Opinion: Let’s build new dedicated tracks for the West Coast Express commuter rail line

Jun 27 2023, 11:38 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Sean Sallis-Lyon, who is a resident of North Vancouver.

During TransLink’s 2023 annual general meeting held earlier this month, there was a short period at the end for questions. One question was, “When will West Coast Express become all-day bidirectional and weekend service?”

This question was not chosen during the Q&A period, along with another question about expanding the West Coast Express service.

Looking at TransLink’s Transport 2050 10-year priorities, as well as the foundational Transport 2050 strategy, the West Coast Express commuter rail line is almost completely absent. You would almost think TransLink wants everyone to forget it exists.

Real regional commuter rail plays a vital role throughout the world in connecting communities. For example, Southern Ontario’s GO Transit rail network accounts for 67% of the Toronto region’s suburban commuters. They are planning a big upgrade over the next few years as well, with electrification, increased frequency, and new stations delivered through the $13.5 billion GO Expansion project.

We don’t have to spend that kind of money on regional rail, at least not yet; Metro Vancouver is quite a bit smaller than Greater Toronto, after all. Instead, we should start by improving our existing regional rail service: the West Coast Express.

West Coast Express commuter rail at Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The West Coast Express has not expanded its service since operations began in 1995 and is only just now returning to pre-pandemic service levels. Many folks are able to commute to Vancouver from Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge, and Mission, but there are only five trains per weekday in each peak direction during the morning and evening peak windows.

We cannot expect most people to use such an inflexible service.

The main barrier to increasing service on the West Coast Express has always been track ownership, as Canadian Pacific (CP) owns the already congested tracks, with TransLink merely leasing time for its limited commuter rail operations. If we want to offer all-day service, we need to think of creative ways we can work with CP to make this happen.

Freight is incredibly important to our region, especially from an environmental perspective. We do not want to hamper CP’s operations, so we would need to negotiate to add dedicated tracks to the corridor. We would want to build some new tracks regardless, especially if we want increased speeds and electrified trains. A mutually beneficial strategy would be best.

Time-lapse video of the West Coast Express ride from Mission to Waterfront Station:

Almost the entire length of the rail corridor from Vancouver to Mission is double-tracked or better. We could work to triple-track the lines, expand existing rail yards, or purchase daytime right-of-way from CP for a lump sum. There are many options to make this work if we really want it to happen.

It is hard to estimate how much it would cost to build new tracks, as much of this would depend on negotiations with CP. That said, there is already an existing freight right-of-way in place, and the stations are already built, so most of the cost would probably come from building the new tracks.

For comparison, Brightline Florida’s 385-km-long Miami to Orlando regional rail line, which runs at a maximum speed of 200 km/hr, cost about US$1.75 billion to build, or US$4.5 million per km. Converted to Canadian dollars, this would be about C$6 million per km of track. If we assume similar costs here in Vancouver, we would be looking at around C$450 million for the 75 km from Vancouver to Mission, but without taking into account local conditions and factors.

We would need to build a bridge across Pitt River, and there are areas that would require expropriation, as well as some utilities that would need to be moved. The stations are already built, which saves us money, but we may want to build some new stations, like next to Hastings Park (PNE), the northern base of Burnaby Mountain (SFU Burnaby), and Commercial Drive in Vancouver’s Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. In theory, such a project should not cost more than C$1 billion to C$2 billion.

Even if the costs were higher, there would still be immense value; imagine frequent, all-day passenger rail service from Vancouver to Mission. We could have a fast, dedicated, 75-km-long corridor connecting the region, for a very reasonable price. If we wanted to, we could even electrify the line, though that would likely mean buying new trains.

For comparison, imagine how much a 75-km-long SkyTrain line would cost.

west coast express commuter rail line map

Route and station map of the West Coast Express commuter rail line. (TransLink)

west coast express commuter rail coquitlam central station

West Coast Express commuter rail at Coquitlam Central Station. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Regional rail functions like an express service, allowing people to get around faster than driving in a lot of cases. For example, driving from Port Moody to downtown Vancouver usually takes 40 minutes in typical traffic conditions; taking the SkyTrain is about the same. If you catch the West Coast Express, that same trip can be done in just 25 minutes.

All day, everyday service would open up a world of new connections, like weekend trips from Mission to Lafarge Lake, Vancouver to Coquitlam, or Pitt Meadows to Port Moody.

TransLink could also use this opportunity to invest in areas around these stations through its new Real Estate Development Program.

Major urban regions around the world are able to achieve massive economic growth via these kinds of rail connections. We need to build out a proper regional rail system across the Lower Mainland — linking Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley — and we can start by improving the West Coast Express.

TransLink’s 10-year priorities have been finalized, so we likely cannot make any significant alterations. Instead, we need to start considering regional rail expansion, at least conceptually, as part of the 2050 plan. We should think about better transportation options not only for Mission, but also for Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope, Merritt, Kelowna, Kamloops, Squamish, and Whistler.

We should think about improving our rail connections to Seattle and Portland, which is already conceptualized through the proposed high-speed rail line, as well as across Vancouver Island. We should think about better connections to BC Ferries’ terminals at Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen.

Smaller cities in Europe have regional trains running every 15 minutes, saving everyone time and money; we need more regional trains here in BC, starting with the West Coast Express.

west coast express commuter rail train

Inside a passenger car of the West Coast Express commuter rail. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

west coast express commuter rail train

Inside a passenger car of the West Coast Express commuter rail. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)


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