Our SkyTrain formula is a winning formula

When the Evergreen Extension opens on Friday, the Metro Vancouver SkyTrain system will span 79.5 km and be:

I want you to process that for a moment. In just a few days on December 2nd, 2016, Metro Vancouver will have achieved a victory in the rapid transit game among cities in Canada.

That is, we’ll have the longest rail rapid transit system in Canada right here in the Lower Mainland, which also expanded at the fastest rate among Canadian Cities. All the while, at its utilization rates per km, SkyTrain is beating every Light Rail Transit system in Canada and the U.S. in ridership.

Yesterday night I posted an update (see: Yes, the Evergreen Line was cost-efficient) to my 2015 study of Canadian rapid transit projects that looked into the costs of our projects relative to their level of grade-separation. In it I detailed on how some rapid transit projects, despite exhibiting a higher amount of grade-separation, are below the trend line for capital costs relative to amount of grade-separation. That means we are delivering higher-quality transit for the same cost as one might have paid in another Canadian city for a grade-level LRT system.

What doesn’t seem to be well understood in this region is that we are doing well in delivering rapid transit projects with high cost-efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and that there are good reasons for this, related to design choices we make in our projects – including our choice to have full grade-separation.

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Some of the reasons that extensions of Vancouver’s SkyTrain system have been delivered more cost-efficiently than other rail transit projects in Canada include the following:

Smaller tunnels: the Linear Induction Motor (LIM) technology used on our Expo & Millennium Lines enables lower vehicle heights, which in-turn enables us to use smaller tunnels. Smaller tunnels require smaller tunnel boring machines and are less costly to build. Lower vehicle heights also helped us commission the downtown Dunsmuir Tunnel on the Expo Line for its current transit use. The then-abandoned tunnel accommodated freight trains on a single deck; the tunnel was retrofitted into two decks to accommodate our low-height LIM Expo Line trains. Utilizing the Dunsmuir Tunnel likely saved hundreds of millions of dollars in downtown tunneling costs for rapid transit and ensured that rapid transit had stations to connect to the Burrard and Granville downtown corridors.

Lighter guideways: LIM technology also enables our rail vehicles to be lighter than comparable vehicles with standard rotary motor technology, resulting in lighter guideways that require less material and can be built to support lower weights.

Smaller stations: The driver-less, automated signalling system used by SkyTrain enables our system to provide a high capacity by combining a higher frequency with shorter trains, whereas traditionally signalled systems may require longer trains to maintain cost-efficiency, with each train manned by a driver. This enables our system to have smaller and less costly stations. (The downfall with this is that sometimes stations are configured to be so small that they appear to constrain capacity, although it is debatable whether or not this is actually true – see: Canada Line)

Smaller OMC requirements: Operations & maintenance (OMC) facilities can require lots of land, which is expensive in Metro Vancouver, for storage and maintenance of trains. Our SkyTrain extensions have generally had much smaller OMC requirements for three main reasons:

• The driver-less control system reduces the equipment and space required in the yard
• Driver-less signalling allows trains to be parked at track stubs & sidings when out of service; on a traditional system all trains would return to OMC so that drivers can embark/disembark
• Extending our current systems & technologies reduces/removes the need for additional OMC facilities to accommodate other systems & technologies.

Excellent outcomes: The combination of all of the above factors plus design choices like full grade-sepraration, driverless operation to reduce operating costs, high frequencies, integration with the overall transit network and strong anchors/destinations on the lines results in a ridership and fare revenue outcome that not only makes Vancouver a leader among North American cities, but helps keep the entire transit network stable and sustainable to allow the system to expand further and be even better.

Altogether, these reasons combine to form what I would like to term the SkyTrain formula.

It’s understandable to see that with Vancouver forging a different path than the rest of the country in terms of design choice (other metropolitan areas, except maybe for Montreal, only ever talk about subways and LRTs and nothing else), there’s bound to be lots of criticism, doubt and worry.

However, the numbers do say that at the end of the day, the SkyTrain formula is a winning formula: it has resulted in some of the fastest and most cost-efficient rapid transit expansion in Canada. I think that’s something we need to be proud of – but more than that, it’s also something worthy of attention for all Canadian cities that are looking to build more transit.