Seven-mile headache for Fraser Valley rail idea

Abbotsford mayor, advocate agree that stretch of track poses large hurdle for regional rail idea

Unanswered questions about the practicality of a plan to run trains between Chilliwack and Surrey shouldn’t stall the push for passenger rail service in the Fraser Valley, council heard Monday.

Speaking on behalf of the South of Fraser Community Rail group, John Vissers told council that widening the highway won’t solve the regional transportation woes that plague the valley and that traffic will always be susceptible to accident-caused slowdowns. Instead, he said running trains on the Interurban line that snakes through the Fraser Valley would get more people out of their cars, reduce emissions, connect major regional institutions and allow travellers to breeze by traffic jams.

“We would have riders travelling across the region in times comparable or better to cars at a fraction of the cost,” he said.

He noted the line passes several university campuses; runs through the centre of Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley and Surrey; and provides access to employment areas like the Gloucester Estates industrial park. The group says a train could make the 99-kilometre journey from Chilliwack to Surrey in 90 minutes.

Members of Vissers group have been pitching the idea around the Lower Mainland this year. The idea isn’t new. But the support of former Premier Bill Vander Zalm and former Langley Township mayor Rick Green has increased attention on the idea.

The proposal now involves running hydrogen-powered trains, and the group says the up-front cost would be $1.2 billion – much less than SkyTrain. But there has been no discussion of how much it would cost to operate the service on an ongoing basis.

In 2010, the concept had been considered as part of a broad analysis of transit in the Fraser Valley, and operating costs were pegged at more than $100 million annually, although those were based on the use of diesel-fueled trains.

There’s another big problem, though, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun pointed out Monday.

CP Rail has rights to use a seven-mile stretch of the Interurban line in Langley.

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

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Braun, who used to own a rail construction company, noted that a contract signed in 1988 gave the railroad the right to use the line “in perpetuity.” Braun said he couldn’t imagine the company giving up that valuable access, given the money to be made from hauling freight around the region.

He said that if some agreement could be reached to allow for easy passenger access, he’d be willing to give the proposal a second shake. But he said he was doubtful that was possible.

“There are many hurdles, but this in my mind is the biggest,” Braun said.

“I agree,” Vissers conceded.

“How that will be resolved is anybody’s guess,” he added. “I know there are going to be huge challenges – probably lawsuits.”

Despite the challenges, Vissers said governments need to work on rail sooner rather than later, even if that means starting with smaller pieces of track.

Braun, though, said the city’s focus should remain dedicated to pushing for more lanes on Highway 1 to ease persistent and increasing congestion. He has previously suggested the Highway 1 corridor should be used for passenger rail.

Even Coun. Patricia Ross, a longtime ally of Vissers, suggested the obstacles were daunting.

“You and I have known each other for a very long time and I don’t think I can remember any kind of issue regarding sustainability where we have ever disagreed even slightly but this one,” she said. “I’m not saying I don’t believe in this. Don’t get me wrong. I just think the ask might be premature. There are a lot of other things that need to be sorted out.”

Ross said that TransLink had also signaled a lack of enthusiasm for the proposal, and that there is a need to determine the idea’s costs before any real discussion can begin. That she itself costs money, she said.

Coun. Bruce Banman, meanwhile, said he was willing to declare his support for the idea and a viability study. He said that while he also has doubts about the feasibility, “If we don’t start doing something – anything – to try to find alternatives to get people out of their cars, it’s never going to happen.”

Council, as is standard practice, voted simply to receive Vissers as a delegation.

The Fraser Valley Regional District, meanwhile, was slated to discuss the matter Tuesday evening.

Staff had recommended that the board “remain focused” on lobbying efforts to widen Highway 1, while asking TransLink to discuss its future regional plans with Fraser Valley governing bodies.


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