Skip to main content

As the new light-rail lines that run from downtown to the airport in Seattle and Vancouver mark their one-year anniversaries this summer, the differences between the two are as striking as the similarities.

Both were built after years of public wrangling, cost staggering amounts of money, and had to grapple with challenging construction. But one has four times as many riders as the other.

Both are seen as triumphs for rapid transit. But for one city, the new line is just a first step in a journey to creating a modern-day rapid-transit system. For the other, it's an addition that pulls the whole system together.

Story continues below advertisement

As a result, both the Canada Line in Vancouver and the Central Link in Seattle are case studies, examined intently by planners, transit experts and regular citizens anxious about the future of urban life.

Cities from Shanghai to Paris are scrambling to create rapid-transit networks or expand what they have, as the health of metropolitan economies becomes dependent on efficient ways to move large numbers of people around. Even Los Angeles, long viewed as the city of freeways, now has 130 kilometres of rail lines and ambitious plans to build much more.

So as the sister cities on the West Coast celebrate the first birthday of their shiny new lines, it is also a celebration of a year-long experiment, revealing exactly what has worked, and where they missed the mark. For many transportation experts, Vancouver has emerged the winner.

"Both lines are really important. Both are part of what are going to be incredibly successful systems. But Vancouver is out in front," says Jarrett Walker, an Australia-based international consultant in public-transit network design.

"It's because their system is driverless. The reason I talk about Vancouver all over the world is that it's a system you turn on in the morning and it can go all day without costing any more."




Community Support

Taxpayers never got to vote on the line, though they pay for it through fares and property taxes. Instead, council representatives from 22 municipalities had to approve it, with the provincial government pushing to have it completed for the 2010 Olympics. It took three contentious votes before it was passed in 2003.

Voters in three counties agreed to pay new fees and taxes in order to support a rail line in 1996. But it took another decade for Sound Transit, the regional authority, to get the line started, partly because construction costs soared far past the original amount taxpayers had approved. That sparked arguments among public officials on whether and how to scale the line back.

Business Support

Construction of the Canada Line set off major protests from businesses in the Cambie Village section of the line, after it was announced that a cut-and-cover construction method would be used instead of boring a tunnel. The province eventually created a $2-million fund available to help the Cambie business association. But 38 businesses out of 275 shut down or left Cambie. Susan Heyes sued for losses to her business during the two years of construction and won $600,000 in B.C. Supreme Court last year, but that decision is being appealed. The Cambie Village Business Association has started a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the others.

Sound Transit created a $50-million pool to help businesses affected by the construction. Business owners who could prove they made less money during the five years of construction could get grants from a $15-million fund, and another $26-million was available for loans to promote economic development. As a result, 80 per cent of the businesses that existed before the line's construction were still there five years later.





The total cost to build the Canada Line was $2.1-billion, with the federal government contributing $400-million, the province $400-million, and the Vancouver airport $300-million. TransLink, the region's transit authority, put up $375-million. As well, it has to pay back the private consortium that provided the remainder of the money, which it's doing at a rate of $6.5-million every 28 days. Canada Line is operated by a private company, so there are no public figures on operating expenses or fares. But fares for TransLink's entire bus-ferry-rail-train system cover 53 per cent of the total costs, and TransLink says fares generated by the other two SkyTrain lines, one of which intersects the Canada Line, cover the operating costs of those lines 100 per cent.

It cost $2.6-billion to build the line, with the federal government contributing $500-million. Operating and maintenance costs for 2010 are pegged at $45.5-million. Sound Transit recovers 53 per cent of its operating cost through fares.


The line captured riders from established suburban bus lines coming from the south, and travels along a route that has a thriving suburban downtown, a casino, a college, a major shopping centre, a hospital and central downtown. As a result, it's been enormously popular since the day it opened, handled a peak of 287,000 passengers during the Olympics and now services over 100,000 riders on weekdays.

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to