COLUMN: Don’t reject interurban proposal out of hand

A proposal to use the former B.C. Electric Railway interurban line from Surrey to Chilliwack for passenger rail service has sparked a lot of interest and debate in recent months.

The idea has been around for many years, and at one time Surrey council under Mayor Doug McCallum (during his first stint as mayor from 1996 to 2005) was quite enthusiastic about the idea. One reason for the enthusiasm at that time was TransLink’s lack of interest in improving transit south of the Fraser.

Municipalities farther up the Fraser Valley – Langley City, Langley Township, Abbotsford and Chilliwack – also thought the idea made sense. The former interurban line is, for the most part, a lightly-used freight railway.

The corridor is protected under provincial legislation as a potential future passenger route. As the Fraser Valley population has grown steadily, the lack of transit connections to the Metro Vancouver region has led to almost continuous congestion on Highway 1, the primary road route.

South Fraser Community Rail Group formed earlier this year to push for the idea again. It proposes a hydrogen-powered rail service, running at regular intervals seven days a week. This would be a marked improvement from the only commuter rail service today, West Coast Express, which runs five trains daily in the morning from Mission to Vancouver, and five back again in the afternoons.

Rail line owner Canadian Pacific is not all that enthused about the service, although it is handsomely paid for use of its tracks.

The community rail group, headed by former Langley Township mayor Rick Green, and supported by former premier and Surrey mayor Bill Vander Zalm and UBC professor Patrick Condon, says restoration of passenger rail service on the line would be substantially cheaper than any SkyTrain expansion in Surrey and Langley. They also argue it will serve an area currently not well-served by transit.

Condon says the line would not primarily serve Metro Vancouver (in particular, the Burrard Peninsula) but would instead serve a fast-growing area with very limited transit.

This would take pressure off Highway 1 and provide increased transit options. He notes that more that 70 per cent of trips that originate south of the Fraser end south of the Fraser.

“The main public benefit of the proposal is not in how fast a few commuters might get from Langley centre to downtown Vancouver, but rather in how we might lay the spine for a more sustainable south of Fraser region. This region is experiencing explosive job and population growth, partly or largely driven by the exorbitant cost of housing closer to Vancouver. This growth, now almost entirely car-dependent in form, has led to region-wide gridlock,” Condon says.

TransLink and Surrey are showing no interest in the idea. Both are focused on the SkyTrain extension down Fraser Highway, which will eventually get as far as Langley City.

However, that may be more than 10 years away, as there is likely not enough funding in place to build the entire line, according to TransLink estimates.

More details on the cost are expected to be released this month.

A lack of enthusiasm won’t kill the interurban idea, but will mean it needs to be explained and promoted much more widely. Vander Zalm, who was the public face of the anti-HST campaign, is very good at doing this.

The biggest challenges beyond the lack of enthusiasm are twofold – the fact that a very busy rail line to Roberts Bank uses the interurban line from 232 Street in Langley to Cloverdale; and the fact that east of that point, the line wanders through a number of rural areas. It does go into downtown Langley City, Abbotsford and Chilliwack; it does go to Gloucester industrial area, which is unserved by transit; and it also passes close to six university campuses.

It could not use the single-track Roberts Bank portion of the line. That would need double-tracking – something the freight railways might actually help finance, as it would be to their advantage.

As for the wandering, buses that link to various stations would ensure that there is seamless transit service, and the travel time would almost certainly be an improvement on Highway 1 travel times at peak periods. The community rail group says the trains can travel the complete corridor, making 12 stops, in 90 minutes.

The idea needs further detailed study and should not be rejected out of hand, simply because there is a plan to expand SkyTrain.

The South Fraser region needs more transit options, and it is long overdue that the two regional districts (Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley) start to work together more closely, as the valley continues to urbanize.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca – email frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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