Pedestrians stroll with their dog on the new Coombs to Parksville Rail Trail. The Regional District Board (RDN) committee of the whole last week threw its support behind a group that wants to see the existing rail tracks removed and the railbed converted to a multipurpose trail. — NEWS file photo

RDN favours group’s plan to turn railway into a recreational trail

QB mayor suggests Parksville to Courtenay railway corridor could possibly be pilot project

A group wants to convert the E&N railway on Vancouver Island into a multi-use recreational trail.

Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island pitched their vision at the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) committee of the whole last week. What they proposed is to remove the rails and turn the tracks into a non-motorized trail. They are looking at the rail corridor from Victoria to Courtenay and from Parksville to Port Alberni as well as those linking to the corridor: Lochside/Galloping Goose, and Duncan to Shawnigan Lake.

Les Andersen told the board it is a unique opportunity to turn a largely abandoned rail corridor into a thriving tourist attraction, as well as provide a healthy and recreational outlet for all Island residents.

The current track, he added, has fallen into disuse and is beyond viable economic repair. They view their proposal as a better plan than the Island Corridor Foundation’s efforts to create a passenger rail on the Island.

The group’s spokesperson said if the communities up and down the Island are linked to the trails they want to create, they believe it could attract national and international tourists. The estimated cost to remove one kilometre of rails is approximately $20,000.

Andersen said the cost could be reduced by salvaging the steel rails. They also plan to pursue sponsorship funding from local businesses, grants from governments and volunteer labour to help mitigate the cost. As well, developing lease agreements with stakeholders such as gas, water and power, who wish to use the corridor will address some of the maintenance costs of the trail.

Andersen said there is frustration with the lack of action being taken on the railway corridor. He pointed out the ICF’s plan to reconstruct a safe and effective rail service is not working.

“We can put more time and money into a rail initiative that isn’t working and delay facing the reality of the situation, or we can act now and work towards transforming the corridor,” said Andersen.

Some of the RDN directors expressed interests in the proposal. Qualicum Beach director Teunis Westbroek favoured the prospect of possibly converting the rails to trails from Parksville to Courtenay as a pilot project. He indicated they’ve been promised a railway service but to date nothing has happened. There has been a proposal to start a one-day a week service, which Westbroek called ridiculous.

“What the hell do we need the railway there for one day a week,” said Westbroek, who has been waiting for a group to come up with an alternative. “I support the idea and it’s a good time for us to show what the trail could do in that area. Let the other corridor areas explore all the other options if they can make it work as far as the railway. I am OK with that. But let us try.”

However, not all directors were quick to jump on the idea. Among them was Area F Director Julian Fell, who indicated he could not support it just yet.

“I don’t want to burn my bridges at this point,” said Fell. “The Alberni part may have potential use still as a railway. I don’t want to see that damaged by an impulsive desire to turn into a trail. I don’t want to do that until we have exhausted every possibility of rehabilitation. I can’t vote for this at this moment.”

Westbroek made a motion calling for the RDN to support Friends of Rails to Trails and to inform the ICF of its position. It includes support for conversion of the rails to trails from Parksville to Courtenay. The motion passed but not unanimously. Area B director Howard Houle, Parksville director Marc Lefebvre, Area F director Julian Fell, Area G diector Joe Stanhope, Area E director Bob Rogers and Nanaimo director Bill McKay voted against it.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published with a project cost estimate of $105 million. That figure was actually an earlier Island Corridor Foundation project estimate to restore rail service along several sections of the E&N Railway.