The Hastings SkyTrain alternate reality.

Having a couple leftover maps and newspaper clippings from my researches into Vancouver’s unrealized rapid transit plans, I thought I should find an excuse to share them.

Here it is: a commenter on my post on the Edmonds-Cariboo SkyTrain extension quibbled with my assessment that this widely hated late ’80s proposal might have been a better deal than the Millennium Line that was built instead.

This is a reasonable quibble. I’m not all that sure myself. Although I’ve hinted here and there, I’ve never really spelled out my conjecture that the Millennium Line was a wrong turn, and that Vancouver might have been better off sticking to its earlier plan for four routes radiating from the Central Business District:

vancouver ultimate transit network 1990 study

Source: Vancouver Richmond Rapid Transit Project, N.D. Lea Consultants / Reid Crowther and Partners, 1990.

A. North to the North Shore.
B. East along Hastings Street.
C. Southeast to New Westminster and Surrey.
D. South to Richmond.

Routes C and D are today’s Expo and Canada Lines.

Route A still gets a flutter of interest now and then, most recently in 2017 when the outgoing mayor of North Vancouver pitched a tunnelled Waterfront Station-Lonsdale Quay SkyTrain to take some pressure off the overloaded bridges.

And though it’s largely been forgotten now, as late as the 1990s transit officials had hazy notions of going ahead with route B, which would have entailed extending the Expo Line eastward from its current terminus at Waterfront Station to a Park & Ride at the PNE.

There appear to be no technical obstacles to extending SkyTrain beyond Waterfront. [1] In fact the idea was considered in the early stages of planning for what became the Canada Line. In this study from 1990, the routes marked G1-5, H1-5, and I1-5 would have looped the Expo Line southward toward Richmond via a tunnel entrance just east of Waterfront Station:

vancouver-richmond rapid transit downtown route options 1990

Source: Vancouver Richmond Rapid Transit Project, N.D. Lea Consultants / Reid Crowther and Partners, 1990.

These routes were ruled out as they would have required burrowing under architecturally sensitive Gastown.

Suppose the Expo Line had instead been extended eastward. Rather than undermining Gastown, the line might have followed the harbourfront at surface level or on elevated rails, and crossed south to Hastings in one of the less-cherished neighbourhoods to the east. From there it might have proceeded either overhead or via tunnel to Hastings Park and the PNE.

At some later date, whenever it came time to replace one of the two existing Second Narrows crossings, the line could be affordably extended across the new bridge to the North Shore – as in this map from a 1994 study: [2]

north shore transit options second narrows

Source: North Shore Transit Options, BC Transit, 1994.

But let’s assume that the extension terminated at the PNE. In that case the whole length would be about six kilometres. Travel time would be roughly ten minutes, versus twenty by express bus.

In the 1990s, BC Transit might easily have scrimped and built the whole thing on elevated rails, for around $60 million per kilometre, $360 million overall. [3] It would have been damned as a blot on the skyline, of course, but by now everyone would be used to it. And imagine the views from the train windows!

In recent decades, Vancouver’s centre of gravity has been drifting eastward, bringing wealthy new residents and rising prices to the East Hastings area. If TransLink (BC Transit’s successor agency) were to attempt a Hastings SkyTrain now, they’d be obliged to defer to concerns about community impacts and tunnel the whole way, at a cost approaching the half-billion dollars per kilometre budgeted for the upcoming Broadway extension.

Therefore I’m afraid that by the time such a line becomes necessary it’ll be too pricy to build. (See my post on rapid transit in the era of cost disease.)

In any case, the construction of the Millennium Line on a parallel route a couple kilometres further south has made the prospect of a future Hastings SkyTrain quite remote. A pity, because:

  • As shown in the maps below, the Hastings extension would have linked a number of densely-populated, rental-heavy, and transit-dependent neighbourhoods;
  • It would have serviced the eastern edge of Gastown, the Port of Vancouver, the Pacific Coliseum, and the PNE – all potential high-volume destinations;
  • It would have brought rapid transit to a new region of the city, instead of concentrating service in a narrow triangle of Vancouver’s east side;
  • Consequently it would have enjoyed high ridership from day one, rather than underperforming as the Millennium Line did in its early years. [4]
vancouver skytrain stations population density

Based on a map by Anthony Smith.

skytrain hastings extension population density

Based on a map by Anthony Smith.
For the assumptions behind this fanciful map, see [5].

Okay, okay, I foresee your objection: my maps conveniently cut off everything east of Boundary Road, while the Millennium Line extends clear across Burnaby and into Coquitlam. Which brings us to…

The Edmonds-Cariboo SkyTrain alternate reality.

I don’t begrudge the residents of central Burnaby and East Vancouver the speed and convenience of the Millennium Line. I rode it for a while myself.

But SkyTrain wasn’t built through those neighbourhoods in response to demand from existing residents. It was built there because Lougheed Highway was a big, wide road with nothing much on either side of it – meaning construction would be cheap, and the new line would spur the profitable redevelopment of low-density residential and light industrial properties along its route.

As I discussed in my 2015 post on planners versus riders, there’s nothing wrong with using rapid transit to shape the growth of the city. The downside is that in the short term, while your new line is used only by the few pioneers willing to live along its largely barren route, commuters who elected to live in already-developed neighbourhoods are stuck riding overcrowded buses.

This is particularly annoying because on a busy corridor like, say, Hastings Street, buses are constantly having to slow down for red lights, pedestrians, and cars backing into tight parking spots. Meanwhile a road like Lougheed, with its mile-long blocks, empty shoulders, and lack of pedestrians, is a perfect spot for high-speed bus service. For the cost of a single SkyTrain station an express bus lane could have been built clear across Burnaby.

Of course, the Millennium Line wasn’t built solely to spur development along Lougheed Highway. The goal was always to connect busy downtown Coquitlam, in the far northeast, with the even busier Broadway corridor.

skytrain millennium line history

For cost-saving reasons the lightly populated middle section was built first. Then the more technically challenging Lougheed Mall-Coquitlam stretch. Now, a couple decades into the new millennium, we’re getting serious about extending it to West Broadway – the neighbourhood whose population density and employment opportunities will at last justify the line’s existence.

The Millennium Line’s defenders will say that without the middle stretch the route would make no sense. But the Edmonds-Cariboo extension proposed in the late 1980s was meant as a cheap-and-easy shortcut to Coquitlam.

Under this option a Coquitlam-downtown Vancouver trip would have been just as quick as it is today, and wouldn’t have required a transfer. Because the route was substantially less costly to build, it could have been in service years sooner.

skytrain proposed edmonds-cariboo extension

The route was ruled out in 1991 by the incoming NDP government, who in opposition had derided SkyTrain as a “big white elephant”. [6] They may have had a point! But after a few extra years of dawdling the NDP decided they liked the technology after all, and the Millennium Line was born.

Suppose the Edmonds-Cariboo route had been chosen, and the line subsequently extended from Lougheed Town Centre to Coquitlam, as in the above map. The advantages I’ve already outlined. What about the drawbacks?

  • Several neighbourhoods that have enjoyed an economic boost from the proximity of the Millennium Line would instead have remained neglected. (Some residents might see this as benign neglect.) [7] However, much of that development would have been redirected to stops on the Edmonds-Cariboo route.
  • The network would have lacked the redundancy that the Millennium Line provides. Currently when a train breaks down on the central portion of the Expo Line commuters can bypass the obstruction via the Millennium Line. This is no small thing! (The completion of the Broadway extension will add another sorely needed bypass route.)
  • The overcrowding that currently afflicts the Expo Line between downtown and Commercial-Broadway Station (where it intersects with the Millennium Line) would instead persist all the way to Royal Oak. This might be mitigated by turning around some percentage of eastbound trains at Edmonds Station, but it is a serious shortcoming of the Edmonds-Cariboo design.
  • Without the middle stretch of the Millennium Line there would be no obvious way to link a future Broadway extension to the original SkyTrain network. It would have to be built as an independent line (like the Canada Line) with its own train yard and maintenance facility.

I see these drawbacks as serious but not decisive. I suspect that over in the alternate reality where the Edmonds-Cariboo and Hastings routes were completed there are transit nerds speculating about the missed opportunity of the Broadway-Lougheed SkyTrain, with similarly equivocal results.

M.

1. The option of extending the Expo Line beyond Waterfront Station will be closed off if the City of Vancouver ever follows through on its plans for a pedestrian plaza over the train platforms there. Although the plans leave a contingency for an additional commuter rail platform, they appear to rule out any future rapid transit line – tunneled or aboveground, north or eastbound – that might terminate there.

2. The 1994 BC Transit study North Shore Transit Options examined three different corridors by which SkyTrain could be brought to North and West Vancouver – via the First Narrows, Second Narrows, or a tunnel directly connecting Waterfront Station and Lonsdale Quay. The authors’ verdict:

[R]ail based transit was considered not to be a viable alternative in either the short or long term for the following reasons:

Low Ridership: … For ridership to reach the level that would make it cost-effective, a single rail link would be required to capture over 75% of all peak period, peak direction travel across Burrard Inlet. Given the distinct market areas for travel across Burrard Inlet, there is no single corridor which is likely to achieve this level of demand….

Minimal Travel Time Savings: … Most users of a rapid transit link to the North Shore would be required to travel to a rail station by bus and then transfer to the rail system. Transferring has been shown to be a deterrent to increasing transit ridership. With a relatively short trip across the inlet, it is likely that any travel time savings of a rail system would be offset by the need to transfer.

High Cost: … In 1989, a SkyTrain link between Waterfront Station and Lonsdale Quay was estimated to cost over $400 million…. There would also be a cost in getting rail transit to and from a new crossing.

Since (unlike the other routes discussed in this post) a North Shore rapid transit link remains a live, if remote, possibility, the study is still worth a read. You can find a copy at the downtown library.

3. My extremely crude cost estimate for the Hastings extension is based on the per-kilometre price of the mostly elevated Millennium Line, built in 2002.

4.Second SkyTrain line lags behind predictions,” Surrey / North Delta Leader, May 20, 2005. Three years after the opening of the Millennium Line, TransLink officials were putting an optimistic spin on ridership figures that were well below projections.

5. In mapping my hypothetical Hastings extension I’ve tried to stick to what might actually have been approved in the 1990s. If I’ve cheated it’s by being unrealistically generous in the spacing of stations: I’ve located them at Main Street, Clark, Nanaimo, Renfrew, and Highway 1.

A real-world version might easily look like Exhibit IX, above, with one crummy stop (at Commercial Drive) between Main Street and the PNE.

6.NDP calls SkyTrain big white elephant,” Vancouver Sun, May 4, 1988. Opposition MLA Bob Williams complains about a 3-cents-per-litre gasoline tax to pay for SkyTrain; Finance Minister Mel Couvelier points to how many construction jobs were created and says the project “met all our objectives”.

7.Transit Studying East Van Link,” Vancouver Courier, April 17, 1991. From a moment in history when Vancouver’s city council and a significant bloc of its citizens were united in resistance to what would become the Millennium Line. To quote a member of HASTE (Homeowners Against SkyTrain Effects): “SkyTrain is a raucous, screeching, horrible machine that has no place in residential neighbourhoods.”

4 Responses to “The Hastings SkyTrain alternate reality.”


  1. 1 Fredinno January 16, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    Hey, thanks for the post. There’s no obvious way to connect Royal Oak to Edmonds like that without a transfer or shutting down the Expo to put in a new segment. Plus, the Edmonds route is even more barren than the Brentwood Routing overall, unless the forest park on the south of Burnaby Lake was redeveloped. My only complaint with the Millennium right now is that it should have followed Lougheed more faithfully. Move the Vancouver section to Lougheed instead of the Cut, and the 800m radius ends up looking a lot less barren and more competitive with the Hastings. And half of it could be elevated anyways (before going cut and cover as originally planned for Broadway before the Canada Line- even bored isn’t that big a deal, since the remaining length isn’t that long. West of the Cut is a problem due to our ancestors burrowing China Creek, hence the move to the Flats to avoid dealing digging into the soil there)

    Also, side note, how did you get the different routing maps built?

  2. 2 Michael A. Charles January 17, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Yes, apparently BC Transit were prepared to rebuild a segment of the guiderails somewhere between Royal Oak and Edmonds in order to create a junction for the Edmonds-Cariboo extension. I suppose this would have entailed a few weeks of bus bridges for unlucky SkyTrain commuters.

    For comparison, when they extended the Millennium Line past Columbia Station in 2001 the westbound track already had a junction built in – but not the eastbound track, which had to be torn up and rebuilt, resulting in five weeks of single-track service between Columbia and Scott Road. (See comment and photo here.)

    Re the “barrenness” of the Edmonds-Cariboo route, Burnaby apparently had plans for “1500 units of medium density housing” in the forested area you mention, near what would have been the Cariboo / Highway 1 station. (See page 7 here.) And I’m sure by now the Canada Way and Kingsway / Edmonds stations would be as bristling with condo towers as Brentwood or Holdom.

    All maps not credited to others I create myself using Flash and Photoshop. A silly time-wasting hobby of mine; I’m gratified whenever anyone drops by to take a look at them. Thanks for commenting,

    M.

  3. 3 Fredinno January 21, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    Brentwood T. Center’s Mall Redevelopment alone has 4200 units proposed. 1400 is nothing.
    https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/brentwood-mall-redevelopment-the-amazing-brentwood

    Obviously they could convert it to high-rises, but it’s also important to point out that Burnaby wasn’t happy about the proposed line, and this led to the current situation: http://davidpereira.ca/projects/burnabys-town-centres/brentwood-town-centre/

    Compromise.

    Kingsway-Edmonds is fine (it wouldn’t be necessary if Edmonds was originally placed next to Rumble St instead of its current location), so we might see more focus on the Edmonds instead of Brentwood-Metrotown centers, but Canada? 22nd St has nothing – not to mention it has no history of density and doesn’t even have a decent grid network. Even 166th at Fleetwood looks better.

    I would imagine there to be some usage on the Cariboo Station to better connect to buses like the 555, though. Still don’t believe it would be anything else but another Victoria Hill type site.

    Side note is that it’d be difficult to get the Burnaby Mountain Gondola built as well. Connecting to Burquitlam or Lougheed Stns would require overpassing a ton of homes – the few who live below the current ROW generally don’t appear to appreciate the proposed gondola already.

  4. 4 Michael A. Charles January 29, 2020 at 12:13 am

    Good point about the Burnaby Mountain Gondola. The idea seems as if it would work only with a lower terminus at Production Way Station…though looking at the 2018 feasibility study, apparently a “kinked” route is an option, in which case a Burquitlam terminus might be feasible.

    By the way, I want to reiterate that apart from my fanciful wish for an additional SkyTrain station within walking distance of my current home, I don’t think the Edmonds-Cariboo route is better than the Millennium Line we wound up getting; only that the cheaper, quicker option might have meant rapid transit for Coquitlam, Richmond, and West Broadway a decade sooner. But who knows how events would have played out.

    I’m glad that stretch of forest near the Cariboo / Highway 1 overpass hasn’t been bulldozed for medium-density housing. I’d prefer to house people on former mall parking lots, as at Brentwood.

    M.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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