Stephen Rees's blog

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

Great debate over future commutes

with 30 comments

The Sun trots out all the usual suspects to talk about the current push to get Translink extended beyond Metro Vancouver (“Pemberton to Chilliwack”). It actually is a pretty daft idea right now, given that Translink cannot balance its books and is threatening to hike fares and cut service if it cannot get a new funding source.  So of course the surrounding communities are quite right to be concerned about why this is being pushed right now. It looks like a tax grab – for Squamish and the Valley to pay for transit in Vancouver.

The context has to be that Surrey is still very badly served – and has a transit mode share of 4%.

TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie acknowledges Langley and Surrey are lacking in efficient transit services, mainly because the cities came into the game late and transit patterns were based on trips to and from Vancouver

Which like all sounds bites is only partly true. The use of the word “efficient” is odd too – efficient for whom? The transit system – such as it is – came after the development. The land use pattern was typical North American suburbia – single land uses, widely separated,  with lots of space for cars to move and park. In fact the whole thing was designed with cars in mind – not people. The underlying assumption of the transportation engineers and land use planners was that everyone who mattered would drive everywhere. This pattern and preconception is being repeated, despite the fact that we know it is not sustainable – even in the short term. And the plans of the province to widen the major freeway within Metro simply reinforce that. The so called transit plan is to do a lot less, a lot later. By which time everyone will be stuck in a pattern that is hard to change.

Transit must precede development. Retrofitting car oriented suburbs is difficult, expensive and often less effective. Of course it is true that much of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster grew up around the streetcar in a dense walkable pattern. But equally much of the outer areas grew up around the interurban and railway stations. It just that there has been a lot more development in recent years, when we were enjoying cheap energy and built as though there was no tomorrow. We need more transit oriented development (TOD)- the only kind that is going to be viable soon – and we cannot get that without the transit service. My bet would be that if passenger service is reintroduced on the old BCER tracks there will be a lot of interest in doing TOD around the stations – and recreating the walkable urban centres we used to enjoy before the spread of the “plaza” and the “power centre”.

George Peary the Mayor of Abbotsford spouts nonsense –

“Light rail transit might be a solution, but it’s very expensive and won’t happen overnight, he said, while reviving the old Interurban rail line isn’t viable because it runs along old milk routes, not through residential neighbourhoods.”

The old Interurban runs north south through Abbotsford. That’s nothing to do with milk but everything to do with geography – and the fact that the line was built before Sumas Lake was drained. Light rail is not “very expensive” if you have existing tracks and you want to use what you have and plan accordingly. But Abbotsford’s plan is now to build transit along South Fraser Way and try to get redevelopment onto the parking lots to turn the “corridor” into a real urban street. This is far sighted – and much less “expensive” than watching the whole lot become a wasteland, when the cost of fuel leaps again and people simply cannot afford to drive so much. What could “happen overnight” is the conversion of the curb lanes to exclusive bus lanes. A number of cities have done this as a way to make the bus more attractive – and add additional features over time to spread the cost and help build the ridership towards one that will support rail. How successful that is depends very much on the developers’ confidence that the bus service will indeed persist and improve. It is not an easy sell, especially when transit systems across North America – facing exactly the same challenge that Translink does – are cutting service and raising fares to balance their books in the face of rising demand. Investing in tram tracks looks like a real commitment to a new system in a way that diamond lanes don’t.

Getting some passenger service onto the interurban need not be very expensive. It would not be ideal in Abbotsford perhaps – though it seems to me that the rail corridor through town is in need of a stimulus – but in other parts of the Valley it would serve most of the post secondary educational institutions rather well. The reason it could be relatively inexpensive is that the right of way – and the right to run passenger trains – still belongs to the Province. And the Washington Group who own the tracks and run an occasional short freight train – are not averse to a deal.  As usual, the best is the enemy of the good.

Possibly the least likely scenario is the one espoused by Kevin Falcon who talks about SkyTrain reaching Langley by 2030. Not only is that just not good enough to deal with present challenges but it is also nowhere near likely to get outlying communities to sign on to his  expansionary plans for Translink.

Chilliwack has probably had the right idea all along. Stay clear of suburban sprawl and concentrate on being as self contained as possible. Most people who live there work there too. There is not much inter-city commuting to or from Chilliwack. It is still almost completely car dependent, and its transit system is quite appalling. But that is the choice the voters there made.

By “improving” the Sea to Sky, that choice has been lost to Squamish. The developers who pushed for this in the name of the Olympics will take a bit longer to get there huge returns – but it will still happen, becuase there are plenty of people who can still be suckered into long driving commutes. Becuase that is what has been happening for the last 60 years and people still do not seem to have understood that is the problem.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

30 Responses

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  1. Quote: “Light rail transit might be a solution, but it’s very expensive and won’t happen overnight, he said, while reviving the old Interurban rail line isn’t viable because it runs along old milk routes, not through residential neighbourhoods.”

    LRT expensive, compared to what?

    What I find intriguing is that the interurban line does go through some highly populated areas and town centres. It’s not perfect, but a whole lot cheaper than going ‘greenfields’ down the #1 highway median.

    Me thinks Valley politico’s have been sold on highways as they way to get out of gridlock and sadly, that is where the investment will go.

    Malcolm J.

    April 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

  2. South Fraser Way is a very interesting choice as Abbotsford’s corridor of the future. Development is very much centered around it now, albeit with parking lots separating the buildings from the street. The eastern section connecting old Abbotsford to the Highway 1/11 interchange is an old railway RoW. I’m not so sure about the stretch west of McCallum because of the hill leading up to Clearbrook, but I’ve seen an old map that appears to show all of South Fraser Way as the location of a railroad line.

    The old Interurban, between the Fraser River bridge and Trinity Western is already punctuated with housing and employment nodes, exactly the type of development you get with a passenger railway. The stretch from Livingston through Bradner and Matsqui Prairie to old Abbotsford is mostly rural, but that doesn’t preclude rail transit either. There are trams through rural areas all over Europe. From Abbotsford to Huntingdon is mostly ribbon development along Hwy 11. Turning east the line heads through agricultural land to Vedder Crossing, Sardis and Chilliwack.

    In the old days the Interurban did carry milk from Sumas Prairie to the towns on either side and school children to class. I believe regular school bus service in Sumas started in 1948.

    It’s sad that anyone believes highways are the way out of gridlock when they are, in fact, the cause.


    April 3, 2009 at 12:34 pm

  3. why couldn’t a light rail track be part of the new bridge developments…LA ran their rail system down the middle of their giant freeways.


    April 3, 2009 at 1:14 pm

  4. The province claims that the new Port Mann bridge will have the ability to carry light rail. The problem with that is that there is no plan to actually build light rail along Highway #1. And the worst possible place to for passenger train station is in the middle of a freeway interchange. It is a horrible environment for pedestrians and is as far as possible from their desired destination

    Stephen Rees

    April 3, 2009 at 1:28 pm

  5. I know of no major highway bridge that has been retrofitted for light rail or any rail. I have been looking for a precedent for this, but haven’t found one.

    The new Granville St. bridge was designed for streetcars, but never saw a track, nor was used in any former transit plans.

    I doubt the highways department would tolerate rail operation on any of their bridges, unless the tracks were put in place during construction.

    In 1985 a former GVRD planner told me that they were desperate to get SkyTrain across the Fraser and into Surrey and there was a plan to branch SkyTrain from the New West Line, across the North Arm of the Fraser River near the Queensborough Bridge across the Lulu & Annicis Islands then cross the South Arm on the Alex Fraser Bridge (designed for SkyTrain) and to North Delta to Surrey.

    As soon as the highways ministry got wind of this and complained to then Highways Minister, Alex Fraser, he told GVRD planners; “No one is going to play god damn trains on my bridge!”

    In hind sight, it seems a good plan, taking SkyTrain into the burbs.

    Malcolm J.

    April 3, 2009 at 2:46 pm

  6. Portland’s LRT runs partially along a freeway as well. It is not very nice and they don’t get much ridership on that section.


    April 3, 2009 at 2:48 pm

  7. The Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto

    From Wikipedia:

    It was designed to facilitate mass transit; its upper deck accommodated trams, while both the Don Valley phase and the Rosedale Valley phase included a lower deck for rail transport, controversial at the time because of its high additional cost. The bridge’s designer and the commissioner of public works R.C. Harris were able to have their way, and the lower deck eventually proved to save millions of dollars when the Toronto Transit Commission’s Bloor-Danforth subway, opened in 1966, was able use the Don Valley phase with no major structural changes to cross the Don River Valley.


    April 3, 2009 at 3:18 pm

  8. I’m waiting to see what Peary does. He’s probably under pressure from Falcon to join TransLink, and the question is, what and how much is he going to get in return?


    April 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm

  9. A quick note: San Francisco’s Bay Bridge once carried trams (streetcars/interurbans) but not since the 40’s. According to my correspondent down South, any attempt to reinstate trans-bay LRT over the Bay Bridge is met with extremely stiff opposition from state highway authorities as well from auto and trucking lobbies.

    I would think the same would apply here.

    Malcolm J.

    April 3, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  10. Stephen, in Calgary the successful C-Train lrt runs within the median of a freeway – Crowchild Trail. They still retain high ridership.

    Here are a couple of pics:


    April 3, 2009 at 8:35 pm

  11. Would a commuter train service be feasible from Whistler to Vancouver?

    Stations at Whistler, Squamish, Horseshoe Bay/Ferry Terminal, North Vancouver, Vancouver.

    Possibly extending to Pemberton?


    April 4, 2009 at 3:53 am

  12. A regular passenger train to serve commuters and visitors to Whistler is certainly technically easy to do. However since the track is now leased to CN, they would extract a huge profit for allowing its operation on “their” track. “Feasibility” is a political decision based on how much subsidy they want to provide. It would work have worked well if it terminated in North Vancouver at the SeaBus terminal – that was possible too when the site was under redevelopment but that oportunity was discarded.

    Stephen Rees

    April 4, 2009 at 6:06 am

  13. Brad
    Yes but it does not invalidate my point. Freeway medians are not good locations for stations

    Stephen Rees

    April 4, 2009 at 6:07 am

  14. The problem of a commuter train to Whistler is that there is much tight curvature along the line, requiring slow speeds. Certainly the bi-level WCE cars would be poor on this route, especially for those sitting on the top floor it would be dangerous at higher speeds.

    The old Budd DMU’s, designed for such routes were able to do yeoman’s work on the line.

    Either one has to take the tight curves out (very expensive) or operate ’tilt’ trains like the Talgo or Pendolo.

    Talgo’s tilt, low centre of gravity and single axle wheel-sets would be an ideal candidate for increasing track speed, while at the same time keeping expensive track alterations to a minimum.

    At one time Amtrak was interested in testing a Talgo unit to Whistler, for a proposed direct service from Seattle, but was stonewalled by the province.

    Look how hard it is to get even a second Amtrak train to Vancouver, a service that operates already but terminates in Bellingham!

    Malcolm J.

    April 4, 2009 at 6:59 am

  15. Passenger service on the old BCRail line is actually not bad as far as speed goes – until you hit West Vancouver. There a municipal by law restricts speeds – quite unnecessarily – to just above walking pace. I am surprised they don’t insist on a man with a red flag walking in front of the locomotive. (This is also the place that bans any signposts in case visitors might discover (and use!) their beaches.) The main thing is to make sure you get a seat on the outside (west) of the train – as the view of rock walls on the other side is bit less than thrilling. Currently service is provided by Whistler Mountaineer which is solely designed for tourists with deep pockets

    Stephen Rees

    April 4, 2009 at 8:30 am

  16. I think the City of Whiterock tried to insist a, “man with a red flag walking in front of the locomotive.”, with their 30 kph speed limit on the promenade! I understand that Whiterock council also rejects any sort of fencing along the beach and wait in vain for a extremely costly “long tunnel”, that was vaguely promised many years ago, to divert trains from its present route.

    The BC Rail “Budds”, I believe reached speeds of 80 mph on the flats North of Squamish for a few miles on straight tracks.

    The Talgo, mentioned previously would not have to slow down at the curves, but tilt around them and the single axle wheel-sets would have also helped reducing noise and flange wear on the more winding parts of the route.

    But mention ‘rail’ transit in BC and at once one is deemed a ‘generational rustic’, a latter day Luddite, pining for days of old. The roads lobby has such a stranglehold on transportation planning, that I don’t see any change in the near future.

    The old BC Rail passenger service was one of the top ten international rail journeys and to stop running the service was a blow to BC Tourism.

    Malcolm J.

    April 4, 2009 at 9:26 am

  17. Malcolm and Stephen posts about passengers trains low speed in West Vancouver and White Rock is another example of the appalling ignorance of our “elites” and “experts” in B.C. none of whom have obviously ever seen and used “real” trains in other countries. I am pretty sure that passengers trains run at a relatively fast speed, not a pedestrian crawl, within suburban towns of the Eastern USA and along the Montreal–Toronto corridor. In Japan and Europe they even run express trains at high speed within a station. I have seen it many times in France (they give several advance warnings on PA and staff on the platform make sure that everyone stand well back). One of my Grandma lived in a village 30 km south of Bordeaux and her home, as many other homes in the village, was right by the main Bordeaux-Toulouse line. Last time I visited her the trains were a blur as they went by. For generations people in her neighbourhood used a path along the tracks (the path was 2 metres from the actual tracks but within the railway prperty) as a shortcut to the village square but as soon as trains started to run regularly at 200 km/h they stopped doing it, without even been told by the SNCF, as the draft from the trains was scarry.

    Red frog

    April 4, 2009 at 12:09 pm

  18. In Europe, they have made the decision to make passenger rail the priority while using roads and trucks for freight. In North America, the priority has been to use the railroads for freight.

    For major improvements to passenger rail here, the best solution is build new right of ways separate from freight. It is more expensive but the trains can travel much faster and there are no delays caused by freight trains. Passenger trains on dedicated tracks can also be lighter as they don’t have to withstand collisions with fright trains. Grade separation is easier and less expensive as passenger only trains can handle steeper grades and are not as high as double stacked container trains.


    April 4, 2009 at 2:28 pm

  19. I don’t know where you get your information Richard but (Quote):”In Europe, they have made the decision to make passenger rail the priority while using roads and trucks for freight”, is very wrong.

    Several European countries including Austria, Switzerland and Germany, force transiting commercial vehicles onto rail and run scheduled ‘Commercial Vehicle’ only trains, complete with Cafe cars and passenger cars for the drivers. Except for the dedicated TGV and ICE lines, freight and passenger trains operate on the same tracks.

    Even when I lived in South London (Epsom Downs Line, via Croydon) saw at least two freight trains a day on what I thought was a strictly commuter line.

    This U-Tube video shows a typical (Karlsruhe) German rail route that operates commuter trains, heavy freight trains, express passenger trains, trams, and even steam trains.

    In Europe there is a very big push to get trucks off the roads and highways, onto rail, even reopening long abandoned rail routes in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany to accommodate the extra freight traffic.

    As for the steeper grades issue, this is only pertinent to TGV and ICE routes (but watch out for those vertical curves!), which make up a very small percentage of overall railway route mileage. Certainly the Swiss have using very powerful locomotives to handle both freight and passenger trains on many of their steeply graded lines.

    Malcolm J.

    April 4, 2009 at 4:36 pm

  20. Well Malcolm, congrats on being right on at least one point. They are trying to increase the use of rail in freight in Europe but this is something relatively recent.

    Here are few of sources showing the higher use of rail for freight in North America:

    This one attempts to explain the reasons:

    Click to access fagan_vassallo_05_rail.pdf

    Although I’m always a bit suspicious of the Reason Foundation:


    April 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  21. In Europe, a lot for freight goes by barge and I would guess that has skewed the numbers away from trains. I still say you have made an error about European rail freight. When I lived in Germany briefly in the 80’s, I was surprised at how much local freight went by rail and just about every town and village had a siding with freight cars loading or unloading.

    Just from my observations, European Railways carried a lot of freight.

    Mind you, it is the UK, where rail freight has greatly diminished and maybe Stephen can shed some light on that subject, certainly the privatization of British Rail was a disaster for the track and for rail borne freight. It was even cheaper to send diesel locomotives by road for maintenance, than by rail!

    A final note: Since the 1990’s any commercial lorry or truck that was transiting Austria, Switzerland, and Germany (transiting is defined by carrying commercial freight through) had to go by train or face harsh penalties (Modern Railways). It would be like trucks carrying produce from California to BC, forced to take a train through Oregon and Washington.

    Senor Frog may wish to add more, as I believe he very knowledgeable on European Railways.

    Malcolm J.

    April 4, 2009 at 7:25 pm

  22. An interesting web site, re: French freight railways.

    Malcolm J.

    April 4, 2009 at 7:29 pm

  23. Malcolm is too kind. I am not a rail expert but like many Europeans have extensively used trains since I was old enough to remember it, studied Civil Engineering and of course stay informed. Europeans have used railways to transport goods since the invention of rail. At the time (last quarter of the 19th century) trains carried way more freight than passengers as few average people had the means and needs to travel long distance by train and, conversely, carrying all sorts of goods by train was faster and cheaper than either by horse-drawn carriages, barges (not available everywhere) or the first (very small) trucks. Train travel only started to become really popular in the 1930s, when paid holidays became compulsory. Huge freight-carrying trucks similar to those found in North America have a relatively recent history in Europe. In France and other Southern European countries this type of trucks only go back to the late 1950s-early 60s, if only because these countries still had at the time narrow roads (even major national roads had 3 lanes at most: one in each direction and a “suicide lane” in the center used to overtake cars going in either direction) and no freeways. Even now these big trucks can’t easily access the oldest and major areas of many of the towns that were built when horses were the only mode of heavy duty transport. A proof that freight trains have long been used is found in the huge freight yards built in the 19th century areas of so many towns. By the way, while it is true that passengers trains aren’t as high as freight trains with a double stack of containers, many of these containers carrying trains have a low platform while more and more TGV now have 2 levels (and run at 300-320 km/h with 1000 passengers).

    Red frog

    April 4, 2009 at 11:52 pm

  24. Indeed, Europe’s railways carry large amounts of freight. The difference is that it doesn’t take priority over passenger trains the way it does here, so it’s less visible. (In some cases there are even separate lines for freight in order to keep it from interfering with high-frequency passenger trains.)

    David Arthur

    April 5, 2009 at 6:44 am

  25. my last word as I don’t want to monopolize this blog page:
    from Wikipedia: Histoire du fret ferroviaire en France
    Au XIX ème siècle, on assiste à une révolution des transports : nécessaires pour les transports des marchandises, les réseaux ferroviaires vont se développer rapidement pour couvrir une grande partie de la France. En 1870, environ 17500 kilomètres de lignes de chemin de fer sont en service et en 1913 on compte 59000 kilomètres de voies ferrées. La densité du réseau ferré est alors la plus élevée d’Europe. La construction du réseau principal s’est fait à l’image des axes routiers, en étoile autour de Paris.
    very loose translation: the 19th century brings a revolution in the transportation of goods. Railways, being indispensable for the transportation of merchandises, a rail network is quickly built all across France, from 17500km in 1870 to 59000km in 1913. Not noted in the Wikipedia page is the fact that all these railway lines were built by private companies that weren’t interested in cooperating to build a practical network. In Bordeaux, for example, the line from Paris stopped on the right bank of the river, a good kilometre north of the terminus, on the left bank of the same river, of the line coming from Toulouse and towns further south. This also one of the reasons why in major towns like Paris and London there are several terminals, much to the confusion of many tourists.

    Red frog

    April 5, 2009 at 1:17 pm

  26. Japan also extensively uses their mainline railways for freight. I used to commute to work on the Kobe Line, from Kobe to Osaka, and very long freight trains would regularly pass through stations, sometimes on the outside “rapid” tracks, and sometimes right on the tracks next to the platform. There was really nothing special about it; the next train info board would flash “PASS” and it would come barreling through. Japan Rail uses a containerized system, and often has facilities for transferring containers right in urban areas.

    Good picture here:


    April 6, 2009 at 9:38 am

  27. They also run lots of freight trains at night, when there are few passenger trains on the tracks.


    April 6, 2009 at 2:59 pm

  28. Just a side note:

    The data shown n the Harvard paper cited by Richard above shows statistica data from “Eurostat”, a General Service Directorate-General of the European Commission, whih shows a continual decline in the rail share of freight transport in Europe. That’s not anecdotal evidnec of having seen trains on passenger rail tracks – that’s statistical data on the amount of freight carried.
    That’s not the same as saying there’s no freight carried by rail – it’s saying that the amount/percentage/quantity relative to other modes of transport (whether road, barge, air, etc.) has dropped. As the Eurostat data shows – tonnage has dropped.

    Ron C.

    April 7, 2009 at 9:45 am

  29. I think many are jumping at wrong conclusions. Until recently, there was much traffic in coals in the UK and Europe, for industry and power production. Much of this freight movement has ceased, with new power plants firing with natural gas or built close to coal fields.

    Also, many European railways are privatized and passenger and freight operations companies must pay for pathways. A pathway is a segment of time and space a train uses a railway line. A mainline may offer 6 pathways an hour per direction which equals 10 minute headways. Some mainlines may offer 8 or more pathways per hour, depending to the degree of signaling provided.

    This is how Karlsruhe’s famous zweisystem (two system) LRT was able to operate on the mainline, the operating company purchased pathway’s, one used by commuter trains, on the privatized DB.

    This may well reduce freight movement and long gone are the days of one locomotive pulling 3 freight cars at 50 kph!

    Most mainline minimum speeds for freight trains in Europe is, I believe, 100 kph. Also much longer trains are used.

    Malcolm J.

    April 7, 2009 at 11:29 am

  30. I am breaking my promise not to babble any more on this post to point out that lately we have veered off away from the initial subject of this post: FUTURE COMMUTES. Whether European railways carry more or less freight than before is not the point. The point is that on normal lines (i.e not the very high speed ones used by TGV, Thalys, Eurostar, ICE etc.) BOTH freight and passengers trains co-exist, with priority given during the day to commuter trains and dual mode LRT (called zweisystems in Germany, tram-train in France and the UK) This has now being done successfully for long enough that it is time for the BC transportation ministry to remove its blinkers and get on with building commuter rail lines (train and LRT)

    Red frog

    April 7, 2009 at 2:22 pm

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