It’s not easy being green: The challenges of sustainable transit in B.C. (Part II)

Traffic backs up on the Sea to Sky highway.  Photo via flickr

Traffic backs up on the Sea to Sky highway.  Photo via flickr

Part 2: In Part 1 of this series, Contributor Cami Mohn explores the environmental and social benefits of implementing sustainable transit in British Columbia. Here, she delves into the history and politics behind existing and pending projects.

Have you ever wondered why British Columbia, home to countless avid nature lovers and outdoors enthusiasts and a province with masses of commuters and tourists, doesn’t have a passenger rail system? It’s a good question and one that warrants consideration of both history and politics.

Once upon a time, there was an old Budd rail car that carried passengers back and forth through the Sea to Sky corridor. But at some point down the line, rail development stagnated because of low population density and North American car culture.

In 2004, passenger rail took a big hit when control of B.C.’s rail was handed to CN through a 99-year lease, giving CN’s slow freight trains priority on the tracks. This means that passenger trains are frequently delayed for hours at a time and unable to maintain a schedule. The only way out of this situation is to break the contract with CN, which would be undoubtedly very expensive. Oops! With this lack of foresight, it’s really not easy being green.

Indeed, across Canada freight has priority over passengers, and train travel is so slow and expensive that it is practically unheard of. Ironically, Canada is the only G8 country unable to boast a single high-speed rail line, despite being home to Bombardier Headquarters, the world’s largest train manufacturer.

Prior to hosting the 2010 Olympics, B.C. went back to the idea of developing passenger rail for the Sea to Sky corridor. The possibility of a connection from Vancouver to Whistler with a 1 hour and 33 minute travel time and a tunnel under Burrard Inlet was tossed around. However, this option would have required a $1.4 billion investment. Furthermore, studies explored whether people would use high-speed rail if a one-way ticket cost $75, or if they would pay $50 for ticket but for a ride slower than the average driving time. Of course, with these options and prices, it was concluded that passenger rail would not be viable and so the B.C. government threw the idea out the window.

 Now in 2016, the Provincial government still appears opposed to considering passenger rail along the Sea to Sky corridor as their budget has no mention of passenger rail. The municipality of Whistler currently does not have a stance on passenger rail in the corridor and Tourism Whistler did not return a request to comment. To pursue a passenger rail system in the Sea to Sky Corridor, B.C. would certainly face huge infrastructure investments in addition to the cost of breaking a contract with CN. While it seems like passenger rail would make no financial sense, is this beside the point?

Pre-Olympics research is outdated, and a brand new study by a UBC geography student has demonstrated passenger rail between Vancouver and Squamish to be viable. The study recommends subsidies to lower the cost of tickets, and predicts that extending service from Squamish to Whistler will likely become viable in the next two decades.

Considering the findings of this study, in addition to the fact that Whistler has become a premier North American resort town and population density in this part of B.C. is skyrocketing, perhaps now is the time to rethink passenger rail in B.C.

Ski resorts in the region could contribute to promoting rail by giving visitors who come by train a ‘sustainability discount’ on lift passes and accommodation, and they could offer a train and lift ticket package.

As for train tickets, yearly passes would certainly appeal to regular commuters, while luxury class tickets would likely appeal to many of Whistler's visitors.

Federally, Transport Canada has made environmentally and socially sustainable transportation a goal, recognizing that we must reduce fossil fuel emissions if we are going to curb climate change. There is no alternative.  

Sustainable transport requires both lifestyle changes and paradigm shifts away from traditional planning. It requires a passenger rail that is competitive with driving time and cost. So far, B.C. has missed out on decades of technological and social development. We must now invest heavily to catch up, and it will not be immediately profitable, but passenger rail is the way forward in B.C.