Vancouver Island Rail Excursion - 2002 Reprise
The weekend of May 4-5, we retraced the Vancouver Island rail excursion we made last year about this time. After two 30-day "stays of execution", VIA's Malahat Dayliner passenger rail service on Vancouver Island will end for good on May 15. We wanted to squeeze in one more trip on this delightful rail run before it's gone forever.
The Malahat train does a daily round-trip from Victoria to Courtenay, taking about 4.5 hours each way. We chose to get off the train at Parksville (just over 3 hours out of Victoria), because the beach and resorts in that area are quite nice. The train was pretty much full to and from Parksville. Some of the passengers were rail buffs also trying to get that last ride in, but most passengers were unaware of the precious nature of this trip. Surprisingly, none of the stations along the way had posters announcing the termination of service. The on-board crew never volunteered information about these final days of the Malahat. When asked, they would only confirm that May 15 was the announced date.
The fate of the Malahat is an interesting study in North American passenger rail operations. The Vancouver Island service has proven quite popular - ridership is steady, and in the summer time the trains are quite crowded. But like nearly every other passenger rail service in North America, it depends upon a working freight infrastructure to stay in operation. Passenger rail can almost pay its direct running costs when it operates over a freight railroad that is already absorbing most of the costs of the rail infrastructure. But if there's no underlying freight service, passenger rail can't exist without significant public subsidy. On Vancouver Island, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) Railroad (a RailAmerica unit) ceased all freight operations two months ago. Without the E&N to maintain the rail & signals and dispatch the trains, there's no way for VIA to continue its operation on the Island. So another piece of British Columbia rail heritage will fade into the sunset as the amazing E&N line over the Malahat summit is abandoned for freight & passenger uses.
This year, we again stayed at the Best Western Carlton Plaza in downtown Victoria. This hotel is an easy walk from both the Port Angeles ferry and the train station. It's just one block off Government Street, which is the main tourist & shopping area in town. We also returned to the Best Western Bayside Inn in Parksville. On both of our visits there, we have been treated with excellent service by a friendly staff. The food in the dining room at the Bayside is as good as it gets and is a highlight of the trip. With a picture-perfect view of Parksville Bay from the dining room, sunset is a great time to visit for dinner.