Vancouver's Rapid Transit? Not a New Idea

Vancouver's Rapid Transit? Not a New Idea

With the current City Council floating the idea of a new rapid transit line between the downtown core and UBC, the question of sustainable, suitable rapid transit for Vancouver has become a hot topic - again. A growing city always needs to look forward and plan for further expansion in the years ahead. And in Vancouver's case, the "rapid" transit days began in 1891 when the Vancouver and Lulu Island Railway became incorporated.

Royal Mail Coach 1900

At that time the famous Royal Mail Stage Coach was the intrepid traveller across what was newly cleared logging roads. These roads were referred to as 'corduroy'. They were very bumpy new roads with logs laid across them. Ever devoted to getting passengers and mail between Steveston and Vancouver, the trip on the coach took a full day. Steveston was a very busy port then. It boasted 29 canneries and was full of ships from around the world loading up with salmon.

Steveston Cannery 1913

Then in 1901 the Canadian Pacific Railway realized that there was money to be made, purchased the railway and expanded it all the way to Steveson by building a swing span bridge across the north of the Fraser River, just west of what is the Oak Street Bridge today. It took 30 men and 22 days to lay 8 miles of track.

 About this time a darling of the theater of the day, Lulu Sweet, was performing in Vancouver. During a tour of local waters, the commander of the Railway Engineers, Col. Richard Moody, was showing Miss Sweet various features of the landscape. As they passed one island in the Fraser, she asked its name. “It has no name as yet,” Col. Moody responded, “but in tribute to you we shall call it Lulu Island.” Some things never change.

Lulu Sweet

On July 1st, 1902, Dominion Day, The Sockeye Limited starting running between Vancouver and Steveston twice a day at a cost of $1.50 a ride. It became a popular Sunday trip for family outings. For families with some financial freedom, it would seem. A price comparison to today would be close to $50.00. Apparently, you could buy a very nice men's shirt for the same price in 1902. In 1905 the BC Electric Company took over the line and began operating the tram service on the line that would become known as the "Sockeye Special". And it was the 'rapid' transit of the day. The trip took only 1 hour and 15 minutes, as opposed to the 3 hours it was taking the horse drawn carriages of the day.

The tram in 1906

This literary blurb about a great little book called "The Sockeye Special" really nails it all in a nutshell.


"The book, The Sockeye Special: the story of the Steveston tram and early Lulu Island relates how the tram was an integral part of transportation from the farmlands of Lulu Island getting into Vancouver. The tram brought thousands of passengers from Vancouver, New Westminster and Steveston to the Minoru Racetrack where, in addition to exciting horse races, six aeronautical firsts took place at the track between 1910 and 1914. 
Stories of the Steveston Opera House, the opening of the fishing season, the Richmond dairy industry who shipped their milk to Vancouver on the tram and had their milk cans returned at the end of the day filled with spring waster as Richmond could not have wells. A fascinating look at the B.C. Electric’s partnership with the people, the canneries, industry, entertainment and life on Lulu Island  The book contains eighty-two historic photographs and images."

1916 Packard Jitney

At this point in Vancouver's transit history the jitney craze had taken hold, around the beginning of WWI. A jitney was a car that operated almost like a cab, but was more like a bus. The term was American slang for a nickel, as it was the fare to hop on one.
The first jitneys appeared mid November 1914 and by April 1915 there were about 325 in service. By June 1915 there were 664 licenced jitneys in Vancouver when new bonding requirements reduced the field to about 250. There were 450 licenced jitneys as of 01 November 1915. By February 1916 there were 160 licenced jitneys, and 285 by June 1917. Various operators and associations came and went quickly.
The BC Electric Railway ( that eventually became  Translink and BC Hydro) was none too happy with competition and did everything in it's power to shut down the jitney system altogether. They succeeded and jitneys were banned in 1918.

Jitney on Granville 1915
Jitneys and Street Cars on Hastings 1918 
"One day the firm asked me if I would go to Tsawwassen by way of Ladner, to get a legal document from one of their clients. I said, "Oh, yes, certainly." I thought afterwards, "How do I get there?" and he had hired a jitney to take me, and as far as 16th Avenue the roads were all right, but from 16th Avenue on they were corduroy. That means that the road bed was covered with logs and all the way to the Fraser River on Granville Street I was on this corduroy from Granville to Fraser and then there was a bridge, and then from the other side there was a ferry to Ladner, crossed the island there, and then there was a ferry on the north arm of the Fraser to Ladner. And I was nearly dead by that time. I was shaken over every log. But I got the paper, the processed paper, and had to return the same way. It was terrible. I’ll never forget it. Terrible."          Leonie Lalonde, First Female UBC Law Student
BCER Vancouver map 1940's
  The BCER invested in expansion of the system, and by 1912, this region’s street railway was by far the largest in the country, with over 200 miles of track (Winnipeg had only 80 miles). The Interurban Transit System operated the electric railway systems in the region until the last interurban service was discontinued in 1958.
BCE's Interurban Train 1930
The company actually announced its "Rails to Rubber" conversion program in 1944 and buses took over in 1955. By the time the Oak Street Bridge was finished in 1958, the last ride of the Sockeye Special took place on February 28th. Nostalgic riders lined up for the ride. The sad ending of that fleet of 400 trams was that they were burned, after being stripped of their usable parts, with gasoline, in the BC Electric yards by the Burrard Bridge.


The Sockeye Special 1958


As of February 28th, 2013, a  new KPMG report, "The UBC-Broadway Corridor - Unlocking the Economic Potential," explores how to capitalize on the growth of this essential economic and transit hub. This is a contentious issue, shadowed by the many unforeseen problems that plagued the Canada Line Merchants along Cambie Street. And although Translink hasn't decided on any final projects, they are considering a list of them for any solution to the transit needs of the Broadway corridor. Here is a link to Translinks study:

Whatever side of the fence you find yourself on, consider that history can inform our future. With so many pros and cons to weigh, let's keep looking forward. There is only one thing in this world you can count on: change.


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Hope you've enjoyed this posting. If you have any questions, any little known facts or interesting Vancouver Stories or pictures you'd like to share,please feel free to contact me.


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