Editorial 

Will the people’s railway become a reality?

"We have made our promise that we are not going to privatize BC Rail. The passenger service is really important to the lives of people in northern communities."

Those are the words of Transport Minister Judith Reid, in a Vancouver Sun interview published July 17, 2001. As we all know by now, BC Rail will cease its passenger rail service by the end of October. The province continues to look for a company to take over the passenger service.

And next month the transportation ministry will announce plans for upgrading Highway 99 and long-term transportation plans for the Sea to Sky corridor.

Several surveys and a study released last month indicated there was no way rail was going to be a significant part of any transportation solution for the corridor, the numbers just don’t work. The study found that, for all our worldly ambitions, residents of the corridor and the Lower Mainland account for 83 per cent of the 11 million annual trips made between the two areas. Not surprisingly, 93 per cent of those 11 million trips are made in cars. The railway carries less than 1 per cent.

More discouraging for railway fans were survey results that envisioned various improvements to the service and factored in costs associated with those improvements. The surveys indicated that even with capital improvements of $774 million, and huge operating subsidies, by 2025 the railway would carry no more than 200,000 people a year between the Lower Mainland and the Sea to Sky corridor – a pittance compared to the 17 million annual trips projected between the Lower Mainland and the corridor projected by 2025.

While the numbers in the studies don’t lie, it’s hard not to feel that "the people’s railway," as Reid called it, has in some respects failed the people. On the one hand people have shown they won’t ride the rails in significant numbers, now or in the future. On the other hand, the demise of BC Rail’s commuter passenger service has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The crown corporation has always claimed it was primarily a carrier of freight, rather than passengers, and that it only offered a passenger service – at a loss of between $5 million and $6 million in 2000 – because it was required to do so by the provincial government.

True, BC Rail did invest heavily in the Whistler Northwind luxury tourist service it launched last year, at a cost of many millions. But the corporation’s failure to re-invest in its aging Budd car fleet demonstrates there never was any long-term commitment to commuter rail service.

The Budd car service hasn’t been a popular way of getting to the corridor since the highway was paved from Squamish to Pemberton. But as an earlier Whistler study indicated, the service between the Lower Mainland and Whistler goes from nowhere – Pemberton Avenue in North Vancouver – to nowhere – Creekside in Whistler.

The nowhere at the Whistler end is finally changing. Creekside has been redeveloped in the last couple of years and it will undergo more changes this summer, as Lake Placid Road is finally upgraded. A development plan for John Taylor’s land, which would include a proper train station and a siding for passenger trains, is working its way through municipal hall. The proposal would work in conjunction with the province’s plan to find a private-sector company to operate the passenger rail service. The private operator would also move the southern terminus of the line to Lonsdale Quay or Park Royal.

Still, surveys and the numbers indicate that no matter who is running the service, and no matter how much they invest, rail isn’t going to be a significant part of the solution to the corridor’s transportation problems. Any private passenger rail operator would seem to require revenues beyond what’s generated by ticket sales.

The surveys and studies also show that there is no viable transportation alternative to the Sea to Sky corridor. New highway routes through the Seymour and Capilano watersheds or through Indian Arm aren’t cost effective. Buses and ferries winding alongside and through Howe Sound are likely to form part of the transportation solution.

But still there are those railway tracks already in existence, and the supply and the market for BC Rail’s main freight goods – coal and lumber – are dwindling respectively. Surely not all of the possibilities have been exhausted.

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