Reflecting at West Coast Express’s 25th anniversary on Nov. 1, 2020

Reflecting at West Coast Express’s 25th anniversary on Nov. 1, 2020

West Coast Express is a commuter rail service that has been serving the region since Nov. 1, 1995 with more than 2.6 million boardings per year. Every weekday customers get on and off at one of eight stations travelling between Downtown Vancouver and Mission.
West Coast Express is a commuter rail service that has been serving the region since Nov. 1, 1995 with more than 2.6 million boardings per year. Every weekday customers get on and off at one of eight stations travelling between Downtown Vancouver and Mission.

Opening for service in November of 1995, the West Coast Express has been the backbone of commuter journeys between Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley for almost a quarter of a century.

The service provides important inter-modal connections and serves an ever-growing ridership, as the population of the Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley increases. It operates along 70 kilometres of track and stops in the municipalities of Port Moody, Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge, and Mission.

The team that keeps these machines running is small, but mighty – and they are celebrating a quarter century of connecting the people of Mission with Vancouver this month.

“I can’t believe we’ve been around 25 years,” exclaims Stephanie Harborne, a Customer Service Assistant at West Coast Express, who can normally be found helping commuters at the Waterfront office. “It just feels like such a huge milestone and an incredible achievement.”

Stephanie’s mantra is to strive for the best experience for everyone who comes into her office, something she learned in her previous life working as a makeup artist. “I always try to go above what people would expect in this industry, because transit can and does make a difference.”

Words from an original West Coast Express staffer

Out on the line, her words are echoed by the Station Attendants along the route to Mission. Among them, Amanda Rana is an original West Coaster, being with the company for its entire quarter century run. In that time, she has become a favourite among customers, who refer to her as the ‘chatterbox’ and who often turn up early to talk with her before getting onboard their trains.

“I love dealing with the public and we have some awesome people taking our train,” says Amanda excitedly. “I don’t treat them as my passengers, they’re more like my friends.”

Over the course of her 25 years attending stations, Amanda has seen the passing of time through her customers, as families have grown, commuters have celebrated successes and there have been a few lunches for good measure. “I joined in 1995 and soon afterwards I had my son. He’s 24 now,” explains Amanda. “Other passengers and I have shared those big milestones, asked each other for advice when we needed it, talked about the big things going on.”

But it’s not just in big gestures that Amanda sees the huge impact the West Coast Express has on her community; rather, the most touching moments are the little exchanges between her and customers that show the West Coast Express as having a more personal feel: “In the winter, customers will bring us hot chocolate or hot shots for our gloves. They take care of us as we take care of them. It’s very special.”

​Long-timer Kyla Daman-Willems shares how WCE has changed

Back in downtown Vancouver, Amanda’s enthusiasm for the service is shared by another long-timer, Kyla Daman-Willems, the Customer Service Supervisor. Kyla’s time in transit predates West Coast Express, as she was an original employee on the demonstration test line for SkyTrain back in the early 1980s before we ever opened for regular service!

Over that time, Kyla has seen massive change and part of the attraction of West Coast Express when she joined was the excitement of the design phase which she had first experienced at SkyTrain. “I joined because it seemed an exciting opportunity and I got to be part of the early days working on building something new,” she says as she reflects on the process of getting West Coast Express up and running.

“We had an amazing group of people working on building this service, we were very customer focussed and innovative, and we had the chance to create and do things that we couldn’t have done if we were following a strict transit model of some kind.”

In practice, this has meant that West Coast Express has been an exciting and inimitable arm of Vancouver transit throughout the years, with travelling events on board trains that would make some of the biggest cities in the world cry with envy. “We’ve had the Brain Train, where university lecturers would come and teach classes on board; we had the Grizzly Train; we’ve had the Santa Trains, where families can enjoy a day out at the markets with Santa coming to greet them onboard,” explains Kyla with fondness.

Santa sorts through the toys as part of the West Coast Express’s annual Santa Train collecting toys for local Christmas bureaus.

Being a small team, these events take a lot of dedication and grit to pull off, but the West Coast Express continues to deliver them each and every year (with the exception of COVID-19 now adjusting everyone’s transit experience). For the members of the team, it’s always these special events when staff and customers come together, with colleagues eager to deliver something exceptional and fun.

“When we run some of these trains, there really is a party atmosphere onboard,” says Todd Wallace, Senior Manager at West Coast Express. For Todd, who joined in 2013, the highlights have been these one offs: “In 2017, Canada Day for Canada 150 was so different,” he elaborates. “The passengers had a lot of fun and we had a great time bringing them in for the festivities and being a part of their day on such a historic moment.”

​Words from the control room

Although these events might be tiring to some, West Coast Express staff are first to sign up when it comes to providing that party atmosphere for our customers. James Kirshin, an Operations Coordinator, has been with West Coast Express since its inception and was running tests on the line before it even opened to the public. From his vantage in the control room (or as he affectionately calls it in these COVID days, his “bubble”), he is able to help in communications, and coordination, relaying announcements and information for staff and passengers alike. But the special events present a more gratifying opportunity for James.

“We’re such a small group, so we’re all kind of hands on. It’s not just one department; we’re involved with everything. Being able to sit round a table and planning those details of running a successful train service is what makes this great.”

Continuing a reputation of excellence​

Preparing for the afternoon rush to start, Station Attendant Jag Mavi really impresses the similar values of being part of this tight knit but collaborative team.

“This job has been incredible for me as it has helped to build my professional experience, learning how to interact with the customer, anticipate their needs and go that extra mile. Personally, I’ve found it really educational and that’s thanks not just to our customers, but the people who have been here for 25 years passing on their knowledge and their insights, helping me to be better at what I do.”

It’s not just Jag who wants to continue this reputation for excellence. The West Coast Express sees high numbers of customer satisfaction and is often ranked top among all modes in Metro Vancouver. They take the commute seriously. This was not lost on Ken Thomas, who worked for CP rail for many years, admiring the West Coast Express operations from afar, before helping to manage the operation of the line as part of the Bombardier group. Upon joining, Ken found that the rumours of an incredible service were not only true, but far surpassed his expectations.

“We’re like your limo driver!” laughs Ken, saying how fun and personal the West Coast Express can be. “We are a part of your life: we see you in the morning and take you to work, and we see you in the evening to take you home. We share your day and we experience it with you. That’s important and it makes the West Coast Express have this unique sense of ownership and pride.”

“There’s a real buzz around the West Coast Express!” he adds.

The West Coast Express’s reach is impactful

Ownership is certainly something that Carolyn Rice-Jones has observed over her time with the West Coast Express. Having grown up in Toronto and seeing how the GO Train shaped regional communities as it expanded, she decided that Vancouver rents were too high and moved to Mission to enjoy the community built around the commuter service. “Transit really shapes people’s day, beyond just their commutes. I think people enjoy the service we provide and that is why it remains so popular.”

“The trains tell stories; we have had people who have married from meeting on the trains. I think our customers really do take ownership more than say, a SkyTrain or a bus. It’s their train and they feel that community onboard,” she adds. “I get goosebumps from their enthusiasm for it.”

This customer familiarity is something observed by Glenn Reed, a Station Attendant, as he recalls the many customers he has served. “We have established families and even pods of friends that sit together, always taking the same pods to enjoy their commute together.”

Despite the regular routine, Glenn does still find that no two days are the same on the line and he is always ready for a new challenge – or to meet someone new. “You never know exactly what to expect coming into work and I really enjoy that. In fact, you also never know who you’re going to meet on the West Coast Express – we have a few celebrities that have been spotted on board and I suppose the occasional raccoon too!” he jokes.

Around the group, the words happy, fun, and laughter come up time and again, and each member of the team is so happy to talk about their experiences with incredible customers and fond memories of the first 25 years. A final word should go to Kyla, whose vivacity and enthusiasm does not go unnoticed by her colleagues: “I feel very lucky. It’s been a happy 25 years. Here’s to another 25 to come.”

Pictured is a historic Canadian Pacific locomotive hooked up to the West Coast Express for a fundraiser event. It operated from Port Coquitlam to Mission, and back, on a weekend with rides costing a toonie. All proceeds were donated to the Port Coquitlam Hospice.