I was caught off-guard by the new viewpoint article in The Now Newspaper, which claims that there is no more reason to pursue the SkyTrain vs LRT debate because voters supposedly “elected” the party supporting it, so therefore, the debate is dead. Here’s the scoop:
Surrey First was elected in an overwhelming sweep of city council in late 2014, after campaigning with promises of building light rail in Surrey
That means they have a mandate – a mandate to build light rail. That means all the debate surrounding what Surrey wants and doesn’t want is pointless.
The viewpoint is implying that within the framework of a municipal election, Surrey residents were participating in a fair debate surrounding these issues. It’s implying that by electing the Surrey First Party (led by current Mayor Linda Hepner), Surrey voters endorsed Light Rail because Surrey First also happened to endorse it. The problem with this claim is that….
Surrey residents did not have a choice to oppose LRT because at the time of the election, as all three major parties competing for Council seats were in support for Light Rail technology. Our candidates for Council never tried to foster a debate to begin with. The SkyTrain vs LRT debate was effectively shut out.
Transportation wasn’t the defining issue in the last elections.
Before you go ahead and conclude from the above that this is indeed not significant enough to result in debate, it is also extremely important to note that in the last elections, transit was not considered to be the most important election issue; it was considered to be the second most important issue – however, it was a distant second. The dominating election issue, affirmed in multiple overlapping polls, was crime.
More than half (55 per cent) of respondents to an Insights West poll conducted earlier this month said crime is the most important issue the city is facing heading into the Nov. 15 election. That’s a big leap from transportation, which came in a distant second at 14 per cent. (From CTV News – “Crime is Surrey’s top election issue, new poll reveals”)
The online survey conducted Thursday to Saturday among 510 Surrey residents aged 18 and over found that crime continues to be the most important issue for most residents (54 per cent), with transportation (16 per cent) a distant second. (From the Vancouver Sun – “Surrey Election extremely close: Poll”)
The Now’s viewpoint article would seem to imply that Surrey’s voting decision was based largely on transportation and support for Light Rail, but that was clearly not the case. So I think it’s pretentious to say that we should just follow the elections results – which could have been a result of numerous factors – and stop the rapid transit debate altogether.
Over the years, I have watched the concern on Surrey transit matters fade into relative insignificance. There used to stronger calls for expanded transit, and so many people here who were passionate on transit issues, particularly on how the South-of-Fraser wasn’t getting its “fair share” on transit compared to the North-of-Fraser. There used to be organizations, like the Surrey Citizens’ Transportation Initiative (Surrey CiTI), which hosted rallies on issues of transit that I participated in (can you see me in the video above?). However, the leaders of these organizations didn’t show up during the 2014 elections. In fact, they have disbanded them or otherwise completely disappeared, because these groups no longer even exist (the www.surreyciti.org website has been out of service for over a year).
Surrey citizens are already less motivated to discuss transit issues than before; now, there has been virtually no discussion on major issues with things such as the proposed LRT system. Now is not the time to apply the brakes when it comes to local transit issues that will affect the lives of everyone living in this city.
More than 1100 people are now calling for a fair debate on the proposed Light Rail.
Say what you will about how (in)significant the issue I am now raising was to decision-makers at election time, but that has changed significantly today. Over 1100 supporters have signed the SkyTrain for Surrey petition urging that the proposed Light Rail Transit line be changed to SkyTrain. This momentum is no secret – and I think Global, News1130, Omni and others had good reasons to bring me in to talk about these issues the other day.
The fact is, issues around the proposed Light Rail system have remained unresolved. Those who are supporting our organization are concerned about issues like whether this is the best way to spend lots of money, how much the LRT will cost to operate, whether congestion will be caused, and what safety issues may arise by having trains interface with everyone on-street. And with the Surrey First-dominated City Council being entirely in support of this, there has practically been no debate allowed. The Mayor and Council aren’t just forcing us to go with their vision – they are forcing us to take in all the issues that will come with it, even if they have gone without discussion.
So here’s what I’d like to say about this: we are demanding a fair debate. It seems like the decision to proceed with Light Rail technology was done with very little actual consultation from potential users. It was practically forced onto us by our Mayor, and moved forward through the stifling of a dialogue on the benefits and tradeoffs.
LRT was not the best option for Surrey
If there was anything that resembled a “fair debate” on this issue – it happened 3 years ago, and concluded LRT was not the best option for Surrey.
Does anyone even remember the Surrey Rapid Transit Study anymore? Let alone the people and the media forgetting it and how important it is to consider the study in this context, but the decision makers and planners that are working on the Light Rail Transit project seem to have forgotten about it as well. They’re now clamoring to have a new business case analysis to qualify for P3 funding, even though there was a perfectly good business case analysis in Phase 2 of the Rapid Transit Study – although it did not come out with a positive outlook for the favoured on-street Light Rail Transit system.
Grassroots advocacy has shaped transit planning in the region.
In this LRT versus SkyTrain debate, there is no referendum. And so, if the proponents of SkyTrain really think they’re going to throw Mayor Linda Hepner and her crew off the LRT track, well, fuggedaboutit.
I want to single out this last paragraph because The Now seems to be in need of a history lesson. They don’t seem to recall that a certain other famous young transit spokesperson from Surrey, who ran for Council on rapid transit issues, was one of the first people to put the consideration of street-level Light Rail on the map in the first place.
Surrey wonder boy Paul Hillsdon to be on http://radio1410.com He's running for city council at the age of 18.
Back in 2008, then 18-year-old Paul Hillsdon took on the local media by storm, looking to break-up an impasse on transit planning and offered a solution – street-level Light Rail Transit – that was considered by many to be better than a planned 6km extension of SkyTrain at the time (the recent proposal was for a much better 16km extension to Langley). He then took this issue with him and ran for Council, although did not succeed in getting a seat.
Regardless, Paul put Light Rail on the map and took his success in transit advocacy to even further heights. He was successful in establishing himself as a voice on transit issues in this region (through his website Civic Surrey), and later went on to develop (with a colleague) Leap Ahead, the regional transit vision that became a model for the Mayor’s Transit Plan formed in advance of last year’s transit funding referendum.
The grassroots effort that had started with rapid transit advocacy, continued with the establishment of Civic Surrey and through that the inspiration of numerous other startup transit blogs and bloggers, managed to make this major difference in the way transit is being planned in our region today.
So, I think it’s more than a little unfair to rule out the potential that any of my campaign work (or for that matter, any grassroots transit advocacy) has in shaping transit planning in this region. Paul showed us that a consistent voice and a genuine interest in local transit issues is able to make a real difference – without the context of a public referendum.
There has never been a fair debate.
For the record, I’m not entirely sure if Paul Hillsdon was factual on his argument. When I had a look at his LRT vision, which was built from scratch (my vision for SkyTrain + BRT, by comparison, is based on an already-studied option), I noticed that he had an inconsistency in his cost estimates. Paul’s estimates that came from non-on-street, separated right-of-way Light Rail systems, without accounting for street-scaping costs and other construction costs associated with on-street building. In other words, it seemed misleading.
The capital cost estimates are based on a conceivably generic number of $27 million per km, and that is a problem. One cost estimate for a certain type of LRT cannot be used generally unless the implementation described is the same kind of implementation and not something totally different.
What this cost he is using describes is the cost of a fully electrified light rail service on the Interurban corridor, a pre-existing right of way. The same cost cannot describe the cost of implementing an at-grade Light Rail service on-street in Surrey, which is not a pre-existing right of way.
Yet when Paul touted his LRT plan back in 2008, as faulty as it seemed, it was met with virtually no resistance. Anyone with a technical/research background could have easily spotted the major flaw in his proposal, but it was never brought up and there were never any attempts by local media to smear him and his efforts to advocate on transit issues.
So why shut me, and my campaign? What’s so special about this campaign that the debate it raises does not deserve attention? Is it special because it happens to be taking sides with grade-separated SkyTrain over ground-level rail? Is expanding SkyTrain something the Surrey Now’s writers and editors hold a long-running bias on, like many people in this region, to the extent where they would want to shut down a productive and highly-needed issues debate?
I don’t understand why The Now Newspaper is having us think that the train has left the station, when it was never even there to begin with. Light Rail isn’t even going to be built for at the very least, the next 3 years. Why are they trying so hard to stifle a debate that still hasn’t happened, and needs to happen? Why say no?
It seems that the Now just doesn’t want to either acknowledge or handle this campaign, given how successful it has become, and how much work it will give them as a result. However, it is their duty to do this as local media. The people of this fine city deserve a fair debate on LRT issues.
Global News had me on air this morning to comment on the SkyTrain for Surrey movement, which has been gaining some pretty serious momentum recently with over 1000 supporters on our site’s petition calling for a SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit system instead of LRT. While this should have certainly raised some eyebrows, not everyone has been on the “supporting” camp.
Earlier today, CKNW’s assistant news director, Charmaine de Silva, had me give the station a call to comment on an issue raised through my organization that the City of Surrey was not considering rapid transit to South Surrey as part of their Light Rail Transit vision. The resulting article, no less, has attempted to frame me as misleading, because of a difference in context and a sound bite during the telephone interview. Here’s the scoop:
Where it went wrong
For his part, the blog’s creator, transit activist Daryl Dela Cruz says it’s not his job to double check the facts he publishes on his website.
“And the end of the day, we’re here as a voice for citizens to raise…”
“So, you don’t think it’s irresponsible of you to put out information that’s just not true without double checking your facts?”
“Well, we’re an advocacy group.”
The City of Surrey says the current plan for rapid transit in the area continues to include LRT and a B-Line, and has not changed since it was approved by the Mayor’s council in 2014.
As you can see, CKNW is trying to make it look like I don’t double check my facts and, in light of that, am misleading people.
There is one thing here that I’m willing to own up to: In this particular case, I did not previously ask the City whether the omission of the rapid transit link to South Surrey was intentional or attached to some sort of context.
However, finding that answer is not my job and it is not the job of my advocacy group either. When I offered the previous response “we are an advocacy group”, I meant that in the context that we are as bound to be misled by the info that is supplied to us as is anyone else who is following us on these issues. Like all advocacy groups, there is a certain degree to which we work off of the information that is supplied to us as-is and as-published. We don’t make up these things from scratch.
It should have been up to the City to clarify in the first place whether rapid transit to South Surrey was still being supported. Previous maps showcased on the city website clearly showed a rapid transit link extending to South Surrey, in the form of a Bus Rapid Transit line. The previous maps also showed the proposed Light Rail Transit “L Line” extending as far south as King George Blvd & Hwy 10, and as far north/east as 104th Ave & 156th St – stops that have been removed in the new LRT map.
Regardless of what the context of the City’s current map is, the main issues that SkyTrain for Surrey raised were that communities are being missed, and that the selection of LRT technology was being put in front of the people and the service. That concern still stands today, and brings forth with it a lot of questions Such as….
Why exactly is the city only promoting the Light Rail part of its ultimate rapid transit vision for the city, which supposedly includes BRT to White Rock?
Doesn’t that show technology-first thinking rather than people-first thinking?
Wasn’t LRT supposed to be about “serving more communities”?
Or, is the City suddenly ready to admit that this supposed philosophy is a fallacy?
All of these are legitimate questions that deserve better answers from City of Surrey representatives than “they cropped our map”. (I’d like to note, by the way, that the post on our website included a link to the city’s full LRT map, below the image that CKNW called into question)
I think that this fact also makes CKNW’s takeaway that I am “misleading” people more than just a little unfair. I would even call it misleading in itself.
Failing to show up gets you low marks
The thing that strikes me even more is how one-side this debate has become, with little discussion happening on the issues my organization raises – many of which are, arguably, far more significant. In these regards, CKNW has been failing to show up.
When I called the City of Surrey’s recent Ipsos Reid poll claiming high LRT support in the city into question – something that should easily be far bigger than this – CKNW conveniently reported on the Ipsos Reid poll, but didn’t take any interest in the issue I was raising. Did Charmaine de Silva do any of her homework checking on those?
CKNW also failed to show up when I pointed out a number of other issues, which should honestly receive more attention from everyone observing, listed below:
Promise to start LRT construction last year was broken
In case anyone doesn’t seem to recall it, present Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner – a big champion of the City’s LRT vision – wanted to have construction of the system started last year.
That is a year later than the start date promised by Surrey First candidate Linda Hepner, who said she plans to break ground for the first phase of the line in 2015 and use revenues from development along the route to pay for it. (From The Vancouver Sun – “Need for light rail transit unites Surrey candidates”)
Now, instead of having started the construction last year, she now wants to see the LRT system’s first phase construction process started in 2018. Voters in Surrey elected Hepner on an LRT promise, which was to – no less – have the first phase of LRT up and running by the year 2018. So she is also breaking that promise.
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner backs off election promise LRT cars will be moving by 2018. Now says construction will start by 2018. #cbc
Despite the significance of this major discrepancy, hardly anyone has bothered taking a look at whether the Mayor is serious about her plans. If the City Mayor can’t make a realistic promise on when LRT would be up and running, who’s to say that any of the technical claims the City has made on its LRT vision are valid?
Progress on the Surrey Rapid Transit Study has frozen
There was supposed to be a 3rd phase of the TransLink and provincial ministry-sponsored Surrey Rapid Transit Study – one that was meant to move and finalize and refine the design of the many examined options (four of which were presented by TransLink at the end of phase 2), and consult with the community on the refinement of the designs. It is mentioned on the TransLink website. TransLink committed the funding for its portion of this phase back at the September open public meeting, so at this point we’re just awaiting on cooperation from others participating – including the City of Surrey. In any case, it still hasn’t happened.
There’s still no business case for the LRT
Staff anticipate that the Surrey LRT Project will be successfully screened-in for Round Seven. This will require the submission of a completed P3 Business Case in March 2016. The scope of work for completing the Business Case includes additional engineering design, geotechnical work, preparation for environmental assessment, and public consultation. City report dated June 2015
City reports have emphasized the need to advance the development of a final business case for the LRT system – which currently remains incomplete – by March 2016, in order to qualify for a P3 funding application deadline set by Transport Canada.
Well, there are only 4 days left until March. Where’s that business case?
The previous Surrey Rapid Transit Study business case was negative
Also, any new, final business case that attempts to portray the LRT proposal in a positive light will come into serious conflict with the results that were found in Phase 2 of the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which found the overall business case for the Light Rail proposal to be negative, with a 0.69:1 benefit-cost ratio.
The benefits in the rapid transit study were based on a monetized net present value conversion of the travel time savings, economic benefits and reliability benefits (expressed as “other travel benefits” in the study), auto operating cost and collision cost savings, and air emissions savings (or negative savings, in the case of an increase). I can’t imagine there would be any reason to think of this analysis as in-comprehensive.
Surrey launches a questionable LRT poll
As I previously mentioned, Surrey In my earlier post, “Deconstructing Surrey’s LRT survey”, I called into question numerous things about the City of the Ipsos Reid survey sponsored by the City of Surrey, which that trumpets that 80% of City residents support the proposed Light Rail Transit system (although using a rather tiny sample size of 600, about 0.1% of the city’s actual population). The issues included that:
Relatively Few transit riders were asked in respondent pool (85/600, <0.1% of transit users),
Many respondents didn’t live near the proposed LRT lines,
The age of the respondents was out of touch with the city’s composition (there were more respondents in a single group – age 55+ and said they would never use an LRT – than there were transit users of any age group),
Respondents weren’t asked to consider LRT against other alternatives,
A phone survey may not have been the best way to collect the info,
The City has withheld other surveys on the LRT matter as they have never been released.
The hypocrisy is stifling
So who’s telling the truth on Surrey’s proposed Light Rail Transit anyway? Because to me, it doesn’t seem like anything that LRT’s supporters have been saying contains any semblance of the truth. More alarmingly, these are big discrepancies and yet the media hasn’t been willing to take appropriate notice.
Mike Folka offered an excellent Tweet earlier that caught my attention and got me thinking whether there is something else going on behind the scenes…
Anyone else find it odd that @CKNW is going after @daka_x over truthfulness of claims when they give guys like @jordanbateman a free ride?
Some of you might be already familiar with the comments I made through SkyTrain for Surrey on the new LRT survey that was released by the City, claiming 80% of residents are in support of the LRT project. If you aren't, my chief complaint is that only 600 residents were asked, which means that about 0.1% of residents are being asked to represent a City of over 500,000.
This statement has been met with a mixed response: some people agreed that such a small number shouldn't represent the city by any means; others disagreed, telling me that I was going up against a professional organization and that the sample size and margin of error was acceptable.
With that said, I was prompted to look into finding even more answers. After turning to my connections in the community, Ipsos Reid's entire, detailed LRT survey results paper managed to find its way to my e-mail inbox. You can download the results and verify my findings yourself below:
When I opened the PDF document for the first time, the first thing that caught my eyes within the tables and tables of info was the composition of the respondents (this data I am very glad to have collected), followed by the composition of the actual questions. Here are the things that stood out the most to me:
The survey asked only 85 actual transit riders.
Yes, not 85% - 85 out of 600. Out of thousands upon thousands of Surrey transit riders, the surveyors are asking for representation from just 85. All other respondents drive for their commute.
This isn't only low to begin with, but it's also lower than the "weighted" base (i.e. if the amount of transit riders asked is to be in-line with the actual percentage of transit users in the city, then the poll should have asked 111 transit riders). For a poll that's supposed to decide on future transit matters, you'd think that more actual transit riders would be consulted on this - which is sorely disappointing.
Let's put that into another perspective. Surrey's 4 SkyTrain stations service 39,169 passenger boardings per weekday. There are many more transit boardings on buses in Surrey, but if we start with the amount of SkyTrain riders, then approximately just 0.2% of Surrey's transit riders are being asked to decide for all of them on future rapid transit.
I get that there aren't relatively a lot of people in Surrey who ride transit compared to the amount driving, but neglecting transit rider input for a transit project is absolutely ridiculous. If you agree that it's ridiculous, then prepare yourself because this is only where I begin...
Many respondents didn't live near the proposed LRT lines.
The three LRT lines are supposed to travel on 104 Ave, Fraser Highway and King George Blvd. - serving City Centre, Fleetwood, Guildford and Newton. But when compared against the weighted average, the amount of respondents that were from Cloverdale and South Surrey - areas that aren't necessarily near the proposed LRT lines, requiring connections by bus - was significant in contrast to the amount of respondents that actually live near them and would more likely use them. Both of these areas exceeded their "weighted" base.
Concerningly, very few of the respondents (just 89, compared to a weighted base of 147) live in Whalley or City Centre, which is where one would expect most of Surrey's transit ridership to come from - since riders here would have access to all 3 proposed lines, SkyTrain and other buses.
The survey weighs these answers in attempt to gather a fairer perspective from these neighbourhoods; regardless, with these numbers on where the respondents are actually from, I definitely don't feel that accurate information has been collected. The survey neglects people whose lives would actually be affected by the construction and operation of the new LRT lines.
The age of the respondents is out of touch with the city's composition.
I don't mean to pick on seniors for any reason, but there were 270 people aged 55+ who responded to this survey - against a significantly lower weighted base of 186. On top of that, forty-five per cent of this group said they would never use an LRT system. Yes, you heard that right - there were more non-transit users aged 55+, than transit users of any age group, polled in this new Surrey LRT survey. Is that misleading or what?
The thing I'm even more concerned about, however, is that very few of the respondents (120) were aged 18-34. That means that the least responses were collected from the age demographic that is statistically the most likely to use transit.
That these respondents were weighted serves as no excuse. This is completely out of touch with the city's composition, and I would expect the input to be more considerate in its distribution considering that over 25% of the city's population - by that I mean children and youth aged 0-19, many of who will be moving into the 18-34 age bracket by the time of the LRT system's launch - was not included in the survey.
Respondents weren't asked to consider LRT against other alternatives.
For me one the most alarming aspects of this survey is that the question of whether a respondent supports LRT or doesn't was narrowed down to a simplified yes-or-no question, without any chance to weigh LRT against other alternatives (like SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit) - and without any consideration of the LRT project's own practicalities.
In some cases (like on 104th Avenue, which is served by both the 96 B-Line and a nonstop frequent #337 bus), the future LRT is not as fast as existing buses. If the questions were modified to reveal the future LRT travel times then the conversation would probably have changed immediately. Instead, we're supposed to rely on answers to vague questions that don't create the opportunity to consider issues with the LRT proposal.
If a survey is going to conclude a support for LRT technology, it must absolutely consider the alternatives and present them to respondents. I've been saying for a long time that the City of Surrey has refused to open a dialogue on LRT benefits/tradeoffs, as well as LRT alternatives, and that it is something that badly needs to be done. Instead, we're supposed to decide the future based on uneducated opinions supplied by a handful of completely misled people.
Was a phone survey even the right idea?
My professional day job happens to be in the same field as the people who conducted this survey: canvassing people over the phone. As the client manager for a service-oriented company, having phone conversations with people is something I do all the time. And, while I approach this from a business/sales environment rather than that of a polling company seeking opinions, there is one thing I will say in confidence: this kind of survey should not have been done over the phone.
The thing about phone calls is that they're unexpected - people don't want to stay on the phone; they just want to get off it and go back to their day. The telephone is a great place to repeat a written statement, have a quick chat with a friend or land a sale/appointment for your service; but it's a terrible place to expect a well-thought-out, educated answer from a stranger who's expected to provide one with very little thinking, on-the-spot.
As a demonstration of this, when respondents were asked some of the more detailed questions, like: "What would be your main question or concern about building this LRT network?" or "What do you think would be the main benefit of building this LRT network?", most of the answers grouped into specific ones like: "Cost/funding" or "Traffic flow/congestion problems/concerns", but relatively few of the answers were unique answers in the other categories. There are places for phone surveys, but this clearly wasn't one. I hate to say it, but we really shouldn't expect people to spend time and effort thinking about transit issues over the phone.
How many people rejected the survey phone call? Well, the survey numbers I was sent don't even reveal that number. We will never know whether the 600 respondents were 600 out of 1,000, or if they were actually 600 out of 10,000.
What about the other surveys?
By the way, this isn't the City of Surrey's first LRT survey.
Back in the fall of last year, Surrey had an LRT survey done on their internal, online CitySpeaks platform. I took this survey, and in the process made notation on SkyTrain for Surrey of an error in the comparison between rapid buses and the proposed LRT system.
However, the results of this survey were never released. There is mention of the survey on the CitySpeaks page on the City website, but Surrey has never released the survey results or used them anywhere.
It is plausible that the respondents, given room to think (as this was an online survey with no time-limits or on-the-spot pressures), did not respond favourably to the idea of an LRT system. And, it is plausible that this was withheld by the city in favour of paying a pollster to perform another survey with the intention of achieving a favourable result.
In conclusion: The public is being fooled.
What in the blazes is going on here?
I can't even think of where I should start but the numbers that I've been given have made it expressly clear that this is a terrible survey. It definitely does not confirm that 80% of Surrey residents support an LRT system, or come to any other conclusion on matters of Surrey transit.
Not only is it unable to effectively conclude that an LRT system would be popular with transit riders (because it doesn't ask them), but it makes no effort to consider the younger residents who will grow up and be stuck with such a system, by neglecting to include them as part of the conversation and favouring responses from non-transit users aged 55+ instead. It is also using the worst possible format to collect this sort of information (over the phone), and that weakness is visible in many places in the survey results.
The end result is nothing short of unacceptable, and that's before you even take into account the fact that the 600 respondents makes up approximately just 0.1% of the actual population of this city - a percentage that will get smaller as the city grows ever larger.
Before we come to a conclusion on surveys like the new Ipsos Reid survey, I would like to see more and different surveys - and I would like to see them done fairly, with a consideration of those who actually ride transit, and with the ability to consider LRT against different alternatives including SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit.
There are 5 of the new 96 B-Line buses in service today, which has me thinking that by now there should be some excitement in the city regarding this brand-new transit infrastructure. The new buses are absolutely wonderful: they’re smooth and quiet; have more space inside for passengers; and feature security cameras, modern LED lighting and air-conditioning. These are the first hybrid diesel-electric buses in Surrey, and it is the first time that Surrey’s bus depot has received brand new buses (instead of old hand-me-downs) in 17 years.
While great investments like these tend to come with big political photo-ops, only TransLink seems to be bothering with any sort of advertisement about the fact that there are new buses in Surrey.
The City of Surrey’s own Twitter feeds are blank, the Facebook page is blank, and not one Councillor or the Mayor has offered a single word about the new buses. No one from the city had anything to say about the buses during the time before their arrival, and this has continued now that many of them are in service. I thought politicians in this city really cared about transit issues, but it seems that riders are expected to enjoy the new buses without even a single word from their representatives.
As a regular 96 B-Line rider, this leaves me more than a little disappointed. The new buses are a huge step forward in improving the quality of transit in Surrey, and deserve the excitement from City representatives that transit riders will have today.
So what do I think?
Well, the main transit item on the City’s agenda is the replacement of the 96 B-Line with Light Rail Transit, something that was politically deadlocked with an election promise. Perhaps the City of Surrey fears that the appeal of these buses will take attention away from future LRT.
If the City of Surrey were to assist in advertising these buses, it might foil their LRT master-plan by exposing some of its major shortfalls. The expected overall travel time savings on King George Blvd and 104 Ave is only 1 minute over the existing 96 B-Line. In addition, the construction process for the LRT system will require the street to be closed from edge-to-edge and create huge disruptions for transit riders on the 96.
A street-level LRT would be limited to the same speed as on-street traffic and will not bring anything that can’t already be provided by a high-quality bus service. At best, this LRT is years away from opening (due to continued conflicts over transit funds) and I think the City should be proud of the service improvements that TransLink has been able to introduce today. The new buses are hybrid-electric, giving riders the same smooth-and-quiet ride experience that a street-level tram brings and bridging the gap between today’s bus service and LRT. They can also get around accidents and road closures that would close down an LRT service.
As well, in terms of neglecting the 96, the City of Surrey has done that in more ways than refusing to give it deserved attention. While other B-Line bus routes have been introduced with high levels of accompanying investments (such as the median bus lanes on Richmond’s No. 3 Road for the previous 98 B-Line), the City of Surrey has spent little to boost the 96 B-Line, if it has even spent anything at all. Some portions of King George Boulevard have had exclusive bus lanes installed to speed up the 96, but these bus lanes were funded by TransLink. The City could have implemented traffic signal pre-emption to keep B-Line buses moving, last year when it renewed the city-wide traffic management system at a cost of $2.7 million dollars. That also didn’t happen.
96 riders areextremely satisfied with the service.
Regardless of all this, the SOFATP 2015 monitoring report indicated that nine in ten (91%) rate their overall satisfaction with the 96 B‐Line as good‐to‐excellent, with an average rating of 9.0. This was measured before the introduction of these new buses. Is the City of Surrey not interested in addressing its many happy B-Line riders? Or perhaps there are fears that within these riders, there are people who will organize against the City’s plan for LRT?
In any case, I guess the City of Surrey is not interested in taking any credit for this wonderful investment. The new buses have brought as much improvement for 96 riders as a future LRT and perhaps even more. Their loss, and our gain.
Fraseropolis recently did an opinion piece on the Surrey Light Rail Transit proposal. And while that may or may not be pretty interesting in its own right depending on what you think, a comment posted by a Brendan Dawe did interest me a lot in its description of the realities surrounding at-grade (on-street) light rail transit.
What I don’t see is how an shared-grade line intended to be *rapid transit* is pedestrian friendly. Sure, if it’s going streetcars speeds than it may be, but that’d be a considerable sum to ask the rest of the region to chip in for a project that does not improve mobility overall, and as such the choice of rail over rubber would be really an aesthetic position, and as Vancouver is supposed to be paying for the non-technically-necessary costs of tunneling under Broadway, it would make much more sense to ask Surrey to pay for the extra costs of installing rail and electrical systems. If it’s going at something approaching rapid transit speeds than it’s outright pedestrian unfriendly – it’s a fast train going down the middle of a street. If it’s to be operated with the sort of priority over the street that makes practical use of the capabilities of rail transit, than it will require reduction in potential pedestrian connectivity by limiting cross walks and signal preemption. That sort of issue is why many regard shared-grade rail as inappropriate for Broadway and it’s abundance of close-spaced signalized intersections.
If elevated rail is transit’s freeway, shared-grade rail rapid transit is it’s stroad, – slow enough to be limiting, fast enough to be dangerous, and expensive to build and operate all the same.
I don’t think your observations on development form are really based on anything inherent to particular transit modes, but rather a result of what municipal governments have permitted. There’s a huge amount of demand for space in this region, and in it will take the densest form that city planners allow in reasonably well located sites. At Brentwood and Metrotown, it’s towers, while at Royal Oak or Commercial-Broadway it’s low rises and at Nanaimo and 29th Avenue it’s nothing at all. This is because Burnaby encourages dense development at official town centers while Vancouver hasn’t until recently allowed any development in SFH neighborhoods. If Surrey wants lowrise development, than it’s entirely within the competence of the authorities in Surrey to limit low-rises.
** Note: Brendan also posted this disclaimer at the beginning of his comment:
To avoid being drawn into inane technological arguments, I will be referring to ‘shared-grade rail’ and ‘elevated rail’ instead of skytrain or metro and light rail, since grade separation is the real contention.
Summary: Most people are still asking the question of why the province decided to suddenly switch the Evergreen Line to SkyTrain technology in 2008. I think we should be asking questions about why the LRT design process suddenly stopped, with no reason, back in 2007.
It’s coming to our region, but it’s opening in 2017, which just happens to be yet another delay in a consecutive series. 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 – hardly anyone could come to an agreement about it.
During the late 2000s the Evergreen Line went through numerous hurdles that we worry about in transit issues today; ranging from funding shortages to planning issues to a lack of clarity in the political commitment to the line itself.
But, to some people, I can imagine the most perplexing thing about 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 casereleased by the provincial government (hereafter referred to as the “2008 business case”) that overrode a previous business casereleased by TransLink (the “2006 business case”) for the Evergreen Line as an 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 or addressing its supposed issues.
The new business case explained that its recommendation for SkyTrain (ALRT) on the current corridor was based on 4 key findings:
Ridership – ALRT will produce two and a half times the ridership of Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology; this is consistent with the ridership goals in the Provincial Transit Plan.
Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
Benefits and Cost – ALRT will achieve greater ridership and improved travel times at a capital cost of $1.4 billion, with overall benefit-cost ratio that favour ALRT over LRT.
System Integration – ALRT will integrate into TransLink’s existing SkyTrain system more efficiently than LRT.
Light Rail advocates who looked into the study insisted that the new analysis, in its rejection of what was supposed to be a sound business case, was biased in favour of SkyTrain – some of which 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 came in waves.
They 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.”
However, when the Auditor General of British Columbia was asked to look into the Evergreen Line technology switch, the Auditor General’s 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 the 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 – as sufficient information on aspects like ridership wasn’t provided. An explanation of how the ridership estimates were conceived was not provided in the 2008 business case, but there is little reason to believe that the 2008 business case was wrong in assumptions.
The City of Burnaby’s staff report probably best summarized the issues that were raised surrounding the comparison. However, much of the research I performed has explained these perceived shortfalls:
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 project capital costs – adjusting each project for the amount of grade-separation (tunnelled or elevated) and using that as a guideline to compare the costs. This extensive research took me several weeks to complete as I had to manually measure most of the proposals to assess the amount of grade-separation.
Unsurprisingly, I reached the conclusion that with the steepest trend in perecentage-to-cost, bored tunnel is the most expensive alignment to construct.
The Evergreen Line, no matter whether it were to be SkyTrain or Light Rail Transit, has a 2km bored tunnel as a part of its alignment through the mountainous terrain between Burquitlam and Port Moody. This accounts for about 20% of the entire route.
My measurements indicated that the 2006 cost-per-km estimates were the lowest of the other projects. The estimate was significantly below other projects with a ~20% bored tunnel percentage, and below the average trend line that related percentage in a tunnel to rapid transit cost per km.
In other words, the 2006 cost estimates are too low and were probably incorrect.
And 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.
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 larger tunnel boring machine) needed for an LRT.
The operating costs rose from $12.21 million in 2006 to $15.3 million in 2008 (both measurements were in 2007 dollars). While it doesn’t seem that anyone in particular raised this as an issue, 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. Whereas the 2008 cost estimates are 25% higher while a 5 minute frequency is 20% higher than 6, the newer numbers seem just about right to me.
The City of Burnaby’s assessment of travel times suggested that the SkyTrain alternative’s travel time estimates were far too high and the LRT alternative’s estimates were far too low. It provided this graphic to show the disparity:
Burnaby complained that the Evergreen Line’s LRT speed estimates were lower than two existing LRT systems in Canada (Calgary and Edmonton). However, most of Calgary and Edmonton’s LRT systems are built off-street, and with gated crossings and absolute priority like railway systems. Most of the Evergreen Line as an LRT would be in the middle of streets and would have to follow the roadway speed limits (typically 50-60km/h). Naturally, this would result in slower average speeds than Calgary and Edmonton, where trains may run at 80km/h on dedicated rights-of-way.
While the SkyTrain alternative had much higher average speeds than the current system (with its average of 43km/h), the addition of Lincoln Station 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.
Even then, at the end of the day these differences aren’t really dictated by the transit technology. The Evergreen Line will have the system’s longest station-less segment, which is largely in part due to the 2km tunnel between Burquitlam and Port Moody stations. The higher average speeds near here would be comparable to other long sections crossing geographical features, such as the 2.3km SkyBridge segment on the Expo Line over the Fraser River.
Gerald Fox also raised an issue that the stated maximum LRT speed in the 2008 business case (60km/h) was lower than the potential speed limits that could be achieved in the off-street, 2km tunnel. 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.
Thus the 60km/h expression was probably meant to highlight the speed on most of the on-street sections (outside of the tunnel).
Based on the data I’ve collected above it doesn’t seem that SkyTrain and LRT were compared unfairly. 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.
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 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.
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.
A huge part of the reason the Canada Line was so successful was because efforts by the City of Richmond to make the elevated segment on No. 3 Road at-grade (like a light rail system) were defeated, resulting in the construction of a fully grade-separated line. The full grade-separation enabled higher trip speeds, which have been cited in rider surveys as the #1 most-liked aspect of the Canada Line system – outpacing every other favourable aspect mentioned by riders.
The Evergreen Line’s SkyTrain switch decision was largely based on favouring the faster travel-times and transferless journeys of a SkyTrain system. It’s thus conceivable that the Evergreen Line could see the same kind of ridership success that the Canada Line did.
3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?
The auditor general commented that the 2008 and 2010 business cases did not provide information on the risks that came with connecting Evergreen Line outcomes with the performance of other parts of our regional transit system. In particular, the Evergreen Line’s performance estimates did not account for the potential impacts of:
the level and coverage of bus connector services on ridership;
parking at the more popular Evergreen stations;
changes to the West Coast Express (WCE), which provides peak commuter services for passengers who want to travel between the northeast Metro Vancouver and downtown Vancouver
Evergreen services on those parts of the SkyTrain system that are near or at capacity in the commuting peak periods (for example, around Broadway station).
These concerns present significant risks and it is of my opinion that they should have been addressed.
However, accounting for these risks whenever a large transit priority is laid out in our region doesn’t seem to be common practice. The transit projects of today 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 referendum went down the toilet, so too did 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 is the best practice for moving these projects; it has certainly moved the Evergreen Line.
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) but the funding issue shouldn’t have delayed detailed design work on the Evergreen Line LRT project. 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.
So it honestly has me raising questions: what exactly was going on in there? Why did Evergreen Line design works come to a stop, and why didn’t the next phase of consultations take place? Perhaps the 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 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…
“The premier did say last week that the Evergreen will be built,” Taylor said. “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.”
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.
At-grade rail advocates argue that the 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!) but at this point that’s entirely debatable.
I think part of this is because the benefits of SkyTrain (and how we’ve built it) don’t seem to be that 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.
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.
* 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)
As reliable as Japan’s public transportation system is, with so many trains running from morning to night, eventually some sort of problem is going to occur. Passengers heading to work or school in central Kobe had their commute interrupted at approximately 8 a.m. on November 16, when it was discovered that an overhead line had snapped on the Japan Railways (JR) Kobe Line between Kobe and Motomachi Stations.
Seeing that the repairs would take some time to complete, some 5,000 passengers were instructed to leave the carriages, which were stopped in an empty stretch of the tracks, and walk to the nearest station, as directed by JR staff who were on the scene.
Even in Japan, which is known for having one of the world’s supposedly most “punctual” train systems, delays and incidents can occur. Last week in Kobe, this was the scene on the city’s main JR rapid transit line after an incident with an overhead power-line was found, requiring a full shut-down of the system in Kobe and service disruptions throughout the 194km-long intercity rapid transit line.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it does resemble some of the incidents that have plagued our SkyTrain system here in Metro Vancouver over the past few years.
I’m also sure many of you are aware of what happened to the SkyTrain yesterday (November 24th), when it was shut down in downtown due to a “power failure” incident that turned out to be a ‘one-in-a-million’ misplaced replacement rail part that moved on the tracks and struck/damaged the power shoe of an oncoming train.
I was in Japan last week and happened to actually experience the Kobe incident in the video at the top of this post, although I wasn’t in Kobe when it occurred. Instead, I felt the ripple effects over 140km away at Maibara Station, on the eastern end of the line, as I transferred from another train from Nagoya intending to ride this particular line en route to Kyoto.
The featured photo at the very top of this post is my own picture of the “trains delayed” notice display I ran into when I arrived at Maibara Station. I could feel my stomach churn even more when I checked the departure time-boards on the station platform itself, which showed that westbound express trains had been completely cancelled.
This left me and perhaps several hundred other passengers waiting on the platform before having to crowd onto a smaller local train, which we would ride until another station down the line (Yasu) where express trains would re-commence. The incident was uncomfortable, cost me nearly 90 minutes in delay and had a major effect on my plans for the day.
This is, incidentally, longer than the approx. 60 minute delay I experienced yesterday when I was caught in yesterday’s SkyTrain delay. I started commuting from Surrey to the Main St. Station area to fulfill an errand, right after delays began at around 2:50PM. I went through stopped trains, crowdedness of the trains and crowded-ness again when I boarded a replacement shuttle bus at Commercial-Broadway Station.
There’s a lot that we can learn from the Japanese when incidents like these happen. In Japan, trains are so critical to the functions of life, responsible for moving millions of people every day in a very dense country. Punctuality is considered very important, and so train operators concentrate on providing the best service possible when everything is working. It’s important to understand that things can sometimes not work – and when that happens, instructions have to be followed and anger has to be calmed. Which is why the train evacuations showcased in the video were so smooth and orderly.
The most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, these incidents don’t actually happen that often – SkyTrain has maintained a statistical reliability that tops transit systems in other cities. I pride myself over having kept myself calm throughout yesterday, and hope that other passengers who were able to do the same do so as well.
We can’t let these incidents affect the way we think about transit and play our part in shaping major transit decisions, like the recent NO vote on the regional transit referendum. It’s easy to lose sight of the facts when you’re inconvenienced and made bitter, but at the end of the day, in doing you really aren’t helping anyone.
I’m noticing many commuters on Twitter talking about how reluctant they were to take SkyTrain today. If I had let the incident from last week stop me from using the JR train line again out of fear, I wouldn’t have been able to resume with my plans to visit Himeji Castle and take these gorgeous pictures….
Lastly, here’s a bit from the Rocketnews article that perhaps TransLink could take from for next time…
…we think what really sealed the deal is the Japan Railways representative who shows up on the platform at the video’s 0:27 mark, ready to apologize to those who were inconvenienced and hook them up with bottles of tea, which he opens for each person who walks by. Because hey, on the occasions when you can’t be punctual, you may as well be classy.
Editor: Re: LRT announcement ignores less costly interurban option (The Times, Oct. 2)
We should welcome good transit ideas here in Langley, but there’s a reason that TramTrain isn’t one of them.
TramTrain was possible in Karlsruhe because it’s surrounded by numerous electrified regional railways. We don’t actually have that here in Vancouver; and while the BCER Interurban may seem like a tempting choice, it ran three times a day and wasn’t built to service today’s cities .
When the province and TransLink conducted the Surrey Rapid Transit Study, the Interurban was denied because it would cost millions to retrofit yet still fall short on providing useful connections and service frequency . In other words, it would be a giant waste of money.
What we do have are numerous fast highways on which we could operate inexpensive rapid buses. One of those, the Trans-Canada, now has the Fraser Valley Express (FVX) service from Carvolth Exchange to Chilliwack. This service is now providing the alternative that valley commuters asked for — but when it came time to consult locals about the FVX, Rail for the Valley did not participate .
That’s because Rail for the Valley’s TramTrain and LRT advocacy doesn’t come from a genuine desire to make transit better — but rather an opposition to extending SkyTrain to Langley, even though it will do the most for transit commuters.
Our SkyTrain system boasts a ridership that is higher than any LRT system in Canada and the US. That’s why over 50 cities worldwide have followed our lead by successfully employing ALRT-style driverless metros .
As an extension of an existing system, SkyTrain would have the lowest addition in annual operating costs . Without transfers, commuters starting at Langley Centre Station could reach Waterfront Station within 60 minutes . That’s the kind of travel time improvement that’ll get people really wanting to use public transit, and generate the fare revenue to recoup costs.
I’m all for good transit ideas; but when it comes to what will objectively serve Surrey and Langley best, rapid buses and SkyTrain are the way to go.
BCER article in Canadian Rail No. 534 issued Jan-Feb 2010 with the writer and 4-time BCER book author, Henry Ewert, stating himself that Fraser Valley interurban trains ran 3 times per day (Mirrored on Exporail.org)
An earlier technical assessment found numerous technical/construct-ability issues with interurban rail. Mirrored [HERE]
Surrey Rapid Transit Study: “Compared to other alternatives, lower population and employment densities along much of the corridor and a less direct connection to Surrey City Centre would result in lower transportation benefits.” See last page of Phase II Information Boards
Before decisions are taken from examples in this manner, I think it’s important to also take in the context of that example. In some of my most popular posts on this blog I’ve noted how a lack of context has done so much to skewer opinions and affect decisions in our region.
The Canada Line P3 was a successful P3 because its ridership and fare revenue exceeded projections.
The Canada Line’s P3 system works like this: The private partner signs on to build the line and operate for 30 years, and makes a capital investment to reduce the public funding burden. This capital investment in the project is returned as a profit through the performance payments made during operation.
If fare revenue from ridership meets or exceeds the costs, financing proceeds as planned and excess operating revenue is returned to the taxpayer. If the fare revenue does not exceed the costs, that represents significant additional costs to taxpayers to subsidize operations.
But, this is where the proposed ground-level Light Rail system for Surrey, which I have been a heavy critic of through the SkyTrain for Surrey website, runs into a very major problem.
The Surrey LRT system will not recover its operating costs.
It will run into an operating deficit of millions per year from opening day and it will struggle to recover these costs if it manages to do so at all.
LRT’s operating deficit subsidy of $22 million ($2010) per year on opening day, growing to $28 million by 2041,is on top of the $60 million per year for capital financing that Mayor Linda Hepner declared to the Globe and Mail. On top of all of these costs, additional costs would need to be added to the performance payments to the private operator, so that the partner can receive its return on investment.
When all inflation is accounted for, the cost of financing the P3 LRT will be nearly $100 million annually on opening day. The city will obviously need to find a way to come up with this money, and I take it that more than a few really big axes will be making their way to other city services as a result.
Plan Misses the Mark
Perhaps a part of the reason for this shortfall is because the City wants to replicate SkyTrain frequencies by running LRT trains at a 5-minute frequency, increasing to a 3-minute frequency after approximately 20 years. This frequency is not done anywhere else with driver-operated LRT systems in North America. The tendency is to run at 5-10 minute frequencies during peak hours only, reducing to 15 minute frequencies during off-peak hours and weekends.
The higher frequencies do not necessarily solve the many issues with an LRT system and the challenges such a system in Surrey will face. Of the $27 million in annual costs required to operate Surrey’s full LRT network, only $5 million is expected to be recovered through additional fare revenues. Cut the operating frequencies in half (resulting in significantly worse service), and there would still be a major operating deficit.
This is because many of the riders on the future LRT system will be people who already pay their fares on existing buses. They are the transit-dependent people of the city, not the people who may have the choice to continue to drive if that is what continues to serve them better.
A previous survey of Canada Line riders revealed that trip speed is the most liked aspect of the line. Street-level LRT’s limitation to slower street-level speeds will certainly create challenges in being competitive.
Surrey’s LRT will suffer these operating deficits because as a slower and less reliable grade-level system, it will not attract as many passengers as an integrated, grade-separated extension of SkyTrain. In addition, LRT will be unlike our driver-less SkyTrain system in that each train requires a driver, meaning it is more expensive to operate and will be subject to design limitations that will have a major effect on its viability.
Surrey’s LRT will carry only 2970 riders/km on opening day.4 The Canada Line, which carries 122,000 daily boardings2, required 100,000 (5200 passenger boardings per km) to cover its annual operating costs.3
SkyTrain is a viable option
If SkyTrain is extended down Fraser Hwy. to Langley, it will carry 5443 riders per km on opening day.4 This is comparable to SkyTrain’s present system-wide average of 5693 riders per km.5
SkyTrain would offer faster, safer, and more reliable service – which would attract more ridership, generate more fare revenue and as a result cost only $6 million per year to subsidize operations.6 This would then be eliminated entirely with the concurrent optimization of local bus routes.7
Without an operating subsidy, SkyTrain would have a far better business case for a Canada Line-style P3 model. In any case, since the operations and maintenance component can be handled by the existing BCRTC, a newly created operating entity is not required. This will save taxpayers even more money as the P3 contract for SkyTrain would be a simpler Design-Build-Finance (DBF) model.
At the end of the day, I think there’s one particularly more significant number that exemplifies SkyTrain’s viability in Surrey over a ground-level Light Rail system.
SkyTrain would have a positive benefit/cost ratio of 1.45:1. The proposed LRT has a poor benefit/cost ratio of just 0.69:1.
A SkyTrain extension is clearly the only viable option for rail rapid transit in Surrey, and decision-makers in the city and elsewhere need to start taking a look at the hard facts.
According to data from the 2012 TransLink/MOTI joint study Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis (SRTAA) Phase 2 Evaluation Available at [LINK HERE]
SRTAA PAGE 369; Undiscounted value; measured over 30 years, with costs increasing to 2041 on year 2041
SkyTrain operates with high standards, transporting passengers with a remarkable 95% on-time performance rate and doing better at providing rapid public transit than other cities our size. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to system-stopping failures that can require the use of shuttle buses and inconvenience thousands of transit passengers.
Our SkyTrain system managed to suffer from two major system meltdowns within seven days, and it’s perplexed everyone. It’s raised questions of accountability and competence within TransLink, and of the versatility of how SkyTrain is operated. It’s raised questions of whether there could be a better plan for emergencies, so as to prevent frustration and inconvenience.
By far, a lot of the comments I’ve seen point fingers at TransLink. Provincial Minister Todd Stone was quick to deny responsibility, and looking through social media reveals an aura of madness from inconvenienced customers. All of this creates a dangerous precedent that a discouragement into putting more money into our transit system is created, as people begin to believe that proactively investing in it isn’t worth it.
However, some of the problems we faced in these past 7 days could have been mitigated by just that – with investments into good maintenance of our transit system.
The chaos that we witnessed during SkyTrain’s recent shutdowns can very much be attributed to a devaluation of transit funding, lead by anti-TransLink campaigners.
TransLink didn’t purchase a $20 million backup system that would have assisted SkyTrain in the event of computer failures. This would have spared riders from service meltdown incidents like the one on Thursday, July 17th.
To compound the issue, as part of the recommendations of several efficiency audits, TransLink has tightened up the amount of spare buses and staffing on the bus network. This means that when bus bridges are needed to deal with SkyTrain emergencies, there are fewer staff available to drive buses, and few buses available – which was an issue on both Thursday and on Monday, July 21st during the second, human-error-triggered meltdown.
It’s a no-win scenario for TransLink. A seamlessly-integrated backup system would not even require riders to be notified if SkyTrain were to have computer issues – and should the investment have been made known, an inevitable sensation surrounding the choice to invest – driven by anti-TransLink critics – is what we would be hearing about from the media instead. That would be the news item of the day, instead of a SkyTrain failure.
Meanwhile, continuing to provide adequate staff and buses to handle emergencies like the recent ones would go flat out against recommendations in recent audits – which could have triggered a harsh reaction from the provincial government, as they do directly control TransLink’s governance and some funding for transit.
Comments that put pressure on TransLink and portray them excessively negatively as an organization could result in more “NO” votes in the upcoming referendum next year. It may have become one of the reasons that TransLink has not undertaken investments proactively, spending money to prevent issues before they actually happen. As long as the public has yet to know of the real value of proactive transit investments, it’s difficult to do so without endangering long-term transit funding.
It’s a concern that has been raised by transit advocates and decision-makers, as they work hard to promote the value of transit investment in advance of this referendum. As a “NO” vote has been confirmed to be an option, there is nothing that can stop voters from using their vote to ‘send TransLink a message’ – something that would do commuters on all transportation modes no good whatsoever.
Last month, on Thursday and again on Monday, critics were quick to rush to mediums such as Twitter, radio and news to lambast TransLink and remind us of past issues that have been raised. The resulting negative attitude that surrounds our transit system will not just affect how people vote in the upcoming referendum – it may have numerous negative shorter-term impacts such as the reduction of fare revenue, as less people choose transit and more believe that it is not worth doing so. Less fare revenue can mean more service cuts and even worse rider satisfaction throughout the system.
I have a strong feeling that there would be a backup computer system in place today, giving riders a more reliable SkyTrain system, were it not for the persistence of the anti-TransLink critic.
“Ironically, the people campaigning to strip TransLink of funding in the name of efficiency may be responsible for the time it took to get service restored and get people moving over the last few days.”
Nathan Pachal, who operates South Fraser Blog and is running for Council in Langley Township, raised this issue on his blog in his response to the recent incidents.
What do we do about this?
We’re surrounded by comments on how TransLink is “mismanaged”. In order to effectively combat the issues that this creates, it’s important to bring into light whether this level of scrutiny and demand for cost-efficiency is actually necessary.
In a previous blog article, I brought into light how it’s questionable if TransLink was being audited correctly, pointing out a discrepancy between how cost-efficiency has been portrayed and how it’s actually supposed to be measured – noting that between the transit operators in Canada’s three major cities, TransLink is the most efficient – providing the most service at the lowest operating cost.
It’s also important to bring into light what we should already know about TransLink’s efforts to be a better organization. We should know that TransLink is following up on the recommendations in the audits, and that those efforts are working – TransLink ended financial year 2013 with a $43 million surplus.
One of the most important changes that needs to be made is in public attitudes on transit spending. We can’t be ignorant to the fact that it is necessary to spend some money to keep our system in good repair.
For SkyTrain riders, the worst part of this devaluation of transit funding is that it has a major implication on our SkyTrain system that extends beyond $20 million.
As rail lines age and ridership grows, upgrades are needed to maintain efficiency and reliability long-term, and ensure the maintenance of the benefits provided by the system. TransLink has yet to secure a long-term funding commitment to pay for the over $1 billion in upgrades that will be required to keep the SkyTrain from becoming overcrowded and unreliable as it continues to age. These upgrades will improve station facilities with new entrances and amenities, as well as prepare the system for longer 5-car trains. Some of these upgrades are ongoing, but the majority of them have yet to be started.
Long-term funding to be committed to this upgrade is what will be decided in the provincially-mandated referendum, and it is imperative that voters do approve a funding option to keep our transit system in a good state of repair.
TransLink is in trouble
Some of the issues we faced in the recent SkyTrain meltdowns definitely had to do with more than funding, and perhaps they could have been addressed through better plans and higher competence within branches of TransLink.
However, the fact remains: if we want to maintain a high or higher standard of reliability, there’s going to be an inevitable cost to it. On the other hand, if we devalue the taxes and fares that keep people moving, we don’t get a reliable system as the penalty for our ineptitude.
As stakeholders, if we want to enjoy more reliable transit, we need to realize that TransLink is in trouble and change our attitudes on transit and funding. We need to value our transit, value TransLink, and consider the good value of the services it provides to us.