West Coast Express ridership recovery falling behind other TransLink services

Apr 10 2023, 9:31 pm

Ridership on Metro Vancouver’s only commuter rail service is recovering, but at a far slower pace than other TransLink services.

As of February 2023, the West Coast Express’ (WCE) ridership reached 45% of pre-pandemic levels — well below Canada Line, SeaBus, and HandyDART, which are each at over 70%, and certainly below the combined Expo and Millennium lines, buses, and overall regional public transit system, which are each at over 80%.

It is the single mode of service most impacted by the ongoing practice of semi-remote office work, given that much of the WCE’s pre-pandemic ridership was driven by office workers commuting in from far-flung suburban areas.

But it is part of the overall trend of downtown Vancouver and the Central Broadway area experiencing slower ridership recovery than the rest of the region, hovering at over 60% of pre-pandemic levels. Contrast this recovery with the exceptionally strong recovery in some parts of the South of Fraser, especially in Surrey Central, where ridership now exceeds pre-pandemic levels. With that said, public transit ridership in downtown Vancouver and Central Broadway is, of course, still by far the highest in the region in real numbers.

Downtown Van’s (the local business improvement association for downtown Vancouver) newly released State of Downtown report notes bus ridership recovery in downtown has increased from 54% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021 to 76% in 2022. SkyTrain boardings at downtown stations also improved from 48% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021 to 74% in 2022, while SeaBus saw an even stronger recovery from 54% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021 to 82% in 2022.

Ridership recovery in downtown Vancouver is highest on weekends, but the WCE, of course, only operates during the peak direction on weekdays.

“Ridership on the WCE has recovered slower from the COVID-19 pandemic than other modes because its ridership depends heavily on office workers in downtown Vancouver,” Thor Diakow, a spokesperson for TransLink, told Daily Hive Urbanized.

“The service is oriented towards commuters in the Central Business District of Vancouver – many of whom are still mostly working from home due to rising trends in remote work policies.”

west coast express commuter rail coquitlam central station

West Coast Express commuter rail at Coquitlam Central Station. (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)

Glenn Gardner, the principal of commercial real estate firm Avison Young in Vancouver, says it is not entirely surprising the commuter rail ridership is now lower, given that many downtown office workplaces are not back to a full five-day return for in-office work.

“Many of our conversations with clients are around their return to office behaviours and strategies – and we’re hearing examples of employees choosing to drive to work, for convenience and also because companies are now offsetting parking costs to incentivize their employees back to office,” Gardner told Daily Hive Urbanized.

“In other cases, we are seeing organizations set up satellite offices outside the downtown core, prompting employees who live in the suburbs to use them instead. This too could contribute to lower ridership.”

According to Downtown Van, downtown Vancouver’s average monthly workplace mobility recovery in 2022 was 37.9% below pre-pandemic January 2020 levels. This is up from 46% below in 2021.

west coast express commuter rail train

West Coast Express commuter rail at Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver. (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)

As of February 2023, ridership on the commuter rail line was 77% higher than the same month in 2022, and TransLink has increased capacity to account for ridership recovery.

More cars were added to the trains in January and early March, bringing the WCE to 30 cars on four trains per peak direction on weekdays. This is still down from the pre-pandemic service levels of 41 cars on five trains.

Diakow says a fifth roundtrip train will be reintroduced later in 2023.

WCE has the capacity to move over 6,000 people in and out of downtown Vancouver during the busiest times of the weekdays.

In pre-pandemic 2019, the WCE recorded 10,400 average daily boardings on weekdays, representing strong growth compared to the averages of 9,900 in 2018 and 9,200 in 2017.

Similar slower ridership recovery trends are also being experienced on Toronto’s commuter rail system, with GO Transit ridership reaching 53% of pre-pandemic levels in December 2022. Like the WCE, GO Transit commuter rail services funnel office workers into downtown Toronto.

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