Big expansion needed for West Coast Express commuter rail, says advocacy group

Sep 13 2022, 12:44 am

Metro Vancouver’s lone commuter rail line, West Coast Express (WCE), will mark its 30th anniversary in 2025, and it has been regarded as an immense ridership success, especially with what it is able to achieve from highly limited service.

Despite its decades-long existence and the region’s population growth, the service levels have been almost completely unchanged since opening day.

TransLink operates WCE with just a handful of trains in the peak hour direction only — westbound to Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver during the morning rush hour, and the return trip eastbound to Mission in the evening rush hour. And the WCE is only operational on weekdays.

Ahead of the 2022 civic election, a new advocacy group, the West Coast Express Expansion Association (WCEEA), is hoping to attract renewed public interest in making major investments into improving the commuter rail service.

Harvey Su, the founder of the WCEEA and a candidate for Coquitlam City Council, told Daily Hive Urbanized he wants to see TransLink extend the uni-directional service in the morning and evening peak periods by one or two hours each, as the first step for improving the WCE over the short term. New train services would also be introduced on weekends and holidays.

Another step to improve the service will be to run bi-directional service between Port Coquitlam and Waterfront stations, which could potentially be accommodated by the large multi-track trainyard in Port Coquitlam to enable the storage of WCE trains.

Additional stations would also be added at Albion in Maple Ridge, North Burnaby, and just north of Hastings Park (PNE) in East Vancouver.

Over the long term, he continued, the ultimate goal would be to upgrade the WCE from its existing uni-directional, peak hour-only configuration into an all-day, bi-directional service. Adding one more track would achieve this.

TransLink’s commuter rail service through its WCE operations is just a small fraction of counterparts such as Toronto’s GO Train and Montreal’s EXO in terms of network size, operating hours, frequency, and capacity.

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Map of GO Train’s expansion and electrification. (Metrolinx)

Already a very comprehensive service, GO Train is currently undergoing a $13.5 billion expansion that will see 150 km of new dedicated commuter rail track that separates its services from freight traffic, allowing for frequent, all-day service on select routes. In fact, upon full completion, the equivalent of WCE in Toronto will have all-day, bi-directional service every 15 minutes for most of the network, with much of it also electrified. GO Train will be able to run three times more trains than the 3,500 trains per week it operated in 2019.

“You only need to look at GO Train in Toronto and you will understand how we are falling way far behind. The biggest problem is its inconvenient schedule making it unaccessible to the ordinary residents of the eight cities served by the WCE,” Su told Daily Hive Urbanized.

“The last train leaving Mission is at 7:25 am and it won’t come back until 3:30 pm. Think about it. Other than the people working downtown Vancouver, who else can use it? I am a Coquitlam resident and my office is at downtown Vancouver. I really want to use the service, but the last train leaving Coquitlam is at 8:10 am and I can’t use it because I need to drop off my kids to schools first and the train is gone by then.”

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

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

The main issue with expanding WCE is that it uses leased track time from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). TransLink does not own the railway infrastructure, and depends on CPR’s track operations, maintenance, and signalling.

CPR has given freight traffic the priority on its railways, and several years ago a spate of delays on WCE for this reason came to a head. Rising freight traffic at the Port of Vancouver is also putting added pressure on the railway system.

To achieve expansion, Su is urging local officials to “push hard” on the provincial government to negotiate with CPR to allow for more track time.

In the 1990s, the BC NDP government negotiated with CPR to create the WCE as we know it today.

Negotiations led by the Ontario provincial government and federal government with the private railways over the decades also led to GO Train’s previous expansion.

During the 2010 Olympics, TransLink successfully negotiated with CPR to run seven days per week, with additional peak and mid-day trips. As a result, WCE ridership reached over 17,000 per day during the Games.

Prior to the pandemic, WCE saw normal ridership of an average of 10,000 boardings per weekday.

Currently, each one-way trip on WCE’s two-level trains — along the 69-km-long, eight-station route between Waterfront and Mission — takes about 70 minutes in optimal conditions.

Su says his initiative has the support of the mayors of Port Coquitlam, Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Port Moody, as well as various city councillors of these jurisdictions and others, including Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge, and Mission.

Port Coquitlam mayor Brad West told Daily Hive Urbanized an expansion of the WCE is “low hanging fruit.”

“The infrastructure is in place, the trains are available and people are very familiar with the service. Government is telling people they need to get out of their cars, but they have to have something to get in to,” said West.

“Too many people don’t have a realistic alternatives to a vehicle and instead of condemning them, government should be giving them options. Expanding WCE should be part of a proper public transit system that can meet the needs of our population.”

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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)

west coast express commuter rail train

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

Early this year, TransLink’s Mayors’ Council approved its Transport 2050 strategy of a 30-year regional transportation expansion and improvement plan. It does not call for a commuter rail expansion specifically, but it does identify the need for more interregional options, including a new north-south route from Mission — the current eastern terminus of the WCE — to Abbotsford. Other interregional routes appear to be envisioned as long-haul buses along the Highway 1 corridor from Burnaby/New Westminster to Chilliwack, along the South Fraser Perimeter Road and Highway 99 to Delta and the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, and along Upper Levels Highway and Sea to Sky Highway reaching as far north as Pemberton.

More specifically for the Tri-Cities, the plan calls for an upgrade of the existing R3 RapidBus along Lougheed Highway from SkyTrain Coquitlam Central Station to Maple Ridge into a bus rapid transit (BRT) service. There will also be a new BRT route from Langley to Maple Ridge via 200th Street, Golden Ears Bridge, and Lougheed Highway.

Transport 2050 also outlines the possibility of a short SkyTrain Millennium Line extension from Coquitlam Central Station to downtown Port Coquitlam. The Evergreen Extension of the Millennium Line was built in a way to accommodate a potential future extension to Port Coquitlam.

In 2020, the provincial government also launched a study to explore expanding commuter rail between Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, with the transportation analysis also taking into account housing development potential. The findings of the study have yet to be released.

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Transport 2050 plan for express bus routes, and regional and interregional transit connections. (TransLink)

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West Coast Express trains in downtown Vancouver. (Michael Chu/Flickr)

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West Coast Express trains in downtown Vancouver. (TransLink)

West Coast Express

West Coast Express train. (Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock)

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West Coast Express commuter rail train at a station. (Mike Woolley/TransLink)

But before any net expansion can be achieved, the WCE needs to return to its pre-pandemic frequencies and capacity.

Thor Diakow, a spokesperson for TransLink, told Daily Hive Urbanized that as of today, one car has been added to each of the two busiest WCE trains, bringing the total car capacity to 23 on four separate trips.

Prior to the pandemic, WCE operated five trains for each peak hour period. Currently, it is down to four trains for each peak hour period, with the 5:55 am westbound train leaving Mission cancelled, and the 4:20 pm eastbound train leaving Waterfront Station cancelled. But this is still an improvement from the low of three trains during the peak of the pandemic.

As of this month, WCE ridership is at 40% of pre-pandemic levels — well below the 75% recovery for Metro Vancouver’s entire public transit network.

“There are no current plans to further expand WCE service, but TransLink is monitoring WCE ridership to determine a long-term strategy for the service and to evaluate its role as a regional passenger rail system,” said Diakow.

“A number of factors would determine whether WCE service expansion could be considered. These involve choosing how to best prioritize funding, the limited control over use of the tracks (which are owned by CPR), current and long-term forecasted ridership, and total potential capacity.”

Su argues the population growth trajectory for the northeast sub-region of Metro Vancouver warrants a WCE expansion. The population of Maple Ridge has increased from 56,000 residents in 1996 to 91,000 in 2021, while the Tri-Cities has grown from 170,000 in 1996 to 243,000 in 2021, with a projected population of 400,000 in 2050. Furthermore, the combined population of the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley regions is now almost three million.

“The WCE deserves a much-needed and long overdue expansion,” Su added.

In 2019, Daily Hive Urbanized also identified the need for an expanded WCE, and established a potential concept for allowing all-day, bi-directional service east of Coquitlam Central Station, and additional stations along the existing route.

In September 2020, TransLink began a study to look at improving the designs of the WCE stations, with specific attention on safety, security, and accessibility.

Last year, TransLink announced a $21-million, multi-year project of refurbishing engines on six of the seven WCE locomotives to reduce emissions, improve energy efficiency, and allow the future operation of longer trains.

West Coast Express potential expansion concept by Daily Hive Urbanized, 2019. (Ian Ius/Daily Hive)

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


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