The Need for Passenger Rail
by Rail For the Valley
For a pdf version of this article, click here
October 3, 1910 – 2010
The monumental first Interurban train trip from New Westminster to Chilliwack occurred on October 3 1910. 100 years later, Rail For The Valley takes a look at some important current issues, and misconceptions standing in the way of a service today.
The Fraser Valley Regional Study
In early 2008 the Province claimed a major study of light rail would soon be released, but almost three years later the public is still waiting. The Province has hyped this simple FVRD report as an in depth examination of the feasibility of light rail. Unfortunately this is not the case. The study has little to do with rail at all and only encompasses the region between Abbotsford and Chilliwack. As John Buker noted:
“Given the public support for passenger rail, it’s hardly surprising the Province would try and pass off an FVRD report on Abbotsford-Chilliwack traffic projections as a meaningful light rail study. It’s very doubtful that the provincial report, when it is finally released, will shed much light at all on the potential for an Interurban light rail service.” “What kind of study examining the feasibility of light rail in the Fraser Valley excludes Vancouver, Surrey, and Langley?”
Realizing that the public deserved an honest accounting of the potential for light rail service on the Interurban corridor, Rail For the Valley concluded that an independent analysis was essential.
The independent Interurban Study is completed
One of the major hindrances to any light rail study to date has been both the lack of light rail expertise, and of a light rail industry in the province. Provincial studies have relied on Heavy Rail consultants who are simply not qualified to do a major study of a light rail system. The Interurban report is British Columbia’s first study done by experts in the field of light rail.
A highly esteemed rail consultancy firm Leewood Projects Ltd, was commissioned by Rail For the Valley to undertake what stands as the most comprehensive and detailed light rail implementation study in the history of the Province. Leewood Projects is a professionally respected firm in Great Britain that has been involved in major transit projects such as the London Underground, and Croydon Tramlink.
The Province’s own lackluster ‘feasibility’ studies when contrasted against this groundbreaking report are embarrassingly inadequate. The Province’s inference that they have access to more accurate facts and figures is no longer just a myth, it is a falsehood. The Interurban report once and for all demolishes the argument against passenger rail service in the Fraser Valley. The findings of the report are clear:
‘This report concludes that the conversion to 21st Century Community Rail/Light Rail of the BCER Lower Fraser Valley Interurban, will bring positive benefits to the communities it will serve in; Economic & Inward Investment, Tourism, Environment, Health & Social Cohesion. The early implementation of Phase 1, from Chilliwack to Scott Road in Surrey, will be the beginning of the benefits.’ (page 54)
Ridership potential of the Interurban
Light Rail systems around the world are built to attract ridership. These systems are most cost-effective when they are built in areas with less density, before heavy urban development takes place, such as in the case of the Fraser Valley. Failure to build in advance of density results in astronomical construction costs. Recent examples are the Canada Line, costing over $100 million per km, and the planned Evergreen Line, which will cost over $120 million per km. That trend of building late instead of early has cost BC taxpayers billions of dollars.
Led by the city of Surrey, the Fraser Valley is projected to pass Vancouver in population within the next 10 years. This is why it is imperative that this system be built immediately. Opponents in the Provincial Government have been trying to fool the public into believing that ridership might actually be an issue, simply because they would rather spend money elsewhere.
It is a known fact that comparable regions, even regions with less density, have effective light rail systems. We see this in cities such as Calgary and Edmonton. The recent Interurban study was undertaken by a prestigious light rail firm in England, Leewood Projects. It would be absurd for them to even include ridership data in their study. They have shown us that the system is very workable here in B.C. and can be built economically. If they were in the business of planning systems that didn’t work, they would not be the kind of firm that helped build the Channel Tunnel. This shows the hollowness of the Ridership argument.
According to Translink figures, the West Coast Express commuter service recovers more than 90% of its operating costs. This is despite the fact that as much as half of its budget goes toward a heavy lease fee to CP Rail. The Interurban corridor, on the other hand, does not require any lease fee. The right to operate passenger trains is already owned by the public. The Interurban would serve a population approaching 3 times that of the West Coast Express, and with no lease fee there is little doubt the service would quickly turn an operating profit.
Light Rail systems are one of the most cost effective systems in the world and one of the few modes of public transportation that can pay for themselves. Highways and roads on the other hand cost BC taxpayers billions. The Provincial Transit Plan calls for expenditures of $1.6 billion on buses alone over the next few years. Traffic congestion also has tremendous hidden costs: economic costs, health costs, and costs in terms of environmental pollution.
Ultimately, all of the Province’s current transportation proposals for the Fraser Valley will only serve to increase the traffic on our roads. Reducing road traffic reduces all of these costs. It’s estimated that the West Coast Express service is equivalent to taking 4,300 cars off the road and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 21,502 tonnes a day.
Opponents of the Interurban argue that, with the current Economic hardships, the timing for construction of an Interurban system is poor. In fact, implementing light rail on the existing Interurban Right of Way is incredibly cost-effective ($6 million per km compared to Skytrain $100-140 million per km). A proposed Skytrain extension as far as Langley will further bankrupt the transit system and communities in the Valley have made it clear they prefer more affordable light rail. The system will serve roughly a million people in the Fraser Valley, far more than any multi-billion dollar transit projects under consideration for Vancouver. The alternative to light rail service is to continue pouring millions into expensive government transit projects like Skytrain.
Today, we still have the opportunity to build a light rail system in the Fraser Valley economically, to all our benefit. The costs of failing to act now are extreme and cannot truly be calculated. A light rail network will help to relieve traffic on our roads, improving our health, our air quality and the environment around us. One day soon this service will connect all the cities of the Fraser Valley and Vancouver in a truly comprehensive transit network. The time to plan that future is today.