September 12, 2017

The sky’s the limit: Translink gears up for major investment

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Spurred on by the Canadian federal government’s infrastructure investment agenda, Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority (Translink) is embarking on a wide-reaching public transport enhancement programme. Kevin Smith met CEO Kevin Desmond at the authority’s headquarters in New Westminster to find out more.

NESTLED between snow-capped mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver is one of the most spectacularly-located cities in North America, if not the world.

 

TranslinkRegularly topping tables of the world’s most liveable cities, and with GDP growth averaging 3.5% in the past five years, the region has become a magnet for business investment and people. Already home to 2.5 million, the population of the greater Vancouver area is expected to increase by a further one million as the region adds 500,000 new jobs by 2040. And with a burgeoning tech sector as Silicon Valley firms increasingly head north in search of lower wages and more affordable rents, it is likely that this figure will grow.

Inevitably more people will put greater pressure on the region’s infrastructure. A lack of highways and a strong public transport offering, epitomised by the 79.6km automated Skytrain light metro and a dense bus network, might contribute to strong liveability scores. But the region’s transport authority Translink is under pressure to further improve transport to meet current and future demand.

Recognising this need, the province of British Columbia moved to sure-up funding for a 10-year $C 7.5bn ($US 6bn) transport upgrade plan in 2015 by holding a public referendum on a proposed half-cent sales tax increase. But with mayors from the 23 municipalities which make up Translink’s region opposing the referendum, and the authority itself coming under fire from critics over a perceived lack of accountability and for wasting taxpayers’ money, the proposal failed dramatically at the ballot box.

Translink was at a loss at where to go next.

“Fortunately, nobody felt it was a repudiation of the vision, it was more a repudiation of the agency’s reputation,” says Translink CEO Mr Kevin Desmond, who was recruited from King County Metro Transit, which serves the Seattle metropolitan region, as part of a major restructuring shortly after the referendum. “It was moribund when I got here. They had lost the vote. People were very discouraged about what the way forward might look like.”

Cue the new federal administration of prime minster Mr Justin Trudeau. Buoyed by a sweeping election victory and the endorsement of its investment agenda, within days of Desmond taking up his position in Vancouver in March 2016, Trudeau announced the $C 120bn Investing in Canada infrastructure initiative.

In a subsequent announcement at Translink’s SkyTrain operations centre in June 2016, Trudeau confirmed that Translink would get $C 460m under the $C 10bn first phase of the programme. This was later revised to $C 370m with the provincial government providing $C 246m, and Translink putting in $C 395m of its own funds, taking the total capital spend to $C 1.01bn. Translink also committed to spend $C 975m to support expanded operations costs. And with a further larger, longer-term federal commitment set to be announced in 2017. Transport planning in the region was firmly back on track. “It created a momentum which resulted in November last year in this agency adopting the first phase programme,” Desmond says.

Shortage

Much of the first phase has focused on enhancing the existing offer. Desmond says the biggest challenge facing Translink’s services on SkyTrain is its inability to add more peak time trains due to a shortage of rolling stock, with the Expo and Millennium lines having no spare cars, and the Canada Line having only two trains in reserve. Translink consequently exercised an option in November from a previous order with Bombardier for 28 additional Mark III SkyTrain cars, with delivery expected to begin in late 2018 or early 2019.

“We needed to find a balance and make a promise to the public that we were not just thinking about these long-term capital projects, which take years, but in the face of overcrowded buses and overcrowded trains, that we were putting out relief as quickly as we could,” Desmond says.

In addition to SkyTrain, Translink has also bought another train for the West Coast Express commuter rail service (see panel p34) as well as an extra Sea Bus for the ferry connection across Vancouver Harbour. From April 24, the first in a series of bus service expansions was launched initially focusing on overcrowded and unreliable routes.

Phase 2 of the programme will take this initial investment to the next level. The federal government budget announcement on March 22 confirmed that the region would receive $C 2.2bn for transit projects, which Desmond describes as the “largest commitment in anyone’s memory from the federal government towards public transport.”

And with the announcement coming just two months before the provincial election, it prompted some interesting public debate during the campaign. Polls found that transit funding and improvements was the second most important issue with voters behind the region’s housing shortage, and each party was keen to show their willingness to support the federal government’s infrastructure investment agenda.

The incumbent party, The Liberals, pledged to match the $C 2.2bn federal allocation with provincial money. The NDP upped that, committing to meet 40% of the construction cost of any stage of the plan, with The Greens adopting the same position.

With the May 9 election ultimately producing an inconclusive result, political gerrymandering continued until the end of June when Liberal premier Ms Christy Clark announced her resignation, paving the way for the NDP to form a minority government backed by the Greens.

For Translink, the delay held back prospective talks with the new provincial government about supplementing the federal investment. But with these discussions now underway, there is optimism that the funding match will be secured this autumn, and with local government and Translink’s contribution, total funding for the second phase will exceed $C 4.4bn.

Mega projects

Desmond says the Phase 2 plan includes three “mega projects:” the Surrey light rail project (see below), the Millennium Line extension, and replacement of the 78-year-old Pattullo road bridge which connects New Westminster with Surrey.

The $C 2.8bn Millennium Line plan envisages adding another six stations and 6km to the line taking the total length to 31.2km. The extension will run for 800m on an elevated alignment west from the current terminus at VCC-Clark, continuing for 5km in tunnel under Broadway to the new terminus at Arbutus.

Desmond says the line will relieve pressure on the over-stretched 99B bus service, which operates on the corridor to the University of British Columbia (UBC), and is reputedly one of the most congested bus routes in North America. An evaluation process is underway to identify the most cost-effective means of delivery, and Desmond is hopeful that construction could start in 2019.

“If we stay on schedule, which would require that we enter into a funding agreement with the province this year, and that we adopt a new investment plan at Translink at the end of this year, or the first quarter of next year, the light rail line should be operational in 2023-24, and the Broadway subway extension in 2024-25,” Desmond says.

The Broadway extension to the Millennium Line follows the Evergreen Extension project, which added 11km and seven new stations when it opened on December 2 2016. This project brought SkyTrain to Port Moody and Coquitlam and runs from Lougheed Town Centre to Lafarge Lake Douglas. A further seven two-car Mark III trains were acquired to accommodate the new service and Desmond says that despite a difficult winter with significant snowfall, by the end of January the line had around 30,000 daily users. The goal is to have 70,000 by 2021.

Ahead of the opening of the Evergreen extension, fleet utilisation was altered in November 2016, with a mixture of six-car Mark I and four-car Mark II and III trains now used on the Expo Line, and two-car Mark III trains on the Millennium Line, but at double the frequency.

Desmond adds that a real strength of the project is its popularity among people travelling within their sub-region, rather than simply commuting to and from downtown. Busy trains travelling in both directions are testament to this with a lack of equipment again restricting the line’s capability to fulfil its potential.

With stations able to accommodate up to five-car Mark II and Mark III trains, Translink does have the capability to add more fleet capacity. As a result, Desmond says Translink expects to order up to 114 additional cars for the Expo and Millennium lines and 22 for the Canada Line under the 10-year plan.

He says many of these will come from the options in the current contract with Bombardier, including a further order for 28 cars, although the total number of options exercised will depend on the final funding arrangements. “The advantage is we don’t have to go back out to procurement, which if we do will add at least two years,” he says. “The price with the options is also very, very good.”

Ongoing

Desmond adds that an interesting side development of the recent influx of cash is the conversation now taking place regionally about where transit heads next in order to facilitate an ongoing building programme.

Ultimately Vancouver’s regional transport strategy is aiming for 50% of all journeys in the region to use modes other than the car by 2040, with this figure currently at 27%. Desmond says a long-term planning process will begin by the end of the year or early next year to decide how the region might achieve this. He says all suggestions - whether this is extending rail to North Vancouver, the Millennium Line to UBC, or the Canada Line further south - are welcome.

“We need to be thinking long-term so we can be more sequential, and no longer build in fits and starts,” Desmond says.

“We have also got to figure out a better way to serve the areas that are underserved. And in the context of the significant housing problem here, and concern about the affordability of this region, we have to think that if businesses are going to come and thrive here and attract young people, where are these people going to live and have families? And where is the less expensive and more affordable housing? It is out where we need to build transit.”

Many of these projects could use alternative or private funding methods, including from the new Canada Infrastructure Bank. Established earlier this year as part of the Investing in Canada plan, it will initially offer
$C 35bn for funding new infrastructure projects. Desmond says Translink is in discussions with the federal government about how it might access this finance, potentially to support the Pattullo bridge renewal as well as some of its rapid transit projects.

He adds that land value capture is another interesting option for the region, with regional mayors suggesting the establishment of a Development Cost Charge, which would levy a fee for any new development in order to pay for transit. He also points to the development of a new station at Capstone on the Canada Line in Richmond as a concept that could be expanded. Here the developer has committed to invest around $C 50m in the project which will spur significant new developments.

With the spring seemingly back in Translink’s step with regards to funding its expansion agenda, Desmond says a major part of his job since joining the authority has been to rebuild its relationship with the public.

He says his approach emphasises bringing a strong customer-focus, and he says he is doing this by being a more visible and accountable leader than his predecessors. “There was a gap between the organisation and the public discourse about Translink,” Desmond says. “It wasn’t clear on who was running the place, and it wasn’t clear that the agency cared about its customers, which it does. It is a very good organisation with very strong performance metrics. But it was weak on how it managed its public base.”

Talking about the good things Translink does, and not just waiting for the media to find negative stories is central to Desmond’s approach. Equally he says it is important for him to be visible and accountable when the agency is facing a difficult issue as a means of further building public trust.

He points to the Translink’s smartcard ticketing platform, Compass, developed by Cubic, as a much-maligned project in the public sphere, and something he feels the agency didn’t necessarily do a good job in explaining.

“When people heard the word Compass, they heard the words ‘late, overdue, messed-up project’,” Desmond says. “I got here as the project was being fully implemented, and I am out there telling people that Compass works. Now 95% of our transactions are with Compass projects, which is an astonishing take-up, and our fare revenue increased significantly after it was implemented.”

With Translink set to add new functionality to Compass from the end of this year, he says continuing discourse will help passengers to embrace rather than dismiss these enhancements.

In addition, improving internal dialogue is also serving as a means of boosting morale and employing a sense of mission among Translink employees. And while Desmond says he does not feel he is doing anything out of the ordinary, he says he is looking to shape and channel what he feels the organisation is and should be about. Crucially, he says, it will help to avoid a similar situation that led to the unwelcome referendum result.

“I think that plays out in what I hope over time will be a good public reputation,” Desmond says. “And that good public reputation means we can start talking about what is important: how we are going to develop our transit system.”

 

The Skytrain network

AT 86.8km in length, Vancouver’s Skytrain network is currently the largest automated metro in the world. Since the first phase of the Expo Line between Waterfront and New Westminster opened in 1985, the network has expanded steadily. The Expo Line was extended to Columbia and Scott Road in Surrey in 1990, and to King George in 1994. The network’s second line, the Millennium Line, subsequently opened in January 2002, initially between Commercial Broadway and Columbia, with a short extension to Vancouver Community College opening in 2006, followed by the Evergreen extension in December 2016.

The Canada Line opened in August 2009 ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and provided a Skytrain link to Vancouver International Airport for the first time. The project was delivered as a public-private partnership (PPP) between the Canadian federal government, the province of British Columbia, Vancouver Airport Authority, Translink, and the City of Vancouver, and the InTransitBC joint venture between SNC-Lavalin, the Investment Management Corporation of BC, and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec (CDPQ). InTransitBC is managing operation of the line under a 35-year contract with Translink.

The Expo and Millennium lines are operated separately by BC Rapid Transit on behalf of Translink, using the Bombardier trains which are equipped with linear induction motors. As the Canada Line is operated with 20 two-car Hyundai Rotem trains which have conventional traction motors, these trains cannot operate on the two other lines and vice versa.

 

Popular commuter rail service under pressure

OPERATIONAL since 1995, the West Coast Express (WCE) commuter service now carries around 11,000 passengers every week day, and provides 2.8 million trips per year on trains serving eight stations between downtown Vancouver and Mission.

WCE uses a fleet of locomotive-hauled double-deck coaches and its popularity means that trains are oversubscribed during peak times. But like many mainline passenger operations in North America, it shares infrastructure with the incumbent railway, in this case Canadian Pacific (CP), and there are capacity issues.

“There is a tension between moving people and moving goods, and we need to figure out how best to deal with that,” Desmond says. “I believe they can coexist, but that it is a challenge, and it will almost certainly require investment of some form.”

With Translink in the second-year of a 10-year contract with CP, the service is safe for now. However, Desmond admits there are some “tough conversations” ahead with its partners, many of which would assume “that we just get out now,” particularly with the Port of Vancouver and CP targeting increased grain shipments along the route.

Desmond says his experiences from the Puget Sound show that freight and commuter services can coexist, and even flourish. And while expansion is not on the agenda right now, he says it is time to suggest ideas of how an expanded service might look and operate in order to inform the long-term planning process.

This could include extending the service further east, and north to Squamish and Whistler. But with these communities outside Translink’s operating area, new service arrangements would be required. Desmond envisages a similar arrangement to that agreed with Mission, where the local authority pays Translink a service fee.

“I think now is the time to think about how we can build these connections,” Desmond says. “And to have those bigger conversations.”

 

Surrey light rail plans move forward

LOCATED south of Vancouver and bordering the United States, the city of Surrey has experienced rapid development in recent years and, along with the neighbouring community of Langley, is among the fastest growing areas in the lower Vancouver mainland.

The Expo Line currently terminates at King George in northern Surrey, but with no other rail-based mass transit options available, the city’s streets are already suffering from crippling congestion.

With 400,000 new residents and 185,000 jobs expected to be created in the area in the next 30 years, a new light rail line, the first in British Columbia, was presented as the solution to the problem in 2013. A project to develop the first 10km phase of the Orange Line between Guildford, Surrey Central and Newton was subsequently included in the 10-year transit plan, and will be funded under the second phase.

The line will replace an existing bus route and the project is currently at the public consultation stage, something which Desmond says he values very highly.

“It is something we need to do more of here,” Desmond says. “In fact, that is an element of why the plebiscite ended up as it did. The plan was not something that, in my view, was built up with as extensive public participation as it should have been, and what I am accustomed to in the United States with building big plans like this.”

If full project funding is confirmed in 2017, procurement and final design for the project will begin next year, and take three to five years to complete.

The second phase of the project envisages extending rail-based transit by 16km mostly at street level with an elevated section over the Langley Bypass and CP line. Desmond says no decision has been made yet on whether this will be an extension of the light rail line or SkyTrain. He adds that funding for this project is expected to come in the next development phase.

 

 

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