Post updated on January 29th, 2017

Ill conceived, since according to Translink [1], The proposed Surrey L line (Guilford, Surrey central newton, titled LRT 4 in the transit study), was among the poorest options Translink has studied for Surrey. An option which will saddle translink with increased operation cost without matching revenue to sustain it, for generation to come [1]. and an option which provide a deeply negative return on investment:

Even  a multiple account  evaluation (taking account social benefit at large), The return on investment is simply not there!

Even a multiple account evaluation (taking account social benefit at large), The return on investment is simply not there! (figure from [1])

Ill conceived because the Surrey LRT approach is in essence local and ignore the regional demand.

Missed opportunity because it will hinder the region to do the right thing to develop alternatives allowing the south Fraser area to become a less car dependent place before it is too late. At the root of this poor decision making is an original sin: A Vancouver centered optic where Surrey is seen as a fringe area in need to be connected to the Expo line; and a ideological bias from the Surrey City council making the streetcar the only answer whatever the question is. This optic ignore the development occurring in the Fraser valley, in Langley and beyond, more noticeably Abbotsford and Chilliwack, and the subsequent regional transportation demand; something we have touched in 2012:

Context and opportunities

A first draft of Regional transportation in the Valley

A draft Regional transportation demand in the Fraser Valley

The region becoming more vast than Metro-Vancouver, people travel longer distance, with more dispersed destinations, the challenge is then to provide an appealing transit alternative for people in the Valley and the south Fraser area: that means, fast comfortable, and as few as possible transfer toward meaningful destinations.

A LRT running not faster than a bus is not a compelling solution on which to build a regional transportation backbone, but a transportation mode such as the skytrain is not suitable for long distance travel; Also the skytrain technology, designed for very frequent service, become too expensive to maintain as soon as less frequent service is needed [9], so extending the skytrain forever is not a solution able to address the need beyond Langley.

The Interurban vision

It is time for the Vancouver region to explore new paradigms, and reconsider the regional train with an European eye. That is to not entertain solution such as the West Coast Express, but to consider light passenger trains able to achieve a commercial speed in excess of 70km/h (typically means max speed in excess of 140km/h)[13], with comfortable seating: the bombardier Talent, once used for the Ottawa’s O train, is a good starting point to entertain the discussion. below is the kind of rolling stock we have in mind:

Bomabrdier Talent 2, able to run at up to 160km/h and a Alstom Regiolis tram-train, able to run at 100km/h on mainline, and still able to run as a tram on the street (credit wikipedia)

Thought the Fraser valley has the former interurban line, the BCER, this line is not suitable for most of its length: it presents a too meandering horizontal alignment. It is also already heavily used by freight trains in some sections[3], while in other, the tracks need to be completely renewed in order to accommodate off the shelve European train set [17], so there is no clear value at constraining the option on the sole BCER corridor. Below is an example addressing the challenge, with a 70km long rail line (in blue) from Richmond Bridgeport to Abbotsford (connecting with the former BCER for potential extension to Chilliwack) using mainly BC Hydro corridor (and rail rail fo way in Richmond).Part of the line reflects also a vision once expressed by the White Rock Transportation and safety committee [12]

Interurban line, from Richmond Bridgeport to Abbotsford; using  BC Hydro corridors on most of its length

Interurban line, from Richmond Bridgeport to Abbotsford; using BC Hydro corridors on most of its length (the map highlight the BC hydro as well as existing rail corridors)

The advantage of this line is that

  • it provides a fairly straight line without too short curvatures [4] and an adequate vertical profile [5]
  • it requires virtually no private land acquisition
  • It is completely separated from freight trains; a Transport Canada requirement to allow train built on European standard to operate on the line

The expo line then needs to be extended 3km along King George to provide a seamless transfer with the regional train[6].

Fraser crossing in the vicinity of MacAdam creek, in Delta, where the alignment takes advantage of the bluff on the south side, to reduce the approach to a bridge which clearance should be at least as high as the Alex Fraser bridge – new Panamax ship class allows an air draft of up to 58m

To preserve the future, The regional line should be built for European style standard train EMU (such as the Bombardier talent-2). That supposes to build the line to UIC standards allowing speed in excess of 160km/h, ideally 200km/h: that means in particular:

  • double track platform width of ~13m
  • no level crossing

Estimated travel time (in mn) between key stations with an express train calling only at the below mentioned station [19]

Abbotsford Langley Surrey Queensborough Richmond
Abbotsford 15 24 31 42
Langley 15 9 16 27
Surrey 24 9 7 18
Queensborough 31 16 7 11
Richmond 42 27 18 11

cross section of the track platform for the Lyon-Marseille High speed line ( 350km/h max speed) - source (2); 500kv double circuit tubular tower able to to replace a lattice tower if the tower foot print is an issue - source (15)

Numbers suggest such a line could be built at cad$35M/km [7] putting the total cost of the regional line at $2.5Billions (remember that the Brunette interchange alone costs $0.5B). However, the line doesn’t need to be built in one shot, and can be phased, a first phase consisting of the 12km Langley-Surrey section, estimated then at ~$500M.

For this short first section, a tram-train, able to reach 100km/h and to ride the Langley streets could be considered at first [8]. Since it could benefit of a totally segregated infrastructure (in trench) between Langley and Surrey, a 12 mn travel time could be easily reach. (A Translink study [1] suggests such travel time could attract up to 6,000 pphpd in 2041, what is the relevance zone for such a transportation mode)

Cost and benefit

The skytrain extension has been costed at $85M/km (2010)[1] in viaduct and $140/km (2010)underground [11] (all including stations), so that the total cost of the project in its first phase could be keep in the $1B envelope, and still include a BRT lines Surrey 88th-Whiterock, as well as some B line connecting Guilford not only to Surrey central but also to the interurban and Coquitlam.

The closest studied option by Translink was the option titled RRT 1A (skytrain extended to Langley and BRT on KGH and 104th)[1]: our proposed option in its first phase is slightly less appealing on the Langley Surrey section (doens’t go directly to Surrey center, and doesn’t eliminate the skytrain transfer). On the other hand, it still provides similar travel time, between the 2 cities (and Vancouver), and a tram-train option allow a finer coverage of Langley downtown. Subsequent extensions make our proposal of better value.

A Skytrain to Langley , means, the train could run well below capacity (or at very spare frequency, what is not without issues). an extension collecting both the traffic flow coming from the King George corridor, and Langley could make better use of the skytrain capacity

Our proposal makes also a better use of the skytrain capacity (the extension collect ridership from both the Langley Regional train and the KGH BRT). Our proposal offers a shorter BRT route on the KGH branch (due to the skytrain expansion here), and equal on the 104th branch: We can consider our proposal carries all the benefit of the RRT 1A option, at half of the price tag. In any case, it is a much better solution than the one currently imposed by the Mayors’council, which will not benefit to Langley and will be detrimental to White Rock by introducing an additional transfer with no travel time benefit, and which cost has already escalated to a whopping $100M/km

[1] Surrey Rapid transit Alternatives Analysis – Phase 2 Evaluation, Translink, 2012.

[2] V. Profillidis, Railway Management and Engineering: Fourth Edition, Routeledge 2016

[3] In addition to the operating constraint imposed by the freight trains, Transport canada requirement for passenger train mixing with freight train make such solution a non starter beside commuter train such as the West coast express)

[4] The curvature suggests speed limit of 160 to 200km/h speed between Langley and Surrey, 160km/h around the Nordel Mac Adam Creek section (thought requiring some expropriation), 120-140Km/h, in the approach south of Langley…that is assuming a typically a minimum curve of 1250m for 160km/h; some figure also roughly and intrinsically adopted for the californian HST [10]

[5] French high speed rail tracks have gradient of up to 35/100, and 40/1000 on the german Koln Rhein [2].

[6] In the proposed scheme, the track along King George Highway could be branched before the eponymous station. The later could be retired, and
a new one built.

[7] French high speed line, built on higher standard, are typically build at a cost of cad$35M/km or €22M/km (10% for land acquisition, 65% for civil engineering, and 25% for rail, power and signalling)[16]. However the Fraser crossing could require a specific estimate

[8] Such choice, should not hinder the capacity of the line to run faster train. If electric, the tram-train should then be dual voltage, the main line, equipped with standard 25kv AC60Hz, the street extension in 750V. Similarly the stations should be designed to allow a layered service with tram train calling at local stations, while faster train could call only at main stations.

[9] The skytrain vehicles (and consists) are designed to maximize the throughout of the line, so seating is minimized, and comfort of it is not a priority. The driverless technology allow very high frequency at marginal cost, but it imposes also high “minimal operation” cost, to both maintain and operate the line, making this technology not a prime choice in the current condition.

[10] California High-Speed Train Project : Technical Memorandum, Alignment Design Standards for High-Speed Train Operation TM 2.1.2; California High-Speed Rail Authority, 2009

[11] UBC Line rapid transit study: Phase 2 Evaluation report Steer Davies Gleave, August 2012

[12] South Fraser Strategic area transit plan, Transportation and safety committee, City of White Rock, August 22, 2006

[13] This tends to be a typical requirement for new regional transit lines in european conurbation. As an example the new subway line planned in Paris area are targetted to have a commercial speed of 55 to 65km/h.

[14] It is interesting to notice that the LRT line in Surrey is costed higher than a french High speed line, the later arguably incurring more extended civil engineering work: it is possibly due to the fact that Surrey LRT construction cost include the relocation of the underground utilities, and the construction method must include important traffic mitigation.

[15] Proponent’s environmental Assessment: Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, Southern California Edison, 2009, Figure 3.2.4.

[16] La grande vitesse ferroviaire : un modèle porté au-delà de sa pertinence, Cour Des Comptes, Republique francaise, 2014

[17] the track renewal cost can be estimated at Cad$5M/km, including electrification, for a single track, and work progress can be as fast as 600m of track renewal/day, this from a similr work done to establish a tram-train in the vicinity of Nantes. This number is in line with the provided by a Leewood report[20] for the Rail for the Valley organization

[18] Camille Saïsset, Tram-train Nantes-Châteaubriant, une liaison efficace pour la réouverture de voies, Actu-Environnement, July 27, 2012.

[19] the numbers assume a average speed line of 140km/h, an average acceleration of 1m/s/s, and a dwelling time of 2.5mn. The 24 mn travel time between Surrey and ABbotsford, can be compared to the 44mn travel time given by [20] between Abbotsford and Surrey Newton using the BCER or the Google estimated 35mn road travel time between Abbotsford (Highway 1#11) and Surrey Central (with clear traffic)

[20] Lower Fraser Valley British Columbia, Chilliwack to Surrey Interurban, proposal fro rail for the Valley, David Cockle, Leewood Project, 2010.