LRT on the Interurban railway is unfeasible, not a SkyTrain alternative: TransLink

Jun 14 2019, 12:32 am

TransLink planners have a released a new report that counters growing calls from a new advocacy group to revive the old Interurban streetcar railway with a new passenger railway service — an option the group has deemed as an alternative to the Fraser Highway SkyTrain extension from King George Station to Langley Centre.

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The South Fraser Community Rail group, led by former BC premier Bill Vander Zalm, UBC professor Patrick Condon, and former Langley Township mayor Rick Green, unveiled their idea earlier this year of using the 99-km-long existing railway between Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack for a new passenger hydrogen fuel cell-powered LRT service with 12 stops, with trains achieving an estimated end-to-end travel time of 90 minutes.

The single-track railway is currently owned and operated by Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Southern Railway (SRY) for freight traffic.

South Fraser Community Rail)

Example of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered passenger train in Germany. (South Fraser Community Rail)

But the public transit authority is reaffirming its position that passenger railway service on this old streetcar route, which shut down early on in the post-war period, is unfeasible for a myriad of reasons.

TransLink says the route has been extensively studied as possible options in the past, including the independent 2012 Surrey Rapid Transit Study by IBI Group, and the analysis concluded the route is far from optimal due to poor ridership demand, operating cost relative to bus improvement alternatives, conflicts with freight traffic, and its skipping of the largest population centres in the South of Fraser.

Low ridership from indirect route through low-density farmland

The Interurban’s long, winding route would lead to long travel times that are not competitive with not only driving times but also SkyTrain on the Fraser Highway.

Travel times over a 27-km-long Interurban passenger service route between the start point at SkyTrain’s Scott Road Station and Langley are estimated at 53 minutes, plus another 10 minutes for passengers travelling on SkyTrain from Surrey Central Station and transferring to the Interurban.

Contrast this with the 16-km-long, one-train SkyTrain ride from Surrey Central Station to Langley Centre, which can be achieved in under 25 minutes.

“Competitive travel times are important to transit investments, as they are a main factor in successfully attracting ridership,” reads the report.

“This is particularly important when connecting larger concentrations of people and jobs – such as the Surrey Metro Core and Langley Regional City Centre.”

Interurban South of Fraser Surrey Langley

Density of the South of Fraser in relation to the routes for SkyTrain extensions and the Interurban. (TransLink)

Moreover, as the Interurban runs through predominantly the protected agricultural land reserve and was discontinued long after the South of Fraser began to see urbanization, it skips major population and urban centres, lowering the route’s ridership potential even further.

“Land uses connected by Interurban are not as transit-supportive as those along Fraser Highway, King George Boulevard, and 104th Avenue: The Interurban does not directly connect to the largest regional centre in the South of Fraser – Surrey Metro Centre – which is expected to be the focus of future population and employment growth,” continues the report.

“While it does connect to other regional centres, including Newton, Cloverdale, and Langley Regional City Centre, the Interurban alignment is indirect and through lower density and diverse areas. Both directness and density are critical factors in the performance of a successful rapid transit corridor.”

Interurban South of Fraser Surrey Langley

Population and employment density in the South of Fraser, in relation to SkyTrain and the Interurban. (TransLink)

For these reasons, it is estimated the potential ridership on the Interurban corridor will be just one-third of the Fraser Highway corridor directly connecting downtown Surrey with Langley Centre, as the Fraser Highway corridor has a higher population and employment density.

Rising freight traffic on the Interurban railway

The Interurban railway is currently used for freight traffic, and this is expected to significantly increase from the Port of Vancouver’s forecast of container traffic volume growth and the more environmentally-friendly preference of moving goods by train instead of truck.

This freight railway route directly serves Roberts Bank Delta Port, which is set to see a significant expansion in its berth and container capacity over the coming decade.

Interurban South of Fraser Surrey Langley

South of Fraser railway corridors. (TransLink)

Freight train traffic is expected to increase in frequency, and trains over the coming years could grow from 2.9 km long to up to 3.7 km long. There are long-term plans to increase the capacity of the Interurban for freight traffic by double tracking the railway and grade separation upgrades, let alone sharing the railway’s existing capacity for passenger traffic.

Any proposal for new passenger rail services should not expect any concessions to the Interurban’s existing and future capacity and reliability for freight traffic to the rest of Canada.

“Given that the freight operations are of national importance (this is part of the Asia-Pacific Gateway), it would not be reasonable to assume that LRT would have the single railway track in this segment dedicated to passenger operations in lieu of freight,” reads the 2012 analysis.

“The railway will continue to be heavily used by freight service and this would preclude rapid transit from using the same tracks. It was also found that a rapid transit route next to the existing railway would be inferior to the nearby parallel route on Highway 10, which more directly connects to adjacent land uses and would potentially have a faster travel time to Langley.”

The only way passenger rail services could be implemented on the Interurban is through its double tracking to remove operational conflicts between passenger and freight.

This would not only meet Transport Canada and freight train operator safe and capacity needs, but also ensure a fast, frequent, and reliable rapid transit service. Physical and time separation using existing track infrastructure is not possible given the growing freight volumes.

Interurban South of Fraser Surrey Langley

Interurban railway conflicts with freight traffic. (TransLink)

High construction cost for low benefits

The cost of achieving the necessary upgrades on the Interurban is far higher than what Interurban passenger service advocates have claimed.

“The rationale for re-evaluating LRT in this corridor was the perception by some members of the public that implementation costs would be low relative to other corridors. However, the lowest-cost option does not meet the requirements for rapid transit,” the 2012 analysis continues.

More recent cost estimates by the advocacy group of a low average $12.5 million per km cost to implement passenger rail service on the Interurban does not appear to have any basis on reality, with the 2012 analysis deeming a minimum average $50 to $85 million per km cost as necessary to meet safety and desirable operating standards for all railway users.

The Interurban’s right-of-way is narrow along much of the route, making it difficult to add additional tracks and necessitating property acquisition. There are also a number of construction challenges, such as power lines, grade crossings with busy arterial roads, narrow and old wooden bridges, and poor soil conditions.

“These findings indicate that operation of passenger rail on this corridor is unlikely to be any easier to implement than on arterial corridors… the benefits of implementing rapid transit on the Interurban corridor were considered insufficient to warrant further consideration as a rapid transit alternative,” adds the report.

With that said, TransLink is not completely dismissing the use of existing railway corridors for new passenger rail services, especially for east-west inter-regional connections between Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and exploring what corridors “could viably serve” the demand.

According to the report, TransLink staff met with the advocacy group twice in “lengthy meetings” to hear their proposal and have informed them that the Interurban concept will be considered for the upcoming 30-year regional transportation strategy during the ongoing Transport 2050 process.

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