By Nancy Demwell, Delta Heritage Society
The BC Electric Inter-Urban Railway (BCER) ran tram cars from New Westminster to Chilliwack four times each day from 1912 to 1950. The route of the rail line travelled over the Fraser River on the rail bridge where the Pattullo Bridge exists today. It stopped at the foot of the bridge at the Liverpool station in Brownsville, then at Scott Road Station, and Kennedy Station in North Delta. The train then travelled through Newton and down what is now 64th Avenue through Sullivan Station to Cloverdale, on to Abbotsford and terminating at Chilliwack station. The rail bed still exists in these locations today.
In 1912, private autos called jitneys were used as multi-passenger taxis in Vancouver and New Westminster. They charged a fare of five cents and travelled faster than the trams which were restricted to 10 miles per hour. To stay competitive, BCER cut their tram fares, increased their speed to a blazing 25 miles per hour and expanded service across the Fraser. As the tram line made its way up the valley, BCER also brought electricity and telephone lines to service homes and businesses. The company also began a freight service, bringing shingles and nails to the valley and strawberries to the city.
The Inter-Urban was a lifeline for communities south of the Fraser. Public health nurses accompanied patients to the hospital in New Westminster and farmers took produce to the public market. Students from Kennedy in North Delta took the tram to attend high school in Cloverdale or college in New Westminster, and shoppers en route to Kresge’s and Woolworths “in town” visited with friends and caught up on the latest gossip. The trip to New West took 45 minutes and it took an hour to get to Cloverdale from Kennedy Station with the speed restriction of 25 miles per hour.
Being a motorman or a conductor for the Inter-Urban was a good job in the early days. The pay was 22 cents an hour for a 10-hour day. Originally, a motorman had to be strong because the brakes for the tram car were applied by winding up a manual wheel, but after too frequent runaway trams, air brakes were soon introduced. The conductor sold the passengers tickets based on how far they were travelling and also delivered the mail twice a day at each tram station. For a 15-cent tip, the motorman and conductor would bring a bag of groceries or a parcel from the New West station to another further up the valley.
As the roads improved and automobiles became more popular, the BCER decreased its service. In 1925, BC Electric began the BC Motor Transportation Company (BCMT). The BCMT offered local, long-haul and sight-seeing buses as well as taxi services. In 1936, the Pattullo Bridge brought two lanes of car traffic streaming across the Fraser to New Westminster. The automobile was now dominant in our Lower Mainland transit system.
In 1950, the Inter-Urban stopped service and in 1959 the Dease Island Tunnel, now called the George Massey Tunnel, was built, followed by the Queensborough Bridge in 1960. Eventually, BC Electric became BC Hydro and transit was finally separated into the Crown corporation BC Transit in 1983.
Now, with an extensive road-based transit service supplemented by a bit of SkyTrain service on the south side of the Fraser, we are coming full circle. As planners and politicians consider how best to once more implement a rail system, will it be more SkyTrain or will the rail beds of the BCER be used once again?
Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Heritage Society (formerly the Delta Museum and Archives Society).
The Fraser Valley Heritage Rail Society runs a restored BCER tram from Cloverdale station to Sullivan Station every weekend from early May to the end of September.
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