Why Vancouver's next rail line won't use the Canada Line model

Vancouver's SkyTrain system is expanding again.

VANCOUVER, Canada — As Citiscope reported this week, Vancouver’s Canada Line has proven to be a successful model of using an extensive public-private partnership on a transit project.

So it may seem strange at first that Vancouver’s next rail line isn’t using the same arrangement.

Work has already begun on the Evergreen Line, which will service the region’s northeastern suburbs and is due to open in 2016. The project is using a private partner to do only the design, construction and partial financing. That’s a more cautious arrangement than the one used for the Canada Line, which also packaged 30 years of operation and maintenance into the deal.

Even the private financing is limited. Some $1.41 billion of the the $1.43-billion line will be covered by the federal and provincial governments, as well as TransLink, the regional transit authority.

Why the different approach? There’s a key difference between the two rail lines. The Evergreen Line is an extension of another line of Vancouver’s SkyTrain metro system. It’s using the same equipment as the rest of the system. By comparison, the Canada Line is a more self-contained system that uses railcars that don’t run on the other SkyTrain lines.

British Columbia’s office that handles public-private partnerships for infrastructure determined that the more comprehensive arrangement of the Canada Line wouldn’t work for the Evergreen. TransLink could achieve more economies of scale by doing the maintenance itself. The Canada Line model “was examined but deemed not appropriate for the project because of the need for full operational integration with the existing SkyTrain system,” a Partnerships BC report says.

British Columbia’s auditor-general concluded that was a wise decision. There was “a solid basis for government’s decision to reject a longer-term P3 arrangement,” the auditor’s report said, “because of the integration and efficiency benefits of having one operator across the entire SkyTrain system.”

That assessment led some critics to question again whether the Canada Line should have been executed the way it was, since it introduced a second operator into a public transit system. But Fred Cummings, who heads up TransLink’s rail operations, says the two cases aren’t comparable.

“The Evergreen Line is a completely different beast,” says Cummings. “People who will be using it are on the Millennium Line too. If it was run as a separate operation, how would that work? But on the Canada Line, it’s a pretty distinct market.”

(photo abdallah / flickr)

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How Canada does P3s 

Vancouver’s next rail line takes different approach 

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Frances Bula is a Vancouver-based journalist who has been covering city politics and urban issues in the region for 20 years.  Full bio

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