Resurrecting the Downtown Historic Railway

Great analysis below is courtesy of my friend Peter Finch, who is an advocate for (and very informed about) streetcars.  


Vancouver’s Vision-dominated city council recently produced a report on the Downtown Historic Railway, declaring it “too old to work on a safe and viable basis,” and adding that “ridership was ….low” (attrib. Geoff Meggs). The plan is to “decommission” the line, and allegedly to tear up the rails, remove all infrastructure and pave the line as a bike path.

The back story:

The Downtown Historic Railway was operated from 1998 onward on the former C.P.R. False Creek branch line, from Science World to Granville Island. Two former BC Electric interurban cars were operated by qualified volunteers from mid-May to mid-October on weekends and holidays.

Volunteers were provided by the Transit Museum Society, which maintains and operates a small fleet of historic buses, all of which have significance to the transit history of the Lower Mainland. There was no payroll whatsoever.

The cost of running the Downtown Historic Railway is about $50,000.00 per season, with half-to-two thirds of that typically returning as revenue from ticket sales. Cost of riding from Science World to Granville Island and return has stayed the same over the years ($2.00 for adults, $1.00 for children 6-12, and $1.00 for seniors). Ridership decreased severely when the section of track from Science World to Cambie St. was ripped up to build the Olympic Village. The promise to replace the track was conveniently forgotten, but the most expensive part–the roadbed and power poles–were in fact installed, and sit idle today.

There has never been any significant advertising for the DHR, but when it was visible (ie, at Science World) many people discovered it, and became regular riders. Granville Island is among Canada’s most visited sites, but it suffers from traffic congestion and lack of parking. If advertised, the DHR could still make an environmentally sound, positive difference in that situation.

Over the years, the two interurban rail cars were maintained to operating standard, but now require overhauls that will cost around $100,000.00.

In 2009, the track from Granville Island to Cambie St. was completely rebuilt using funds supplied by the GVRD and CMHC (which manages Granville Island). This 1.8 km track is state-of-the-art, chosen specifically to showcase the Bombardier Flexity low-floor tram used during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It has been stated that the track cost $8 million, but this figure also includes two rectifier stations, platforms and shelters, and roadbed (the structure upon which tracks are laid) extending from Cambie Street, down the boulevard of 1st Avenue to Quebec St. Also built and in place are the specialized poles for carrying overhead wires to power the electric streetcars.

Vision’s plan to dismantle any of the infrastructure will definitely cost more than the $150,000.00 required now to overhaul and operate the interurban cars for this year. While the City has announced that one of the interurban cars will be “turned over to its private owner,” the implications of this were not mentioned.
Historic Equipment:

Car #1207 was built in 1905 by the BC Electric Railway in its shops in New Westminster. The car is unique–no others of its type survived–and was rescued from the scrap line by an American enthusiast, who still owns the car. #1207 was brought to Canada and restored to operating standard, and when last operating, was the oldest electric rail car of its kind in regular service, certainly in North America.
If “turned over to its private owner” this historic treasure could very well leave Canada, never to return.
In relation to the Arbutus Corridor and the service to Steveston, 1207 played a significant role, being one of the first cars to operate when the line opened, and one of the last four operating on the line when it was closed on February 28, 1958.

Car #1231 was built in 1912 by the St. Louis Car Company, and is one of five such cars to survive (1220 –static display, Steveston; 1223–static display at Burnaby Village Museum; 1225–fully restored to original specifications and operating at Cloverdale; 1235–unrestored, in storage in Ottawa, Museum of Science & Technology). One other car, #1304, also built in New Westminster, is currently being restored by the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society in Cloverdale.

1231 operated on the Central Park Line (presently the SkyTrain Expo Line), was the last car to operate on the Burnaby Lake Line (roughly where the SkyTrain Millenium Line goes), and was another of the last four operating cars when the Steveston Line closed in 1958.


Viability of the Olympic Line / DHR

If completed from Cambie St. to Science World, the costs could look like this:
According to PNR Rail Services, the cost of laying a single track from Cambie to Quebec would be about $1 Million, but for the sake of argument, let’s just double that to include a passing track and installation of overhead wire. Add another $1 Million for any infrastructure alterations that might have been overlooked.
Cost of building a new, fully accessible replica streetcar, built by Gomaco Company: $800,000.00 each. Let’s round that up to $1 Million each.
Given that a desirable service frequency would be 15 minutes to 20 minutes, the requirement would be for three cars.

Cost: $3 Million for track extension, $3 million for rolling stock–and for less than $10 Million, we would have a system capable of operating 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Given the infrastructure that already exists, this would be the least expensive light rail line in North America, and possibly anywhere.
Based on a fare of $2 per ride (double the previous fare), it would take a ridership of fewer than 8 people each trip to pay for the power to operate.
Ultimately, as demand for service increased, Bombardier Flexity trams could be introduced. This would be a necessary step if the track were extended to Chinatown and to the False Creek Flats.
What is Vision’s vision?
It appears that Vision fears that Vancouver voters might clue in to something important.

Gregor Robertson has long been a champion of a Broadway subway, but that is terribly flawed concept, based on faulty and possibly fraudulent figures in which a mini-metro system (SkyTrain) pretends to be a heavy-rail metro (Toronto subway, for example) when it is convenient to insert particular statistics supporting it.

Further, Robertson would like to put a SkyTrain in a tunnel. This increases costs exponentially–not just the cost of building it, but also the cost of maintaining it. Air circulation systems, water leaks, elevators, escalators, security–none of which are required with street-level light rail.

World-wide, SkyTrain technology has received a less-than enthusiastic reception, not because it is necessarily a bad technology, but more cost-effective options are available. Hundreds of surface light rail systems have been built or are currently under construction in various parts of the world. Bombardier would obviously be happy to build a SkyTrain if anybody wanted it, and they will undoubtedly quote a fair price for doing so, but the fact is, in many applications, a better job can be accomplished by a simpler technology, proven in large part by the fact that Bombardier is no longer alone in the low-floor tram building business in North America.

This, I suspect, is the rationale behind Vision’s vindictiveness. Their delusion is that streetcar advocates, and the supporters of the Downtown Historic Railway–are all political enemies,


The reality?

Those who operated and supported the DHR are interested in providing a living historical experience to Vancouver citizens and tourists alike. Not accidentally, the other object of the DHR is to show that given appropriate support, such a line is not only viable, but can offer great educational opportunities while helping some of Vancouver’s beleaguered small businesses, particularly in Chinatown and Granville Island. The DHR was never a political entity.


How “green” is a century-old interurban or a modern tram?

Typically operating on 600 volts, the trams emit no exhaust, and use small amounts of lubricating oil. That’s it: a smaller carbon footprint than a modern trolley bus! The only thing the old trams can’t really do is put power back into the grid–but Bombardier has developed technologies that do exactly that, reducing the net power use to less than any other comparable for of public transit. In addition, modern low-floor trams can store power and work without overhead wires, or even pick up power remotely without the use of a third rail on the ground.

The people involved in the DHR (along with the Olympic Line operators) gave freely of their time to make Vancouver a better place–but that doesn’t mean that the operation of such an amenity has to be a charity case. As a business proposition, operating a service improving access to Granville Island should be revenue-positive–given the circumstances of the DHR, there would have to be an effort behind making it fail, which appears to be Visions’s part in this debacle.

Some one clearly wanted the DHR to fail, and having accomplished that, clearly intend to make sure it doesn’t return.

This is a story that desperately needs investigation, and public exposure.


Peter H. Finch

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