E&N (T)rail Time

The last week of August, I took three days and rode my bike from Victoria to Courtenay. It was a marvelous trip, and I got to see and stay in some wonderful towns along the way: Cowichan Bay, Duncan, Chemainus, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Fanny Bay, Union Bay and Courtenay.

Active rail line has not seen a train since 2011

I also got to see a good portion of the old E&N railway line, as that line also passes through all the little towns I visited (with the exception of Cowichan Bay). It doesn’t take a trained surveyor to see that most of the railbed is in really poor condition. In many places the ties are rotting out, and you can pull spikes out of them with your bare hands. Running a train on the thing is going to take huge investments to basically rebuild the rail bed (and many of the trestles) from scratch, and the economics don’t work: revenues from freight and passenger service couldn’t even cover the operating costs of the line before it was shut down, let alone support a huge capital re-investment.

Cast bronze totem in Duncan

What to do with this invaluable right-of-way, an unobstructed ribbon of land running from Victoria to Courtenay (and beyond to Port Alberni)?

May I (and others) suggest a rail trail?

My breakfast destination in Ladysmith

Right now this chunk of land is returning nothing to the province economically. It’s actually a net drain, as municipalities spend money maintaining unused level crossings and the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) spends federal and provincial grants to cut brush and replace the occasional tie on the never-again-to-be-used line.

Nanaimo waterfront promenade

Unlike the current ghost railway, a recreational trail would pay for itself almost immediately.

If a Vancouver Island Rail Trail can generate even $3M in net new economic benefit for the province, it warrants a at least $50M investment to generate an ongoing 6% return. We spend more money for less return routinely (see the Mackenzie Interchange above).

No traffic on the line in Qualicum

And that’s just the tourism benefit.

Electric bikes are coming, and coming fast. A paved, continuous trail will provide another transportation alternative that is currently unavailable. Take it from me, I rode from Nanaimo to Parksville on the roaring busy highway 19 through Nanoose: it’s a terrible experience, nobody wants to do that. Cruising a paved rail trail on a quietly whirring electic bike though, that would be something else again.

Right now the E&N line is not a transportation alternative. Nor is it a tourist destination. Nor is it a railway. It’s time to put that land back to work.