Abandoned railways conjure up images of tumbleweeds, dust clouds and slowly rusting steel.
But that is unlikely to be the forlorn fate awaiting the unprofitable rail line between Kelowna and Vernon, which CN has signalled its intention to formally abandon.
There's an excellent prospect the line, which passes along colourful lakes and through verdant farmland, might one day become a popular recreation corridor, says railway expert Colin Churcher.
"There are lots of precedents where abandoned rail lines become used as long-distance hiking and bicycling paths," Churcher, a former director general of Transport Canada, told me yesterday from his home in Ottawa.
"There are a variety of ways that this can be accomplished," Churcher said. "But it's really the will on the part of government that's most important."
CN put in the Okanagan branch line in the 1930s, but leased its operation for the past decade to a short-hauler, Kelowna Pacific Railway.
"Major railways can make a lot of money running long trains great distances, but it's on the shorter lines, where a lot of switching is required, that profitability is more of a challenge," Churcher said.
KPR's financial problems piled up to the point where it declared bankruptcy earlier this year. CN said last month it would restart operations only between the main line and Vernon, leaving the southern leg in limbo.
The procedure for rail line abandonment is set out by the Canadian Transportation Agency. First, CN is obliged to see if any other business entity comes forward and indicates an interest in restarting freight-hauling operations. That would seem unlikely given KPR's demise and CN's own evaluation of the line as unprofitable.
"If there are no takers, the line is put up for grabs," Churcher said.
But the railway can't just start selling off the line, piece by piece. That's a good thing, because the first buyers in line would undoubtedly be the owners of adjacent properties, many of whom would surely like to expand their land.
If they could buy little chunks of the railway right-of-way and fence them off, its potential as a long-distance public recreation corridor would be instantly and forever lost.
The CTA says the railway first has to offer "to transfer all of its interest in the railway line to the applicable federal, provincial and municipal governments, and urban transit authorities (for) any purpose."
Given the Okanagan line passes alongside some of the country's most expensive real estate, CN might like to try to extort as high a price as possible for the corridor.
But, again, it's hooped. Federal legislation says the land can be bought by any level of government "for no more than the net salvage value of the line."
The net salvage value is not market value; it is calculated differently, including such things as how much money the railway would make from ripping up and selling the steel in the line.
Churcher says the steel from other discontinued rail lines has fetched as much as $250,000 a mile. So, if the rail line is about 40 miles long, that's $10 million right there CN would have to knock off the selling price of the rail line. Government's offer to CN might include not just cash, but tax breaks.
If CN and the government can't agree on a purchase price, the Canadian Transportation Agency can set one. Its decision is final.
One curiosity in this process is the fairly narrow window for any level of government to buy the rail line once the railway company formally makes the mandatory offer to sell it.
Governments have just 30 days to accept the offer. After that, the railway's legal obligations are discharged and it could begin the piecemeal sale of the line to any interested buyers.
What this means, it seems, is that all who favour the eventual transformation of the Kelowna-Vernon rail line into a public recreation corridor should press their government officials now to be ready when CN makes it obligatory offer of sale.
"If it's a priority of the community, I'll go to bat for it," said MP Ron Cannan.
The railway has served the Okanagan well for nearly eight decades. The trains may be gone, but it could still be a permanent transportation link provided a fleeting moment of opportunity is not allowed to come and go.
Ron Seymour is a Daily Courier reporter whose column appears Wednesday and Friday. Telephone 250-470-0750. Email