Rail for the Valley: A Letter to Premier Horgan

Dear Premier Horgan,

Congratulations on your recent electoral success and now fresh winds will sweeps across British Columbia.

My name is Malcolm Johnston and I have been an advocate for better public transit in the Metro Vancouver region for over 30 years.

Transit in Metro Vancouver is in a precarious position and funding is not the real issue, rather transit has been designed to suit political needs and not transit customer’s needs. TransLink is held in high odor by the public, as it continues building extremely expensive transit projects, that will do little in alleviating endemic congestion in the region.

As TransLink continues to blunder ahead with 1960’s transit solutions, like the $3 billion Broadway subway, 21st century transit solutions are ignored like the Leewood/Rail for the Valley TramTrain concept, connecting Vancouver to Chilliwack for as little as $750 million.

We cannot spend our way to better transit, we must have a viable plan that puts the the transit customer first, because a user friendly transit system is the number one reason for attracting people to transit!

A historical background leading to today’s transit ills in the metro Vancouver region.

In the late 1970s, instead of the originally planned-for light rail transit (LRT) from downtown Vancouver to Whalley, in Surrey; Lougheed Mall in East Burnaby and Richmond Centre, the then Social Credit provincial government forced the propriety SkyTrain mini-metro system onto the region.

Later that turned out to be a shady deal between the BC government and the Province of Ontario. The owners of the proprietary mini-metro system, the Urban Development Transportation Corporation was an Ontario Crown corporation that had great problems selling its ICTS/ALRT product, which we call SkyTrain. No one wanted it, including the Toronto Transit Commission.

Despite the hype and hoopla about ICTS/ALRT a 1982 TTC study found; ICTS cost up ten times more to install than light rail, for about the same capacity…….

For the cost of the proposed 1970’s LRT network to Surrey,Richmond and Lougheed Mall, taxpayers received a SkyTrain from downtown Vancouver to new Westminster!

The1982 study showed that, although modern LRT was then still in its infancy, had made ICTS/ALRT SkyTrain obsolete! This fact has been well covered up by both the media and by various governments who spent a lot of editorial and political credibility supporting ICTS/ALRT.

Later the UDTC was sold to Lavalin, which went bankrupt, in part, trying to sell the proprietary mini-metro, now called Advanced Light Metro or ALM, to Bangkok, Thailand. Then Bombardier purchased the rights to ICTS/ALRT/ALM at Lavalin’s bankruptcy sale, but the newly-formed SNC Lavalin retained the engineering patents.

The mini-metro was again renamed Advanced Rapid Transit or ART, with Bombardier designing a larger new car, commonly known as the Mk.2.

Back in Vancouver, the shortfalls of the original ALRT/SkyTrain Line had become apparent and great work was done to ensure the next major transit project, the Broadway-Lougheed Transit project would use modern light rail. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, the governing NDP, in a private deal with Bombardier, again forced SkyTrain onto the region in what as now known as the Millennium Line. So expensive was ART/SkyTrain, that the planned route to Port Moody had to be abandoned and the Millennium Line eventually petered out at a station between Glen and Clark Drives in Vancouver.

The recently completed Evergreen Line is but the originally abandoned portion of the original Broadway-Lougheed LRT project to Coquitlam.

The BC Liberals, wanting their own vanity transit project, forced through the Canada Line, which uses conventional electrical multiple units, operating either on elevated guideways or in a subway in Vancouver. The cost of building the subway portion greatly escalated from the original cost of the project at $1.3 billion to about $2.4 billion. To reduce costs the scope of the project was significantly reduced. That was achieved by employing cut-and-cover construction on Cambie St. (with devastating results for local merchants) and by reducing station sizes with platforms lengths that vary between 40 metres to 50 metres, which can only accommodate two-car trains, 41 metres long.

ai??i?? The Canada Line station platforms are half as long as the Expo and Millennium Line stations, effectively giving the $2.4 billion Canada Line half the capacity! Embarrassingly, the Canada line is the only heavy rail metro in the world that was built as a light metro, having less capacity than a simple streetcar line costing a fraction to build! For added insult, the Canada Line, not being ALRT/ART SkyTrain is incompatible in operation with the the Bombardier proprietary mini-metro system.

ai??i?? The above graphic illustrates Ottawa’s LRT line (presently under construction)Ai?? with longer station platforms, will have a greater capacity than our current SkyTrain system. It is worth noting that two modern light rail vehicles (approx. $5 million each) can carry more customers than 5 Mk.2 vehicles (MK.1’s are no longer in production) costing over $3 million each. Also please note, it is currently illegal to operate 5-car trains on the ALRT/ART SkyTrain lines, as shown in the above graphic.

To date, only seven ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART systems have been built. Toronto will be tearing down their life-expired ICTS system in the near future. During the same period that ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART has been on the market, over 200 new LRT systems have either been built; are nearing completion; or are in advanced stages of planning.

Metro Vancouver’s much troubled TransLink operation wants to build two more transit lines; a Broadway SkyTrain subway to Arbutus and Surrey’s ill-designed LRT. The problem with both projects is that they are being built on routes that do not have the customer flows to justify construction. If built, they will suck-up much needed funding from regions that desperately need improved transit in order to to fund overbuilt vanity projects that satisfy the whims of the mayors in both Vancouver and Surrey.

The Broadway subway is really the unfinished Western portion of the originally-planned for Broadway-Lougheed light rail project. The Arbutus and Broadway terminus and the creation of TransLink was an NDP inducement for then GVRD Chair and Vancouver Councillor George Puil to agree to fund the NDP’s switch from LRT to ART, with the added sweetener that the province would pay two thirds of the cost of SkyTrain only construction west of Commercial Drive.

Today, even with the B-line buses, peak hour traffic flows along Broadway are less than 4,000 persons per hour per direction (pphpd), which is about two thirds less than the bare minimum of 15,000 pphpd that would justify subway construction. You can build a subway, but expect to pay huge subsidies to keep it in operation; subsidies that will erode transit operations elsewhere in Metro Vancouver.

One of the unintended consequences of subways is that they tend to deter people from using transit. Claustrophobic underground stations and lack of convenience with widely spaced stations, make subways very user unfriendly and statements that the Broadway subway will reduce congestion are based on wishful thinking.


Modern LRT can easily handle such traffic at one half to one third the cost to build and costing about half to operate than the current buses on that route. Modern LRT can handle traffic flows in excess of 20,000pphpd, which compares favorably with the maximum capacity of 15,000 pphpd the current ALRT/ART SkyTrain can handle. An unpleasant fact is, a Broadway subway would have potentially less capacity than surface light rail, unless about $3 billion is spent to upgrade the current ALRT/ART system. New electrical and upgraded electrical installations would be required to handle more trains and major station upgrades, like extending platform lengths on the entire system, to accommodate longer trains needed for increased capacity!

The Surrey LRT is just more bad planning.

TransLink has not planned the Surrey LRT as a stand-alone light rail operation, rather, as a poor man’s SkyTrain, feeding the already at capacity Expo Line! Operating on routes that do not have the customer flows to justify LRT construction, it seems it is being for political reasons only.

Two more badly planned and expensive transit projects will only drive up the cost of transit, which already has made the cost per revenue passenger one third higher in metro Vancouver than Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

There is another way.

In September 2010, Rail for the Valley released their privately-commissioned study,prepared by Leewood Projects of the UK, which saw that a TramTrain service between Vancouver and Chilliwack, using the existing former BC Electric interurban route was viable and could be built, depending on the amount of money one wished to invest, between $500 million to $1 billion dollars for the 136 km. route.

The Leewood Study.

TramTrain is a variation of LRT which has trams or streetcars, operating on both trams/streetcar tracks and main line railway tracks. First operated in Karlsruhe Germany in 1993, TramTrain has proven very successful, where ridership increased over 475% after opening of the initial TramTrain service to Bretten in 1993. Today, TramTrain service has greatly increased in Karlsruhe (eight TramTrain lines) over 25 TramTrain services are now operating in Europe and North America and many more are being planned.

The Karlsruhe Model.

Using TramTrain on existing railway tracks greatly reduces costs, while providing quality transit services to areas which otherwise would go without.

TransLink and the provincial government have remained blind deaf and mute to The RftV/Leewood TramTrain and instead want to see a hugely expensive subway built under Broadway, which will not reduce congestion plus an equally expensive LRT in Surrey, which again will do little to reduce congestion.

Why are subways and light rail built?

In the real world, LRT is built on heavily used bus routes because one tram (1 tram driver) is as efficient as up to six buses (6 bus drivers) and because for every bus or tram used, one needs to hire a minimum of three people to manage, maintain and operate them. LRT becomes the better investment over a standard business cycle on heavily used transit routes which see traffic flows in excess of 2,000 persons per hour per direction.

ai??i?? Though somewhat dated the preceding graphic shows the costs of new build LRT and the VAL and SkyTrain proprietary mini-metro systems. Today, both VAL and SkyTrain have become niche transit modes, with no sales in the past decade.

Subways are only built when ridership demands long trains needing large stations accommodating long station platforms, that at-grade would be problematic. The threshold for subway construction are traffic flows in excess of 15,000 persons per hour per direction. In many European cities peak hour ridership on sections of tram routes exceed 25,000 pphpd!


One can build subways on lesser routes, but the huge operating and maintenance costs means monies for other transit operation must be diverted to pay for the subway.

Solutions are needed for today’s transit needs.

I am hoping your new NDP/Green coalition will be open to fresh ideas as it provides much-needed funds to regional transit and transportation projects in Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the rest of BC. Taxpayers need you to ensure that monies are spent on viable projects instead of stale vanity projects.

May I offer these five suggestions:


  1. Implement an updated version of the Leewood/Rail for the Valley Vancouver to Chilliwack regional rail project. The cost today could range from $750 million for a basic service to $1.5 billion for a deluxe service.
  2. Implement a Victoria to Nanaimo regional rail service, cloning much from the Leewood Study as possible. The cost today would also match the that of the Fraser Valley regional rail project.
  3. Stop TransLink’s Broadway SkyTrain subway and instead plan for an European style BCIT to UBC/Stanley Park LRT. This would provide transit at three major destinations, guaranteeing high ridership at a cost of just over $1 billion, with operation cost much lower than with using buses.
  4. Investigate a regional rail service on the abandoned Vernon to Kelowna rail route.
  5. Abandon the mega bridge replacing the Massey Tunnel and invest in a road/rail bridge replacing the decayed Pattulo Bridge and the downright decrepit Fraser river Rail Bridge. A six lane bridge, with a three track lift span, would do more alleviating congestion than the proposed $3 billion Broadway subway and the ill planned Surrey LRT, by providing quality public transport free access across a notorious choke point.

These five suggestions would greatly help with transportation issues in their locality and they are also very affordable when compared to cost estimates for short subway lines and ill planned LRT in Surrey.

It is my hope and wish that transit planning is again done for the benefit of the transit customer and not for political or academic vanity. Metro Vancouver politicians love to boast about Vancouver and its transit system, but no one has copied Vancouver’s transit planning or its use of light metro. Transit planners and politicians come to Vancouver; they see SkyTrain; and they go home and build with light rail!


Rail for the Valley


One Response to “Rail for the Valley: A Letter to Premier Horgan”
  1. eric chris says:

    Excellent read, spot on, well done, RFTV. Amazing, it’s an outstanding letter to Premier Horgan. With the appointment of Bowinn (Bo) Ma who is an engineer with a Sauder’s MBA as parliamentary secretary for TransLink, if anyone is going to turn public transit around in Metro Vancouver, it is going to be Bo. Bo knows how to figure out public transit which curbs climate change, and the subway for public transit along Broadway in Vancouver greatly exacerbates climate change compared to LRT (tram transit). With the fuel efficiency of hybrid vehicles on the market today, not having public transit by TransLink mitigates carbon emissions and fights climate change. Sending Bo the letter which was sent to Premier Horgan can’t be delayed.

    “In the past, Bowinn has focused on issues of civil rights and liberties, social justice, inequality, poverty, and wealth distribution. Bowinn also has a keen interest in environmental sustainability and managing climate change.”


    From the people who know Bo, she’s going to make a terrific parliamentary secretary who has the technical smarts (engineer) and business acumen (MBA) to see through the smoke and mirrors fakery used by TransLink’s planners excluding LRT (tram transit) in the past, to instead, pick obsolete LIM trains which need to buried or elevated at a tremendous cost so that pedestrians don’t contact 600 volts on the tracks and fry from electrocution. Bo knows. It won’t take Bo long for Bo to know public transit for Bo to start to question the purported merits of Broadway’s subway costing $3 billion for six measly kilometres.

    Bo Ma, parliamentary secretary for TransLink, touchdown. Home run.


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