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Vancouver Opens Canada Line -- Months Ahead of Schedule

Vancouver Canada Line Map» 12 mile, C$2 billion project connects Waterfront with airport and Richmond.

Four months before originally envisioned, Vancouver’s TransLink inaugurates service today on the new Canada Line, an automated light metro. If preliminary expectations prove accurate, the corridor will attract more than 100,000 riders a day, making it one of North America’s most-frequented rapid transit routes. The project will make possible quick rides downtown from Vancouver’s central neighborhoods, its airport, and suburban Richmond.

Its successful completion bodes well for the use of public-private partnerships to build new transit lines, a model refined for the Canada Line.

Vancouver has two existing rapid transit lines, the Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines, which together form the continent’s only automated main line transit system. Though the Canada Line uses a different propulsion and track technology, it too is driverless, an innovation that reduces costs and allows higher train frequencies.

The corridor features 16 stations, with stops near the Olympic Village (for Vancouver’s 2010 winter event), City Hall, two hospitals, colleges, and several malls. Unlike the existing SkyTrain lines, Canada Line is underground for the majority of its route through Vancouver along Cambie Street, which is a vital commercial corridor. Elsewhere, with the exception of a short segment, the line is elevated, including the route to Richmond City Centre, which is developing into a major regional core of its own.

Though the portion of the line downtown was bored, causing no street disruption, the majority of the route under Cambie Street was built using cut-and-cover methods, frustrating traffic and diminishing business. Yet the opening of the line will likely spur growth for retail outlets along the street. The future construction of planned stations at 33rd and 57th Avenues will make the situation even better for South Vancouver outlets. TransLink also projects future stops at another terminal in the airport and at Capstan Way.

The complete right-of-way isolation for the Canada Line ensures a fast and reliable commute: customers will only need 25 minutes to get from the airport or Richmond to Vancouver’s Waterfront station.

Plans for a new north-south link in southern British Columbia have been under consideration for decades, but only with the decision by the International Olympic Committee in 2003 to award the games to Vancouver did the project’s support come together. Even so, TransLink, the region’s transit authority, continued to put up significant opposition, even voting against it twice. Its board members argued that the agency wouldn’t be able to afford the line and that the Evergreen Line would be a better investment. That project remains in the planning stage.

The necessity to move the project forward quickly in time for the Olympics muted opposition, however, as did significant funding commitments from the province, the airport authority, Vancouver, and Ottawa. The C$450 million donation from the federal government required the line to be named after the country. The project’s construction phase had a quick start-up in 2005 and its earlier-than-expected completion will make the city more than prepared transportation-wise for the Olympics.

More recently, the city has invested in a 1-mile streetcar line between the Canada Line’s Olympic Village Station and Granville Island. It could eventually be expanded into a larger system to supplement rapid transit routes.

Despite growing enthusiasm for the project in the mid-2000s as the Olympics approaches, the public sector wanted to minimize costs and so decided to seek a private partner to pick up some of the bill. TransLink selected a consortium called InTransitBC to design, build, and take a 35 year lease on the line. InTransitBC is comprised of a number of industrial groups, though its majority owner is Montréal-based giant SNC-Lavalin. Trains were built by the South Korean company Rotem. InTransitBC will collect a percentage of fare revenue and hope to make a profit off of it, though the government will set fares and continue to own the line. In return, the company has contributed about C$700 million to the project. The total C$2 billion cost is an estimated C$92 million less than would have been required had the public sector been the only investor.

Problematically, however, the public-private partnership requires the line to meet its projected 100,000 daily rides by 2013. If it does not do so, TransLink will have to compensate the private company, making the involvement of a private company a negative.  But the estimated ridership is actually fewer per mile than the existing SkyTrain lines (8,300 rides/mile vs. 8,700), so it seems likely the Canada Line will require no further government commitment to subsidize operations.

If so, the project’s early completion is a demonstration of the benefits of using public-private agreements to build infrastructure projects that are beneficial to the population as a whole. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see other cities duplicating Vancouver’s approach.

Canada Line’s success is basically assured in a city where transit use is already high. In addition, Vancouver’s concerted attempt to encourage more development around stations will make the line even more popular. This seems even more true if and when the region finances a planned Millennium SkyTrain extension along Broadway (and intersecting with the Canada Line at City Hall).

But the project’s exciting opening conceals a pressing problem affecting TransLink’s operations — the organization finds itself in desperate need of more funding if existing services are to be preserved. It would be sad to see the Canada Line open just as the number of connecting buses and SkyTrains is reduced.

Image above: Canada Line map, from InTransitBC

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Adam

    If only the MTA had the willpower to actually get stuff like this done. If only transit in this COUNTRY has that willpower. Why do highways, which are ten times uglier and take up at least 5 times the amount of space, get less flack?

  • Steve

    Great article! Do you think, like this article, that Cambie Street Village will be back to its old self by 2010? http://tinyurl.com/o5lfld

  • EngineerScotty

    It’s worth noting that the Richmond spur of the line displaced a BRT lin which previously occupied the median of No 3 Road, the main commercial street in Richmond.

    (Of course, said BRT was no longer rapid once it crossed the Fraser into Vancouver, and ran on the surface streets…)

  • smably

    Good post, but I take issue with the claim that the Canada Line bodes well for P3s. The disruption along Cambie was a direct result of the P3 — Translink didn’t specify how the line was to be built, and the winning bidder chose cut-and-cover on a corridor where the expectation was that there would be a bored tunnel. The traffic disruptions on Cambie damaged Translink’s reputation, and will make a future Skytrain extension to UBC politically difficult (even though it will almost certainly be built as a bored tunnel).

    I know there was also some controversy over the selection of incompatible track and vehicle technology for the Canada Line (vs. existing SkyTrain). The bidding process didn’t account for efficiencies derived from a uniform fleet of vehicles. So instead we got a completely different system that’s incompatible with all the existing infrastructure. Seems terribly inefficient.

  • smably –
    Thanks for your very good point; I didn’t know about the tunneling issues and I neglected to mention the negative effects of choosing the lowest bidder, rather than the most technologically compatible one. These are serious problems that would not have necessarily occurred had the project been built solely by the public entity. I think, in general, there are also major societal problems with choosing private, rather than public, operators.

  • Subsidy will be required from opening day until the magic 100,000 rides per day figure is reached. the need to prop up the P3 for this project (and the very lightly used toll Golden Ears bridge) is one reason why Translink is trying go get new funding sources approved – despite string opposition from the BC government. If they do not get this funding Translink has already stated that ot will start cutting bus services.

    The line was built down to a price, so there are severe restrictions on its future capacity. The most noticeable is the use of single track at the outer ends of both branches. Since trains have to traverse this track, unload, reload and then go back to the next station where double track starts, the maximum frequency is both low and fixed.

    Some of the original trains ordered from Rotem were cancelled as a cost saving measure. Many stations only have one escalator. Trains are only two cars long and fill the present station platforms.

    The majority of the ridership will come from people displaced from curtailed bus routes – who in many cases will have a longer overall journey with transfers than the direct ride they have now.

  • Well, if we’re all dumping on the Canada Line, I’d point out that the connection between the two lines downtown is poor. You can connect at Waterfront for a short walk but a circuitous ride, or at “City Center”/”Granville” for a shorter ride but a long walk.

    The important lesson here is that if you’re building a subway line, and you want, someday in the future, for a second line to connect with it, you have to plan where that second line will be, and reserve the underground space it will need, as part of the design of the first line. If you don’t, other stuff will get built underground that prevents you from bringing a new line’s station close enough to your existing station. (This has turned out to be an important issue on the metro project in Sydney, where I live now.)

    For all the disappointments and legitimate objections around the P3, everyone involved deserves credit for the early opening.

  • Jumped over straight to try it out yesterday and came away favourably impressed, although I am deeply skeptical of the P3 model and how the bidding was carried out: the Bombardier consortium was not allowed to mention the cost benefits of shared tech. I suspect this was to “balance” the playing field, as Bombardier is Canadian and sometimes other companies whine about us favouring them. See the new Toronto streetcar purchase for example.

    A few other points:
    -Lack of platform extendability is really going to hurt in about 10 years, maybe less.
    -Trains are spacious and the ride is smooth
    -Stations are bland looking and seriously lack seats. They also completely lack bathrooms.

    But, at the end of the day, it exists. We can argue about the might-have-beens, but the point is that it existing is a good thing. Expect major land use changes near stations in the near future, something Vancouver has already done quite well with.

  • Jarrett, you can’t always know where there will be demand for a second line, or how much you will want to build.

  • In this case, the need for a second line and where it needs to run has been pretty clearly identified for a long time. There are no excuses beyond poor planning to excuse the lack of connections with the existing system.

  • Warren

    Just thought I’d update these comments. Despite Stephen Rees’ negativity, the Canada Line is already way above projections and set to hit 100,000 average riders ahead of schedule.

    It’s a great line. Too bad it couldn’t be compatible with Skytrain, but the routing of the Canada Line vs. the Skytrain in the area likely makes this a moot point.

    If P3 was the only way to get it done, so be it.

  • The incompatibility is really nothing. There is no need to have a continuation of the Expo/Millennium Lines down the current Canada Line route because the two lines serve different commuters. The connection at Waterfront Stations is currently adequate and is slated for improvement as the concourse of Waterfront is going to be renovated. I also agree with Jarrett with the poor connection at City Centre and Granville. Original plans had 4 stations in downtown rather than 3, one of which is at Dunsmuir to have a better connection with the Expo Line. But, I also like to point out to Jarrett that the Canada Line does have provisions for the Millennium Line in mind.

    Stephen makes a good point with regards to the single-tracking at both ends. While I’m not so worried about at YVR, the portion between Richmond is quite long. At both ends, the Canada Line can sustain a maximum frequency of 2min 30sec because of the single guideways. Keep in mind though, capacity can be increased between Waterfront and Bridgeport, the point where the line splits off and that portion of the line can handle trains arriving every 90 sec. Short turning trains in Vancouver isn’t new and is done on some portions of the Expo Line.

    As with Corey’s point, while platforms are small at 40 metres, expandable to 50 metres, I think that can easily be dealt with more trains. ProTrans actually runs about 16 trains per day, when they actually have 20.

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