John Cowan is a retired CP Rail conductor.

Maple Ridge’s slow West Coast train into the future

21 years later, commuter rail service still has five trains.

The railroad runs deep in John Cowan’s veins.

The Maple Ridge resident and former CP Rail conductor has made a career out of the riding the rails, including 17 years off and on, as a conductor on the West Coast Express commuter rail service from Mission to Vancouver.

He’s now retired, but isn’t resting easy, as he sees the service stagnate in his home town.

“It seems like Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows always seem to be on the short end of the stick with these things,” he said.

Cowan was there when the service started in November 1995, when CP Rail was operating the trains for West Coast Express, as the new commuter service lurched into life with five morning and five evening rush-hour trains. Twenty-one years later, little has changed with service.

“We are still at five trains.”

He puts that down to West Coast politics, in which partisanship and endless bickering can derail projects for years.

The service began when the NDP was in power in B.C. and Cowan maintains it hasn’t been expanded since because the succeeding Liberals didn’t want to acknowledge it was a good thing.

Former NDP MLA Michael Sather doubts that the lack of the train’s expansion was politically motivated.

“I don’t think so.”

Instead, he says lack of track time is the main impediment.

Now, with the Evergreen SkyTrain line opening soon in Coquitlam, Cowan expects the West Coast Express to be shunted farther down the line as the focus moves to getting a B-Line or rapid bus link from downtown Maple Ridge to the Evergreen SkyTrain. That project is now part of the revised Mayors’ Plan for transportation, announced last week.

Cowan said there had been grander plans for the train in the past, such as in 1998-1999, when CP offered space for a sixth rush-hour train between Mission and Vancouver.

“West Coast Express wasn’t interested,” said Cowan.

Former TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie, now a Surrey MP, said he recalls discussion only around adding a midday train to the schedule.

“I simply don’t know if there was logistically room in the schedule or the potential ridership there for an additional train in the morning or afternoon,” Hardie said.

TransLink spokesman Chris Bryan said a sixth train was considered but no agreement was reached because there wasn’t enough demand.

In the late 1990s, there were brief discussions about adding a sixth train, but no agreement was reached as ridership demand at that time did not justify the cost.

Cowan said CP Rail also proposed around, 2007 or 2008, to start a pilot project for two months that would have had a train run from Vancouver to Maple Meadows Way station during the lunch hour. But that never happened.

But Bryan said TransLink has no recollection of discussions about a mid-day service. “But what we can tell you is that today, demand for mid-day service does not warrant an additional train.”

He also points out that the two eastbound midday TrainBuses that follow the train’s route from Vancouver to Mission only draw about 30 passengers per bus.

What irks Cowan is that while West Coast Express began two decades ago, other cities have since expanded their commuter rail service, all of which are modeled under the GOTransit rail system that started in Toronto. Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles now have more extensive systems.

But even if politicians wanted to expand the service, it wouldn’t be easy. The railway swing bridge over the Pitt River limits the time trains can cross in order to allow ships to move up the river. Tradition gives precedent to river transportation, he explains.

“This is the only one that has a swing bridge involved.”

That bridge dates from the 1880s, when the CP Rail line was first built, connecting B.C. to the rest of Canada.

Cowan is also exasperated over the recent signing of the new contract between TransLink and CP Rail, allowing TransLink to rent CP Rail’s track time. The deal was signed, unannounced, last October, replacing a previous 20-year contract.

But terms, even the length of the contract, remain confidential.

It should be public, counters Cowan.

“I don’t get that. I don’t understand that.”

He added that, around 2007, another West Coast Express station was planned for the Albion area, near the ferry terminal in Maple Ridge. One option was to use the parking lot of the now-defunct Albion ferry service and put a pedestrian bridge over the tracks, linking to a station.

That project was reviewed but was found unfeasible and was removed from the Mayors’ Council’s Ten-Year Vision for Metro Vancouver Transit and Transportation, said Bryan.

Bryan said building a station in Albion had been thought of since the service began in 1995, but was scratched because of cost and limited space.

TransLink said that building a park-and-ride station there could cost more than a million dollars for only a gain in ridership of another 60 commuters by 2041. The former Albion ferry parking lot, now privately owned, only contains 50 parking spaces, while at least 200 parking stalls  would be needed to accommodate riders who have been boarding at other stations.

In addition, the parking lot is on the wrong side of the tracks and would require an overpass to allow pedestrians to cross to the north side.

TransLink commissioned DRL Solutions in 2006 to review the feasibility of stations in the area.

“Recent commuter rail station construction costs for the Sounder in the Seattle region have ranged from $11 million for a basic, two-platform station, to $19 million for a station on an embankment with full facilities, including a bus loop and 390 space park and ride,” Bryan points out.

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing said people have wanted for years to see the service expanded, but doubts the reason it hasn’t is because of politics.

Bing said CP Rail was reluctant to give up its track time and that it was “quite a coup” in 1995 to secure the time to be able to start the service.

But with the Evergreen SkyTrain line opening soon in Coquitlam, it’s possible attention now will be focused on that and securing a B-Line or rapid bus link between downtown Maple Ridge and the new SkyTrain.

“No one knows, what effect, if any, the SkyTrain line will have on West Coast Express.”

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