Time to dream other dreams, rail dream is gone

Not to date myself but, as a very young lad, I trainspotted in England.

I still harbour hazy memories of standing on the brow of an old stone bridge watching steam trains racing toward me as I tried my best to get the engine number from the front of the train.

Seconds later, I was immersed in a cloud as the train steamed noisily under me. The blended scent of coal, steam and creosote has never left my nostrils or my memory.

Leaping ahead to 1978 my passion for trains was revived when I scored a job as a head end trainman for CP Rail in the Alberta prairie barrens. Yepper, that was me up in the cab waving to you as we choked level crossings for longer than intended.

Nowadays, train whistles and the squeal of metal against metal still sends me free falling back to my railroading past. But my time-travelling days are less now that only an occasional freight train can be heard in the Cowichan Valley.

While freight trains conjure up long trains and endless hours rolling across the prairies, the Duncan freight train of today is nothing but a single engine and a few worn looking railcars that do little to stir past memories.

Unfortunately, very little is left of Vancouver Island’s rich railroading history. The main E&N line still exists as does a few spurs, but the rest is gone, overgrown by forest or reclaimed as trails. So are the cars and engines from this era. Apart from a few in museums or left rusting outdoors, the rest have gone to scrap or left Vancouver Island for parts unknown.

Diehards continue to argue for the resurrection of passenger rail on the Island. Politicians and bureaucrats have joined the hue and a cry for an alternative transportation corridor to take pressure off at-times congested highways.

As with any “Big Idea” that involves government, it comes with a cost. Getting the train back on track on the Island now has a well-financed organization, the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF), in the lead.

Much money has been spent, many promises have been made, but still no return of passenger train service.

The ICF website posts a comment about Via Rail: “There’s an exchange of correspondence… but I cannot qualify whether it will be conclusive. There are negotiations between the two parties.”

I ask myself regularly if the idea of passenger trains providing a real alternative to getting people to and from island points is economically viable. I don’t believe it is.

I also doubt whether freight trains will replace trucks on the Island Highway as the infrastructure required to do so would be prohibitively expensive.

I believe it is time to step back and rethink the whole concept of passenger rail without the population and funding to support it. I say protect the existing rail corridors and convert them to trails until the time comes when an alternative transportation option can be explored along the corridor.

Personally, I believe the recreation aspect of such a corridor would create an exciting new economic driver for communities along the trail. Removing the rails and developing a trail system with supporting amenities would provide badly needed employment and small business opportunities.

Then, when the time is right, we could consider ideas such as aerial gondolas whipping along above the corridor trail, allowing both gondolian commuters and trail users to easily share the corridor space. The idea is not new, check out Medillin in Colombia.

Paul Fletcher is former Duncan city councillor who writes monthly in the News Leader Pictorial.

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