Is community rail feasible? A skeptic and an advocate discuss

The resumption of rail travel on the interurban corridor through the Fraser Valley sounds like a cool idea. But is it a practical way to deliver necessary transit to the many who would benefit from being able to take a train or bus across the valley?

Last year, Current editor Tyler Olsen expressed skepticism about the idea in an introduction to The Current’s newsletter. The old interurban line runs from Surrey to Chilliwack. But it is not a straight line but a route that meanders through the Fraser Valley—prompting doubts about its speed and efficiency. 

But the insinuation that the route isn’t practical raised the hackles of Rick Green, a former Langley City mayor and one of the longest-lasting and loudest backers of the idea. So The Current called him up to hear his perspective and understand why he is the proposal’s supporters are certain the route is better than both rapid buses and SkyTrain. 

The discussion was long and, at times, contentious. We’ve condensed it to pull out the most interesting parts to serve readers. But if you want, you can listen to the entire 53-minute conversation below.

Community rail advocates say running trains along the Interurban corridor is the best hope for regional transit in the Fraser Valley. 📷 South Fraser Community Rail

Community rail

FVC: “Tell me about the current status of the community Rail For The Valley concept and idea and why you think that it's still something that's relevant and worth pursuing.

Green: “It's more relevant today than it ever has been.

“We've become a more self contained region… You say we have very little inter-regional transit, I would suggest to you we have absolutely no inter-regional transit. We have a population of 1.2 million people and growing exponentially. We're talking about community rail, we're not talking commuter rail. People get hung up with this idea that, well, we got Highway One and all we got to do is get to the Lougheed Skytrain station and that's what we really need. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Green pointed to older Translink studies that showed residents living south of the Fraser River increasingly commuted within their region, rather than venturing into Vancouver. 

“People say, ‘Well, this line meanders through the valley.’ That's exactly right. It hits all of the population centers. It hits 14 post secondary institutions. It hits 14 First Nations communities. It services the Abbotsford airport, University of the Fraser Valley. I can go on and on about that. What we're talking about is establishing a spine and rib system in the same fashion that SkyTrain does in Metro Vancouver. Every time they develop a new line, whether it's the Evergreen Line or whatever, they reconfigure the bus routes to connect up to the SkyTrain hubs. What we're talking about is the same type of thing.

Transportation within the Fraser Valley would be the Interurban line’s specialty, but Green said it would also improve the ability to make longer trips and reduce reliance on Highway 1. Sticking more express buses on a jammed freeway, Green said is not a good enough plan. 

“Let's talk about the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is Highway 1.

“Buses on Highway One are not the answer. They get caught up and we've got videos of it. We've got pictures of buses that have taken two hours to get from one entrance to another. They are caught in the same gridlock that we're trying to prevent. So how do we remove cars, some cars from Highway 1? There is only one option. And it's a healthy option. It's an environmentally friendly option. It hits 16 population centers which Highway 1 does not. People think the Highway One hits businesses and hits population centers. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.”

FVC: “You talked about it being community rail, not commuter rail. What's the difference there?”

Green: “Very easy. Commuter Rail is West Coast Express. West Coast Express basically goes in a direct line, give or take a few curves, to downtown Vancouver. It has about six six stops. It has five trips in and five trips out a day.

… Community rail is running from Scott Road SkyTrain Station to Kennedy Heights. From Kennedy Heights through to Newton. From Newton through to Surrey Central Station from Sullivan Station through to Cloverdale. Cloverdale to Langley City, Langley City to Langley Township—two stops. Into Abbotsford—three stops—down Sumas Way to Sardis and then into Chilliwack obviously.

FVC: “If you’re taking a train from downtown Chilliwack to downtown Abbotsford and it has to follow the route of the Interurban line, now the SRY line, it’s got to go through Sardis and it’s going to make multiple stops. Do you have a projected length of time between downtown Chilliwack and Downtown Abbotsford?

Green: “From Chilliwack—and I’ve got it all identified to each stop—from Chilliwack to the Patullo Bridge would take you about 90 minutes.

FVC: “To Abbotsford, do you know how long that would take?

Green: “Let’s see if I can find something here that would be out your way. So from Sumas to Huntingdon, for example is three kilometres, and two and a quarter minutes. Huntingdon to Yarrow is eight kilometres at six minutes. Yarrow to Sardis is six minutes. Sardis to Chiliwack is 12 minutes at 16 kilometres.

An extensive back and forth ensued to figure out the time it took to travel between Chilliwack and Abbotsford—including stoppages. Your editor wanted the community times to try to understand how appealing it would be for commuters. Green did not have the figures and interpreted your editor’s desire for numbers as intransigence. After the interview Green provided them as follows.

  • Chilliwack to Abbotsford: 34 minutes

  • Chilliwack to Langley City: 61 minutes

  • (That suggests a 27-minute travel time between Abbotsford and Langley City.)

The problems with buses and SkyTrain

FVC: “What I'm trying to figure out is in, like, 10 years, when there are bus-on-shoulder lanes all the way between Abbotsford and Lougheed. Is there gonna be enough people choosing to use the train versus choosing to use buses like the Fraser Valley Express?”

Green: “Absolutely because buses do not hit the population centers.”

FVC: “But the bus that goes through the Fraser Valley, at this point, has more demand than it can keep up with.”

Green: “I don't doubt that. But the bottom line is: go back to the numbers. Well over 70% of trips starting south of the river end south of the river. People are traveling within the region. It is not about going into downtown Vancouver or going into Burnaby or going into Coquitlam. It just isn't.

I'm not saying there aren’t people who are doing that. Of course there are. There always will be. But in terms of the numbers, that is the issue. So people are staying within the region. Right now, there is absolutely no inter regional-transit and any transit that is available like the express bus, is supposed to be coming into Carvolth in Langley. That's going into a park and ride, and yes, I think they've got them going down to the Lougheed SkyTrain station. Big deal. That is for the people that want to go in downtown Vancouver, but that is becoming the absolute minority.

FVC: “But Langley is building a rapid bus line right down 200th [Street] from Carvolth.”

Green: “Look, trust me, I'm very familiar with Langley. Anybody that knows my background knows I'm very familiar with Langley. So this would do nothing but add to what we're talking about. Yes, we're talking about a rapid bus because you're certainly not going to put SkyTrain down 200 Street or over or over to Maple Ridge.”

Green spoke about his conversations with other politicians and his belief that SkyTrain is a “massive financial boondoggle,” a message frequently repeated on the community rail organization’s website.

FVC: “Why not extend SkyTrain to Abbotsford? Lots of people would love that.”

Green: “Oh my God, Tyler. Come on. You're smarter than this. Do you know what SkyTrain is going to cost Langley City.”

FVC: “No.”

Green: “It will easily be $5.5 billion—it will be easily over $300 million a kilometre.”

The current budget for the project is $4 billion, which will be mostly borne by the provincial government. (Of course, the budget for a project doesn’t mean that is what will be the final cost.”

Green: “We have it on good authority that there is no way the SkyTrain will be going beyond Langley City. There is no way you can justify that expenditure. This is insanity on steroids, suggesting SkyTrain to go anywhere. Even to Langley City, there is no way because of the soil conditions in Langley City they can build the density that they need to justify SkyTrain.

Travel times for commuters (and why they’re important)

FVC: “I have high levels of skepticism about things you're suggesting as well.

Green: “Why are you skeptical?

FVC: “I'm skeptical that people just won't use this thing… I'm skeptical that the community rail would be very useful for people making maybe one or two trips a month but that when — [interrupted]

Green: “What are you talking about!?!?

FVC: “Listen, please. So this is just why I am skeptical of this and why we're having this conversation. The length of time of the trips between… Chilliwack and Abbotsford, and Abbotsford and Langley—it seems like the [length of the] trips between those two communities for the everyday commuter to in my view, would not be enough to rip them out of their cars and convince them to take the train versus—[interrupted]

Green: “I gotta be brutally honest with you. I really think that there are some people that I've run across that are dyed-in-the-wool skeptics of which you sound like you're one. And there are some people that—no matter what they're faced with and what they see as an opportunity—they refuse to even think of it.

FVC: “Well, maybe. But the length of time between Chilliwack and Abbotsf—[interrupted]

Green: “Tyler, it doesn’t work that way.

FVC: “Yes it does because that’s how people make everyday decisions.

Green: “No it doesn’t and fundamentally we’re going to have to agree to disagree….

How often do you sit on Highway 1?

FVC: “Between Chilliwack and Abbotsford? A lot! And the problem is that people take their chances. I’m not saying they should take their chances. I think trains are great. But because—[interrupted]

Green: “I really don't think you do. What we are faced with south of the Fraser is complete gridlock or a viable, affordable, environmentally friendly option, at no cost for its use, I might add.

FVC: “But comparing it to buses here, because a bus can get you from Chilliwack to Abbotsford in half an hour.

Green: “OK. That’s fine. We’ll base the whole decision about reactivating passenger rail on how much time it's going to take to get from Chilliwack to Abbotsford.

FVC: “I mean, you probably should because you’re going to need those commuters

Green: “No. The issue is much bigger than that. It just is. We have proven it. We have proven it 35 ways to Sunday.

FVC asked again about the times it would take to get between the Fraser Valley’s cities. Green again promised to get them later and delivered them as above. But he suggested the travel times between the Fraser Valley’s cities aren’t relevant.

Green: “If you are going to base your support of passenger rail on that one element of the distance, then I rest my case.

Green: “Regardless of what that calculation is, you don't base the benefits and the positives on one distance. I mean, you just don't. But you know what? Hey, listen, you have your opinion, that's fine.

FVC: “These are important distances in deciding whether this is something that people will use. And you've been doing this for long enough that I had thought that you would know how long it would take to get between the centers of these communities.

Green: “Tyler, just a minute. Don’t insult me. I—[interrupted]

FVC: “I’m not insulting you.

Green: “Just a minute. We’ve got a community business case developed on this project that's 86 pages. It covers 24 categories, 86 pages. One of them is the reactivation of tram/train, operator options, trip frequency timing, fuel consumption, stops, continued etc. I have provided as an example to government about 14 examples. I don't happen to have the two examples you're talking about. So don't dismiss the work we have done based on the fact I can't really give you those numbers.

FVC: “Okay, fair enough.

Green: “That is an insult to anybody's intelligence.

FVC: “It’s not an insult.”

Green: “It is.”

But what about buses?

Green wanted to know what other alternative transit methods might be preferable.

Green: “The fact of the matter is you haven't answered the question. You haven't answered the fundamental question. Right now, what is your answer for inter-regional transit south of the river? Forget about the rail.

FVC: “Well, right now there are buses running every day—[interrupted]

Green: “Which are tied up in traffic.

FVC: “There are buses running every day that whether or not they're tied up in traffic have drawn enough of a rider base that currently there are not enough buses to handle the amount of riders using them. There isn't enough storage space to handle the amount—[interrupted]


FVC: “You asked me to answer a question and I'm answering the question.

Green: “Okay, answer the question.

FVC: “I am, but you just interrupted me. So right now, there's not enough space to park those buses. And the provincial government has declined to, in previous years, provide enough funding to increase the frequency… of those buses as much to meet the demand. So in the very short term, right now if I was in charge of regional transit in the entirety of the Fraser Valley, it seems like you need to dramatically increase the funding for those buses, while pursuing a longer-term option that we know that people will use. That’s what my answer is. You were asking.

Green: “So to get to Sumas Way won’t happen till 2034-35. Right. So we're talking about 11 to 12 years from now, do you have any idea what the volume of traffic is going to be? Even if you believe that widening Highway 1, and getting some bus lanes is going to work will be the solution—which it won't be. But even if you believe that, you're willing to put basically people on the hot seat for 12 years?

Discussion about the amount of highway traffic that can be expected ensued. While The Current suggested a 5% increase is possible, Green said the figure was three times that. Different studies have suggested different totals. Between Abbotsford and Langley, highway traffic in 2022 was similar to that in 2017. But in the five years before 2017 traffic increased by nearly 13%.

The interview concluded soon after with both parties more or less back on good terms though wishing it had been held in person rather than over the phone.

Again, the moments above comprise a condensed version of the entire conversation. You can listen to the full conversation here.

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