Is there a future for the West Coast Express as travel patterns change, and if so, what does it look like?
Consider the following:
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a “new normal” of hybrid working, where office-based employees work at home part of the time. Which, combined with impossibly high housing costs, have led many households to move further away from large city centres like Vancouver, and to areas like the Fraser Valley. This phenomenon has been happening across the continent, and the planet, leading to major ridership and revenue drops on traditional commuter-focused passenger rail systems like the WCE. Commuter ridership is coming back slowly, but at nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. WCE only recently reinstated its fifth round trip in June 2023.
Other commuter operators, like Metrolinx in Ontario (GO Transit) had already begun the process of reinventing themselves as regional all-day services, catering to essential workers, students, shoppers, and those traveling for entertainment and recreation in addition to the nine-to-five weekday comutters.
Unfortunately, WCE also faces limited growth potential and high expansion costs. The WCE route west of Port Moody has few opportunities to add many new customers, with the right-of-way squeezed by Burnaby Mountain, Burrard Inlet, and the Port of Vancouver docks. Only the PNE is nearby, but that is up a very long hill, and demand is seasonal and sporadic. The railway line, owned by CPKC, is heavily used by freight trains. These constraints make it very costly to add stations, trains, and tracks for all-day service along the existing route.
SkyTrain has also expended considerably since the WCE was conceived and launched in 1995, after first being proposed in the mid-1970s and again in 1980, knowing that it would be many years before rapid transit and connecting buses would be extended to the north Fraser Valley. But that occurred in 2016 with the opening of the Evergreen Extension, diverting some WCE passengers.
However, demand for transportation in the lower mainland is only going to continue to grow over time, and expanding regional rail on existing corridors is an affordable method of providing low or zero emission and high capacity public transport.
Transport Action B.C. is therefore looking at the future of the WCE, and considering many options, such as:
- Enabling all-day service with a second route from Coquitlam to Waterfront station through the Central Valley, coupled with the planned short SkyTrain extension to Port Coquitlam, while retaining the existing peak-period trains via Port Moody.
- Opening an Albion station and launch a ferry link to Fort Langley.
- Re-equipping the trains for all-day service with low/no-source emissions economical self-propelled trainsets, like the one being tested in Quebec.
- Expanding the WCE into the Fraser Valley to reach Abbotsford or Chilliwack.
- Opening a connector service to New Westminster, South Burnaby, South Vancouver, Richmond, and YVR (linking with the Canada Line) over existing tracks.
Those are our thoughts. Let us know what you think by contacting us, or becoming a member and participating on our regular meetings.
Photograph: WCE locomotive 901 at Waterfront station by “Northwest” via Wikimedia Commons