The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was incorporated in September of 1883 by Robert Dunsmuir to move a growing lumber, coal industry and Esquimalt Navy Base on Vancouver Island. Construction on the railway between Nanaimo and Esquimalt started in April of 1884. In August of 1886 the Prime Minister of Canada (Sir John A. Macdonald) drove the last spike. It wasn't until 1888 when the line was extended to the City of Victoria.
1905 was the year Mr. Dunsmuir sold the railway to Canadian Pacific (CP) which brought more extensions and stations. Canadian Pacific extended the Victoria Subdivision (mainline) from Nanaimo North to Parkville, Qualicum Beach then later Courtenay the current end of the line. CP added many new subdivisions, the Lake Cowichan sub which spanned from Duncan west to Lake Cowichan later converted to a trail in the 80’s, the Port Alberni Sub which spans from Parksville West to Port Alberni, Osborne Bay sub later called the Crofton Mill spur service stopped in the 1980’s, Great Lake sub which ran off the Port Sub at mile 35.6 last used 1953.
CP stopped running passenger trains to Port Alberni in 1953. VIA rail Canada took over the passenger operations between Victoria and Courtenay in 1979, VIA did all of the ticket sales and provided rolling stock which consisted of many RDC-1’s for the most part.
In 1998 Canadian Pacific sold the Port Alberni subdivision to RailAmerica this service to Port Alberni was short lived. In the early 2000’s the mill in Port Alberni stopped using rail. Due to this RailAmerica ceased operations and announced their plans to leave Vancouver Island for good.
The last train over the Port Alberni subdivision was 2002. Currently the Port Sub is impassable by train due to the deterioration of trestles and common rock slides of the railway grade. In current times the speed limit on the Victoria Sub (mainline) is 10mph due to deteriorating track condition.
In 2011 VIA rail left Vancouver Island due to track conditions. Vancouver island was one of the few places that VIA made a profit. Once VIA left there were still freight trains running between Duncan and Courtenay. The last train to Duncan was 2015. The last train to Courtenay was 2014. The track speed in that time frame for freight trains was 20-25 mph. The last business to use rail in Duncan was Top Shelf Feeds which currently transloads from railcar to truck at the Wellcox yard in Nanaimo. In Nanaimo the last business to use rail is Superior Propane which currently still uses rail. In Parksville there was transloading for BC parks and National silicates which has a spur into their distribution centre. In Courtenay the last business to use rail was Island Pole which shut down after the loss of rail in 2014.
Current rail operations include the transloading of grain for Top Shelf Feeds and limestone slurry for the mills. This all happens at the Wellcox yard in Nanaimo. The last business to use rail on the Victoria Sub is in Nanaimo and it is Superior Propanes distribution centre. They run this train three times a week on 7 miles of track. The farthest North they go is the Wellington siding to run around the locomotives to face South for the returning trip to Wellcox. On the days they run to the siding the trip is often 3 hours. The largest train you will see is 7 cars (which is the length of the spur) and two locomotives.
The future of the E&N corridor is uncertain. The Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) a not for profit which has owned the tracks since 2004 after they received the line from CP and RailAmerica. The ICF is committed to restoring passenger and freight rail for the entire corridor. In 2020 a new advocacy group called the Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition (VITCC) was formed to promote rail. The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Canadian Railway Association Division (E&N CRHA Division) formed in 1997 seeks to keep our history alive while operating a future excursion train and rail museum.