Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

B.C. funds commuter rail studies

with 18 comments

BC Local News

I was interviewed on the phone today by News1130 for my reaction to this announcement. I am afraid I was very unimpressed. Kevin Falcon has always opposed rail – he wants to expand freeways because they support the sort of development he and his developer friends like. So spending money on a study is just another way of delaying rail while freeway construction proceeds.

Translink has stacks of reports – all of them gathering dust in stock rooms. This one will just join them. What I have been saying – and all the groups that now want to see real transit alternatives now agree – it that we need a demonstration project, not a study. Because you cannot fudge the results of a demonstration. Run a train on a section of the line and see who uses it and why. This was the approach used by Ottawa for their O train and is being used in Vancouver for the False Creek “Heritage Railway” which will have modern trams borrowed from Bombardier for the Olympics.

“Commuter Rail” like West Coast Express is actually the last thing we need. All day bi-directional local community rail provides for many more trip types than commuters, and is much more economical. Both shape growth. West Coast Express has made it possible for people who work in Vancouver to live in Mission and have a comfortable commute. Any surprise then that developers want to add more single family homes to Mission? A frequent local train service, on the other hand, would reduce the need for long distance travel by improving accessibility. The more people and destinations within walking distance to the stations the better – so you would see “transit oriented development” which is what this region should have been concentrating on. Joyce and Edmonds stations are two examples of the sort of high density housing developments that can be achieved. Sadly neither can be said to be mixed use and the range of incomes in both should also have been wider, but both are far better than 29th Avenue or Nanaimo Stations where no change in land use has occurred at all.

While the money for an E&N study is new, the idea of yet another study of the old BCER Interurban is old news. It has been announced many times. It is not an indication of any chnage of heart as the final paragraph demonstrates

Falcon said the studies cost money and take time, but they are essential. He noted that TransLink, the Lower Mainland transit authority, was recommending surface light rail for the Evergreen line extension east along the north side of the Fraser River, but a study showed that it wouldn’t attract enough riders and SkyTrain service is a better option despite its higher construction cost.

That’s the good thing about studies.Write the terms of reference around a “buisness case” (not a development case) and appoint the right consultant and you can get the result you want. The idea that SkyTrain can be built for only 20% more than light rail and attract more riders – as the Evergreen “study” calims – simply is too silly to be worth analysis.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 28, 2008 at 3:21 pm

18 Responses

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  1. Quote: “The idea that SkyTrain can be built for only 20% more than light rail and attract more riders – as the Evergreen “study” claims – simply is too silly to be worth analysis.”

    This what Gerald Fox pointed out in his letter to a Victoria Rail group and to me. I have posted it here before and if anyone wishes a copy, please ask me.

    TransLink’s studies, as far back as the 1993 series all claimed that SkyTrain alone, would attract more customers than at-grade/on-street LRT, yet they have never offered a study that proves this.

    The TTC’s 1983 ART Study found that ‘SkyTrain’ cost anything up to ten (10) times more to install than LRT “for about the same capacity”.

    Why, oh why are we continually haunted by SkyTrain and ghosts of discredited SkyTrain studies past. Why is Falcon so afraid of light rail?

    Malcolm J.

    November 28, 2008 at 4:07 pm

  2. Heard you on 1130 on my drive home Stephen. Nice work – your suggestion of a demo sounded very sensible indeed, and getting that kind of message out on a station like 1130 is a big step forward in my opinion.

    When they introduced you as a former Translink planner, and before they said your name, I was expecting to hear Clive Rock or someone like that tell us how rail couldn’t and wouldn’t work.

    So I was pleasantly surprised to hear your voice!


    November 28, 2008 at 4:16 pm

  3. We’re excited about the tram test nearby on False Creek. What would constitute ‘Success’? If they count enough ridership in a given period? Drop in traffic (but increase in visitors) to Granville Island and Science World?

    I’ve been hoping that the tram line idea grows (and breaks through the Starbucks strategically blocking it by the entrance to Granville Island) but I always heard whispers from Kitsilano residents that they’ll oppose it, because they believe that mass transit brings thievery and other crime to their neighborhood via smash-grab-riders. Ironic for the hippies (now yuppies) to now be against mass-transit, isn’t it?


    November 28, 2008 at 5:33 pm

  4. When I hear that sort of nonsense I ask people when they last saw someone carrying an unboxed TV on a SkyTrain.

    On the other hand when I drove an old Dodge Caravan I used to get stopped by the police in nice neighbourhoods. They are, apparently, the preferred vehicle for housebreakers.

    Stephen Rees

    November 28, 2008 at 5:48 pm

  5. I use commuter lines whenever I am in Europe or Japan to travel between cities relatively close to one another (like Paris to Fontainebleau or Chartres, Kobe to Kyoto or Osaka etc.). These trains run all day long and do help reduce car use, even by people who do have cars (my European and Japanese friends only use their cars to go AWAY from their towns for a couple of days or more, NOT to drive downtown). It is obvious by the style of the buildings that they were built in majority well after the lines were built. I mentioned this in a letter to Minister Falcon, along with notes correcting the misconceptions TransLink staff has about many things, including transit smart cards (for example the fact that many transit systems using smart cards do have fare zones–9 in London, 6 in Paris etc.–and that most transit users–even infrequent users– don’t pay by the distance actually travelled but get discounted passes loaded in their smart card or cell phone) yet Falcon kindly replied with the old chestnut that there isn’t enough density to justify building train lines (I was especially thinking about tram-trains used in Germany) to the Fraser Valley! This flies against the example of thousands of commuter lines around the world…I know of one town smaller than Metro Vancouver, Bordeaux
    (France) where this fall one commuter line alone (out of 5 going in various directions) now has 47 trains per day-one every 20 minutes at peak time!

    Red frog

    November 29, 2008 at 12:22 am

  6. Those “commuter” lines on the Kobe to Osaka run and pretty much everywhere else in Japan wouldn’t be recognized as commuter service here. For one they run bi-directionally all day every day, two they are almost 100% EMUs, unlike the North American commuter services, and three, throughout the day they probably have just as many people using them for other purposes. I would just call it good public train service rather than commuter rail, since it meets everyone’s needs.

    Reading Stephen’s above post, it seems incredulous that Gordon Campbell’s government doesn’t even have rail on its radar, given that it is THE mechanism by which we can make a permanent switch away from cars as the primary mode of transport. Buses can’t do that, Skytrain obviously can’t.

    At grade rail surrounded by walkable, relatively car-free urban areas is the way to go. And Falcon will find out in six months just how many people recognize this fact.


    November 29, 2008 at 9:43 am

  7. What many people on this side of the pond don’t realize is that Victoria has had and still has a very strong LRT/transit lobby, which has been advocating light rail for over two decades.

    One group, the Greater Victoria Electric Railway Society, published several On-Track magazines in the late 90’s and early this century, regarding LRT in the Capital region. As well, they have raised the money to hire consultants (Gerald Fox for one) for an independent look at transit options.

    With several, very vocal groups agitating for LRT and the E & N Railway, it is not surprising that Falcon and the Libs will spend money there.

    Like the Interurban Line, Diesel LRT and track sharing is a natural for the E & N, yet the government is deaf to the idea and seems to promote commuter trains like the WCE or DMU’s.

    The idea of track sharing seems to make transit bureaucrats rather nervous as it could prove to be a cheaper alternative to building new roads.

    I always mention Karlsruhe as a transit model that should be investigated, but to date very few have ever heard of the city and their award wining 412 km. LRT network!

    Malcolm J.

    November 29, 2008 at 11:09 am

  8. I called then “commuter trains” because people in the lower Mainland have heard that term. The concept of a “public train service” isn’t too well understood here. I know people under 35, born and raised in B.C AND university graduates, who have never used a train, a subway, not even in some cases a city bus, in their lives. The French call trains that run all day long between a major town and its farthest suburb “trains de banlieue” or trains to the suburbs (by the way not all commuters work 9-5. Some work afternoon etc.). Then there are the T.E.R or regional trains that go a bit further but still within one administrative region. Then of course we have the long distance trains. Some of the Japanese trains I was referring to only run to a suburb or part of a region as, for example, the trains from private railway companies like Hankyu- Hanshin, Nankai etc. I agree with Malcom J. about track sharing and especially about the Karlsruhe transit system. Other Euro countries are trying something similar on a small scale.

    Red frog

    November 29, 2008 at 8:51 pm

  9. Not sure if I’d hold up the O-train as being an example of a successful demo at least if the goal was to get LRT built. If you think transit planning is bad here, you’ll love the gong show in Ottawa. They are still fighting over plans and are facing lawsuits over the cancellation of their last plan after they had signed the contracts.

    Richard C.

    November 29, 2008 at 8:58 pm

  10. The demo was successful – as the train service was established after an initial trial period. It was also necessary to get people to consider an alternative to the Busway – which, like SkyTrain, is so over engineered as to be very expensive indeed. The O train has now been running for several years and the track has been extensively upgraded to improve the speed and comfort of the passenger service. The lack of later extensions is solely due to local politics, not the technical assesment of the technology or its popularity with users.

    I have been following the “gong show” with interest thanks to an RSS feed to Transport 2000 there which gets quoted here quite a bit

    Stephen Rees

    November 29, 2008 at 10:58 pm

  11. @ Red frog

    How right you are. Not only have they never ridden a bus, but their eyes will glaze over at the first hint of non-car transportation.

    I live in South Vancouver with a bus right outside my front door, but a friend from my hometown came over and we HAD to take a cab downtown. The guy would not ride a bus.

    Sad, but true. At least he paid.


    November 30, 2008 at 11:14 am

  12. But the O-Train demo has not an proven effective political tactic at moving an LRT network forward, which I assume is the overall goal. I would question whether or not demos would be effective here either in the overall goal of moving an LRT network forward.

    Richard C.

    November 30, 2008 at 12:20 pm

  13. Poiliticians who are determined to do things their way – and to impose their views on society – are never influenced by studies – or demonstration projects. The studies are not usually even read by anyone except for a few enthusiasts. But people still remember that long after the interurban closed there were trains put on for Expo 86. Besides, Falcon has already dictated what the study will recommend.

    I also think that the pressure for streetcars in Vancouver will only increase after 2010, and I think the idea of upgrading the track and borrowing some new trams was inspired by the City of Vancouver’s desire to see a change in Translink’s priorities. It may also be significant that in Portland streetcars were introduced despite MAX and were championed by the City, not the regional transportation body.

    Stephen Rees

    November 30, 2008 at 12:46 pm

  14. I forgot to give an interesting internet site about the Karlsruhe model and its offsprings. please check This is what we should get for the Valley and also to Pemberton and to White Rock.

    Red frog

    November 30, 2008 at 10:06 pm

  15. WRT the streetcar – it would be Kits Point residents that would oppose an extension to Vanier Park and the planetarium. They oppose anything that may disturb their enclave.
    They’re the ones who forced the Parks Board to remove the basketball hoops from adjacent to the newly installed kids playground because of the swearing.
    They also forced the City to stop tourist buses from visiting the Maritimne Museum, Vancouver Museum and Planetarium – causing attendance to plummet and increasing the requirement for City (taxpayer) subsidies.
    The Maritime Museum is now being closed and its assets being sold off – while the proposal for a National Maritime Museum in North Vancouver languishes.

    Ron C.

    November 30, 2008 at 11:47 pm

  16. I have been pushing for a Karlsruhe transit solution since 1993! Here we have a city and regional population on par with the lower mainland and they have over 400 km. of light rail!

    Malcolm J.

    December 1, 2008 at 1:11 pm

  17. Can someone explain to me why the West Coast express doesn’t terminus in Abbotsford? From my cursory internet research it would only add about 15km to the trip, making it about a 95 minute ride from Waterfront to Abbotsford.

    I’ve heard something about the Mission railway bridge not being open for passenger traffic. That’s a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the CPR. Long term we need passenger trains over both trans continental railroads – if that means nationalizing the CPR because they can’t figure passenger rail on their own, then I guess they need to be expropriated.


    December 16, 2009 at 2:01 pm

  18. The simple answer is that the City of Abbotsford did not want WCE in their town.

    Stephen Rees

    December 16, 2009 at 2:05 pm

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