Stephen Rees's blog

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

Rail for the Valley – new report

with 23 comments

Rail for the Valley released yesterday a report that looks at the possibilities for the Chilliwack to Surrey interurban line. This is the route that was once used by BCER to link up what were then small farming communities to New Westminster and Vancouver. The line was closed to passenger service in the early 1950s when, as in most of North America, high quality, fast electric public transit was being abandoned in favour of near universal car ownership. Since then, many people have seen that this was a very poor bit of planning, and that since the line still exists and is in public ownership, reinstatement of some type of rail based transit might be a good idea.

I was sent an early copy – and I must say that it failed to excite me. Rail for Valley think that it will help their cause, so I have provided a link to their blog where you can read their case and find a copy for yourself. What I had to point out to them was what is missing. It does cover – in great detail and at a high level of credibility – what the capital cost of reinstating service might be. That is based on widespread experience of utilizing existing railway rights of way for light rail passenger services.

But while there is a great deal of information about capital cost there is nothing at all about revenue – or indeed operating costs. I looked for, and could not find, any attempt to assess what the potential ridership might be, or what the revenue stream would need to look like. It would appear to me that the absence of any demand forecast leaves the biggest question open – how are we going to pay for this? This has to be the first question to be asked. The assertion that light rail has a record of attracting users out of cars is not nearly enough to convince a skeptical public that this idea is economically feasible. What kind of revenue can be expected from fares and how much support is to be required from the various levels of government?

The problem I see is that this report concentrates on what the project might cost – and even goes into detail on service levels. But there is no assessment at all of where people want to go and how much of that can be met by travel on this line – or indeed if it can provide the right combination of fares + time (generalised cost) to be attractive.

We spent a lot of time at that Abbotsford Committee looking at the way the line through that city is aligned north south when the dominant movement pattern is east west. And eventually concluded that a new tram line was needed, with a bus lane being the intermediate step along the way. And that was without any demand modelling!

In Greater Vancouver transit expansion is stalled. Translink can no more consider this proposal than it can anything else since it has no money for any expansion. So this report ought to have concentrated on what could happen outside the Metro area. There is no regional transportation agency in the valley – nor is there any way to collect much to support the (woefully inadequate) transit that is there now. So a report that used reviving part of the interurban at low cost within the imagination ability of local politicians might have a chance. Presenting a mega project with no hope of financing is not realistic and is far too easily dismissed.

The real problem for the valley is the Port Mann Bridge is being replaced by a much wider structure and the freeway is being widened as far as the Metro boundary. Piecemeal widening is occurring further east as well. The reason for that is that the BC Liberals and their friends like to think that the regional strategy has “failed” – and  that there are huge opportunities for lots of money to be made by continuing to develop  farm land at low densities. This pattern suits developers, car salesmen and indeed business interests in general. It is what they know how to do, since they have been doing this for the last fifty years and more. And they are convinced that despite the end of cheap energy they can continue as before. The impact of burning fossil fuels is something they think can be safely ignored, or will be mitigated by technologies and government subsidies, and that they can keep doing that with impunity indefinitely. They recognize no limits to growth.  Indeed their entire premise is that economic growth is essential, that people want to believe that their personal disposable  incomes will increase (even though in real terms is has been static for most households) and will continue to vote for this pattern. Indeed as they just have done in the Delta by-election.

We would have got much better value for money if the Port Mann/Highway #1 project had been replaced by transit expansion. Indeed, Premier Campbell liked to boast that the Canada Line provides the capacity of ten lanes of freeway in the space taken by two. So one might have expected that he would have considered that, if he actually was concerned – as he so often professes – about climate change. But, of course, his track record is to say one thing and do the opposite. Which is now getting him in trouble with his core constituency. There is of course a great deal of anger. Here it has been captured by Van der Zalm and his antiHST campaign. I see some similarities with the Tea Party movement. It is about taxes. It is about the fact that people feel stretched financially and are worried about the future – and that the elites do not seem to be listening to the voters. That spin and rhetoric is used on them – and that their experience does not match what they are being told. I suspect that the anger will intensify as the new highway and bridge fills up with traffic, the tolls are raised and the commute times increase – but by then it will be too late.

The way to pay for Rail for the Valley was not to waste it on freeways. The way to save the valley from sprawl was to strengthen the ALR, not weaken it, and build transit oriented development (TOD). But TOD does not work is there is no transit.

RfV say they are not in a position to produce a demand forecast – and that is true too. Anyway, the way we do modelling here you can put in any land use pattern you like – just as the province did for its freeway forecast. They used the same future land use pattern for both “with” and “without” scenarios. The model has no feedback loop between network and land use. It ignores induced travel. It says that trip making is simply a function of population size and distribution. So it is not exactly realistic – but it would still show that if the freeway had not been built and the people still came in their millions then a new railway line would have carried them. And some spread sheets would also demonstrate that would have been financially supportable – given some way to link travel choices to social costs. Not unreasonable assumptions – unlike the wildly unreasonable assumptions that are made by the Gateway program and the “business as usual” crowd in general.

Quite what the model would forecast if you now put in the widened freeway and its greatly dispersed population pattern that reflects real decisions as opposed to wishful thinking  I can only imagine. The case for the use of the existing right of way might still be shown to be more viable than a new one. The costs of acquiring land for transportation being one of the largest single elements – and a quick glance around the place where that by election occurred will now show exactly how much land the SFPR is taking over. It is not a small project.  But in current decision making timelines, any demand forecast for the valley has to assume the current projects are completed and up and running before the trains (or trams) arrive.

At the same time as this report emerged, so did the discussion about how to pay for more transit in Metro Vancouver get restarted. There is to be a meeting this week between the Mayors, the Premier and his Minister of  Transport. Some kind of deal will – it is hoped – emerge that will allow Translink to expand beyond its present services, and for the Evergreen Line to the North East Sector to be built at long last. I doubt, somehow, that the interurban will take up much of their time. Though places like Surrey and Langley have made it clear that they will not tolerate any new funding mechanism that just pays for one line that does not serve them. More buses – and bus lanes – seem the easiest way to meet that demand even if that will not exactly satisfy them. But that is the nature of compromise – a solution that leaves all parties equally dissatisfied. The Fraser Valley, of course, is not part of that process.

UPDATE There was a short report on the local CBC News

Written by Stephen Rees

September 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

23 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Fair assessment, but the problem is a Scott Road to Chilliwack TramTrain may provide a travel inducement for some customers; a Vancouver to Chilliwack TramTrain service would attract far more customers.

    The study looks at the cheapest way – diesel LRT to the (probably) best way or “full meal deal” (Vancouver/Richmond to Rosedale electric service) having many more destinations for the punters.

    At least we have a firm basis for a transit proposal and a “full build” (140 km.)costing less than half of the Canada Line, which would need less than half the ridership now carried by RAV for TransLink to deem it a success.

    Will it be built? Time will tell, but one thing is for certain, we can’t afford much more SkyTrain metro in the region and if the Evergreen Line is built, we will not see any SkyTrain/metro expansion until well past 2020, which leaves us just with endless studies, rancorous debate, more highway expansion and more cars and gridlock.

    I will echo what many transit experts have told me; “Our problem is that we build with SkyTrain/metro and until we stop building with SkyTrain/metro and build with cheaper light rail, our transit and transit funding problems will only escalate.”

    The RftV/Leewood TramTrain study maybe only a footnote in the greater scheme of things, but I think it is a damn good footnote.

    D. M. Johnston

    September 21, 2010 at 12:54 pm

  2. I appreciate that someone produced a report that shows the true cost of building such infrastructure. It puts the grand schemes in the Provincial Transit Plan look even further out of touch with reality than they already do.

    Operating costs were outside the scope of the report, but it’s not like gathering numbers from the hundreds of LRT systems around the world, some as close as Seattle and Calgary, and Coast Mountain Bus Company salaries is impossible.

    Demand forecasting was also outside the scope, but as Stephen noted the studies done for other projects like Gateway and RAV used dubious methodology. I’d rather have a report that focuses on construction and suggests reasonable targets for service than one filled with misleading revenue estimates pulled from the nether regions of some political hack.

    Stephen is right to say that RfV should have been built using some of the Gateway money, but to say that means it can’t be built soon ignores the fact that Victoria can always find money for a mega project even while crying poverty and cutting services. If the political will existed, such a project would happen.


    September 21, 2010 at 3:58 pm

  3. Trust Malcolm to show up and essentially pat himself on the back.

    “……a Scott Road to Chilliwack TramTrain may provide a travel inducement for some customers; a Vancouver to Chilliwack TramTrain service would attract far more customers.”

    …may provide??? Interesting how the bar gets lowered for ideas you like.

    …attract far more customers??? Quantify that. How many, how do you know?

    The money is there for plenty of Skytrain expansion Malcolm. I look forward to your explosions of outrage when it happens.

    The better report would have been……

    Extend Skytrain to Newton.

    Upgrade the tracks between Newton/Cloverdale/Langley, about 16km and run a frequent service on that portion. Or add another 7km to get to the Trans-Canada and TWU.

    plus WCE to Abbotsford.

    There’s a fixation on just using the corridor as opposed to designing a good service for todays world.

    Robert in Calgary

    September 21, 2010 at 5:05 pm

  4. Robert – the rudeness is uncalled for. If “the money is there” why have we not seen the Sytrain extension to Coquitlam? After all that was “promised” at the time the Translink Board – when it was still composed of local politicians – was persuaded to drop its opposition to the Canada Line. Both would be built concurrently, they were told. That still hasn’t happened and, apparently, that is because there is a funding shortfall. So the money is NOT there.

    There is no “fixation”. There is a well established view that had we not chosen SkyTrain for the Expo Line – and similar technologies for subsequent extensions – then more places could have been served by rail transit for the same outlay. The use of existing railway rights of way, where they are available, is common practice elsewhere. So often “the best” is the enemy of “the good”. The main reason we like SkyTrain is because it does not get in the way of the cars, unlike surface systems.

    Stephen Rees

    September 21, 2010 at 5:19 pm

  5. Stephen,

    Rudeness? I’m being gentle. Malcolm should have no objection when he gets a little stick in return for what he tosses out at folks.

    A well established view doesn’t automatically comport to a correct view. Yes, there’s plenty of room for “coulda’s” There’s no guarantee the same amount of money would have actually been spent. You could have had your other choice of technology and actually be worse off today.

    There’s no fixation on the Interurban corridor? I’ll have to disagree with that.

    King George Stn. opened in 1994.
    I would argue that the next logical win/win push would have been, Skytrain to Newton coupled with the light rail corridor of Newton/Cloverdale/Langley. (perhaps with a Newton/Richmond segment on the other side) Something that would have garnered broad support.

    I would further argue that this combination would actually be in operation now.

    Instead, all I see is Malcolm’s war against Skytrain and yes, a fixation on reactivating a long portion of the interurban route.

    The goals have been wrong, the tactics have been worse. Have any of you actually provided serious solutions to the money situation. I can say the money is there because I’m actually proposing the options to raise it. The Premier, among others, should have received my letter today.

    At any point in the last 20 or 25 years, have you called out Malcolm on his rudeness?


    Robert in Calgary

    September 21, 2010 at 8:13 pm

  6. Not sure what was the scope of this report, but certainly the lack of information on operating cost is a crucial missing information.

    Tied to it, one have to notice that federal regulation basically prevent to run on the SRY most, if not all, of the rolling stock presented in the report (and allowed rolling staff need to be staffed by 2 or more people)

    I know about the 8km track of O-train in Ottawa, but this suppose very specific constraint on the line operation. It could have been interested to see exposed the challenge and possible answer in that regard for the SRY.

    This in addition, of the lack of revenue projection, is unfortunately far to make a business case.

    and the true question is: why RfV exclude this very basic aspect of the scope of their study: could it be because, the answer of an “independent” consultant could have been too much damageable to their cause?


    September 22, 2010 at 12:05 am

  7. In response to two of the posters;
    Firstly Robert, yes as Stephen comments, you are well out of order. If you cannot bring yourself to write some positive words, then don’t bother. The take on your attitude is one of sour grapes.
    Secondly Vooney; the sort of comments that one has come to expect from you.
    Has it not occured to you that the report was written by an UK Engineering consultancy. The brief was to review the Engineering options only.
    Questions on ridership & operating costs were not deliberately excluded from the report (as you would like to believe)
    These areas will be addressed by local expertise who will have access to the neccessary data.

    bulleid 35028

    September 22, 2010 at 2:38 am

  8. Hello bulleid 35028,

    I politely reject your assertion and I would greatly appreciate it if you would be consistent in your view on writing positive words and give your advice to Malcolm and how he conducts himself on the internet.

    Secondly, isn’t your comment to Vooney rather… opposition to your own advice written seconds before?

    The civic election campaign is underway here in Calgary. I was visiting the website of one of the front runners last night. She was talking about the “Must Haves” vs the “Nice To Haves” and that you don’t fund the “Nice To Haves” when the “Must Haves” haven’t been met.

    Thanks and regards,

    Robert in Calgary

    September 22, 2010 at 5:05 am

  9. Hello bulleid 35028

    You defend this report like if it was your baby, isn’it 😉

    Note I don’t criticize the report content, I have no reason to do it.

    A contrario, I note that the RfV folk is not short of criticizing report originating of other organization, …even some not yet published like a one expected by the province on the transit in the valley, and rFv is also criticizing the perimeter of the Province study.

    if someone dare to suggest that the RFV folk use same technic to push their cause: he is immediately guilty of smearing

    PS: You will correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that the Edmonton LRT study, operating cost and revenue projection included, has been done by a UK firm too. I would also suggest that an European expertise could be appropriate to sort out the operation stuff on the SRY, since it is where the proved expertise is for the sort of service envisioned on the SRY line.


    September 22, 2010 at 9:14 am

  10. I’m not an expert by any stretch.

    But wouldn’t utilizing a light trail track that is already in place, that we already own a cheaper alternative then bringing Sky Train out to the valley?

    I haven’t read the report yet, I’m looking forward to doing so tonight at work.

    I think it’s a really exciting time for this project and I look forward to their success in the future, hopefully along side the upgraded local transit options that we’ll hopefully be seeing in September of 2011.

    I’m sure everyone can agree that a public transportation system has to work harmoniously with the rest of its supporting parts to be an effective alternative to automobiles.



    September 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm

  11. Regarding the first commentor, I still can’t believe his confusion between intercity commuter rail and urban rail transit. Building SkyTrain deep into the Valley is not in the cards of even the wildest transit geek dreamer. Further, TransLink’s / Metro Vancouver’s jursidiction ends at the eastern border of Langely.

    Depending on the source, in 2 to 7 years the world will start experiencing successive waves of permanent price spikes in petroleum, then serious shortages. This is the decade of reckoning, and far-flung and near total car-dependent communities like Chilliwack will suffer greatly until fully electrified (i.e.non-petroleum) passenger commuter and light freight electric rail service is established.

    Electric commuter rail will be required between all cities and towns in and around all metropolitan regions on the continent, let alone greater Vancouver. But senior governments do not appear see it yet. They are in denial. Therefore, the economic upheaval in towns and cities with poor transit service (or with diesel-dependent service) will likely be greater than those with adequate service.

    Please, let’s not drag an individual’s near total obsession with SkyTrain into the discussion when it’s not even relevant, and have some realistic price estimates to build transit infrastructure somewhere above the cheapest level.


    September 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

  12. I have never bought “the money is not there” argument for fast and frequent transit service everywhere in whatever mode is nost suitable. We are one of the wealthiest societies on Earth.

    On the other hand, I would fully agree with the statement that “governments have their funding priorities wrong”, and would add that it’s been so for several decades.


    September 22, 2010 at 12:49 pm

  13. Enough already with the PAB’s and SkyTrain trolls who want to demonize anyone who questions their metro god.

    SkyTrain is a metro.

    Metro’s need large traffic flows 300,000 to 400,000 passengers a day to justify their construction.

    LRT is a rail mode that can operate economically between 2,000 and 20,000 pphpd.

    TramTrain, by utilizing existing railway infrastructure can penetrate affordable into areas which otherwise can not be economically serviced by a rail service.

    The RftV/Leewood study looked at a TramTrain service from Scott Road to Chilliwack and the consultant added several phases including electrification and extensions to Vancouver, Richmond, and Rosedale.

    The initial success of the Karlsruhe TramTrain service was the elimination of one transfer between commuter rail and tram.

    Since SkyTrain was first marketed in the late 70’s only 7 such systems have been sold, all by secret deals not allowing LRT to bid on the project. Since the first TramTrain service started in 1993, there are over 20 such operations in Europe and North America, all built by the transit authorities after extensive public consultation.

    So here is the question MB: If one has a fixed budget of $1 billion and the goal is to build as much ‘rail’ transit as they can to prepare for peak oil, etc.

    Do you build:

    SkyTrain, at a cost starting @ $120 million/km.


    LRT with costs starting @ $15 million/km.


    TramTrain, with costs starting @ about $6 million/km.?

    The full build RftV/Leewood transit study (Vancouver/Richmond to Rosedale) can be built for less than $1 billion; $400 million less than the Evergreen Line; $1.5 billion less than the Canada Line; and $2 billion to $3 billion less than the proposed Broadway subway!

    RftV clearly understands that in today’s economy, we can not afford the luxury of building metro (RAV/SkyTrain) on routes that do not have the ridership to sustain them as precious monies spent on metro would otherwise be spent on other transit initiatives!

    We need better public transit badly, but with our current obsession (this is how the world sees us) with SkyTrain has created a massive transit deficit in the region. Building more of the same, won’t cure the problem, RftV offers an affordable alternative.

    D. M. Johnston

    September 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm

  14. @ DMJ. You haven’t read my post. SkyTrain will not be built into the Valley because there ain’t no city there to justify the cost. Just small towns and low density suburbs.

    Commuter rail it will be.


    September 22, 2010 at 2:17 pm

  15. Andrew

    September 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm

  16. A tram fan asks:

    Do you build:

    SkyTrain, at a cost starting @ $120 million/km.


    LRT with costs starting @ $15 million/km.


    TramTrain, with costs starting @ about $6 million/km.?”


    “buy a bus @ about $500,000 ?”

    complete the transit advocate.


    September 23, 2010 at 12:52 am

  17. Yes voony in many cases the most cost effective solution is to buy a bus and operate it on the existing road network.

    Once passenger volumes approach 2000 pph trying to meet demand using buses becomes uneconomical. A transit solution with higher capacity per salaried employee needs to be implemented. Putting a diesel-electric train on an existing right of way is an inexpensive way to move more people than can reasonably be achieved with buses.

    Broadway is the most obvious example of demand exceeding supply, but this morning I watched an overloaded articulated bus sail past hundreds of people waiting at stops along a 25 block stretch of 41st.

    The other problem with buses is what I witnessed driving out to the UBC hospital yesterday evening: traffic. Even at 6:00PM Marine Drive between 41st and 49th is a parking lot that traps buses just as effectively as it does SOVs.

    In places where the roads are wide enough and buses are slowed by other traffic one lane in each direction should be devoted exclusively to transit in whatever form it takes on that street.


    September 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

  18. Robert in Calgary seems to think we can build a huge list of transportation infrastructure without closing schools and hospitals or raising taxes. He should become a consultant to our Provincial government so we can all benefit from his knowledge.


    September 23, 2010 at 11:45 am

  19. David wrote

    “Once passenger volumes approach 2000 pph trying to meet demand using buses becomes uneconomical. ”

    Useful rule of thumb – but obviously it depends on a number of variables, including the cost of labour and the amount of effort that has gone into protecting buses from other traffic. It is not, in other words, an absolute value but rather a relative one.

    Similarly a diesel electric train is only “inexpensive” if you actually own the rights to operate passenger services on the existing right of way – which, in this case, BC Hydro still does. That does not necessarily apply in general. For West Coast Express for instance the cost of the those train “windows” is high – because CP owns the track and makes money by running freight trains along it. And anyway much depends on what your yard stick of “expensive” looks like. Compared to SkyTrain, nearly any other alternative can seem cheaper.

    The point I am trying to make is that simply comparing what has been done elsewhere to what might be done here is not necessarily useful. Which is why some consideration has to be given to evaluating this project properly – both costs and benefits have to be taken into account

    Stephen Rees

    September 23, 2010 at 12:15 pm

  20. David’s comments >>> Robert in Calgary seems to think we can build a huge list of transportation infrastructure without closing schools and hospitals or raising taxes. He should become a consultant to our Provincial government so we can all benefit from his knowledge. <<<

    I think the question is about how to spend transportation dollars. Not diversions from other important areas. As Stephen's post originally states, we didn't not need to spend $billions on freeway expansion. And Gateway investments will practically keep communities south of the Fraser dependent on car travel for another generation. Too bad…

    Freeways keeping costing users and communities for years and years to come… lack of transportation choice and the need to drive to go anywhere or do anything is a very expensive "tax" burden on average families and individuals.


    September 23, 2010 at 11:35 pm

  21. Andrew in regards to the Gateway Project.

    That is why I love the fact that the bridge will be tolled. All the bridges should be tolled. Make people think twice before crossing a bridge in their vehicle.

    But if politically the only way to get those tolls is to build a new project. Then it might be the way to go. Of course I’d love to just see the tolls come about but I understand it is a political game.

    It is easier to sell the idea of tolls to the public when you give them something new for it.

    Paul C

    September 24, 2010 at 3:28 am

  22. […] for the Valley issued an interesting report on reviving the Interurban, although bloggers like Stephen Rees, Nathan Pachal and Sacha Peter are a bit skeptical. Stephen and Nathan are influential and […]

  23. I don’t see the credibility in the proposal.

    If you’re having to close an intersection every time a train passes, based on the proposal of 20 to 30 minutes frequency each way, the railway would be shut down 4 to 6 times an hour. The report glosses over this as if it’s a “minimal impact” or less impact than the existing freight trains.

    “Minimal impact” in the report is defined as traffic being back to normal after a few light cycles. If trains are crossing a given point every 10 minutes, traffic will only just be getting back to normal, when it gets disrupted once again.

    The freight trains through the Surrey only run twice a day and almost never during rush hour, how is this at all comparable? Already at least one intersection (152 St at 64 Ave) requires at least two light cycles to make it through the intersection at rush hour. How can any sane traffic planner add an a grade railway crossing, closed every 10 minutes, into this mix?

    Given how disruptive this proposal is, there’s no way that the project could be done at this frequency without grade separating at major intersections, which would cause the costs to significantly balloon.


    October 2, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: