August 20, 2014

Future Present: The History, Problems and Possibilities of the Canada Line

Kenneth Chan, in Vancity Buzz, asks a question we’ve all wondered about when standing on a crowded platform in the Canada Line:

Could it become a victim of its own success?

If you have used and compared the Canada Line with the train systems found in other major metropolitan areas around the world, there is no mistaking that it was built with bare bone station designs consisting of jarringly short and narrow platforms for seemingly ‘toy trains.’

The usual answer with respect to capacity is, sure, no problem:

According to TransLink, with 50 metre platforms permitting three-car trains, this means the Canada Line has a ultimate design capacity of 15,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).

“The current capacity offered by the Canada Line is about 6,100 people per hour per direction in the peak periods,” TransLink spokesperson Jiana Ling told Vancity Buzz. “Recent measurements show at the busiest point, the line currently carries around 5,500 pphpd. Thus, the current ridership has not exceeded the maximum capacity in peak periods.”

CL 1


But Kenneth, with his usual thoroughness, explores the complications and variables:

Even if the Canada Line train system were to have the same ultimate design capacity as the Expo Line’s present peak capacity, therein lies the other major problem of getting higher volumes of passengers in and out of the small station footprints efficiently. …

Service reliability and train frequency is also impaired by the short-sighted decision to single-track the final 640 metres of elevated guideway before both terminuses at Richmond-Brighouse and YVR-Airport Stations.



He explores how the system can be tweaked to handle more ridership, and, most interesting of all, the politics and processes behind the decision-making, concluding that:

The decision makers and planners of the day lacked the foresight needed to ensure the system would be designed with excess buffer capacity to allow for both planned and unplanned growth – or at the very least, be given the capability of significant expansion.


Right at the end (probably further than most readers will get) there’s this topically relevant observation:

In the distant future, when Canada Line capacity is completely maxed out, a secondary north-south light rail or fully grade separated system could be built on the Arbutus Corridor to complement the Canada Line.

However, the availability of the Arbutus Corridor for such a future use is up in the air. The Canadian Pacific Railway wants to utilize the railway for its development potential while the City of Vancouver wants to maintain it as a greenway for purposes that include a future light rail line.



In other words, the Arbutus corridor may well be needed in the future as a relief for the Canada Line, at a time when the city is ready to densify that part of the city.

Unimaginable?  Remember that “Kerrisdale” is a short form for “Kerry’s Dale” – the name of the interurban stop at 41st Avenue, opened in 1905, when the B.C. Electric Railway made the real-estate viable as a whole new neighbourhood.  That’s how cities grow – and redevelop.

No matter how the issue of the Arbutus corridor is bandied around during this election, all parties and candidates should commit to this essential principle: the right-of-way will continue to be maintained for the purpose for which it was built, for which it is zoned and for which it will be needed in the future.  It will be a corridor for trains.

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  1. The “funny” thing is that the Arbutus corridor has for years been more dense than Cambie and is continuing to densify as we speak. The brown building in your photo at 6th and Pine didn’t exist when I worked nearby a decade ago. It’s but one example of growth along that line that has happened in spite of any transit improvements. It will take a significant redevelopment along Cambie to allow it to finally catch up to Arbutus.
    As Kenneth noted all the planned growth on Cambie will overwhelm the ability of the Canada Line under its current operating agreement to meet demand. The system is already filled to 90% of its crush capacity meaning there’s really nowhere for additional passengers to go except armpits. How “appealing”.
    Yes the contract can be renegotiated, more trains purchased, station platforms expanded, but it will be costly.

  2. The comment that “well it isn’t full since we don’t get more than x number of people” is kind of a red herring. Ever been in a packed elevator? Ever notice that according to the maximum capacity listed on its certification plate that there should be room for 15-20% more people than are currently in it? Try telling that to the people waiting when the doors open. “No no, crowd in, according to the engineer who designed this there’s still room for 4 more people, despite the fact nobody can so much as raise their arm to look at their watch…”
    Regarding the Arbutus corridor – more and more I’m starting to feel that bringing the corridor back up to rail standards and running trains along it is actually going to be a good thing for the city in the future. None of us think there’s any viable customers for freight trains along the line, but if CP wants to start using it – well they’ve got to have a business case somewhere in their bureaucracy. If trains actually do start running along that line again it gets way way way easier to talk about light rail or something similar in the future. If they do actually manage to find a customer who can use the line, well that’s even better.

    1. Agreed.
      The more the Arbutus corridor becomes a de facto park – with gardens and pathways – the harder it will be for vote-hungry politicians to revert to railway (LRT) use.
      I wonder if university students ever tried to pack people into elevators they way they did for VW Beetles?

    2. Interesting Molson Brewery doesn’t use the line anymore to bring in supplies and move product, they use trucks instead.

    3. Bryn, I don’t think that the CPR needs to prove a business case in order to start running trains on the Arbutus tracks. They had a permit to run trains before, they never “abandoned” the tracks as so many newspaper reporters like to claim, they simply discontinued operating a service. (abandoning a railway line has a legal definition, and what they did is not that.)
      As far as running trains on the tracks goes, they do not need to have any customers who need cargo deliveries, in order to make a business case. Presumably, they are currently running trains back and forth on a track somewhere, in order to train their personnel. If they run such trains back and forth on the Arbutus tracks instead, it does not cost them any more than if they run them elsewhere.
      Meanwhile, every day that they run trains on the Arbutus tracks, they exert more pressure on the City of Vancouver to buy the lands, and presumably they gain negotiating leverage for a higher sale price.
      If they achieve any price that is considerably higher than the $20 million that the city has allegedly offered, towards the $100 million that they have allegedly asked for, I would say that that is a good business case.

  3. The front and rear car could be longer, so that the train protrudes past the platform on both sides, easily adding 20% capacity.

    1. It would be awesome if those going to Richmond or YVR could hide in the nose/tail of the train far from the doors, but that’s not how trains work. Those getting on first occupy the seats and prime standing locations. Then as the train makes its way down the line people take the less desirable spots and eventually jam together by the doors. Inevitably someone at the door is going to the terminus station and ends up blocking traffic their entire trip. Meanwhile people who boarded earlier and chose to or were pushed far from a door want to get off midway and have to make their way through the entire crowd to disembark. On packed trains it can take so long for people to get off that the doors start closing before a single person is able to climb aboard. It’s a regular occurrence at Broadway City Hall and Oakridge 41st and I’ve seen frustrated people left standing on the platform at Langara 49th because they weren’t aggressive enough about rushing forward through the crowd leaving the train and jamming the doors open.
      On a system with tiny trains, high frequency and low dwell times is the only way to accommodate growth. Placing people far front the doors will increase dwell times and decrease the capacity and reliability of the system.

      1. For what it’s worth, the Canada Line underground stations were designed to be expanded to take slightly longer trains right from the get-go. No, they aren’t about to take 6-car trains or anything like that, but there is SOME room for expansion planned in to the design.

      2. You could also (re)build stations so that doors open on BOTH sides of the train, one side to exit and in parallel, the other side to enter, as you see for example in the very busy Munich Marienplatz station with a train every 2 minutes.
        or one could equip the front end rear of the train more luxuriously, with wider seats and upgraded interior and more folks would congregate there.
        or take seats out close to the doors and make it standing room only.

  4. The density along the Arbutus Line is already there and increasing. Does your local London Drugs have a street of townhouses on top of it? Kerrisdale has had high rise residential towers for many years – and the underground parking that was then mandated. Retail is currently undergoing a sea change – with two blocks on West Blvd seeing old single and two storey structures being replaced by the retail with three storeys of condos over common along West Broadway and W 4th.
    Translink also once looked at light rail along the CP line from New Westminster to Marpole – though that still does have a few industrial customers. An Arbutus line could even serve downtown by taking over the Fir Street ramp and two of the lanes on Granville Street Bridge. None of this need cost anything like the billions needed for subways. Salt Lake City’s new two mile S line cost $37 million – just as a for instance.

    1. The ‘S’ line is not really the best candidate for comparison though. At $37million it was only designed to serve 3,000 passengers per DAY. The train only comes 3 times an hour too. So yes, for ‘only’ $37m you can get a very low capacity line with a very poor standard of service that is actually no faster than walking… Let’s not trumpet that one as a ‘good example’ too much.

    2. Yes, and the other concern about the City being in control of an Arbutus line is that it could force costly requirements to underground the line (to preserve trails and gardens on the surface) – essentially blocking a “starter” line that could grow and evolve over time.
      As a supplement to the Canada Line, an Arbutus line should be allowed to grow over time and could start small.

  5. An Arbutus line makes no sense right now. A bike trail there makes sense. CP Rail is just sable rattling as there is no commercial need for a train at all. They just want to up the commercial value so the city will pay more in a likely expropriation court case.
    Maybe in 30-40 years this (undergound) line makes sense, but first there needs to be a subway/train to UBC, ideally a UBC loop along Broadway to UBC then second stop at UBC S-Campus close to 16th Ave @ Wesbrook then looping back via 41st Ave through Kerrisdale to Canadaline and Skytrain in Burnaby. Then an Arbutus N-S line later.
    Unclear to me why no one is talking UBC loop, just UBC line ??

    1. Thomas, re loop idea, I don’t know if you have looked at the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council plan, but it proposes a $2 Billion !! 5 km subway from VCC clark to Broadway and Arbutus, and then express bus from there to UBC.
      As to the other routes, the plan proposes express buses on 41st Ave. Not a very good or equitable plan, in my opinion.

      1. Yeah .. I have seen this. A stupid idea .. short-term thinking .. and as such Vancuver will remain a car based city as folks now have to change 2x to get to downtown from UBC.
        More benefits here in the KPMG study re UBC Line:
        Article in Vancouver Sun by me re this (dumb) proposal to UC line only to Arbutus: