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

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

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

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

On service,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On collisions

Speaking of accidents,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Portland’s MAX LRT system:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A legitimate criticism or an old feud?

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

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

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

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

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

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

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

Langley and Legitimacy on Light Rail Concerns