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Imagine a modern regional tram that could get people out of their cars and connect communities between Surrey and Chilliwack, similar to the passenger lines that have long existed in European cities.

The line already exists. It’s the old interurban track that was built by B.C. Electric Railway and completed on Oct. 3, 1910, when then-premier Sir Richard McBride drove the last spike. The Lower Mainland was undergoing a real estate boom at the time, and construction of the interurban rail line, and streetcars, opened up major new opportunities. The cars were bigger than streetcars, and ran from Vancouver to Chilliwack.

But regional trams and city streetcars couldn’t compete with cars and buses, and the last interurban passenger service on the line was discontinued in 1958.

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Now, with another major boom under way, and the search on for affordable housing in walkable urban communities, there is a campaign afoot to bring it back to the Fraser Valley.

“It’s getting worse by the day – the traffic is almost impossible, and the big difficulty is, if you keep widening a freeway and build more overpasses, a freeway simply creates more sprawl and more need for transit,” says Bill Vander Zalm, the former premier whose government ensured that the ownership of the interurban line would stay as publicly owned land. Mr. Vander Zalm is one of the spokespeople helping to launch the South Fraser Community Rail campaign.

”With proper transit, if you look at where SkyTrain was built … wherever there is a station, there is a hub of housing. It happens at stations. So if we take the Fraser Valley community rail to Chilliwack, we are going to get development hubs, more affordable housing – it will prevent sprawl, keep the green space and agricultural land. It’s all a good thing.”

A 1923 map shows the route of an interurban train line between Vancouver and Chilliwack. The line was operated until the 1950s by the B.C. Electric Railway.

BC Hydro

As a kid, Mr. Vander Zalm lived in Bradner, a small community near Abbotsford along the old interurban line, and he would ride the tram to Langley. Passenger rail service was integral to the region’s growth, and the interurban was a massive undertaking at the time.

In his 1948 history of the B.C. Electric Railway Company, Lighted Journey, author Cecil Maiden wrote: “The conception was a bold one, yet if a line could be driven to Chilliwack, 64 miles up the Valley, it might prove an inestimable boon to the growing farm communities then moving in substantial numbers into the district."

Mr. Vander Zalm says that after many of the interurban rail lines around North America were decommissioned in the latter half of the 20th century, displaced by an expanding highway system, it was routine for jurisdictions to sell off the land. But when the B.C. government sold off BC Hydro’s freight rail division to an American company in the 1980s, it retained ownership of the land.

“We wouldn’t allow the sale of the track,” he said. “We would allow the sale of the freight rights, and we had a provision that if ever we needed the track for transit, for moving people, they’d have to give it up immediately, and make sure it was in good shape, etc."

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“We saw it coming – this is 30 odd years ago – and it took a long time for it to materialize, but I think the time has come.

“I think we were the only ones in the whole of North America that kept a train track for moving people.”

With increasing home prices, the Fraser Valley has grown far beyond a farming region, as people “drive until they qualify” for home ownership. Highway 1, which connects the valley communities, is overwhelmed with daily gridlock. According to the 2016 Census, 11 per cent of workers, or 130,405 people, commute for more than an hour a day in Metro Vancouver.

The return of an existing rail line – one that’s in good shape and already owned by the province – for passenger service has been an idea kicked around by various groups for a couple of decades – but relatively few people are even aware the line exists. The newly formed South Fraser Community Rail Society has put forward a proposal to resurrect the old line as a means to better connect the Fraser Valley and promote growth in the region in a way that’s more livable. A new interurban transit line would create hubs around which density could grow, and walkable communities could link up with other transit services.

Former Langley mayor Rick Green, who is spearheading the proposal, says the group is self-funded and apolitical. It includes retired politicians and community activists, and supporters such as Mr. Vander Zalm and the University of British Columbia’s Patrick Condon, who is professor of architecture and landscape architecture.

Mr. Green got interested in 2006 and mobilized significant interest, but then in 2011, he failed in his re-election bid and the proposal lost momentum. He and a few other advocates decided to take another run at it, particularly with talk of extending SkyTrain into Surrey. For a meeting with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Green arrived with massive binders of documentation, including a B.C. government news release from 1988, which states that the sale of BC Hydro’s freight division “does not include land under or either side of the rail bed nor does it include air rights above Hydro’s rail corridor. These have been retained in order to accommodate future rail passenger, real estate or other developments along former B.C. Electric Railway routings in the Lower Mainland.”

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The fact that it remained within the public domain all these years is huge, he says.

“It’s amazing how many people weren’t aware of it, and as we have over the last couple of decades talked to people at various candidate celebrations, and everything else, you put up your maps, and 99 per cent of people who look at it say, ‘why aren’t we doing it?’” Mr. Green says.

“The explosion in the population, the exponential growth out to the valley, is far greater than we anticipated, and why did that happen? Growth of property values. Everybody wants a home they can afford,” he adds.

Over the next few weeks, the group is officially launching their campaign and spreading the message that the interurban rail will serve the bulk of the population south of the Fraser, as well as key job centres along Scott Road, Newton, Cloverdale, Langley and beyond. Mr. Green is armed with data, such as the estimation that it would cost $200-million a kilometre to build a SkyTrain line from Surrey Centre to Langley City, as opposed to the $12.5-million a kilometre they say it would cost to reactivate the interurban line from Scott Road to Chilliwack.

He says the interurban project would connect 16 existing communities, 14 postsecondary schools, the Abbotsford International Airport, several industrial parks and bring students closer to several postsecondary campuses.

There are almost 1.2 million people living in the Fraser Valley region. It is growing faster than Vancouver, UBC’s Prof. Condon says, and traffic will only worsen as people seek affordable housing. His students did analysis and found areas where they could easily fit half a million housing units, he says. Modern passenger rail cars that run on hydrogen, as used in Europe, would offer a pollution-free alternative to the automobile, he says.

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“I think it’s an almost immediate solution to a critical problem,” Prof. Condon says. “If we can establish this now, it will help to organize the future land uses around transit as opposed to the automobile.

“Most of the lands that the interurban goes through are previous industrial areas, and I would call them almost derelict now, not being used to maximum capacity – and they are perfect candidates for high intensity, mixed-use, walkable areas with housing and jobs within a 10-minute reach of the interurban line.”

His theory on why the idea hasn’t been taken more seriously is a “Vancouver-centric” view of transit and land use. But times have changed, and it’s not all about Vancouver any more, he says.

“Over 70 per cent of the car trips that originate south of the Fraser River stay south. So the idea that everybody is crossing the river to get to jobs is no longer true.”

This is the first of a two-part series on changes to the commuter rail network in B.C.'s lower mainland aimed at meeting the needs of an expanding population. Part two follows next week.

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