Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Look and Feel of a Revived Interurban

I was very surprised to see a Letter to the Editor of The Chilliwack Times today from long-time light rail proponent Malcolm Johnston. For some time now, all of the light rail advocacy groups in the south Fraser have stated very clearly that we need "community rail" from Surrey and eventually out to Chilliwack. , The TransLink trip diaries and other data tell us that approximately 87% - 95% of our trips from the south Fraser region stay within the south Fraser region. Community Rail would use Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology and allow for example, folks in Chilliwack to travel to Abbotsford, Langley or Surrey, or people in Langley to travel to Abbotsford, etc. The system would allow that 5% traveling to Vancouver to connect with the existing SkyTrain at Scott Road in Surrey.

Malcolm Johnston rightly points out that a revived interurban would not be a West Coast Express (WCE) system or "commuter rail" that would be a limited one-way service. The interurban right-of-way in the south Fraser is intact and preserved. Extending the interurban line directly to Vancouver would complicate a revival of the old line and duplicate SkyTrain service, which we are certain would be a major deal killer for the Province of BC and Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon. We have trip data that document clearly the south Fraser travel patterns and presents a clear business case for the interurban revival.

Speculation on potential tourism to the Valley an related discussions can take place after the south Fraser portion of the Interurban is revived with LRT technology. For the 5% of commuters that must get to Vancouver, an Interurban connection at Scott Road will serve them well and leverage existing systems.

While South Fraser OnTrax has always supported the work of Malcolm Johnston and his Light Rail Committee, we must advocate for the needs of the South Fraser first that we travel within every day. Sorry Malcolm, but we want to see a restored Interurban in the South Fraser first before building a duplicate system that will only serve 5% of our South Fraser population going into Vancouver. The Fraser River Bridge would have to be replaced before we can get reliable passenger rail service into Vancouver. But for now, leveraging existing transit with complimentary light rail on the old Interurban line has always been something that all of the South Fraser groups have agreed with.


Grumpy said...

There is a fundamental error being made by the proponents of a reinstated interurban line from Vancouver to Chilliwack: no one has researched the market for such a service. Light Rail or LRT only works well when the LRT line services both home and destination, with a direct (no-transfer)trip. As one transfers from mode to mode, one can lose upwards of 70% of potential ridership per transfer.

There is no such thing as community rail, it is an invention by those trying to reinvent the wheel. The idea customers will willingly take a bus to rail and then take a bus again are, to be polite, is not supported by modern public transit precedent. What has been shown that when transfers have been eliminated, ridership soars.

A basic starter service from Chilliwack to Vancouver, would see a 60 to 90 minute service. Say, a 2 car train-set, with a total capacity of 500, operating on an hourly basis (500 pphpd), were to run. Where would be the market?

Instead of percentages, it would be helpful of real numbers because the majority of ridership will come from that 5% number and not the from those going just to Abbotsford.

For people wanting to go from Chilliwack to Abbotsford or to Langley, or visa versa; it will be easier to drive. The market for the new rail service would be people wanting to go to downtown Vancouver, where the proposed service would be much faster than a transfer at Scott Road station to SkyTrain to continue ones trip to Vancouver. Here is the draw for customers, no transfer to SkyTrain!

But there is more, with a direct rail service from downtown Vancouver to Abbotsford and beyond, there is a massive market of over 500,000 persons to draw on.

To have the reinstated interurban service downtown Vancouver is a no brainer, yet parochial views seem to want to create a sort of 'Iron Curtain' to good rail service, across the Fraser River.

That the reinstated interurban service downtown Vancouver is essential to its success and it is certainly advisable to have a new rail service successful creating public applause, than creating cat-calls of failure.

Present calls for 'Community Rail', what ever that is, to only service the South East Fraser Valley from Scott Road Station, is just not silly, its unsupportable - it will doom the project to failure.

Corey said...

Don't forget that that 5% is very likely to change over the next few years, as gas prices continue to rise and people realize that yes, driving really does suck compared to riding light rail!

Please stop analyzing ridership like it will stay at 5% forever; it will not. Changes in energy and land uses now underway will boost ridership greatly in the coming years.

In short: We need the train and we need it NOW.

Nathan Pachal said...

Just to clarify. We are talking about total percent of trips, not ridership. Ridership on transit will and is going up as people adjust to new economy realities. One thing that I hope would improve is the amount of people that live in mixed-use areas. Right now transit plays a major roll in getting people into Vancouver’s downtown from all areas of Metro Vancouver. Where transit service lacks is in getting between other communities (like in the South Fraser). Restoring the Interurban on the existing right-of-way today would sure help give these people have real transit options. I’d love to see light rail that would get me to all parts of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, but I think restoring service between Surrey and Langley is a good first step.

Joe Zaccaria said...

Cory: Certainly ridership will fluctuate, but have you considered that communities like Surrey, Langley and Abbotsford have been very busy creating local jobs? The Township of Langley now pretty much has created one job for every resident in the workforce! These local jobs will increase the need for community light rail services.

Also, at what point do you consider it worthy of spending for us to build a redundant line out to Vancouver? Granted LRT would allow for more stations than SkyTrain, but as Nathan says, we need to start somewhere.

If we follow good business practices then we should perform a professional ridership study and a firmer cost of building the new LRT system. We must also consider annual operating costs and where the funding will come from. South Fraser OnTrax has now engaged several mayors and political leaders and their common thread is that they need to see a business case for LRT and understand funding and sources.

Without a professional business case, these leaders will not support such a pipe dream and why should they? It would amount to political suicide. The last thing we need as transportation advocates, is for an LRT system to be built on a faulty business plan and an equally unsustainable funding strategy.

Grumpy said...


"Also, at what point do you consider it worthy of spending for us to build a redundant line out to Vancouver?"

The line is already there, waiting to be used.

As for a 'business case' there never has been a real business case for any of our rail lines, simply because RAV, SkyTrain, and the West Coast Express were all political deals, built to win elections.

Our politicians could not handle a real business case for transit, they have never had one.

I do know that by not extending the interurban to downtown Vancouver, will compel the transit community not or invest or even have any interest in the project, because as it stands a Scott road to Chilliwack Tram/Train is not viable. You need to reach Vancouver and the Vancouver market to make the project work.

LRT is not a panacea, it doesn't instantly attract ridership, the real questions to be answered is:
1) Does this new transit system solve my transit needs?
2) Is the new transit financially viable?

As it stand, it does not.

That 20 minute sprint from the Fraser Bridge to Downtown Vancouver and visa versa, would attract a whole lot more ridership, than a Chilliwack to Abbotsford Service.

What has not happened here is that very few people understand the economics of good transit, because up till now it was always "You are going to get SkyTrain or RAV or WCE, whether you like it or not."

Like it or not, to be successful any new Valley rail service, must directly service Vancouver.

Anonymous said...

Just as important as routing is speed. If it takes 90 minutes to get from Chilliwack to Scott Road, the trains will be mostly empty. They have to be fast enough to get people around the region quickly and efficiently.

One thing I appreciate about SFOT is that you propose a Scott Road-Langley City Phase 1 approach to the Interurban. This is likely the most viable part of the route to start with.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it "community rail" is not a good word for it. This is a inter-regional transportation strategy. Chilliwack is 100 km from Vancouver, not across a metropolitan area, and there is significant rural area in between.

Like grumpy said, a connection to downtown Vancouver is absolutely necessary. Who is going to ride this train? Probably not people going out to buy groceries or to fill a prescription.

People will ride the train to:
-get to medical specialist appointments in Abbotsford, New Westminster and Vancouver.
-get to/from Seattle or Portland on Amtrak
-go to the airports in Abbotsford (shuttle) or Vancouver (Skytrain from downtown)
-tourists in downtown Vancouver wanting to check out sites in the Fraser Valley
-University students going home for the weekend
-Business people attending meetings in city centres
-people travelling to visit family members

This rail line I envision would not be a commuter line. It would be an extension of the current VIA, AMTRAK, and WestCoast Express network to allow seemless interconnectibility with existing train services.

Skytrain is a metropolitan light rail service serving a metropolitan area. The Interurban doesn't have to be light rail. It could be heavy rail too with bilevel Bombardier cars. I would throw my support behind the option that costs less.

The best place to start with the Interurban is to bring local transit service and bicycle networks up to a level that could support such a train service.