Steam train to McLean Mill is out of commission for repairs; city wants to re-examine rail costs
Port Alberni’s tourist trains will not run in 2019 after city council agreed this week to put a temporary halt to railway operations in the Alberni Valley.
Council voted during a special meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19 to officially separate the McLean Mill National Historic Site and the Alberni Pacific Railway (APR), which have previously been treated as one entity.
Dr. Jamie Morton, the temporary APR manager, brought forward a list of draft budgets for both McLean Mill and the railway. These draft budgets are available to view on the city’s website. He explained that if the city focuses on minimal APR operations for 2019—60 short runs using the No. 11 diesel locomotive—the cost would be about $127,100 from the city’s operational budget. Meanwhile, 45 runs to McLean Mill using the Alco diesel locomotive—which is currently in need of some repairs—would cost the city around $192,050.
Last year the railway offered 55 runs to McLean Mill, but struggled with filling the seats. According to Morton, occupancy was at an average of about 40 percent capacity in 2018.
Mayor Sharie Minions thanked Morton on Tuesday for his “realistic” breakdown of the costs for running the train.
“Although these numbers are shocking, because they are high, I think that this is the best, realistic projection of what this will cost that we have been given,” she said. “We don’t want to run an operation and not run it well and always be under-funding it so that the organizations are always struggling. We need to have the information in front of us so that we can make the decision.”
Minions then proposed a motion to pause train operations in 2019, until the city can find a more “financially viable” way to run the trains.
“I do not want to be a community that loses the train,” she explained. “I would like us to get to a point where we can run the train again. But I think with the current budget…I think we need to start talking about another way to do this. I don’t think we’re going to get there if we keep running it as we are right now.”
The stoppage would also include short runs such as the Santa Train during the holiday season, unless council can find a way to fund these.
Councillor Helen Poon agreed with this motion, suggesting that the APR should focus on getting the No. 7 “Baldwin” steam locomotive back up and running in 2020. The steam train is currently undergoing a boiler replacement, and will not be running in 2019.
“I think we should look towards running the steam train, rather than kind of a ‘halfway there’ diesel,” said Poon.
Councillor Debbie Haggard suggested that fundraising could be an option, as the city regroups and revisits the railway budget.
“I think you have a lot of opportunities to fundraise. The community will support you. And I’ll be the first one there to support you and donate,” she said.
“I don’t think this is the end, by no means. I think it could be a really good new beginning for us.”
Council voted unanimously to halt train operations in 2019. Council also asked staff to provide a report with governance options for McLean Mill. At this point, the national historic site will still be open in 2019, with 13 weddings booked for this season. But city council has not yet determined how much money they will be putting towards the site in this year’s budget.