Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Malahat and rail based transit

The south end of Vancouver Island has its interesting barrier in the form of the Malahat. It is not an insurmountable barrier, but changes to the highway will never be cheap and the existing road is effectively close to capacity. The route suffers from ongoing problems when there is an accident and the highway is blocked.

In my opinion, the biggest problem is how to manage the highway through Goldstream park. The park is a wonderful quasi wilderness close to town. The highway is a major intrusion as is in the park. If it were to be four laned, the park would effectively be destroyed.

I personally think we can live with the existing Malahat, but there is a demand for better access from the Cowichan valley to Victoria for the ever increasing numbers of commuters. If one were to improve the Malahat, this would increase the number of commuters. These commuters would further gum up the roads close into to town. The commuters would add more CO2 emissions and air pollution.

This leads to transit being proposed as an option. That would either be via bus or via rail. Neither option is reasonable.

Bus:
This would be a long distance bus commute. If one had a bus from Duncan to Victoria with limited stops, odds are the commute would take about 75 to 90 minutes if one did not need to transfer. The fare would have to be about $6 each way to achieve a 50% cost recovery from the transit users. A monthly bus pass would cost about $220 to $250.

I suspect the buses would suffer from a lot of deadheading - going almost empty in one direction of the trip. If this is the case, it is not unreasonable to assume that the marginal cost per rider would be higher.

What about the existing private bus service on the route? Typically BC transit has not tried to put private bus services out of business - witness the #70 in Victoria, it could easily compete with the buses on the ferry, but it is made into a peninsula milk run when most of the passengers are ferry related. BC Transit also choses not to run a quick and consistent bus service to the Airport, but my issues with BC Transit are for another time.

It might be worth BC Transit trying a trial of a bus service from Duncan to Victoria and seeing how much it would cost and how many people would use it.

Rail:
People are in love with rail, but are not willing to pay for it or use it.

I lived in Lillooet for years and we only had rail access to any other location as a mode of publicly available transit. In the 9 years I lived there, I liked to try and make use of the BC Rail service. The timing was not great for my needs, it dropped me in an industrial part of North Vancouver after dinner time and left very early the next day. The cost went up and up to such a point where it was a lot cheaper to drive a car than take the train.

Most times I was one of less than a dozen people using the train from Lillooet to North Van. People simply did not use the service. And the BC Rail service was the most used passenger rail service in BC other than the Skytrain and Westcoast express.

The service was canceled because it was simply prohibitively expensive and not very flexible. Still there was a huge hue and cry when it slated to be canceled.

On Vancouver Island there is a passenger rail service, one that is effectively not used by anyone. But people are fighting to keep it in place. There is the Island Corridor Foundation that is taken over the rail line with the intention of operating a passenger rail service on it.

The cost of rail rolling stock costs 100% to 300% more than the same capacity of buses. The cost of maintaining the track is also an expense that has to be covered. What people do not seem to understand is that passenger rail service is wildly expensive.

The other thing people forget is that the existing rail line is not designed for anything other than very slow trains. For the trains to be able to act as a reasonable commuter service, there would have to a dramatic upgrade of the line all from Duncan to Victoria. Many level crossings would have to go, many tight corners would have to be removed and some sort of effective terminus would have to be built in Victoria.

Normally light rail transit needs a city with enough density of population to make it worthwhile. Victoria is still a very long way off to make rail an option that makes any sense to financially.
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