The Real Evergreen Line Story

The Real Evergreen Line Story

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Were SkyTrain and LRT compared properly?

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

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

Capital cost estimates

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

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

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

See: Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operating costs

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

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

Travel times

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

Evergreen Line graphic
Open to enlarge

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

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

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

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

Maximum speed

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

2. Was ridership over-estimated?

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

Open to enlarge
Open to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  How are we going to measure performance?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jaded by SkyTrain and a lack of LRT

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

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

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

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

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

SkyTrain ridership/km vs. other transit systems

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

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

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


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

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

Data above from South Fraser Blog

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

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


Featured: Evergreen Line construction image posted by nname on SkyscraperPage

Next-generation buses coming to 96 B-Line

Next-generation buses coming to 96 B-Line

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.

XDE60
One of the upcoming buses, pictured by Wade B on Flickr; licensed CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
coast_mountain_bus_company_8001-a
96 B-Line waiting to depart Guildford Exchange

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.

Surrey Plan Full Cleaned Up FINAL CROP BRT MAP
[OPEN TO ENLARGE] Concept of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave.
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.

b822206843z-1_20151116110958_000_g0j1j560t-3_gallery
This is an actual photo of LRT construction work in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, and shows the reality that Surrey commuters will have to face if the City moves ahead with an LRT.

Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

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.

Trends

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:

Percentage below or above-grade
Open to enlarge

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.

Below-grade segments

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:

Percentage below-grade
Open to enlarge

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.

2012210-eglinton-lrt
The vast majority of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be placed in a large and expensive underground tunnel

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.

Bored tunnels

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:

Percentage bored
Open to enlarge

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).

14532657623_ab73087347
Nice try, Tyee – but the Hiawatha Blue Line is largely off-street and incomparable to Broadway!

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.

On-street LRTs

To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:

Percentage on-street LRTs
Open to enlarge

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.

highway_401_at_hurontario_street_9192877703
With a right-of-way this wide, the Hurontario LRT is not going to need a lot of property acquisition.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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.

Edmonton cheats riders on new LRT service

Edmonton cheats riders on new LRT service

Delay after delay after delay after delay after delay. I thought at the end of the tunnel there would be at least a five-minute frequency train.
Josh Stock – Edmonton transit user

Global Television reports that the City of Edmonton has deceived its residents on the service frequency of its new LRT line.

See: Concerns raised about train frequency on Metro LRT Line – Edmonton (Global News)

The 3.3km “Metro Line” LRT has already been a victim of multiple delays. It was initially planned to open last year (2014), but has passed opening deadline after deadline, including the latest deadline which mentioned the line would open in May (it is now June). Despite having more on-street segments than previous LRT extensions, it has cost more per km than the fully grade-separated SkyTrain Evergreen Line.

And now, in order to “open the new line faster”, trains on the new LRT line will be running at just every 15 minutes, less than half the initially promised frequency on opening day. In addition to that, the line will not run its full length during off-peak hours, requiring a lengthy transfer for all transit passengers looking to get from one end of the line to the other.

Graphic from Tonia Huynh, Global News
Graphic from Tonia Huynh, Global News

Opening the Metro Line will also require a frequency reduction on existing LRT, on the north portion of the existing Capital Line LRT. From an existing peak service of 5 minutes, the Capital Line to the north will now run at an “alternating frequency of 5 or 10 minutes”, seriously inconveniencing existing riders.

Apart from the reduction in service, the arrangement has received significant criticism for potentially confusing passengers as they face changing service patterns – and in some cases, totally removed service.

So we’re going to have a 10-minute frequency after hockey games at Rogers Place and they’re only going to be three cars in length. That’s insane. How are you going to fit all those people on there?
Josh Stock – Edmonton transit user

To make matters worse… once the Metro Line finally runs on its regular schedule, the trains will be running every 10 minutes – half of the initially promised 5 minute frequency.

This flies against comments made by Dorian Wandzura, Edmonton’s general manager of transportation services. In January, he said that trains on the Metro Line would be running every 5 minutes – and that trains on the combined section with the Capital Line would then be running every two-and-a-half minutes apart.

Each train running down the Capital Line is five minutes apart. When you integrate the Metro Line it will be running two-and-a-half minutes apart.
Dorian Wandzura – general manager of transportation services

The reason this isn’t happening apparently has partly to do with safety issues running LRT trains every 2.5 minutes, on the combined section from Churchill to Century Park. But it also has to do with patronage – ridership levels obviously do not demand LRT trains every 2.5 minutes, permitting the lower frequency.

Now, the City is saying that…

Should council in the future decide that people, residents want more service then we could by all means order more trains.
John Wollenzin – Division supervisor of LRT Operations

To conclude, it would appear that the city-owned Edmonton Transit System has abandoned its initial service promise – as if there was never an intent to run trains at the promised frequency of 5 minutes, deceiving everyone who has been looking forward to using the new line.

There were also 20 brand new train-cars ordered for the new Metro LRT that will go largely unused because of the reduction in train frequency…

A major warning sign for Surrey

A SkyTrain extension down Fraser Highway would be integrated with the existing Expo Line, offering through service without transfers to Surrey Central and as far as downtown Vancouver, with an end-to-end travel time of 59 minutes from Langley Centre to Waterfront. Unfortunately, the city of Surrey has been nplanning for a surface Light Rail system similar to the Metro Line introduced in Edmonton.

Surrey’s proposed at-grade LRT system will face a similar segment requiring interlining of LRT trains, between King George Station and Surrey Central Station. This is required so that trains from Fraser Highway can have a through service to Surrey Central, where City Hall, City Centre Library and the SFU and upcoming KPU campuses are located.

Development diagram at The Hub (King George Station), showing Fraser Highway LRT line merging with King George/104 Ave LRT line
Development diagram at The Hub (King George Station), showing Fraser Highway LRT line merging with King George/104 Ave LRT line

Trains on each of the two LRT lines are promised to run every 5 minutes, according to the City website. That means they will be running every 2.5 minutes on the combined, on-street section to Surrey Central.

If the City of Surrey were to face the same issues as Edmonton, it could mean some unprecedented and unacceptable service changes to riders. As an example, trains from the Fraser Highway line might be required to terminate at King George – necessitating that all riders transfer to other LRT or SkyTrain service in order to reach SFU or City Hall.

Neither the City or TransLink have specified how Fraser Highway line trains will be turned around at Surrey Central Station, without impacting the service of other through trains (such cases generally require larger stations with multiple platforms).

The new Metro Line LRT will have its frequency reduced from the get-go from 5 minutes to 10 minutes. I can only imagine what kind of disdain that would cause among transit riders in Surrey, if a similar reduction were to be made for LRT on opening day (which would make the new LRT less frequent than the 96 B-Line was at introduction!).


It’s also noteworthy that Edmonton’s Metro Line will be opening more than 1 year behind schedule when it finally does open. Despite its relative shortness (3.3km), it has been under construction since 2010. It took 3 years to build out the Metro Line by July 2013, after which trains began testing for approximately 1 year.

By comparison, our city Mayor Linda Hepner expects (having actually promised it during her election campaign) that the first phase 10km Surrey LRT will be complete in 2018. This would require construction and testing to begin and end within 3 years, which has never been done in North American history; and if the Edmonton timeline says anything, it says that Mayor Hepner and the Surrey First party are going to be in trouble during the next elections.

Clearly, the City of Surrey is on track to face a comparable disaster with its upcoming LRT system. Taxpayers, voters and city stakeholders have already been cheated multiple times by the misleading from LRT supporters.

It would be wise and best for Mayor Linda Hepner to abandon her LRT promise now with an apology note to City residents, than face accountability for her failed promise closer to the next municipal elections.

Referendum Myths: TransLink Inefficiency

Referendum Myths: TransLink Inefficiency

Let’s talk about TransLink and Inefficiency.

But first, I’m going to have to call into question whether we really know what “efficiency” is.

The big supporters of the “No TransLink Tax” campaign for the upcoming transit referendum have always relied on (and continue to establish) a perception that TransLink needs to improve its efficiency game. I think we’ve pretty much heard all the insults: TransLink is unaccountable, inefficient, doesn’t make good use of taxpayers’ money – and with every time we hear it from them, some sort of particular example is attached of money not being used as well as it could be.

(CTF gives TransLink waste award search result) - Look what I found on the news today! But, is anyone really surprised at this point? I'm not.
Look what I found on the news today! Is anyone really surprised at this point, though? Anyone?

The “No” campaign relies on many of these small-scale examples to feed their perception and drive their agenda. They can be real or manufactured: the examples may vary from a small TransLink funding contribution to the infamous “Main St. Poodle” public art display, free coffee for staff, or even a security failure in 2010 that would likely be best attributed to one or more people but not the entire organization.

There’s a whole list on the campaign website – and a new example gets published every day. It seems that “no” campaigners will look for any excuse: even relics from before TransLink’s creation – such as an upgrade that was denied to the SkyTrain system in the pre-TransLink, B.C. Transit era – are among the list of TransLink criticisms. Obviously, no one’s going to like the notion of a few hundred thousand dollars being dedicated to art when some SkyTrain stations don’t even have escalators. But at the end of the day, it really shouldn’t be too hard to notice that “No” critics have been only looking at the little picture while largely ignoring the big one.

Why does this matter?

When another blogger crunched the ‘TransLink Waste’ numbers featured on the No TransLink Tax website, he found that the primary “inefficiencies” amount to approximately $1.9 million in annual savings. Cutting those costs, no matter how (un)reasonable it would be to do so, would not give us enough money to run a new bus route for a year. In fact, it would provide less than 1% of the funding needed to provide the upcoming transit referendum’s outcome: a $7.5 billion investment plan for transit expansion and other transportation improvements over the next 10 years.

Look at the facts. The facts say that TransLink is already identifying inefficiencies, and there’s not much left to find. Even if all of the identified cruft and waste is trimmed (and that’s not realistic), that only gains you 0.13%, which is miniscule. Put it this way: if you make $25/hr, and you suddenly get a 0.13% raise, do you know how much you make? $25.03. An extra quarter a day.

Does that sound like an “extremely wasteful organization”?

Brad Cavanagh – “Referendum Myths: TransLink is Wasteful” on canspice.org

That’s not to say the “No” campaign hasn’t tried to look at some sort of “bigger picture” and reference it for their campaign. You may have noticed the occasional circulation of this chart, which comes from a TransLink efficiency review a couple of years back:

From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting

It would be easy for someone to look at an image like this posted by an anti-TransLink source, come to a quick conclusion that TransLink is behind in the efficiency department, and leave with a negative impression of the organization. But, at the end of the day, the context is out of the picture.

This audit (read here) noted in its conclusion that it had found TransLink to be a “well run organization that manages its costs” – pointing to efficiencies that had already been performed before the audit took place. And inside it, on another page, cost-efficiency – as opposed to what this chart is about (cost-effectiveness) – is clearly defined as something else:

From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review
From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review, 2012

See also: Was TransLink Audited Correctly?

The unfavourable result of the above chart (cost-effectiveness) is most likely a result of TransLink being the only operator on the chart that services a multi-city, decentralized metropolitan region. The poor cost-effectiveness is not a result of any “waste” by TransLink, and is an inevitable problem we deal with, partly because of the way our region has been built out and how we have to get around it. Here’s a chart that shows what I mean:

Cost per boarding by service area - From TransLink's Annual System Performance report, available on their website
From TransLink’s Annual System Performance report, available on their website

Not having as many revenue passengers per bus is an inevitable result of the area serviced. For example: Vancouver scores as first, because it is laid out in a standard urban grid that was developed around transit corridors, and has had transit longer than any other city; all of this has proven advantageous for upkeep of the city’s transit cost-effectiveness. You shouldn’t expect the same kind of cost-effectiveness in South Delta – which is far away from any major city centres (resulting in longer, more expensive transit routes), and was not built around transit services.

Since “Yes” campaigners don’t seem to be that interested in answering the “No” campaign, we’ve been left with a situation where either side is allowed to believe what their campaigners say, and everyone can get away with lies. The “no” side has been let away with their over-use of the little things and their mess-up of the bigger picture. I don’t think this is a sound way to conduct a decision that will affect all of us for years to come all, and yet it shockingly is what it is.

See also: Referendum Myths – TransLink and Executive Pay

The missing link is a proper “big picture” context. There just isn’t one established yet that offers a proper, fair breakdown of how cost-efficient our transit system is. It’s not even a complicated matter: one would just need to take the amount of funding being put into our transit services (operating cost), and compare that with the actual amount of transit service provided (service hours).

It struck me that these numbers wouldn’t be hard to find – and when I realized that I had already collected most of the statistics I needed during research for my last “Referendum Myths” write-up (TransLink and Executive Pay), I decided to go right on ahead and put together the big picture myself.

This time, I’m comparing TransLink against all of Canada’s large metropolitan areas with established rapid transit systems. To keep things fair, I have compared all the given transit operators in a metro area and I have also dug into each operators’ financial reports and subtracted costs for amortization, or deprecation of capital assets. It’s not fair to compare these differing assets (many of the individual cities have not yet invested in rapid transit or are just starting to do so), plus it allows me to keep the focus on the efficiency of operations.

I hypothesized that given a proper context, TransLink’s actual “cost efficiency” wouldn’t be as bad as others have made it out to be. My expectations were far, far short of this:

image

Greater Montreal: $203.97
Greater Toronto: $157.77

Ottawa-Gatineau: $154.86
Calary: $145.97
Edmonton: $141.06
TransLink: $140.51

image (1)

Greater Montreal: 4903
Greater Toronto: 6338.5
Ottawa-Gatineau: 6457.5
Calgary: 6850.5
Edmonton: 7089
TransLink: 7117

Full spreadsheet data:

LINK to this spreadsheet

When compared against the 5 other metro areas, TransLink and Metro Vancouver come out as the most efficient operators. Or more simply said, believe it or not, TransLink is the most cost-efficient public transit operation for a Canadian metropolitan area.

For every $1 million in TransLink’s annual operating budget for transit, we get 7117 transit service hours. That means no matter how much money TransLink is “wasting” due to apparently bad spending decisions, we still get more transit per dollar here than at Canada’s 5 other largest cities. The other cities are just not there yet in terms of operating efficiency, when the metropolitan area average is considered. They just don’t provide as many service hours per dollar.

But that’s not all. In my research I made another important discovery…

image (2)

Greater Toronto: 2.1
Calgary: 2.35
Ottawa-Gatineau: 2.4
Greater Montreal: 2.43
Edmonton: 2.51
TransLink: 2.58

TransLink also comes out ahead in the “service hours per capita” metric – with Metro Vancouver getting 2.58 service hours per capita, versus an average of just 2.1 in Greater Toronto and 2.43 in Greater Montreal. TransLink isn’t just providing more transit for every dollar we spend – it provides more transit for every person living in our region, than any other region has in Canada. That, to me, says that we’re in the hands of a very, very efficient organization.

That’s not to say this is an excuse for us to stop expanding transit, because we’re above the average. There’s obviously still an imbalance in service levels in our region (I’m especially talking about the South of Fraser) and individual issues that we’ll need extra funding to sort out. If we can support the means to go further, I say we should do so and thus be leaders for other cities in Canada.

At the end of the day, congestion costs money, and remains an issue in every Canadian city. I’d like to see our region take the leap ahead and be the leader in this nation. We’ve taken the first steps, making it a lot less difficult to go the rest of the way.

In conclusion

What I think this goes to show is the success of Metro Vancouver’s public transit operations model.

Whereas cities like Toronto and Montreal do not have coherency and may have multiple transit operators servicing the metro area (Toronto has 9 different authorities, some of them with overlapping responsibilities), we have one and it has been this way throughout history.

The B.C. Electric Railway provided rail and bus service as a single operator – so did B.C. Hydro when they were in charge… and then B.C. Transit’s Greater Vancouver division when that was incorporated. TransLink has continued the same advantageous, simple model – but expanded it by not just taking charge of transit but also taking charge of regional roads, bridges, pedestrian and cycling facilities, and other infrastructure throughout our region.

Who knows what kind of superior efficiency in all aspects of transportation we’ve been having as a region with a single, regional authority like TransLink in charge. Unfortunately, no one is willing to either discuss it or launch some sort of proper comparison – and that’s disadvantageous when TransLink’s model gets put into the spotlight. We simply take our regional model for granted, and we really shouldn’t be when it’s uniquely advantageous.

While I think it’s imperative that the “Yes” vote prevails in this referendum, I do recognize that there are legitimate, understandable reasons you would want to vote “no” to a sales tax for transit. Maybe you don’t think it best done as a sales tax. Maybe you want to send a message to the provincial government for how they’ve handled the matter. Or perhaps you weren’t a fan of the idea of a referendum. An illegitimate basis on which to base your vote on, however, would be the one being pushed by the “No” campaign where your vote becomes a vote against TransLink.

First of all, TransLink isn’t on the referendum ballot and the money being raised is going to a decided referendum outcome, not TransLink. A “No” vote is not a vote against TransLink.

Secondly, as I just pointed out, the “No” side has got it all wrong on TransLink’s inefficiency – and they’re probably not going to apologize for the sheer consequences of this. They’re just too proud of how many people they have fooled for the sake of politics.

——–

Additional notes

Giving a “lifetime achievement award” for taxpayer waste and timing it to happen in the middle of the referendum campaign? Okay, that is seriously, seriously weak, Jordan.

To you out there reading this, now it’s time for you to do your part. If you managed to read this far and liked this, spread the word, SHARE this article. If you got here because someone told you to read this, spread it some more. E-mail your friends. Send this to the newspapers, TV stations, etc. Surely you’d agree that we shouldn’t allow the region’s transit future to be determined by a completely unjustified revenge vote based on rather false premises around inefficiency. If you have a couple of friends who want to vote no to vote against TransLink and you know it – now is the chance to turn them around.

I might have one or two more “Referendum Myths” articles up my sleeve, depending on whether some vague ideas in my head end up making sense written out. But, my blog posts from here onward will likely focus on transportation systems as well as my travel experiences in Japan. If you’ve got some cash to spare, I’d love a donation. As great and convenient the transit (particularly rail) systems in Japan are, they’re often not cheap (and I have a lot to say about that soon on this blog).

Referendum Myths: TransLink Inefficiency

Referendum Myths: TransLink Inefficiency

Let’s talk about TransLink and Inefficiency.

But first, I’m going to have to call into question whether we really know what “efficiency” is.

The big supporters of the “No TransLink Tax” campaign for the upcoming transit referendum have always relied on (and continue to establish) a perception that TransLink needs to improve its efficiency game. I think we’ve pretty much heard all the insults: TransLink is unaccountable, inefficient, doesn’t make good use of taxpayers’ money – and with every time we hear it from them, some sort of particular example is attached of money not being used as well as it could be.

(CTF gives TransLink waste award search result) - Look what I found on the news today! But, is anyone really surprised at this point? I'm not.
Look what I found on the news today! Is anyone really surprised at this point, though? Anyone?

The “No” campaign relies on many of these small-scale examples to feed their perception and drive their agenda. They can be real or manufactured: the examples may vary from a small TransLink funding contribution to the infamous “Main St. Poodle” public art display, free coffee for staff, or even a security failure in 2010 that would likely be best attributed to one or more people but not the entire organization.

There’s a whole list on the campaign website – and a new example gets published every day. It seems that “no” campaigners will look for any excuse: even relics from before TransLink’s creation – such as an upgrade that was denied to the SkyTrain system in the pre-TransLink, B.C. Transit era – are among the list of TransLink criticisms. Obviously, no one’s going to like the notion of a few hundred thousand dollars being dedicated to art when some SkyTrain stations don’t even have escalators. But at the end of the day, it really shouldn’t be too hard to notice that “No” critics have been only looking at the little picture while largely ignoring the big one.

Why does this matter?

When another blogger crunched the ‘TransLink Waste’ numbers featured on the No TransLink Tax website, he found that the primary “inefficiencies” amount to approximately $1.9 million in annual savings. Cutting those costs, no matter how (un)reasonable it would be to do so, would not give us enough money to run a new bus route for a year. In fact, it would provide less than 1% of the funding needed to provide the upcoming transit referendum’s outcome: a $7.5 billion investment plan for transit expansion and other transportation improvements over the next 10 years.

Look at the facts. The facts say that TransLink is already identifying inefficiencies, and there’s not much left to find. Even if all of the identified cruft and waste is trimmed (and that’s not realistic), that only gains you 0.13%, which is miniscule. Put it this way: if you make $25/hr, and you suddenly get a 0.13% raise, do you know how much you make? $25.03. An extra quarter a day.

Does that sound like an “extremely wasteful organization”?

Brad Cavanagh – “Referendum Myths: TransLink is Wasteful” on canspice.org

That’s not to say the “No” campaign hasn’t tried to look at some sort of “bigger picture” and reference it for their campaign. You may have noticed the occasional circulation of this chart, which comes from a TransLink efficiency review a couple of years back:

From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting

It would be easy for someone to look at an image like this posted by an anti-TransLink source, come to a quick conclusion that TransLink is behind in the efficiency department, and leave with a negative impression of the organization. But, at the end of the day, the context is out of the picture.

This audit (read here) noted in its conclusion that it had found TransLink to be a “well run organization that manages its costs” – pointing to efficiencies that had already been performed before the audit took place. And inside it, on another page, cost-efficiency – as opposed to what this chart is about (cost-effectiveness) – is clearly defined as something else:

From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review
From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review, 2012

See also: Was TransLink Audited Correctly?

The unfavourable result of the above chart (cost-effectiveness) is most likely a result of TransLink being the only operator on the chart that services a multi-city, decentralized metropolitan region. The poor cost-effectiveness is not a result of any “waste” by TransLink, and is an inevitable problem we deal with, partly because of the way our region has been built out and how we have to get around it. Here’s a chart that shows what I mean:

Cost per boarding by service area - From TransLink's Annual System Performance report, available on their website
From TransLink’s Annual System Performance report, available on their website

Not having as many revenue passengers per bus is an inevitable result of the area serviced. For example: Vancouver scores as first, because it is laid out in a standard urban grid that was developed around transit corridors, and has had transit longer than any other city; all of this has proven advantageous for upkeep of the city’s transit cost-effectiveness. You shouldn’t expect the same kind of cost-effectiveness in South Delta – which is far away from any major city centres (resulting in longer, more expensive transit routes), and was not built around transit services.

Since “Yes” campaigners don’t seem to be that interested in answering the “No” campaign, we’ve been left with a situation where either side is allowed to believe what their campaigners say, and everyone can get away with lies. The “no” side has been let away with their over-use of the little things and their mess-up of the bigger picture. I don’t think this is a sound way to conduct a decision that will affect all of us for years to come all, and yet it shockingly is what it is.

See also: Referendum Myths – TransLink and Executive Pay

The missing link is a proper “big picture” context. There just isn’t one established yet that offers a proper, fair breakdown of how cost-efficient our transit system is. It’s not even a complicated matter: one would just need to take the amount of funding being put into our transit services (operating cost), and compare that with the actual amount of transit service provided (service hours).

It struck me that these numbers wouldn’t be hard to find – and when I realized that I had already collected most of the statistics I needed during research for my last “Referendum Myths” write-up (TransLink and Executive Pay), I decided to go right on ahead and put together the big picture myself.

This time, I’m comparing TransLink against all of Canada’s large metropolitan areas with established rapid transit systems. To keep things fair, I have compared all the given transit operators in a metro area and I have also dug into each operators’ financial reports and subtracted costs for amortization, or deprecation of capital assets. It’s not fair to compare these differing assets (many of the individual cities have not yet invested in rapid transit or are just starting to do so), plus it allows me to keep the focus on the efficiency of operations.

I hypothesized that given a proper context, TransLink’s actual “cost efficiency” wouldn’t be as bad as others have made it out to be. My expectations were far, far short of this:

image

Greater Montreal: $203.97
Greater Toronto: $157.77

Ottawa-Gatineau: $154.86
Calary: $145.97
Edmonton: $141.06
TransLink: $140.51

image (1)

Greater Montreal: 4903
Greater Toronto: 6338.5
Ottawa-Gatineau: 6457.5
Calgary: 6850.5
Edmonton: 7089
TransLink: 7117

Full spreadsheet data:

LINK to this spreadsheet

When compared against the 5 other metro areas, TransLink and Metro Vancouver come out as the most efficient operators. Or more simply said, believe it or not, TransLink is the most cost-efficient public transit operation for a Canadian metropolitan area.

For every $1 million in TransLink’s annual operating budget for transit, we get 7117 transit service hours. That means no matter how much money TransLink is “wasting” due to apparently bad spending decisions, we still get more transit per dollar here than at Canada’s 5 other largest cities. The other cities are just not there yet in terms of operating efficiency, when the metropolitan area average is considered. They just don’t provide as many service hours per dollar.

But that’s not all. In my research I made another important discovery…

image (2)

Greater Toronto: 2.1
Calgary: 2.35
Ottawa-Gatineau: 2.4
Greater Montreal: 2.43
Edmonton: 2.51
TransLink: 2.58

TransLink also comes out ahead in the “service hours per capita” metric – with Metro Vancouver getting 2.58 service hours per capita, versus an average of just 2.1 in Greater Toronto and 2.43 in Greater Montreal. TransLink isn’t just providing more transit for every dollar we spend – it provides more transit for every person living in our region, than any other region has in Canada. That, to me, says that we’re in the hands of a very, very efficient organization.

That’s not to say this is an excuse for us to stop expanding transit, because we’re above the average. There’s obviously still an imbalance in service levels in our region (I’m especially talking about the South of Fraser) and individual issues that we’ll need extra funding to sort out. If we can support the means to go further, I say we should do so and thus be leaders for other cities in Canada.

At the end of the day, congestion costs money, and remains an issue in every Canadian city. I’d like to see our region take the leap ahead and be the leader in this nation. We’ve taken the first steps, making it a lot less difficult to go the rest of the way.

In conclusion

What I think this goes to show is the success of Metro Vancouver’s public transit operations model.

Whereas cities like Toronto and Montreal do not have coherency and may have multiple transit operators servicing the metro area (Toronto has 9 different authorities, some of them with overlapping responsibilities), we have one and it has been this way throughout history.

The B.C. Electric Railway provided rail and bus service as a single operator – so did B.C. Hydro when they were in charge… and then B.C. Transit’s Greater Vancouver division when that was incorporated. TransLink has continued the same advantageous, simple model – but expanded it by not just taking charge of transit but also taking charge of regional roads, bridges, pedestrian and cycling facilities, and other infrastructure throughout our region.

Who knows what kind of superior efficiency in all aspects of transportation we’ve been having as a region with a single, regional authority like TransLink in charge. Unfortunately, no one is willing to either discuss it or launch some sort of proper comparison – and that’s disadvantageous when TransLink’s model gets put into the spotlight. We simply take our regional model for granted, and we really shouldn’t be when it’s uniquely advantageous.

While I think it’s imperative that the “Yes” vote prevails in this referendum, I do recognize that there are legitimate, understandable reasons you would want to vote “no” to a sales tax for transit. Maybe you don’t think it best done as a sales tax. Maybe you want to send a message to the provincial government for how they’ve handled the matter. Or perhaps you weren’t a fan of the idea of a referendum. An illegitimate basis on which to base your vote on, however, would be the one being pushed by the “No” campaign where your vote becomes a vote against TransLink.

First of all, TransLink isn’t on the referendum ballot and the money being raised is going to a decided referendum outcome, not TransLink. A “No” vote is not a vote against TransLink.

Secondly, as I just pointed out, the “No” side has got it all wrong on TransLink’s inefficiency – and they’re probably not going to apologize for the sheer consequences of this. They’re just too proud of how many people they have fooled for the sake of politics.

——–

Additional notes

Giving a “lifetime achievement award” for taxpayer waste and timing it to happen in the middle of the referendum campaign? Okay, that is seriously, seriously weak, Jordan.

To you out there reading this, now it’s time for you to do your part. If you managed to read this far and liked this, spread the word, SHARE this article. If you got here because someone told you to read this, spread it some more. E-mail your friends. Send this to the newspapers, TV stations, etc. Surely you’d agree that we shouldn’t allow the region’s transit future to be determined by a completely unjustified revenge vote based on rather false premises around inefficiency. If you have a couple of friends who want to vote no to vote against TransLink and you know it – now is the chance to turn them around.

I might have one or two more “Referendum Myths” articles up my sleeve, depending on whether some vague ideas in my head end up making sense written out. But, my blog posts from here onward will likely focus on transportation systems as well as my travel experiences in Japan. If you’ve got some cash to spare, I’d love a donation. As great and convenient the transit (particularly rail) systems in Japan are, they’re often not cheap (and I have a lot to say about that soon on this blog).