In a fascinating Times Colonist April 8 commentary, Turn the E&N route into a beautiful bikeway Vancouver Island environmental activist Guy Dauncey and former NDP member of Parliament Denise Savoie make a rather convincing argument that after 13 years of frustration, it’s time to give up on the E&N Rail line and look at turning the rail bed into a world class bikeway.

The rail line is too old, the costs to upgrade and run a railway too great, the funders too few and the benefits too inconsequential.

Indeed Dauncey and Savoie point out that a 2010 IBI Group study found that if the railway were upgraded it—might—carry 622 passengers a day. But that is a mere 1.5 % of the current Malahat traffic. And it would come at an exorbitant price: about $70 million and an operating subsidy of $4,000 a day. “Including the capital investment spread over 25 years, the railway passengers would need a $15,000 daily subsidy to operate a fossil-fuelled cumbering, inefficient railway.

In what could be the initial charge of a stampede away from the Island Corridor Foundation’s rail revival hope, the Nanaimo Regional District has voted against providing the grant it had agreed to, saying it had grown impatient with the lack of progress.

Dauncey and Savoie argue that instead of 600 people a day by a money guzzling railway, a beautiful, low cost Island bikeway on the old rail bed might carry many thousands of people a day. As an avid cyclist, I like the idea of building on the reputation of the wildly popular Galloping Goose railbed trail to expand the dream to include Victoria to Courtenay, however I am not convinced of the “thousands” projection. And—more importantly—I think the relevant conversation right now is not primarily about cycling tourism—I think it has to be about readily available, affordable, attractively packaged alternative transportation to our destructive obsession with CO2 belching Single (or few at best) Occupant Vehicles.

For a minute fraction of the $15,000 a day to transport 600 passengers (wildly optimistic) on a crumbling railroad with extremely limited scheduling flexibility we could have a state of the art bus system that could adapt to passenger load over flexible distances, that could change routes on short term changes in demand, that could cater to events and seasons. It could deliver skiers to Mt Washington, theatre goers to the door of and pick up from the door of theatrical—or musical—events(like musicfest). It could integrate with ferries and airports. It could combine high demand short routes with distance travelers and integrate with major transit stops. It could easily extend to Campbell River and any other stops along the way. It could easily be custom booked by tourism accommodations. It would ensure a safe trip over the Malahat or up to Mt Washington in winter. No additional infrastructure need be built.  It would greatly reduce our per capita vehicle based CO2  emissions–buses emit 80% less carbon monoxide than a car– and mean many, many less deaths, injuries, property damage– riding a  bus is 91 times safer than car travel. It would be the least expensive way to travel for passengers and would greatly reduce the cost of emergency response and health care that now accrues from vehicle accidents.

If we want, and if we are smart about this, we could easily integrate a slightly subsidized, highly effective bus system with all current operators and have a safe, green, effective, affordable, efficient transportation system that meets our Vancouver Island transportation needs for the Twenty-first Century. We could do the bike trail as well and still save great barrels of money that we would have been wasted on the pipe dream of resurrecting the E&N.