Our SkyTrain formula is a winning formula

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.

mark-iii-header

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.

Yes, the Evergreen Line was cost-efficient

Yes, the Evergreen Line was cost-efficient

Approximately a year ago on this blog I compiled a study of Canadian rapid transit projects, ranking their costs by their amounts of grade-separation (as well as the amounts of their grade-separation sub-types, such as above or below-grade). My goal was to offer decision-makers and planners the first proper data-set from which it could be assessed whether the level of grade-separation in Canadian transit projects is worthwhile, and cost-efficient relative to other projects in the country.

Today I have to release an update for this data-set, because some budgetary news concerning the Millennium Line’s Evergreen Extension has been released. According to the new info, the Evergreen Extension is now set to open at a cost of between $70 and $85 million under budget, although the opening was delayed multiple times – first due to uncertainty of funding, and – more recently – due to engineering challenges for the 2km bored tunnel.

Jpeg
The Evergreen Extension is finally set to open on Friday, Dec 2nd.

Initially, I chose to focus on grade-separation because of how much it is a contentious topic here in Metro Vancouver (I, for one, am caught in the fray leading a campaign that is devoted to seeing rail rapid transit expansion in that part of the region be fully grade-separated).

Full grade-separation of transit brings reliability, faster speeds and lower risk of accidents like the pedestrian-train collision just yesterday in Calgary that closed down both directions of the C-Train LRT system for nearly 4 hours. Critics of grade-separation have countered that it grade-separation is not necessary for reliable service and makes transit projects too expensive. However, as it turns out, many of the rapid transit projects we’ve built in Canada without any grade-separation – or with very little of it – exhibited construction costs per km that were higher than fully grade-separated projects, such as our extensions of SkyTrain.

With the updated costs for today’s Evergreen Extension SkyTrain project, I wanted to see how its final costs would fare against other Canadian transit projects, and other major transit projects & proposals in our own metro area. I updated the scatter-plots I created for my study and came up with the following outcomes for the Evergreen Extension:

In terms of overall grade-separation, the Evergreen Extension is far below the trend-line for other projects in Canada, exhibiting a relatively low per-km cost of $122-$123 million despite over 75% of it being built above or below-grade (the remaining approximately 25% is built at-grade, but the line is still fully grade-separated with no crossings). Also, when above-grade separation is not considered and only below-grade separation is considered instead, the Evergreen Extension is at the trend-line for Canadian rapid transit projects, in terms of capital cost relative to percentage that is below-grade.

In short, even though a lot of people in the region don’t seem to believe it, the Evergreen Extension was delivered with a very high cost-efficiency.

I see this as a very important outcome, as the Evergreen Extension has been the subject of controversy not only for its numerous delays, but also for the context in which it was built. A 2008 decision by the provincial government switched the project from a then-planned street-level LRT to an extension of SkyTrain, based on a projection that there would be lower operating costs and higher ridership & convenience.

Concept: Douglas-Lafarge Lake SkyTrain Station on the Evergreen Line SkyTrain
Concept: Douglas-Lafarge Lake Station on the Millennium Line Evergreen Extension

Critics of the decision say that the LRT proposal expected construction to start in 2007 and finish by 2011; however, that was likely never possible, as some of my own digging (see post: The Real Evergreen Line Story) revealed that the design of the LRT project had still not been completed by that time in 2007 – and with much of the process shrouded in secrecy, we may never know of the potential issues planners faced trying to make an Evergreen Line LRT work.

Now, what I found particularly interesting is that my numbers aren’t only showing that the Evergreen Extension was cost-efficient, but other Metro Vancouver transit projects & proposals are below the trend-line average for rapid transit projects in the country in cost relative to grade-separation.

The Canada Line actually did even better than the Evergreen Extension, built nearly 50% below-grade for a bargain price of $116 million per km – prices found in projects with far less of their construction below-grade. The Broadway Extension, based on the last-available estimates from 2012 (adjusted for inflation, of course), is well below the national trend-line and has room to rise in cost-per-km while still remaining below the national trend-line relative to amount of grade-separation.

Today it’s not only the Evergreen Extension, but other much-needed transit projects in Metro Vancouver are facing scrutiny from observers over their capital costs, and the growing negativity is certainly not helping out these transit projects. It would seem that some of this is not deserved.


By the way, the Evergreen Extension is officially opening this Friday and I can’t wait! There will be celebrations and you can look forward to seeing me there as well as my SkyTrain for Surrey campaign team.

New SkyTrain changes hide drop in service (UPDATE: TransLink to reverse service drop)

New SkyTrain changes hide drop in service (UPDATE: TransLink to reverse service drop)
UPDATE Mon Oct. 3: It appears that TransLink has reversed the drop in service frequencies on the Expo Line as part of the upcoming changes. While retaining the lengthening of Mark I trains to 6 cars, Expo Line passengers will continue to have 6-minute service on each branch during off-peak periods, and peak period service will be increased versus the original proposal. The issues brought up in this blog post were cited by TransLink as having contributed to the decision to reverse the frequency changes.

The following reports have further confirmed the changes:


Original text below:

Yes, you read that headline correctly – this is not a joke, and not some mis-interpretation of the upcoming SkyTrain changes on October 22nd. TransLink is going to reduce Expo Line service frequencies, at all times of day, on October 22nd.

skytrain-oct-22
The SkyTrain as it will operate after October 22nd. The Expo Line is shown in blue.

The Expo Line, the original SkyTrain corridor extending to King George Station in Surrey, is the busiest line on our SkyTrain rapid transit system. After poking around on TransLink’s website along with forumers on discussion boards, I made a startling discovery about the upcoming October 22 SkyTrain changes. It appears that, for no apparent reason, TransLink is sneaking a reduction in service frequencies at all times of day on the Expo Line, and this is not being communicated with the public.

I initially confirmed this when I and some fellow online forumers on SkyscraperPage, CPTDB and others were looking into SkyTrain’s schedule changes. The operating schedules for SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express can be accessed through TransLink’s “bus schedules” page by typing in corresponding numbers in the 900s. The current Expo and Millennium Lines were using numbers 999 and 996, but we discovered that the numbers 992 and 991 were being utilized for a brand new schedule effective starting in October.

This schedule showed that SkyTrain frequencies were clearly being subject to a decrease at basically all times of day – not just the peak service hours. Mid-day and evening service (currently at every 6 minutes) and weekday day-time service (currently at every 7 minutes) would be operated less frequently at every 7.5 minutes. Some parts of the schedule have seen a minor service increase from 10 to 8 minutes, but this is happening at parts of the day where the issue of frequency is not as critical – such as late at night on weekdays and weekends.

skytrain-decrease
Wait times at Surrey SkyTrain stations will be 7-8 minutes after October 22nd, compared to the current 6 minutes, during mid-day periods.

TransLink representatives at a recent media event had commented that passengers would be waiting an “extra 10 seconds at peak times” (see: report by Jeff Nagel on Surrey Leader), although trains would be consolidated into longer consists (i.e. 6-car Mark I, 4-car Mark II or Mark III) make up for this and ensure a high capacity.

However, the actual schedule change I have uncovered shows that the actual increase in wait time is closer to 25 seconds on the Expo main-line inbound from Columbia Station (108 -> 133 seconds), and will be as high as 38 seconds on average on the King George branch in Surrey (162 -> 200 seconds). In addition, in a move that has by far been completely unannounced, passengers will be waiting up to an additional 1.5 minutes on each branch during mid-days and other off-peak periods.

TransLink has never confirmed this explicitly during Q&A sessions for the October 22 changes, but has recently quietly confirmed the change on its SkyTrain schedules page, which are now showing a “Current” and “Oct. 22” schedule that reflects the proposed change on the “bus schedules” page. For more info, see the page:

TransLink > SkyTrain Schedules > Expo Line

Frequencies will change as follows, according to TransLink’s website:

Expo Line – Waterfront to King George
Time of Day Frequency before Oct 22nd Frequency after Oct 22nd
Peak Hours (6-9AM, 3-6PM) 2-4 min. 2-5 min.
Mid-day (9AM-3PM) 6 min. 7-8 min.
Evening (6PM onwards) 6 min. 7-8 min.
Late night 8-10 min. 8 min.
Early Sat/Sun 8-10 min. 8 min.
Sat, Sun/Holidays 7-10 min. 7-8 min.

The changes in service frequencies will mean longer waits for trains at almost all times of day, making the Expo Line less reliable and less versatile to its many riders. It will also result in more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms – as longer waits between trains means each platform will need to service up to 25% more waiting passengers than there are today with higher frequencies. Some of our stations – particularly ones in the middle of reconstruction, such as Metrotown Station – could have trouble having to accommodate for additional waiting passengers.

Today's higher frequencies prevent platform overcrowding because the train arrives sooner to allow passengers to be on their way. The service changes will mean more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms.
Today’s higher frequencies help prevent platform overcrowding because the train arrives sooner to allow passengers to be on their way. The service changes will mean more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms on the Expo Line, as platforms will have to handle as much as 25% more waiting passengers.

While train lengths are increasing, I do see the possibility that overall service capacities will come down as a result of the changes. Going from 6 to 7.5 minute service in the mid-day and on weekends is a substantial 20% reduction in service frequency, and while Mark I trains would be operated in longer 6-car formation, the Mark II trains currently operating in 4-car formation would be essentially the same as they are today.

SkyTrain passengers already swallowed a change in 2013 that saw weekend frequencies on the Expo Line drop from 6 to 7 minutes on each branch, as part of a package of cost reductions implemented throughout the entire system to improve cost-efficiency. This has resulted in substantially increased weekend overcrowding, with Saturday PM volumes between Commercial-Broadway and Main Street-Science World stations now nearly at the line’s practical capacity in both directions (see: 2015 Transit Service Performance Review, Appendix E).

Why this makes absolutely no sense, whatsoever.

mark-ii-broadway
Prior to an expansion order in 2009, Mark II trains in 2-car formation were operated alongside Mark I trains on the Expo Line. SkyTrain had the flexibility to offer higher frequencies with the smaller trains, as opposed to lower frequencies with all of the Mark II trains in a 4-car formation.

One of the big advantages to the driver-less, automatic train control technology we use on our SkyTrain system has always been our ability to maintain high frequencies at any time of day, without high operating costs. On our system, shorter trains at higher frequencies can provide the same capacities as longer trains and lower frequencies typically found on other light and heavy rail systems, but without the higher costs associated with needing extra drivers and conductors.

This has made us a continental leader in providing rail rapid transit services among North American cities. I have previously noted that Metro Vancouver is unmatched in its off-peak rail transit service frequencies, when compared to metro areas of similar sizes – in which off-peak service on the rail network is generally provided every 10 to 15 minutes on individual lines.

SEE EXAMPLE
Portland, Denver, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are other metro areas similar in size to Metro Vancouver with rail transit systems, yet none of them are able to provide the kinds of service frequencies we have on our fully-automated SkyTrain system. Go [HERE] to see a comparison of our service frequencies against these cities’.

What can be done about this

TransLink is dealing with a public credibility problem and this is certainly not going to help their case. The entire service change on October 22nd is being made without a formal public consultation process, which wouldn’t really be so much of a problem if there weren’t going to be major changes in service frequencies on existing lines – but there are. And, there has been no indicated rationale as to why mid-day and weekend service frequencies are also being reduced.

I don’t see any barriers to continuing to provide a 6-minute service off-peak with the longer trains, or utilizing the existing schedule whereby peak service is operated at higher frequencies, with a mix of trains including shorter 4-car Mark I trains.

UPDATE Fri Sept. 23 @ 10:24AM: At the moment, the fabrics of how this decision went through are still unknown to me. However, I am now working on communicating with BCRTC and TransLink’s planning department to get some answers and gauge whether I could push to have this decision reversed.
UPDATE Mon Oct. 3: It appears that TransLink has reversed the drop in service frequencies on the Expo Line as part of the upcoming changes. While retaining the lengthening of Mark I trains to 6 cars, Expo Line passengers will continue to have 6-minute service on each branch during off-peak periods, and peak period service will be increased versus the original proposal. The issues brought up in this blog post were cited by TransLink as having contributed to the decision to reverse the frequency changes.

The following reports have further confirmed the changes:

The Real Evergreen Line Story

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


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 case released by the provincial government (hereafter referred to as the “2008 business case”) that overrode a previous business case released by TransLink (the “2006 business case”) for the Evergreen Line 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:

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

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.”

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

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.

See: Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Operating costs

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.

Travel times

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

Evergreen Line graphic
Open to enlarge

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

While the SkyTrain alternative had much higher average speeds than the 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.

Maximum speed

Gerald Fox also raised an issue that the stated maximum LRT speed in the 2008 business case (60km/h) was lower than the potential speed limits that could be achieved in the off-street, 2km tunnel. 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).

In conclusion

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.

Open to enlarge
Open to enlarge

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

This leaves the high ridership estimates with the SkyTrain system. The auditor general raised an issue that the SkyTrain ridership assumptions with the Evergreen Line were made with assumptions that a completed transit network would be built by 2021 following the 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.

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

When this annual ridership is worked out per-km, the Canada Line is carrying 2.10 million annual passengers per km – the same amount that was projected for the Evergreen Line.

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

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

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

3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?

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

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

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

However, accounting for these risks whenever a large transit priority is laid out in our region 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.”

Evergreen Line not held up by funding, finance minister says – Coquitlam NOW

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

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

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


Jaded by SkyTrain and a lack of LRT

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

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.

SkyTrain ridership/km vs. other transit systems

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

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

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


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

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

Data above from South Fraser Blog

Now that I’ve finished with my thoughts, I’d like to see anyone try to claim that decisions resulting in SkyTrain projects over LRT are solely a result of senior-government overrides.

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


Featured: Evergreen Line construction image posted by nname on SkyscraperPage