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This cycling group is looking to extend trails through the Kootenays

Solita Work on the rail trail in the Slocan Valley.
Image Credit: Submitted/Solita Work

One of the huge obstacles facing the Trail of the Okanagans efforts to connect Osoyoos to Sicamous is the steep terrain blocking easy cycling between West Kelowna and the South Okanagan.

The West Kootenay Cycling Coalition is facing similar challenges throughout the Kootenays but are suggesting transit and electric trains could help connect communities from Castlegar to Cranbrook. There is already a rail trail connection from the Okanagan to Castlegar.

READ MORE: Major connection along Trail of the Okanagans to open this summer

“If it connects communities, as well as making it viable for tourists then, all the better,” Solita Work, the coalition’s vice-president, told”But I think, first of all, we have to look at how can we make this so it’s a viable option for people so they don’t have to drive.”

The B.C. Epic 1000 bikepacking route travels the 1,000 kms from Merritt to Fernie using the Kettle Valley railway that stretches from south of Merritt, through Penticton, high above Kelowna and, after connecting with the Columbia and Western rail line, runs all the way into Castlegar.

But that’s where the mostly off-road cycling experience ends without taking a roundabout route down through Trail and up through Salmo into Nelson in order to get to the Balfour ferry.

READ MORE: iN PHOTOS: Racers try to finish this 1,000-km KVR trail ride from Merritt to Fernie in 3 days

While some of that uses an old rail bed from Salmo to Nelson, some is on highways, some through private property and some of it is described as “challenging for tourer/cross type bikes and cyclists lugging trailers or carrying panniers.”

That route may be fine for bikepacking racers but the average recreational or touring cyclist is not keen on either the rough terrain or the highways.

The West Kootenay Cycling Coalition is applying for a $50,000 feasibility study into combining off-road and highway shoulder cycling with transit so, for example, a Castlegar cyclist could head into Nelson by bike and take the bus home or hop on transit at points in between.

Plans also call for a foot/cycle bridge across the Kootenay River between the two cities, using existing bridge pilings.

“The biggest concern for people not riding bikes is safety,” Work said. “If a pathway is not safe enough for your five-year-old, it’s not safe.”

If all goes well, the route could open in three or four years, likely funded by government grants rather than local donations.

“It’s has to be government grants and all coordinated with highways,” Work said, noting the Ministry of Transportation has a mandate to include active transportation with any highway project.

“We already heavily subsidize driving through our tax dollars, whether you drive or not,” she added. “A huge portion of tax dollars goes towards maintaining roads so, with proper public support, there’s no reason we shouldn’t also build this other infrastructure.”

The Nelson route opens the door to other rail trail connections throughout the West Kootenays and a possible electric rail connection into the East Kootenays.

There are currently rail trails running north of Highway 3A (between Castlegar and Nelson) up to Nakusp, but they are in various states of repair at this time.

The coalition is also working with the Ministry of Highways on plans to repave the highway from Nelson to the Balfour ferry. They’ve identified “pinch points” with the hopes that the paved surface can be widened to make them safer, Work said.

But, the more grandiose plan is to use the existing active rail line from Nelson to Cranbrook.

“There’s an industrial line there now,” Work said. "It is slow because it is very curvy but it’s still faster than riding your bike.”

Ideally, an electric train could run on those rails so travellers to and from communities along the way could hop off and on.

An electric rail line has been proposed by UBCO engineer professor Gordon Lovegrove to run through the Okanagan, connecting the main CN Rail line through Kamloops to the Amtrak system in the U.S.

READ MORE: Push is on to create electric rail system in Thompson-Okanagan

“I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t implement such a system,” Work said. “There are long distances between all these different communities and they’re not viable for everybody but, if you had train and bus links in between, you could do it, potentially, quite easily and quite comfortably, without having to drive.”

Certainly there’s a cost but, she noted, even if it was $100,000 a kilometre that’s cheaper than building and maintaining highways.

“Not to mention the cost to the health care system from crashes and pollution,” Work said. “All those things have to be factored in and, I think, the train just makes sense.”

For more on the West Kootenay Cycling Coalition, go here.

For the B.C. Epic 1000 route maps, go here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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