If there is to be a functional solution for the future of the E&N, I think we should look for examples of success stories among the short line railways in North America with an emphasis on the isolated railway networks.
There are several isolated rail systems in North America, most of them seem to be connected to natural resources like the Englewood Railway here on Vancouver. Ones like the Cartier Railway, this is a 418 kilometre resource railway that exists to bring iron ore to tidewater. There is a second mining railway on the North Shore Quebec further east, the Chemin de fer de la Riviere Romaine.
One of the isolated networks that comes to mind is the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway. Two small lines link onto the main branch of the QNSLR, the Wabush Lake Railway to connect the mine at Wabush Lake and the Arnaud line which is just a short set of tracks in the harbour of Sept-Iles. A separate line runs from Emeril Junction another 217 kilometres to Schefferville.
All in all, this isolated network has 574 kilometres of track, which is almost twice as much track as the E&N.
The QNSLR is owned by the Iron Ore Company of Canada and was built as a mining resource railway, it exists for no other reason than to provide access to the sea for the iron ore and as soon as the ore is depleted, the line will be abandoned. The line did go as far as Schefferville when there was a mine there in the past and the community had up to 5000 people. It is not really a good line to look to for solutions.
Tshiuetin Rail Transportation operates the line through to Schefferville. It has been owned by three local First Nations since 2005. I suspect the line is very heavily subsidized because the population of Schefferville is a few hundred these days.
The Alaska Railroad is also an isolated line with a total of about 800 kilometres of tracks. The population served by the ARR is on the same scale as the population served by the E&N. The line moved 413,000 passengers in 2011, that is 1100 people a day. It also move 6.2 million tons of freight, which is about 62,000 car loads, this is almost an order of magnitude above what the E&N would need to be sustain itself. I have no idea what they transport. The company owns 51 locomotives, 45 passenger cars and 1254 freight cars.
ARR is isolated but has a connection to the rest of the system in North America via CN with the CN Aquatrain. Certainly this seems to offer more freight as the 30 annual round-trips add close to 3000 car loads to the freight total.
The scope and scale of the Alaska operation is much bigger than what we have here. Though it does indicate that well marketed tourism will increase rail passengers. If the ARR can get 413,000 passengers, there is no reason this is not achievable for tourism on the island. It is interesting to see that Alaska has integrated the cruise ship companies into the rail system.
What the ARR does say is that there is potential for a population of 700,000 to support a functioning railway.
The White Pass and Yukon railway currently runs from Skagway to Carcross, a distance of 108 kilometres. The line did run as far as Whitehorse, a total of 177 kilometres. At the moment the line has no freight and is only being used a heritage railway for tourists. It seems that they are doing this to ensure the line remains and can one day offer more service. I had never thought of what is effectively a tourism or heritage rail line could come back as a full fledged line, but that seems to be the goal of the White Pass and Yukon.
Could a focus on tourism and heritage trains be enough to make the E&N viable for the short and medium term?
Since most of the mainline tracks in North America do not allow for steam trains, the E&N could focus on becoming the steam mecca of the continent. Imagine running daily steam train service from Victoria to Courtney like the Royal Hudson did between Vancouver and Squamish for close to a generation. There could be various other shorter excursions runs on the line as well such as the Alberni Pacific Steam Railway.
The ICF and Island tourism business could try to entice the West Coast Railway Association to relocate to the island from Squamish.
This is where looking at the other isolated lines has lead me to - could a large scale return to steam save the line?