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Working on the train gang in Alberni
Each summer in the Alberni Valley, more than 13,000 tourists line up on the boardwalk outside the Alberni Train Station awaiting their first glimpse of steam from Locomotive No. 7. The 1929 Baldwin steam engine will take them on a rail adventure to McLean Mill National Historic Site.
When the steam train is not running, volunteers with the APR and Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) tend to the six-kilometre line of railway tracks between the train station and the national historic site, and beyond to Loon Lake near the top of the Alberni Summit.
But the railway tracks don’t stop at McLean Mill. The line known as the Port Sub—63 kilometres (39 miles) long—extends all the way to Parksville, hooking up with the main Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.
And while the IHS is ultimately in charge of maintenance on the Port Sub (and receives the bulk of the maintenance budget from the Island Corridor Foundation) there is a second gang of dedicated volunteers that looks after the other side of the tracks.
The East End Track Gang (EETG) can be seen running their speeders and hi-railer almost weekly along the Port Sub from Parksville to Loon Lake, clearing brush, keeping the broom at bay and making sure no rock slides, washouts or felled trees block the track.
One gloomy Saturday last March Scott McCormick, brothers Al and Glen Migneault, Dennis Dalla-Vicenza and another volunteer launched a pair of Fairmont speeders as well as the group’s hi-railer—four rail wheels mounted onto a 1996 Ford 250 4x4 that can run on either railroad tracks or pavement—on the tracks across from Forest Bus Tours in Parksville.
The crew was armed with chainsaws and heavy-duty clippers; the better to cut down broom and small alders encroaching on the tracks. Volunteers come from as far away as Victoria, and they are all rail fans who have been doing these trips since 2009.
“We started mainly to preserve the line—60 to 70 per cent of the line had completely overgrown,” said McCormick, vice-president of the E&N Division of the Canadian Railroad Historical Association.
“We wanted to make sure a piece of Vancouver Island’s railway didn’t disappear through neglect.”
RailAmerica sent its last train over the Port Sub in 2001, discontinuing freight service to Port Alberni—the most westerly point of the Canadian Pacific Railway—due to rising costs.
Volunteers had a “monumental” task of clearing brush enough that rail traffic can now use the line again. Regular speeder tours come through once or twice a year and there are aspirations among rail enthusiasts that a tourist train will one day run between Parksville and Port Alberni.
Even in March, the view is spectacular riding over the trestles at Cameron Lake, with Highway 4 snaking through the barren trees across the glinting steel of the lake’s surface. The terrain is different than the run out to McLean Mill—not as open, but equally stunning, with arbutus trees jutting from rock faces, and lichen the colour of ochre, rich leather and deep red breaking up the dull gray of the rock.
“I can see this being a big tourist attraction,” says Dalla-Vicenza, who has ridden tourist railways around North America.
The smooth, gradual ride to the top of the Alberni Summit includes a historical gem at Milepost 19.6, where a small settlement once existed. A “fire can” filled with water sits in the same location where a water tower was once used to put water in tenders for steam locomotives.
Close to Loon Lake, there is another unique attraction, a tunnel that was blasted out of solid rock; ostensibly so rail workers wouldn’t have to build another trestle over a small creek, which was diverted through the tunnel.
The work the EETG is doing on the track is valuable, says IHS director Hugh Grist. “We’ve got a bigger plan ahead. We’ve got these six boxcars in Nanaimo.” The boxcars each weigh 35 tonnes but because some of the trestles on the Port Sub are not in the best shape, special permission had to be obtained and a plan created to bring the boxcars to Port Alberni.
The question right now is how sound the footings are in the trestles along the Port Sub. “Those trestles are designed for 200 tonnes. We’re bringing 35 tonnes over and we know there wouldn’t be an issue,” Grist said.
The BC Transit Authority has approved a plan that would allow the IHS to transport 35-40 tonnes over the Port Sub, he added. Not only would they be able to bring the boxcars over the line, such approval might also allow them to one day run a 45-tonne locomotive hauling the Arrowsmith Explorer tourist train from the train station to Loon Lake.
The IHS hopes to bring the boxcars to the Alberni Valley next spring. It will take a week to prepare the tracks and another week to bring the cars across, he added.
“That’s why we want to maintain the Port Sub in the best shape we can. It’s great that they keep [weeds] down and we keep them down on the other side.”