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Light rail showdown: Vancouver versus Seattle Add to ...

Since the Central Link line opened July 18, 2009, ridership has slowly crawled up to about 25,000 passengers a day - a quarter of Vancouver's Canada Line. It runs through relatively low-density suburbs and did not capture riders from an existing bus line. Stations outside the downtown are in suburban communities with little built up around them.





A bargain $3.75 in the first few months for travellers going from Vancouver to the airport, the ride is now $8.75 because of a special surcharge that non-passholders have to pay for the airport trip. It's still a savings from the usual $30 cab fare to downtown, and taxi drivers say the line has had an impact on their business.

It costs $2.50 (U.S.) to get from downtown to the Sea-Tac airport, normally a $40 cab ride. However, trains run only every 7.5 minutes, even at peak hours, and up to 15 minutes apart at night - a schedule that transit experts say is too low, considering that high frequency is the number-one factor that encourages people to use transit


Vancouver spent more to have its line either elevated or in a tunnel, but costs ran lower than Seattle because it's a shorter line. Like the Expo and Millennium lines, the Canada Line uses a driverless system, making it much cheaper to run trains at higher frequency.

In an effort to save money, Seattle put its Central Link line at street level for five miles through the Rainier Valley. That saved Sound Transit millions of dollars by not having to tunnel (as it did in the downtown) or put the line on an elevated track (as it did to cross freeways on the last section before the airport). However, that means the line requires drivers - a significant operating expense. Although a signal system allows the train to run without stopping, future traffic congestion on neighbouring streets will likely create complications later on.





Stations are small and relatively bare, with some riders complaining that it's hard to see station signs from the train. There is some public art at some stations, but it's temporary.

A great deal of aesthetic thought was put into the Central Link's stations, with the main stop underneath Westlake Centre boasting granite platforms and Art Deco pendants. Other stations also house more luxurious materials, along with permanent public art installations.

The Future

Officially, there are plans to extend the service to UBC and suburbs like Port Moody and Port Coquitlam. Practically, TransLink hasn't been able to agree on a way to pay for it. TransLink is pressing the province to introduce measures like road pricing and vehicle fees. The province wants the region to raise taxes.

A jump in ridership is expected when the next phase - the link to the densely populated Capitol Hill neighbourhood, and to the University of Washington - is developed. "The high ridership will come with that link," says Bruce Gray, a spokesman for Sound Transit. "[Vancouver is] a couple of decades ahead of us. But we feel like we've had a real vote of confidence that people want rail."




Rider Reaction

Mid-afternoon on a Wednesday is not usually a peak time for transit in Vancouver, but the City Hall station on the Canada Line is bustling, as crowds head south, some of them pulling suitcases, some with backpacks, and some simply with shopping bags. Elle Miller, a retired accountant, hustles down the steps with her Whole Foods cloth bags to jump on the train that will take her back to Vancouver's most southerly neighbourhood, Marpole. "I'm not crazy about going underground. But I love taking it to here or downtown or the airport. Before, that Cambie bus was just hell."

Newton Caprie is one of only about half a dozen people who board Seattle's Central Link rail line at the airport stop on a recent Sunday morning. He dozes with his head against the window after an all-night shift as a ramp worker at the Sea-Tac airport as the car zips past cars on the I-5 freeway, and then streaks along Martin Luther King Boulevard toward downtown. He loves the new line - before it was built, he had to drive out to the airport with his not-always-reliable car and pay to park, a significant expense for the 40-year-old New Zealand immigrant who also works as a second job cleaning buses at Greyhound. "It's so good for me. I get there fast," says Mr. Caprie at the end of his 35-minute journey.

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