Developing a multi-use trail along the length of the old E&N corridor would benefit cycling commuters, boost tourism and small business and cost far less than reviving a defunct rail service, says a trail advocate.
Some people might prefer to cycle rather than ride public transit, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Alastair Craighead, chairman of Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island.
“It would be very beneficial in terms of providing an alternative transportation mode for many people,” he said, adding that cycling on trails is a safe way to travel.
Electric bicycles could be used to go from community to community, as the old E&N train used to do, Craighead said. “The electric bike is something that is really revolutionizing commuting.”
The idea is for a continuous trail between Victoria and Courtenay. Rather than cutting through First Nations land and blocking development, as is the case on parts of the corridor, Craighead suggests reaching agreements to route around their lands.
A multi-use trail would tap into enthusiasm for the growing number of similar projects, such as the Okanagan Rail Trail, Craighead said.
The future of the Island corridor is being examined after a condition report on the rail line was completed for the province. B.C. is finalizing its South Island Transportation Strategy, initiated last year.
The report estimated it could cost between $326 million and $729 million to bring back rail and passenger service, plus another $595 million for a commuter service between Victoria and Langford. It judged the corridor to be in poor-to-fair condition.
However, Larry Stevenson, the Island Corridor Foundation’s chief executive, figures he could pare the numbers to $300 million, including a less costly commuter service.
The foundation owns the corridor. Its board includes representives of regional districts and First Nations on the Island.
The corridor runs 225 kilometres from Victoria to Courtenay, with a 64-kilometre leg to Port Alberni. Passenger service was shut down in 2011 over worries about track condition.
Craighead said a multi-use trail could cost $95 million, including the cost of developing the trail base, repairing bridges and improving crossings. Another $1.5 million would likely be needed to prevent rocks from falling onto the line.
The society is waiting for the province’s transportation strategy to get an indication of B.C.’s intentions. Although the trail plan would need provincial support, Craighead imagines other bodies could contribute as well.
The corridor would give users a destination at each end, which would help attract tourists, Craighead said. He imagines local businesses developing at the various communities — some small —along the trail, which could become destinations, too.