. It stretches from Townsite Road in the south to Mostar in the north where it connects to the 20 km (12 mi) Parkway Trail.

In the fall of 2013 a partnership of various community groups interested in moving the E&N Rail Trail forward was formed and the Nanaimo Regional Rail Trail Partnership was born. The NRRTP comprises the Downtown Business Improvement Association (DNBIA), Tourism Nanaimo, Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN), the City of Nanaimo, Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition (GNCC), and the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF). As of 2015 the group has raised funds and is building the E&N extension trail from the old Nanaimo train station to 7th Avenue in the south. It planned to have that multi-use trail finished by 2019.[36]

Concurrently, north of Nanaimo, the Regional District of Nanaimo started with two new sections in 2018. The first sections of trail will total approximately 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) and will connect the City of Parksville with Coombs and French Creek.[37]

Rapid transit on E&N in Victoria[edit]

In 1996 a BC Transit report[38] proposed renewing the track and enhancing road crossing, to travel 13.3 km (8.3 miles) to arrive over the bridge into downtown Victoria from Station Avenue, Langford. The travel time was 24 minutes, using the existing track, including stops, and restricting the speed to 25 km/h (16 mph) due to the condition of the railway and street crossings.

In 2008, a report[39] by the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure put the travel time at 36 minutes, using the existing track, and having a train travelling a further distance of 17.2 km (10.7 mi) from West Langford. This includes six stops and stopping at each station for half a minute. The speed varies from 8 to 65 km/h (5 to 40 mph).


  • Daniel Francis (Editor) (1999). Encyclopedia of British Columbia. Harbour Publishing. ISBN 1-55017-200-X.
  • Reksten, Terry (1991). The Dunsmuir Saga. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 0-88894-742-9.
  • Donald F. MacLachlan (1986). The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway - The Dunsmuir Years: 1884-1905. The B.C. Historical Railway Association. ISBN 0-9692511-0-6.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Island freight rail halted over track safety concerns". Times Colonist. November 5, 2014. Retrieved November 6, 2014.
  2. ^ MacLachlin, p12-16
  3. ^ Carnarvon Terms - KnowBC - the leading source of BC information
  4. ^ Read the ebook A history; British Columbia by R. E. (R. Edward) Gosnell
  5. ^,_Speech_on_the_CPR
  6. ^ Lewis M. Clement
  7. ^ Reksten, p 58.
  8. ^ Reksten p 59.
  9. ^ MacLachlin, p 55.
  10. ^ Taylor, WA. Crown Land Grants, A History of the E&N Rail, 1975
  11. ^ MacLachlin, p 15.
  12. ^ Black, Kelly. Unsettling the Settlement Act: Land conflict in the past and present on Vancouver Island. Presented at (Un)settling British Columbia BC Studies 2017 Conference, May 4–6, 2017, Vancouver Island University, Snuneymuxw First Nation Territory / Nanaimo, B.C. Retrieved from VIUSpace at
  13. ^ The Last Spike Archived 2011-10-08 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Turner, R. D.: West of the Great Divide, page 74.
  15. ^ Cathedral Grove | British Columbia | Habitat Desecration
  16. ^
  17. ^ VIA Rail Canada Inc. | Travel Advisory - Temporary Bus Replacing VIA's Victoria to Courtenay Train Service To Make Last Trip August 7
  18. ^ "Saving RDC-1 VIA 6133". Rapido Trains Inc. Rapido Trains Inc. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Parksville Qualicum News - Railway officials, police, warn pedestrians - Mobile Edition
  22. ^
  23. ^ Terminal aids Island rail system
  24. ^ Blanchard Co Rule of 100
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Passengers could be riding the E&N Railway as early as next spring". Victoria Times Colonist.
  28. ^ "Via Rail says it has no money to boost E&N service upon return to Vancouver Island". Times Colonist. May 30, 2013. Retrieved September 15, 2013.
  29. ^ "Deal signed to resume E&N rail service; boards need to ratify". Island Corridor Foundation. July 11, 2014. Retrieved August 3, 2014.
  30. ^ "Island's E&N rail repairs on hold during provincial review". April 8, 2015. Retrieved May 31, 2015.
  31. ^ "Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition Formed". July 7, 2020.
  32. ^ "New coalition rallies to revive Vancouver Island rail service". Oct 26, 2020.
  33. ^ "Vancouver Island Christmas Toy Train Needs Your Donations". Dec 3, 2020. Retrieved Dec 3, 2020.
  34. ^ "Great Nanaimo Toy Drive". Nov 29, 2020. Retrieved Dec 2, 2020.
  35. ^ Parks - E&N Rail Trail Project
  36. ^ "Nanaimo Region Rail Trail". Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  37. ^ "Coombs to Parksville Rail Trail". 9 May 2018. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  38. ^
  39. ^ Evaluation of the E & N Railway Corridor: Commuter Rail (PDF). Government of British Columbia (Report). October 4, 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 4, 2014. Retrieved December 3, 2018.

External links[edit]