Should We Convert The Canada Line to Light Rail?

Updated for 2020

 With Covid-19, this becomes more important than ever.

Right now we have a Hobson’s choice for regional rail transit, extend the Millennium and Expo Lines and continue using the proprietary Movia Automatic Light Metro or nothing.

This must change and change soon, or the hugely expensive SkyTrain light metro system will become largely irrelevant; a museum piece dedicated to political corruption, professional ennui and public hubris.

The public just cannot afford throwing billions more at rapid transit for so little return.

First posted by on Thursday, October 11, 2012

Subways & metros are very expensive to build and operate.

The proposed new tunnel that is planned to replace the George Massey Tunnel is on the back burner. Premier John Horgan cancelled the Liberal vanity project and a more reasonable solution has been made.

Replacing the tunnel with a larger a larger tunnel will only send the gridlock to the next choke point, Steveston Highway and ultimately the Oak Street & Knight Street bridges. This will cause massive congestion if traffic through the tunnel when highway traffic is expanded.

What is needed is a a rail transit solution that works and can be readily and affordably extended to meet the needs of the ever growing population South of the Fraser River.

The proprietary SkyTrain light metro system and the light metro philosophy of operation has done very little in attracting the motorist from the car. The light-metro’s high ridership can be attributed mostly to recycling of bus customers who are forced to transfer from bus to metro to complete ones journey to Vancouver/Burnaby.

SkyTrain has done little to ease congestion in the METRO Vancouver area.

The proprietary SkyTrain light-metro system is just too expensive to build and it just cannot be extended affordably into the outer suburbs to attract new customers. The extremely high costs of rapid transit has made rubber on asphalt solutions cheaper than improving regional transportation, as evidenced by the many highway expansion projects underway in the Metro Vancouver region. As new highways are built, auto use increases, with the only barrier against increased auto use being road capacity.

Extremely myopic regional planning, shows Metro Vancouver’s complete ineptitude when it comes to regional transportation as transit planning is based on 70 year old concepts, when fanciful monorails, metros and subways were all the rage.

What was “de rigor” in 1960 is not just passe in 2020, it is obsolete.

Sadly, this short sighted and extremely dated planning, will only lead to more gridlock and traffic chaos.

The Canada Line is a heavy-rail metro, operating ROTEM’s electrical multiple Units (EMU’s), but built as a light metro, with very limited capacity. The Canada Line’s automatic operation, complete with small stations and 40 to 50 metre long platforms gives  roughly slightly more than half the capacity of the Expo and Millennium Lines, which stations have 80 metre long platforms. The capacity constrained Canada Line has hamstrung  future attempts capacity to meet tomorrow’s transit demands.

To both increase capacity on the Canada Line and to increase its reach into Richmond in an effort to attract more ridership,would cost  a minimum of $2  billion.

$2 billion would buy you about 80 km. (at about $25 mil/km.) of modern LRT!

That $2 billion would be put to better use by:

  1. Converting the Canada Line hybrid heavy/light metro to light rail.
  2. Increasing North/South capacity by using the Arbutus Corridor.
  3. With the money saved by much cheaper LRT construction, extend the the new Canada Line LRT across the Fraser river into Delta and South Surrey.

This is not whimsical musings, rather it very well may be a transit solution that TransLink or a future operating authority may seriously consider.

The Canada line is in a conventional railway and most modern light rail vehicles would easily operate within the Rotem EMU’s Kinematic Envelope.

(Kinematic Envelope: the space that a rail vehicle could potentially occupy as it moves laterally and vertically on its suspension.)

The expensive and complicated automatic signalling system should be replaced with much simpler and more robust signalling system, doing away with the higher operating costs of automatic signalling.

Retain third rail power pick on the elevated and underground portions of the line by equipping, as done before on other transit lines, the trams with retractable shoes to collect power from the third rail and using standard pantographs on non-guideway portions of the line. Simply, the first station the tram stops at on the guideway portion of the line the driver drops the pan and deploys the power collection shoes. Several tram varieties on the market today have dual pantograph/shoe for power pick up on APS ground level contact-less power supply.

By converting the Canada Line to LRT would make the cost of extending the Canada Line, first to Steveston and Ironwood Mall an affordable option. It would also be much cheaper to build with LRT for a new crossing of the Fraser River to serve both Ladner and South Delta; then onwards to South Surrey.

The cost to extend the Canada line to Steveston and Ironwood Mall (about 11 .3 km.), should cost no more than $400 million and the CN rail line bisecting Richmond is reported up for sale for $65 million, probably much cheaper if it was used for transit. It is conceivable that for the cost of the Canada Line extending to Steveston and the Ironwood Mall, we could build LRT to both Steveston and the Ironwood Mall, then through a tunnel under the Fraser River to Ladner and  the Tsawwassen ferry terminal!

To increase capacity of the capacity limited trunk line to downtown Vancouver, the Canada Line can branch onto the existing and seldom used former interurban route, owned by the CPR to New Westminster, To access downtown Vancouver, using the Arbutus corridor and Granville Street bridge, which was designed for trams. This could be done quite cheaply for under $20 million/km.

It is time for TransLink to start planning for light rail for the region. SkyTrain, with construction costs exceeding $200 million/km. just cannot be built economically into the burbs, but modern LRT, with construction costs as low as $6 million/km. (TramTrain) can. Regional politicians must be made to understand that building with SkyTrain and/or light-metro has been a mistake and that we must plan future transit on the light rail model. The regional politicians who make up METRO Vancouver should tell TransLink either change their transit planning direction and for a start, seriously look at converting the Canada Line to LRT and extend it through Richmond, with plans to build it across the Fraser River to Delta and beyond.


4 Responses to “Should We Convert The Canada Line to Light Rail?”
  1. The recommendation to turn the CanadaLine into Light Rail—and bag the savings—brings up the other opportunity: turn the Millennium Line into Light Rail—send it along the 1st Aveneue-Olympic Line-4th Avenue alignment to UBC—and bag the savings!

    Running Light Rail on the Arbutus Corridor and the Kent Street RoW brings up another interesting variation. The distance from False Creek at the foot of Burrard to Londsdale Quay is equal to the distance of the tunnel approved under Broadway between Arbutus and Main Street.

    However, all these discussions revolve around the lack of appreciation for the difference between Regional Light Rail and Skytrain, on the one hand. And the necessity to build Regional Light Rail rail in order to access cheap land to build houses that are affordable to median household incomes.

    The truth of the matter, as discussed above, is that Skytrain is just too expensive to provide Regional Service.

    Without Regional Service, we will not be able to access cheap land for building affordable houses. That means that the Crisis in Housing will rage on.

    Building Towers-and-Skytrain on Broadway is like putting out the raging inferno of the Housing Crisis with gasoline.

    Great post Zwei! Intelligent options.

    For a more graphically detailed presentation of the North Vancouver to Chilliwack Line see

  2. Jim Pickens says:

    This is all fine and dandy when we do take into consideration of distance over cost and this is totally understandable. Where this fails is efficiency. Light rail systems have the tendency to be very inefficient in comparison to their grade separated counterparts, especially when compared to an automated system.

    I am used to the system we have Calgary and when I compare it to my experience on both systems of the SkyTrain I note how much better the SkyTrain is and how much more likely I would be to use public transit if we had a properly designed system like that rather than a combination of some sort of partially grade separated highish speed LRT and a glorified street car. The problem is our concept of what a street car system is supposed to do in this part of the world is a bit wrong. In Europe they are used to feed properly build metro systems, here we usually build them in lieu of properly built metro systems. When you get out into suburban areas where the train can have its own ROW the LRT design works ok, but I don’t see that much of an option with property acquisition costs and the demolition that would be required somewhere in Metro Van where there was already not a ROW.

    Trans link and the governments haven’t had that much trouble building what they have thus far, it’s better that what other cities of the size have in the Western Hemisphere so I’d say that’s a pretty good effort.

    You have to build something that is worth the investment in the first place. A train that runs on a street doesn’t have enough advantage over a BRT to make it worth the cost. We are finding that out here in Calgary with out much put off Green Line LRT as a portion of it is designed as a street car when the corridor is deserving of a subway like Broadway is. It has to be better enough than bus service and relatively future proof to be worth the investment. Other than that portion or the proposed train here the ROW has pretty much always existed so not much land needed to be acquired which is why the rest would be an OK, not great but ok, design,

    Zwei replies: I know you are part of the SkyTrain (oh those IP addresses get you every time)Lobby and you really don’t have a clue about transit.

    Calgary’s LRT has been compared to Vancouver’s SkyTrain for almost 40 years and guess what, Calgary’s LRT is cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, cheaper to maintain and has a much higher capacity. No one has built with the proprietary MALM system in 15 years and no one has copied the Canada Line, a heavy-rail metro operating as a light metro.

    Well there is REM, but that just copied the financing, where the corporate members of the P-3 grow fat off the taxpayer.

  3. Haveacow says:

    BRT is not more efficient than LRT, especially as the number passengers increase. Operationally, BRT becomes very inefficient compared to LRT at only moderatel levels of passengers. The operating costs of having to operate greater and greater numbers of buses compared to the number of L.R.V.’s (Light Rail Vehicles), to move the same number of passengers, is why Ottawa started transforming the continent’s largest BRT network into an LRT network.

  4. Haveacow says:

    Remember @Jim Perkins, Vancouver’s Skytrain is only a Light Metro system not a full scale Metro system like Montreal’s, Toronto’s or New York’s. Only really large and dense North American and European cities can operate one. Vancouver’s Skytrain moves barely half of the passenger load of what a real metro system can move.

    Even Ottawa’s, Calgary’s and Edmonton’s LRT systems can move more passengers per hour than your Skytrain presently can. It’s only the lack of operating funds, supplied by mostly Republican run states and municipalities that keeps many American LRT systems from moving more passengers than the Skytrain.

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