Friends of Rail for the Valley have stayed the course, still on track after seven years.
Last week, the group had its most recent meeting at the Sardis Library to exchange views on what was once a fairly contentious issue. The society, started in 2009 as part of the larger movement to repurpose existing inter-urban lines in the Fraser Valley for passenger rail, has fallen into routine as the issue lost visibility.
While their attendance has dipped from several hundred to a handful, their cause isn’t a lost one. In attendance at the March 24 meeting was city councillor Sam Waddington, who said that, in 2016, a light-rail solution has renewed viability.
Part of this is due to the success of the Fraser Valley Express (FVX), which celebrates its first birthday on April 6. BC Transit reports the FVX, which makes stops in Chilliwack, Abbotsford and Langley, drew four times its expected ridership in its first year.
“The FVX is going to be a model for anything in the future,” Waddington told a roomful of long-time Rail for the Valley supporters. “I have no doubt there’s going to be light-rail, the question is, is it going to be 60 years from now?”
According to Waddington, BC Transit is looking for success and ridership from bus routes servicing the same locales as a proposed inter-urban line before it is willing to consider investing in anything beyond buses, and the threshold of riders per day necessary to bring the province to the table hasn’t been reached yet.
“This year has been the biggest push towards this since the rail line closed, because we’ve shown a bus doing basically the same thing has been successful,” Waddington said.
“To give you an idea of the political climate, when Fraser Valley Express was launched there was a lot of talk, why don’t we just do light rail? It was a risk mitigation decision, [in case] the buses didn’t work out.”
The idea that buses may be the way towards getting the province on board with passenger rail is a bit of a twist of fate for the Rail for the Valley camp who, at the height of their popularity, had their idea essentially vetoed in 2011 by the Fraser Valley Transit Study (FVTS), a much called for analysis of transit options from the Ministry of Transportation that framed additional bus service as the only option they were willing to support.
Rail for the Valley’s proposal hasn’t changed substantially. Their suggestion is that the already existing inter-urban line between Chilliwack and Surrey, to which the province owns the right of way, could be upgraded to accommodate passenger rail.
Graham Dalton, one of the founding members of Rail for the Valley, was enthusiastic about Waddington’s input.
“It was a tremendous insight to see him. Everything he said was wonderful, it was like, wow, we have a chance here.”
It’s Dalton who has continued to organize meetings through all five years since the FVTS was released.
“It was about statistics. My statistics say I’m right, your statistics say you’re right, and that’s what happened. There were two sets of studies, and one study said it definitely isn’t feasible, the ridership isn’t there, and the other said, look, it’s a gem it’s going to work forever,” says Dalton, referring to the FVTS and to the Leewood study, an independent paper from a British consultant.
While Dalton drew small crowds with flier campaigns on his own, the idea really took off when John Buker, a professor at University of the Fraser Valley, took up the cause. With expertise on specifics like construction costs and with initiatives like a Rail for the Valley blog, launched in 2008, Buker got people engaged.
During the peak of Rail for the Valley’s popularity, in 2009, banners and demonstrators lined every overpass on Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, where weather conditions and traffic accidents often cause long delays for commuters.
Compared to Buker, Dalton describes his vision for the valley in less than scientific terms.
“The rail has to be in communities, where you can walk to it or ride a bike to it or take a bus to it,” he said. “If you look at the line that’s existing there today, all that’s there. It’s not a straight line, but it goes to every place in the valley except Aldergrove, it’s the only one it doesn’t go to.
“What we’re going through is a revival now, now we have more objectives we can look at. There is hope, there’s always hope, otherwise I would have given up long ago.”