The new Canada Line is nearing capacity three years ahead of schedule, prompting TransLink to look at "tactical options" to help ease pressure on the 19-km route.
The line has been recording an average of 94,000 trips per day -- just shy of its capacity of 100,000 riders, a number TransLink had not expected to reach until 2013. It now anticipates it could reach that number as early as next year.
While immediate options to ease overcrowding include running an extra train from Brighouse during peak periods, passengers won't see any more trains running regularly between Vancouver and Richmond until the summer of 2011.
TransLink believes passenger numbers are higher than projected due in part to the Olympic need to get drivers off the roads, as well as a push to funnel suburban bus commuters to the new line.
"You make your projections on what you know ... years in advance of the project startup," TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said. "It's probably the Olympics that have been the key difference [between] what we were expecting and what we have."
Ridership on the $2-billion Canada Line has been growing steadily since it began operating last August.
Hardie didn't have a total count of how many new riders are taking the train, but according to TransLink figures, the number of daily commuters from south Surrey and White Rock using the No. 351 bus was up 38.9 per cent in May from last June.
Weekend traffic also rose by 52.5 per cent on Saturdays and 53.2 per cent on Sundays.
That increase, as well as a rise in commuters from Richmond, Delta and Vancouver, has contributed to passenger crunches along the Canada Line.
The squeeze is particularly severe at Brighouse, the transit hub for all local Richmond buses, and Bridgeport, where buses shuttle long-haul commuters from Delta, south Surrey and White Rock, during rush hour.
For Percy Bond, this means he never gets a seat when he boards the train at Brighouse for his commute into Vancouver. The only way he can do so, he said, is to get off at Bridgeport and take the airport train, which is usually empty, into downtown.
"I like [Canada Line] except for the fact it's always full," he said. "What surprises me is they can't put three cars on ... it would be nice to see in the rush hour."
Hardie said that now, TransLink typically runs 14 of its 20 Canada Line trains, each with two cars, at 3.5-minute intervals, with another two trains added at rush hour.
By August of 2011, the transit authority plans to regularly run 16 trains, which will represent a 12-per-cent lift in service, every 3.33 minutes.
Hardie wouldn't say how much this would cost.
But he noted that when "we run more transit, we spend more money."
But that doesn't mean commuters won't see any improvements this year, he said, as TransLink has the option to improve service during peak periods to deal with severe overcrowding or pass-ups.
Options include adding extra trains to the Brighouse line during "peak of peak" periods, he said, as well as having buses scheduled for Brighouse shifted to Bridgeport, where commuters can catch a second, nearly empty train, from the airport.
While the airport trains don't have the same passenger numbers, Hardie said TransLink isn't considering moving some of those trains to the Brighouse line. He noted a new park and ride facility at Templeton on the YVR line is drawing more transit users and airport traffic is expected to rise. The park and ride is for airport workers and passengers, who are travelling on the Sea Island route.
The YVR line carries an average 9,300 passengers per day, or 10 per cent of the total ridership, compared with 15 per cent on the Richmond line.
Hardie noted the Canada Line has only been running for less than 10 months so it's still early days and variables such as high fuel costs or parking can have an effect on transit use.
Vancouver commuter Ken Law, who lives at 49th and Cambie, drove downtown regularly until the Olympics. He said transit has proven to be more convenient, faster and cheaper, especially with higher parking prices expected with the HST.
"I find it okay," he said. "If you can save money and don't have to drive, there's less stress."
Hardie noted he expects ridership to continue to grow, especially as municipalities continue to densify areas around the transit stations.
Richmond has been densifying its city centre since 2000 in anticipation of huge transit use of the Canada Line. "There was a pent-up demand for effective, reliable transit in the Richmond, Vancouver transit corridor," Mayor Malcolm Brodie said. Hardie noted there is another silver lining for Trans-Link if the Canada Line reaches its capacity by next year.
The rapid transit line was built as a public-private partnership, with TransLink guaranteeing to subsidize ridership shortfalls of less than 100,000 per day. It must also provide operator InTransitBC with some capital, as well as debt-service costs of $38 million to $39 million over the life of the 35-year agreement.
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Once it hits an average 100,000 riders, Canada Line will reach the break-even point in covering its own operating costs, similar to the Expo and Millennium lines. "With a lift in capacity next year, that could move [ridership] pretty darn close," Hardie said, but added: "All signs still point to Trans-Link having to hustle to meet up with the demand."
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