Translink Rejects Fraser Valley Interurban as a Replacement for Skytrain… But, What Do the Numbers Say?

With house prices hovering 13x over median household incomes in Vancouver, what do Modern Tram systems offer that Skytrain cannot deliver? In just two words—Affordable Housing!!

ALSTOM HYDROGEN FUEL CELL POWERED TRAIN

In a report (see page 12 in the linked agenda document) presented at  Translink Mayors Council, June 2019, Translink summarily rejected the South Fraser Community Rail’s carefully wrought proposal for returning Interurban passenger service to the Fraser Valley. The report sees it as:

One of many ideas that will be included as part of Transport 2050 [review].

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| PREAMBLE

Imprecise language appears in the report right from the start:

The rail corridor commonly known as the Interurban line is approximately 100 km of existing rail between Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack. The line is currently owned and operated by Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway and Southern Railway (SRY) for freight use.

The facts are different. The Interurban is:

 • 98 km Long.

 • 100% Government owned.

 • 13 km Corridor, between 184th and 232nd streets (see below), are leased—not owned—by the CPR from government. By the terms of lease, in the event of passenger service returning to the Interurban, the CPR is obligated to double track the 13 km section… at no cost to government, taxpayers and voters.

• In the 1980s the Vander Zalm government had expressly put in place provisions to keep the corridor in government ownership and ready for passenger rail.

In a nutshell that is exactly what the Community Rail group is proposing:

Return passenger service to the Interurban joining together Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford, Huntington, Sumas and Chilliwack with fast, frequent, and reliable rapid transit service.

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The report cites four reasons why the Interurban (98 km) is an inferior alternative to the proposed Skytrain extension to Langley (16 km):

        1. Projected Demand
        1. Cost Relative to Bus Alternatives
        1. Potential Conflicts with Freight
        1. Alignment with Regional Plans

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1 | Projected Demand

Growth in the GVRD (the Greater Vancouver Regional District, commonly referred to as ‘Metro’) has been impacted by a single, overarching factor: The Housing Crisis. By 2016 the Crisis had driven house prices 12-times over median household incomes, triggering an unprecedented core-to-periphery migration within the GVRD.

These events:

• Distort all estimates and projections made before 2015. 

• Put all levels of government on alert to prioritize projects that will put downward pressure on land valuations; and

• Shelve all projects that push in the opposite direction…

• Especially Skytrain extensions!

Seemingly oblivious to the crisis, the Translink report relies extensively on data and assumptions made between 2010 and 2012:

 • 2010—BC Ministry of Transportation—Strategic Review of Transit in the Fraser Valley, and

 • 2012—Translink—Surrey Rapid Transit Study.

This is problematic since both studies predate The Housing Crisis.

Speaking in Cloverdale, Aldergrove and Abbotsford, former Township of Langley Mayor Rick Green avowed how growth projections in use while he was in office (2008) have been exceeded by leaps and bounds. 

Reporting to the Mayors, Translink failed to reference The Housing Crisis, a concern uppermost in the mind of all taxpayers and voters. Instead, the report references what are today skewed projections originating from stale reports.

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The-Transit-Pyramid-(title) 3

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2 | Cost Relative to Buses

One is at pains to understand how a ‘bus option’ entered this discussion. The relevant issue is a head-to-head comparison between the Interurban and the Surrey-Langley Skytrain

• Surrey-Langley Skytrain will cost $190 million per kilometre to build

• Passenger service on the Interurban will cost $12.5 million per kilometre to implement according to the Community Rail group.

• The difference is a 16 : 1 multiple!! Translink could deliver 16-times more service on the Interurban for the same price as extending Skytrain to Langley.

From the point of view of the communities South of Fraser, the Interurban (98 km) is the superior “alternative or option to rapid transit along Fraser Highway” (16 km). In terms of moving people, linking destinations and flooding the market with affordable houses, the Interurban enjoys a running away advantage.

A Translink estimate for the Interurban option is missing from the report. Translink is mute on the cost difference between the Surrey-Langley Skytrain and the Interurban. ‘Silenced may be the more apt assessment.

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2.1 | BUSES UNSUITABLE FOR COMMUTER SERVICE

No one outside Translink is thinking buses can do the same job as the Interurban. The comparison between the two equates levels of service delivered at the top of the Transit Pyramid (pictured above) with service at the bottom—a factor of 22x separates them!! 

Clearly, there is NO comparison.

The Interurban can operate 4-car train sets accommodating:

• 1,100 passengers per train, delivering peak service of

• 33,000 passengers per hour in one direction (pphpd).

That is more than twice the capacity of Skytrain (35-times the capacity of buses).

Furthermore, the Interurban cuts through traffic while buses get stuck in traffic. Riding on a dedicated right-of-way the Interurban simply leaves the buses and the congestion behind

Buses stuck in traffic make it impossible for passengers to know when they will reach their destination. That makes it impractical to ride the bus to work, for example. Meanwhile, folks waiting at the bus stop for a bus mired in traffic have no idea when the next bus will arrive. The bus problem is famously encapsulated in a phrase circulating among transit professionals: ‘Buses Are For Losers.’ And they are no match for the Interurban.

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Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 2.07.17 PM

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2.2 | COSTS COMPARED

The cost analysis missing in Translink’s report is provided in the table above. Clearly, the Interurban advantages are overwhelming:

Longer route by factors of 4x (LRT) and 6x (Skytrain)

• Serving the largest population

 • 4-times cheaper to build than LRT (per km)

14.5-times cheaper to build than Skytrain (per km)

• 8-times cheaper than LRT and 75-times cheaper than Skytrain (per capita, per km)

98 km Interurban costs less than half the price of the 16 km Skytrain.

There are no direct comparisons between the Interurban and Skytrain in the report. The table above suggests there is no comparison, period. The Interurban wins on every count.

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CPR-lease

184th_232nd-Interurban_cpr
THE CPR OPERATOR’S LEASE ON THE INTERURBAN: from 232ND (left photo) to 184TH (right photo) [Google images]

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3 | Potential Conflicts with Freight

The report summarizes federal regulations for mixing passenger and freight rail on the same corridor, thus:

To meet Transport Canada requirements for rail passenger safety, passenger rail vehicles must either be separated from freight train traffic through scheduling, or physically, by constructing separate tracks.

Passenger service sharing a right-of-way with freight requires one of two measures to be put in place:

(1) Scheduling, or

(2) Double-tracking.

Clearly, measure (2) is the more costly.

Translink recommends double-tracking in the 13 km section of the Interurban Corridor where the CPR holds leases:

Due to freight traffic throughout the day on the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor, separate rail track would be needed to remove operational conflicts between passenger and freight, to ensure fast, frequent and reliable rapid transit service.

However, the report omits to mention the CPR obligation to double track this 13 km section of the Interurban—as a condition of lease, in the event passenger service returns to the Interurbanat no cost to government, the community, taxpayers and voters.

The legally binding clause in the private lease between the CPR and government was made public by Mayor Rick Green, in office when CPR renewed the lease. Translink was made aware of the existence of this clause by the Community Rail group at their two ‘lengthly’ meetings. Without explanation, the report leaves out an important taxpayer and voter advantage.

The question arises about whose interest the transportation authority is representing: the public or the CPR? Are the ‘potential conflicts’ the Translink report references actually ‘conflicts of interest’?

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3.1 | IS RBRC FREIGHT USE DROPPING?

A second question issues from the murky waters of the report about just how much freight uses the Interurban today:

In the 2012 study it was estimated that freight service on the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor would increase from 9 trains per day in each direction … to 28 – 38 trains per day by 2021 .

[Emphasis added]

Here, the Translink report appears to confuse two ways of counting trains: ‘trains per day in each direction’ and ‘trains per day‘.

 

The formula relating the two is straight forward:

[trains per day in each direction] x 2 = [trains per day]

Thus, the passage should read:

In the 2012 study it was estimated that freight service on the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor would increase from 9 trains per day in each direction [18 trains per day]… to [14 – 19 trains per day in each direction or] 28 – 38 trains per day by 2021 .

[Emphasis and parenthesis added]

We are now 18 months away from reaching this 2021 prediction. What has transpired to date?

A 2016 Roberts Bank Trade Area Study confirmed this increased volume is occurring, with 12 trains per day noted [6 trains per day in each direction].

[Parenthesis and emphasis added]

If we accept the report as written, then:

• In 2012 there were 9 trains per day in each direction.

• In 2016 there were 12 trains per day

• Using the formula just provided we convert ’12 trains per day’ into 6 trains per day in each direction.

What Translink reports as “confirmed increased volume” would appear to be the opposite. According to the Translink report as written—freight traffic on the Interurban fell by one-third between 2012 and 2016. Where is it three years later, in 2019? And where is it expected be 18 months hence, in 2021? Will the downward trends continue? Or is the report merely marred by a clerical error? A ‘typo’?

First, the fact that both freight and passenger trains can share the Interurban is an advantage, rather than a ‘problem.’ Introducing new operations in the corridor adds revenue to a government asset.

Second, the fact that the lease for 13 km of the corridor stipulates that the operator must double-track that part of the corridor in the event of passenger rail returning to the Interurban—presents another advantage for government and the people. 

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3.2 | FREIGHT TRAFFIC ON THE OTHER 87%

Translink sees freight traffic on the remainder of the Interurban also being problematic:

While freight operations are less frequent on the SRY Fraser Valley Subdivision, there would still be a need for separate track to ensure reliable and frequent rapid transit service.

The Community Rail Group reports that only two freight trains use the Interurban during the day, and one at midnight. That’s a total of 3 trains per day in each direction. Scheduling 6 trains over 24 hours is probably best resolved with the less expensive scheduling option (1). Yet, by recommending double-tracking the entire Interurban, Translink creates the impression that the transportation authority has its hand in the public purse.

The failure to report CPR lease obligations; the apparent failure to report accurately freight use dropping as of 2016 on the CPR leased section; and the opinion that the entire corridor must be double-tracked to operate passenger trains—all of it erodes confidence in the transportation authority.

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3.3 | FURTHER OBSTACLES THROWN IN THE WAY

The report also identifies the kinds of regulations and costs that meet every transportation project—whether Interurban or Skytrain—as an impediment to passenger service on the Interurban:

Environmental impacts, construction challenges and cost.

Extending Skytrain to Langley meets with the same constraints: environmental reviews, construction challenges and costs.

What the report fails to reference, and what finds no mention elsewhere in any of Translink’s public communications, are cost comparisons between the technologies currently advocated by Translink—Broadway’s deep-bore subway and Skytrain—Modern Tram on the Interurban and, as we shall see below, Modern Tram on the street.

• Deep bore subways (Broadway) are reported by Translink to cost 3-times more to build than Skytrain (596 vs. 188 millions per km).

• Deep-bore subways (Broadway) cost 48-times more to build than the Interurban (596 vs. 12.5 millions per km) according to the community group.

 • Thus, the Interurban Line is about 16-times cheaper to build than Skytrain to Langley (188 vs. 12.5 millions per km).

On the Interurban—where most of the infrastructure is already in place—the Community Rail group estimates the project can be completed for ⅓ the cost of building the Surrey-Langley Skytrain. This in spite of the Interurban corridor being 6-times longer (98 vs 16 km).

By reactivating passenger service on the Interurban taxpayers and voters stand to get back a modern Interurban service linking Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford, Huntington, Sumas and Chilliwack with fast, frequent, and reliable rapid transit service… at a very attractive cost.

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Approaching NW_Pano
THE MONUMENTAL DESOLATION: SKYTRAIN-AND-TOWERS URBANISM — Columbia Street, New Westminster

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4 | Alignment with Regional Plans

The Livable Regions Strategic Plan (1996) and the follow-up Regional Growth Strategies (2011) were the planning instruments used to introduce the Skytrain-and-Towers urbanism into the GVRD. What we were not told—or did not know in 1996 and 2011—is that by 2016 the Regional Plans would lift land valuations 12-times over median household incomes, triggering a Housing Crisis. Back in the Salad Days of Expo 1986 house prices in Vancouver were at PAR with median household incomes. No longer.

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THE SKYTRAIN BLIGHTS THE NEIGHBORHOODS IT CROSSES

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Furthermore, there is the inconvenient truth that Skytrain blights the neighborhoods it crosses. This is the reason why Skytrain to UBC is being planned in a deep-bore tunnel. Let’s take a moment to review this: Headed to UBC the ‘sky’ train will operate ‘under’ ground to satisfy the demands of the West Side neighbors who will not tolerate trains riding in the sky past their houses.

Thus, ‘failing to align with regional plans’ is in fact a core strength of the Valley Rail proposal. With this proposal the people are signalling a will to re-consider the Regional Plans in view of the inflation in land prices visited on the region by the Skytrain-and-Towers urbanism, and the blight rained on their streets by the trains-in-the-sky.

It is hard to know whether the transit authority is mandated to accept the Regional Plans—asking no questions. Or whether they fulfill a gate-keeper’s role bringing to the attention of their ‘masters’ dangers lurking ahead, as well as new opportunities breaking over the horizon.

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image
THE MONUMENTAL DESOLATION: SKYTRAIN-AND-TOWERS URBANISM— Lougheed Highway, Burnaby

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4.1 THE PURPOSE OF TRANSIT

Throughout modern history Metropoles have built transit to:

(1) Get goods to market;

(2) Access cheap, peripheral, low density land for affordable housing;

(3) Connect major destinations.

Focusing almost exclusively on (3), the Regional Plans created a scarcity of affordable houses, walkable neighbourhoods and small towns. Preaching a false ideology that ‘density was necessary to end global warming and climate change,’ the Regional Plans only succeeded in driving land prices into the stratosphere.

Finally, once and for all, let us push the ‘reset’ button and put an end to this frenzy. Let us make careful, well-calculated changes and move forward with resetting land values to be at PAR with Canadian incomes.

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4.2 ACCESSING CHEAP PERIPHERAL LAND FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING

In the report, and what we interpret to be Translink’s reckoning, accessing cheap land for delivering affordable houses scores a negative:

the Interurban alignment is indirect and through lower density and diverse areas

In our view the Interurban’s ‘indirect’ route meanders just long  enough to capture plentiful supply of cheap land to build affordable neighbourhoods and towns.

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The-North-Road
THE MONUMENTAL DESOLATION: SKYTRAIN-AND-TOWERS URBANISM — North Road, Coquitlam

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Aligning with the Regional Plans instead, Translink sees Skytrain as the driving force behind selling towers & density:

Surrey Metro Centre… is expected to be the focus of future population and employment growth.

[Emphasis added]

Complete the picture by reading “towers” in place of “future population and employment growth.” 

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3 FCS view cone
THE MONUMENTAL DESOLATION: SKYTRAIN-AND-TOWERS URBANISM—The Mountains Are Hidden From View, South Shore False Creek, Vancouver.

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4.3 THE TOWERS-AND-SKYTRAIN PARADIGM

In order to pay the exorbitant costs of building Skytrain, Translink and the Regional Plans long ago bought into the Hong Kong model:

(4) Hike densities around Skytrain stations, then

(5) Sell tower densities to cover the huge costs of building grade-separated transit.

Yet, the planners and legislators that brought about the tower-and-skytrain Regional Plans did not heed the work of economists warning that a tipping point would be reached triggering hyper-land valuations throughout the region, and not just at the station areas. Today—with the outmigration of people from the core seeking affordable houses on the periphery—we can see hyper-land valuations infecting the entire region. Selling towers to pay for Skytrain has lifted the cost of land beyond the reach of the average Canadian family, not just on the station sites, but everywhere.

This fact is upper most in the mind of every taxpayer and voter today.

Next, consider that the towers do not generate transit use. Many years ago Translink officials told me in conversation that they could not obtain a quantifiable correlation between adding tower density at station sites and rising levels of ridership presenting at those same stations. The towers are mostly unoccupied, functioning as chips in ‘off-shore’ investment portfolios. Those resident in the towers are as likely to ride the elevators to the garage and drive out in their cars, as they are to walk to transit.

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Main-Street-Towers

Terminal-Avenue
THE MONUMENTAL DESOLATION: TOWERS-AND-SKYTRAIN URBANISM—Two Views of Blight Along the Expo Line. Looking west along Terminal Avenue to Science World (bottom) and east from Science World (top).

Also consider that the lift in land prices triggered around Skytrain stations negates the opportunity to build park-and-ride lots. The same market dynamics do not present at the Interurban stops. There, land can still be acquired at competitive prices, making it possible to provide park-and-ride to patrons. This is important, because only park-and-ride has a proven track record for ‘pinching’ cars from congested freeways.

Building Skytrain to Langley, and towers at Surrey Centre, will just keep driving land prices higher. Thus, Translink’s contention that only the Tower option for Surrey Centre is “transit-supportive” has no basis in fact. The only material facts are these:

(i) Skytrain needs tower revenues to pay the exorbitant cost of putting trains-in-the-sky, or building deep-bore subways underground;

(ii) Lifting land prices reached a tipping point circa 2016, triggering The Housing Crisis. 

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CharterTowns-S-of-Fraser
THE LOCAL HUMAN-SCALE VERNACULAR: An attractive, affordable, alternative supported by the Interurban (Bottom photo: Hensley Street, Charlottetown, PEI).

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4.4 THE INTERURBAN PARADIGM: TRAMS-AND-TRAMTOWNS

The Interurban presents the opportunity to build TramTowns at tram stops east of Cloverdale, in the local, human-scale, vernacular (see photo above). Affordable houses for 5,000 souls fit inside a 120-acre townsite footprint, with all doors just a 5 minute walking distance from the Interurban stop.

Shown in the map above, are 45 historic tram stops on the Interurban locating east of Cloverdale. They are shown complete with one TramTown footprint each, drawn to scale. 45 TramTowns would provide affordable houses for a quarter of a million people. 15 of these townsites are outside the Agricultural Land Reserve (shown with a blue outline). These can provide houses for 75,000 residents.

The regional vernacular urbanism of Prince Edward Island is pictured in the photo giving us a glimpse of a mature small town urbanism.

Our own west coast tradition is ready and waiting. We can see its outline in the local street from Charlottetown: a fluid set of house forms, street spaces, urban trees, platting, front door yards, continuity of the streetwall, sense of place, sidewalks and curbs, cobra lights and telephone poles. The continuity of character and diversity of form present as a local aesthetic that would be at home along the banks of the Mighty Fraser River, and the shores of the Great Salish Sea.

Each TramTown can be governed by its own elected Council. The Councils are charged with managing the Land Banks that hold the town lands in perpetuity, protecting them from inflationary market forces. The town councils can also exercise stewardship in conservation putting eyes and boots on the ground helping to protect sensitive environmental areas nearby.

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Reviewing the Interurban proposal the Translink report presents four principal objections. Some were based on old data and stale projections (1); others were irrelevant to the discussion (2); a third gets the freight counts wrong (3); and the last criticism looks to extend the false ideology contained in the Regional Plans dangerously prolonging the Housing Crisis (4). Not withstanding, this review uncovered six important ideas missing in the Translink report:

• Double Tracking by the CPR

• Realizing New Revenue Flows by Sharing Interurban Corridor with Both Freight and Passenger Rail

• Interurban is Many Times Cheaper to Build than Skytrain

• Interurban Has A Far Superior Range

• Park-n-Ride Lots on the Interurban will ‘Pinch’ Cars from Congested Freeways in Ways Skytrain Cannot Match

• Interurban Will Access Vast Quantities of Cheap Land for Building Affordable Houses in Land Bank TramTowns.

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CODA | Platform Access Times

The Translink report makes extensive analysis of travel times. We summarize them below, comparing them to the Leewood Report estimates for the Interurban corridor. Then, we add our own observations about Platform Access Times on Skytrain.

TRAVEL TIMES—SCOTT ROAD TO LANGLEY

Time (mins) Technology Distance (km) Source
25 Skytrain 16 Translink
31 car 22 Google Maps
49 bus 22 Google Maps
53 Streetcar Translink
23 Interurban 23 (200th St) Leewood
26 Interurban 26 (Hwy 10) Leewood

A few figures in the table above do not add up:

 • It is difficult to understand why the Translink Streetcar runs 2x slower than Leewood Report‘s Interurban service. We assume it is because the Streetcar is mixing with traffic, while the Interurban is riding on a dedicated right-of-way.

 • According to the Leewood calculations, the trip from Surrey to Langley will be completed in the same amount of time on Interurban as on Skytrain. This in spite of the fact that the route is 1.5-times longer on the Interurban alignment.

Are Europeans operating their trains too fast? Or is Skytrain running too slow? The Interurban proposal foresees 2.5 km average separation between stops (10 stops in 26 km).

 • It is also difficult to accept that the Skytrain will get to Langley faster than a car in off-peak traffic. For example, travelling the Evergreen Line end to end during off-peak hours was completed about 2-times faster by car than by Skytrain in June 2019.

These considerations bring up a hidden factor in calculating trip times on Skytrain: Platform Access Time.

Cars are a destination to destination service. Modern Tram stops are located curb side. However, Skytrain requires patrons to:

(i) get to the stations, and then

(ii) access platforms built high above the street.

Having to use elevators or stairs to access platforms adds time at the start and end of every trip. Known as platform access time, about 5 minutes should be added at the head and tail of every Skytrain trip. Thus, when the average trip time is 20 minutes, platform access time lengthens the average Skytrain trip by 50%.

The table below increases Translink travel times for Skytrain by 10 minutes. The Skytrain ‘advantage’ disappears once trip times include platform access times.

TRAVEL TIMES—SCOTT ROAD TO LANGLEY—INCLUDING PLATFORM ACCESS TIME FOR SKYTRAIN TRIPS

Time (mins) Technology Distance (km) Source
35 Skytrain 16 LNV
31 car 22 Google Maps
49 bus 22 Google Maps
53 Modern Tram Translink
23 Modern Tram 23 (200th St) Leewood
26 Modern Tram 26 (Hwy 10) Leewood

 

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TRANSFER TO SURREY CENTRE STATION

The disadvantages presented by Platform Access Times cut both ways. In the Interurban route, Valley passengers headed to Surrey Centre must transfer at Scott Road, then ride Skytrain one stop to their destination.

• The transfer will lengthen trips originating in the Valley by 5 to 10 minutes.

The transfer is not necessary travelling in the opposite direction, where the Expo Line offers direct connection between Surrey Centre, Vancouver and New Westminster.

 

 

 

 

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