Why Not TramTrain?

Why not TramTrain?

The genesis of this blog was to advocate and support reintroducing a passenger rail service from Vancouver to Chilliwack and after 13 years since the release of the Leewood Study, which created a template for such a service, the need today is greater than it has ever been.

As the upper Fraser Valley’s population increases the stresses on the highway system is reaching a breaking point and the provinces simplistic “expanding Hwy. 1 philosophy” will prove to be unworkable as traffic will soon fill the added road space – as it has done everywhere else, creating even great gridlock at choke points!

Multi story condos at Vedder Crossing

Multi story condos at Vedder Crossing

With light metro construction both expensive and being very temperamental in winter conditions (it operates poorly in snow and snow it does in the upper Fraser Valley) using the existing and former BC Electric rail line only makes sense.

This map from 1961 shows clearly the former Marpole (Vancouver)  and Chilliwack interurban routes

This map from 1961 shows clearly the former Marpole (Vancouver) and Chilliwack interurban routes

We are not talking commuter trains, such as the West Coast Express. The geometry of the track was not designed for long wheelbase double deck commuter cars. Using classic commuter trains would demand very expensive track adjustments and a slow operating speed and such use would not be cost effective.

This leaves two alternatives, diesel or electric articulated multiple units (D/EMU’s) or TramTrain. Both are designed to tackle tighter curvatures and sharp grades and thus major expensive track adjustments are avoided.

D/EMU’s are common in operation around the world and provide an affordable transport service.

A modern DMU operating on Ottawa's Trillium Line.

A modern DMU operating on Ottawa’s Trillium Line.

 A German electric multiple unit (EMU) for branch line service.

A German electric multiple unit (EMU) for branch line service.

TramTrain is a modern tram or streetcar, so designed that it can operate on both tram lines and the mainline railway.

From Wikipedia:

A tram-train is a type of light rail vehicle that both meets the standards of a light rail system, and also national mainline standards. Tramcars are adapted to be capable of running on streets like an urban tramway but also be permitted operation alongside mainline trains. This allows services that can utilize both existing urban light rail systems and mainline railway networks and stations. It combines the urban accessibility of a tram or light rail with a mainline train’s greater speed in the suburbs.

The modern tram-train concept was pioneered by the German city of Karlsruhe in the late 1980s, resulting in the creation of the Karlsruhe Stadtbahn. This concept is often referred to as the Karlsruhe model, and it has since been adopted in other cities such as Mulhouse in France and in Kassel, Nordhausen and Saarbrücken in Germany.

An inversion of the concept is a train-tram; a mainline train adapted to run on-street in an urban tramway, also known as the Zwickau Model.

A diesel powered TramTrain in Germany operating quite happily on a secondary branch line bringing a quality transit to areas which otherwise would not have.

A diesel powered TramTrain in Germany operating quite happily on a secondary branch line bringing a quality transit to areas which otherwise would not have.

Today there are now over thirty TramTrain operations around the world, with over forty being planned.

First in operation in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1992 the success was almost instant, with a 479% increase in ridership on the initial rout in just 7 months! By eliminating just one transfer from commuter train to tram, ridership went from 533,600 per week to 2,554,976 million per week!

TramTrain RidershipThe Rail for the Valley Leewood Study is the only transit study in BC to date to mention TramTrain as a solution for reinstating the former BC Electric interurban service.

New Jersey's River Line uses diesel powered TramTrains.

New Jersey’s River Line uses Stadler diesel powered TramTrains.

Rail for the Valley recommends using a diesel powered TramTrain, running from Marpole (15 minute transfer via the Canada Line tio YVR) to Chilliwack, serving, South Vancouver, south Burnaby, New Westminster, North Delta, Central Surrey, Cloverdale (with front door service to KPU and the proposed new hospital), Langley (KPU Langley campus) ; Trinity Western University (front door service); Gloucester Industrial Estates; Downtown Abbotsford, Huntington/Sumas (US Boarder & 15 minutes from YXX); Vedder/Sardis (gateway to Cultus Lake) and Chilliwack.

A 130 km, end to end journey time would be less than two hours, not bad when today’s congestion on Hwy.1 regularly sees one hour traffic delays or more!

Today’s cost for such a service is $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion and such a service would attract far more new customers to transit than the current 16 km, $5 billion to $6 billion extension of the Expo line to Langley, which TransLink estimates will carry fewer customers than Vancouver’s Broadway b-Line Express bus.

Why TramTrain?

TramTrain offers flexibility of service, especially for future expansion and allows for stand alone tram/streetcar routes in Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

Today, TransLink and the province continues planning for now obsolete light metro, with the belief that “they will get it right this time“.

By continuing to plan for a 1980’s “Edsel” of “rapid transit“, the region is rejecting the the 2020’s reality of “Prius” and “Tesla” type transit systems.

It is time our politicians and planners join the 21st century and get on board with affordable and flexible, modern TramTrain.



10 Responses to “Why Not TramTrain?”
  1. Bill Burgess says:

    “Today’s cost for such a service is $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion and such a service would attract far more new customers to transit than the current 16 km, $5 billion to $6 billion extension of the Expo line to Langley…”

    It would help to cite some study on this, e.g., estimating the number of riders/day at a given fare schedule.

  2. zweisystem says:

    I would love to have a fully independent study done for ridership potential for the RftV/Leewood plan. The province and metro Vancouver will not fund one and with all the BS that currently passes for transportation studies in the region, I can see why!

  3. Bill Burgess says:

    Page 20 of https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/driving-and-transportation/reports-and-reference/reports-and-studies/transit/summary_strategic_review_fraser_valley_summary.pdf reports an estimated ridership of 3900 per day and one million per year, and cost per ride of $110 for a Chilliwack to Surrey interurban using DMUs.

    What is the key flaw of this estimate? The numbers are in a totally different ballpark than those for the Skytrain extension to Langley.

    Credible assertions against the above estimate require at least some factual basis that is open the scrutiny of others.

    Zwei replies: I would say what the province said in a study was complete bullshit as the last estimate I got from an independent source is that a Vancouver to Chilliwack service would garner about 25,000 persons a day, based on a 30 minute headway. In fact the RftV line would create far more new ridership than the Expo Line extension.

    If you cannot show me an independant study and not a TransLink or BC government study, then maybe there could be some credibility but after the Evergreen Line fiasco by the BC’s Auditor General office, and complete and deliberate misinformation by the province, TransLink and the Mayor’s Council (remember the flip flop from LRT to SkyTrain was going to be $1.65 billion, agreed to by the province and the Mayor’s Council and TransLink, is now creeping past $5 billion.

    Sorry, but go peddle your BC Government BS elsewhere and just remember the Fast-ferries and all the studies that were made by an NDP government to say they were a good investment.

    Also it is good to remember, those managers who supported light rail in the past with the millennium line were fired, transferred or forced into early retirement. TransLink and the government do not have experts, just toadies doing as they were told.

  4. Bill Burgess says:

    I did not “peddle BC Government BS”, I asked what was the study’s key flaw.

    I’d like to believe your ‘independent source’ on 25,000/day. Please provide some details to help make this number credible, e.g., what fare is assumed?

    Zwei replies: Actually the estimate came from BC Hydro in the mid 80’s, when they were seriously considering reactivating a passenger service from Vancouver (Joyce St.) to Chilliwack on their (at the taime) railway. The Social Credit government, under Bill Vasn der Zalm got wind of it and sold off the railway.

    The Chap who did the ridership estimate has worked for Hydro, MoT, and the GVRD and is now retired but wishes to remain anonymous because, even at the age of 75, still does contract work. The problem is that he and who he works for, do not want to be “blackballed” by the BC Government, Metro Vancouver, for supporting an alternative to SkyTrain, as so man y have been done before.

    By the way, the study you quote was, I believe for a West Coast Commuter train service to Scott Road and not a Vancouver (Marpole) to Chilliwack service using D/EMU’s. Basically it is an apples to oranges comparison.

    As far as I know, the Leewood Study, is the only study to both use non commuter rail stock and a Vancouver terminus.

    Back around 2012, at a public meeting where Metro Vancouver planners were trying desperately to downplay the Leewood Study, with every “man-of-straw” argument they can, I asked a question: “Has an one planning transit solutions, ever factored in tourist ridership?”

    The answer was a resounding “NO!”, with the added; “tourists don’t count!”.

  5. Hope says:

    It will never happen. BC government is not interested in railways. They only want highways. No BC rail. No Van island rail. No Vancouver street cars. Not going to happen.

  6. Haveacow says:

    When you have an existing right of Way it is orders of magnitude cheaper to build than when you create a right of way from scratch. The Trillium Line Project in Ottawa, part of the Stage 2 LRT Project (Line #2), including the airport branch (Line#4) total capital cost $810,159,585 and another $823,000,000 * for the cost of the 30 year operating contract to the public. Total cost $1,630,000,000 for 20 km of rail service.

    *(In Ontario it is now common to include the costs of the 30 year operating agreements as part of the total announced costs of new rapid transit line project. New rapid transit services are rarely run by the municipality anymore, unless they have historically like the TTC, in Toronto. This way the depreciating assets don’t go in the books as a depreciating asset that are labeled as risk, which lead to deficits in budgets. This way, it’s a line item of spending, the citIncluding pays someone else to have the debt producing financial and legal risks on their books not the city’s.)

    So for $810.1 Million we built 16 km of main line, about half double tracked and a 4km branch shuttle service between South Keys Station and the Airport.

    The picture Zwei has of the Trillium Line is a view at the Bayview terminal station where the line connected to the Bayview Transitway station.

    This is what Bayview Station looks like now with the connection with the LRT station on top and new Trillium Line or Line 2 station underneath.


    The point being when you have the track already it is easier and cheaper to add things on. Remember we built 20 km of rail for $810.1 Million these are major stations that have platforms that are 80 m long, the same as your Skytrain platforms. The service will have 10 to 12 minute frequency of service, that’s with half the main line being single track!

    This is the south end terminal station at Linebank.


    It doesn’t have to be expensive we started in 2001 with a 2 year pilot program that cost only $40 million (that includes the operating costs for the 2 year pilot project), 8km of single track with passing track at the middle station (Carleton University), 15 minute service and 3 trains, the BR 643 Talent DMU.


    Trains meeting at Carleton University station ready to pass by each other on the single track line.

  7. zweisystem says:

    I tend to agree with you

  8. Bill Burgess says:

    No, Zwei, the study was not about the West Coast Commuter:

    “The West Coast Express currently serves a regional market for FraserValley residents, largely to the downtown area. However, there has been ongoing interest in expanding the rail system in the Fraser Valley for many years with a particular interest in the re-instatement of the inter-urban line connecting Abbotsford and Chilliwack to the Langleys, Surrey and other parts of Metro Vancouver…”

    Knowing your 25,000 ridership estimate is from 40? years ago (possiblty before Skytrain to Surrey?) and before many expansions of Highway 1 does not help its current credibility.

    Page 24 of https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/transportation-infrastructure-projects/surrey-langley-skytrain/july-announcement-2022/business-case-and-appendices/appendix_d_ridership_memo.pdf. has an estimate of 22,000 incremental transit trips and 20,000 fewer auto trips in 2028 for the Langley Skytrain extension.

    It is implausible that a slower, less frequent, higher fare and more transfers service on the inter-urban line would generate more ridership than this.

    The detailed modeling for the estimate is above my pay grade but the number seems plausible.

    Yes, we all know the cost is huge.

    Zwei Replies: This study is to promote the Expo Line extension to Langley and using every dubious means to do so. There is little mention of any Valley Rail service.

    TransLink has always based any sort of rail solution using the WCE as a model. From what I have been told, expected ridership on the now $5 billion+ project has been put at less what the current Broadway B-Line Bus route carries and the fear, because of the many more destinations offered for valley rail, would out preform the Langley extension in attracting new ridership. That would be embarrassing for TransLink and the SkyTrain Lobby.

    The fear, I have been told is that if the Valley rail line was a success, very embarrassing questions would be asked of TransLink, metro Vancouver, the provincial MoT and the Premier and we can’t have that can we.

    The Evergreen line extension is a good example of TransLink’s BS as it can operate only 2 car trains and has very limited capacity and not what the business case stated. TransLink’s studies are a waste of good paper.

  9. Haveacow says:

    The design, built environment and auto centric nature of the Langley Extension’s stations and right of way, being mostly an above grade right of way in the centre or to the side of a major arterial highway with very few stations is actually a really bad way to generate passenger traffic, especially outside of the peak period. Especially compared to an existing mostly surtace rail line that allows close local access like the line under discussion does.

    As long as the majority of the right of way is raised you loose a huge amount of passengers because of the unfriendly nature of always, always having to go up and down stairs and escalators (elevators are included in this) just to have basic access to the stations.

    Highways and heavily traveled arterial stroads are extremely pedestrian unfriendly and have been proven to drive away transit passengers when they don’t have to travel. You need a local parallel surface transit line to comfortably access the Skytrain extension.

    With stations an average of 2 km’s apart you loose a large percentage of the non peak hour trips and it is especially destructive for short distance local destination trips under 4km. This is why Toronto and Montreal always try to have stations between 800 metres and 1200 metres at most, wherever possible. This way you can easily walk to stations and access local destinations that aren’t directly adjacent to the far too few stations.

    Considering the fact that fewer people have to actually go to work, instead they work from home (telecommuting), a rapid transit infrastructure and service design which so heavily favors longer distance peak hour commuting over a design which enables great local and fair to good peak hour service, is poorly thought out line for generating passenger traffic..

  10. I am really not understanding the ‘math’ of having to prove passenger projections in the midst of a raging Housing Affordability Crisis.

    It seems clear to me that only by building guaranteed affordable houses along Streetcar|LRT lines will we create a winning strategy.

    The imperative for transit lines today is to access government land where we may built the millions of new doors CMHC projects are required to end the Housing Crises in Toronto and Vancouver, while preventing them from catching fire in Montreal, Calgary and other markets.


    On 13 September this year CMHC reiterated its projection of one year ago that Canada needs to build 3.5 million houses by 2030 to ‘end the housing crisis’.

    By my calculations Canada’s banker may be referencing federal policy of bringing in 500,000 immigrants per year from 2023 to 2030.

    So, 3.5 million people, rather than 3.5 million new doors, are landing in the next seven years. Thinking of an average family of four, that may mean 1 million new doors are needed to cover immigration.

    The remaining 2.5 million we may intuit is the banker’s projected adjustment to house families living in substandard conditions due to affordability issues.

    In any case, the BC share of that estimate is 600,000 homes or 1.3 to 2.5 million new souls needing housing by 2030.

    Keep in mind that means something like 1 million new cars on already overburdened municipal road networks.


    With these figures in mind, the question arises: how do we house Canadians—and not just immigrants—affordably? Sustainably?

    CMHC’s answer here is clear: guaranteed affordable houses in perpetuity (GAHP). Otherwise, simply adding 3.5 million doors into overheated property markets will be like putting out the fire with gasoline.

    GAHP properties are sold with contracts on title limiting the resale value to say purchase price + inflation. According to Canada’s banker, this is the ONLY way to ensure that properties sold at below market rates today, are not flipped for profit tomorrow.

    However, CMHC GAHP must build on government owned land. The abundance of that type of land increases as we move away from the urban core. That movement is not going to take place on highways in Canada’s major urban centers.

    Thus, it seems to me a matter-of-fact proposition that we combine two types of government spending:

    (i) Government spending on transit projects throughout Canada, and

    (ii) New initiatives to deliver GAHP doors in numbers sufficient to meet or exceed housing needs over the next 7 years, and beyond.

    To do that, government funded transit projects need to reach the regional periphery, rather than service the core. Only the right transit technology choice will get us where we need to go. Streetcar|LRT technologies, not Skytrain and subways are the best fit to GAHP building on crown lands.

    One can go down the list of transit projects either building, or funded, able to reach the urban periphery by operating TramTrain, these include: O Train (Ottawa); ION (Waterloo-Kitchener-Cambridge); B Line (Hamilton); Hurontario (Mississauga-Brampton); Valley Line (Edmonton).

    Equally, we can single out the systems that do not have regional service capacity: REM (Montreal); Langley & Broadway Extensions (Vancouver).


    It’s not a difficult argument to defend. With 67% of household income going to housing in Canada’s overheated markets (Toronto, Vancouver), CMHC GAHP can be used to bring that number back to 30%.

    The 37% no longer needed for housing can now circulate locally, strengthening all other sectors in the economy.

    However, getting from the GAHP doors to the work places will require Streetcar|LRT in the overheated markets.

    This is the reason why the Granville Island – Chilliwack service is the best option for the Lower Mainland, rather than the Langley or UBC Extensions.

    HAC is correct: having the right of way significantly reduces the overall project cost.

    With the need to build GAHP doors in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and perhaps other regions as well, we cannot afford building high sticker price/low performing systems anymore.

    If we don’t like to use Jokeri numbers, then we can use ION numbers from the Waterloo-Kitchener line opened three or four years ago: $45.7 million per km, including cost overruns.


    Beating back the housing crisis means building 100 km extensions to existing lines for $4 billion; and providing GAHP doors at a rate of 1 million Canadians per line.

    We can interpret HAC’s observations about low ridership presenting on lines with limited access (subways & elevated lines) to mean that the new GAHP doors must be served by human scale TOD.

    Keep transit on the street, and homes below four stories in height, to make livable streets, walkable neighborhoods and affordable houses. Given cohesive neighborhoods and tramtowns, the issues of ridership will take care of themselves.

    What has been missed in transit planning to date is the connection between land price inflation and transit technology choice.

    Whether it is towers-and-subways in Manhattan; towers-and-subways on the Queen Elizabeth Line in London; or Towers-and-Skytrain in the Lower Mainland, a clear pattern emerges:

    Constrain access to cheap land and trigger a crisis in housing affordability.

    What is the surest way of constraining land supply? Build Skytrains and subways, systems where costs are so high that their reach is limited.

    History proves that.

    Europe (Copenhagen & Vienna to name two), and increasingly places in Canada, give us examples of what happens when the human scale paradigm is selected instead.

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