The sentiment has not been uncommon in the long absence of any significant rail activity on the E&N line: “Just rip up the tracks and turn it into the best trail on Vancouver Island.”
The thing is, according to Island Corridor Foundation executive director Graham Bruce one does not have to happen without the other.
He says rails and trails can happily co-exist on Vancouver Island. In fact, that is already happening and not a single tie has had to be removed in the process.
“Trails are already under construction,” Bruce said. “We’ve sort of blazed new ground.”
The most prominent example is perhaps the 17-kilometre $36 million paved trail partially completed by the Capital Regional District alongside the rail track from the Johnson Street Bridge to the western borders of Langford.
But it is hardly alone.
Similar tracks run from Chemainus to Saltair, downtown Duncan to the Cowichan Commons mall and for eight kilometres through the city of Nanaimo,
Work is also expected to begin in May on a seven-kilometre hard-packed gravel trail running trackside from Springwood Park in Parksville to Coombs. It’s being built by the Regional District of Nanaimo on a budget of about $3 to 4 million.
Bruce said the 30-metre right-of-way surrounding the track make these rail/trail combos possible and railway grades of two per cent make them very attractive to hikers and bikers.
Creating safety guidelines — particularly in urban regions — has been a hurdle and bridge crossings could be a roadblock to extending trails throughout the E&N’s entire 289-kilometre network, but the concept has the attention of both the ICF and the regional districts.
Ray Freeman, a consultant working on a Vancouver Island trails master plan for Tourism Vancouver Island said the Victoria and Nanaimo urban trails work well, but he is unaware of any existing side-by-side rural trails as lengthy as what could happen here.
“I’m not familiar with any specific examples off the top of my head. This is an interesting concept,” Freeman said. “Where there is a will there’s a way.”
People frequently talk about the revenue potential of turning unused rail lines into trails. But Bruce talks about the potential of turning things around and tying trails to operating rail.
The idea is marketing an operating rail line as a way for tourists to hop from one Island trail attraction to the next.
“We have to market the trails as a way to go from community to community and give people different ways to explore,” he said.
The Vancouver Island tourism industry is putting a lot of emphasis on capitalizing on the Island’s trail potential as a way to bring in hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and even ATV users.
He said the key is a coordinated effort to identify the biggest attractions, set up the infrastructure, provide the connections and have all the options spelled out from easily accessible sources.
“Rail trails are known to be travel motivators,” he said. “There is lots of potential for the E&N. It’s an interesting scenario.
“You have to highlight the ability to impress the authenticity of the experience and this would qualify.”