Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Tribute to Al Howie

September 1, 2011, marked the 20th anniversary of one of the most incredible feats ever accomplished by a Victoria resident: Al Howie’s “Tomorrow Run '91”, the fastest-ever run across Canada, which he completed in 72 days – at a pace of 103 kilometres, or two-and-a-half marathons, every day.

As I wrote in 2007 (previous post here), Al has been living bravely with the effects of Type 1 diabetes. So to cheer him up, friends and family presented Al with a plaque commemorating the anniversary, and a framed proclamation by the City of Victoria, making September 1 “Tomorrow Run '91 Day”. Here’s a photo of Al (at right) with Victoria Elks exalted ruler Bill Thompson, and Jeff Abbott, who first proposed the Tomorrow Run, which raised $527,400 for the Elks and Royal Purple Fund for children with special needs.

The Globe and Mail’s Tom Hawthorn wrote a great profile of Al, which you can read here. And below is a CHEK News item about the anniversary, with lots of footage of Al running in the 1990s:

UPDATE (October 26, 2014): Last night, Al was inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame! Read the Times Colonist story here.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Commuter Rail Revival

For a few hours in 2008 and 2009, residents got an idea of what it would be like to take a commuter train between Langford and Victoria.

One Saturday in August, in both those years, Jim Sturgill ran a 70-passenger VIA Rail “Budd” car back and forth between Goldstream Avenue and the old CPR roundhouse in Vic West, as part of E&N Days, a summer celebration of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. “It worked very well,” says Sturgill, a veteran engineer who operated locomotives on the E&N for three decades. During 2008’s one-day test, he made six round trips, taking about 25 minutes each way — a challenge for any car driver trying to reach the same destination by navigating the stop-and-go traffic on Douglas Street or Craigflower Road.

In 2009, Sturgill made seven round trips, carrying 680 people. “There were so many people wanting to take the ride,” he recalls. “Four teenagers got on the train at Langford, and I asked them if they were going to E&N Days. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘we’re just doing this so we can catch a bus to the Mayfair shopping centre. We wish a train like this was running all the time.’”

Back then, that wish looked certain to become a reality. In 2006, Canadian Pacific donated the E&N to the brand-new Island Corridor Foundation, and ideas flourished along the tracks. In January 2008, a group of officials from Victoria, Esquimalt, View Royal and Langford called Communities For Commuter Rail (C4CR) released a study showing that an hourly train service would cost $16 million to build, and with a one-way ticket price of $5, would only cost taxpayers $2 million a year to operate — a sum requiring lower per-rider subsidies than BC Transit’s buses. In the November 2008 municipal election, Langford and Colwood asked voters if they wanted the B.C. and federal governments to fund the E&N, and BC Transit to provide commuter rail; 93 percent said Yes. Two days later, an all-party finance committee of the provincial government said the E&N and commuter rail should be a capital spending priority. Victoria mayor-elect Dean Fortin announced: “Commuter rail from Langford to downtown Victoria is an idea whose time has come.”

[Download C4CR’s 2008 Westshore Tram Line Assessment here.]

Then it fizzled. In June 2010, consultants hired by the province to study the E&N’s viability issued reports stating it would cost $123 million to rehabilitate the entire line to Courtenay, and at least $69.5 million for Victoria-Langford commuter rail, with new stations and trains — slamming the brakes on any immediate prospect of provincial investment. The ICF tried to get a pilot commuter service running that autumn, but the B.C. Safety Authority demanded new assessments of all 24 crossings between Langford and Victoria, even though VIA had used the same route for decades. The following spring, Victoria councillors voted rail off the new Johnson Street Bridge. And all the while, BC Transit poured time and money into its $950-million plan to electrify the region with Uptown-centered Light Rail Transit.

[Download the provincial consultants’ 2010 commuter-rail analysis here.]

Now the E&N is in a perilous state. Last March, VIA’s Budd cars stopped running because of poor track conditions, and in November, VIA shipped the cars off the island. The province has said it will give the ICF $7.5 million for track improvements, but only if the federal government does too — and the feds’ decision may hinge on a just-completed assessment of the E&N’s bridges, including a century-old wrought-iron span over the Cowichan River, and the huge bridge across Goldstream’s Niagara Canyon that was built in England in 1883, erected on the Fraser River (1890s photo above left), and relocated here in 1910. Many observers quietly fear that if the bridges don’t pass, the E&N is doomed.

But would that automatically kill commuter rail? Maybe not.

The fact is, we’ve invested considerable sums in the tracks already. CRD Parks says 30 percent of the $14 million it’s put into the E&N Rail Trail has gone to rail infrastructure, such as its new Four-Mile Bridge over the Island Highway. Langford has concentrated developments around the tracks, including its new Eagle Ridge recreation centre. And Esquimalt and the province have spent $5 million on the rail crossing at Admirals Road — the potential site of a station for hundreds of people working across the street at CFB Esquimalt and Victoria Shipyards.

The key, rail advocates say, is to build up a commuter service incrementally, which would be far less expensive than the all-at-once, “platinum or nothing” mentality of the LRT plan. “Municipal operations is quite different from a provincial-scale, BC Transit way of doing things,” says Geoff Pearce, the chair of C4CR, and Langford’s former clerk-administrator. “We do what’s necessary, and if something doesn’t work, we fix it and then we go on. What we envisaged with commuter rail, starting small and growing, was totally different from what the Ministry of Transportation or BC Transit says, which is, ‘You’ve got to put in $60 million up front.’”

That incremental approach has worked elsewhere. Cash-strapped and desperate for transit, several American cities have converted old freight railways over to commuter service: one example is New Jersey’s River Line, which uses Stadler GTWs, lightweight “diesel multiple units” that roll into downtown Camden like streetcars (photo above right). Another example, even closer to our circumstances, comes from Texas: in 1994, Dallas’s transit authority bought 13 Budd cars from VIA (used ones cost as little as $100,000) and started running them on a bankrupt freight line for a commuter service called the Trinity Railway Express. Today, TRE carries 9,800 daily passengers on new trains, and has loaned out its Budd cars to build up a new commuter line in nearby Denton County:

Local commuter rail does face challenges beyond finding vehicles and money. C4CR’s $16-million scheme depended on rail coming across the Johnson Street Bridge, and so far, the City of Victoria has refused to investigate whether the new bridge could have rails embedded in its roadway, fearing increased costs and construction delays.

“It’s going to take somebody to say, ‘Hey, this is important enough, we’ll put in $30,000 to help Victoria look at that alternative. And let’s do it now rather than later’,” says Pearce, who wants to see the CRD create a regional funding formula for rail on the bridge.

There’s also the question of which entity would run the commuter service. Southern Rail, which is currently contracted by the ICF to operate the E&N, doesn’t have passenger insurance. Pearce says VIA would be the logical choice, if it brings back its Budd cars, and can be persuaded that connecting Langford and Victoria meets its intercity mandate. Alternatively, a whole new intermunicipal service could be created, or the rail system could be operated by the CRD or BC Transit.

[Download C4CR’s governance analysis here.]

Unfortunately, the last two bodies currently seem entranced by LRT. The CRD board, the regional transit commission, and local politicians have already endorsed BC Transit’s shiny plan — without much worrying about whether austerity-preaching federal and provincial governments will actually pay for it, or public opposition from The CRD Taxpayers’ Association and businesses afraid of losing two car lanes along Douglas Street.

The LRT fantasy may also cost us opportunities that are staring us right in the face. Langford’s 6,000-home Westhills development has set aside $1 million for a commuter-rail station, and a park-and-ride system connecting it to buses. But there’s a time limit, and if rail doesn’t materialize by the end of 2013, Westhills will spend that money on other infrastructure.

Jim Hartshorne, the prime project consultant for Westhills and president of the Westshore Developers’ Association, sat on BC Transit’s community-liasion panel for LRT. “And I can tell you: I don’t understand the LRT proposal. It doesn’t make sense to me. It is, in my opinion, doomed for failure,” Hartshorne says, even though BC Transit’s LRT plans include Westhills. “We will have to spend millions just to acquire rights-of-way, and design a system for a billion dollars that doesn’t appear to have a population that could support it. With the E&N, we could use the track that’s existing, and spend a few dollars to upgrade it. It’s mindboggling to me that that wouldn’t be the first thing we would do.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Temple of Poseidon

On January 15 of 1901, the city was abuzz. For decades, the principal way to travel to the mainland had been aboard dilapidated old paddlewheelers and steamships – “barnacles on the wheel of progress,” the Daily Colonist called them – built by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Now, at last, a new player was entering the local ferry business: the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway.

The news was electrifying. Although the Esquimalt & Nanaimo railway had been completed in 1886 and the CPR had been running its Empress liners to Asia since 1891, the CPR’s investment in coastal ferries, reaching canneries and sawmills and ports to the Klondike gold fields, heralded a regional economic boom.

Victorians were not to be disappointed. As Robert D. Turner describes in his wonderful 2001 book, Those Beautiful Coastal Liners, the CPR quickly built “a new and dynamic fleet of coastal steamships, renowned for speed, elegance and fine service, that became the dominant shipping presence along the coast[.]” Under the supervision of Captain James William Troup, the CPR’s B.C. Coast Service built 19 ships (all dubbed Princesses), many of them featuring lush, woody salons and sleeping cabins based on designs by architect Francis Rattenbury. The service’s flagship, the Princess Victoria, could motor between downtown Victoria and Vancouver in under four hours.

To complement the new ferries, in 1904, Troup retained Rattenbury to design a terminal on the Inner Harbour. Rattenbury created a larger version (photo left) of the half-timbered mansions he’d already designed around town. But the Coast Service boomed – passengers on the Vancouver-Nanaimo run grew from 11,000 in 1917 to 147,000 in 1923 – and his terminal quickly became obsolete. In 1920, Troup warned that it was “no longer fit for occupancy, and [that] extensive repairs must be undertaken before the building literally falls down.”

So Troup asked the architect to create a new terminal. “I would be more than delighted to design this building,” Rattenbury replied. By then the harbour included his Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel, which had opened in 1908. “So much of it [the harbour panorama] is my life’s work that I would put my whole heart into designing a building that would harmonize and add to the beauty of the surroundings.”

Rattenbury proposed a neo-classical temple, similar to his Bank of Montreal on Douglas Street, flanked by Ionic columns. Since an all-stone building would be expensive, his architectural partner Percy Leonard James suggested using reinforced concrete covered with “cast stone” made of cement and powdered Newcastle Island rock, which could be shaped to create exterior details – such as the fabulous heads of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, overlooking each corner of the building. (The heads were carved by George Gibson, a Scots artisan who also created the speaker’s chair in the Parliament Buildings, and much of the cast-stone and wood sculpture in Christ Church Cathedral.)

The terminal’s interior was equally as grand. The main floor had ornate 17-foot ceilings, a large fireplace, and lounges and waiting rooms finished with marble and Haddington Island stone. The hipped roof of Welsh slate covered two floors of spacious offices. (Troup’s was in the northwest corner so he could monitor the harbour traffic, which he also did from his waterfront home, near today’s West Bay marina.) When the building opened in 1924, it was considered one of Rattenbury’s best, and its success led him to join the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada that year.

The Depression and World War II took their tolls on the CPR’s steamships, however, and by the 1950s, its fleet was sadly out of date. In 1958, a series of paralyzing CPR shipworkers’ strikes compelled premier W.A.C. Bennett to create BC Ferries, and the government’s roll-on, roll-off car ferries won most of the traffic to the mainland. By the 1960s, the Princess Marguerite was the only CPR vessel sailing out of downtown Victoria. The company moved its offices to Vancouver in 1968, leased the terminal to the Royal London Wax Museum in 1970, and sold the building to the province in 1975.

Now the terminal is back in the news. To take advantage of a time-limited $3.1-million infrastructure grant, the Provincial Capital Commission is undertaking a complete overhaul of the building, repairing its chipped concrete, restoring its details – including its floor-to-ceiling windows, which have been blacked over for 40 years – and seismically reinforcing the structure so it doesn’t collapse in an earthquake like a monument in Clash of The Titans. (Iredale Group Architecture’s rendering of the new interior is above right. A PDF of the conservation plan is available here.)

The big debate is about who will occupy it. The wax museum couldn’t secure a long-term lease, so the PCC is taking bids for new tenants. Entrepreneur Bob Wright has proposed a high-tech history exhibit, which some say would only mimic the failed B.C. Experience. Others argue it would be a great home for the Maritime Museum of B.C., but that institution’s been amid rocky waters after sacking most of its staff last spring. And some say – as famed architect Arthur Erickson did in 2004 – that it should be revived as a ferry terminal.

“We have to have a building that’s able to pay for itself over the long term,” says Rick Crosby, the PCC’s chief financial officer. “There could be some brilliant proposals, but we don’t have the capacity to underwrite someone who wants to pay a dollar per year.” Crosby says he’ll be surprised if a bid comes from existing marine transport companies, but anything’s possible. The next chapter in the history of the temple on the harbour is about to be written.

PS Thanks to Rick Horne for use of his 1960s photo of the terminal’s main floor.

UPDATE (March 3, 2011): Today’s Times Colonist has a photo gallery of the reno work inside the CP Steamship terminal, linked here.