The cost of upgrading the Island Rail Corridor between Victoria and Langford for a commuter rail public transit service is estimated at $595 million, according to a new technical feasibility report released by the provincial government.
An independent study conducted by consultancy firm WSP Canada identified a 16-km-long commuter rail span between the east side of Victoria Inner Harbour and Westhills, with additional stations in between at Admirals, Six Mile, and Langford.
Victoria Station, the southern terminus station of the line, will be located immediately east of the new Johnson Street Bridge and see improved connections to local public transit bus services.
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Upgrades would be made to the existing right-of-way, which is currently in poor condition in certain areas and does not meet the standard allowing for the operation of a fast train. A single track is envisioned for a peak-direction service, as demand does not warrant for a bi-directional service given the length of the route and higher cost.
Stations would have a simple design, consisting of a basic 100-metre-long concrete platform to accommodate a 100-metre long train comprised of up to four 25-metre-long passenger cars.
Some stations, such as Victoria Station, could have a dual-sided platform. A train yard for temporary storage during off-peak periods would be located near this terminus.
Station amenities entail a single covered shelter similar to a bus stop and one ticket machine, as well as a basic park-and-ride lot for some locations.
For the choice of rail technology, overhead electrification is deemed unfeasible, with researchers proposing diesel-fuelled technologies similar to the bi-level coaches of TransLink’s West Coast Express (WCE), which requires a locomotive, or the diesel multiple unit of Ottawa’s Trillium Line.
There would be just four scheduled trains during each peak-direction period, similar to the WCE.
Of the total $595-million estimated cost of this commuter rail service within Greater Victoria, $251 million is for the actual construction cost, including $26 million for signalling upgrades, $38.4 million for seven new trains, $27.2 million for the stations, $44.2 million for property acquisition, and $60 million for the maintenance facility.
The majority of the costs are outside construction, including a contingency fund of $255 million, $34.6 million for First Nations consultation and accommodation, $23.1 million for provincial government overheads, and $27.7 million for engineering.
Other options identified would upgrade the entire Island Rail Corridor from Victoria to Courtenay — a distance of 225 kms — for a north-south intercity rail service along Vancouver Island. There would be three phases of work, with the first phase costing $326.5 million and the final phase bringing the total cost to $728.8 million, including a $180.4-million subdivision track to Port Alberni.
The full-corridor improvements would allow for the return of both freight and passenger services on the railway.
Beyond Greater Victoria, the upgrades would focus on drainage and culvert issues, washouts, slope failures, vegetation intrusion, track geometry, rockfall, and track decay, including the need for new and rehabilitated railway bridges. Other stations between the Capital Region and Courtenay entail Shawnigan Lake, Duncan, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Parksville, and Qualicum Beach. The entire corridor is broken down into six segments.
“Phasing the improvements allocates the appropriate amount of funding for the appropriate levels of demand. When rail volumes increase beyond the Initial phase, capital would be required to implement the Intermediate phase. Similarly, as rail traffic volumes increase beyond the Intermediate phase, capital would be required to implement the Ultimate phase,” reads the report.
“If rail traffic volumes did not increase, then additional capital funding would not be required (excluding maintenance and operations). Furthermore, dividing the corridor into six different segments allows flexibility for phased improvements to be implemented where and when there is demand.”
The travel time for the Victoria to Westhills span is 28 minutes, while the full journey between Victoria to Courtenay is three hours and eight minutes.
The study did not offer any operating cost estimates, but ridership forecasts of a Greater Victoria commuter rail service or a complete Vancouver Island intercity rail service do not seem promising.
The full corridor route assumes three commuter rail trains in each peak direction between Victoria and Westhills, and one dual commuter rail/intercity train reaching Courtenay.
As a single-track, peak-direction only service, the Westhills to Victoria span will attract 475 total boardings in the morning — an average of 119 passengers for each of the four scheduled trains. When combined with the intercity route starting from Courtenay, the total ridership only increases to 1,049 total boardings — an average of 262 passengers per train.
For the afternoon peak period service, ridership starts at 656 passengers from Victoria to Westhills — an average of 164 passengers per train. This increases to 1,505 boardings or an average of 376 passengers per train for the full route to Courtenay.
“The majority of these trips are shifted from private vehicles, not existing transit,” reads the report. “For ridership forecasts between Westhills and Victoria stations, the percentage of commuter service customers likely shifting from existing bus service is only equal to the percentage of transit commuter mode share near the stations for buses running at or near the same time as the proposed commuter train service. The rest comes from car commuters.”
A previous study conducted in 2011 by BC Transit and the provincial government examined the feasibility of a more elaborate project — a largely on-street light rail transit (LRT) system from downtown Victoria to Westhills with 18 stations that provide the service with a catchment area that covers Victoria’s major residential areas and employment centres.
Although it carried a $950-million construction cost, the LRT had a highly positive cost-benefit ratio and is forecast to attract an average daily ridership of about 36,000 boardings by 2038. Progress on this project stalled due to funding and a shift in priorities.
In recent years, due to public and business interest, attention has turned to a commuter rail service and intercity rail service on the Island Rail Corridor, which is owned by the Island Corridor Foundation and operated under contract by the Southern Railway of Vancouver Island. Currently, passenger services do not operate on the corridor.
This study offers a “complete and accurate picture of the railway infrastructure” and will allow for rail-based transportation improvement options to be weighted against alternative road improvement options.
Researchers did not make any recommendations on the way forward in their study, but they note there has been specific interest from Rocky Mountaineer to operate a service on Vancouver Island.
Earlier this year in its budget announcement, the provincial government revealed plans to initiate a study on a commuter rail service between Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, but no timeline was established.