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Metro Vancouver has as much of a traffic crisis as it has an affordable housing crisis, with thousands of cars backed up on major arterial roads between Vancouver and Abbotsford every day.

But TransLink, the transportation authority for Metro Vancouver, doesn’t believe that reviving passenger service on the old interurban rail line is the solution. Interurban passenger service was routine more than 100 years ago throughout North America, including a route from Vancouver to Chilliwack. Most jurisdictions sold off the lines once the car came along, but the interurban land in Metro Vancouver remains publicly owned, which has triggered proposals to revive it. A story in last week’s Globe and Mail explored that idea.

But TransLink cites the legal difficulty in negotiating with private companies that currently use the track for freight. They say the interurban does not support a more immediate plan to provide better transit to the region’s second downtown of Surrey Centre. As well, it would be pricey to refurbish the line and because of its many stops, it would be too slow an option for commuters. Studies have been done over the years, which did not favour the idea, TransLink says, including a consultant’s south of Fraser area transit report in 2007, a provincial government report on Fraser Valley transit in 2010, and a TransLink assessment in 2012 as part of a Surrey rapid transit study.

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TransLink says it will revisit the issue of interurban service as one of several options as part of its new regional transportation strategy, called Transport 2050. “The lack of connections to population centres and the slower-than-bus travel time are more compelling reasons why the idea has not been recommended for consideration for either rapid transit or inter-regional rail options,” TransLink’s spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Housing affordability and better transit are inextricably linked. To that end, citizen activist groups have been arguing for the benefits of restoring passenger service on the old line that runs from Surrey through the Fraser Valley. The rail line is currently used for freight, but it is owned by BC Hydro, a Crown corporation whose private predecessor, B.C. Electric Railway, built the line in 1910. The line was built to link farming communities with the city, serving more than a dozen tiny communities and helping grow the Fraser Valley. It got decommissioned when cars and buses ruled the day, but now that congestion is making the region unlivable, proponents want to bring the old way of train travel back.

Some say it’s a better option than the costly SkyTrain proposal to link Surrey to Langley. There are residents in those cities who vehemently oppose the idea of an interurban service over the faster SkyTrain.

Daryl Dela Cruz, a 23-year-old student, formed a citizens’ group in support of SkyTrain instead of an interurban train from Surrey to Langley. His group mounted a petition that has about 6,000 signatures, and they campaigned during the civic election to make it a central issue.

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, your [interurban] line theory might not be a bad idea, perhaps more study could be done – but it’s not a replacement for the SkyTrain,'” Mr. Dela Cruz says.

Others say the interurban is more inclusive of the entire Valley, which is quickly growing, and it shouldn’t be disregarded because of SkyTrain. They argue that the interurban goes through Langley Centre, as well as areas that the SkyTrain would miss, including North Delta, South Newton and Cloverdale.

TransLink says that while those areas are important, its mandate is to prioritize urban centres identified in the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy. The interurban does not go through Surrey Centre, and it takes a winding route to Langley Centre, TransLink says.

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“We have been tasked with delivering fast, frequent, and reliable rapid transit between urban centres – the interurban project does not achieve that goal.”

The pro-interurban groups say that the number of stops could easily be adjusted, and because it has its own path, the service wouldn’t be affected by car traffic. It would therefore be faster than driving in gridlock.

TransLink responds: “The interurban is not completely separated. There are many crossings at road intersections. As per the facts in the agreement with BC Hydro, there would definitely be conflicts with freight operations. Passenger trains would be slowed by car and freight traffic, if not completely separated.”

BC Hydro owns the land and two private freight companies own the track that sits on the land. Those companies are CP Rail and Southern Railway, which owns the vast majority of the track. Hydro has a long-standing agreement with CP Rail that allows negotiation of the track for passenger service. There is also a clause that permits CP to double track the line at its own cost. BC Hydro spokesman Geoff Hastings says it does not have such arrangements with Southern Railway, which would require negotiations.

Mr. Hastings says that BC Hydro and the private railways would have to reach an agreement before TransLink could enter into separate commercial negotiations with the companies on acquiring passenger service rights.

“Entering into these agreements also requires the co-operation and consent of CP and Southern Railway, as passenger service would have to be scheduled around freight movement.”

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John Vissers stands near the tracks in downtown Abbotsford, B.C. Mr. Vissers, a former construction company owner who lives in Abbotsford, says he supports both the SkyTrain and the interurban rail scheme and doesn’t see them as mutually exclusive.

Christina Toth/The Globe and Mail

John Vissers is a recently retired owner of a construction company that built multifamily housing. He has lived in Abbotsford for 30 years and sits on the city’s development advisory committee. On a good day, Abbotsford is a little more than a one-hour drive from Vancouver. His city might not be as dense as Surrey, but what policy-makers are missing, he says, is that Abbotsford is expected to grow to about 200,000 people – and nobody is preparing for that. He was involved in the development of an official community plan to add density and create urban areas as opposed to sprawl, but that can only be accomplished with better transit. Mr. Vissers says Abbotsford households are so car-dependent that they often own three or four vehicles.

He supports the revival of the interurban as an expedient way to develop affordable housing and a walkable city.

“Why aren’t we doing this? What’s holding us back, and why are the policy-makers not interested?” he asks. “That’s the thing that mystifies me. We own the land, and we did it 100 years ago, why can’t we do it now? I think they are using a 20th-century model for their thinking.”

The needs of the entire Valley should be considered, he says. He is not opposed to residents in Surrey and Langley who want SkyTrain.

“I see us as complementing SkyTrain, and saying, ‘Here is another tool in the toolbox, another way of adding to the capacity for public transportation. We are looking at how we can move people regionally, and at an affordable price. We don’t want to wait another 20 years, and why should we?”

Developers will embrace the interurban system because the line goes through downtown Abbotsford, he says. City council recently agreed that a proposal for a 600-unit downtown housing project should go to public hearing. If built, it would significantly densify the downtown core. His city is expected to grow by 40,000 in the next 20 years alone, and yet there is no significant plan for transit. He says the people of Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack can’t wait for another 20 years.

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“We are transitioning from a sprawl city to a livable, walkable, sustainable city,” he says. “We’ve developed an official community plan to absorb that increase, without growing our footprint, which is pretty exciting.

“But what we haven’t done is find any other regional transportation than that freeway. We know it’s a big mistake, but we haven’t really developed a plan to address that.”

Developer Michael Geller, who builds low- to mid-density projects, also embraces the interurban idea. He says the interurban would encourage development around the stations and revitalize communities. He argues that commuters would rather get work done while sitting in a train than sitting idle in a car.

“When they brought these train lines in in the old days, that’s what dictated where development went,” he says. “With trams, and trains, you can have more stops than when you have a SkyTrain. And so you begin to get the development that happened 80 years ago.

“Housing development and transportation they go together, and I think it’s just a matter of time before we do have a tram service or train service or some hybrid back out to Chilliwack … because you have housing choices out there you don’t have in Vancouver or north Vancouver, and it will help with affordability.”

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