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Alternate Approach: Vancouver takes the gold

Months early and at least 30 years too late, Canada has its first airport-rail link. In September, the turnstiles began clicking on Vancouver’s Canada Line


November 24, 2009
By David Carr

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Months early and at least 30 years too late, Canada has its first airport-rail link. In September, the turnstiles began clicking on Vancouver’s Canada Line – a $2-billion, 19-kilometre expansion of the city’s elevated rapid transit system. Built for the 2010 Winter Olympics and opened three months ahead of schedule, the Canada Line is expected to transport 100,000 passengers a day, although not all will be travelling to and from the airport on the 16-station line.

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Also in September, the international airline industry committed to work with aircraft companies and airports to make industry growth carbon-neutral by 2020 and slash emissions in half by 2050. The pledge is a pre-emptive strike ahead of Kyoto II, a global warming summit in Copenhagen in December – where aviation is expected to come under attack from environmentalists – and an attempt to head off a $10-billion tax on international flights to help developing countries fight climate change.

Aviation accounts for almost three per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a figure that fails to account for the majority of passengers who drive to the airport. Only three per cent of passengers using Montreal’s Trudeau airport travel on public transport. In comparison, approximately 40 per cent of passengers using London’s Heathrow Airport connect by public transport, including the Heathrow Express dedicated rail line, which is estimated to pull 3,000 vehicles off the road.
The Canada Line is a commuter rather than a dedicated air-rail service, although it is operated independent of Vancouver’s SkyTrain by Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, using 20 two-car automated train sets specifically designed to handle the airport passenger. At maximum capacity, the Canada Line is expected to carry the equivalent of 10 vehicle lanes and cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 14,000 tonnes annually.

There are more than 70 airport-rail links operating worldwide and another 140-plus projects either in development or on the drawing board. After a number of false starts, Vancouver has won gold for Canada, but silver could still be at least six years away. The clean diesel train technology required for a rail link to Toronto’s Pearson airport (another SNC-Lavalin project formerly known as Blue 22) is still in development and will not be available commercially until 2015 at the earliest.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The federal government considered a $25-million rail link between downtown Montreal, Dorval (since renamed Trudeau) and the future Mirabel airport as early as 1973. A train could not have rescued Mirabel. Nothing could. But a link to Dorval would have put Canada on the right track.

Montreal is expected to map out an airport rail corridor by year’s end, although it is not clear whether the link will be a $3-billion light rail expansion of the Metro subway station, or a spur line out of Via Rail’s nearby Dorval Station. A plan to build a main line rail link to Trudeau as part of Via Fast, a $2.6 billion overhaul of the Quebec-Windsor corridor, was derailed in 2002. Like the Pearson link, trains on a potential Montreal air-rail line will not pull out of the station for at least five years. Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa are also considering light rail links to their airports.

The Holy Grail for air-rail service is to tie the airport into a broader high-speed intercity network similar to the Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt airports. It is expected that $300 billion will be spent on high-speed rail projects over the next five years. There is currently nothing slated for Canada (which recently announced a $300-million upgrade on Via Rail’s Toronto–Montreal corridor), but for how long? President Obama has already announced an $8-billion stimulus for high-speed and intercity rail projects.

Airlines will naturally object to the hefty public price tag for high-speed projects built to draw passengers, especially on the Quebec–Windsor corridor. A high-speed train linking Calgary and Edmonton will cost between $3 billion and $20 billion, and will draw six million passengers by 2021.

Still, the ground is shifting. Air transport is expected to grow five per cent a year between now and 2050, making a 50 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint more difficult. Partnering with airports on more ambitious fly-rail systems should ease the pressure and reduce winglock at the most congested hubs. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late U.S. Senator for New York, once said, “we can build more airplanes and we can even build more airports. But try as we might we cannot build more airspace.”


David Carr is a Wings writer and columnist.