60-minute train: High-speed rail proposal linking Whistler, Vancouver, and Fraser Valley

Oct 5 2020, 11:51 pm

Imagine performing an end-to-end trip between Whistler and Chilliwack, and the destinations in between, within an hour on a regional high-speed rail line reaching up to 300 km/hr.

That is the connectivity vision for Mountain Valley Express (MVX) by a new local advocacy group comprised of academics and urban planners, who believe such an infrastructure investment — linking the Sea to Sky Corridor, Metro Vancouver, and the Fraser Valley — will provide a lasting economic engine and a “leaner, greener restart” for BC after COVID-19.

The line will mainly follow existing transportation corridors including the Sea to Sky Highway and Trans-Canada Highway, using dedicated rail tracks to enable fast travel speeds.

There will be a total of 11 stations at major destinations and transfer points to other modes of public transit, including stations for Squamish, Horseshoe Bay, North Vancouver, Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver, Commercial-Broadway Station in East Vancouver, Lougheed Town Centre Station in Burnaby, Surrey City Centre, Langley, and Abbotsford.

The proposed travel times could revolutionize how the region gets around, with travel times of 31 minutes between Whistler and Waterfront Station, seven minutes between Waterfront Station and Lougheed Town Centre Station, and 10 minutes between Waterfront Station and Surrey City Centre. It would provide an additional option for local trips — a relief line for SkyTrain, especially for the Expo Line which is expected to reach capacity necessitating major upgrades over the coming decades.

The end-to-end travel times between the terminus stations is 59 minutes, which is up to 80% faster than the driving time between Whistler and Chilliwack.

mountain valley express high speed rail

Map of Mountain Valley Express’ and station locations along the Sea to Sky Corridor and within Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. (Mountain Valley Express)

The ridership of such a high-speed rail line would be immense, with nearly 100,000 trips daily based on current demand.

It would have a capacity for 7,560 passengers per hour per direction — equivalent to six lanes of highway or about half of the existing peak hour capacity of the Expo Line in each direction. Even higher capacities are possible through increased frequencies and interlining.

In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized prior to Tuesday’s formal announcement, Alex Gaio, an urban planner and spokesperson for MVX, said serving small population destinations such as Whistler and Squamish are feasible as it will be part of a much larger broader regional network.

He also points to regional commuter rail in Europe, specifically around Stockholm, where regional trains reach high-speed rail speeds, serve communities as small as 5,000 residents.

Furthermore, the region is growing; one million more people are expected to live in Metro Vancouver by 2050, and it has long been abundantly clear that not everyone can get around by driving and parking their own car.

Gaio says such an investment into rail infrastructure could defer expensive highway expansion projects for the Sea to Sky Highway and Highway 1.

Based on the preliminary cost estimates for the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high-speed rail project, the group’s very high-level estimate for MVX pegs the project at between $7 billion and $16 billion.

Comparatively, constructing the equivalent highway capacity along the MVX corridor would cost between $10 billion and $51 billion, based on a report from California’s high-speed rail project.

By investing in MVX, we can defer expensive highway expansions projects on the Sea-to-Sky and Highway 1. By shifting 20% of current drivers onto MVX, existing highway capacity is freed for those who really need it, including goods movement,” he said. “Although it is a large initial investment, MVX service can be scaled up by adding more trains and greater frequency to meet rising demand driven by our growing population and employment.”

This is a high-level estimate that would require further professional analysis for greater cost certainty. The key is that this project is less costly than highway expansion, and will have less of an environmental and human impact. It would be difficult to expand highway capacity due to land-costs, particularly in Metro Vancouver due to existing neighbourhoods in urban centres.”

High-speed rail train. (Shutterstock)

MVX’s utility could increase even further if it carries the same rail infrastructure as the high-speed rail line considered by the provincial government from Metro Vancouver to Washington State and Oregon.

But the real and most measurable impacts are found at home, as MVX will offer new, lower-cost housing opportunities. In recent years, there has been a growing trend of families moving further out east and south, where rent is lower and homeownership is within reach. However, the pursuit for housing affordability has also meant many families are forced to get around with their own car, as there are no reasonable alternatives to driving.

The ultra-rapid travel times will provide new economic development and tourism opportunities across the region, and increase productivity dramatically with less time spent in commutes.

High-level estimates of economic benefits total $47 billion to $61 billion over 30 years, including up to $17 billion from travel time savings.

It goes without saying that an unprecedented amount of funding would be required from the federal and provincial governments, but the group believes it is manageable, especially if it were to be an economic stimulus for COVID-19. They also point to the federal government’s $1.2 billion contributions through the new Canada Infrastructure Bank to Montreal’s privately-built and operated REM regional rail network.

brightline florida high speed rail

Brightline train in Florida. (Brightline)

There are also opportunities to tap into the long-term revenue potential of land value capture around the station locations.

“Rail stations in Asia are mixed-use complexes featuring retail, office, and housing. These complexes are developed and owned by the rail company, producing revenues which subsidize operations,” reads the group’s report.

“This model has been followed in recent years by YVR with the construction of the MacArthur Glen Outlet on Sea Island. Land value capture was recently introduced in Metro Vancouver as part of the Mayors’ Ten-Year Vision funding program, which introduced a regional Development Cost Charge on new developments.”

Two major regional network rail services in the United States are moving forward as private sector initiatives.

Brightline recently restarted its commuter passenger operations after a USD$1.75-billion upgrade of its existing railway between West Palm Beach and Miami. An extension reaching Orlando at a cost of USD$1.75 billion with new tracks capable of speeds of up to 200 km/hr will reach completion in 2022.

The same company is also behind the construction of a 300-km-long, high-speed rail service between Las Vegas and Victorville, just outside the Los Angeles region. With speeds of up to 240 km/hr, the end-to-end travel times will be 75 and 90 minutes — about half the driving time. This USD$4.8-billion project required a USD$3.2-billion state bond to start construction. The first phase to Victorville will open for service in 2023, and there are future plans for an extension reaching Los Angeles.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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