An Alstom “Coradia iLint” train, touted by the company as the “world’s first hydrogen powered train.” (Photo: Alstom)

Transportation

Plan to put hydrogen trains on interurban line from Surrey to Chilliwack picks up speed

Group pitching 99-kilometre, 90-minute route with 12 stops that they say would serve 1.2M people

Former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm and a former Langley Township mayor are backing a push for an “emissions-free hydrogen powered passenger train” connecting Surrey to Chilliwack along the existing interurban line.

Proposed by the South Fraser Community Rail group is a 99-kilometre, 90-minute route with 12 stops.

The group says the reactivated rail service would serve about 1.2 million residents.

That’s compared to their estimate of a SkyTrain extension to Fleetwood serving 70,000 to 100,000.

“The governments have approved $1.6 billion for Surrey (rapid transit expansion) and that’s fine. We’re not interfering in that $1.6 billion,” former Langley Township mayor Rick Green told the Now-Leader.

“What they choose as technology is their business, but they shouldn’t be given any more money that’s going to take away from other projects in the region.

“Regardless of what happens on that, we will be sticking to our guns and working to make this thing a reality. Ultimately, if they decide to go ahead and get SkyTrain to Fleetwood for example, so be it, that’s their business, but we are going to be pushing for this.”

See also: TransLink reveals new plans for proposed Surrey-Langley SkyTrain

See also: First look at Surrey SkyTrain renderings along Fraser Highway

Having said that, Green argues the reactivation of passenger service along the rail line would come at a fraction of the cost of a SkyTrain extension.

The group states the train proposal would cost an estimated $12.5 million per kilometre compared to the now-dead Surrey light rail project’s estimated $157 million per kilometre (a figure provided by TransLink last September).

While there isn’t a current “per-kilometre” figure publicly available for the proposed SkyTrain extension, the most recently completed 11-kilometre Evergreen SkyTrain line cost roughly $1.4 billion, making it about $127 million per kilometre back in 2016.

Green said the hydrogen train estimate “could go up by three to four million a kilometre, absolutely,” noting it was based on a study on diesel trains since hydrogen train technology was not yet in use at the time.

“But by comparison to anything being done by TransLink we are talking pennies on the dollar.”

The cost of hydrogen trains would be more expensive to buy than the diesel alternative, but less expensive to operate, Green added.

UBC professor Patrick Condon, who is also helping push the project forward, agreed it could be done for a “tiny, tiny fraction of the cost” and would be “less than 10 per cent of the cost of a SkyTrain extension.”

“All you’d need to do is reactivate the line, buy the vehicles, which in comparison to the cost of the SkyTrain extension is miniscule,” said Condon.

Condon – who helped the City of Surrey design the community of East Clayton, which began in 1999 – is a professor with more than 20 years experience in sustainable urban design.

Condon and his students are studying what the future might look like if land-use planning was done along the existing rail line, running from Scott Road Station, winding through Newton and Cloverdale to Langley, then jetting through Abbotsford before arriving in Chilliwack.

“If you aligned development and job creation in the lands available along that corridor, you’d align your strategy with your land use strategy,” he said. “We’re doing designs now.”

Condon noted that by 2060, the South of Fraser population is expected to double to about 3 million.

“We’re already choked with car traffic,” he said. “The car is king in the Fraser Valley. Something has to be done, and this seems like a very affordable option.”

(A promo video created by Alstom, a company who has created what they tout as the “world’s first hydrogen-powered train.”)

For his part, former premier Vander Zalm told the Now-Leader he got on board with the plan because the rationale made sense from growth and financial standpoints, as well as the sustainability benefits it offers.

“And the fact that we have the right-of-way, it’s ours,” Vander Zalm said of the rail line. “It was provided for when the agreement was drafted back in the ’80s. I was in office when that happened.”

Vander Zalm said part of that deal was that if the province ever needed the line for passenger traffic, those trains would take priority. And, should double tracking be required due to traffic increases, that would be done at the expense of the rail companies, not the province, he said.

The group met with TransLink staff earlier this week and they are pushing to appear before the Mayor’s Council on Regional Transportation soon. Green said the team also hopes to see a “provincially endorsed, community-led task force” set up to explore the idea, focusing on South of the Fraser transportation.

They also pitched their idea to Chilliwack city council on Tuesday (April 2), which Green said went “very well.”

After his delegation, Chilliwack council unanimously passed a motion to forward a letter to the Fraser Valley Regional District “requesting the South Fraser Community Management Group be provided an opportunity to present the ‘Community Rail South of the Fraser on the Interurban Corridor’ proposal to the FVRD Board.”

Next up, Green is speaking at a “Newton Talks” event on Wednesday, April 10 from 6 to 7 p.m. at Envision Financial (112-7322 King George Blvd.).

The event, hosted by the Newton BIA and Surrey Board of Trade, is described as an “open forum for businesses to bring up their questions and/or concerns” regarding that community.

The event is free, but registration is required at eventbrite.ca/o/newton-bia-9990660484.

The team has also launched a website, southfrasercommunityrail.ca, and a Facebook group, South Fraser Community Rail.

Meantime, TransLink and the City of Surrey continue to work towards a SkyTrain extension down Fraser Highway.

TransLink plans show a 2025 completion date for as much of the line as could be built for $1.65 billion – the amount of money on the table – estimating a line all the way to Langley would cost $2.9 billion due to inflation and the increasing cost of land.

The fully funded and approved light rail plan was halted when Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition came into power last November, nixing the former Surrey First government’s transit vision. Safe Surrey had campaigned on cancelling that plan in favour of a SkyTrain extension to Langley.

The region’s mayors have since OK’d the switch.

READ ALSO: Surrey council unanimously passes motion to ‘cancel’ LRT, Nov. 5, 2018

SEE ALSO: Public engagement for Surrey-Langley SkyTrain to begin in April: report

A public engagement process for the SkyTrain project is set to begin this month.

The first round of public engagement for the project will take place between April 8 and 26. It will give people an opportunity to: learn about rapid transit planning for work on Fraser Highway, 104th Avenue and King George Boulevard; share thoughts on priorities for transit, opportunities for these corridors; and complete a survey that will help to inform planning work.

The public engagement process will include an online survey, open houses and pop-up events in Surrey City Centre, Newton, Fleetwood, Guildford and Langley (information at surreylangleyskytrain.ca).

Based on TransLink’s proposed work plan, the preliminary design and costing will begin May/June. At the same time, TransLink has started a planning process to “refresh” the South of the Fraser Rapid Transit Strategy which is “consistent” with the mayor’s council’s 10-year vision of building 27 km of rapid transit on three corridors: 104th Avenue, King George Boulevard and Fraser Highway.

Parallel to that plan, the City of Surrey is just embarking on land use planning along the proposed SkyTrain route.

At a Surrey council meeting on April 1, Councillor Brenda Locke tabled a motion for council to “withhold considering development applications” along the Fraser Highway SkyTrain route for eight to 10 months as the city creates that plan.

Locke’s motion will be discussed at the next Surrey council meeting on April 15.

Read more about the city’s Fraser Highway SkyTrain Corridor Planning Areas at surreynowleader.com.

With files from Lauren Collins

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