COLUMN: Rail safety none of the public’s business

Tracking down copies of E & N studies a challenge for reporter

Call it a sneaking suspicion.

It was the summer of 2010 and I knew that if I didn’t book myself a weekend to ride the E&N railway, I’d lose my chance.

Taking the train was something I’d meant to do since moving here in 2007, but life kept getting in the way. Like too many things, I put it off for another month, another year.

But my trip couldn’t be postponed any longer.

By this time two years ago, maybe people were speculating about whether our little train had a future. After decades of deferred maintenance, and no significant funding to catch up with the work, a closure seemed inevitable.

Of course, I had no special insight into the state of the deteriorating tracks. But I did have some insight into the modus operandi of the Island Corridor Foundation – the non-profit which owns the rail corridor – and the provincial bodies which oversee it.

For months, we’d been waiting for the results of a complete E&N Railway evaluation. With the expected release date long past, I filed a Freedom of Information request to get my hands on the study, not buying the reasons for delay.

As is standard with almost all FOI requests, there were extensions to the legislated timelines for response. But finally, the excuses ran out. On July 9, 2010, my request’s final deadline hit, and the complete study was magically posted to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation website, for all to see.

Reporters hate it when this happens, because it thwarts all their efforts to be first with the news. But aside from my personal irritation, I was worried that our public rail body doesn’t take the public’s right to know very seriously.

Reading the railway evaluation, I quickly saw the reasons for keeping this baby under wraps as long as possible: cost estimates to upgrade the corridor (not including its 49 trestles and bridges) ran from $40 million to $216 million.

And, just as I suspected, the passenger service was shut down in the spring of 2011 due to the poor condition of the track.

But this is old news. The Island Corridor Foundation has found a way to repair the tracks for a mere $15 million, and the provincial and federal government have pledged the money. We should have train service running again by 2013. Onwards and upwards.

My niggling suspicions, however, haven’t left me. Again it’s due to an unwillingness to share information.

Last month, a study into the condition of the railway’s bridges and trestles was released to the public, though it was completed much earlier.

The timing of the release wasn’t an accident: it happened alongside the $15-million funding announcement. Again, the intent of the delay was to quash public debate about the merits of proceeding with such a large investment of public funds.

And there may be some good reason to have the debate.

A similar, but smaller-scale inspection of the railway’s bridges and trestles was conducted in October 2010. The results were never released.

Almost one year ago, I filed another Freedom of Information request to get a copy – but it turns out this is a highly-guarded document.

My request has filtered through an official complaint process, a failed mediation, and is now headed for an official inquiry involving lawyers and everything.

It turns out that track inspections are commissioned by Southern Railway, a private company that runs the trains on the E&N. Release of this information would be harmful to Southern’s business interests, according to the B.C. Safety Authority, which initially denied my request.

Now here’s my common-sense question: if “business interests” are legitimate grounds to hide information about the safety of a bridge, then why on earth are we delegating these inspections to a private company?

I’m not alone in calling for more transparency. A watchdog group called the E&N Railway Action Group has sprung up asking all these important questions, and is steering reporters to do the same.

These days, my nagging suspicion tells me we won’t have a passenger train running by next year. Good thing I took my train ride while I still could.

My partner and I filled our backpacks with camping gear and rode the rails to Deep Bay, where we spent the weekend swimming and basking. I hope it’s the kind of adventure Victorians can have again one day.

Roszan Holmen is a reporter with the Victoria News.

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