The Last Streetcar
A crowd gathers around: tourists, railway buffs, kids with plumes of cotton candy. Chattering with excitement, one by one they present their tickets to the uniformed conductor and climb aboard. Then, with a clang of a bell, the streetcar is off, rolling along the historic waterfront at speeds up to 30 km/h, to a shopping mall at the other end of town.
This idyllic scene could be in Victoria, but it isn’t. It’s in the interior town of Nelson, where a heritage streetcar has been running since 1992 – and drawing on few resources beyond ingenuity, determination, and civic pride.
“It’s a struggle for us, but it’s worth it,” says John Hopwood, president of the Nelson Electric Tramway Society. NETS is entirely run by volunteers: they laid the rails themselves, using cast-off track from the Kettle Valley Railway, and they machine their own parts for their century-old streetcar. They receive no city or foundation money, and are still paying off a $100,000 startup loan they got 15 years ago. But they carry 14,000 passengers every summer – not bad for a town of 10,000 residents.
What’s most interesting to Victorians, however, sits in the society’s barn. Hopwood swings the doors open, and there stands our city’s last surviving streetcar: #400, a 1921 “Birney” car that ran the #2 route from Cloverdale Avenue, down Douglas Street, through downtown and out to the steamship wharves at Shoal Point (today’s coast guard station). After Victoria voted to get rid of its streetcars in 1947, #400 spent two decades rotting in the bush, serving as a sawmill bunkhouse at Cowichan Lake. But in 1970 the Royal B.C. Museum restored it and put it on display, before loaning it to NETS in 1990. Now the streetcar’s fully wired and ready for passengers, and Hopwood hopes to put it into regular service. “Victoria’s going to have a hard time getting it back,” he says with a grin.
The same could be said about rail transit in Victoria generally, because our city’s been talking about reviving streetcars for at least 20 years. The closest the chat approached reality was in 1992, when the province and the city drew up the Victoria Accord calling for a “Downtown - James Bay streetcar loop,” and a BC Transit- commissioned study claimed it would get a million riders a year. That dream died when Bob Cross (who opposed the streetcar) became mayor, and since then the province and BC Transit have only pushed more buses on the city.
“You can’t really compare Nelson to Victoria,” says Ron Drolet, BC Transit’s senior VP of customer service. “Their streetcar concept is based on heritage, it’s not fast or comfortable. The fact is, Nelson’s city transit system is still based on buses.” Modern commuter rail, he argues, is prohibitively expensive (such as the new $52-million, two-kilometre South Lake Union Tram in Seattle, largely financed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen). That’s why BC Transit is advocating rapid bus lanes, such as a controversial pair proposed for the middle of Douglas Street, which Drolet says could be the “starter component” for rail transit 20 or 30 years from now.
Some people can’t wait that long. On January 28, Communities For Commuter Rail (C4CR), an initiative of city halls and citizens from Victoria to Sooke, released the West Shore Tram Line Assessment, a report arguing that it would only cost $16 million to establish a commuter train from downtown to Langford on the old E&N tracks; since then, politicians have said the train could be up and running in two years. But Drolet is skeptical. The plan “came out of nowhere,” he says, and much more work needs to be done to see how the train would be integrated into Victoria’s overall transit system. (Would the train end at the Johnson Street bridge, for example, or would an expensive new station be built at Centennial Square?) “You can’t simply put steel wheels on steel rails and expect magic.”
Obviously, such caution frustrates rail proponents. “BC Transit is very much bus-oriented. That’s its staff’s experience,” says Irwin Henderson, a spokesman for Island Transformations, a rail-advocacy group. The C4CR initiative, he notes, was created because “mayors were frustrated by BC Transit’s vision being limited to its immediate funding.” And the C4CR momentum is building. The Westhills project in Langford will put as many as 16,000 new residents along the E&N line, and the developers want rail transit. So does the general public: Henderson points to a recent survey by Agency Research Consultants, noting that 65% of Victorians are willing to pay higher property taxes for a West Shore commuter rail line, but only 29% would pay for a bus-only route; 71% said they’d use rail transit, nearly double the number that said they’d take a rapid bus.
So perhaps Nelson’s old streetcar can teach Victoria a few lessons after all. As Nelson has already proven, rail wins enthusiastic community support of a kind that buses will never enjoy. And you don’t need a $500-million Skytrain line to win riders, or break even. The hard part, it seems, is convincing all the levels of government to get on board.