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Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013

By Robert D. Turner and Donald F. MacLachlan

Review By Kelly Black

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 161-62

Brimming with stunning photos of trains in the Vancouver Island landscape, Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013 is a detailed account of both the railway’s day-to-day operations and its long, slow decline as a freight and passenger service. Robert D. Turner and Donald F. MacLachlan’s account follows the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (E&N) from its days as a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line to its present ownership under the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation.

In the preface, Turner wisely notes that the historic repercussions of the massive 1884 land grant associated with the railway’s construction are “beyond the scope of this book, except in general terms” (8). Thus, there remains the need for an academic work to be written about the political economy of the E&N. Nevertheless, Turner and MacLachlan provide a sound overview of the E&N’s role in resource extraction, community growth, and local culture. They have conducted extensive research to provide the reader with hundreds of high-quality photographs, diagrams, and first-hand accounts that reveal the vital place of the railway in Vancouver Island history.

Turner is the principal contributor to this third volume of E&N history; MacLachlan passed away in 2011. MacLachlan’s recollections of his time as an engineer on the railway are peppered throughout the volume and contribute greatly to the human-interest narrative Turner creates. Yet, Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway is foremost a book about trains and their freight. At a level of detail that is sure to please the most hardcore of train enthusiasts, Turner and MacLachlan describe the decline of steam engines and the coming of diesel-electric trains to Vancouver Island. Of the many types of trains, the self-propelled Rail Diesel Car (RDC) — colloquially known as the Dayliner passenger service — will be the most recognizable to the many Vancouver Islanders who recall the sleek and shiny train travelling through their communities. Turner and MacLachlan carefully explore the “Dayliner Doldrums” (179) and demonstrate that awkward scheduling, deferred maintenance, low ridership, and even lower profits have been a reality almost from the service’s inception. With Dayliner service discontinued since 2011 due to unsafe track conditions, this historical account provides important lessons for those now advocating for commuter rail on Vancouver Island.

At times I questioned the materiality and layout of the book. It struggles to be both a comprehensive historical narrative and a coffee table book, and the main text is often interrupted by pages of photographs and insets. As a result, the book can be picked up and leisurely flipped through, but its sometimes-cluttered landscape layout and discontinuous text make it less than ideal for close study.

Despite such shortcomings, Turner and MacLachlan are most compelling when they reveal the many ways in which the evolution of the E&N has shaped the landscape of communities along its route. For example, pictures and descriptions of trains operating on Store Street in downtown Victoria reveal a time when rail was intimately linked to city centres in British Columbia and Canada (214-24). Through photographic and written accounts of former rail yards, trestles, and stations, it is clear why the book was titled Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.

Turner and MacLachlan’s account of the E&N will speak to those interested in local history and the history of transportation in British Columbia. Perhaps most significantly, the book offers up countless stories that demand further investigation from an academic community. Rail freight trains are still operational between Nanaimo and Duncan but, with the Dayliner service suspended, it remains to be seen what the future will hold for the E&N.

Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway: The Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail and Shortline Years, 1949-2013
Robert D. Turner and Donald F. MacLachlan
Winlaw: Sono Nis Press, 2013. 320 pp. $39.95 paper