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British Columbia's little train that could is chugging up its steepest mountain yet after more than a century of riding the rails through tough times.

The historic E & N Railway, offering the only passenger service on Vancouver Island, soon will shut down unless supporters can come up with a business plan to keep the 116-year-old line alive.

Train buffs and island politicians have been fighting for months to save the railway -- constructed as a condition of British Columbia's entry into Confederation -- from extinction.

The railway was supposed to shut down on Monday, but supporters pressed Via Rail to come up with enough money for a one-month reprieve to keep the line open until May 15.

The federal government will not offer a bailout, Transportation Minister David Collenette said in Ottawa last week. He said it is up to the rail companies and supporters to come up with a business plan to "keep this very valuable service operating."

Meanwhile, passengers are scrambling for tickets to board the 1955 diesel train for the scenic ride between Victoria and Courtenay.

"I'd like to see it before it goes," said Jim Fogarty, who recently waited to board the two-car dayliner with his son and daughter. "I think it's a shame."

Train service on Vancouver Island always has been a politically bumpy ride.

"The fact is, people will not accept a rejection of this rail service," said Mary Ashley, a Campbell River councillor and president of the Vancouver Island Municipal Association. "Vancouver Island doesn't have that many historic links with the rest of Canada."

In 1874, the province threatened to withdraw from Confederation because the railway had not been built. Sir John A. Macdonald persuaded Vancouver Island coal baron Robert Dunsmuir to construct a railway between Esquimalt and Nanaimo. The prime minister drove the last gold spike into the railway on Aug. 13, 1886.

RailAmerica announced last fall that it would end freight and passenger service on the E & N after its biggest customer cancelled its freight contract.

The Florida company said it is not economic to run the passenger service until Via Rail, owner of the cars, contributes more money. Via pays $5.4-million annually to support the daily passenger service.

It was initially supposed to shut down March 15, but public pressure has kept it from closing. Via Rail, Canadian Pacific Railway, freight customers and a Vancouver Island native band contributed $150,000 to keep the line running. More than 5,000 people signed a petition presented in the B.C. Legislature this week urging continued operation of the E & N.

"If all it took to fuel this train was passion and heart, we wouldn't be in this position," said Debbie Craw, Via manager of the Victoria station. "It's the little train that could and can't."

The line has had many close calls.

"We've got nine lives," Ms. Craw said. "We keep living and living. Just when you think it's going to be the end, they come up with a new cure."

The CPR owns the track from Victoria to Nanaimo and from Parksville to Courtenay. The portion between -- from Nanaimo to Port Alberni -- is owned by RailAmerica, which leases the remaining stretches from the CPR. Via Rail pays the Florida-based company to run the passenger service.

CPR first applied to the Canadian Transport Commission to discontinue passenger service on Vancouver Island 40 years ago. That request and others were denied until 1978. Via Rail took over the passenger service in 1979.

After the federal government announced plans to shut down the E & N in 1989, the B.C. government sued Ottawa on constitutional grounds.

In 1991, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that the federal government had a constitutional obligation to keep rail service on Vancouver Island. Ottawa appealed the case.

In 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government does not have a constitutional responsibility to maintain the service in perpetuity.

Another court battle between the province and rail companies looms over the land and mineral rights granted to E & N -- which accounts for about one-fifth of Vancouver Island -- if the service ends.

B.C. Transportation Minister Judith Reid said the government "would make a very good case" that the land should be returned to the province if it ceases to be used for a railway. "It has a lot of historical value," she said. "People feel it's an integral part of the island."