West Coast Express ridership less than half what it was before the pandemic

The West Coast Express is a commuter train which historically only runs on weekdays during rush hour. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC - image credit)
The West Coast Express is a commuter train which historically only runs on weekdays during rush hour. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC - image credit)

While overall ridership across the TransLink system has returned to approximately 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, the commuter train connecting Downtown Vancouver to neighbouring suburbs is lagging behind.

The West Coast Express, which runs between Mission, B.C. and Downtown Vancouver, is currently only seeing 43 per cent of the passengers it transported three years ago.

According to TransLink, the interurban train is recovering more slowly because it depends on office workers in Downtown Vancouver.

"The service is oriented towards commuters in the Central Business District of Vancouver — many of whom are still working from home due to rising trends in remote working policies," said spokesperson Thor Diakow in an emailed statement.

The director of SFU's city program says some impacts of the pandemic could be long-lasting and while some workplaces may have changed permanently, others are still in a state of flux.

"I think that this is going to be the long COVID effects on transportation and work," explained Andy Yan.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"I think that within many offices they're still trying to figure out what is the optimal kind of mix of being in-person compared to working remotely."

He says when it comes to long-term planning, TransLink faces a challenge as decreasing service levels to match the lower demand could result in even fewer passengers.

Service reduced since pandemic

Before the pandemic, five trains would leave Mission starting at 5:25 a.m., making stops in Port Haney, Maple Meadows, Pitt Meadows, Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam, and Port Moody before finally arriving in Downtown Vancouver.

All trains arrive at Vancouver's Waterfront Station before 9 a.m. The first train to leave Vancouver on its way back to Mission is at 3:50 p.m., and the last to leave is at 6:20 p.m.

During the pandemic, TransLink reduced service to three trains. Now, with ridership levels still only at 42 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels, only four trains have been operating along the 70-kilometre route, all with a reduced number of cars.

TransLink sticking by long-term plan

Yan says it's important to remember that public transit isn't only used by people commuting to and from work.

"It's perhaps the mode you take to shopping, it's the mode you take to move around your community," he said.

"Part of this is ensuring that when you do take transit that it remains a pleasant experience, that it remains one centred around the users."

However, Yan notes that overall, the recovery of public transit in Metro Vancouver is outpacing the rest of North American cities.

In the leadup to the municipal elections last fall, some Metro Vancouver mayors and other politicians called for expanded service for the train.

TransLink says West Coast Express ridership has been increasing steadily — it went up by 45 per cent from November 2021 to November 2022.

Diakow says the transit authority plans to keep operating trains based on customer demands. "TransLink is conducting studies to support future capacity expansion and reconfirm long-term forecasts," he said.

"With the capacity to move over 6,000 people in and out of downtown during the busiest times of day, this is a critical part of the regional transportation system."