Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Getting passenger rail on track poses steep challenges

British Columbia moves a lot of freight by rail – why not people?
The Southern Railway operates a last-mile freight delivery service on the old interurban line between Chilliwack and the Lower Mainland | Submitted

Over the next 10 years, the B.C. government will spend billions on improving transportation in B.C. Projects include replacing the Pattullo Bridge ($1.4 billion), expanding the George Massey Tunnel to eight lanes ($4.1 billion) and contributing $1.8 billion to the Broadway Subway Project.

It will also continue to widen sections of Highway 1 through Abbotsford, complete the final leg of the a four-laning project on the Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and the Alberta border and make improvements to the Highway 91 and 17 interchanges in Delta.

With the exception of the Broadway Subway, the projects are all designed to accommodate more vehicle traffic.

Meanwhile, many parts of B.C. outside of the Lower Mainland lack regional public transportation – a problem that became even more pronounced when Greyhound withdrew almost entirely from the province in 2018.

And while the B.C. government stepped in to create a new northern bus service – BC Bus North – after Greyhound left, the only way to get to Prince George from Vancouver is to drive, fly or take an Adventure Charters bus, which runs there only twice a week.

Just last week, the B.C. government announced $3 million in funding, to be administered through the Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT), for a new community shuttle program for northern communities.

The NDIT will be accepting applications from local governments, First Nations, community organizations, non-profit groups and small to medium-sized business that have proposals to operate community shuttle services within their respective communities.

But longer-distance travel between communities remains a challenge.

Many of these communities have are connected with railway lines. But they don’t have any passenger service – just freight.

Patrick Condon, an expert in sustainable urban design at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, thinks some of those rail connections should have some commuter rail service added to them.

“In the case of B.C., the infrastructure is still available … why not use it?” Condon said.

He said the recent flood damage to highways in B.C. underscores how vulnerable road transportation can be. While there was some damage to railway lines as well, their repair has been quicker than highway reconstruction in the province.

“True, there were some locations where rail infrastructure was affected, but it was surprising how quickly they were repaired,” Condon said.

He thinks restoring passenger travel to some of B.C. rail lines – notably the interurban line between Surrey and Chilliwack – would add some “redundancy” to the system and take pressure off highways, like the TransCanada between Abbotsford and Vancouver.

“This tragedy, which left a lot of parts of the Lower Mainland inaccessible, would not have been as severe if the interurban line was still operating to provide passenger services,” Condon said.

“We need redundancy in the system, and our over-dependence on automobiles is obviously creating problems for us. Transportation redundancy – having more than one option during the period of climate-change interruptions – should be an overarching strategy for the province now.”

The interurban line that Condon refers to is used by Southern Railway of British Columbia (SRY Rail Link). When a Canadian National Railway (TSX:CNR) or Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) train arrives in the Lower Mainland, Southern Railway’s locomotives take over and shuttle cars and tankers to their final destinations between New Westminster and Chilliwack.

There was some flood damage to that rail network, but much of the service has been restored, according to SRY.

In the Abbotsford area, the rail line runs south of Sumas Prairie – the area most heavily flooded – at a higher elevation, and therefore is not as vulnerable to the flooding that took out Highway 1, Condon said.

“It’s perfectly capable of passenger service right now,” Condon said. “We used to run Budd cars [self-propelled passenger cars] on freight lines all the time, as recently as the 1990s. As long as a rail is capable of pulling freight, it’s also capable of throwing a couple of Budd cars on.”

The same could be said of other railways in B.C. Rail lines connect to Prince Rupert, Prince George and Fort Nelson, for example, and there are still railway lines on Vancouver Island and between Vancouver and Whistler and Pemberton. Interurban commuter train service in Canada has an Achilles heel, however: low ridership densities. Trains can also be slow and infrequent, which can discourage commuters from using them.

Commuter trains used to run on the E&N Railway on Vancouver Island between Victoria and Courtney, with branch lines to Port Alberni and Parksville, but it was cancelled in 2011, because the ridership numbers didn’t justify the cost of rail maintenance and enhancement.

Liberal transportation critic Jordan Sturdy said a passenger rail service between Vancouver and Whistler was considered in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, but was abandoned in favour of the Sea-to-Sky highway project, which was less costly.

As much as people like trains, he said the reality is that passenger rail service needs high ridership to justify the capital cost of construction and maintenance. In Europe, passenger rail makes sense because of population densities. In Canada, it makes less sense. Such services can be slow, and many existing lines skirt dense population centres instead of going into them.

“I see this issue come back time and time again on the Sea-to-Sky, as a representative of that area, and the population densities just don’t justify the capital costs at this point,” Sturdy said.

The simplest and cheapest option to improve regional public transit is buses, he said.

And two areas that are underserved in that regard, Condon said, are Vancouver Island and the Vancouver-Squamish-Whistler-Pemberton corridor.

A BC Transit study in 2016 envisioned a regional Sea-to-Sky corridor bus service. Sturdy said there is a lot of support for a regional transit system among the municipal governments and First Nations in that corridor, as well as funding formulas. The proposal is for a regional bus service that would connect Mount Currie, Pemberton, Whistler, Squamish, Britannia Beach, Porteau Cove, Lions Bay and West Vancouver.

“It’s all there, and government for the last five years has done nothing with it,” Sturdy said. “You can’t take the bus, even internally, to get from Squamish to Whistler. There’s no bus.”

Aggravating the situation, the Passenger Transportation Board has put applications for ride-share services, like Uber, outside of the Lower Mainland in abeyance.

“They haven’t been processing any applications to provide authority to operate in other areas,” Sturdy said. “I think there’s 15 some odd applications that have been languishing for the last six months with no action on them.” •