I never got the chance to ride the famed E&N rail. Passenger trains stopped running back in 2011 and I didn’t show up on the Island until 2015.
I know the E&N primarily as a walking trail. On any given day, you can find people walking along the railbed, cyclists riding the dirt alongside the track, dog walkers will let their pooch roam free and sniff the history of the rail.
There’s a certain magic to the E&N corridor — a reasonably level path that’s sheltered by the beautiful plant life of Vancouver Island. But that magic starts to diminish with the question: “what’s going on with the E&N?”
It’s been 10 years since trains stopped running along the line. Several studies have been done, quoting millions of dollars to get the E&N running again. There has been tireless debate about the benefits of rail versus the exorbitant costs of reviving rail. And more recently, people have been pushing for the E&N to be repurposed and made into a trail. Others believe the corridor should be done away with entirely and the land should revert back to the state in which it was taken.
So, what should be done with the E&N? That depends on who you ask.
Island Corridor Foundation CEO Larry Stevenson is perhaps the Island’s premier proponent of rail. Stevenson believes that the rail service would ensure that the E&N corridor can meet the needs of everyone.
He says that if rail is abandoned, it would mean giving up a “massively important” transportation corridor and would limit the use of the corridor to people who are physically capable of using trails. However, if rail service can be restored, it could service any user group.
The group that might benefit the most from rail would be seniors. According to the 2016 census, 23 percent of Island residents are 65 years of age and over, which is five percent higher than the provincial average. Those seniors may not want to, or may not be capable of driving, from community to community — let alone commuting by bicycle.
With the ever-growing threat of climate change, younger generations are looking for ways to get around without a car. Proponents of rail say that restoring rail service will be pivotal to providing low-carbon transportation for future Islanders.
And if the E&N railway is transformed into a trail, what would happen to the existing trails in the rail corridor? Would they be incorporated into the new E&N corridor trail or would they be repurposed into something else?
Alistair Craighead of Friends of Rails to Trails Vancouver Island says that the trails the ICF claims to have built aren’t adequate. He says that members of FORT-VI could only identify less than half of the 100km of trails that the ICF says exist.
If the E&N was turned into a trail, it would have great synergy with the Galloping Goose trail in Victoria, and the Vancouver Island Trail that runs from Victoria to Cape Scott along the interior of the Island. This could be a significant tourism opportunity for hikers and cyclists to come to Vancouver Island from around the world. It could also provide an opportunity for active transportation within communities.
Craighead says that any benefits rail service could bring in terms of transportation and fighting climate change could easily be met by transit buses, and with more federal and provincial subsidies for electric buses, the Island’s population could be supported by a fleet of inter-community transit options that run on electricity.
Governments across the municipal, provincial, and federal levels have all sung the praises of active transportation. Craighead sees the E&N as an opportunity to provide a one-of-a-kind active transportation corridor.
Proponents of trail also say that turning the E&N into a trail would allow any First Nation that wanted their land back to get their land back, and the trail could run outside of their territory.
No matter how you look at the E&N, it’s impossible to divorce the corridor from its colonial history. The only time John A. Macdonald visited Vancouver Island was to drive the last railroad spike through the E&N — symbolically cementing the Island’s place in confederation.
It’s likely no accident that the E&N crosses the territory of 14 First Nations in a way that splits their territory. And at the time that the land was taken, it’s hard to imagine that the Nations were consulted in any meaningful way. One of the founding principles of the ICF is that it will work to benefit the First Nations communities along the path of the E&N.
14 First Nations are members of the ICF. First Nations also occupy six of the 12 seats on the ICF Board of Directors. However, multiple First Nations have taken the ICF to court in the past to get their land back, saying that there’s no viable future for rail on the Island.That’s a challenge that the newly minted ICF Board of Directors will have to address.
One key issue that came to light when Snaw-Naw-As First Nation took the ICF to court is the reversionary rights of the railway. The court noted that when the land was taken, it was taken for railway purposes. If the land is not being used for railway purposes, it may trigger the reversionary rights and the land would return to the state in which it was taken — reverting back to whoever the land was taken from, primarily First Nations and the Federal government.
Ultimately, the debate over whether to make the E&N a trail comes down to cost, benefit, and risk. No matter what estimate or study you look at, we all know that the costs of restoring rail service will be high. The potential unknowns of what land reversion would look like could also result in high costs and protracted legal battles. So what is the best way forward?
One option, which has potentially the highest costs, highest benefits and sufficient risk, would be having a “rail with trail” option, where rail service is restored and trails are built in the rail right of way. The E&N’s numerous crossings, bridges, tight corners, and tunnels will pose a huge engineering challenge. The costs of carrying out this work would likely be astronomical.
If it could be properly funded, a rail with trail option would meet the needs of everyone and would provide opportunities for the communities that the E&N crosses. Tourism and transportation opportunities would be abundant in a world where people could choose to hike, bike, or train their way across Vancouver Island’s east coast. But the debate about whether that’s worth the cost — or if it’s even possible for an engineering perspective — will rage on.
Whatever the future of the E&N may be, the E&N corridor must truly serve everyone on Vancouver Island for that future to be successful. The ICF must demonstrate that the corridor will bring tangible benefits to the First Nations whose land was taken to establish the railway and the benefits must be worth the significant costs associated with creating a lively E&N corridor.
The one thing that Vancouver Island cannot afford is further inaction on the E&N corridor. No matter what happens, it’s time to get moving on the E&N.