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Close Up: Rail trail possible for old CN Rail line from Kelowna to Coldstream

  - Graphic: Kiana Haner-Wilk
— image credit: Graphic: Kiana Haner-Wilk

For the past 14 years, Okanagan College economics professor Brad Clements and his family have been taking annual trips around North America and Europe visiting rail trails: Old rail lines that had been decommissioned and turned into trails.

They've been to the Galloping Goose on Vancouver Island, the Confederation Trail in Prince Edward Island, Le P'tit Train du Nord in Quebec and closer to home the Kettle Valley Railway, taking advantage of some of the best trails in the world, hiking and biking on trails that are suitable and safe for all ages.

"Rail trails are separate corridors so they are completely safe and they are flat: The maximum grade is about three per cent," said Clements. "We've got aunts and uncles and grandparents who are in their 80's and when we started there were grandchildren around six or seven years of age. Rail trails are pretty easy for any age."

Every year Clements and his extended family plan their next trip in what has become an annual adventure. So when Clements heard the news that the Kelowna Pacific Railway was folding last year, leaving the CN Rail line from Kelowna to Coldstream inactive, his mind opened to thoughts of what could happen right here in the Okanagan: A trail linking Coldstream, on the outskirts of Vernon, with Kelowna with the potential to link to the KVR and the Trans Canada Trail.

"It never came to mind because as long as we've been living here it was an operating railway," he said. "Where I live I can see the tracks. We were used to hearing the trains go by."

Owned by CN Rail, the 50 kilometre stretch of railway used by the Kelowna Pacific Railway begins near the cultural district of Kelowna and ends in Coldstream, at the north end of Kalamalka Lake. Almost half of its length is along the water-front of Wood and Kalamalka Lakes. It passes through an incredible 23 parks.

Since the Kelowna Pacific Railway folded, the tracks no longer carry trains. Late last year, CN Rail began the abandonment process and by June 2, the future of the railway will be more clear. If CN doesn't sell the railway to an interest who wants to use it as a railway, each level of government will have the chance to purchase it.

Clements says it's a perfect situation for a rail trail, and not just any rail trail: This one would instantly become one of the best trails in the world.

"We've been on 14 of these and this would be the most amazing simply because of its unique features," said Clements. "There are 24 kilometers of lake front connecting a few communities. This is truly unique and then if you can connect it to the KVR which passes through wineries, you would have characteristics that no other trail has."

•••

Earlier this week, Clements and other members of what is called the Okanagan Rail Trail Initiative gathered in Oyama, on the rail bed that used to run trains between Wood and Kalamalka lakes to release an economic impact assessment of protecting the railway corridor.

It has been about eight months since CN Rail began the abandonment process and the company continues to work with one final independent buyer who has expressed an interest in operating the rail-line as the June 2 deadline approaches.

But it didn't dampen the spirits of the group, which has received close to 7,000 e-mails of support and enough private donations to spend between $20,000 and $30,000 on an economic assessment that lauded the benefits of a potential trail.

"We made the decision in November that this (economic impact assessment) is something that needed to be part of the equation," said Clements. "When we were first talking about this trail, we believed there were benefits but we weren't going to ask government to pay for it unless we could show there was a case for it (to be turned into a trail.) All we are saying is if it's not going to be a railway, then let's keep it as a public space."

Among the findings of the economic assessment were that the rail trail would have positive economic impacts, attracting tourists to the Okanagan and keeping people in the area longer. The report found that by year five the trail would attract 600,000 users and generate $6.7 million in annual spending by tourists using the trail. It also pointed to other benefits like increasing health, reducing vehicle emissions, business development, employment opportunities, increased property values and enhanced community partnerships.

"The report is some 70 pages long and very thorough," said Clements. "It looked at other rail trails across North America and in Europe and we asked them to keep their estimates very conservative. We're very excited that it shows there are tremendous benefits to protecting the corridor in the event it is not operated as a railway."

•••

If the rail line is not going to be operated as a railway, there is a 120 day window for CN Rail to negotiate the sale of the line to the different levels of government. The federal government will have 30 days before the provincial government, local transit authority and then municipal government will also have a negotiation window.

Kelowna Lake Country MP Ron Cannan says he has been in communication with CN as recently as Wednesday and has also kept an open line of communication with the provincial government, keeping in tune with the abandonment process.

An avid cyclist, Cannan says if the June 2 deadline passes with no agreement, there is a huge opportunity to create something unique in the Okanagan.

"I see great potential here and I'm excited about it for a variety of reasons," Cannan told the Capital News this week. "There are healthy benefits and existing rail trails that could all be connected. We have made it well known that our desire is to have a recreational corridor. It's got incredible potential from a tourism perspective but also quality of life, health benefits, increased recreation. It's moving through the process, I'm cautiously optimistic and it's very encouraging as we move through the process."

Municipal governments are also paying close attention and have formed an inter-jurisdictional working group that includes representatives from Kelowna, Lake Country and Coldstream as well as the North Okanagan Regional District, to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that arises with the old CN Rail Line.

Discussions have also been held with the Okanagan Indian Band.

At Kelowna City Hall Doug Gilchrist is the director of community planning and real estate.

Gilchrist applauded the efforts of the Okanagan Rail Trail Initiative and says the important factor should the rail line not continue in its current use is the protection of the corridor.

"I think the municipal government's primary interest is to protect it as a multi-modal transportation corridor," said Gilchrist. "Whether that's a trail today, a road tomorrow or light rail transit 40 years from now. The main interest is to protect it as an integrated corridor connecting key locations in the Okanagan."

Gilchrist says the municipal group is analyzing costs and potential ownership models in the event that the local governments get a chance at purchasing the rail line from CN.

"We want to make sure we are prepared to act if the process gets past the federal and provincial levels," he said. "My expectation is it will probably move to the referral process next week and from there we will see what the federal government and the province will chose to do."

•••

While no one is saying how much purchasing the line may cost, the Okanagan Rail Trail Initiative is ready to jump in and help with the money side of things.

Brad Clements and his group were able to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 in a manner of months to get an impact assessment on the record and he says should the corridor be purchased to add to the Okanagan's trail network, they will be ready to raise even more money.

"We've been suggesting to the various levels of government that if they can work together to secure the right of way, then we will go back to the public and begin a campaign to raise money to convert it to a trail," said Clements. "We're pretty confident there are lots of people that are willing to donate to turn it into a trail."

For more information and to support the Okanagan Rail Trail Initiative, go to www.okanaganrailtrail.ca and sign up as a supporter. You can also view the economic impact assessment there.

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