By Adrian Nieoczym
In a move that has angered city councillors, Canadian National Railway is denying the City of Kelowna’s request to put a multi-use pathway next to its rail corridor because of an increase in trespassing, according to a company spokesperson.
“We of course appreciate the benefits of creating trails within the city,” said Kelli Svendsen, CN’s senior manager of public relations. “But we’re finding across our system that there’s an increase in trespassing and we’re mitigating that risk by not allowing the public within the right of way.”
But the move has city councillors vowing to fight back. They were livid when discussing CN’s rejection at their meeting earlier this week.
“It’s a lame excuse and I don’t buy it,” said Coun. Charlie Hodge of CN’s claims that the trail increases their liability. “It certainly leaves the whole trails project up in the air.”
Coun. Andre Blanleil noted that CN paid nothing for the land when it laid the railway tracks in the first place.
“Years ago they got that property for free and now they won’t let us use it,” he said. “I think CN needs some huge pressure.”
Mayor Sharon Shepherd said Kelowna is looking to team up with Armstrong and Vernon in an effort to force the company’s hand. Those communities are also unable to get access to rail corridors for recreational trails.
The three cities want the federal government to include projects like the Rail-with-Trails on the list of shared rail access disputes handled by the Canadian Transportation Agency. As it stands now, there is no avenue to appeal CN’s rejection of Kelowna’s request.
The city has been planning its Rails-with-Trails project along the rail corridor through Kelowna since 2001 and has completed both a feasibility and a rail safety study. The aim is to provide cyclists, pedestrians and other users of non-motorized transportation a traffic-free trail from downtown to UBC Okanagan.
The city built the first one-kilometre phase of the project next to Clement Avenue in 2008 and paid CN $1 million for access to its right-of-away along that stretch. Fencing keeps the trail separated from the tracks.
The city recently got money from the provincial government for phase two of the trail between Sexsmith Road and UBCO and is ready to begin construction.
But CN is not allowing any more access to its right-of-way.
“We’re no longer inviting a situation that comprises safety,” said Svendsen, on why CN would take $1 million for access to one section of its corridor but then refuse to allow construction of the rest of the trail. “We don’t believe that a trail for example, is worth that risk to the public.”
Svendsen said she did not have any statistics indicating whether there are more or less trespassing incidents along the current section of the Rails-with-Trails compared to other parts of the rail system.
The city’s director of regional services, Ron Westlake, told council the only alternative route for a recreational trail out to UBCO won’t likely be available until after 2020, when the city has plans to extend Hollywood Road.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable to wait 20 years,” said Coun. Robert Hobson. He then suggested requiring CN to fence in all of its tracks running through Kelowna as a way to increase pressure on the company.
“If their railway is so unsafe for the public, maybe we should make them fence it in,” he said, adding that a fenced-in trail is safer than unfettered access to the tracks.
Hobson’s suggestion did not sit well with CN’s Svendsen. ”Any measure that we put in, such as fencing, raise concerns about our access (for emergencies and maintenance),” she said.
Kelowna Lake Country MP Ron Cannan said he is going to work with Transportation Minister John Baird, to see what can be done to help communities who want to put trails along rail corridors.
“I’m very supportive of the Rails-with-Trails, I think it’s a great idea,” said Cannan. “We have to explore the options and see which ones are viable.”