Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Rail for the Valley

Another great student project

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One of my online correspondents recently wrote to me that she hangs out on facebook to absorb the energy and enthusiasm of young people. I have been really impressed by some of the work being done by students, and thanks to the internet, this no longer just languishes in neglected folders, but gets shared. Paul Hillsdon, Ryan Longoz and Erika Rathje are all great examples.

An exercise in cartography (in pdf format) at UBC by Michael Kushnir has recently been completed and is doing the electronic rounds thanks to Richard Campbell (who does not blog but posts compulsively to email lists, thank goodness).

This map neatly illustrates where the density is in relation to railway lines, and tends, in my view, to support the thesis that we can better link to existing dense places by using the mode which actually brought most of them into existence. That is, as opposed to building even more infrastructure for a mode which we know has brought mostly misery and ill health in its wake. For if you are going to cross large areas of no people at all much better that you do it with trains that do not stop than roads which inevitably bring development with them.

The failure of the road system in the 1930s was due to what was then called “ribbon development”. New divided highways built in Britain as part of the unemployment relief efforts were not like the German autobahns (limited access roads). As a result, development sprang up along them, greatly reducing their utility as longer distance routes due to the number of accesses onto them. And covering some prime agricultural land in the process. At that time farming was in a slump due to the use of “Empire Preference” (which meant grain came from Canada, lamb from New Zealand and beef from Australia – and Argentina, which wasn’t in the empire) and the lack of need for horse fodder due to the mechanisation of road transport. A similar pattern afflicts the Fraser and King George Highways here today. Across the US the “defense” interstate highways enabled longer distance commuting and produce the freeway on ramp cluster that has made much of the country into a corporate clone of parking lots, fast food, gas stations and motels – ringed by big box retailers and outlet malls. And was eagerly copied by Doug McCallum in South Surrey.

The idea that you should use government investment as a way to shape growth seems to be anathema to our present provincial government. They even go so far as to claim that widening the freeway will not influence growth – even though they have been promoting development at highway interchanges in this area. They are even better at it than Judge Doom. The map also shows mode share – and how, at present, transit does not meet much need in the exurbs. That is because the distances to be covered are too great to be covered in a reasonable time by a bus that stops at every hole in the hedge. Assuming there is a bus service at all, which usually there isn’t. So speedy rail cars stopping only at centres will encourage transit oriented development there – provided the municipalities zone it properly.

It requires some concerted effort, by all three levels of government to create a framework whereby we will stop doing what we have been – since we know that doesn’t work – and try another approach, which has been demonstrated many times to be effective. And which will serve us all much better in an oil starved future.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 19, 2008 at 2:58 pm

The Mayor Of Chilliwack on Rail for the Valley

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I was going to do something else today, but Google’s alert drew my attention to a long piece in the Chilliwack Times. When you are Mayor, you not only get centre stage at events you attend, you get lots of media space to explain your position on those you don’t attend.

Now it is unusual for a Mayor to have such a coherent and well argued case, but it does have a few holes. I will let you read it as it stands – and I suggest you do that first – and then I intend to point them out.

the most recent census data (2001)

The most recent census was in 2006. I know because I worked on it. And data from that is becoming available. I suspect that things may have changed a bit int he intervening period, but in terms of journeys to work (the only ones that the census looks at) we can only choose from what is available to choose. Since Chilliwack has inadequate transit it is no surprise that most people drive. The Mayor goes on to make some suppositions: he may or may not be right, but I really wonder why he could not get real data.

The “Rail to the Valley” folks admit in their documents that an upgrade of the old Interurban Line would cost in excess of $1 billion.

Note that this is not a direct quote and no source is cited. It may be that you could spend a $1bn on upgrades, but I do not accept that is necessarily the  cost. And the Mayor does not look at any of the options in detail. One of the great advantages of using existing tracks is that you can proceed in a gradual way, and you can also avoid large capital costs. Indeed, most of the proposals I have seen have been of this kind. You could get a diesel railcar on lease, and a few temporary platforms, sell tickets on board, and run in between the freight trains. Not ideal by any means, but very cheap indeed. A whole order of magnitude or two below the Mayor’s carefully chosen figure.

It does not calculate the cost of buying the freight off of the right of way which is currently near capacity from Abbotsford to the west. It also does not include the cost of the disruption to the hundreds of businesses, who have located on, and use, the rail line to move freight.

It does not include these costs because they are not necessary. Freight on rail is not that time sensitive – and does not have to move at periods of peak passenger demand. No existing freight customers need to be inconvenienced at all. And I somehow doubt that the SRY has “hundreds” of customers – though I bet they wish they did. My casual acquaintance with less than train load freight in this area is that it has been declining steadily – but I will concede I may be misled. But the whole right of way and freight argument is a red herring – and a scare tactic and unworthy of a Mayor.

 As noble as the idea is to provide rail transit from Chilliwack to Vancouver using the old Interurban line, it is clear that this meets the least of our needs. In addition, while cheaper than “SkyTrain,” we would still be spending hundreds of millions to inadequately serve a very few people.

“Noble” is just being sarky! No one suggests it would solve every need, and of course you need to be looking at buses where there are no tracks – which is most places.

 We have a very limited service in our community and little access to additional provincial transit funding.

But the Mayor is disingenuous when he asserts that it is lack of provincial funding that is hobbling local transit service.  BC Transit views its services as a partnership. And many local municipalities, while they do not like raising property tax to pay for their share, have done so and now have better service than Chilliwack does as a result. As long as there is an inadequate network, ridership will be low. You need to get to the point where transit is a viable alternative for enough people. The Mayor must explain why this has not been his priority up to now. It seems to me he has preferred to keep his property taxes down. Which is fine if that is what his electors want – that’s democracy for you – but don’t blame the province for your lack of enthusiasm for transit spending.

He then goes on to trot out the usual guff about lack of demand and population. Which is typically short sighted. And the FVRD is as  much a creature of the Mayors as the MVRD – so citing one of its reports at length as though it were an independent source is casuistry. In future, the valley is going to have to reduce its reliance on cars. Sooner or later, trains will have to be part of the mix. If people have more choice, they can make more intelligent decisions – not just about travel today but location of home, school and work for future travel. The real agenda for this Mayor is that he likes the isolation of Chilliwack from the rest of the Valley. That is why he talks so much about the lack of travel from his community to Vancouver. But that is not the market for Rail for the Valley. And I think he knows that, but he also knows the  audience he is playing too – and he has played to them successfully for a long time.

I wasn’t at the meeting either. But I suspect that the reason people booed is because he did not come to defend his views and subject them to argument. Why should he when the Aspers will give him so much space?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 27, 2008 at 9:51 am

Last night’s meeting in Abbotsford

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It was late when I got back last night, so I went straight to bed.

The meeting was full and standing – although it didn’t have to be. People apparently prefer to stand at the back rather than sit at the front. John Van Dongen the Abbotsford-Clayburn MLA chose to open the meeting, but turned the podium over to Frank Blasetti, the ADM from the MoT, who went through the government’s announcement, but added very little to what we know, though it had some pretty pictures of Victoria style BCT double deckers behind New Jersey Barriers on exclusive bus lanes with their own freeway ramps. Missing of course was any new bus service from Surrey to Coquitlam and new to me was the “promise” that SkyTrain would be extended to Langley by 2030 or earlier if the construction continues from the presently indicated end of track on the Fraser Highway. Frequent bus service would reach Abbotsford by 2020. Also Mr Blasetti noted that the three transit sytems Translink, Mission/Abbotsford and Chiliwack do not tend to talk to each other. Their planning is not co-ordinated and they all are inward looking.

Mr van Dongen was very determined to point out, more than once, that anything that happened in the Fraser Valley would be determined by the local municipalities, and funding was dependent upon local contributions. This reflects the policy on SoCoBriTCA being expanded. I could not resist intervening at that point, since it is in stark contrast to the way municipalities inside Metro have been treated.

I got to follow his presentation: five minutes really is not enough for my style of informal, unprepared talk. I had too much to say of course, and spent far too long pointing out that they had not cancelled the freeway expansion, and that the consequential impacts on the area would be worse than SE2 in terms of air quality but worse would be the impact on land use. That lead me off to a diversion on the model and its inability to change land use in response to the freeway or deal with generated traffic, but my example of the Alex Fraser Bridge experience got a very warm response. By the time I got to the reason why rail is needed ahead of development I was out of time.

Nathan Pachal also had a very neat PowerPoint, but was stymied by technical issues. I am really glad I no longer am required to use it. I reproduce below the very useful table of the range of costs that have been quoted for various levels of rail service. This is taken from the VALTAC blog. What was news to me, and is very helpful indeed, is that the Province owns the track and SRY merely leases it for freight service. The Province retained the right to reintroduce passenger service at any time – and that includes the section used by CN and CP to run freight to the BCR Deltaport line. He also pointed out that the interurban had shaped growth when it operated and the areas around the former stations were still the most walkable urban parts of the valley. Nathan is another of these very young, very bright transit enthusiasts and he displayed great aplomb and wisdom for his age. With young people like him and Paul Hillsdon getting this involved in the system I am optimistic for the future.

Here are the costs, per kilometre, of various proposed or under construction rail transit projects in the Lower Mainland:

Interurban Line:
DRL Report: Deluxe Electric LRT: $27,000,000/km
UMA Report for Surrey: Community Rail: $6,000,000/km
FVHRS: Tourist: $325,000/km

SkyTrain(ish) Line:
Canada Line: $105,000,000/km
Evergreen Line: $127,000,000/km
UBC Line: $233,000,000/km

The average cost to build a light rail system in North America is about $35,000,000/km.

Dave Fields deferred to the “experts” (playing down his own considerable fount of knowledge and expertise) but offered his services saying to the audience that SPEC wishes to help the people of Abbotsford get what they want.

Jim Houlahan of CAW 111 did pretty much the same speech as he gave at the Unitarian Church, but it still impresses me that he is able to summarize all the earlier plans. His reaction to the government’s announcement was one of weary cynicism. “I have seen this play before”. He disgreed with my stance of rail preceeding development, saying that present needs come first since we are playing catch up, and are well behind were we should be.

John van Dongen scored a hit with his remark that there was far too much talk about Greater Vancouver – and not enough about the Valley. As one audience member noted, the Mayor of Chilliwack has made it very clear he wants nothing to do with SoCoBriTCA or Metro. In general, Abbotsford has had a very poor level of service from BC Transit, largely due to local resistance to increases in property tax to pay for it.

The questions were wide ranging, and tended to be statements and complaints about current conditions. I tried to pick up on my sense of the mood and stressed the need to do something for the area now and not wait until the freeway expansion (to Langley) is open. Given that the Province has the upper hand, it really would be far easier than I anticipated to get a demonstration project going. Indeed in 1986 a British Rail Class 142 railbus was brought over to run a service on the line in connection with Expo. (I would like a picture of that event!)

142010 Cardiff Central photo © Simon Edwards

I talked about how OC Transpo has Bombardier “Tament” dmus that they are using in a similar project (“O Train”). People wanted to know why the trolley wire could not be restrung between the existing power poles (the route is still used by BC Hydro as a transmission line) – and I said anything can be done for a price – how would you like to pay for it? For a demo, I think the easiest and quickest is best. I also pointed out that they are plenty of rail operators who would respond to a Request for Expressions of Interest.

I also learned that Surrey has committed $5m to a “heritage” service using former interurban cars – of which there are several now in running order – and a trailer with a generator using hythane as a way of appealing to the province’s promotion of hydrogen. All that is required is $250k from the province! However, the service would be more like the Vancouver Heritage Streetcar than a commuter or local transit route.

The audience was attentive and polite, and generally well informed. A couple of people made points about the importance of impressing developers with the long term commitment of rail investment as opposed to the ease with which buses can be moved elsewhere. Also noted was passengers willingness to walk twice as far to a rail rapid transit station as the average bus stop. There was also skepticism, about the government’s timetable but also the lack of capacity on the existing SkyTrain bridge. Here Dave was able to get in his point about how much track capacity exists – but the lack of rolling stock means that capacity remains unused. That crossing could move more people than the evil twin!

The meeting wound up on time, but they didn’t want to let us go. All the speakers had a line of people wanting to talk to them and we were very late leaving. I found myself talking to the President of the Abbotsford Ratepayers as we crossed the frosty – and now empty – parking lot. He is not only keen on rail for the SRY but a downtown, free, streetcar too.

My impression of Abbotsford has changed. As a former BC Transit planner I was overly influenced by the reactionary political stance of the council. There are many people in the Valley who are way ahead of their politicians in their understanding of the potential role for transit there.


Press coverage of the meeting – Abbotsford Mission Times

Abbotsford News
misquotes me – I actually said that the freeway would make SE2 lok like “a walk in the park” – which, come to think about it, does not make sense either

Written by Stephen Rees

January 24, 2008 at 8:20 am

Posted in Railway, transit

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