Short lines have been profitable in North America for various private companies like Rail America, OmniTrax and Southern Railway of BC, but all these companies were connected into the bigger North American rail grid. The E&N is one of a handful of isolated lines on the continent, this means there are fewer options to make the line profitable.
The E&N has about 290 km of tracks, 225 km between Victoria and Courtney, 62 km between Parksville and Port Alberni and 5 km to reach the harbour in Nanaimo. Until 1984 there was a 29 km spur running from near the new Duncan WalMart to Lake Cowichan.
The only other railway on Vancouver Island is the 90 km long Englewood railway running from Vernon Lake to Beaver Cove on the north coast of the island. It is the last logging railway on Vancouver Island. Some years back it moved 22,000 railcar loads of timber, this is important to know because this rail line has no subsidy to operate and would be shut down if it cost too much to operate.
When the Ministry of Transportation looked at the E&N, the report found that the line needed a minimum of 8,000 freight railcar loads per year to cover basic operating expenses. It has been moving about 900 per year lately. There needs to some serious commodity products shipped by rail for the line to achieve the volume needed. If the Raven coal mine goes ahead and uses the rail line to ship the coal, the future of the rail line becomes secure
|End of the line in Courtney|
If we look to the volumes moved on the Englewood line, a well placed line can move forestry products. The problem is that the line does not run where there is much active logging going on. It strikes me that you would have to extend the line 60 km to Bloedel north of Campbell River where there is a large log sort to have any chance of making forestry a contributor to the line.
I am not sure how forestry would make use of the line, I am not informed enough about the current industry work patterns on the Island.
The extension of the line to Campbell River would then make it realistic to extend it 20 km westwards to the Quinsam coal mine. The mine currently produces close to 500,000 tonnes of coal a year and that would be about 5000 railcars per year. The cost to build the 80 km to get a freight rail rated line to Campbell River and the mine would be in the range of $120,000,000 to $240,000,000. Hillsbourgh earns about $50,000,000 a year from the mine, not enough for them to pay the costs of the line, though if they contributed towards it the idea becomes viable.
There is the long term potential of a mineral mine a few kilometers west of Quinsam, Camp Lake owned by Compliance Energy.
If the line were to run as far as Campbell River, there would be more options or interest in passenger rail service. Another 40,000 or more people would be close to the line. With the extension north of Courtney, it becomes possible to create a station at Dove Creek and the Inland Island Highway for skiers going to Mount Washington.
It strikes me over and over again that there is very likely a demand for a service from Duncan through to the Comox Valley to get to Nanaimo. This is 160 km of the total route of the E&N. At the moment there is no public transit that can get you the length of the east coast of the island. There are many people in the communities along the east coast that have people commuting from one to another. The Nanaimo transit system and the Comox valley transit systems have a gap of about 30 km between and the Cowichan and Nanaimo systems have a gap of about 25 km between them.
VIU has close to 19,000 students, most of them going to the main campus in Nanaimo. I know many of they live as far south as Duncan and as far north as Courtney.
On the surface it looks like there is enough potential demand on the east coast of the island. Duncan to Nanaimo is 53 km and Courtney to Nanaimo is 108 km. Duncan to Nanaimo should be possible in less than an hour, Nanaimo to Courtney, that I do not know how long it would take, at something like 1 hour and 45 minutes, this is likely too long for regular commuting, but for university students it is cheaper to live at home in the Comox valley and go to school in Nanaimo. The time on the train could be study time.
Realistically you would want to make it possible for a Nanaimo commuter based rail service to be able to move at 80 kmh, which I assume means you need upgrades to the tracks and I assume will cost money.
At the moment there is no public transit available to the Nanaimo Airport or to Ladysmith. Ladysmith and CVRD Areas G and H are more than 15,000 people and most of the nearby RDN area A, with 7,000 people, has not access to transit. Ladysmith is laid out nicely along the rail with more or less the whole town with 800 metres of the tracks. The Nanaimo Airport building is less than 300 meters from the E&N and has been increasing in traffic steadily over the last ten years reaching 169,000 last year, though this is still only about half of what Comox handles at 308,937.