Passenger rail service may never make its way back to Vancouver Island, but visitors to Coombs were treated to a trip on the tracks nonetheless last weekend.
They did have to work for it, though.
“Whose idea was that?” Fred Tutt of Royston joked after talking several friends from the Comox Valley into a short cruise on a handcar brought to the tracks in Coombs by Mark Charland of Granville Island. “I never realized there were hills there until we started going up.”
Charland, the self-proclaimed Handcar Man, opened his custom-made railway handcar to the public for rides on the Alberni Valley Railway track in Coombs in the inaugural Steel Wheels Weekend Saturday through Monday. Charland had hoped to coax teams of riders to enter a handcar race for fun and prizes, but got no takers.
He will be back Saturday,
Aug. 13-14, for the 130th anniversary of the founding of the E&N Railroad, with riders welcome to sign up on racing teams or just take a recreation spin with family or friends.
“This is the only place for the public to ride a handcar,” said Charland, who debuted the handcar with rides on Canada Day, July 1.
“Most people won’t offer public rides because of the cost of insurance, but this was something I really wanted to do.”
The handcar is a fully human-powered platform, with safety rails, on which up to four riders pump a double-sided handle to propel the vehicle.
“I’ve always wanted to try it,” said Chuck Cave of Cumberland, who rode with his wife Diane, Margaret Ryan of Courtenay and Tutt.
Glen Migneault, a member of the E&N Division of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association, served as certified operator and brakeman. And if the pumpers tired during the 1.5-kilometer run to the Virginia Road crossing and back, he also threw in a hand on the bar.
“It’s physically challenging,” he admitted.
Charland’s handcar debuted in Coombs with rides on Canada Day earlier this month. It arrived after a nearly eight-year process, he said, that included getting approval from the Island Corridor Foundation and volunteer help from members of the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society, which maintains the track from Port Alberni to Parksville.
“I thought it would be a cool attraction for the public,” said Charland. “It was supposed to be a daily attraction.”
Charland said his plan was to work with a local partner to oversee day-to-day operations. But the partnership fell through, and for now he is offering rides on a periodic base with assistance from his sister, Carolyn Ness of Port Alberni, and members of Parksville’s East End Track Gang of rail speeder enthusiasts.
He is still seeking a business partner in the area, while also contemplating a move to the mid-Island.
Inspired after watching the Golden Spike Days handcar races in Port Moody nearly two decades ago, Charland had his handcar built and first put it to use offering rides out of Granville Island Market on the Vancouver Downtown Historic Railway starting in 2004.
But that railway last operated in 2011 and has since been dormant.
The handcar is located across the Alberni Highway from Coombs Old Country Market.
During the E&N anniversary event Aug. 13-14 four-person teams may enter the competition for $50 per team, which includes a T-shirt, prizes for the fastest teams and bragging rights for the winner.
In addition, fun rides are available throughout the weekend for $5 per rider.
Competition teams are asked to pre-register, as the field will be limited. To sign up, or for more info, call Charland at 250-739-8981 or visit www.facebook.com/handcarman.