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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- the level and coverage of bus connector services on ridership;
- parking at the more popular Evergreen stations;
- 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
- 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|
|Boston||MBTA light rail (LRT)||214,500||8,250|
|Edmonton||Light Rail Transit (LRT)||98,144*||7,550|
|San Francisco||Muni Metro (LRT)||145,500||4,076|
|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)
|New York City||19,831,858||3,893,854||196|
|San Francisco Bay||6,349,948||476,219||75|
|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
I am pleased to announce that I’ve received word through forum networks such as Skyscraperpage and CPTDB that new buses coming to Surrey Transit Centre will be 60-foot hybrid articulated buses for the 96 B-Line.
This newest bus order is being assigned to both Surrey and Burnaby Transit Centres to replace old articulated buses due for retirement, and the first buses will be arriving later this month. They will be similar to the 12000-series Xcelsior XDE60s (pictured above) currently being used on routes in Richmond and Vancouver.
The new buses will feature a hybrid diesel-electric transmission to improve energy-efficiency and solve the ride jerky-ness of plain diesel buses, offering smoother and higher quality rides. LED lighting will be used along with a better-optimized seating layout. Finally, these buses will be air-conditioned, giving Surrey riders a more comfortable experience in warmer summer months.
Surrey’s 96 B-Line, linking Newton Exchange with Guildford Town Centre through Surrey Central, was originally made possible with a transfer of 11 of the region’s oldest articulated buses (S8001-8011) to Surrey Transit Centre in late 2013. These buses were the first “B-Line” buses brought to the region to service the #99 B-Line back in 1998.
Due to their age, the old buses aren’t always available; standard-size buses are often used as a substitute when one of the articulated buses is in for repairs or maintenance.
The upcoming XDE60’s will let the old buses be retired, while giving the city 12 of the fleet’s newest articulated buses (one additional bus!). This will ensure that every bus running on the 96 is articulated.I look forward to the arrivals of S15001-S15012. As a regular 96 B-Line user I’m excited for the new transit experience that these new buses will bring for Surrey transit riders.
I’m also excited for the potential they have in demonstrating BRT (bus rapid transit) as an option for improving transit the city. As some of you know, I have been a strong proponent of a BRT network and SkyTrain expansion over the currently proposed Light Rail Transit network in Surrey.
A Bus Rapid Transit network would reduce transfers by enabling buses to through-run onto corridors like 72nd Ave or continuously down King George Blvd. to White Rock Centre. Riders on the corridor could then use buses for longer-distance commutes with less transferring. This would also cut down on the amount of transfer line-ups that crowd buses and space at transit centres such as Newton Exchange.
It would be less disruptive to build BRT infrastructure compared to LRT infrastructure, with the potential to build gradually and avoid the service disruptions riders would face with edge-to-edge street construction required for an LRT system. A BRT system would also cost less to operate; City officials have still not demonstrated what the plan is to pay for $22 million in annual deficits for operations of the city’s LRT network.
There’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to the big numbers that define the planning of transit systems in Canada. It’s particularly evident when transit technology becomes a matter of discussion.
Of course, millions of dollars are at stake. So there’s no doubt that when the cost estimate for a major project is higher by so much as a few million dollars, it’s the kind of thing that sends transit advocates scrambling to get attention and some people in the media practically screaming.
So I decided to take all the recent and upcoming Light Rail projects in Canada, research their costs and alignment details, and put them in a table for proper comparison. I put the data in a Google spreadsheet:
All projects were included regardless of technology. Alignment was divided by percentage and split into/measured in 7 categories: on-street, above-grade (i.e. elevated), below-grade (i.e. tunnel, open cut), disused R.O.W. (i.e. railway R.O.W., other empty lands), bored tunnel (the most expensive kind of tunnelling), shared-lane (on-street in mixed traffic like a streetcar), and the total at-grade percentage.
Since the transit planning complaints here in Vancouver always seem to be directed at grade-separation, I decided to focus on seeing if there was a cost trend regarding the amount of grade separation for the line.
Same data as above, but sorted by amount of grade-separation
What I found is that there is a trend that occurs when the chart data is pinpointed on a graph and assessed by percentage, but it’s very inconsistent and the projects are all over the map:
Several projects end up below the average and several end up above it. As an example, there’s a difference in the four projects on this chart closest to the 100% mark. The highest mark is for the proposed Scarborough extension of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line, which will be fully underground. The lowest mark is from the estimate for a SkyTrain Expo Line extension in Surrey, which will be fully grade-separated but built in an elevated guideway as opposed to a tunnel.
Despite the use of grade-separation, many of the highest-cost projects are not fully grade-separated and feature many at-grade segments that can limit potential. Even projects with only about 20% grade-separation can come close to or even breach $200 million per km.
In order to account for the differences associated with much more expensive below-grade (tunnelled) segments, I took the data and assessed it by percentage below-grade and found a much steeper and more consistent trend-line:
The amount of systems at the 100% mark has decreased from 4 to 3, and the trend-line now hits the middle of these three dots. The middle dot, closest to the line, is the current ongoing extension of Toronto’s Yonge-University Spadina subway line. The lowest dot is the cost estimate for the ‘Broadway Subway’ (the Millennium Line’s proposed extension down Broadway), which is below the trend-line but is built around a medium-capacity system unlike Toronto’s fully-fledged, high-capacity subway.
Still, there are some differences to account for in terms of alignment. At the 45-50% mark there are two projects that deviate both from the trend-line and from each other.
The higher of these two marks, at $279 million per km, is the Eglinton Crosstown LRT being built in Toronto. The Crosstown was planned as an on-street LRT system, but the central portion will be placed in a 10km dual underground bored tunnel, which spans more than half of the final construction. The lower of these two marks is actually our SkyTrain system’s Canada Line. The Canada Line is a fully grade-separated light metro and a slightly higher total percentage of it is below grade. However, only a much smaller portion of this is expensive bored tunnel – the rest was done as less expensive cut-and-cover. Therefore, it manages to be less expensive despite the full grade-separation.
To account for that difference I created one more plot excluding everything but projects with bored tunnel segments. The plot line managed to stay the almost same, and the relationship between high capital costs and tunnels is thus made clear:
Since only 13% of the Canada Line was built in a bored tunnel, it is now to the left of where it was in the last chart and sitting very close to the trend-line (the Eglinton Crosstown is also closer to the trend-line). Meanwhile, our Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which encountered challenging soils with its single tunnel bore, is right on the trend-line when set amongst the other systems.
Canada can’t be compared to Europe
The Tyee has probably been one of the most prominent to sound the cost-comparison alarm when they published a 2012 article titled, “Why Is TransLink’s Price for Light Rail Triple What Other Cities Pay?”
This article surmised that our Light Rail cost estimates are triple what they should be, based on cost estimates being about one-third as much in European and American cities. (And it was, of course, brought up as a way of hurling tomatoes at the idea of a Broadway Subway line – which is still a great idea for a number of reasons).
Interestingly, of all the American cities that could’ve been chosen in the comparison, it was Minneapolis and its Hiawatha Blue Line. This comparison is invalid as over 80% of the line is placed in either disused R.O.W. or tunnel, with only 20% of it being on-street. All of the other examples are from cities in Europe.
Regardless of whether you believe these numbers or not, the reality is that transit projects and their costs are more complicated than being able to be broken down into a simple cost-per-km value that can apply nationwide, across nations, or across transit projects. There are differences in labour laws, work schedule expectations, material costs, acquisition costs, logistics costs, varying land values, differences in local terrain and differences in economy. All of these need to be accounted for and thus it can’t be assumed that a transit project that cost a certain amount in Europe (or any other country, really) could be replicated in Canada for a similar cost.
Here in Vancouver, for example, any big rapid transit projects are likely to cost more than anywhere else in Canada simply because the higher cost of land would likely significantly raise the costs of project elements such as the operations & maintenance centre (OMC).
Despite this, at the end of the day, both the Broadway Subway and the LRT proposals were consistent with the trendlines across Canadian rapid transit systems.
To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:
From the wide spectrum in cost of what would otherwise be similar at-grade, on-street LRTs, it may appear that The Tyee would have a point. Even this can be explained, however. The two lowest-cost systems on this chart are Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION rapid transit and the proposed Victoria LRT system. They also happen to have the highest percentages (44% and 31% respectively) on a disused right-of-way (i.e. beside a railway), which is the least expensive place to build any transit because there’s no utility removal, property acquisition or street-scaping work adding to the cost.
In the middle are the Mississauga and Hamilton systems, which are slightly lower than the big-city systems in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto (they are also among the 3 systems with occasional mixed-traffic rights-of-way), which seems just right to me. The Mississauga system (Hurontario LRT), in particular, is being built on a wide roadway that in most places still has significant allocations on either side where the roadway can be expanded if necessary (in other words, there’s almost no property acquisition).
The cost for a Broadway LRT system is certainly on the high-end of the spectrum. This makes sense as a Broadway system would need to offer the highest capacity of all of these systems and would face street-scaping challenges with the need to stay within property lines (though this won’t stop property acquisitions from being necessary at station locations). There’s also the uncertainty around an OMC, which would have likely had to be built underground and/or expensively due to the lack of lands along Broadway and high land costs in Vancouver.
In the end, the amount of bored tunnel has a somewhat linear relation with project costs – but grade-separation altogether does not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid building systems with bored tunnel segments from end-to-end (at the end of the day, whether to go that far or not should come down to detailed evaluations of each corridor and transportation needs), but what I do hope to achieve with this article is to facilitate an improvement in the discussion of rapid transit projects (Especially capital costs, since it seems to be the only thing people want to talk about when thinking of rapid transit projects – I, of course, completely disagree).
It’s time to stop thinking that we can build paradise if we replicate the results of other countries, at the costs those other countries experience – it’s impossible. Let’s build transit systems that are adapted to the way our cities work, so that we are sure to be rewarded with positive outcomes.
The sun is rising over a quiet city, where the lights inside 13 new rapid transit stations turn on and the first station staff make their way down the relatively unused escalators to prepare to open the platforms for the first wave of customers.
The familiar hum of a linear induction motor system populates the station as the first of 15 four-car trains rolls in from the maintenance yard, ready to board passengers for the first service of the day.
If you think I’m describing an event in Vancouver, you would be wrong because I am describing what’s happening right now in a major Japanese city, one that decided to build a brand new rapid transit line with the same SkyTrain technology developed in Canada and pioneered here in Vancouver.
Sendai, Japan is the city that was hit hard during the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The completion of the new Tozai Line, a 14km rapid transit subway with both underground and elevated stations, has turned the page for the city, marking its vibrance and prosperity as it progresses in its recovery from the devastation of 4 years ago.
I went back to Sendai for a business trip, and it also happened to be the day the Tozai line opened to the public. It was crazy! The city and its people are treating it like a big event!
-Ryukyurhymer from Skyscrapercity (LINK)
Videos and photos of the launch celebrations show thousands of people making use of the new system, and celebrations ranging from idol girl groups performing on the station platforms, local sports team mascots out to celebrate, men in samurai outfits, traditional dance performances on board the trains, and picnics at the park beside the train’s visible elevated section. It is a lively hustle and bustle and the mood appears to be as festive as when I visited Sendai just 4 months ago to attend the city’s most famous Tanabata Festival, as part of my 1-year Japan studies journey. It is arguably the biggest occurrence in the city since this August and the biggest revolution for the city since the first steps in recovery were made after 2011.
Since the first km of demonstration track opened in early 1983 here in Vancouver, SkyTrain technology has made its way around the world with just over 20 systems complete or being proposed in 15 cities worldwide. We have reinvested in it and expanded our system several times, yet we’ve been overtaken by a certain Guangzhou, China that has made a monstrous investment in this technology with over 99km of track – reaching 130km by next year.
Sendai’s will to revitalize their city with the help of a technology pioneered here in Vancouver, Canada should be seen as a wonderful treat and a mark of our contributions to this technology’s progress, and a reminder of the big impacts we can make with choices that we would otherwise deem irrelevant. Sendai’s choice of SkyTrain technology will help the city fast-track its ongoing recovery from the events of 4 years ago.
The line will serve 80,000 riders a day next year, with an additional 3% more estimated to come each year and grow the system’s ridership. According to the schedule on the city’s website, trains will run every 3-4 minutes during peak hours and no less frequently than every 7.5 minutes at off-peak times and weekends – an excellent service standard for a medium-sized city of 1 million people.
The new line is already enabling new transit-oriented development nodes in the city, maximizing the line’s potential and giving a nod to the transit-oriented development practices that Greater Vancouver pioneered for every city in North America.
In an area around Arai Station, work to establish a new community of nearly 20,000 people is progressing. Public apartments have been built for those affected by the tsunami, with people moving there from areas closer to the Pacific coast as part of a collective relocation program. (The Japan Times)
We should celebrate a technology that’s made an impact around the world
As a result of the practical research for three years from Fiscal 1985, we confirmed that low-cost subway “Linear Metro” that has been developed as a public transport is suitable for regional hub city as a semi-main metropolitan line or branch line. For this reason, the Japan Subway Association established the “Linear Metro Promotion Headquarters” within the association in October 1988.
Japanese researchers started studying linear induction motors (LIMs) as train propulsion in 1985. After Osaka built Japan’s first LIM line (the Nagahori Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line), it was found that the city had saved approximately 20% in construction costs. This is one of the key advantages that come with LIMs – the less-complicated motors enable trains to have lower platform heights, which means tunnels can be significantly smaller and less costly without impacting the quality of service. There is no doubt that with the majority of Sendai’s new subway line tunneled, millions in cost savings were found with the use of SkyTrain technology.
This same advantage was directly to blame for the use of an existing railway tunnel on our Expo Line SkyTrain downtown, a choice that saved us hundreds of millions of dollars as a traditional light rail system would have required new and larger tunnels to be dug under our downtown core.
“The new line is a symbol of development for the disaster-hit Arai district. I hope the Tozai Line will play a major role in leading the city.”
– Emiko Okuyama, Mayor of Sendai (The Japan Times)
Sendai’s system brings the amount of in-service SkyTrain technology systems from 17 to 18. 14 cities/areas are currently using SkyTrain technology, and a 15th (Okinawa Island, also in Japan) has declared its use for a major future transit investment.
I am pleased to hear about and report on this successful launch, and I encourage all of us in Vancouver to cheer this Japanese city and its people in celebrating a brand new era of progress and motion.
Local news report (Japanese)
Watch trains arrive and depart at Sendai Central Station
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.
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.
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.
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
SkyTrain is a viable option
If SkyTrain is extended down Fraser Hwy. to Langley, it will carry 5443 riders per km on opening day.4 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.
According to data from the 2012 TransLink/MOTI joint study
Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis (SRTAA) Phase 2 Evaluation
Available at [LINK HERE]
- SRTAA PAGE 369; Undiscounted value; measured over 30 years, with costs increasing to 2041 on year 2041
- ProTransBC (operator) website – http://www.protransbc.com/service-performance/
- TransLink media release – Addressing Canada Line capacity questions
- See SRTAA PAGE 301 for ridership estimates (divided by track lengths listed on SRTAA P. 347)
- Based on APTA ridership data from Q4 2014
- See attached graphic, or SRTAA PAGE 369
- Suggested on SRTAA PAGE 536: “For RRT 1A, savings of $170 million”
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:
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.
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.”
According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:
- Strong government support for redevelopment
- Real estate market conditions
- 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.