Street-level rail is rapid transit’s “stroad”

Street-level rail is rapid transit’s “stroad”

Fraseropolis recently did an opinion piece on the Surrey Light Rail Transit proposal. And while that may or may not be pretty interesting in its own right depending on what you think, a comment posted by a Brendan Dawe did interest me a lot in its description of the realities surrounding at-grade (on-street) light rail transit.

Brendan Dawe on January 16, 2016 at 10:30 AM said:

What I don’t see is how an shared-grade line intended to be *rapid transit* is pedestrian friendly. Sure, if it’s going streetcars speeds than it may be, but that’d be a considerable sum to ask the rest of the region to chip in for a project that does not improve mobility overall, and as such the choice of rail over rubber would be really an aesthetic position, and as Vancouver is supposed to be paying for the non-technically-necessary costs of tunneling under Broadway, it would make much more sense to ask Surrey to pay for the extra costs of installing rail and electrical systems. If it’s going at something approaching rapid transit speeds than it’s outright pedestrian unfriendly – it’s a fast train going down the middle of a street. If it’s to be operated with the sort of priority over the street that makes practical use of the capabilities of rail transit, than it will require reduction in potential pedestrian connectivity by limiting cross walks and signal preemption. That sort of issue is why many regard shared-grade rail as inappropriate for Broadway and it’s abundance of close-spaced signalized intersections.

If elevated rail is transit’s freeway, shared-grade rail rapid transit is it’s stroad, – slow enough to be limiting, fast enough to be dangerous, and expensive to build and operate all the same.

I don’t think your observations on development form are really based on anything inherent to particular transit modes, but rather a result of what municipal governments have permitted. There’s a huge amount of demand for space in this region, and in it will take the densest form that city planners allow in reasonably well located sites. At Brentwood and Metrotown, it’s towers, while at Royal Oak or Commercial-Broadway it’s low rises and at Nanaimo and 29th Avenue it’s nothing at all. This is because Burnaby encourages dense development at official town centers while Vancouver hasn’t until recently allowed any development in SFH neighborhoods. If Surrey wants lowrise development, than it’s entirely within the competence of the authorities in Surrey to limit low-rises.

** Note: Brendan also posted this disclaimer at the beginning of his comment:
To avoid being drawn into inane technological arguments, I will be referring to ‘shared-grade rail’ and ‘elevated rail’ instead of skytrain or metro and light rail, since grade separation is the real contention.

The Real Evergreen Line Story

The Real Evergreen Line Story

Summary: Most people are still asking the question of why the province decided to suddenly switch the Evergreen Line to SkyTrain technology in 2008. I think we should be asking questions about why the LRT design process suddenly stopped, with no reason, back in 2007.


The Evergreen Line is now slated to open in 2017, which just happens to be yet another delay in a consecutive series. Nobody likes delays, and these Evergreen Line delays have injected a new wave of doubt among transit observers here in Metro Vancouver, who may remember a time not too long ago when the Evergreen Line was comparable to a hot potato. That is, hardly anyone could come to an agreement about it.

1998 SkyTrain plans for the Millennium Line. Today’s “Evergreen Line” was supposed to be part of the Millennium Line’s second phase.

During the late 2000s, what is now the Evergreen Line had to go through numerous obstacles, ranging from funding shortages to planning issues to a lack of clarity in the political commitment to the line itself. The Evergreen Line was first proposed as the second phase of what became the Millennium Line SkyTrain, cancelled along with a switch in government, and then brought back to life later on as an at-grade Light Rail Transit proposal on the original alignment.

However, perhaps one of the most perplexing twists in the Evergreen Line story was the controversial change from an at-grade Light Rail Transit system, to the currently-being built extension of the existing SkyTrain system. It took people by surprise, changed the focus of the discussion and was so significant that it caught the attention of transit bloggers in other Canadian cities.

The move was controversial because of the creation of a new business case released by the provincial government (hereafter referred to as the “2008 business case”) that overrode a previous business case released by TransLink (the “2006 business case”) for the Evergreen Line LRT. A following, final business case by the province (the “2010 business case”) adopted the results of the 2008 business case without making major changes to it, or addressing its supposed issues.

The 2008 business case explained that its recommendation for SkyTrain (ALRT) on the current corridor was based on 4 key findings:

  1. Ridership – ALRT will produce two and a half times the ridership of Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology; this is consistent with the ridership goals in the Provincial Transit Plan.
  2. Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
  3. Benefits and Cost – ALRT will achieve greater ridership and improved travel times at a capital cost of $1.4 billion, with overall benefit-cost ratio that favour ALRT over LRT.
  4. System Integration – ALRT will integrate into TransLink’s existing SkyTrain system more efficiently than LRT.

The new business case recommended SkyTrain based on finding advantages in 4 key areas: Ridership; Travel Time; Benefits and Cost; and System Integration.

Light Rail advocates who looked into the study insisted that the new analysis was biased in favour of SkyTrain, saying it rejected what was an already-sound business case. Some of these people alleged that the switch was a result of insider connections, shady agreements, and other under-the-radar proceedings. 2008 was a time when it wasn’t as clear to people that SkyTrain isn’t a proprietary transit technology and it was probably no surprise that critics of the decision showed up in waves.

These critics were joined by others, including City Councils of the time, who expressed concern about some aspects of the newer business case. Two particular major players come into mind:

1. The City of Burnaby released a staff report that injected doubt into the Evergreen Line’s cost estimates, ridership estimates and evaluation. (See [HERE] for report)

“This report recommends that the Province and TransLink undertake to re-evaluate the choice of technology and prepare a business case of LRT technology for the Evergreen Line based on the concerns and questions raised in this report with regard to service speed, ridership estimates, operating and capital costs, inter-operability, community service and other factors.”

2. A Portland-based transportation engineer named Gerald Fox alleged that the analysis had been manipulated to favour SkyTrain. (The original letter was posted [HERE]).

“It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding.”

At the time, no one could present an argument strong enough to combat what seemed to be a legitimate series of concerns on the SkyTrain proposal. The decisions of 2008 and the surrounding controversy continue to be reflected in the words of today’s writers, most recently surfacing with the announcement of the recent Evergreen Line delay and the ongoing SkyTrain versus LRT debate in Surrey.

It is, however, important to remember that when the Auditor General of British Columbia was asked to look into the Evergreen Line technology switch, the finished report in 2013 concluded that while some information was missing, the switch to SkyTrain was the right decision.

The Auditor General summarized the missing information as a shortfall in explaining the following:

  • Options’ risks, costs and benefits;
  • Assumptions underpinning SkyTrain ridership;
  • Wider transit system risks and dependencies; and
  • How agencies would measure performance

In the approximately 3 years since this Audit was released and the 7 years since the decision to switch to SkyTrain, new information has been released that makes it possible to fill in all four of these gaps, as well as the other concerns raised by critics and the City of Burnaby.

In an effort to compile this new information, I performed the research myself, which included extensively looking into all business cases (2006, 2008 and 2010) and other supporting evidence (including all 61 archived pages of the original Evergreen Line LRT discussion thread on Skyscraperpage).

With my conclusion that the Evergreen Line business case was not manipulated to favour SkyTrain, I present my results below.

1. Were SkyTrain and LRT compared properly?

The first and foremost concern by the auditor general was that the SkyTrain and LRT options may not have been compared properly, citing that numerous numbers in the comparison were skewed and contained significantly shortfalls.

The City of Burnaby’s staff report probably best summarized the issues that were raised surrounding the comparison. They are:

Capital cost estimates

As the capital cost estimates for LRT increased from $970 million (2006 business case) to $1.25 billion (2008 business case) with little explanation, the City of Burnaby complained that this increase was unreasonable – especially as it brought the cost difference with SkyTrain down to a mere $150 million (12%). Light Rail advocates and critics, including Gerald Fox, complained that the cost increase was manipulated to favour SkyTrain.

It was noted in the 2006 study that the cost estimate of then was done at a 90% preliminary design stage – not a fully detailed design stage presenting a finalized cost. It thus seems conceivable that costs increased while the final alternative was being analyzed for the 2008 business case.

Recently I performed some research on the capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems. With several rapid transit and light rail systems now proposed across the country, I took the opportunity to compile an inflation-adjusted comparison of the projects’ capital costs – adjusting each project for the amount of grade-separation (tunnelled, or elevated) and using that as a guideline to compare the costs. This extensive research took me several weeks to complete as I had to manually measure most of the proposals to assess the amount of grade-separation.

See: Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

Unsurprisingly, I reached the conclusion that – with the steepest trend in perecentage-to-cost – bored tunnel is the most expensive alignment to construct.

The Evergreen Line, no matter whether it were to be SkyTrain or Light Rail Transit, has a 2km bored tunnel as a part of its alignment through the mountainous terrain between Burquitlam and Port Moody. This accounts for about 20% of the entire route.

The Evergreen Line's 2006 estimate is marked by the "$99" at the bottom left. The 2008 estimate is the $112 above it.
(Open to enlarge) – The Evergreen Line’s 2006 estimate is marked by the “$99” at the bottom left. The 2008 estimate is the $112 above it.

My measurements indicated that the 2006 cost-per-km estimates were the lowest of the other projects. The estimate was significantly below other projects with a ~20% bored tunnel percentage, and below the average trend line that related percentage in a tunnel to rapid transit cost per km.

In other words, the 2006 cost estimates are too low and were probably incorrect.

Now that we know how much trouble it took to construct the Evergreen Line’s 2km tunnel, it’s certain that the LRT project’s final cost would have come closer to $1.25 billion. LRT tunnels need to account for pantographs and higher vehicle heights; whereas the linear motors used on our SkyTrain technology lines are more optimal for tunnels as the train is lower and closer to the ground. As a result, an LRT tunnel would have been larger and more complex and would have likely lead to additional potential problems, necessitating a higher contingency budget.

Just imagine what kind of liability chaos there’d be if a sinkhole did open under a home above the tunnel route. It hasn’t happened with our SkyTrain tunnel, but it’d be more likely under a larger tunnel (and a larger, more powerful tunnel boring machine) needed for an LRT tunnel.

Operating costs

Most critics were adamant to point out that the operating costs rose from $12.21 million in 2006, to $15.3 million in 2008 (both measurements were in 2007 dollars). What was overlooked by these critics is that the cost increase can be explained by a difference in service frequency.

The 2006 business case’s estimate was based on a 6 minute initial operating frequency. The 2008 business case’s operating costs were based on a higher 5 minute initial operating frequency to presumably make the LRT service more competitive and boost its business case (the higher frequency would have also added additional trains, explaining part of the capital cost increase). Whereas the 2008 cost estimates are 25% higher while a 5 minute frequency is 20% higher than 6, the newer numbers seem just about right to me.

Travel times

The City of Burnaby’s assessment of travel times suggested that the SkyTrain alternative’s travel time estimates were far too high and the LRT alternative’s estimates were far too low. It provided this graphic to show the disparity:

Evergreen Line graphic
Open to enlarge

Burnaby complained that the Evergreen Line’s LRT speed estimates were lower than two existing LRT systems in Canada (Calgary and Edmonton).

However, most of Calgary and Edmonton’s LRT systems are built off-street, and with gated crossings and absolute priority like railway systems. Most of the Evergreen Line as an LRT would be in the middle of streets and would have to follow the roadway speed limits (typically 50-60km/h). Naturally, this would result in slower average speeds than Calgary and Edmonton, where trains may run at 80km/h on dedicated rights-of-way.

While the SkyTrain alternative had much higher average speeds than the existing Expo & Millennium Lines (average of 43km/h), the addition of Lincoln Station to the proposal has added some length to the travel time to the extent that the Evegreen Line’s end-to-end travel time is now usually described as 15 minutes – an average speed of 43.6km/h.

At the end of the day, these differences aren’t really dictated by the transit technology. The Evergreen Line will have the system’s longest station-less segment, which is largely in part due to the 2km tunnel between Burquitlam and Port Moody stations. The higher average speeds near here would be comparable to other long sections crossing geographical features, such as the 2.3km SkyBridge segment on the Expo Line over the Fraser River.

Maximum speed

Gerald Fox also raised an issue that the stated maximum LRT speed in the 2008 business case (60km/h) was lower than the potential speed limits that could be achieved in the off-street, 2km tunnel – claiming that the 2006 business case accounted for faster running speeds of up to 80km/h inside the tunnel.

However, the end-to-end travel time estimates in the 2008 business case were actually lower than that of the 2006 business case by 0.4 minutes.

The 60km/h expression in the 2008 business case was probably meant to highlight the speed on most of the on-street sections (outside of the tunnel), which accounted for as much as 80% of the route.

In conclusion

Based on the data I’ve collected above it is clear that SkyTrain and LRT were not compared unfairly.

There is little reason to believe that the 2008 business case was wrong in assumptions. There could’ve been better distribution of the info at hand, and some improvements in the planning process (like the addition of Lincoln Station from the beginning). However, no skewering of the numbers and manipulation to favour SkyTrain has taken place.

2. Was ridership over-estimated?

Ridership was an additional concern raised by the City of Burnaby, which complained that the ridership estimates for the SkyTrain option (at 2.1 million passengers annually/km) were too high,  and that the LRT ridership estimates were too low. Burnaby complained that the 2008 business case did not provide a proper explanation of how ridership was estimated.

Open to enlarge
Open to enlarge

The LRT ridership estimates were said to be too low because they were lower than two existing Canadian LRT systems (40% lower than Calgary, and 9% lower than Edmonton). For the same reasons as I explained above, it’s not possible to put the Edmonton and Calgary systems in the same category as an Evergreen Line LRT. The Evergreen Line LRT is largely on-street; the Calgary and Edmonton systems are not, and tend to run on exclusive rights-of-way at speeds of 80km/h.

This leaves the high ridership estimates with the SkyTrain system. The auditor general raised an issue that the SkyTrain ridership assumptions with the Evergreen Line were made with assumptions that a completed transit network would be built by 2021 following the 2008 Provincial Transit Plan. This included SkyTrain extensions in Broadway and Surrey, neither of which will be built by 2021 based on the current situation.

Burnaby complained that at 2.10 million annual passengers per km, the estimates were higher than the existing SkyTrain system (1.60 million annual passengers per km) and thus much higher than would be realistic.

However, it’s important to note that the SkyTrain ridership estimate in Burnaby’s report was taken before the Canada Line to Richmond was introduced in 2009. The Canada Line’s opening broke ridership records with ridership almost immediately shooting up to its current level of 40.2 million passengers per year or over 120,000 per weekday – numbers that were well ahead of schedule even beat entire, city-wide LRT systems in ridership.

When this annual ridership is worked out per-km, the Canada Line is carrying 2.10 million annual passengers per km – the same amount that was projected for the Evergreen Line – and as such is also contributing to an increase in the system-wide value.

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily.

A huge part of the reason the Canada Line was so successful was because efforts by the City of Richmond to make the elevated segment on No. 3 Road at-grade (like a light rail system) were defeated, resulting in the construction of a fully grade-separated line. The full grade-separation enabled higher trip speeds, which have been cited in rider surveys as the #1 most-liked aspect of the Canada Line system – outpacing every other favourable aspect mentioned by riders.

The Evergreen Line’s SkyTrain switch decision was largely based on favouring the faster travel-times and transferless journeys of a SkyTrain system. It’s thus conceivable that the Evergreen Line could see the same kind of ridership success that the Canada Line did.

3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?

The auditor general commented that the 2008 and 2010 business cases did not provide information on the risks that came with connecting Evergreen Line outcomes with the performance of other parts of our regional transit system. In particular, the Evergreen Line’s performance estimates did not account for the potential impacts of:

  1. the level and coverage of bus connector services on ridership;
  2. parking at the more popular Evergreen stations;
  3. changes to the West Coast Express (WCE), which provides peak commuter services for passengers who want to travel between the northeast Metro Vancouver and downtown Vancouver
  4. Evergreen services on those parts of the SkyTrain system that are near or at capacity in the commuting peak periods (for example, around Broadway station).

These concerns present significant risks and it is of my opinion that they should have been addressed.

However, accounting for these risks whenever a large transit priority is laid out in our region is hardly ever common practice. Today’s transit projects have continued the practice of tying performance estimates to grandiose plans for the rest of the regional transit system, like the transit vision crafted by the Regional Mayors’ Council that was defeated in the March 2015 referendum.

When the 2015 referendum was defeated, so too were the additional commitments to connecting bus service that would have been critical to the success of the included rapid transit projects. It’s raised concern among decision-makers such as Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, for example, who raised a concern with the potential costs of increasing parking as additional bus services connecting to the Evergreen Line were rejected along with the other proposals.

Nevertheless, local governments have forged ahead in planning for these lines, despite the new risks created with the lack of a regional vision component. As I believe that there will be opportunities in the future to return to those other critical transit priorities, continuing planning anyway – rather than letting all transit priorities come to a halt – is the best practice.

4.  How are we going to measure performance?

The last issue concerned the collection of performance data to measure performance after the line’s opening. No framework had been set in the 2008 and 2010 business cases, and the lack of such a framework would have a consequence on future transit planning.

However, the Auditor did acknowledge in his report that a framework could still be completed in time for the line’s opening. Although it remains to be said if the province has followed through on this recommendation, this issue isn’t relatively as much of a concern as the others as it has an immediate, clear solution.


So what’s the real “Evergreen Line Story”?

When the Evergreen Line was changed to a SkyTrain extension project in 2008, the switch came after an extended halt in design work and public consultation.

Like today’s rapid transit projects, the Evergreen Line was determined through a multiple-account evaluation that includes a Phase 1 (draft option comparison), Phase 2 (detailed option comparison) and a Phase 3 (finalized option comparison and detailed design).

The 2006 study was finalized at the phase 2 stage, and it noted that its cost estimates were done at the 90% preliminary design stage.

After that, there was silence in the project design work.

At the time, there were plenty of issues around project funding (which can be backtracked to on the Skyscraperpage archives). I can understand delays with transit funding (still a very big issue with projects today). However, the funding issue shouldn’t have delayed detailed design work on the Evergreen Line LRT project. For awhile we didn’t hear anything from planners, politicians or anyone involved regarding the project’s design until rumours of a major announcement surfaced in January 2008. The final business case that was then released in February had been completed by the province rather than TransLink.

For awhile we didn’t hear anything from planners, politicians or anyone involved regarding the project’s design

So it honestly has me raising questions: what exactly was going on? Why did Evergreen Line design works come to a stop, and why didn’t the next phase of consultations take place? Did planners at TransLink realize they under-estimated the LRT costs, and had nervousy about going public with the news? Did local governments start losing confidence in the at-grade project’s business case?

There’s all these disconnects that don’t seem to make sense, and I would argue that this should have been of far greater concern than the provincial government’s decision to switch the project to SkyTrain. It’s not the province’s fault the planning department of the time had decided to cut us off for just over a year on the project’s progress. It’s almost as if the sudden switch to SkyTrain was a measure to deal with these serious problems.

All I do know is that in October 2007, the B.C. Finance minister came to the public with a statement that the Evergreen Line’s progress had indeed been frozen, but that it wasn’t due to the funding shortfall

Finance minister Carole Taylor: The premier did say last week that the Evergreen will be built. The funding is not holding it up. They haven’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops. So, we have made the commitment to financially be there when everybody’s ready to go.

(Above quote from: Evergreen Line not held up by funding, finance minister says – Coquitlam NOW)

This almost certainly indicates that the LRT planning department had run into issues with the design, since the 2006 business case had anticipated the start of construction by September 2007.

Instead, in October 2007 the design hadn’t been finished and the planners in-charge “hadn’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops.”

You be the judge, but it sounds a heck of a lot like that the province managed to narrowly get us out of an Evergreen Line LRT fiasco in its decision to build SkyTrain instead.


Jaded by SkyTrain and a lack of LRT

There hasn’t been a single, grade-level Light Rail project approved in this region except for the currently proposed project in Surrey, and that’s probably what has raised the irk of some people who have been enthusiastic about the idea of at-grade rail. It’s probably why there’s a commonly-held belief that only provincial government overrides result in SkyTrain, and that at-grade Light Rail systems don’t have major shortfalls of their own that have resulted in their rejection here in Metro Vancouver so far.

However, the argument that lack of at-grade rail infrastructure in this region really caused us to lose out on transit benefits (i.e. we could have built a bigger transit network!) is entirely debatable. The benefits of SkyTrain should be clear to decision-makers, planners and transit enthusiasts in our region.

Despite the constant use of grade-separation and SkyTrain technology, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network expanded at a faster pace than any other system in Canada. Vancouver’s rapid transit growth has lead Canadian cities – and when the Evergreen Line opens to the public next year, we’ll have the longest rapid transit system in Canada spanning nearly 80km – and the longest driverless transit network in the world. The lower operating costs of driverless trains make it possible to keep expanding our transit network without bankrupting our operating budget on the cost of drivers.

Despite the constant use of grade-separation and SkyTrain technology, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network expanded at a faster pace than any other system in Canada.

SkyTrain also has the highest ridership of any rapid transit system in North America that isn’t classified as “heavy” rail. At nearly 9,000 boarding passengers per kilometre, SkyTrain outperforms every single at-grade rail system in Canada and the U.S.

SkyTrain ridership/km vs. other transit systems

Data is from the American Public Transit Association (Q3 2014) unless stated

City System name (type) Weekday daily boardings Daily boardings/mile
Vancouver SkyTrain (driverless) 377,900 8,870
Calgary C-Train (LRT) 310,700 8,510
Boston MBTA light rail (LRT) 214,500 8,250
Edmonton Light Rail Transit (LRT) 98,144* 7,550
Toronto Streetcar (on-street) 281,900 5,525
San Francisco Muni Metro (LRT) 145,500 4,076
Houston METRORail (LRT) 45,700 3,571
Newark Newark/Hudson Bergen LRT 72,939** 3,143
Minneapolis METRO Light Rail (LRT) 64,500 2,938
Los Angeles Metro Rail (LRT) 203,400 2,892
Seattle Link Light Rail (LRT) 40,300 2,330
Portland MAX, Streetcar (LRT) 113,900 2,330
San Diego Trolley (LRT) 124,100 2,320
Phoenix Valley Metro (LRT) 41,200 2,060

* Q3 numbers were not reported. Data from Edmonton Transit, collected during the same period, used instead.
** Q3 numbers were not reported. NJ Transit’s own FY2014 data is used in place (the same number is reported in APTA’s Q4 ridership report).


On top of everything, SkyTrain has made us one of the most successful metropolitan areas in transit ridership with an annual ridership per capita that is 3rd highest on this continent (beat only by New York City and Greater Toronto)

Region Population Annual Ridership
(thousands)
Annual Ridership
(per capita)
New York City 19,831,858 3,893,854 196
Greater Toronto 5,583,064 1,003,230 180
Metro Vancouver 2,313,328 363,163 157
Calgary 1,120,225 157,325 140
Montreal 3,824,221 433,710 113
Boston 4,640,802 399,594 86
Washington, DC 5,860,342 456,915 78
San Francisco Bay 6,349,948 476,219 75
Chicago 9,522,434 658,203 69
Philadelphia 6,018,800 336,981 56
Los Angeles 13,052,921 620,903 48
Seattle/Puget Sound Region 3,807,148 175,215 46

Data above from South Fraser Blog

With these thoughts laid out, I’d like to see anyone try to claim that decisions resulting in SkyTrain projects over LRT are solely a result of senior-government overrides.

…or that anyone’s manipulating data to favour SkyTrain in rapid transit studies, because that’s simply not true.


Featured: Evergreen Line construction image posted by nname on SkyscraperPage

SkyTrain technology is not outdated and not proprietary

SkyTrain technology is not outdated and not proprietary

RE: Critics say SkyTrain technology is outdated – Global News

Sendai header version
Pictured above: The newly-opened Tozai Line in Sendai, Japan uses SkyTrain technology.

Nathan Pachal was incorrect in stating that Bombardier “dictates what we’re going to do in our region” in a recent interview with Global BC, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed at what he said. I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the report either, which claimed and brought attention to SkyTrain technology being “outdated” and a “boutique system is made by only one company.

This is misleading and untrue, and I have proven this many times in my research and advocacy efforts throughout the past few years.

SkyTrain technology is proven, efficient, and used around the world in more than just a handful of cities. The idea that SkyTrain is a single-company offering, and that it’s outdated, comes down to a lot of miscommunication, misinformation and the sheer lack of information in discussion circles here. It’s important to get some perspective, so firstly…

What is “SkyTrain technology”?

Used in our Expo and Millennium Lines, SkyTrain technology basically comes down to two unique aspects:

  1. Automatic train control (ATC)
  2. Linear induction motor (LIM) propulsion

See: NEARLY ONE IN FOUR METRO CITIES HAS AT LEAST ONE AUTOMATED LINE

Longest metro systems
The world’s longest automated metro systems are in major global cities including Dubai, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, among others.

The former (automatic train control) has become the global standard in rapid transit, with more than 1 in 4 cities now having at least one automated metro line as part of their system, according to the Automated Metros Observatory. There are 732km of automated metro lines, and the observatory expects this to triple in the next 10 years.

I can imagine that the latter (LIM propulsion) has become the popular subject of contention – since only 5 systems have been built if you only count the systems installed by Bombardier.

However, if you count all of the other systems offered by other companies, LIM technology is now used in over 20 systems in cities around the world, including many busy, large-scale systems in China and in Japan.

Bombardier isn’t the only manufacturer of LIM cars

See also: List of Linear Induction Motor rapid transit systems

Osaka's Nagahori-Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line was the first of numerous linear motor train lines.
I took this photo when I was visiting Osaka in March of this year. Look, a reaction rail!!!

The biggest thing we misunderstand is that we think Bombardier is the “owner” of LIM technology and is the only manufacturer and provider of LIM cars. This is false.

In the city of Guangzhou, China, the world’s largest linear motor train system has over 100km of track. Already, three train lines in the city are using the technology and are responsible for carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers each day.

These are some of the newest subway lines that have been built in the city. One of them, line 6, opened just 2 years ago and is now the busiest line in the whole city.

The 3 Guangzhou metro lines use cars that were jointly manufactured by ITOCHU and CSR-Sifang. Meanwhile, in some of Japan’s biggest cities, Kawasaki Heavy Industries has manufactured LIM transit cars for systems serving hundreds of thousands of passengers a day in Kobe, Osaka and Tokyo.

sub_i_20150330_h_1
Brand new linear motor trains on Tokyo’s Oedo Subway line were made by a different manufacturer than the one that made the first-generation cars.

Kawasaki isn’t the only Japanese manufacturer of LIM cars. The upcoming system in Sendai is being supplied by Kinki Sharyo, and the Fukuoka system was supplied by Hitachi.

The Oedo subway line in Tokyo, one of the busiest lines in the city, is using several different manufacturers’ offerings: the first generation cars were manufactured by Nippon Sharyo and Hitachi, while new-generation cars delivered just this year were made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Tokyo’s example is proving that more than one manufacturer can be the supplier of linear motor trains.

These companies aren’t unaware of each others’ presence and do work with (and compete with) each other. They have even collaborated on certain occasions (as an example, Bombardier supplied bogies for some of Guangzhou’s metro cars – while Mitsubishi supplied the actual linear motors).

These cities chose SkyTrain technology for various reasons, one of the most popular reasons being the reduction in tunnel sizes and – as a result – the reduction in capital costs for building the system. In Japan, SkyTrain technology systems are directly promoted as a way of saving money.

See also: Linear Metro promotion page by Japan Subway Association

New systems are being announced and built very often, speaking to the success of this technology. The systems are responsible for moving many more people than even SkyTrain does – and do so reliably, every single day.

The newest system is opening in just 7 days in Sendai, Japan. I am looking forward to the launch celebrations.

Above: A promotional video for Sendai’s upcoming Tozai Line, showing the use of SkyTrain technology. The Tozai Line opens on December 6.

This technology is still very much being developed

Last month we were greeted by the arrival of the first “Mark III” SkyTrain vehicles. Bombardier’s Innovia Metro 300 product is the newest generation of Bombardier’s offering of SkyTrain technology. It has won orders here in Vancouver, for an expansion in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and – of all places – for a new rapid transit line in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The renaming of what was previously called “ART” (Advanced Rapid Transit) into a “Metro” class product shows that Bombardier is as committed to keeping up with the development of linear motor propulsion technology, as its competitors are in China and Japan.

But what about all the breakdowns?

I’ve been feeling that SkyTrain technology critics would be motivated to speak as such due to the intensity of the recent SkyTrain breakdowns. For this, it’s important to get some perspective – particularly on what’s been causing some of these incidents to occur.

skytrain-control-cc-by-nc-sa
Track displays at SkyTrain control in Burnaby

Many of the recent break-downs on SkyTrain have been made worse by a particular shortfall that was identified in the commissioned SkyTrain performance review.

In the 1990s, BC Transit decided not to add a simple component to the automatic train control system which would have allowed the system to recover more quickly when a train is stalled. Other driverless transit systems have installed this component and thus do not face this particular problem.

From the independent SkyTrain performance review:

The SELTRAC technology of the 1980s has been upgraded with new control and software elements. SkyTrain was upgraded to the 2nd generation of the SELTRAC technology in 1994. However, SkyTrain did not include the auto-restart module that was available. Therefore, in a temporary loss of communication from the VCCs or VOBCs, SkyTrain SELTRAC technology still requires each train to be manually introduced into the control computer system.

Averaging 5-10 minutes per train to enter the necessary data, this equates to approximately 5 hours to fully recover operations, as there are approximately 40-58 trains operating depending upon when a service delay related to a train control communication failure occurs.

TransLink has identified the addition of this system as an immediate priority, but it may not be happening for another 5 years as the installation is a complex undertaking.

If BC Transit installed it 21 years ago, it would have been in place before the Millennium Line was built and we would be saving a lot of time with recent issues.

See: Fast SkyTrain restart 5 years away – Surrey Leader

Other breakdowns simply amounted to – in the case of last week’s incident – misplacement; – in the case of one of the 2014 breakdowns – human error; or – in the case of both the recent birds nest fire and tree hitting train incident – sheer bad luck.

Perhaps some of these breakdowns have resulted from the particulars of how our system was designed. Regardless, any transit system is prone to a breakdown of some sort. There are many different reasons.

breaker
At the same time as the SkyTrain incidents last week, a light rail train struck a pedestrian in Seattle and caused a 3-hour closure of the line in that area. Courtesy KIRO 7

My last blog post (We can learn from Japan on transit delays/incidents) was about a similar transit mishap in Japan last week on the JR Kobe Line, due to a fallen power pole. This is a conventional electric train line with rotary motors.

And, it seems no one knew about this but on the same day (and at the same time) as the SkyTrain breakdown of this week, Seattle’s LINK Light Rail line faced a 3 hour closure and disruption, when a pedestrian was struck by a train on an at-grade section.

What about the Scarborough RT?

You definitely can’t excuse the fact that Toronto wants to shut down the Scarborough RT, one of the first SkyTrain lines built and in-service, and replace it with either an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT on the same route – or an extension of the Bloor-Danforth Subway line.

However, I reckon that the conversion and replacement has more to do with the desire to provide a through service with these other lines and reduce transfers. From a transportation planning perspective, that’s a very natural thing to want to have. It’s part of why the City of Vancouver has preferred that the “Broadway Subway” be built as an extension of the existing Millennium Line and not in any other way.

However, it’s also importance to have some perspective. The Scarborough RT was the first SkyTrain-technology line ever built, and was converted from what was supposed to be a standard extension of the Toronto streetcar system. The system was built to run only shorter Mark I cars, with newer Mark II cars deemed incompatible without a refurbishment.

Scarborough RT
The Scarborough RT was built well before a “Mark II” train car was even considered as part of the design.

This refurbishment was in fact studied, and was valued at $360 million. Going with a refurbishment was considered one of the most cost-effective ways to improve transit to Scarborough. The existing line and stations would be rebuilt to accommodate newer Mark IIs and Mark IIIs, and so provide a better service.

It would have cost less than rebuilding the line as an LRT system to integrate with the Crosstown line, and far less than building a new subway. It would have also avoided 28 additional months of transit service disruption for riders in Scarborough.

542-transit-chart
See: Our neglect of Scarborough RT is shameful: James – The Star

For whatever reason, be it political or otherwise, this suggestion fell on deaf ears – and that has been the subject of plenty of criticism. Transit planners in Toronto have condemned the neglect of the Scarborough RT’s infrastructure, calling it “shameful” and “inefficient”. It is pointed out that a January 2013 report by the TTC, commenting on the technology matter for a Scarborough rapid transit project, explicitly stated that:

“Notwithstanding criticisms and misinformation over the years, the Scarborough RT has been the single most-reliable service operated by the TTC. The service has been very successful at attracting ridership and has been operating over-capacity for a decade.” (2013 TTC report – page 9)

In addition, the Scarborough RT is run with drivers who operate the doors – breaking the fully-driverless design standard to which it was built to. As Toronto has not seen the full benefits of running ALRT the way it was designed, it’s hard to consider today’s judgement of replacing/shutting down the RT fair or unbiased.

2 years ago, Michael Schabas, a UK-based railway consultant of the Neptis Foundation, published an excellent report hypothesizing that the acceptance of SkyTrain technology in Greater Toronto could have saved billions of dollars and prevented a lot of the choking debate that’s put transit expansion there at a standstill today.

See: Toronto rapid transit review recommends SkyTrain expansion over LRT

Reports and viewpoints like these provide great insight and in my view are worth serious consideration. We all lose when someone is dismissive to consider really great alternatives, and ignores facts when there are facts at hand.


Help me put an end to the misinformation

Share this article on Twitter, Facebook and with anyone you know who’s concerned on transit matters. I believe that regional transit planning has been damaged significantly by misinformation like this, and it’s time to put it to an end for good.

I urge everyone reading this to help me spread the word and help me pressure Global into allowing me to respond to their article.

 

New TransLink CEO salary is lowest in Canada

New TransLink CEO salary is lowest in Canada

The next CEO of TransLink will earn an annual salary of almost $320,000, plus a generous benefits and bonus package.

(CBC: TransLink CEO job posting lists massive salary)

The new salary offer for TransLink’s next CEO is out and as expected, members of the public are complaining non-stop about a number that is being described by media as “massive” and “fat” as it is north of $300,000.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post suggesting TransLink’s executive pay should be looked at in a different way, a post that was so well-received that it engaged the entire region and sent the page-view counts on this blog skyrocketing. When transportation professionals with the Victoria Transport Policy Institute quoted this blog post in a major study of theirs, I knew I had hit something right on the nail.

Now that the new CEO salary figures are out and everyone is once again relentlessly complaining, I decided to run the numbers again to see where TransLink is now against Canada’s major cities. The base salary is now in line with that of Toronto’s TTC and Montreal’s STM, but not when a bonus of up to 30% is considered:

“Greater Ottawa” in this chart counts both OC Transpo and Gatineau-Hull’s STO

But, when you consider all of the transit agencies servicing a metro area, the executive payment in this region is comparatively minuscule:

The “all” in the above chart represents all transit authorities servicing a given area. As an example, in addition to Toronto being serviced by the TTC, Mississauga is managed by Mi-Way; York Region is managed by York Regional Transit; GO Transit operates regional commuter rail and a TransLink-like regional authority called “MetroLinx” is required to tie them all together. Each of these operators has their own executives and CEOs.

Our region has 1 transit operator with 1 CEO; others have many different operators and multiple CEOs. It’s a concept that’s so simple and easy to understand, and it is absolutely crucial that we familiarize ourselves with it.

When TransLink’s context of a single, region-wide transportation authority is considered against what the region-wide setup is in Canada’s other metropolitan areas, Metro Vancouver actually has the lowest per-capita CEO salary of any major city in Canada. Even if our CEO receives a full 30% bonus.

We now pay about 17.5 cents per capita if the CEO earns a 30% bonus; whereas the people of greater Toronto pay between 1 and 12.5 more cents more for their executives (depending on what you would include as greater Toronto’s transit operators), and the people of greater Montreal each pay between 6 and 12.5 cents more.

We will also be paying our new CEO less for every revenue hour of transit service they manage, even if the CEO receives a full 30% bonus:

Top in-charge earnings per revenue hour of transit service 2015 NEW

I compiled the data for all to review here (LINK to this spreadsheet):

Outlook

Nickels for everybody! Yaaayy!
Nickels for everybody! Yaaayy!

The revised, lowered CEO salary will put a maximum of 5 cents back into people’s pockets and would not even pay for buying a single bus. Despite the relatively minimal benefits to Metro Vancouver’s citizens, attracting a new CEO will be a more difficult task with a lower offer, and TransLink should be commended considerably if and when they are able to do so.

The response a TransLink spokesperson offered in Jeff Nagel’s recent report for the Surrey Leader pretty much sums up why TransLink can’t be considered a “transit operator” in the usual vein:

“It needs to be a competitive salary,” Moore said, adding the challenge with comparing TransLink to other transit authorities is there is nothing similar in North America.

“The No side in the plebiscite wanted to compare the CEO of TransLink to one of nine CEOs in Seattle or one of eight CEOs in Toronto,” Moore said, referring to areas where multiple separate agencies do the work of TransLink. “Nobody else has an integrated rail-bus-road infrastructure.”

Pay offer for the next TransLink CEO under fire – Jeff Nagel, Surrey Leader

But, I don’t think most people are ready to understand this – it’s probably easier to think that our transit operator is a transit operator like any other, regardless of the serious differences in the way we are organized. It’s clear that much of the “NO” vote in the recent referendum was motivated by an unfavourable view of executive salaries, which were not being looked at in a proper context.

If anything, this should have an effect on how the provincial government interprets the “NO” vote altogether. At this point, the only way that the misinformation around executive salaries in this region can be offset is for someone to take leadership and recognize the serious flaws in how people have been informed on this matter.

SEE ALSO: Referendum Myths – TransLink and Executive Salary

Author’s note: This post was updated on July 27, 2015 to account for newly released numbers and other issues pointed out with the original post.

Surrey's LRT "Plan B" doesn't work

Surrey's LRT "Plan B" doesn't work

The media has done plenty of reporting on Mayor Linda Hepner’s desire to pursue a Canada Line P3 model to fund proposed Light Rail in Surrey, due the recent NO vote in the transit plebiscite.

Before decisions are taken from examples in this manner, I think it’s important to also take in the context of that example. In some of my most popular posts on this blog I’ve noted how a lack of context has done so much to skewer opinions and affect decisions in our region.

The Canada Line P3 was a successful P3 because its ridership and fare revenue exceeded projections.

The Canada Line’s P3 system works like this: The private partner signs on to build the line and operate for 30 years, and makes a capital investment to reduce the public funding burden. This capital investment in the project is returned as a profit through the performance payments made during operation.

If fare revenue from ridership meets or exceeds the costs, financing proceeds as planned and excess operating revenue is returned to the taxpayer. If the fare revenue does not exceed the costs, that represents significant additional costs to taxpayers to subsidize operations.

Thankfully, the Canada Line is exceeding its ridership projections, as a result of carefully considred design choices made during the decision-making process.

But, this is where the proposed ground-level Light Rail system for Surrey, which I have been a heavy critic of through the SkyTrain for Surrey website, runs into a very major problem.

The Surrey LRT system will not recover its operating costs.

It will run into an operating deficit of millions per year from opening day and it will struggle to recover these costs if it manages to do so at all.

Financial details for Surrey Rapid Transit, reported in the TransLink/MOTI joint study
Financial details for Surrey Rapid Transit, reported in the TransLink/MOTI joint study, on page 369

LRT’s operating deficit subsidy of $22 million ($2010) per year on opening day, growing to $28 million by 2041,  is on top of the $60 million per year for capital financing that Mayor Linda Hepner declared to the Globe and Mail. On top of all of these costs, additional costs would need to be added to the performance payments to the private operator, so that the partner can receive its return on investment.

When all inflation is accounted for, the cost of financing the P3 LRT will be nearly $100 million annually on opening day. The city will obviously need to find a way to come up with this money, and I take it that more than a few really big axes will be making their way to other city services as a result.

Plan Misses the Mark

Perhaps a part of the reason for this shortfall is because the City wants to replicate SkyTrain frequencies by running LRT trains at a 5-minute frequency, increasing to a 3-minute frequency after approximately 20 years. This frequency is not done anywhere else with driver-operated LRT systems in North America. The tendency is to run at 5-10 minute frequencies during peak hours only, reducing to 15 minute frequencies during off-peak hours and weekends.

Chart on SkyTrain vs a selection of LRT system frequencies. Made for a previous write-up on the Vancity Buzz.

The higher frequencies do not necessarily solve the many issues with an LRT system and the challenges such a system in Surrey will face. Of the $27 million in annual costs required to operate Surrey’s full LRT network, only $5 million is expected to be recovered through additional fare revenues. Cut the operating frequencies in half (resulting in significantly worse service), and there would still be a major operating deficit.

This is because many of the riders on the future LRT system will be people who already pay their fares on existing buses. They are the transit-dependent people of the city, not the people who may have the choice to continue to drive if that is what continues to serve them better.

A previous survey of Canada Line riders revealed that trip speed is the most liked aspect of the line. Street-level LRT’s limitation to slower street-level speeds will certainly create challenges in being competitive.

Ridership deficits

Surrey’s LRT will suffer these operating deficits because as a slower and less reliable grade-level system, it will not attract as many passengers as an integrated, grade-separated extension of SkyTrain. In addition, LRT will be unlike our driver-less SkyTrain system in that each train requires a driver, meaning it is more expensive to operate and will be subject to design limitations that will have a major effect on its viability.

Surrey’s LRT will carry only 2970 riders/km on opening day.4 The Canada Line, which carries 122,000 daily boardings2, required 100,000 (5200 passenger boardings per km) to cover its annual operating costs.3

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
The driverless, grade-separated Canada Line hit its 2013 ridership projections more than 3 years ahead of schedule in 2010.

SkyTrain is a viable option

If SkyTrain is extended down Fraser Hwy. to Langley, it will carry 5443 riders per km on opening day.This is comparable to SkyTrain’s present system-wide average of 5693 riders per km.5

SkyTrain would offer faster, safer, and more reliable service – which would attract more ridership, generate more fare revenue and as a result cost only $6 million per year to subsidize operations.6 This would then be eliminated entirely with the concurrent optimization of local bus routes.7

Without an operating subsidy, SkyTrain would have a far better business case for a Canada Line-style P3 model. In any case, since the operations and maintenance component can be handled by the existing BCRTC, a newly created operating entity is not required. This will save taxpayers even more money as the P3 contract for SkyTrain would be a simpler Design-Build-Finance (DBF) model.

At the end of the day, I think there’s one particularly more significant number that exemplifies SkyTrain’s viability in Surrey over a ground-level Light Rail system.

SkyTrain would have a positive benefit/cost ratio of 1.45:1. The proposed LRT has a poor benefit/cost ratio of just 0.69:1.

A SkyTrain extension is clearly the only viable option for rail rapid transit in Surrey, and decision-makers in the city and elsewhere need to start taking a look at the hard facts.

Featured image: The SkyBridge, with the New Westminster Waterfront in the background. From the
Among other benefits, a SkyTrain extension will treat South-of-Fraser riders to a direct, transfer-less connection with the existing Expo Line to New Westminster and Vancouver.

Footnotes

According to data from the 2012 TransLink/MOTI joint study
Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis (SRTAA) Phase 2 Evaluation
Available at [LINK HERE]

  1. SRTAA PAGE 369; Undiscounted value; measured over 30 years, with costs increasing to 2041 on year 2041
  2. ProTransBC (operator) website – http://www.protransbc.com/service-performance/
  3. TransLink media release – Addressing Canada Line capacity questions
  4. See SRTAA PAGE 301 for ridership estimates (divided by track lengths listed on SRTAA P. 347)
  5. Based on APTA ridership data from Q4 2014
  6. See attached graphic, or SRTAA PAGE 369
  7. Suggested on SRTAA PAGE 536: “For RRT 1A, savings of $170 million”

Where YES vote % was lower, more people drive (Referendum Results)

Where YES vote % was lower, more people drive (Referendum Results)

So in the wake of the NO VOTE in the Metro Vancouver Transit & Transportation Plebiscite,

Here’s an interesting collaboration I did with Kyle of 257vancouver over a Twitter conversation. After he posted a few charts with preliminary data, I asked him plot the below chart showing how the referendum YES vote correlated with the commute mode-shares for public transit and driving:

Both sets of data compare %Yes Vote. SOURCE: Twitter @257van

Notice on how the top set of grey dots, there are more dots up where the driving mode share percentage is higher, closer to the left where the yes vote percentage was lower. The opposite is generally true for those who rely on public transit.

To me this is a rather unsurprising but a very important trend to pay attention to. With at least a part of the “NO” vote outcome coming not necessarily as a result of choice of funding method or a distrust of TransLink, but as a result of any opposition to the details of the Mayors’ Council’s transit plan, I think this really says something about how we need to be looking to plan big-ticket transit expansion here in Metro Vancouver. That is, at least, if we want it to get more support for it from the public.

(HINT: a faster SkyTrain, over the proposed ground-level LRT in Surrey that barely improves transit travel times, would certainly help).

An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station. SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the "efficiency" recommendations in the recent TransLink audits.
In the meantime… welcome to the world of even more crowded buses, even more SkyTrain breakdowns, and basically even more commute-related stress whoever you are and however you go.

Calgary Light Rail system incomparable to Surrey

Calgary Light Rail system incomparable to Surrey
Responding to: If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too – South Fraser Blog

I was drawn to South Fraser Blog a couple of weeks ago when the webmaster commented on the concerns raised by a Township of Langley engineer over the proposed Light Rail system in Surrey. It prompted the response on this blog (Langley and Legitimacy on Light Rail Concerns), which noted numerous fallacies in the SFB article, many common and repeated among Lower Mainland LRT advocates.

Today, SFB caught my attention again with a new headline on the website declaring adamantly and proudly that “If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too“, a result of the webmaster (Nathan Pachal) recently visiting Calgary. Pictures are included of the Calgary LRT system, in an attempt to set an example for Surrey.

However, I immediately found many reasons to the contrary. As a first, it should be noteworthy that most of the observation wasn’t centered on the newest-opened line on the system.

Opened at the end of 2012 and adding 8.2km, the newest LRT line in Calgary is almost entirely grade-separated (including a prominent elevated segment and station), which likely wouldn’t have served the S.F.B.’s purposes to showcase at-grade rail very well at all.

And yet, the West LRT is a shining example of how Calgary has mandated its future build-out of LRT. Like many cities, Calgary has realized that more grade-separation is key to making rail rapid transit reliable, safe and competitive. Which is why the new West LRT resembles a SkyTrain extension.

Calgary’s newest West LRT. Image: Harris Rebar
Calgary’s newest West LRT. Image: Harris Rebar

Differences in context and right-of-way

As I’ve mentioned in past write-ups on the proposed Surrey LRT system, one of the things I feel is among the biggest issues is the choice on how the proposed LRT system is going to be built. All 27km of the LRT right-of-way (R.O.W.) will be at-grade, on-street, and in the middle of the street – interfacing with vehicles and pedestrians, and operating at the speed of surrounding traffic.

Calgary’s LRT system is not designed in this fashion at all. A comparative survey of LRT systems (pg. 5) measured that 93% of the system is placed on a private, segregated R.O.W. where the speed of trains exceeds 35 miles per hour (60 km/h). There will be no parts of the Surrey LRT that will be operating like this, as the maximum speed limit on city streets is 60km/h. It is atrocious to be trying to draw a comparison between two completely different types of LRT.

Unfortunately, LRT advocates have few systems to draw appropriate comparisons with. In the same aforementioned survey, all of the compared systems operate largely in either fully exclusive R.O.W.s, or other semi-separated ones at over 60km/h – making none of them comparable to the proposed system for Surrey.

These critical details are often forgotten by the Lower Mainland’s light rail advocates, because of the broad scope of systems that are called “light rail” but aren’t necessarily at all comparable.

Glimpsing Calgary’s Light Rail performance

Calgary light rail system provides consistent travel times. In Downtown Calgary, signals are timed to allow the smooth flow for light rail riders, cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.

(Claim on South Fraser Blog)

The South Fraser Blog reasons that the C-Train’s performance is “consistent” and so will meet the standards of Surrey transit riders. Firstly, I think it’s important that claims like these get some sort of back-up so as to give readers a better idea of what’s being compared, but a link to any information is markedly absent.

So I decided to track down some of the data myself. This is what a 2010 study on the C-Train’s reliability has said about the C-Train’s (in)ability to run on-time:

Due to many issues in LRT operations, the target headway is not achieved regularly. Trains are often delayed, and the level of service is not considered satisfactory by many passengers.

(Reliability and Delay in LRT operation in Calgary – R.M.N.T. Sirisoma, S.C. Wirasinghe, D. Morgan)

The worst delays on the system happen as the lines pass through 7th Avenue in the City Centre, which is touted by S.F.B. for its on-street alignment. Despite the claimed reliability of the traffic signal sync system, 25 to 30% of all trains in both directions are delayed by more than 3 minutes.

The study does not account for technical issues like stuck doors or signal breakdowns, or for service disruptions caused by closed tracks and accidents – it is meant to measure the system’s day-to-day performance, something that’s generally not considered newsworthy as it’s what Calgarians are used to.

That means that the major incidents that can and do make the news come on top of this already not-so-stellar performance.

And with C-Train riders having to deal with as much as 57 major delays within a single month, many of them have been left relatively miserable.

Regular train rider Heather Laird says @calgarytransit has become her warning beacon for when to ride and when to drive to her job downtown.

“I keep a close eye on Twitter in the morning — delays have become so common we’re used to it.”

On-street running or on-street shoehorning?

Along 36 St NE, light rail traffic is prioritized at intersections.

(South Fraser Blog)

There’s prominent mention of the Northeast LRT’s 36 St NE section, which technically runs in the middle of a road, making it easier to draw comparisons with the proposed systems here in the South of Fraser. For numerous reasons, I still think this isn’t the case.

This is what the Northeast LRT line actually looks like:

Photo: 'Light Rail Now' group
Photo: ‘Light Rail Now’ group
Calgary LRT on 36 St NE - Photo credit: Ryan Harder, Flickr
Calgary LRT on 36 St NE – Photo credit: Ryan Harder, Flickr

36 St NE is busy, and is basically a highway. In order to “prioritize” LRT, there is a requirement of lights, crossing arms and bells at all crossings, and there are dual left turn lanes at the majority of intersections to accommodate for the lengthier train crossing delays. The result is the LRT on 36 St NE looks nothing like an urban tram system, but similar to other Calgary LRT lines placed in freeway medians – with intersections instead.

This isn’t an “on-street LRT”: this is an LRT, with its right-of-way shoehorned into a middle of the street, sharing none of the characteristics of typical on-street tram systems and completely different from the proposal for Surrey.

Photo: Light Rail Now group
Photo: Light Rail Now group

You do not even cross the street to access station platforms – all stations are accessed by pedestrian overpasses, with stairs or long circular ramps. There is virtually no community integration, and everything requires twice the land footprint of anything that would be permissible in Surrey. The ballasted track LRT R.O.W. is over 4 lanes wide at any point on the corridor.

It’s no coincidence that the S.F.B. article did not include any pictures of 36 St NE. Doing so would paint a picture of LRT that is relatively unattractive.

The confusing context of “LRT”

Light rail supporters mix “LRT” and “tram” statistics interchangeably, thus the arguments made by supporters are quite flawed: the main problem with pro-LRT activists is that the broad scope of LRT systems allows them to take bits and pieces in their argument that do not add up to the whole.

UBC SkyTrain Group – “Debunking Further Myths”, 2009

The fact that Light Rail systems come in many different shapes and sizes was first pointed out by the “UBC SkyTrain” advocacy group 6 years ago, and has been ignored by the transit community at-large ever since.

Light Rail has a confusing context. While the many similar systems that are branded as “Light Rail” do share several characteristics, I think there’s a need to pay attention to the key differences in design of these systems. What might work well for a certain LRT system may not work well at all in the other.

One of the reasons I have remained in opposition of a Surrey LRT is because of the many issues that will stem from choices in design and lack of foresight (I recently wrote on the fallacies of a new city study attempting to justify LRT, [SEE HERE]). The Calgary’s C-Train was built in a context that didn’t have these issues from the very beginning. R.O.W.s were pre-planned years before construction, and were largely located off of city streets.

But the differences are not just in specifics in design. It must also be considered that they extend to what roles the transit system is playing in a city.

The C-Train didn't build higher-density, sustainable, transit-oriented city centres like SkyTrain built Metrotown in Burnaby.
The C-Train didn’t build higher-density, sustainable, transit-oriented city centres like the ones our SkyTrain built. Shown here is Metrotown in Burnaby.

C-Trains run less frequently than our driver-less SkyTrains, especially during off-peak hours and on weekends, limiting their ability to foster transit-oriented communities with people living transit-coherent lifestyles.

As a result, C-Train is most effective at replacing cars for that final commute into the one high-density city area (downtown) – but that doesn’t mean C-Train trips are always beginning by walking, cycling or transit. Nearly every single C-Train station is complemented with a large, land-intensive park and ride – ensuring that parking can be reduced in the space-limited downtown core.

In Metro Vancouver, it's common to take the bus to reach the SkyTrain. In Calgary, the common standard is to park-and-ride.
In Metro Vancouver, it’s common to take the bus to reach the SkyTrain. In Calgary, the common standard is to park-and-ride.

Outside of this pattern, it’s a toss-up. There are few dense nodes on the LRT lines, and little variety in commuting patterns. Coherent transit usage demands good transit development and a robust city-wide transit network, but the bus system has obviously has not grown to be robust enough to prevent the need for so many huge park-and-rides. And without a robust city-wide network, it also becomes difficult to compete against commutes to areas where jobs are concentrated over lower densities (like industrial parks).

As a result, of the $6.14 billion the City of Calgary is earmarking for transportation investments in the next 10 years, 63% of that money will be going to roads – far outpacing investments in transit, walking and cycling. Clearly, the road network has remained to be of far greater economic importance than the C-Train light rail system in the city of Calgary.

If reduction in road expansion is supposed to be one of the major goals of rapid transit, then the C-Train network may as well be a colossal failure.

In conclusion,

All the Light Rail advocates I have heard from seem to have this fundamental value that it is Light Rail’s viability in Metro Vancouver and especially South of the Fraser is proven by the various examples around the world. Because we currently do not have such a system here, Light Rail has become a sensational topic among transit discussion circles.

Many of these advocates think it’s as simple of a matter as “If it works for ________, it will work for Surrey.”

As shown by the Calgary example, that is clearly not the case.

'Everline' SkyTrain transit system transforms Yongin City, Korea

'Everline' SkyTrain transit system transforms Yongin City, Korea

^ New Yongin Everline promotional video (in Korean)

The 18km “Everline” rapid transit system in Yongin (near Seoul), South Korea, which utilizes the same “SkyTrain technology” trains used here in Vancouver, has celebrated its two year anniversary this past week – and along with that, city residents and officials have also been celebrating its positive effect in transforming the city of Yongin.

A new report published in English by the Korea Herald reports that the Everline is transforming Yongin City – helping to foster business growth and attract high-tech industries, encourage more people to adopt transit-oriented lifestyles and reduce congestion. The Everline is now meeting the ridership projection that was initially made in 2011.

Yongin, once regarded as a commuter town in Gyeonggi Province, is now developing into a business-centered metropolis equipped with a growth engine as it amasses infrastructure befitting a city of more than 1 million residents.

The development has been underway since Mayor Jung Chan-min took office nine months ago. The city is setting up several industrial complex centers including the Yongin Techno Valley currently under construction, and the once-dormant light rail ‘Everline’ is currently used by over 30,000 passengers daily.

[Yongin growing into business-centered city – The Korea Herald]

The Everline story: dismal beginnings

The Everline opened for service in 2013, after being unable to open in 2011 (the line had been fully constructed and in a ready-to-open state since before even then) and again in 2012, due to refusal from the City over issues with both construction and projected ridership (see INTERVIEW with Joongang Daily – Feb 2011). The delay was seen negatively by the Yongin Rapid Transit Company (YRTC), the line’s operator, which was awarded nearly $500 million in damages through the International Court of Arbitration, after suing Yongin City for delaying the opening of the line.

These issues, among others, gave the Everline a very dismal reputation among city residents – and a reportedly low ridership when the line was opened did not make things any better. One group of vocal residents, who were understandably not too happy about the delays and lawsuit, at one point called for the Everline to be dismantled altogether.

Yongin Everline Train
Although the Everline service operates at an exceptional frequency, trains operate with a single car and that has created even more dissatisfaction among critics. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA Minseong Kim

But, according to The Korea Herald’s report, it turned out that one of the key problems with the Everline during its initial year of operation was a total lack of fare integration with surrounding transit systems. There was also no direct station-to-station connection or fare integration between the Everline’s terminus station in Giheung, and the nearby Giheung Station of the Bundang Line subway connecting to Seoul City Centre.

Both of these issues were fixed by late September last year, causing ridership levels on the Everline to increase by triple by this April, a period of just over 6 months.

Everline, the major light rail line of Yongin, opened two years ago, but it had been long regarded as a public nuisance with fewer than 10,000 users per day. After implementing the Metropolitan Unity Fare system in September last year, the number of passengers drastically increased. After one month, over 20,000 passengers on average used the light rail daily, and the number reached an average of 30,000 passengers last month.

The ridership is now close to meeting the latest daily ridership forecast of 32000, by the Gyeonggi Research Institute in 2011; and at this rate will surpass it some time this year.

This is very significant for Yongin, because one of the things that pressured the City into refusing to open the line in 2011 was the lack of confidence that it would meet this projection – the city’s internal projections of 10,000 daily riders disagreed with the Gyeonggi Research Institute. The Mayor stated the City did not want to open the line, expressing concern about the increased operating subsidy and a loss of revenue due to lower ridership.

When the line finally opened in 2013, Korean transit blog Kojects noted that the city’s projection had turned out to be true (see No Passengers on Yongin Everline – June 2013) – with the line recording just under 10,000 passengers daily. However, the fare integration with surrounding transit had not yet been implemented, despite its anticipation during previous attempts to open in 2012. Now that it has been implemented, the ridership level is now triple the city’s initial projections and nearly matches the projections set by the Gyeonggi Research Institute; it will handily surpass those projections within this year.

The Everline costs about $26 million to operate yearly, which is a relatively low cost made possible by driver-less train operation. As a result, it is now close to half-way to reaching its total “break-even” point when daily ridership hits 75000 (This is according to a Korean newspaper – [see here]). At 75000, fare revenues will 100% cover all operating costs, completely eliminating the operating expense for city taxpayers.

By comparison, here in Vancouver our SkyTrain lines have hit their break-even points and are covering their operating costs through fare revenue. The newest Canada Line, opened 2009 and using Korean-built trains from Rotem in two-car sets, hit its break-even point of 100,000 daily riders in 2011 (against projections of hitting this in 2013). However, our SkyTrain lines have opened on-time and on-budget. The Canada Line opened several months early, and was bolstered further by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Everline as an asset to Yongin City

Map of the Yongin Everline
Map of the Yongin Everline

On top of the recent fare integration, new efforts – including the promo video at the top of this post – have been made to promote the viability of the line to residents, many of them still bitter from having to wait years to ride and sitting through the handover of a major chunk of the city treasury.

It’s taken some time, but shuttle buses from the four main universities that are connected by the Everline, which previously were connecting to major transit centres, are now connecting to the Everline (According to previously linked report in Korean – [see link]), helping the universities reduce their transport costs. Activity on the line is increasing and there are now buskers performing at many of the line’s busier stations, fostering a lively urban atmosphere.

New developments on the line aim to take advantage of the Everline’s convenience. One multiple high-rise proposal, at the Everline’s junction with the Bundang Subway Line at Giheung Station, is expected to be a massive contribution to the line’s ridership (see report in Korean – [link])

The new Mayor of Yongin, who was elected to office 9 months ago, has supported the Everline and demonstrated its versatility by making the Everline a part of his own commute (the Everline has a station in front of Yongin City Hall), and has organized a citizens committee to make the best of the line now that it has been built. He has also used the Everline’s example to push for further rail investment in Yongin City – which may include further extensions of the Everline itself.

Everline trains consist of a single car, which is the same length as our Mark II cars but as wide as our Canada Line vehicles at 3.2m wide. The trains have been termed by some media and riders as “cute”, but derided by critics as being “more like buses”.

Nevertheless, trains run every 4 minutes during weekday peak periods, and no less frequently than every 6 minutes except during early mornings and late nights on weekdays and weekends. This is a higher quality service than many grade-level, driver-operated Light Rail systems. In addition, all stations are ready to accommodate 2-car trains.

Significance to Vancouver

Although the Everline operates an exceptional frequency, the fact that trains operate a single car has created additional dissatisfaction among critics.
You betcha that Everline train looked just a little too familiar. Look, linear motor rails!

The Everline has often caught the attention of transit observers in Metro Vancouver, noting the identical ‘SkyTrain technology’ from Bombardier being used on the new line.

Critics of SkyTrain expansion in our region were the first to jump on the Everline story, framing its issues as reasons that we should avoid expanding our SkyTrain system. I find it particularly ironic that it is the same kind of interference from municipal politicians – which resulted in the Everline’s shortfall as a Yongin City asset – that has been desired by critics referencing that shortfall as a way of stopping SkyTrain expansion.

But it should be clear that none of the problems with the Everline were the result of ‘SkyTrain technology’, or Bombardier. In his interview with Joongang Daily, the Mayor of the City in 2011 cited two reasons why the City was refusing to open the project: issues with ridership (which we now know to have been lack of integration), and issues with construction resulting in “noise and safety concerns”. These apparent construction issues were related to the elevated guideway structure and so a result of the construction contractor, not Bombardier or anything regarding ‘SkyTrain technology’.

Regardless of everything, the Everline has proved to be a successful transit system – and every day it carries more passengers and transforms life for more and more citizens in Yongin, it is turning around its dismal beginning of being a “failure” or a “white elephant” and becoming a true rapid transit icon in Korea.

I believe the Everline Story has two main lessons for all of us here in Metro Vancouver:

  1. “P3” transit projects must be carefully planned and considered. The Yongin Everline is essentially akin to a “what if the Canada Line P3 failed” scenario, with ridership not meeting projections – except the disaster was also kind of pre-empted as a result of fear of failure from the City’s politicians, the resulting delays in opening, and the lack of fare integration. The Canada Line did not fail because it was built on a well-demonstrated transit corridor (the previous 98 B-Line rapid bus was demand proof) and kept a promise to riders by mandating travel time improvements – the designer was actually required to orient its proposal around a set travel time value, and the Canada Line’s reliability in meeting that travel time was subsequently found to be the line’s #1 most-liked aspect in rider surveys. The City of Surrey should particularly be paying attention because it wants to use a P3 model on its proposed grade-level Light Rail system, which is more vulnerable to ridership not meeting projections than a grade-separated SkyTrain extension.
  2. The value of integrating transit fare systems. Major metro areas in North America like the San Francisco Bay Area are facing serious challenges dealing with multiple transit agencies, including major ridership losses due to the lack of integrated fares. We don’t have this problem in Metro Vancouver because of our system of having a single transit operator throughout history. As a result, TransLink is one of North America’s most efficient transit systems.

SkyTrain meltdowns a consequence of devaluing transit investment

SkyTrain meltdowns a consequence of devaluing transit investment

See also: Vancouverites are spoiled by SkyTrain on Vancity Buzz

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line

Introduction

SkyTrain operates with high standards, transporting passengers with a remarkable 95% on-time performance rate and doing better at providing rapid public transit than other cities our size. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to system-stopping failures that can require the use of shuttle buses and inconvenience thousands of transit passengers.

Our SkyTrain system managed to suffer from two major system meltdowns within seven days, and it’s perplexed everyone. It’s raised questions of accountability and competence within TransLink, and of the versatility of how SkyTrain is operated. It’s raised questions of whether there could be a better plan for emergencies, so as to prevent frustration and inconvenience.

By far, a lot of the comments I’ve seen point fingers at TransLink. Provincial Minister Todd Stone was quick to deny responsibility, and looking through social media reveals an aura of madness from inconvenienced customers. All of this creates a dangerous precedent that a discouragement into putting more money into our transit system is created, as people begin to believe that proactively investing in it isn’t worth it.

However, some of the problems we faced in these past 7 days could have been mitigated by just that – with investments into good maintenance of our transit system.

With the province putting TransLink through audit after audit as part of a mandate to increase the system’s efficiency, it’s become more difficult to justify investments to keep the transit system and its employees running – with everything from a provincially-funded park & ride expansion to the provision of coffee for employees to public art being put through questions and a high-level of scrutiny.

The chaos that we witnessed during SkyTrain’s recent shutdowns can very much be attributed to a devaluation of transit funding, lead by anti-TransLink campaigners.

An explanation

TransLink didn’t purchase a $20 million backup system that would have assisted SkyTrain in the event of computer failures. This would have spared riders from service meltdown incidents like the one on Thursday, July 17th.

To compound the issue, as part of the recommendations of several efficiency audits, TransLink has tightened up the amount of spare buses and staffing on the bus network. This means that when bus bridges are needed to deal with SkyTrain emergencies, there are fewer staff available to drive buses, and few buses available – which was an issue on both Thursday and on Monday, July 21st during the second, human-error-triggered meltdown.

It’s a no-win scenario for TransLink. A seamlessly-integrated backup system would not even require riders to be notified if SkyTrain were to have computer issues – and should the investment have been made known, an inevitable sensation surrounding the choice to invest – driven by anti-TransLink critics – is what we would be hearing about from the media instead. That would be the news item of the day, instead of a SkyTrain failure.

Meanwhile, continuing to provide adequate staff and buses to handle emergencies like the recent ones would go flat out against recommendations in recent audits – which could have triggered a harsh reaction from the provincial government, as they do directly control TransLink’s governance and some funding for transit.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one likes to ride a bus bridge – but it’s as important to have funding so that drivers and buses can be ready when we do need these.

Comments that put pressure on TransLink and portray them excessively negatively as an organization could result in more “NO” votes in the upcoming referendum next year. It may have become one of the reasons that TransLink has not undertaken investments proactively, spending money to prevent issues before they actually happen. As long as the public has yet to know of the real value of proactive transit investments, it’s difficult to do so without endangering long-term transit funding.

It’s a concern that has been raised by transit advocates and decision-makers, as they work hard to promote the value of transit investment in advance of this referendum. As a “NO” vote has been confirmed to be an option, there is nothing that can stop voters from using their vote to ‘send TransLink a message’ – something that would do commuters on all transportation modes no good whatsoever.

See also: Does TransLink have a bad brand? on South Fraser Blog
See also: TransLink Referendum: Can it win? What do we need to know? on Price Tags
See also: How will anti-TransLink vote influence transit referendum? on Metro 604

Last month, on Thursday and again on Monday, critics were quick to rush to mediums such as Twitter, radio and news to lambast TransLink and remind us of past issues that have been raised. The resulting negative attitude that surrounds our transit system will not just affect how people vote in the upcoming referendum – it may have numerous negative shorter-term impacts such as the reduction of fare revenue, as less people choose transit and more believe that it is not worth doing so. Less fare revenue can mean more service cuts and even worse rider satisfaction throughout the system.

I have a strong feeling that there would be a backup computer system in place today, giving riders a more reliable SkyTrain system, were it not for the persistence of the anti-TransLink critic.

“Ironically, the people campaigning to strip TransLink of funding in the name of efficiency may be responsible for the time it took to get service restored and get people moving over the last few days.”

Nathan Pachal, who operates South Fraser Blog and is running for Council in Langley Township, raised this issue on his blog in his response to the recent incidents.

What do we do about this?

We’re surrounded by comments on how TransLink is “mismanaged”. In order to effectively combat the issues that this creates, it’s important to bring into light whether this level of scrutiny and demand for cost-efficiency is actually necessary.

In a previous blog article, I brought into light how it’s questionable if TransLink was being audited correctly, pointing out a discrepancy between how cost-efficiency has been portrayed and how it’s actually supposed to be measured – noting that between the transit operators in Canada’s three major cities, TransLink is the most efficient – providing the most service at the lowest operating cost.

See also: Was TransLink audited correctly?

It’s also important to bring into light what we should already know about TransLink’s efforts to be a better organization. We should know that TransLink is following up on the recommendations in the audits, and that those efforts are working – TransLink ended financial year 2013 with a $43 million surplus.

One of the most important changes that needs to be made is in public attitudes on transit spending. We can’t be ignorant to the fact that it is necessary to spend some money to keep our system in good repair.

For SkyTrain riders, the worst part of this devaluation of transit funding is that it has a major implication on our SkyTrain system that extends beyond $20 million.

As rail lines age and ridership grows, upgrades are needed to maintain efficiency and reliability long-term, and ensure the maintenance of the benefits provided by the system. TransLink has yet to secure a long-term funding commitment to pay for the over $1 billion in upgrades that will be required to keep the SkyTrain from becoming overcrowded and unreliable as it continues to age. These upgrades will improve station facilities with new entrances and amenities, as well as prepare the system for longer 5-car trains. Some of these upgrades are ongoing, but the majority of them have yet to be started.

See also: Reality Check: Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? on Vancity Buzz

Just as TransLink is looking for long-term funding to upgrade our SkyTrain system, so have other transit operators in Canada with their rapid transit systems. Calgary has made significant investments to extend C-Train platforms across the system for longer trains and refurbish old light-rail vehicles. Montreal is taking delivery of the first new subway vehicles to replace a fleet that is almost 40 years old. Toronto has been working to replace an aging 60-year-old subway signalling system and rebuild its busy downtown transit hub – Union Station – on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. Both projects have even required planned closures of the subway there.

Long-term funding to be committed to this upgrade is what will be decided in the provincially-mandated referendum, and it is imperative that voters do approve a funding option to keep our transit system in a good state of repair.

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
As costly as expanding and building infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investments have been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.

TransLink is in trouble

Some of the issues we faced in the recent SkyTrain meltdowns definitely had to do with more than funding, and perhaps they could have been addressed through better plans and higher competence within branches of TransLink.

However, the fact remains: if we want to maintain a high or higher standard of reliability, there’s going to be an inevitable cost to it. On the other hand, if we devalue the taxes and fares that keep people moving, we don’t get a reliable system as the penalty for our ineptitude.

As stakeholders, if we want to enjoy more reliable transit, we need to realize that TransLink is in trouble and change our attitudes on transit and funding. We need to value our transit, value TransLink, and consider the good value of the services it provides to us.