Valley residents on track with light rail

Valley residents on track with light rail

“It’s nice to have a Cadillac like the Canada Line, but the cost is prohibitive. If we’re ever to get the connectivity which we need south of the Fraser, then we better be looking at alternatives.”

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, The Province, Sept. 7.

Since 1998, when then-premier Glen Clark off-loaded the Millennium Line project onto the region, TransLink decisions have been a major thorn in the side of North Shore taxpayers and councils who, along with those of Port Moody, Delta and the Fraser Valley, have become increasingly testy as they feed Metro Vancouver’s insatiable appetite for SkyTrain dollars.

But times they are a-changing, and a September 2010 report by British-based Leewood Projects Ltd. is leading the way. Its recommendations should be music to Watts’ ears.

Released on Monday, the proposal was prepared by independent transportation consultant, David Cockle, for a Langley-based group Rail for the Valley (RFTV).

With a “focus on integrated transport,” the report recommends “conversion of the (former) B.C. Electric Railway Lower Fraser Valley Interurban to 21st Century Community Rail/Light Rail.”

Citing a potential for improved “economic, tourism, environment, health and social cohesion” in the communities to be served, Cockle predicts that, “. . . early implementation of Phase 1 between Chilliwack and Scott Road in Surrey would see the beginning of those benefits.”

Cockle, whose background includes consultation on Phase 1 of the U.K. to France Channel Tunnel project came by his interest in the Valley quite by chance when he visited family in Chilliwack and began to ask questions about available transit in the region.

The discouraging answers he received led him to meetings with RFTV founder John Buker and discussions with Malcolm Johnston of the Light Rail Committee.

As stated in the report’s opening summary, the immediate focus of the project would be to upgrade the existing interurban railway — currently operated for freight only by CN, CP and Southern Railway — to accommodate a diesel light-rail, shared-track system.

The technology is neither new nor experimental.

Often known as tram-train, and in a variety of designs, it had its beginnings in Germany and has been in use — successfully — ever since. Its hop-on-hop-off, at-grade capability is popular all over Europe, and has spread to the United Kingdom and Texas.

Perhaps the most important factor, for communities looking for efficient and affordable solutions for a wide-range of transit requirements, is that a tram-train system can build on existing trackage and track-beds at relatively minimal cost.

Using the 90-minute, 98-kilometre Surrey-Chilliwack run as an example, Cockle estimates construction costs for an upgrade capable of handling an 80- to 100-kilometre-per-hour passenger service would come in at less than $6 million per kilometre.

Additional investment would be required for purchase of a sufficient number of trains to provide a minimum 20-minute weekday service.

Cockle explains that the type of light-rail vehicle (LRV) chosen will be driven by “cost, availability and traction mode.”

So, “with the cost of new LRVs (available from) North American, European or Far Eastern manufacturers running around $2-3 million/unit, the acquisition of (refurbished) second-hand units (perhaps from Calgary, Toronto or Portland) is attractive.”

There is no way to encapsulate all the details of an 85-page technical report in a column such as this. Suffice it to say that Cockle has assessed the current track infrastructure and analysed all aspects of a project that would upgrade the route to safe and efficient passenger-transit standards.

The report’s analysis recognizes the history of the popular former interurban line, as well as current transit needs.

The discussion ranges from single-track sections to double-track; from wheel types to maintenance; from passenger capacity to the increased numbers of bicycles that could be carried, and from crossing points and signals to station locations — everything is covered in professional detail.

The question now is: Will anyone pay attention, or will Fraser Valley councils and/or TransLink vote to “receive and file” what should be recognized as a ground-breaking report?

By “ground-breaking,” I do not refer to the report as a politico-marketing analysis — Metro taxpayers have been power-pointed to death with those over the years at so-called public input meetings.

So far as I know, this is the first time in local history that citizens have taken the reins of their transit destiny into their own hands to commission a technical report.

Valley residents had had enough of hearing how they should “get out of their polluting cars” to use transit — transit that did not exist.

They were tired of being told that ridership was insufficient to warrant a transit line, despite the evidence presented by the vehicle-congested routes they drive every day.

Like the rest of us, they had become tired of hearing politically timed re-announcements of Evergreen, Broadway and Pattullo projects that are just as quickly followed by, “but we don’t have the money, you’ll need to pay more.”

So they decided to find their own solutions.

Here on the North Shore, we would do well to follow the Valley example.

How many more times than 10 have we heard the promise of a “third” SeaBus, only to learn now that TransLink cannot afford to refit the two we already had?

How many times have we not followed through on seceding from TransLink and going it alone on transit?

From Chilliwack to Surrey and to the North Shore, taxpayers have had enough of being forced to drop billions of transportation-related dollars into federal, provincial, regional and TransLink coffers for what Surrey’s Mayor Watts now describes as luxury political decisions.

So if the Rail for the Valley initiative succeeds — to however small a degree — its members will have done so much more than move one step closer to a transit solution for themselves.

As Malcolm Johnston said to me after the RFTV release, “There is no reason why the feasibility of an extension to the Valley line through to the North Shore could not at least be investigated. Who knows, perhaps access to the rail bridge adjacent to the Ironworkers Memorial could be negotiated to allow shared-tracking through to Horseshoe Bay.”

However that may be, if David Cockle’s report finally puts the lie to the industry-bucking TransLink mantra that light-rail is more expensive to build than a gold-plated SkyTrain-based system, they will have done every one of us a big, big favour.

rimco@shaw.ca

Readers interested in reading the full report can contact David Cockle at info@leewoodprojects.co.uk.

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