Positive step backwards

Restored interurban train in Surrey rekindles fond memories

I never thought I would ever see a genuine BC Electric Railway interurban car in Surrey – let alone see one in operation.

It’s been a long and meandering journey, but members of Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society deserve to feel great about their efforts. They have taken a dream and made it reality, with a lot of hard work and some first-rate support from the City of Surrey, Southern Railway of BC and BC Hydro.

Ever since the interurban trains stopped running in Surrey in 1950, there have been some who felt that a good transportation system was set aside too soon. The BCER interurban trains ran from Vancouver to Chilliwack from 1910 to 1950, three times a day each way, transporting mail, express and passengers. There was also a dedicated milk train, which had a lot to do with developing the dairy industry, a special market train and an owl train that ran late at night on weekends.

The interurbans were losing money by the late 1940s and received no subsidy. The cars were getting old and postwar booms meant that people wanted to travel with their own cars.

Even through roads weren’t very good in many parts of the Fraser Valley, municipalities agreed the service could be stopped. BCER paid municipalities a one-time payment to improve roads – and that was that.

From 1950 to 1973, Surrey had no regular transit service, other than Pacific Stage Lines, which ran a few buses each day. When the Dave Barrett NDP government was elected in 1972, it made transit service south of the Fraser a priority. But even today, service in this area pales when compared to the established service in other parts of the Lower Mainland.

It was partially due to that frustration that Surrey council, almost 20 years ago, agreed to support efforts to restore interurban service. Former councillor Jim Wallace even backed the plan with a substantial personal donation.

An enthusiastic group of volunteers has been working since that time to try to get some of the original interurban cars here. Eventually, two were repatriated to Canada. One had been in California and the other in Oregon.

Both needed substantial work, but car 1225 has now been completely restored and is running on weekends from the newly rebuilt Cloverdale station to Sullivan. Car 1304, which was regularly used on the Fraser Valley line, is being restored in the Cloverdale car barn.

The service, which began Saturday, is strictly to promote heritage and tourism, but nonetheless it makes the point that the rail line that once transported passengers is still in place. Used by Southern Railway for freight, most of the Surrey portion, which runs through Newton, Kennedy and South Westminster, could potentially handle commuter trains.

The portion east of Cloverdale is used by trains bound to and from Roberts Bank and it would be very difficult to put commuter trains there.

The new Cloverdale station, where passengers board the interurban, is marvelous. It is an accurate replica of the original station which stood on that site.

Longtime FVRHS volunteer Alan Aubert, an architect, ensured that it was as close to authentic as possible.

The station was built through generous donations from a number of companies.

One sad note. It is too bad that longtime BCER motorman Frank Horne and former tourism minister Bill Reid weren’t here to see the project come to fruition. Both died in the past year, and both were enthusiastic backers of the project who saw its potential.

Whether or not there is ever a commuter service on the former BCER tracks, it is wonderful to see restored interurban car 1225, in its bright colours, going along the track with a happy group of passengers.

It is a reminder of just how good transit service was 100 years ago in Surrey.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

 

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