Saturday, July 24, 2010

Commuter rail seen as not effective option for Victoria, Christchurch sized city in Canada

VIA Rail diesel railcar unit at Qualicum Beach Station on Vancouver Island
north of Victoria.  - Photo: Courtesy of Alasdair McLellan, Wikipedia Commons

One of Christchurch's "true sister cities" [see Pages section on sidebar ] would appear to be the city of Victoria in Canada. This city is at the tip of Vancouver Island,  the largest Island on the Pacific Coast of North America and about the size of Denmark. Despite the name-match the city of Vancouver itself (c 2 million population) is a ferry trip away on the mainland. Victoria is the capital city of the Province of British Columbia and at around 357,000  metropop has a population slightly smaller than that of greater ChristchurchThe city of Victoria is one the most successful "stand alone" small city public transport systems in North America in patronage, its transit system carrying 22.4 million passengers a year at last known count.   

In some respects Victoria has a footprint vaguely like that of Wellington NZ, except the land and sea are "in reverse" . The CBD and core of Victoria proper sits at the waterfronted apex of a "V" formed by two extended residential corridors.  The Saanich peninsula extends for about 40 km immediately north of the city and includes Victoria international airport and the Swartz Bay where ferries across to Vancouver and the mainland depart. On the other side of the long and wide Saanich inlet, the other arm of the "V" extends westwards and northwards along the main body of Vancouver Island. (a simplified map here might explain things better) .

The coastal areas west of the Victoria CBD are (surprise) called West Shore or the Western Communities, and include several growing residential communities, with a combined  population  totalling around 60,000,  Langford at 25,000 residents being the largest town. Passing through this area is The Southern Railway of Vancouver Island  formerly the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, or more simply [as it is still known locally, it seems] the E and N Railway. It was originally built back over 100 years ago to open up the land and particularly to transport timber from the central island down to the port at Victoria. After a pulp paper mill closed in the late 1990s, removing the largest bulk freight customer, viability of the line declined. Subsequently the system passed through several owners and operators, in the normal complications of business shifts and changes, until Canadian Pacific donated the section of line it owned  to a native American (aka first nations) trust, Island Corridor Foundation. As with most gifts of this nature, receiving the gift of a no longer ecomically secure railway line and land corridor has been something of a double edged sword.

The one train per day passenger service "The Malahat" is provided by VIA Rail the main Canada-wide (and Government owned)  passenger rail operator. As with the Tranz Alpine line, operating out of Christchurch, this is tourist service and service to residents locations along the way - leaving Victoria in the morning, arriving back early evening. The possibility of using the same line, in an opposite direction,  for a commuter rail service for residents of the Westshore area to get to work in Victoria has been raised on several occasions over the years and was the subject of a previous study in 2002.

In 2008, the Island Corridor Foundation  identified the need for $104 million to rehabilitate and upgrade the E&N corridor to North American freight standards and the Province committed $500,000 to a dedicated study of  upgrading the line for freight and passenger rail options. The results of  this study were released a fortnight ago in several sections, including one report focussed on the viability of creating a commuter rail system. Why this wily wabbit finds it fascinating - even without knowing the locations described first hand -  is that the report does not talk in generalities or even sweeping estimates but works through every aspect in fine detail - cost of new track or upgrading sleepers for faster speeds, between this point and that, and this point and that etc etc; every single grade crossing is analysed for the necessary works needs, as are station facilities, platform length, height of boarding steps, dwell time, car-parking areas needed. etc. All these are weighed with parameters set by best and worst range or modelling from equivalent situations elsewhere and standard railway processes and requirements. The report calculates the exact travelling time needed according to different conditions and the maximum level of service calculated as possible (every 30 minutes for four hours in morning peak, and again in afternoon peak) and the number of trains needed (3 plus 1 spare) to cover the 17km proposed route length through built up areas. And measures these against comparable car journey times to see whether they would be likely to attract commuters away from cars to rail.

There is a feeling here, for me reading this, of investigators trying to find a solution in a way that can benefit residents, the first nation tribe of the area, and the Province in general. But also the perception of the investigators not baulking, sliding over or generalizing away, in any way,  the many nitty gritty realities.
As in most public transport planning, it implicitly recognises the devil is always in the detail.  And finds there are just too many areas where things do not match up or meet bottom line standard criteria for rail planning. Hard rock stuff. Coupled with the previous findings of the Victoria Regional Rapid Transit Project that the rail line itself did not serve sufficient destinations and workplaces, the conclusion is that due to the high cost to implement commuter rail and the estimated levels of travel demand, the sizeable ivestment needed was not warranted.

For this writer it echoed much that could be said about commuter rail in greater Christchurch, New Zealand, where commuter rail is often put forward as an option without, it seems to me, any great depth of analysis.  Although many factors are different the comparable city and commuter suburb population size and dispersement of outlying residential areas involved, the length of line required, the need for double tracking etc and the amount of diesel units needed to maintain a very basic core service, half hourly at peak periods (only) all have parallel with the greater Christchurch situation (as well as the fact that both lines stop short of the CBD and don't serve any major key patronage destinations such as universities or airports). Good reading because many of the evaluations and comments, weighing various factors, could equally apply in Christchurch or at least educate us early to real costs and challenges.

It would be nice to think that those who advocate rail with such casual certainty would take time out to read this report, about 40 pages plus appendii. If nothing else the complexity of doing rail well - as with any public transport - may be brought home.

If the study and report being prepared under the auspices of the CEO for the City Council on rail options in Christchurch is as intelligent and indepth as that prepared for Victoria our city will be well served. 

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