The E&N Route could be a Beautiful Vancouver Island Trail in British Columbia

All around the world, railways that are no longer useful are being replaced with long-distance cycling and hiking routes. And as we celebrate the 130th anniversary of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island, which first ran in 1886, maybe we need a new vision. Maybe we should be dreaming of a bikeway, not a railway.

Picture it: A safe, serene, off-road route all the way from Victoria to Courtenay, passing over the Malahat to Shawnigan Lake, Cowichan Station and downtown Duncan, then continuing north to Chemainus, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Lantzville, Parksville, Qualicum Beach and Courtenay. From Parksville, it would run through the forest to Coombs and Port Alberni.

It would be a pleasure for cyclists and pedestrians, maybe for horse-riders too, in places, with an unpaved path alongside it. Along the way, it would pass through a tunnel, cross impressive bridges and wind its way through deep forests, rural acreages, and alongside the ocean. In every community along the route, it would open new safe off-road possibilities for commuting, shopping and leisure travel, and for children going to school.

And then there would be the cycling tourists, coming to the Island and staying at bed-and-breakfasts along the route as they do on Quebec’s Route Verte, on the Kettle Valley railway and all over Europe. There would be other benefits, too, since people who cycle regularly take fewer sick days, have lower health costs, have increased productivity at work and are happier.

For 13 years, the Island Corridor Foundation has been trying to persuade us that a restored railway could be viable if only it could receive a sizable investment and an annual operating subsidy.

An alternative to the Malahat seems enticing, but it would be very costly, and for only modest benefits. The Malahat carries 40,000 people a day. In 2010, the IBI Group study found that if the railway were upgraded, it might carry up to 622 passengers a day — just 1.5 per cent of the Malahat traffic. With new planned housing developments along the route, that might rise to 2,000 passengers a day, but so would the overall traffic.

And at what cost? The study found that preserving the railway and making it safe would cost about $70 million in 2009 prices, and need an operating subsidy of $4,000 a day. For freight, bridge repairs would increase the cost to $120 million. Including the capital investment spread over 25 years, the railway passengers would need a $15,000 daily subsidy to operate a fossil-fuelled railway.

The ICF says it can get the trains running again for just $20 million, and it’s asking the federal, provincial and regional governments to cover the cost. But this is highly unrealistic. Serious analysis of ICF reports shows this would cover just a fraction of the upgrades needed to provide a functioning railway.

Last month, the Nanaimo Regional District voted against providing the money, saying it had grown impatient with the lack of progress.

So maybe it’s time for a rethink. Maybe, in spite of the hopes and dreams of hard-working train enthusiasts, it’s just not going to happen. The track is just too old, and the 48 bridges and trestles, some built more than 100 years ago, are too rickety.

So let’s change our thinking. Let’s pay for a solid engineering study to look at the cost and benefits of building a bikeway. The weight of the bikes would be almost nothing compared to a diesel train, so bridge repairs would cost far less. Instead of 600 people a day, an Island bikeway might carry many thousands of people a day.

The ICF says bikes and trains can co-exist, since there’s room on the railway right-of way for both. That’s true on the land, but not on the bridges. And would any analysis support running a modern train over those old bridges? We doubt there’s an engineer in Canada who would say so.

The Galloping Goose Trail took 10 years of effort by hundreds of volunteers, local politicians and government staff to turn the vision into a reality. It has been so successful, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wishes the old train still ran.

The ICF, municipalities and First Nations along the rail corridor have performed a truly valuable service by protecting the right-of-way, which future generations will thank them for. But maybe it’s time to let the old dream go, and start paying serious attention to the new dream of a safe, enchanting, long-distance bikeway.

By Guy Dauncey and Denise Savoie

Guy Dauncey of Ladysmith is the author of Journey to the Future: A Better World is Possible.
Denise Savoie of Comox is a former Victoria city councillor and former member of Parliament.