Riders on the West Coast Express experienced another delay this morning when a broken down freight train blocked the track near Maple Meadows station.
It is the latest delay in the recent spate of delays with more than 100 service disruptions recorded over the past six months. While commuters may be quick to blame TransLink for the problems, the issues that have been causing the delays are the fault of Canadian Pacific Rail.
The eight-station, 69-kilometre-long West Coast Express service made its first trip in 1995 and runs on tracks owned and operated by CP Rail. TransLink leases track time from the railway company and a contract mandates that only five trains can run from downtown Vancouver to Mission during the morning peak hours.
During the evening peak hours, the same two-level trains make return trips ending in the eastern suburbs. There is no bidirectional service like SkyTrain and the train service only operates on weekdays. Each one way trip takes about 75 minutes.
But despite paying a hefty sum of over $5 million in track usage fees to CP Rail on an annual basis, the 20-year-long contract between the entities does not guarantee a standard of service reliability for the commuter train service: right-of-way priority is always given to freight trains, which leads to potentially lengthy delays for commuters.
To date, the vast majority of recent delays have been caused by freight trains and signal issues, all of which are completely out of TransLink’s control. In one incident on May 7, a West Coast Express train had to stop after it struck debris on the tracks.
“We rely on CP to ensure the tracks are safe and clear – so that we can fulfil our promise to our customers of getting them where they need to go safely – and on time,” TransLink spokesperson Chris Bryan told Vancity Buzz.
“We are in frequent communication with CP, and they have assured us that they are committed to resolving these issues. West Coast Express is a highly-valued service, and our customers depend on it.”
Up until recently, the West Coast Express has been one of the most reliable and punctual commuter rail services in North America. It recorded a 98 per cent reliability rating over the past five years, and when it comes to ridership it runs at nearly capacity with more than 10,000 passengers per weekday.
The delays come just months ahead of the contract expiration on November 1. TransLink did not comment on whether negotiations to renew the contract with CP have begun, or if it will seek the federal government’s assistance in the negotiations to come.
Similar commuter rail services in Toronto and Montreal acquired more favourable, less costly contracts with the federal government stepping in as an arbitrator. With the ongoing regional transit plebiscite and the upcoming federal election this fall, it remains to be seen whether the federal government will step in as it did previously for Eastern Canada.
During the B.C. Liberals’ first term, they blamed the previous B.C. NDP government for hastening through the original contract negotiations so that the service could be operational before the 1996 provincial election.