With fuel prices on the rise and concerns about climate change, traffic congestion and parking weighing increasingly on the minds of commuters, transit systems across North America are looking for ways of convincing people to leave their private vehicles at home. In the course of their deliberations, the minds of planners may drift toward systems that don’t use fossil fuels — systems such as electric trolley buses or various forms of electrified rail (light rail transit and others).
Greater Vancouver uses a variety of transit modes, including electric trolleys and automated rail. Electric-powered transit has been a part of the region’s life for more than a century, and Vancouver retains the second-largest electric trolley fleet (after San Francisco) in North America.
In 1897, the BC Electric Co. introduced its streetcar system. The streetcars were followed, not long after, by three interurban tram lines, the longest of which operated from Chilliwack, about 60 miles (90 kilometers) east of Vancouver, through the lower Fraser Valley, and eventually into downtown Vancouver.
By the 1940s, though, tracked systems were starting to fall out of favor, and BC Electric started moving to rubber tires. The first trolley buses — Brill buses, built by Canadian Car and Foundry in what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario — went into service in 1948 and by the mid-50s the streetcars and tram were gone.
The Brills were gradually retired in the mid 1970s and replaced by new trolleys built by New Flyer Ind. of Winnipeg. These coaches were replaced in the early 1980s with a newer model from Flyer, using new motors and solid-state controls. The majority have been in continuous service for 25 years. Late last year, the first of a new generation of trolleys, built by New Flyer with propulsion systems by Vossloh-Kiepe of Germany, began operating on Vancouver streets. In total TransLink will take delivery of 228 new trolleys, including 40 articulated coaches. A dozen of TransLink’s 200-plus routes are served by trolleys.
After a lull, which lasted more than 30 years, rail began regaining importance in Greater Vancouver’s transportation system. Plans began in the mid-1970s for a rail-based rapid transit system and the result was SkyTrain, introduced in 1986 for Expo 86, the transportation-themed World’s Fair.
SkyTrain is a driverless, fully automated, grade-separated system. Today, the first SkyTrain line, now known as the Expo Line runs from downtown Vancouver, through Burnaby and New Westminster to Surrey, about 18 miles (29 kilometers) to the southeast. It hits speeds of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers an hour) on an elevated guideway about 30 feet (10 meters) above ground except for about a half-dozen stations, which are underground or just below street level.
A second SkyTrain line — the Millennium Line, which opened in 2002 — covers a 12-mile (20-kilometer) route around the northern portions of Burnaby and New Westminster, integrated into the original Expo Line.
A third rapid transit line, the Canada Line, is now under construction and will open in 2009.
A look at trolley buses and urban rail shows each system has its advantages and its drawbacks. In general, electric trolley buses outdo diesels in performance. They have superior power when fully loaded and good acceleration on hills. They also have a much quieter ride.
The initial move to trolleys in the 1940s came because gasoline buses were still not ready for prime time. The streetcar overhead was already in place, readily converted to the dual-wire trolley bus overhead. Since BC Electric, the province-wide power utility (now government-owned BC Hydro), owned and operated the bus system, investing in electric trolleys made sense from a financial point of view too. The quieter, pollution-free electric buses — streetcars without the rattling and clanging — were a big hit.