The opening of the shiny new ultra-modern Canada Line from downtown Vancouver to Richmond and the airport recalls another major milestone in the city's transportation history, the opening of the very first public transit rail system almost 120 years ago.
On June 26, 1890, the Vancouver Electric Railway and Light Company launched the city's first electric street railway. Car No. 14 rolled out of the car barn and set off down Main Street to the appreciative gasps of the hundreds of onlookers who crowded the sidewalks to get a look. This was modern technology at its finest, all brass and wood with bench seating and open platforms front and back. The entire fleet of cars was pressed into service that afternoon, powered by electric wires hung above the 9.6 kilometres of track. For one day passengers rode for free, then they had to pay a nickel.
The Vancouver system was not the first street railway in British Columbia. Pride of place belongs to Victoria which earlier the same year, on February 22, had inaugurated its own electric railway. And in 1891 New Westminster got on board, opening North America's first interurban electric railway between downtown Vancouver and the Queen City. This interurban line eventually expanded to include lines to Steveston and out the Fraser Valley.
The usual financial problems ensued and when the dust settled, in 1897, the three private rail systems were all owned by the British Columbia Electric Railway Company, which ran them for many years. The BCER was the forerunner of the publicly-owned BC Hydro and BC Transit.
It is worth remembering as we celebrate the new Skytrain line that Vancouverites once had convenient electric rail transit service not just to Richmond but as far as Chilliwack as well. The technology may be more advanced, but the Canada Line is merely restoring service that people in the Lower Mainland took for granted for many years.