The Arbutus Skytrain extension – a phantom tour

1-Arbutus transit extension.jpg

J Trudeau

During Canada’s recent federal election campaign, Prime-Minister-to-be Justin Trudeau promised funding support for transit in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland — “to extend rapid transit along Broadway to Arbutus, bring light rail transit to Surrey, and increase SeaBus service during peak periods.” It’s part of a commitment to invest C$20 billion in Canadian infrastructure projects over 10 years. This announcement may breathe new life into a transit project that, judging from online discussion, appears to have lost momentum over the past three or four years.

Track's end, near VCC

Track’s end, near VCC

The proposed extension of Skytrain into the west side of the City of Vancouver has been on the books since the Millennium transit line was built in the 1990s. The Millennium line runs west from the Coquitlam border through Burnaby into Vancouver, ending abruptly near Vancouver Community College, almost at the dividing point between the east and west sides of the city. The western extension of the line would relieve pressure on Vancouver’s Broadway Avenue bus corridor, home of the limited-stop B-99 services that had 55,000 boardings per day in 2013.

The “Broadway line”, as the proposed Skytrain extension is sometimes called,  was originally promoted as a link to the University of British Columbia on the Pacific Ocean. By the time the region’s mayors published their investment plan in 2014 (rejected by taxpayers in a 2015 referendum)  the length of the new line had been cut by half, to about 6 kilometres, ending at Arbutus Street. It’s this truncated line that the federal Liberals have agreed to support.

The clearest definition of the project I can find, on a semi-defunct site pulled together by UBC students, actually has the new transit route following 10th Avenue, parallel to Broadway. This is a key cycling route, but less sensitive than Broadway in terms of potential construction impacts on car commuters, goods movement and businesses.  The illustration at the top of this post is taken from the student site. Along with co-tourist Robert Smarz, a respected Surrey accountant, I recently surveyed the 10th Avenue route from VCC to Arbutus. We deposited our personal vehicles in the mostly empty VCC parking lot on a Saturday morning, and started to walk.

Through its first leg, the phantom rapid transit line runs above ground parallel to Great Northern Way, which doubles as the western end of the Central Valley Greenway, a cross-regional cycling route. The first proposed station sits next to a new multi-university campus being constructed on the former Finning Tractor lands. The academic Centre for Digital Media is an early (and possibly temporary) harbinger of this development.

1-Finning 3

A community garden, part of a park built across the Prince Edward Street right-of-way

A community garden, part of a park built across the Prince Edward Street right-of-way

From the future Hybrid University site, the line takes a sharp turn south and dives underground, running under residential Prince Edward Street toward Kingsway and Broadway. At 10th Avenue it turns west again, remaining underground, coming to a transit stop that would serve the emerging Kingsway/Main Street urban village and its brew pubs.

10th Avenue has fine trees and heritage homes and churches on each side of its entire length. The “favoured option” for transit construction on the student site is to bore under the street, but who can say? A cut-and-cover option, as was used on the Canada Line in 2008-2009, would be less expensive, although messier and more controversial.

1990-vintage apartment housing, Tenth Avenue west of Cambie

1990-vintage apartment housing, Tenth Avenue west of Cambie Street

Public art at the Broadway-City Hall transit station

Public art at the Broadway-City Hall transit station

At Broadway-City Hall station next to Cambie Street,  passengers  would have the option to transfer from the 10th Avenue Line to the Canada Line — or would they? The Canada Line is an airport-to-downtown service built for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. It carries more than a 120,000 passengers per day as of September 2015. Because its trains and station platforms are curiously small, some reports have suggested it is running close to capacity. Planned residential mega-developments up and down Cambie Street will add to the squeeze on the Canada Line, and it’s not clear how Skytrain passengers coming from Burnaby would find room to hop on.

Moving west from Cambie, we enter almost immediately into the Vancouver General Hospital precinct, including the BC Cancer Centre and the offices of numerous  agencies, associations and professional firms. Guesstimating from a non-too-precise 2013 report on the economy of the Broadway Corridor, there may be 20,000 people working in the VGH zone, making it one of the biggest employment nodes in the region.


Yaletown stationThe location for a proposed VGH transit station near Oak Street isn’t obvious, but it has to be remembered that the line would run underground. All that’s really needed is a marked booth with space for a staircase and an elevator, like the existing Yaletown-Roundhouse Canada Line station shown on the left.

The final two proposed stations on the proposed 6-kilometre Arbutus extension are the “South Granville” stop, west of Granville Street, near the Vancouver School Board offices, and “Arbutus,” east of Arbutus Street. This is a densifying residential area, but the dominant reason for going  west to Arbutus is to shorten the heavily-travelled bus links to UBC. Arbutus Street also offers a dedicated north-south rail corridor owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, land that could be transferred for local transit use in future — if CP and local authorities can agree on a sale price.

Vancouver School Board offices, Tenth Avenue near Granville Street

Vancouver School Board offices, Tenth Avenue near Granville Street

Residential construction, 2015, next to the proposed Arbutus transit station

Residential construction, 2015, next to the proposed Arbutus transit station

Canadian Pacific rail corridor parallel to Arbutus Street

Canadian Pacific rail corridor parallel to Arbutus Street

In the opinion of our friend Mr. Smarz, the 10th Avenue line will never get built. Funding issues aside, underground transit construction through the Broadway corridor may be a lost cause.

In the early 2000s, efforts to get approval for rapid transit in the CP/Arbutus corridor were sensationally unpopular, and the west side of Vancouver continues to house many of the most affluent people in Lower Mainland. Bob’s hunch is that rapid transit expansion is more likely to take place above ground, from VCC to Finning; along Second Street to the Canada Line at Olympic Village station; and then along the old streetcar tracks to Granville Island, where UBC commuters will transfer to buses.

10 responses

  1. A couple points – the Canada Line is not at capacity. It is at a bit more than a third of design capacity, which can be achieved by way of higher frequencies and three-car trains. There is enough room for volumes similar to present volumes on the Expo Line between Commercial and Downtown.

    Secondly, what makes Mr. Smarz would think that Translink or Vancouver are going to build an elevated railway that goes around the second largest employment district in the province? That would be penny-wise and pound foolish in the extreme.

    • Thanks for those comments, Brendan. In response. I’ve softened the language here to credit “some reports” for that suggestion that the Canada Line may be running out of capacity, but I’ve also updated the daily ridership from 100,000 to more than 120,000. The link on my post goes to a 2014 VanCity Buzz article that says (to me, at least) that capacity with the present number of cars and station configurations is 6,100 passengers per hour at most, and ridership numbers were peaking in 2014 at around 5,500 passengers per hour. Exactly the same numbers and rationale were obtained by reporter Frances Bula through independent interviews during the same period ( Bula said the frequency of trains on the Canada Line could be increased with an investment in new cars, but it’s not clear where that investment will come from.

    • Canada Line is AT capacity during rush hour. The stations are too short for a 3 car train and teh trains go every 3 minutes already. Tough to get that to every 2 minutes with the inefficent exiting / boarding process as both sides of the train could be opened to exit on one side and enter on the other for the first 5 or 6 downtown to Broadway stations.

      Poor, minimal cost design.

      A cheaper alternative today to expand it is to have the first and last car longer, as passenger going to airport of Richmond and not exiting for 12+ stations could sit or stand in the very front or very rear of train wihtout doors nearby.

  2. Pingback: The Daily Durning: A tour along the Broadway line to Arbutus | Price Tags

  3. Thank you for this post. I have some quibbles and additional comments.

    The 10th Ave alignment has many challenges related to the disruption of an old, established community. I suggest severely disrupting resident’s lives over 25 blocks for cut and cover would have a much greater political pushback than disrupting traffic on Broadway. Using C&C on non -arterials in historic neighbourhoods is engineering from the Dark Ages. My old residence faces directly onto 10th Ave with zero setback and is one of several 100+ year old unreinforced brick structures facing 10th. Opening the road even for a narrow double decker tunnel will likely destabilize and crack the structure. It and the majority of other Mount Pleasant buildings originate from Vancouver’s first streetcar neighbourhoods and predate the zoning bylaw by almost a half century, therefore they do not have parking facilities. Thus the adjacent streets will become even more crammed than they already are. There are mature trees on just about every block that will be cut down. Not one single family residence exists for almost the entire route. Council has already had a taste of neighbourhood reaction in communities like Mount Pleasant from the reaction to the nearby Rize development, and in Grandview over the planning process. Vision almost lost the last election over development impacts in Grandview, and barely saved their political skins by first apologizing, then slowing down and putting the entire planning process into the hands of residents through a Citizen’s Assembly. Let’s hope they respect that process, and respect residents in other established neighbourhoods when the Broadway Line is finally built.

    We need to learn from the two-year open trench warfare that occurred during the construction of the Canada Line, which is a cheap, below-average yet effective subway. Because there will be a design life of the 100+ years, and because it will generate significant revenue and receive very high passenger counts through several interconnected regional-scale transit networks and realize a profit after a few years, they can afford another $40 million per kilometre for full tunnel boring. TBMs do not disrupt the surface except at their entry and exit points, and in fact are almost foregetable after they enter the earth. Stations are another story, but the open station boxes we witnessed with the Canada Line must be avoided and should be covered with steel bridges and plates, therein allowing at least two lanes in each direction to move for at least commercial, service and transit vehicles. Purchasing adjacent properties at some station locations will alllow the contractors to remove and deliver materials and equipment sideways instead of up or down from the road surface. The properties could be developed by the city, transit authority, senior government agency or the private sector (who will pay a surcharge for direct access) to help defray construction costs.

    Taking a national approach could mean sharing the costs of projects between cities via large construction contracts managed by the feds (e.g. splitting the cost of big ticket items like TBMs to be used several times in several projects; grouping projects together in single multiple-part tenders and giving private consortiums more time than average to sharpen their pencils and compete amongst themselves; obtaining deep discounts on unit prices through bulk national procurement orders; taking mandatory contracted Canadian manufacturing and construction jobs to an above-average level; having serious power to negotiate significant public side benefits from private contractors, etc.). Under no circumstances should we resort to the discredited ideology of P3s and privatization of public amenities and services.

    Anyone who says you cannot physically build a subway and stations on the Broadway Corridor had their eyes closed when they built two stations on Granville Street, which is 6m narrower. When you build such an effective transit asset you can afford to use the outside parking lanes for station access from both sides of the street (i.e. two points of access/egress to the platforms instead of one), to expand the sidewalks at stations to afford exemplary pedestrian access and universal accessibility. The station platforms should be at least 120m long to accommodate future growth. Further, building this amenity could also remove enough cars to be able to free up thousands of m2 of land locked up in street parking to greatly improve the human experience of the pedestrian realm with high-quality and attractive treatment with great station architecture, and high quality urban design treatments using trees, lighting, fountains, generous seating, special paving, art, signalized mid-block crossings in the densest sections, and bus stop bulges. Much of the remaining parking lanes could be devoted to commercial loading and car share locations while keeping some parking. The subway combined with an enhanced Number Nine trolley service will provide a great balance between fast and highly frequent regional and slower local service, and therein offer an orders-of-magnitude increase in service quality.

    Regarding the capacity of the Canada Line, I believe it has plenty of room to grow by adding the third car, increasing frequencies, and reorienting the seats in the nmiddle sections of the cars to run a continuous bench parallel to the walls and windows, like SkyTrain and a nmuber of other metro systems. Now if we can find out what it would cost to buy out the private operator’s contract …..

    • The idea of governments banding together to purchase TBMs that may be reused for different projects may sound promising, but it is not realistic. Even if various projects all had the same diameter tunnels (they don’t), TBMs are not generic machines. TBMs are selected for each project based on a variety of factors, the most important being the geotechnical conditions that machine will have to pass through.

      Agree that there is no issue of Broadway (or 10th Ave) being too narrow for a station. Yaletown, for the Canada Line, was built on a very narrow section of Davie St. Similarly, Waterfront and Granville were both built within bounds of Granville St. downtown.

  4. Pingback: A tour along the Broadway line to Arbutus – 2 | Price Tags

  5. If you are concerned that the Canada Line is at capacity because you are not sure we can find the money to buy some more trains for the Canada Line that is a pretty damning statement about the financial state of our system…Really? Basically if they buy more trains (and pay the P3 contractor to run them (sucks I know)) you can almost double the current capacity without going to 3 car trains or extending the stations…and then you can always go to 3 car trains and extend the stations (of course that will cost more) if you need to. The Canada line will not be truly at capacity for the foreseeable future.

    • I’m happy that it’s possible to keep growing the ridership on the Canada Line because I like the service, although it’s not clear at this time where the money for more cars would come from. The vision document of the Metro Vancouver transportation mayors allocated $52.4 million in capital spending for upgrades to the Canada Line, forecasting that this would increase annual operating costs by $16.2 million. The mayors’ plan, as we know, was shot down.

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