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Modern streetcars debut in Vancouver

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The unloading of the new Bombardier Flexity streetcar arriving from Brussels. Photo by TheTransitFan

It’s been a long wait. Sixty-five years in fact, since Vancouver last experienced the thrill of seeing brand-new streetcars travel our streets. The wait ended today, and I wouldn’t have missed it.

By TheTransitFan, re:place magazine

The future of local transportation in the city is sleek and shiny. Looking at the streetcar unloaded today in the (very) early morning sunshine, it was still hard to believe that this Flexity streetcar from Brussels, the most up-to-date model in Bombardier’s product list, was in Vancouver. Not to say that it doesn’t belong here, mind you. It’s almost as if Vancouver now needs to live up to the promise that it brings to us. How big a part modern streetcars will play in our transportation system will surely be determined by how Vancouverites embrace them during their two-month Olympic trial run.

The unloading of the streetcar went off without a hitch at 9:40 this morning. You can see the video my first look at the new car here, and the video of the unloading in parts one, two, and three. There weren’t the huge crowds that were witnessed at the opening of the Canada Line, but of course no one gets any rides until January 21st of next year. It was mostly the press, Bombardier staff, staff from the City, and transit fans like myself. I was able to talk with Dale Bracewell, the City’s Manager of Olympic Transportation, about the city’s role in bringing the modern streetcar to Vancouver. And earlier this month I talked with Steve Hall, General Manager for Bombardier Transportation in Vancouver to find out how Bombardier became involved in Vancouver’s streetcar demonstration project.

“Well the stars aligned quite well” he noted with pride. “Bombardier is a Canadian company, and we’re very proud of that. We’re also an official supported of the Olympics, so we’ve designed and manufactured all the Olympic torches and we’re a signature sponsor of the torch relay that’s now taking place. So we thought that since the theme of the Olympics is sustainability, how could we do something consistent with that?”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the origins of the Olympic line go back to 1981, when Dale Laird had the idea to run historic streetcars along the abandoned CPR line. By the mid-1990s, Vancouver City Council had become interested in creating a modern streetcar line along False Creek. Dave Rudberg, the City’s General Manager of Engineering Services, spearheaded the drive to use the line as a demonstration project. The City spent $9 million to acquire track between Granville Island and Manitoba Street and later purchased the section from Manitoba Street to Main Street for another $600,000. With the acquisition of two historic cars, the Downtown Historic Railway has been running May-October weekend service on the line since 1998.

“The roots are quite deep on the City side”, concurs Hall. “They’ve been working on it for at least 20 years, acquiring and protecting all of their alignments so that they could build this in the future. So they’ve been very proactive. Up to now they haven’t received approval to build the system, but they’ve done all the pre-work.” And Hall had a big supporter in Dale Bracewell. “A lot of this whole idea came from myself working with Dale and saying how could we show people what this technology is really about?”

Bracewell agreed when I talked with him this morning. “It’s been a long time in planning and working with the Downtown Heritage Railway to use that line as a demonstration up until the time that we could actually do modern streetcars. In 2006 we reported back to Council on the preliminary design and engineering and we requested that the staff try and pursue this. And then the following year we were able to announce that with Bombardier Transportation, our partner on the Olympic Line, that this project was going to happen.”

Hall explained that “We came up with a sponsorship, where the City would contribute and do the work on the wayside – the track and the power system – and our contribution would be to bring the streetcars here and then to operate and maintain them for the demonstration.” The $8.5 million cost of replacing the single-track infrastructure came from three sources: $4 million apiece from the Southeast False Creek Project and the City’s Engineering Streets Capital Budget, and a $500,000 funding contribution from CMHC Granville Island. “Then we were able to go to a very good customer of ours in Brussels, the Societe des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles, who we’re building 170 of these streetcars for. We asked them if they would lease us two cars for this exercise, which they very generously agreed to do. So that made it all come together.”

One of the little-known facts about this agreement is that it is a first for North America. Demonstration lines are definitely not common practice in the rail industry. But Hall argues that “I’m finding it’s a very good model to try and do things. It takes it out of the theoretical world and makes it very practical. I think it’s probably something we’ll look at doing in other places down the road because the level of interest that’s been generated by this has been huge, both within the industry and from the public.”

Another surprising fact: this is the first 100% low-floor streetcar to operate in the Americas. Neither Toronto nor Portland has one. “We have people coming from all over North and South America coming to see them, because these are the first European 100% low-floor streetcar ever in North America, and so there’s a huge wave of interest in seeing what might be the next wave”, says Hall. “This is where Europe has gone. There have been 100% low-floor streetcars before, but you had to have a special bogie design with a motor on each wheel and a stub axel on each wheel, so it was quite expensive looking at life cycle cost and issues of noise and vibration.”

The challenge of getting the car low over the wheels was eventually solved by Bombardier engineers, who designed a low-floor streetcar with a conventional axle wheel set. And how does Hall feel about this new design? “It’s a game changer in what it offers. That’s why there’s so much interest in the industry to see it. It’s been around for about ten years, but not in this configuration.”

Bracewell noted that the plan is for the streetcars to eventually run on a dedicated right-of-way through Southeast False Creek to Main Street Station. “Through Gastown and Chinatown we’re going to mix with traffic”, said Bracewell, “which is common for an urban streetcar, to have a few dedicated sections and a few mixed sections. That way you can really serve the kind of land uses and the places that you want to go.”

The issue that comes up, of course, is that all this money in being invested in nothing more than a demonstration line, which will end once the Olympics are over. But Steve Hall notes that “What the City is doing is investing in the long-term system – it’s like a preliminary investment. It’s not just for this demonstration – this will be usable for the next 30 years. But it will be compatible with the historic cars. So after the demonstration is done, they can put the historic cars back on there.”

When asked how Vancouver will be able to afford to run modern streetcars on a more permanent basis, Dale Bracewell explained that “the City has always done what it can, which is to safeguard rights-of-way and provide this kind of demonstration. But it takes senior government funding for the City to realize the project. Clearly we want this to be run and operated by TransLink, so we’re looking for them to ultimately support and take the lead. We want the streetcar system to be completely integrated as part of the rest of the regional transit, so that it’s assisting in supporting a larger transportation and transit network. Not just within the City of Vancouver, but Metro Vancouver.”

And Bracewell has also considering that pesky issue of funding, which would have to come from the federal government. “One of the real benefits of the Olympic Line is that a lot of those senior government funding decision makers are going to be out here in Vancouver for the Olympic Games. So they’re going to get a chance to ride this modern transit experience and see it at least along a two kilometre portion of track. So it gives them a real opportunity to see what we’re trying to accomplish here as we try and build a green city and be more transit oriented.”

So for 60 days, between January 21st and March 21st of next year, residents and visitors will have the opportunity to get a free ride between Granville Island and Canada Line Olympic Station on modern streetcars provided by Bombardier. “It’s an opportunity to do a showcase, to be able to show our residents, businesses, and visitors to the event that this is what we’ve always meant by the downtown streetcar”, says Bracewell. “We’re talking about modern streetcars, low-floor, accessible, big windows, smooth ride. So it gives everyone that modern transit experience that we’ve been planning for so long within the city.”

Will Vancouver’s denizens embrace the Olympic Line as they have the Canada Line? Bracewell is hopeful. “We really believe that this a first step towards realizing the downtown streetcar.”


John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great public transit, cycling, walking, transit integrated developments, and non-automobile urban life. Click here to follow TheTransitFan on Twitter.