‘TransLink 2018’ is a four-part Daily Hive end-of-year series on the state and future of Metro Vancouver’s public transit system, based on our recent extensive interview with TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond.
Part 4 discusses Desmond’s thoughts on the challenges of expanding the West Coast Express commuter rail service.
Relatively few service level changes have been made to the West Coast Express commuter rail ever since it first launched nearly a quarter century ago.
It is one of TransLink’s most successful, highly rated, and on-time services, but it runs just 10 times each weekday in the peak direction — five westbound trains in the morning from Mission City to Waterfront Station, and five eastbound trains in the evening for the return trip.
Each one-way trip along the 69-km-long, eight-station route takes just 75 minutes, with the trains running well in excess of 100 km/hr on certain sections.
The first westbound train leaves Mission City at 5:25 am and the last westbound train arrives at Waterfront Station at 8:40 am. For the return trip, the first eastbound train leaves Waterfront Station at 3:50 pm and the last eastbound train arrives at Mission City at 7:35 pm.
That is an extremely short operating window that TransLink is allowed by CP Rail, which owns the railway tracks the commuter rail service operates on. TransLink merely leases track time on the railway company’s property.
This is also a far cry from the comprehensive, bidirectional, frequent, all-day services enjoyed by most of the Toronto GO Train routes and the Montreal Exo.
“The fundamental challenges is that we have a contract with CP Rail and the contract allows us to only operate during certain windows of time,” said TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond.
And the likelihood of CP’s willingness to expand the limited window is low considering the growing pressures of the rapidly rising freight traffic streaming in and out of the Port of Vancouver in Burrard Inlet.
According to the Port, for instance, about 83% of all import containers leaving the container terminals ultimately involve rail. The dependency on using rail to move goods in and out of the region will only intensify, with Pacific Gateway export and import volumes forecast to nearly double by 2030.
“To attempt to go beyond those hours of operation would require a renegotiation, and this is at a time when the railroads and the trade interests here in our region are experiencing and forecasting increased requirements for the rail capacity to move goods from the interior,” he said.
CP mandates that its freight traffic be prioritized, and this is the leading cause of delays to the commuter rail service. In 2015, a a spate of delays — over 100 service disruptions to the West Coast Express over a six-month period — were linked to CP giving freight trains the right-of-way priority over passenger trains.
“I have been very clear to all of these interests (CP and trade organizations) that we need to collectively make sure that we are able to move both people and goods on this incredible valuable railway right-of-way resource,” said Desmond.
He says the public transit authority could work with the federal government, the Port, and trade interests to collaboratively develop a strategy to improve the capacity of the existing right-of-way so that the Port’s objectives of moving more goods can be achieved, while also moving more people.
Desmond adds that TransLink is looking at the possibilities of all rail corridors, including corridors that are underused and can be modified.
Ridership on the West Coast Express currently hovers at around 9,000 boardings per weekday, but this is also limited by the carrying capacity of each train. Depending on the number of double-deck cars attached to each locomotive, each train carries between roughly 600 and 1,400 seated passengers.
As expected, ridership on the service fell slightly at 5.5% in 2017 during the first full year of the Evergreen Extension’s opening, but there was a rebound in 2018.
Until the region sees more heavy-duty commuter rail service, there will be a much greater emphasis on SkyTrain as the region’s arterial backbone transit service — doubling as both a local and commuter rail service.