Op-Ed: Rail Service on Vancouver Island is Essential for Economic Development, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Sovereignty
The Nanaimo and Capital Regional Districts and several First Nation funders are unhappy with the lack of progress made by the Island Corridor Foundation to re-instate rail service between Victoria and Courtenay with a branch line to Port Alberni.
Rail service was historically developed for moving coal, lumber and passengers. The building of railroads was done by private investors who were given corridors through First Nations’ territories and large tracts of crown land with mineral rights in exchange for the statutory obligation to run passenger and freight services.
As the population increased on the Island so did agriculture, and a significant portion of food was produced on the Island. Regulated freight rates supported livestock production by bringing in affordable feed grains from the prairies that was delivered by rail cars on barges and distributed through multiple feed companies throughout the region.
The Crow Rate, which was established by the federal government in 1897, was crucial for economic development. It was a regulated low freight rate, which unfortunately, was terminated in 1995. It allowed feed grains on the Island to be as inexpensive as anywhere else in Canada. In addition to the freight rate, it set a benchmark value for grain in all agricultural regions of Canada, and definitely on the Island.
The Crow Rate benefitted consumers and grain customers throughout Canada as much as it helped farmers. Since the end of the Crow Rate, feed grains, as well as food grains, have become steadily more expensive in outlying regions of Canada.
The discrepancy has grown bigger since the Harper government dismissed the farmer-elected Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) in 2012 and gave its assets to Bunge and Saudi Arabia’s Livestock Investment Corporation. The CWB acted on behalf of prairie farmers, and was able to demand that CN and CP deliver loaded rail cars to ports and Canadian end users in a timely manner.
That referee (the CWB) is no longer there. CN and CP make more money pulling 150 rail cars to port for export only and unloading in one spot than by serving end users within Canada, such as millers and feed mills in the lower mainland and on the Island. These customers are now poorly served with untimely, erratic rail car delivery, which results in more grain being hauled by truck instead. Moving product by rail is more energy efficient, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 95% when compared to trucking.
Thus, the climate impacts of poor inland rail freight service are global.
Over the last several decades, Canadian agriculture has suffered from globalization, deregulation, consolidation and zealous, export-oriented government policy. The ill effects are felt particularly in outlying areas like Vancouver Island. As a result, only a very small portion of the food consumed on the Island is actually produced here. Feed costs are driving livestock production off the Island.
The agricultural census shows drastic declines in all types of farming. The population steadily increases and we increasingly depend on grocery trucks arriving daily on costly ferries. Grocers typically charge more if there are no alternatives to buying from them.
It makes good economic sense to produce eggs, chicken, beef, pork and dairy nearby, as their production generates all sorts of healthy economic activity and is good for the land. The only thing holding it back is the lack of a reliable supply of feed grain being brought in by rail. Raising livestock, dairy and poultry here would make the Island less vulnerable to food shortages in times of climate change or natural disasters.
A viable rail service on the Island makes good economic sense. The Trudeau government announced a preference for infrastructure funding. We just need to make the economic case for rail service on Vancouver Island clear.
This issue needs to be taken up by responsible provincial ministers as well. BC ferry service is costly and people on Vancouver Island deserve essential economic infrastructure.
Jan Slomp is the President of the National Farmers Union. He farms near Courtenay, BC.