For at least 20 years, the residents of Abbeydale have been crossing the CN Railway adjacent to their neighbourhood to access area green spaces.
This desire path, located at the east end of Memorial Drive and a dead-end sidewalk, turns what would otherwise be a 25-minute walk to reach Calgary’s park and pathway system into a matter of seconds.
Desire paths are created when pedestrians repeatedly seek out shorter routes, leading to soil erosion and paths forming.
For the city and CN Rail, this path and others like it along the railway line that separates the communities Abbeydale and Applewood Park, present serious hazards to the public.
So much so that the City of Calgary Parks Department has made repeated and costly visits to repair fencing that blocks access.
But for one local resident in Abbeydale, Wendy Richardson, the danger is not in crossing the rails—it’s not being able to.
And the path, which became an election issue over access to green spaces for residents, has also prompted Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot to make solving it one of his first acts of business.
Preserving health and well-being
Richardson said walking into the green space near her home saved her life.
“I was in therapy for 12 years with severe—severe—depression, and the only thing that worked my doctor said, ‘you got to walk you’ve got to get out there you got to walk,'” she said.
She would regularly take the two-minute walk from her home, across the railway tracks, and would be in the natural spaces on the edge of Calgary’s east side. From her walks, she said, her depression lessened.
“This green space saved my life. Because I was so low, I didn’t think I was gonna survive,” she said.
That was until the fence, which had been left unattended to for years, went back up.
“The day they locked this one up, I had such a severe panic attack,” she said.
“I tried to scramble to get in over there—even cut it.”
The City of Calgary said that in 2018 the CN Rail Transport Police were made aware that a section of fencing had been cut open, allowing pedestrians to “cut across the rail tracks.”
Richardson received a trespassing ticket from a CN Rail Transport Police officer in 2011.
In 2018 the city’s parks department was informed by CN Rail that was a serious safety hazard that needed to be repaired, and from that period onward the department has performed on-going repairs to the fencing.
In 2021 alone, Calgary Parks has made 22 visits to to repair the fence at a cost of $15,660. Littering the slight decline between the fence and the railway are the remains of the metal and plastic ties used to previously repair the fence.
Decreasing the danger
Although rare in Calgary, pedestrians have been struck and sometimes killed by trains and railway vehicles. In 2018, the last year that collisions between trains and a pedestrians were recorded in the city’s open data, eight pedestrians had emergency room visits and two were admitted to hospital.
None of the incidents of collisions were identified to have been on the CN Railway between the communities of Abbeydale and Applewood Park.
To alleviate some of the danger in crossing the rail tracks, an at-grade crossing was built where the Rotary Mattamy Greenway crosses the CN Railway.
Councillor Andre Chabot said that this sort of at-grade crossing is rare in Calgary.
"A standalone at-grade crossing for pedestrians along along a rail line like that is typically not something that they would they would grant easily," said Chabot about CN Rail.
Pedestrians have been using the path for decades
Satellite and aerial photography shows that well defined desire paths have existed at the end of Memorial Drive, and at other locations along the rail tracks since at least 2002.
Richardson said that she sees many people using the desire path on her daily walks.
An isochrone analysis done by LiveWire Calgary showed that a typical pedestrian walking 5.4 kilometres per hour from Abbeydale is unable to access the green space within a comfortable 10-minute walk without the desire path crossing. Likewise, residents in Applewood Park walking to access religious services or the community business hub are unable to do so within the same time time frame.
For Richardson, she said it was a 25-minute walk from her home near Memorial Drive to access the green space without cutting across the rail line.
Chabot said that this lack of access, but also the cost of continually repairing the fencing are two reasons he's in favour of another crossing.
"Getting a secondary one in close proximity may be challenging, but the biggest arguments that I could make in support of why would warrant it there is in virtue of the fact it keeps getting broken," he said.
"As terrible as it may sound, that might be enough justification to warrant a higher level of consideration for a secondary at grade crossing."
He says he can understand why some residents of the area have cut holes in the fence.
"I think the biggest thing is, is that they can see the park, so they walk there and there is no access to it," he said. "So that's, I think, why they're frustrated enough to take it to the level of maybe cutting a hole in the fences."
He also said that the existing at grade crossing isn't clearly visible from the sidewalks at the end of Memorial Drive.
Next steps for Ward 10 Councillor Chabot
Chabot said that addressing the desire path issue is one of the first of six motions he plans to bring before council.
Still, he said there are many steps that need to be taken and it will not be a quick fix.
Since he was last a councillor, the notice of motion process has changed, and he's getting up to speed on navigating the process.
He said that options like building an over ground crossing would likely have to involve the province in addition to CN Rail because the province owns land in the transportation utility corridor next to Stoney Trail.
"As quickly, as humanly, and as legislatively possible, I will bring forward something to council," said Chabot.