Rail vision could link valley

One day, perhaps not too far off, trams could share Highway 97, connecting cities up and down the Okanagan.

At least that's one possibility touted by Vernon Mayor Victor Cumming.

Cumming was a consultant on the VisionQuest project of the Okanagan Partnership about a decade ago.

"It looked at critical economic development issues," he recalled Tuesday.

One of those sprang from the creation of the engineering department at UBC's Okanagan campus, where Dr. Gordon Lovegrove has researched sustainable communities, and zero-emission regional passenger rail.

Lovegrove's research team is currently looking into the feasibility of an Okanagan Valley electric regional passenger rail network.

And Cumming says new technology, as already made by Canadian companies like Bombardier, is making that more possible – and more affordable – all the time.

It would still be a pricey proposition, but nowhere near the cost of a dedicated and separate rail line.

Cumming says at-grade rail that runs on the highway along with traffic, on an embedded rail line, could shorten the timespan in which such a project might be feasible from 50 years to 20. The main determining factors are population and cost, he said.

Newer systems already in use in Europe in such cities as Geneva and Lyon, and even in Canada in Toronto, are light, efficient and operate like a bus. Cars can be added or subtracted, and the trams travel at urban speeds in the city, but are capable of highway speeds once out of the city.

"Riders can swipe in or out like Vancouver's Compass card," says Cumming, which removes lineups as passengers can hop on or off from multiple doors, like on a subway train.

"I have ridden them in Europe, and you just jump on and off."

Fuel cell technology would be emission-free, or the trams could use battery power or an electrified third rail.

Such a system, he says would minimize infrastructure costs, and Cumming can envision a rail connection spanning from Vernon to Kelowna and eventually Penticton and beyond.

Lovegrove's research has projected a $1 billion cost to span the length of the valley, but also only a two-year payback as further infrastructure needs are negated by the project. Fare revenues would be on top of this.

Cumming doesn't see the rail line coming to fruition too soon, but is confident "something like it will happen in my lifetime – and Vernon is a good place to start."

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