Malahat crash shows need for better rail

Budd Car on Blue Bridge. Neither likely to be replaced anytime soon. Photo Credit Mick Hall
Budd Car on Blue Bridge. Neither likely to be replaced anytime soon. Photo Credit Mick Hall

The Malahat crash that killed at least one person is merely the latest in example of why we need to fix the rail link up the island. Imagine if this accident has involved one of the dozens of trucks carrying dangerous chemicals and gases up and down the island? The consequence are pretty horrible to think of. And as we approach winter, we are again reminded that the Malahat is one of the few places on the island that regularly gets snow and ice during the coldest parts of year, merely adding to the danger.

Thankfully the solutions are actually pretty cheap. Just rebuilding the track bed would allow expanded freight service and a modest investment in new passenger vehicles would make passenger trips much faster and more pleasant. None of these things have a huge price tag. The Island Corridor Foundation, a consortium of Native bands, municipalities and others, who own the trackbed and land have estimated the cost at a mere $30 million to rebuild the entire corridor to modern standards. This is just a little bit more than the cost of either the stalled Spencer’s Road or new McTavish Road interchanges. As for passenger service, the Ottawa O-Train pioneered the use of time separation to allow running of lighter trains on the shared lines. (There are some arcane North American rules about crash ratings for passenger trains running on mixed tracks, something Europe is not burdened with). The O-Train uses Bombardier’s Talent diesel trains (usually known as DMU, or Diesel-multi-units), which were tacked onto a German purchase. For more money numbers and and some interesting background info, I suggest Transport Canada’s case study of the O-Train.

Are we likely to see any of this in the near future? Well, BC Transit is busy spending that money it was given by the province to study rapid transit in the CRD and scuttlebutt says that at least some portion of the E&N factors into those plans. As for the larger corridor itself, the Cowichan Valley Commuter might spur some interest on the northern side of the Malahat. However, I am not holding my breath.

Provincial and Federal governments hand out loot

It is the season for giving, being a recession with Keynes back in and Friedman out, so today the two senior levels of government did just that. Or at least, so says their rather triumphant press release. Sadly (or not, depending on your point of view) there is no money for a new Johnson Street Bridge, but plenty of other things did get money:

  • Our fine municipality got money for the Uplands sewer upgrade. The joint storm/sewage sewers are the main reason behind our eye-popping $700/yr property increase for the new sewage treatment, so this money, an even matching grant between the municipality, the feds and the provinces, will help all of Oak Bay taxpayers.
  • The Kinsol Trestle rehabilitation in the Cowichan Valley got almost $6 million to complete this link of the Trans-Canada Trail.
  • Despite the government cutting library operating funds, two libraries in Surrey and Saltspring Island got funding for new buildings.
  • The only even remotely transit related project is a Highway 7 Bus Lane in Pitt Meadows. Guess we aren’t going to meet our climate goals after all.
  • Sidney got some money for a Lochside Waterfront Trail, likely the project mentioned on this website and in these 2006 council minutes (PDF).

All in all, the majority of the funding seems to be for sewers and highways, with a scattering of arts centres, libraries and other bits and pieces.

Canada Line thoughts

Canada Line train on bridge over Fraser River
Canada Line train on bridge over Fraser River

This is a bit belated, but I did managed to get over to Vancouver for the opening of the Canada Line, the newest addition to the SkyTrain network. First, a little bit of history. The Canada Line is a Public-Private Partnership, something that the BC Gov forced onto Translink as a condition of provincial funding. This means that it is actually operated by ProTrans BC and was built by InTransitBC, both largely owned by SNC Lavelin out of Montreal. The federal government demanding Translink call it the Canada Line as a condition of their funding.

That being said, Vancouver is the first Canadian city to have a direct rail link to the airport, something common in Europe as well as a few US cities like Portland.

Given I was coming from across the pond, I ended up starting at the Marine Drive station, just north of the Fraser. This turned out to be a good decision, because lines for northbound (Waterfront Station-bound) trains were fairly quiet, at least in the morning.

Lines at Marine Drive station
Lines at Marine Drive station

The Marine Drive station is pretty indicative of the elevated stations on the line. Lots of wood and glass. They were attractive, but the platforms were short, as can be seen in the second photo down, coming into one of the underground stations.

Marine Drive Canada Line station
Marine Drive Canada Line station
Coming into station
Coming into station

The stations also seriously lacked amenities. There were no bathrooms and few chairs in most of the stations. The stairs were narrow, with only escalators going up. Overall, the stations felt quickly built and cheap, as attractive as some of them were.

The cars themselves were fairly spacious, wider than the newer Mark II cars on the Skytrain. The had a single space for a bicycle and another for wheelchairs, both in one of the two cars.

Lone bike space on the train
Lone bike space on the train

The ride was smooth and fairly fast, especially compared to the old 98 B-line “bus rapid transit” or the even older Expo Line. The Expo Line now has some sections of track cause a lot of noise and sway, especially with the older Mark I SkyTrain cars.

One of the challenges with connections was that the bus lines haven’t yet been adjusted, something is coming with Labour Day. Both the 98 B-line and the 424 to the Airport are going away, while the 620 from Tsawwassen will be routed into Bridgeport Station.  This is just some of the large number of bus changes coming, some of which are not making people very happy. Many people are now going to have to take both a bus and the Canada Line to downtown, as opposed to a single seat bus ride.

As can be expected for the opening of a major new transit line, the lines were crazy all day. Waterfront Station was especially bad, with waits running past an hour, from what I understand.

Overall, I am glad the Canada Line exists, but I think there are going to be serious capacity issues in the future. With the short platforms leading to inability to run larger trains, unlike the Skytrain system, expect crush capacity cars of 400 people very shortly. The real test will come this fall, so it should be interesting to see those numbers. To see more pictures, see my Flickr set.

Notes from yesterday’s BCTransit open house

The latest in the seamingly endless studies about rapid transit is entering it’s public consultation and thus BCTransit is holding a series of open houses.This one is called the Victoria Regional Rapid Transit plan and  managed the first open house yesterday at the Legion Hall on the Gorge. I doubt this will be the last study. If you want a good idea of just how often this has been studied, see page 2 of this PDF. I must confess all this leaves me just a little jaded.

Potential corridors for the VRRT project
Potential corridors for the VRRT project

This specific plan is an outgrowth of the recently-failed Douglas St. busway, which did yield one concrete result: BCTransit now owns the right of way to the centre 2 lanes of Douglas St. north of Fisgard. Unlike the Douglas St. plan, this one doesn’t presume the use of specific corridor, rather they are looking for input on what corridor they should be using. See the map to the right or the full PDF for the options.

For the Downtown to Uptown route the logical route is Douglas St, as we already own the corridor, it would require less work than Blanshard St and the potential, with the right technology (ie. rail), to stimulate a lot of needed development in the north Douglas area.

From Uptown I think we should run with the Trans-Canada Highway and the Galloping Goose. Between those two alignments there should be plenty of room to run two full tracks while keeping the existing trail and the highway. It also passes right by the Victoria General Hospital, a major employer.

It should then shift to the E&N Railway when it nearly joins the highway in View Royal, because the corridor is already publicly owned (by the Island Corridor Foundation) and it runs straight into downtown Langford, where they have just finished building a beautiful new transit station.

As for technology, they claim that they have no bias one way or the other, but as I have pointed out before, I really doubt that. Maybe by picking at least part of the E&N, they will be forced to use rail.The plan is for the prelimiary consultation to be done by the this fall with the larger work starting in 2010. Implementation is 2011 or later. Likely later, given there is no concrete funding  from any level of government. Interestingly, this timeline aligns very neatly with the new CRD Bike/Pedestrian Master Plan. I wonder if they have been talking with each other…

But don’t take my word for it. There are two more consultations: one tomorrow in Colwood and next Monday at Victoria City Hall. See the schedule for more information as well as PDFs of most of the handouts. As an aside, this also the 100th published  post on this site.

Getting to the game by bike, transit or walking

One of the most persistent problems facing non-car drivers is that complete auto-centricity of directions listed on most websites, of which sports teams and their stadiums seem to be especially bad for. Take the new Highlanders FC team. For starters, they choose to play in car-happy Langford rather than Royal Athletic Park or UVic’s Centennial Stadium, but take a peek at the image on their page of directions:

Yes, that is a picture of an empty parking lot. And yes, they have transit directions, stuffed alongside parking under the heading “Park & Ride Locations”. No link to the schedule of either the 50 or the Langford Trolley and absolutely no mention of whether they have bike parking of any sort or even the best biking routes (like say, the Galloping Goose). And a map? Nope.

If they want a half-decent idea of what their directions site should look like, they should take a look at the San Francisco Giants baseball team’s page, which lists transit first. They even have maps at the bottom, both of the local area and stops and a larger route map. Sadly their page lists the truly excellent bike lockup facilities provided by the San Francisco Bike Coalition at their games under “Getting there by car”, but not everything can be perfect. How good are these valeted bike spots? Streetfilms, out of New York, was there and shot this video:

To be completely fair to Highlanders, I did a survey of other major event locations around the city and only the Belfry Theatre’s directions included transit. Failing grades to Langham Court Theatre, Royal& McPherson Theatres, Victoria Event Centre, Memorial Arena and any movie theatre.

Interestingly, the new FitinFitness program, which consists of Greater Victoria recreation centres, along with BC transit, the CRD and the Y, lists bus route information, with links to schedules on their page, but nobody but the CRD have any bus information on their facilities websites. The CRD’s SEAPARC leisure centre in Sooke’s page even lists biking via the Goose.

Looks like we in the livable streets community here in Greater Victoria has some outreach to do.

Vancouver demos an electric car

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson in MiEV

I managed to miss this last month, but the province, BC Hydro and the City of Vancouver signed a deal with Mitshubishi to test a production-ready electric car, the MiEV. Unlikely the low-speed electric cars Oak Bay recently let on their 50 km/h streets, this is a highway capable vehicle, like the ill-fated GM EV1 and the sort-of-already-here Tesla Roadster.

One of the great myths running around is that if we only switch all our vehicles to electric, hydrogen or another hypothetical cleaner fuel, all will be good. Aside from the major issues with the creation of the fuel for these vehicles, they ignore the reality that building auto-centric infrastructure is damaging our health, our communities and is ultimately financially unsustainable. Thankfully, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson gets it (emphasis mine):

“We want to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world, and supporting this early adoption of plug-in electric cars is one way that Vancouver is becoming a leader in green technology. Electric vehicles are an important way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions when combined with improvements to transit, biking and walking.”

By this time next year, we should have quite a few production electric vehicles on the road, including this MiEV, the Telsa Roadster (although small quantities are available now) and the Chevy Volt. We do live in interesting times.

Unconscious bias: the new BCTransit logo

BCTransit has slowly been rolling out the new corporate look for the past few months and as part of the new look, they got a new logo:

One of the interesting things about this new logo is the inclusion of a stylized road. Few transit logos include any explicit reference to the service they are offering. I expect this is largely an unconscious decision, as few logos in any field explicitly reference the product or service they are associated with. For example:

Image courtesy of Julie & Co, a design firm out of DC.

Rebranding of any kind usually involves most of the senior management, which brings me to the point of this post: I think that the senior management of BCTransit is biased against rail transit. I don’t think this is a conscious bias or that they are even aware they have it. After all, knowing you like blue doesn’t mean you always think about why you choose the blue thing. BCTransit’s management has so internalized that rail transit is not an option here in the CRD that they made their corporate image exclude it.

This is despite having an existing rail corridor running from the core into downtown Langford, arguably the two places we need to link most with transit. All this means that the shiny new study will suggest exactly the same as every other study listed on this page: do nothing. Talking about unconscious bias. The URL to the Victoria Regional Rapid Transit project is

Labour intensive buses are a problem

So laid-off lumber workers don’t want to relocate to Victoria or commute to get paid less driving our buses? So says the Globe and Mail.

Imagine if we had a transit vehicle that would have a better rider to driver ratio? Oh wait, we do. It is called rail transit. I guess all those years of ignoring it are coming home to roost.

The upcoming demographic tsunami isn’t going to make it easier to find people. Figuring out how to move all those old people is something that keeps a lot of planners up at night, as this page on the Canadian Urban Institute website shows. Given all the talk of stimulus plans, now is a great time to start investing in capital-intensive rail transit over labour-intensive buses, before we have nobody to drive our buses.