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For those who wanted to see the Budd Car return to Courtenay’s  E&N train station, the release of the province’s South Island Transportation Strategy (SITS)is bad news. The newly released strategy amounts to the equivalent of a death certificate for the hopes of ever seeing freight or passenger rail service on Vancouver Island– no money for Island rail and no role for rail except possibly short sections of the rail bed converted to commuter service within the Capital Regional District.

As so many have recognized, sensible transportation planning for south Vancouver Island needs to focus on the adaptability of buses and active transportation to remain relevant to the needs of Vancouver Islanders in the twenty-first century.

While I can understand/sympathize with the hope that rail service might, one day, return to Vancouver Island, I find the whole Island Corridor Foundation fiasco to be just short of contemptible–using rights to the rail bed as collateral that could preempt other, more productive uses of the rail bed. I find it impossible to imagine a way that the dilapidated infrastructure could have been realistically reopened as a viable rail line. One short walk down the rail bed south of Courtenay would have revealed the extent to which the rail has become inoperable as a rail line.

But all that is now behind us and there are some truly wonderful ideas for “repurposing” the old rail line to active, community supporting transportation–as so many communities around the world have been doing.    

At long last everything in the new SI Transportation Strategy makes good sense for effective, low emission active transportation. Instead of wasting more resources on planning for a rail line that was never going to be effective, affordable nor even plausible, we can get on with planning for more flexible, adaptable buses/routes and active transportation that, especially with the mushrooming of e-bikes is revolutionizing our ideas about transportation.  

The new South Island Transportation Strategy finally makes good sense of transportation planning for Vancouver Island. Subsidies that would have been thrown away on a defunct railway can now go to creating an energized, Vancouver Island-needs bus system. But we are—still—left with a defunct, deteriorating railway on a rail bed that could become a very valuable community asset if we act before it is broken up by short-sighted, piecemeal decision making. Having cycled Victoria’s wildly popular Galloping Goose rail-bed trail I liked the idea of expanding the cycling opportunities to include a Victoria to Courtenay cycling/hiking trail, but I remained blind to the full implications of such a world class cycling corridor until I tried  cycling on the Okanagan’s restored Kettle Valley Rail recreational trail (KVR).

 

Perhaps it was the unique blend of lofty ancient trestles, grandiose, sunny Okanagan views, the pastoral beauty of vineyard dominated Naramata, the adventure of pedaling through knee deep puddles left by the previous day’s torrential rain, the signage of historically significant sites, the rhythm of 80 kilometres of generally relaxed cycling; perhaps it was largely influenced by the wineries a few feet off the Naramata end of the trail, or the great food, or the smiles on the faces of all we met along the way; perhaps it was facilitated by the great breakfast that the hotel volunteered to pack for our cycle journey; perhaps the warm sun on the expansive Naramata vineyards reminding me of exotic places that I will likely never see. Whatever the cause(s), it was—for me—a most enjoyable get-away.

Besides the exhilaration of riding the rail line adapted to bike trail there was a fascinating atmosphere of welcome throughout the Naramata/Penticton area with KVR bound tourists (40,000 annually and growing). The communities seemed excited to see cyclists returning  to enjoy the legendary cycling on the KVR; whether that included the 200 km, multi day, ride from Rock Creek to Penticton, the 80 Km—trestle dominated ride from Myra Falls, the historic 35km ride down from Chute Lake or the 4km fit-for-anyone (including strollers) well groomed trail from Little Tunnel; everywhere we went locals seemed to sense we were there to cycle the KVR and they spoke enthusiastically with us about their experiences with the KVR and the benefits it brings to the community.

Many spoke of the economic benefits and how much employment/business opportunity the KVR has brought to the community. Others spoke of the friends they have made and the relatives that come to visit (regularly). But everywhere there seemed to be this enthusiasm for the KVR and the idea of developing an economy based on healthy outdoor activity, preserving local heritage, promoting local products/ services  (esp. high quality wine and fine food)and caring for people and the environment.

The whole experience has radically shifted my views of the value to Vancouver Island communities of converting the E & N rail-bed to a world class cycling/hiking trail. Yes, there are some strong economic arguments for it but what really struck me about the impact of the KVR on Naramata/Penticton/ and even, in some degree, on Kelowna, is the shift in community perception about what is truly valuable.

With the shift in economic focus, there has clearly been a shift in community make up with more and more people working for/creating businesses centred on healthy outdoor experience—especially cycling.

According to one Penticton resident ( the guy shuttling us up to the Myra Falls drop off point for the 80 km cycle to Penticton) there has been a huge shift in the community toward cycling for transportation generally; not just for recreation.

More people are cycling to work, school, other recreation. I noticed that many of the wineries had large cycle racks out front ( I didn’t stop at all of them—really!)

Clearly as more people come to the community to cycle, cycling becomes more of a fundamental part of the community. And so more people cycle and more infrastructure for cycling is built and more people cycle… and community values shift to healthier lifestyles.

As has been demonstrated in many European countries, once a certain critical mass of people cycling occurs, the whole community begins to shift and more infrastructure supports cycling and more business serves to promote cycling.

 People who chose to recreate on bicycles learn to love the clean, healthy, invigorating transportation and they begin to shift their whole life-style toward less vehicle use and more cycling/bus/rail transport, so more non car infrastructure is built so more people can/do cycle and…

Based on the positive socio-economic impact of the KVR, local governments of Kelowna, Lake Country, Regional District of the North Okanagan and the Okanagan Indian Band are cooperating to expand the rails to trails network noting its positive economic, employment, business, health, quality of life, property values, public safety, heritage, domestic and international tourism benefits.

The E & N is dead. It certainly isn’t worth wasting one more public dollar on. However the idea of a world class cycling/hiking trail on the rail bed would be a benefit to all island communities not just for the dollars it would bring in but also (especially) for the healthy transformation in communities it would bring about.

I couldn’t agree more with the recent Comox Valley Cycling Coalition post:

“Our job now will be to raise the profile of the project and build public support.

Everywhere else corridors like this are being converted to active transportation routes because it is their best public use. Hopefully it will only be a matter of time before the obvious becomes the actual here as well.”

But how to “raise the profile…and build public support”?

Well I would love to see a whole procession of bikes riding from Courtenay to Victoria with cyclists from other communities joining the ride along the way. Banners. Well wishers. Photos. Press releases. Fun!! –all along the way—leading to presentations to governments and businesses and cycling organizations along the way. 

It can be done. Full suspension bikes would have no trouble with the rail-bed. It can be done so…Let’s do  it. If you are interested or have other ideas write me at nreynolds(at) shaw.ca.

Happy cycling!​

Norm Reynolds