SkyTrain technology is not outdated and not proprietary

SkyTrain technology is not outdated and not proprietary

RE: Critics say SkyTrain technology is outdated – Global News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have been more disappointed with the report either, which claimed and brought attention to SkyTrain technology being “outdated” and a “boutique system is made by only one company.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 The idea that SkyTrain is a single-company offering, and that it’s outdated, comes down to a lot of miscommunication, misinformation and the sheer lack of information in discussion circles here.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”

The "Only rail creates development" myth

The "Only rail creates development" myth

I wrote this segment as a part of the recent article I did commenting on the new study for Light Rail in Surrey. The quote from the study that caught my eye and may perhaps catch the eyes of others invested in transit planning, is this prominent suggestion that…

Unlike Rapid Bus or SkyTrain alternatives, the LRT will have a permanent physical presence in their exclusive rights-of-way and yet be at a human scale and have a gentle footprint in keeping with the lower density portions of the lines. (Surrey LRT study)

Notice how the author attempts to justify the Light Rail technology aspect in this way, by suggesting that the “permanent” presence of rail-based transit (i.e. visible rails on the street) has a positive implication on image from riders and developers, that isn’t achieved with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

(SkyTrain is the existing, fully grade-separated, driverless rapid transit system in Metro Vancouver)

Myth 1: Bus Rapid Transit has no “permanence”

This notion that BRT can have no “permanence” and doesn’t attract economic development is has been challenged by transportation professionals.

Investing in enhancing bus service instead of physical rails on the street is not a failure to create “permanence”. After all, rapid transit improvements are justified in the first place because the demand for the transit on that corridor is already quite high without it.

According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America are outperforming LRT in terms of how much development is generated per transit investment dollar. While the study found an LRT line in Portland had generated the most development, when this was divided per dollar of transit investment, the LRT line actually generated 31 times less development, than the system that led the per-dollar development measure: a BRT system in Cleveland.

“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development (T.O.D.) investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.”

(Institute for Transportation & Development Policy)

According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:

  1. Strong government support for redevelopment
  2. Real estate market conditions
  3. Usefulness of transit services – speed, frequency, reliability

Clearly, when the outcomes are given similar marketing and promotion, developers don’t actually care if the system uses rails or not.

Here in Canada, York Regional Transit in Ontario, with its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, is helping to challenge the popular notion that only rail systems can reinvigorate communities. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.

Myth #2: Light Rail creates “permanence”

Light Rail is praised by supporters for creating the idea of “permanence” – which has to do with the presence of physical tracks in the streets. The suggestion is supposed to be something along the lines of, “we invested rails in this corridor so that it will never disappear.”

This is a very dangerous myth – and one of the reasons this is dangerous is because of the untold implication, wherein going straight to a Light Rail system results in other parts of the transit system lose transit service, as a means of coping with the associated costs.

Perhaps the best example of this is the downtown streetcar system in Portland, Oregon. The reveled streetcar had vibrant beginnings in its promise to provide a clean, high-quality service every 10 minutes, promoting and connecting new developments in the downtown core.

Its big-ticket issue, however, lies in the fact that it was not planned around actually improving mobility. The resulting service was not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often slower than walking or cycling. It was easily and frequently disrupted by accidents, poorly parked cars, and a host of other issues.


Above video: Portland Streetcar gets stuck due to a poorly parked vehicle, in what would be a minor and avoidable adjustment for a bus.

The costs that the streetcar saddled the city with didn’t help the major funding shortages affecting region-wide transit in the late 2000s, resulting in massive service cuts and cancellations throughout the region. It was so bad that in 2009, the regional operator was forced to abolish its entire 15-minute frequent transit network due to lack of funds.

Throughout its history, the streetcar has also received service cutbacks – which arguably challenge the notion that rail has “permanence”. The streetcar has never once operated at the initially promised frequencies of 10 minutes. The cutbacks were initially to the point where you would have to wait as long for a streetcar in the supposedly-vibrant city centre, as you would for a bus in a lower-density part of Surrey.

The streetcar’s ridership is so low that only 6% of the streetcar’s operating costs comes from farebox recovery. 94% of operating costs must be subsidized, and the subsidy is so heavy that it has City Auditors concerned that the streetcar is taking away from other basic services.

“We remain concerned about how projects like Portland Streetcar displace other transportation services,” referring to street maintenance.
City audit questions management of Portland Streetcar – Apr 2014

What is clear about the Portland streetcar example is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference. They have added so little value, which ends up coming out negative against the funding issues that affected transit service throughout the region.

When the streetcars are unable to run due to an accident or some issue, the replacement shuttle buses are providing essentially the same service as the streetcars. It has had some people thinking whether Portland could follow examples here in Vancouver and in Seattle, launching a well-branded, electric trolley-bus service could have been more suitable for not just the streetcar routes, but other bus routes throughout the city as well.

A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Buses like these were paid for by the additional revenue raised through low-risk bonds.
TransLink operates several articulated trolley buses here in Vancouver.

Bridging the gap between BRT and LRT

Recently, consultant Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog (which as you’ll notice, I’ve already referenced a few times in this write-up) mentioned that when naturally low-performing local and suburban bus services are excluded from the picture, frequent bus service is nearly as cost-efficient as LRT (in terms of the cost for every rider on the end-service).

Many advocates of LRT would rather have you look at the bus vs LRT operating costs per rider, as they apply to the entire transit system. This creates misleading attitudes surrounding buses, because the numbers include the local and suburban bus services that are naturally poor-performing (and on top of that, will likely never be replaced/justified by an LRT, ever).

This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.
This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

The numbers above demonstrate that when you give buses the service quality and frequency usually associated with a more expensive LRT investment, they can be nearly as cost-efficient to operate. Likewise, if buses are also given the same amenities that add to comfort, image and sleekness, then they will likely be appreciated as much by the public.

BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. Many BRT systems have adopted innovative features that go a long way towards bridging the gap between BRT and LRT.

BRT advocates often cite examples in South America (such as Bogota, Colombia and others) that use BRT so extensively and so innovatively, that it is considered a replacement for heavy rail. I believe there is another worthy example that deserves some serious attention, and it’s within North America:

“Look ma, no hands”! In Eugene, Oregon, the “Emerald Express” BRT system adopted a magnetically-guided automated steering system, allowing the bus to make more precise turns and dock with precision at every BRT station. The revenue service of this guided system was introduced in June 2013 and is now celebrating its 2nd anniversary.

This guided BRT design allows for reduced lane-width requirements. Steering is automated through the electronic guidance, which only requires pavement under the wheel tracks. This provides an opportunity for the inclusion of additional green space between the tracks. The guided bus technique allows for “precision docking” at the stations.

(BRT project brief)

While the buses do need to be specially equipped, they can still run on other roads. This system does not require the extensive infrastructure and costs of previously-developed “guided” BRT systems, and can in fact save costs by allowing a tighter, narrower running right-of-way for rapid buses.

Showcase of Eugene, Oregon's Emerald Express. Taken from automated steering system study linked above.
Showcase of Eugene, Oregon’s Emerald Express right-of-way (from automated steering system study linked above)

It’s time to consider BRT

Where could you go with Bus Rapid Transit? I personally think that a lot of the potential of BRT systems is dismissed not necessarily because of disapproval, but also because the discussion is never really started. You would never be able to travel from King George & 88th and end up in South Surrey or even Coquitlam without transferring, on the currently proposed LRT system. Unfortunately, that’s been pushed out as a key consideration in transit planning here.

The Emerald Express is an excellent example of how current technology can be used to bridge the gap between BRT and LRT. And, on top of the examples showed in Eugene, there are so many other ways to “bridge the gaps”.

At this point, basically every heavily-promoted LRT feature can be replicated with BRT (and likewise, every streetcar feature with buses). Well-designed BRT systems incorporate lements such as: sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance. Hybrid diesel-electric or electric trolley buses can be used to lower or eliminate carbon emissions – and provide the smoother, non-jerky ride quality of electric vehicles. Plus, double-articulated buses are increasingly being used – giving a little more flexibility in terms of capacity (Light Rail’s current running advantage).

If BRT can gain more traction in this decade, it will pave the way for much better transit in all our cities, because BRT costs a lot less to implement, and has numerous flexibility advantages over Light Rail systems in urban settings. You could build more BRT than an LRT with the same dollar, and extend its reach further by through-running onto other corridors.

In order for this to happen, transit advocates must abandon any and all adherence to the “only rail creates development” myth. The fear-mongering, excuses and nay-saying from pro-LRT activists is becoming a serious setback to the realization of transit potential in our cities.

Concept image of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities.
My concept of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave in Surrey. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities. Through-running flexibility is a major BRT advantage that won’t be had by currently-proposed LRT.

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.

Langley and Legitimacy on Light Rail Concerns

Langley and Legitimacy on Light Rail Concerns

Responding to: “Light Rail Fear Mongering in Langley” – South Fraser Blog

I was quickly alerted to a new post on the South Fraser Blog, maintained by longtime transit guru Nathan Pachal, which attempts to poke holes in comments on the Surrey Light Rail proposal that were made by transportation engineer Paul Cordiero from the Township of Langley, as reported on the Langley Times newspaper.

The post reasons that the concerns raised by the Langley engineer are “fear mongering” against Light Rail in the South of Fraser. I believe this is a key problem, particularly with pro-Light Rail advocates: over the years I’ve observed the transit discussions in the South of Fraser, it has seemed like anyone who isn’t willing to be aboard with whatever touted ‘common-sense solution’ is immediately accused of fear-mongering.

See also: Rapid transit proposal questioned by Langley Township planner – Langley Times

On service,

The first thing Pachal contends against is the concern raised by Cordiero that a proposed Light Rail cannot match predicted travel times, and in doing so does not serve Langley residents well.

This is not “fear mongering”, and there are likely two main reasons for this:

Firstly, the TransLink-commissioned study does not grant Light Rail exclusive rights-of-way from end-to-end. Trams will share lanes with general traffic through a 2 km segment in Green Timbers Urban Forest – resembling streetcars more than full Light Rail. This would obviously have an effect on travel times, subjecting them to congestion conditions that will be increasing with the growth of Surrey City Centre.

Typical green timbers cross section - from the Surrey Rapid Transit Study design guide; TransLink/IBI Group
Typical Green Timbers cross section – from the Surrey Rapid Transit Study design guide; TransLink/IBI Group

This decision was made by the consultant in order to accommodate concerns about tree-cutting for a widened roadway through Green Timbers (where currently, Fraser Highway has 1 lane in each direction). The Green Timbers Advisory Committee had previously advised that the maximum width it will support for roads through Green Timbers is 27m (The Now Newspaper). This would support a SkyTrain viaduct fitting nicely in the roadway median, but not exclusive light rail tracks at grade-level. So this compromise was made for at-grade rail.

Secondly, the City of Surrey has been pushing to add additional stations to the proposed LRT. At least 3 stations are being added to the Fraser Highway route over the original plan, according to a recent interview on 24 Hours newspaper.

From my talks with City staff members, the push is apparently meant to take advantage of the lower costs of at-grade stations, and is being considered a way of “improving access”. Whether you agree or disagree with the merits, the extra stops will understandably have a negative effect on travel times to and from Langley.

With these reasons in mind, it would be impossible for the Light Rail as being discussed to maintain the initially promised travel time and would instead require 35 to 40 minutes. This is much more than the commonly accepted 29 minutes, and is also vastly higher than the 22 minute travel time being advertised on the City of Surrey’s website (not that the City of Surrey, nor Council, seem to have any intention of being honest with us anyway).

Advocates for better transit shouldn’t be dismissing the value of faster service, even if it comes with a higher capital cost. Here in Metro Vancouver, studies, surveys and the results of our transit projects have repeatedly demonstrated that travel time is one of the biggest factors in our commute mode choice.

Consider the Canada Line, which was opened to the public just over 5 years ago. The Canada Line opened to ridership levels that surpassed projections already high for North American rapid transit systems – allowing it to “break-even” (no subsidies, fare revenues cover all operating costs) more than 3 years ahead of schedule.

In an actual survey of Canada Line riders, trip time was found unanimouisly to be the most-liked aspect among surveyed riders – whether frequent or occasional. In essence, the Canada Line’s speed and reliability as a grade-separated system was a number one factor in attracting its record ridership.

Aspects of the Canada Line that people say they like the most continue to be trip speed (42%) followed by cleanliness of the system (15%) and the spaciousness of the train cars (12%).
(TransLink survey)

Nearly 6000 people per hour per direction commute daily on the Canada Line – this is an equivalent to 10 lanes of freeway traffic, taken off of city roads. It means communities along the line are safer, more vibrant, and more green. It means more people are leading active, healthy lifestyles.

We’ve repeated these kinds of results by introducing rapid service throughout the region. In the Township of Langley, the #555 Port Mann Bridge rapid bus service from Carvolth Exchange to the Millennium Line in Coquitlam, with a stop for access in Surrey, makes the trip within the span of 20 minutes – resulting in popular buses that are overcrowded, and a need to increase the service frequency.

With an at-grade Light Rail system, Langley City and area riders would be able to get as far as… Fleetwood… within 20 minutes. Less than halfway to the Fraser River. And that’s if there aren’t any service disruptions caused by accidents on Fraser Highway.

A SkyTrain extension from Surrey Central to Langley, which would allow commuters to travel as far as Waterfront Station from Langley Centre within the span of 60 minutes (22 minutes to Surrey Central, then 37 onward), granting access to essentially every major centre in the region within an hour and a half. Proposed Light Rail would require an extra transfer, and would limit options for commute times for Langley City residents who want to keep their transit commute within an hour to… New Westminster, or Surrey.

So, the Light Rail proposal risks having less quality access to our region – and, with many of the region’s new offices (and associated jobs) predicted to be in Vancouver due to over-supply (Langley Times), many new Langley residents could be left out of a non-stressful commute to their job unless they drive fully or partway as is habitual today.

No wonder the Township’s lead transportation engineer is not amused.

On value

Pachal then proceeds to make the common contention that an extension of SkyTrain down Fraser Highway to Langley City offers a poor value, because of its higher capital cost. This doesn’t really surprise me, because just about every pro-Light Rail advocate I have known here in this region has referenced the cost of SkyTrain as a big excuse.

“The Mayors’ Plan that people in Metro Vancouver are currently voting on would see light rail on King George Boulevard, 104th Avenue, and Fraser Highway. If SkyTrain was built instead, it could only be on King George Boulevard or Fraser Highway, not both.”
(South Fraser Blog)

However, Light Rail advocates have often dismissed another idea that would give everyone involved a high-quality transit service for a lower cost: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

The same Surrey rapid transit study being referenced by this article found that a BRT service on King George Boulevard and 104th Avenue would match Light Rail travel time savings (or exceed them), provide enough capacity to meet demand, and can be implemented in conjunction with a SkyTrain extension to Langley for the same cost as proposed Light Rail.

In fact, it is already partially in-place: the 96 B-Line rapid bus service between Guildford and Newton via Surrey Centre uses some transit priority lanes on King George Blvd (particularly at 96th, 88th and 76th Avenues) and offers a nominal travel time of 26 minutes, which is within 1 minute of future Light Rail.

Concept image of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave. Note the continuation of the 3 different routes to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities. This is what's possible with BRT.
Concept image of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave. Note the continuation of the 3 different routes to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities. This is what’s possible with BRT.

Such a rapid bus service would also come with a critical advantage over Light Rail Transit: buses can be through-run onto other transit corridors, letting riders access more places faster.

As an example, one could start at a rapid bus-way station on King George Blvd., and from there have the choice of travelling as far as Cloverdale (via 64th Ave), Scottsdale (via 72nd Ave) or South Surrey going southbound; and Coquitlam (via the Port Mann Bridge), Maple Ridge (via the Golden Ears Bridge) or Carvolth Exchange (via Highway 1) going northbound; without having to transfer to a different service.

Rapid bus services are also not affected by accidents to the extent that would affect at-grade, on-street rail. Buses can easily detour around a blocked bus-way (which would otherwise close a Light Rail line), or be guided around the accident scene by traffic safety personnel, with minimal disruption to riders.

On collisions

Speaking of accidents,

I’m very concerned about Pachal’s dismissal of the idea that we should be concerned about accidents on an on-street Light Rail, which has been based on a vague notion that other light rail systems on the continent have “excellent safety records”.

Pachal followed up to someone’s comment on this matter, by referencing a 2009 study on U.S. light rail systems that claims Light Rail Transit to be the safest. I think it’s a little sneaky to make such a conclusion out of a study that is now over 5 years old, and doesn’t compare Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems on exclusive rights-of-way.

(More ironically, what that study did find is that the majority of accidents on rail systems are collisions on Light Rail lines. Page 27, Nathan! Page 27!)

Accidents and collisions are as much as legitimate concern as any other.

Let’s imagine a scenario: no overpass was built to bring Light Rail on Fraser Highway over Highway 15. Eventually, a vehicle-train collision happens at the busy intersection of Fraser Hwy. and Highway 15, at a busy time of day.

Actually, let’s not even involve a train. It’s a multiple-vehicle accident, but there were no trains. Regardless, these accidents affect Light Rail service too, because the aftermath is blocking the Light Rail tracks – and that means shuttle buses need to ferry passengers between the two nearest stations. This is what the experience might look like for the unfortunate transit rider:

LRT accident on Fraser and 15 simulation
SIMULATION: You’re commuting westbound, but an accident blocking Light Rail tracks has closed the line at Fraser Highway and Highway 15. This is how your commute might look like. Disclaimer: Time estimates may or may not be accurate, tried my best here.

It takes 15 minutes before you’re able to get on a shuttle bus. Once on, you suffer through numerous traffic jams as both Fraser Highway and Highway 15 traffic must detour via narrow, surrounding roads to get around the closed intersection. The closure and disruption lasts for hours, perhaps even for the rest of the day – it will last however long is required for the police to complete their scene investigation.

What I just described is a regular occurence in Light Rail backbone cities. It has a major effect on transit ridership – there isn’t a single Light Rail system of any length in Canada or the United States that can match the ridership numbers on our SkyTrain (our Canada Line alone outperforms the entire 84km Portland MAX LRT system in ridership!) both in terms of the entire system, and on a per-km basis. (Source: APTA data compilations; easy comparisons available on Wikipedia – [1][2])

In these cities, it’s not difficult to spot the occasional mention of accidents and the associated service disruptions on the local news:

From The Seattle Times, 2011:
From The Seattle Times, 2011: “Light-rail service was held up for three hours Tuesday after a train struck a pickup at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Dawson Street.”

Ironically, Pachal himself noted this difference in reliability just a few days ago, when he compared our SkyTrain system to Seattle’s Sound Transit LRT:

From South Fraser Blog: Comparing Seattle and Vancouver Transit Performance. Within +- 2 min TransLink, +/- 3 min Sound Transit.

and Portland’s MAX LRT system:

From South Fraser Blog: Comparing Portland's TriMet to TransLink
From South Fraser Blog: Comparing Portland’s TriMet to TransLink

So I am taken aback as to why he would be dismissing it today.

A fully-grade separated SkyTrain line would avoid these issues altogether – all the money we would lose on damages, insurance, light-rail vehicle repairs, property damage and other related costs would remain unspent, unharmed, untouched.

But let’s say that instead, we allowed decision-makers to proceed with at-grade rail. Now, thousands of Fraser Highway transit riders are unhappy – and they might have already switched to other means. They have realized that the transit meltdown they just faced – which fared worse than even the worst transit meltdowns when SkyTrain has had to shut-down its service – is something that can happen on a regular basis. They might even remember that in the past they didn’t have to get off the bus (now tram), stand in the rain while waiting for a shuttle, or necessarily even sit through too much traffic if the bus can take a wider detour.

Service disruptions can affect SkyTrain too, but it is rare enough that it doesn’t cause massive, permanent shifts among riders. Despite last summer’s SkyTrain “meltdown” events, ridership on the SkyTrain has increased year-over-year, according to APTA data found by South Fraser Blog.

Light Rail riders could be at the mercy of one of several hundreds of accidents at different points along the line each year, according to observations from ICBC. The proposed Light Rail will be running through some of the region’s most dangerous intersections: King George and 88th Ave, or 72nd Ave. 104th Ave and 152nd St. This could have a major effect on the usefulness of our South-of-Fraser system – because all of it is expected to be running in the median, on-street, entirely at-grade and through busy intersections.

On the other hand, the six Light Rail systems with “excellent safety records” that are mentioned by Pachal in his article tend to actually avoid on-street alignments, in favour of fully exclusive alignments that do not have regular conflicts with cars and pedestrians.

Calgary's new West LRT is almost completely grade-separated. Image: Harris Rebar
Calgary’s new West LRT is almost completely… grade-separated. Image: Harris Rebar

Lately more and more of them have featured segments with extensive grade-separation, as if trying desperately to be more like our SkyTrain system.

A legitimate criticism or an old feud?

The feeling I get from reading Pachal’s write-up is that he hasn’t properly read through the report by the Langley Times, let alone the full text of Cordeiro’s letter (which is not publicly available as I have not read it either). While I can’t be totally sure, today’s write-up appears to have been motivated moreso by a past conflict with Cordiero than any serious concern about public transit in the future South of Fraser.

Pachal was among the pro-Light Rail community members who were brought into the transit discussion circle by the sensation surrounding the B.C.E.R. interurban right-of-way, and its potential to be repurposed for public transit. The South Fraser Blog’s predecessor, the non-profit “South Fraser on Trax” association, was lead by Pachal among others as a dedicated advocacy for transit on the Interurban (you can see plenty of this history on Wayback machine).

Cordiero, on the other hand, happened to not be in support of this solution. And, in the opening lines of this article, Pachal references Cordeiro’s previous concerns (along with his criticisms of Cordeiro’s concerns) on Light Rail, especially one built on the Interurban corridor.

As the Surrey Rapid Transit Study made a final dismissal of the Interurban corridor (and offered reasonable claims regarding its lack of viability), the “South Fraser on Trax” name has faded out from the regional view – and the other supposed big advocacy organization for expanded Valley transit, appropriately titled… “Rail for the Valley”, has been reduced from an active, multi-person organization to a blog with one main, angry contributor who doesn’t seem to be too concerned with our regional outlook so much as his personal obsession with Light Rail. In fact, that organization (if it still exists) has yet to make a single comment about the new “Fraser Valley Express” rapid bus service from Langley to Chiliwack, which I would have considered to be a major step forward in fulfilling their wishes.

More and more I have noticed from these blogs and groups (or the remnants of these groups) that a genuine concern and care about transit, and good insight into transit-related issues, has been missing. It’s as if the one-sided push for Light Rail has turned into a last-resort motivation – and at the moment it’s not doing anyone any good.

I have appreciated the South Fraser blog for lending a generally consistent voice that is in favour of better transit in Metro Vancouver, and so I am disappointed to see that inconsistency here today. I also think this signals the need to open up some serious discussions regarding what exactly (i.e. whose dollars, and influence?) is fueling this dying – yet undying – one-sided motivation for Light Rail.

No Credit for TransLink: Nitpicking at the wrong details

No Credit for TransLink: Nitpicking at the wrong details

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr

In the latest fiery TransLink shake-up last week, Global News decided to investigate the transit operator’s executive car allowances, demanding more detailed information through a freedom-of-information (FOI) request.

According to the FOI, last year seven executives each received a monthly vehicle allowance of $950 to $1,200 to maintain their personal vehicles and get to their meetings.  When you include the executives parking expenses, the total bill equates to more than $94,000.

The new info added plenty of fuel to the TransLink hate-on, as critics began examining the numbers and coming up with all sorts of conclusions. Questions have been raised on the amount of the monthly allowance, and on why executive aren’t making more use of the SkyTrain station next to the corporate headquarters.

It was probably no surprise that the whole reveal was likely lead on by Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation critic Jordan Bateman, who lead the comments on Global’s news article and was allowed to make this blatantly rhetorical statement on TV:

“They want you to take transit, maybe so that you can clear the roads so that they can drive their fancy cars to their headquarters”

Seriously though?

Has anyone spared a thought that if a TransLink executive needed to get to a meeting in Clayton Heights or Langley, the reason they probably wouldn’t be taking the SkyTrain and the #502 bus is because it could displace another passenger down the road on one of the region’s most notorious routes for pass-ups?

A Reality Check

All sorts of taxpayer-supported government agencies and crown corporations are given a car allowance as part of their benefits – and TransLink’s executive allowances are not on the high end. I actually find it impressive that TransLink is being given only just over $1000 in monthly car allowances to roam around North America’s largest service area, whereas other taxpayer-supported authorities are being given far more for their cars.

Councillors in the City of Surrey have been getting twice that to roam largely within their own cities (in 2011, then-Councillor Marvin Hunt rang taxpayers over $2000 in car allowance expenses).

With the burning trails of TransLink hate bright in the eyes of many people, it’s no wonder that Global would run this story. It’s even worded and executed as if to try and convince people that it’s something new – that it’s something they don’t know. No doubt when people hear the words “freedom of information” or “FOI”, it suggests that whoever’s being questioned is trying to hide something – in this case, that it’s more money than what we already know is being paid. However, the remuneration numbers in TransLink’s salary disclosure document did include car allowances:

“Remuneration” includes any form of salary, wages, overtime pay, vacation, banked time payout, car allowance, cleaning allowance and other taxable benefit paid during the year. Certain remuneration does not include any non-taxable benefits or any amounts payable under a severance agreement (2013 TransLink salary disclosure, page 9)

That means that the car allowance number being reported by Global is a part of the reported base salary number – for reference, this number for CEO Ian Jarvis is about $330,000 (page 71). It’s merely a detail in an existing pay number that is being nitpicked at.

I know that executive pay rates in the midst of a transit funding crisis is an issue, but I want to raise this question: should this detail even matter? Especially with a referendum that could be dominated by a short-sighted anti-TransLink vote?

And, where is the news coverage on the details that really should matter? Whereas big television news and media outlets are quick to jump on anything that could be considered taxpayer waste by TransLink, when TransLink does something unique among transit agencies in Canada to save taxpayers millions of dollars they just don’t give TransLink credit where credit is due.

Wake up, Vancouver: TransLink is working to save you money

Just a few days ago, TransLink announced that it had pulled in $130 million through a unique method of revenue-raising: low risk bonds. TransLink is the only transportation authority in Canada to raise funds directly through safe and low-risk Canadian debt capital markets. The program helps fund needed capital investments and maintenance costs, and has saved taxpayers over $1 billion since 2010.

“The demand for our bonds reflects TransLink’s solid financial position, and it shows strong investor confidence in the organization,” said TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis in a statement. “This access to capital helps keep Metro Vancouver’s transit and road network moving and contributes to the maintenance of transportation assets so they serve the region for years to come.”

See also: TransLink raises $130 million in bond issue – Vancity Buzz

So far the only media outlet that is willing to bat an eye is the Vancity Buzz, and I think that really says something about the quality of the media we rely on today here in Metro Vancouver.