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:
Yes, you read that headline correctly – this is not a joke, and not some mis-interpretation of the upcomingSkyTrain changes on October 22nd. TransLink is going to reduce Expo Line service frequencies, at all times of day, on October 22nd.
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.
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:
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)
Evening (6PM onwards)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Proposed driverless train network cites Vancouver as model in case study
The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), an institutional investor responsible for financing major transportation projects in Quebec, has proposed the construction of a driverless rapid transit network,similar to our SkyTrain system, to service Greater Montreal.
The Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM; English: Metropolitan Electric Network) will span 4 proposed corridors and 67km. The system will serve several Greater Montreal cities and be the 3rd longest driver-less system in the world after the Dubai Metro and Vancouver’s SkyTrain.
The proposal will double the length of Montreal’s rail rapid transit network, and addresses the need for rapid transit to service areas in Greater Montreal where most commuters are driving to access the inner city, or are putting up with long bus and commuter train rides. The service will address the previously identified need to bring rail rapid transit across the Champlain Bridge, and bring new rapid transit to many areas of western Montreal that do not have any access to rapid transit currently.
Travel time savings and high service frequency were made key focuses in the CDPQ’s proposal, which outlined what kind of travel time savings would be achievable on each of the 4 proposed corridors:
REM Travel time and frequency at rush hour
REM Project overview
REM project benefits/logistics
Part of the project would involve the conversion of the existing Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line to integrate with the proposed rapid transit network. Similar to SkyTrain’s Expo Line, an existing rail tunnel will be repurposed in order to service the new rapid transit line (this tunnel currently carries the Deux-Montagnes line’s existing service). In addition to servicing 3 major suburban areas, the proposal includes a branch to the airport that fulfills an earlier proposal to build a Canada Line-like system connecting to the rest of Greater Montreal.
At a cost of $5.5 billion to build, the new line will represent a major investment in Greater Montreal rapid transit that will be the biggest since the Montreal Metro. However, Caisse, which was awarded the responsibility for financing major transportation projects in Quebec in an infrastructure deal last year, has offered to invest $3 billion – just over 50% of the project’s cost – into the REM project. Additional public investment would then be split between senior-level governments.
The massiveness of the CDPQ’s investment commitment shows that it is confident that the project will succeed. The CDPQ’s case study clearly identified the potential to bring serious benefits for transit riders, and its clearly identified rationale for choosing driverless train technology dignifies its success here in Metro Vancouver and around the world.
The new system is expected to have 150,000 riders on opening year (2021), 65,000 higher than currently exist on those corridors.
To fulfill the expectation that the system will raise this ridership, the CDPQ has designed the project with an intense focus on travel time benefits and rider comfort. Focus was placed on making sure trains were accessible all-day, every day, with the project advertising that service will run 7 days a week for 20 hours, and much more frequently than existing commuter rail service. CDPQ also focused on ensuring the system had quality amenities such as a free wi-fi network along the line for all commuters.
SkyTrain cited as inspiration
In addition to the improvements in transit service, over $5 billion in economic development is expected to be attracted along the line, with Vancouver and the Canada Line cited as the primary example. The construction process is expected to contribute $3 billion to the GDP, and the reduction in road congestion is expected to reduce economic losses of $1.4 billion per year and 16,800 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Following the SkyTrain model
Caisse was one of the private investors in the private consortium chosen to build the highly successful Canada Line rapid transit project back in 2009. Caisse’s experience from co-investing in the Canada Line, and then co-experiencing its record ridership numbers well above target while billions in economic growth is spurred along the line, appears to be directly translating into the choices of station spacing, technology and level of investment on the REM.
These choices are remarkably similar to the ones that we have made with transit here in Vancouver – as an example, we also repurposed an existing tunnel for our driverless SkyTrain system – and would suggest that Greater Montreal is on its way to a transit future that is sustainable to maintain and feasible to expand. Here in Vancouver, we’ve managed to expand rail transit faster than every other city in Canada, while our system boasts an exceptional system ridership record that is envied throughout North America by other cities.
Just like our SkyTrain system, the system will make use of shorter trains (2-car trains off-peak, joined to form 4-car trains during peak hours) at a higher frequency, providing the same capacity as longer trains at a lower frequency.
With 24 stations over 67km, the station spacing means that the REM is a cross between suburban/commuter rail and urban rail.
The spacing is wider, resulting in faster service, in outer areas where rapid transit is competing against commuting by car and localized access is not its main purpose. However, it condenses in inner areas where the line can then double its purpose and act an urban rapid transit link. This is similar to what is done by our SkyTrain system here.
To top things off, the system includes an airport branch which is similar to what was done with our very own Canada Line. This approach to integrating airport service with other nearby urban rapid transit service is different from what was done in Toronto with the construction of its dedicated Union-Pearson Express train, which was heavily criticized for its high fares.
The concept 2-car trains (which are joined to form 4-car trains during rush hour) look similar to the Bombardier ART and Innovia trains being used here in Metro Vancouver. The system will share the same 80m platform lengths used by our Expo and Millennium Lines.
The project mentions that they will be “electric light metro” cars that use overhead catenary power, presumably to capitalize on the existing commuter rail infrastructure on the Deux-Montagnes line and through the Mount Royal Tunnel. While it’s plausible that the trains will be using conventional propulsion technology, the train size and specs suggest that linear motor train technology as used in our Expo and Millennium Line could be adopted.
Bombardier currently offers its Innovia Metro trains (used on our SkyTrain system) with third rail propulsion options, but it would not be difficult to modify the design to take overhead power. Existing third rail trains can be easily modified and outfitted with pantographs.
As an example, last year a number of Tokyo Metro Series 01 train cars, which were used on the city’s busiest Ginza Line, were transferred to a local railway in Kumamoto, which required the installation of an overhead catenary and other modifications (whereas the previous metro line was a third-rail subway).
I have previously commented on how Montreal rail rapid transit projects have specified trains that are similar to those used on our SkyTrain system. This proposal, which actually encompasses many of the same corridors, continues that trend, and it is becoming increasingly likely that a full ALRT adoption is going to be used.
The cost rationale for going driverless
Greater Vancouver pioneered driverless rapid transit when SkyTrain was introduced more than 30 years ago, utilizing what was then the latest technology developed by Alcatel and UTDC. Since then, other systems have been built in numerous cities around the world. According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), 35 cities around the world operated 52 automated metro lines, spanning over 700km, in 2014. This is expected to increase three-fold to over 2000km by 2021.
Automation brings many operational advantages, in particular, increased safety and flexibility in operation, unrivalled reliability, and more attractive job profiles for the staff on the line. Building on these strengths, metro operating companies can seize on automation as a lever for change at all company levels: operational, maintenance and customer service.
One of the more obvious ways that a driver-less system saves money is with the reduction in staffing (no drivers on each of the many trains), headroom is created to operate much more frequent service during less busy weekends and off-peak hours, without incurring an operating cost penalty.
However, the REM’s design choices also show how driver-less train systems can also create the flexibility to save on the project capital cost while maintaining the highest quality of service.
With service frequencies as high as every 2 minutes in the central portion of the line through Montreal City Centre (and potentially higher as ridership increases), driver-less technology is what fosters the potential to combine the no less than 3 forking lines to the west, each already operating at a high frequency, into a single line heading into the city core.
Traditional, driver-operated commuter railways do not always benefit from the ability to merge lines, as the lower permitted frequencies and longer train sizes make running at such high frequencies prohibitive and infeasible. As an example, in Osaka, Japan, the 3 ‘Hankyu’ commuter train line branches serving the areas north of the main city enter the city core on a wide 6-track right-of-way, including a 6-track bridge over the Umeda River. Each line gets its own set of tracks and is operated separately from one another.
Montreal’s REM proposal is using driverless technology to avoid this setup, utilizing driverless technology to have trains from 3 different lines travel into the city core at very high frequencies – without the need for separate tracks, additional tunnels and viaducts, and larger infrastructure, meaning costs and land footprint are significantly reduced.
It is clear why CDPQ is choosing a driverless, automated light metro system – the higher frequencies allow for capacities that are comparable or better despite shorter platforms, and compared to an investment in heavy commuter rail, the REM’s choice for driverless train technology could be saving billions upon billions of dollars.
Opening to public in 2020
One of the marvellous things about the R.E.M. plan is the speed at which the CDPQ wishes to set it up. With a clear business case and clear benefits presenting the opportunity to quickly approve funding from the provincial and federal governments, construction is expected to start in Spring of 2017, approximately 1 year from now.
The line will then open in 2020, with construction sped up by the well-planned re-use of existing rights-of-way and tunnels, and its integration with other projects such as the new Champlain Bridge.
Despite what could be seen as challenges due to the cost, the REM proposal, and the speed at which it will be ready for service, is a showcase of what happens when all parties can come together with a great plan and a great business case. Moreover, driverless train technology, which was pioneered and made extremely successful here in Vancouver, is the basis of this proposal.
I think I am most delighted by the indication that driverless train lines are still worth building and make a lot of sense for urbanized cities. Many of Vancouver’s SkyTrain expansion critics seem to think that isn’t the case.
My guess is that once the REM is complete and its success plays out, its success could very well trigger a rapid transit planning revolution and the mass spread of driverless train systems throughout world cities. Canada will not only be the country that pioneered this technology – but also the world leader in implementing it, with two of the world’s longest driverless systems in Montreal and in Vancouver.
CTV Vancouver; Published Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:58AM PST ; Last Updated Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:33PM PST
Police are reminding both drivers and pedestrians to pay more attention on the road after two young children and their mother were hit by a car as they crossed a street in Surrey.
A four-year-old girl and her six-year-old brother were crossing the road with their mom and dad around 6 p.m. Tuesday at 76th Avenue at 147A Street when three of them were struck.
The little girl suffered critical injuries and is in serious condition, and her brother was also seriously hurt. The mother suffered minor injuries.
I’ve been hearing of pedestrian crossing-related accidents in Surrey for years: Another day, another major crosswalk accident. And this time, it was an entire family – a mother and 2 children – struck while trying to cross the road, at a recently-built crosswalk in the east part of Newton.
I’m a busy person day-to-day – often, these issues show up on my news feed and then go away. The issue was just as said, there’s nothing else to report and it’s practically over. But, there was something about this particular issue that I couldn’t get out of my mind. CTV news did a very good report that showcased the incident crosswalk, and pointed out what issues have been had with it in the community. For most people, it’s an issue of speed. It’s an issue of traffic being unable to stop.
They don’t stop. They go more than 50… it’s all the time… nobody cares. – Woman in red jacket on CTV report
How many times I come down this crosswalk to see people on the sides waiting to cross — nobody stops. Everyone’s in too much of a hurry. – Scott Ogden, nearby resident
Watch as three vehicles blow right through, with a man trying to cross. Residents say this is common. – CTV reporter
But the City’s Transportation Manager, Jaime Boan, can’t seem to have what these local residents are saying. He’s dismissed practically all of it, citing that:
Only two vehicle collisions there in the past five years — neither of them involving pedestrians. – Jaime Boan, City of Surrey Transportation Manager
and that the crosswalk “doesn’t fit the criteria for a lit crosswalk”.
Firstly, I don’t know how valid it is to cite that this crossing had been statistically safe for the past 5 years when there was also no crosswalk, which would understandably mean there are more crossings today as a crosswalk is now actually built for regular use. And secondly, I have found the criteria the City uses to decide on crosswalks to be questionable and far too conservative.
If you’ve been a reader of this blog, you may recall that just over 2 years ago, I took an issue with an accident that happened right by my University (in the post: “Political Incompetence Kills”). The City of Surrey flopped on building a badly-needed crosswalk, and subsequently a teenage girl was struck and killed by a motorcyclist.
Some of the people commenting on the news reports (and some of the news reports themselves) attributed this incident to jaywalking, but I later discovered that wasn’t the case. The fine lines between what is considered a legal crossing and what is considered “jaywalking” are set by each municipalities’ bylaws. In Surrey, you are legally crossing the street if a proper crosswalk is more than 1 block away, meaning Amarpreet Sivia (the victim) crossed the street legally when she was fatally involved in the motorcycle incident.
Since that incident has occurred, the City of Surrey has responded to media concerns by expediting the construction of a traffic signal. That traffic signal had been requested 3 years prior by the nearby school, but initially rejected because – like in this incident – a crosswalk had been deemed unnecessary. In order to prove the opposite, a teenage girl died. This is something we need to prevent in future incidents by investing in safer, properly-designed crosswalks now, not later. We can’t afford to wait.
Behind the Mayor’s boasting that Surrey has the lowest taxes in the region is the fact that Surrey dedicates just $4.95 million a year to pedestrian/cycling infrastructure projects – less than half the dedication put forward by Vancouver, despite that Surrey is bigger than Vancouver in size and will soon eclipse it too in population. – From my original post in September 2013: “Political Incompetence Kills”
If this had been done previously, it would have saved a girls life. Instead the traffic signal was brought to life by the urgency of her example, sitting no less than a block away from my classes at Kwantlen, used by students daily unbeknownst to the fact that it was expedited due to a girl’s death.
Stooping even lower
This time, however, I think the City stooped even lower than it did back in 2013. Going back to what was said by City Transportation Manager Jaime Boan…
Only two vehicle collisions there in the past five years — neither of them involving pedestrians. – Jaime Boan, City of Surrey Transportation Manager
What a clever excuse to let go of a legitimate issue that’s caused serious injury to an entire family. Right now, A four-year-old girl is clinging to life, while her brother, 6, is in serious condition. That alone should be grounds for a serious investigation of the safety of this crosswalk. I actually find it ironic that a City Engineer (and the transportation manager no less), who was asked to comment on this crosswalk, managed to miss this particular shortfall:
Because of the parked vehicle in the foreground, it is impossible to see that a pedestrian wishes to cross. It is also practically impossible to see the crosswalk sign. It’s the most basic rule established between drivers and pedestrians – that eye-contact is made before the crossing is attempted – but there is practically zero line-of-sight. Which also means that there is no room for a vehicle to slow-down to prevent an accident. Add that to the total lack of traffic calming on this street, and it’s no wonder that cars are blowing through this intersection one after the other – it’s practically impossible to tell whether anyone is crossing, much less that there even is a crosswalk – especially at night, when the incident occurred.
After checking with the City’s by-laws, which specify that one must not park within 15 metres of a crosswalk approach, the van in the video may have been parked there illegally. However, if the van belongs to the adjacent residence, then the City should have notified the owner that it would no longer be possible to park the van there and that it should be moved. Even then, the City should also have properly installed “no parking” or “no stopping” signs, which were not in place at the time of this incident and are not visible in the news video.
Regardless of these things, no attempt was made to create an intersection that is safer for crossing, as the intersection was not modified to bring the curb to the edge of the travel lane, which would also reduce crossing distances and make for an overall much safer crossing.
What needs to be done
Some of the people interviewed by the news suggested that this crosswalk needs to have a light – something that the City will probably debate forever with its “traffic statistics”, but it’s clear that regardless of whether or not a light is needed, the crosswalk that was built was poorly engineered. Marking a crosswalk defines a place for people to cross, but if the safety improvement aspect is to be fully realized, that crosswalk must be paired with changes to the roadway or intersection.
What should’ve been built at this crosswalk (and at any other unmarked intersections that may demand crossings) would resemble another crosswalk only two blocks to the west, where the roadway is narrowed so as to slow down vehicles, reduce crossing distances, and ensure eye contact can be made between pedestrians and vehicles:
I find it ironic how this significantly better-designed crosswalk exists nearby, and yet the City of Surrey didn’t take it into account when it built the crosswalk ramps at the existing curb edges, did nothing about the parked vehicles, and completely ignored the line-of-sight.
You owe the people of Surrey an apology, Mr. Boan.
Actually, a lot of people in the City of Surrey might owe apologies. The reason I’m picking on Jaime Boan in particular is because of the dismissive explanation he provided in news interviews – which is also indicative of just how unwilling the City of Surrey is to fix its serious issues with (un)safe crosswalks.
Now, I’m not an engineer. My dad is, but I’m not – I’m just a plain old university student. I haven’t finished my degree in engineering… no less, I’m not even studying engineering. So I have practically no expertise on this matter at all. But it alarms me that a professional engineer (and no less, the manager of transportation in this City), supposedly far more trained than me on this issue, couldn’t nail down the simple, visible reasons why this crosswalk is unsafe. And it alarms me even more that he is now implying that it is still okay to use this crosswalk and that the City is planning to do nothing about it.
Perhaps it’s tempting to think that the stats will say everything, and perhaps it is true that this is the first time an accident has ever developed here at this location. But if there’s any Surrey crosswalk stat that needs to be told, it’s the fact that Surrey has the unfortunate distinction of being home to the highest ratio of pedestrian-related motor vehicle fatalities in the entire province. (according to: The Surrey Leader)
When an entire family is in the hospital because of something that is clearly a result of your (department’s) shortcoming, telling people dismissively that the city won’t consider changes at the problem intersection is absolutely unacceptable. Mr. Boan, you owe the people of Surrey an apology.
And in addition, this neighbourhood is owed a crosswalk redesign. Now.
I would encourage the City of Surrey to expedite efforts to redo this crosswalk right away, and perhaps redo the entire street so that vehicles are slowed down. The city should also expedite other needed safe crossings throughout the city.
Above: The Canada Line at Marine Dr. Station. Featured photo by Larry Chen.
There’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to the big numbers that define the planning of transit systems in Canada. It’s particularly evident when transit technology becomes a matter of discussion.
Of course, millions of dollars are at stake. So there’s no doubt that when the cost estimate for a major project is higher by so much as a few million dollars, it’s the kind of thing that sends transit advocates scrambling to get attention and some people in the media practically screaming.
So I decided to take all the recent and upcoming Light Rail projects in Canada, research their costs and alignment details, and put them in a table for proper comparison. I put the data in a Google spreadsheet:
Data shown in alphabetical order, with Vancouver (NoF) on top.
All projects were included regardless of technology. Alignment was divided by percentage and split into/measured in 7 categories: on-street, above-grade (i.e. elevated), below-grade (i.e. tunnel, open cut), disused R.O.W. (i.e. railway R.O.W., other empty lands), bored tunnel (the most expensive kind of tunnelling), shared-lane (on-street in mixed traffic like a streetcar), and the total at-grade percentage.
Since the transit planning complaints here in Vancouver always seem to be directed at grade-separation, I decided to focus on seeing if there was a cost trend regarding the amount of grade separation for the line.
Same data as above, but sorted by amount of grade-separation.
What I found is that there is a trend that occurs when the chart data is pinpointed on a graph and assessed by percentage, but it’s very inconsistent and the projects are all over the map:
Several projects end up below the average and several end up above it. As an example, there’s a difference in the four projects on this chart closest to the 100% mark. The highest mark is for the proposed Scarborough extension of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line, which will be fully underground. The lowest mark is from the estimate for a SkyTrain Expo Line extension in Surrey, which will be fully grade-separated but built in an elevated guideway as opposed to a tunnel.
Despite the use of grade-separation, many of the highest-cost projects are not fully grade-separated and feature many at-grade segments that can limit potential. Even projects with only about 20% grade-separation can come close to or even breach $200 million per km.
In order to account for the differences associated with much more expensive below-grade (tunnelled) segments, I took the data and assessed it by percentage below-grade and found a much steeper and more consistent trend-line:
The amount of systems at the 100% mark has decreased from 4 to 3, and the trend-line now hits the middle of these three dots. The middle dot, closest to the line, is the current ongoing extension of Toronto’s Yonge-University Spadina subway line. The lowest dot is the cost estimate for the ‘Broadway Subway’ (the Millennium Line’s proposed extension down Broadway), which is below the trend-line but is built around a medium-capacity system unlike Toronto’s fully-fledged, high-capacity subway.
Still, there are some differences to account for in terms of alignment. At the 45-50% mark there are two projects that deviate both from the trend-line and from each other.
The higher of these two marks, at $279 million per km, is the Eglinton Crosstown LRT being built in Toronto. The Crosstown was planned as an on-street LRT system, but the central portion will be placed in a 10km dual underground bored tunnel, which spans more than half of the final construction. The lower of these two marks is actually our SkyTrain system’s Canada Line. The Canada Line is a fully grade-separated light metro and a slightly higher total percentage of it is below grade. However, only a much smaller portion of this is expensive bored tunnel – the rest was done as less expensive cut-and-cover. Therefore, it manages to be less expensive despite the full grade-separation.
To account for that difference I created one more plot excluding everything but projects with bored tunnel segments. The plot line managed to stay the almost same, and the relationship between high capital costs and tunnels is thus made clear:
Since only 13% of the Canada Line was built in a bored tunnel, it is now to the left of where it was in the last chart and sitting very close to the trend-line (the Eglinton Crosstown is also closer to the trend-line). Meanwhile, our Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which encountered challenging soils with its single tunnel bore, is right on the trend-line when set amongst the other systems.
This article surmised that our Light Rail cost estimates are triple what they should be, based on cost estimates being about one-third as much in European and American cities. (And it was, of course, brought up as a way of hurling tomatoes at the idea of a Broadway Subway line – which is still a great idea for a number of reasons).
Interestingly, of all the American cities that could’ve been chosen in the comparison, it was Minneapolis and its Hiawatha Blue Line. This comparison is invalid as over 80% of the line is placed in either disused R.O.W. or tunnel, with only 20% of it being on-street. All of the other examples are from cities in Europe.
Regardless of whether you believe these numbers or not, the reality is that transit projects and their costs are more complicated than being able to be broken down into a simple cost-per-km value that can apply nationwide, across nations, or across transit projects. There are differences in labour laws, work schedule expectations, material costs, acquisition costs, logistics costs, varying land values, differences in local terrain and differences in economy. All of these need to be accounted for and thus it can’t be assumed that a transit project that cost a certain amount in Europe (or any other country, really) could be replicated in Canada for a similar cost.
Here in Vancouver, for example, any big rapid transit projects are likely to cost more than anywhere else in Canada simply because the higher cost of land would likely significantly raise the costs of project elements such as the operations & maintenance centre (OMC).
Despite this, at the end of the day, both the Broadway Subway and the LRT proposals were consistent with the trendlines across Canadian rapid transit systems.
To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:
From the wide spectrum in cost of what would otherwise be similar at-grade, on-street LRTs, it may appear that The Tyee would have a point. Even this can be explained, however. The two lowest-cost systems on this chart are Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION rapid transit and the proposed Victoria LRT system. They also happen to have the highest percentages (44% and 31% respectively) on a disused right-of-way (i.e. beside a railway), which is the least expensive place to build any transit because there’s no utility removal, property acquisition or street-scaping work adding to the cost.
In the middle are the Mississauga and Hamilton systems, which are slightly lower than the big-city systems in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto (they are also among the 3 systems with occasional mixed-traffic rights-of-way), which seems just right to me. The Mississauga system (Hurontario LRT), in particular, is being built on a wide roadway that in most places still has significant allocations on either side where the roadway can be expanded if necessary (in other words, there’s almost no property acquisition).
The cost for a Broadway LRT system is certainly on the high-end of the spectrum. This makes sense as a Broadway system would need to offer the highest capacity of all of these systems and would face street-scaping challenges with the need to stay within property lines (though this won’t stop property acquisitions from being necessary at station locations). There’s also the uncertainty around an OMC, which would have likely had to be built underground and/or expensively due to the lack of lands along Broadway and high land costs in Vancouver.
In the end, the amount of bored tunnel has a somewhat linear relation with project costs – but grade-separation altogether does not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid building systems with bored tunnel segments from end-to-end (at the end of the day, whether to go that far or not should come down to detailed evaluations of each corridor and transportation needs), but what I do hope to achieve with this article is to facilitate an improvement in the discussion of rapid transit projects (Especially capital costs, since it seems to be the only thing people want to talk about when thinking of rapid transit projects – I, of course, completely disagree).
It’s time to stop thinking that we can build paradise if we replicate the results of other countries, at the costs those other countries experience – it’s impossible. Let’s build transit systems that are adapted to the way our cities work, so that we are sure to be rewarded with positive outcomes.
Featured above: The Nanakuma Line in Fukuoka uses LIM propulsion (SkyTrain technology)
Above video: (Japanese) report about the Nanakuma Line extension project in the City of Fukuoka
Japanese cities are leading the way in their investment in the same linear motor technology systems powering the Vancouver SkyTrain system.
A few weeks ago, the City of Fukuoka confirmed a major 1.6km extension of its Nanakuma Subway line, from its present terminus in Tenjin-Minami to the city’s intercity train terminal at Hakata Station. This extension will create a new extension from the south end of the Tenjin city centre area to Hakata Station, while passing underneath Canal City – a major mall in the city and Japan’s largest private development complex.
This extension will make the Nanakuma Line more accessible to intercity travellers arriving via the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Osaka, Kagoshima or Nagasaki at Hakata Station, and it will also improve transfers to the city’s Airport Line subway and connections to the airport, by allowing travellers to bypass the most congested section of the airport line at Nakasu-Kawabata.
Construction for this extension is already ongoing and is visible on Fukuoka’s city streets. The new extension is expected to be complete by 2020.
I am pleased to hear about this extension as Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, the southwestern area of Japan where I lived in during my past year. In my time there I made frequent visits to the city, including frequent use of its subway lines. The Nanakuma Line was the first “SkyTrain technology” subway I visited, right after I arrived last September.
Sendai opening brand new SkyTrain technology line next week
Next week, Sendai will be proceeding with the opening of its east-west Tozai Line – a brand new subway system constructed with linear motor (SkyTrain) technology.
The City of Sendai has already hosted a test ride, attended by over 6000 would-be passengers of the new rapid transit line.
Above video: (Japanese) news report showing test rides last week on the Sendai Subway Tozai Line
The test rides were successful and the line is on track to open for revenue service in exactly 1 week on December 6, 2015.
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
Pictured above: A Compass card next to my personalized SUICA, the IC card used on Tokyo’s transit network.
I neglected to make a formal announcement on this blog before I left, but I’m sure many of you were following me this past year for my journeys in one of the most transit-developed countries in the world. My opportunity to live in this country came with a scholarship study program that I was admitted to last year, and brought with it a form of excitement in terms of not only getting to lived in a country I had dreamed of visiting for personal interest reasons, as well as further my personal ambitions – but to see what I could take back from a country that has developed what may perhaps be the world’s best, most comprehensive transportation network.
As a student without a lot of money (apart from my scholarship money) there wasn’t really a lot to expect, and I didn’t think I would make it much further than destinations near my hometown in Nagasaki prefecture – but I was determined to make it more than just a matter of staying in one city and picking up another language. Fortunately, I was proved wrong and it was thanks to the country’s excellent transportation system.
With the 3rd biggest domestic flight market in the world, the expenses of domestic air travel had dropped to the point where you could fly to other cities with just a few hours of earnings on minimum wage – this materialized for me in January when I was able to book no less than 7 individual flights with an airline for under $200 CAD. Train operators offered deals like the JR Seishun 18 Pass and Kintetsu Rail Pass that helped me cut down on the costs of intercity travel. All in all I was able to amass more than 10 weeks of travel experience, reaching all of the country’s biggest cities, and numerous areas in-between. I did this all with only the resources I had in my pocket and no drivers’ license, no car and no need for taxis to fill the gaps.
For a country with one of the world’s most prominent and largest automobile industries in the world, car usage in Japan is surprisingly low. The Japanese have lived with a built-in culture of utilizing transit options, boosted heavily by the small size and relative density enabling the inexpensive construction of nationwide train networks.
In my view, after a year of experiencing the country, Japan’s transportation excellence primarily comes from its advantageously small size, and its commitment to keeping transit networks around. There are few areas in North America with the same kind of supporting density as can be found throughout this East Asian country, and you won’t be surprised to find that these areas also have well-built inter-city and intra-city train and transit systems. Many of the rapid transit train lines you’ll find in cities have been around for anywhere between 50 and 100 years, built in advance of developments with developments and communities orienting themselves around transit lines. Stations are meeting places, and are often community hubs with large pick-up and drop-off places and a large congregation of businesses. Often these businesses are built into the station itself.
We have a few examples of that here in Vancouver, the most prominent being the newly built Plaza 88 and Shops at New West Station, and I would really like to see more of them. Japanese cities have mastered the maximization of the accessibility of a train station. In large cities like Tokyo, major train stations are built under or adjacent to massive, 10-story shopping malls with every single service you can find. Businesses, including shops and restaurants, can set up their shops/restaurants at fewer locations than you would expect, because it’s fast and easy to get there from anywhere in the city. Many smaller businesses set up shop only at or near the busiest train stations, yet have no problem reaching and catering to a large amount of people from faraway places. The versatility, flexibility and cost-savings in having transit has proven to be a strong driver in Japan’s consumer economy.
Japan is famous for not only its trains and what its trains have made possible, but also for its railway innovations and pioneers. The “Shinkansen” or “bullet train” was the world’s first high speed rail system between Tokyo and Osaka, which is now the busiest line in the country and is in the process of being replaced by a 600km/h maglev.
Big cities in Japan have extensive transit systems supported by trains that run skip-stop “express” and local services on the same track, carefully timed to the second, with coordinated transfers between those services to maximize passenger flow and minimize travel time.
In addition to pioneering the systems that have been popularized in other countries, Japanese planners are keen to pay attention to trends from abroad. When our SkyTrain system in Vancouver opened in 1986, it was one of the most innovative transit systems in the world. Many Japanese cities have borrowed the same “SkyTrain technology” we use, best characterized by the linear motor rail in the centre of the track, in high-capacity, big-city subway systems – taking advantage of the tighter radius curves and smaller tunnels to save trillions of Yen in public transit projects.
Japanese cities have used linear motor propulsion on nearly every subway line built since the 1990s – all of which I have visited during my 1 year stay. In many of the cities the trains are of a newer-generation than the ones used here in SkyTrain. Fukuoka’s Nanakuma Lines trains are not only well-built and modern, but surprisingly quiet going through tunnels.
The latest system, the “Tozai Line” in Sendai, will be opening this December, and will revitalize transit and tourism in a city which in my experience was comparatively lacklustre with its supporting buses.
All in all I enjoyed fulfilling my objectives, especially in transit research. Returning to Canada was a challenge in my realization that many of the Japanese lifestyle things I enjoyed cannot be found in Canada. There’s a lot to say about my time in Japan and how I viewed particular aspects in transit planning topics, but that’s a discussion I’ll be saving for later. I look forward to returning to active blogging on both Metro Vancouver and Japan topics.
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
I wrote this segment as a part of the recent article I did commenting on the new study for Light Rail in Surrey. The quote from the study that caught my eye and may perhaps catch the eyes of others invested in transit planning, is this prominent suggestion that…
Unlike Rapid Bus or SkyTrain alternatives, the LRT will have a permanent physical presence in their exclusive rights-of-way and yet be at a human scale and have a gentle footprint in keeping with the lower density portions of the lines. (Surrey LRT study)
Notice how the author attempts to justify the Light Rail technology aspect in this way, by suggesting that the “permanent” presence of rail-based transit (i.e. visible rails on the street) has a positive implication on image from riders and developers, that isn’t achieved with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
(SkyTrain is the existing, fully grade-separated, driverless rapid transit system in Metro Vancouver)
Investing in enhancing bus service instead of physical rails on the street is not a failure to create “permanence”. After all, rapid transit improvements are justified in the first place because the demand for the transit on that corridor is already quite high without it.
According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America are outperforming LRT in terms of how much development is generated per transit investment dollar. While the study found an LRT line in Portland had generated the most development, when this was divided per dollar of transit investment, the LRT line actually generated 31 times less development, than the system that led the per-dollar development measure: a BRT system in Cleveland.
“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development (T.O.D.) investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.”
According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:
Strong government support for redevelopment
Real estate market conditions
Usefulness of transit services – speed, frequency, reliability
Clearly, when the outcomes are given similar marketing and promotion, developers don’t actually care if the system uses rails or not.
Here in Canada, York Regional Transit in Ontario, with its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, is helping to challenge the popular notion that only rail systems can reinvigorate communities. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.
Myth #2: Light Rail creates “permanence”
Light Rail is praised by supporters for creating the idea of “permanence” – which has to do with the presence of physical tracks in the streets. The suggestion is supposed to be something along the lines of, “we invested rails in this corridor so that it will never disappear.”
This is a very dangerous myth – and one of the reasons this is dangerous is because of the untold implication, wherein going straight to a Light Rail system results in other parts of the transit system lose transit service, as a means of coping with the associated costs.
Perhaps the best example of this is the downtown streetcar system in Portland, Oregon. The reveled streetcarhad vibrant beginnings in its promise to provide a clean, high-quality service every 10 minutes, promoting and connecting new developments in the downtown core.
Its big-ticket issue, however, lies in the fact that it was not planned around actually improving mobility. The resulting service was not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often slower than walking or cycling. It was easily and frequently disrupted by accidents, poorly parked cars, and a host of other issues.
Above video: Portland Streetcar gets stuck due to a poorly parked vehicle, in what would be a minor and avoidable adjustment for a bus.
Throughout its history, the streetcar has also received service cutbacks – which arguably challenge the notion that rail has “permanence”. The streetcar has never once operated at the initially promised frequencies of 10 minutes. The cutbacks were initially to the point where you would have to wait as long for a streetcar in the supposedly-vibrant city centre, as you would for a bus in a lower-density part of Surrey.
The streetcar’s ridership is so low that only 6% of the streetcar’s operating costs comes from farebox recovery. 94% of operating costs must be subsidized, and the subsidy is so heavy that it has City Auditors concerned that the streetcar is taking away from other basic services.
What is clear about the Portland streetcar example is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference. They have added so little value, which ends up coming out negative against the funding issues that affected transit service throughout the region.
When the streetcars are unable to run due to an accident or some issue, the replacement shuttle buses are providing essentially the same service as the streetcars. It has had some people thinking whether Portland could follow examples here in Vancouver and in Seattle, launching a well-branded, electric trolley-bus service could have been more suitable for not just the streetcar routes, but other bus routes throughout the city as well.
Bridging the gap between BRT and LRT
Recently, consultant Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog (which as you’ll notice, I’ve already referenced a few times in this write-up) mentioned that when naturally low-performing local and suburban bus services are excluded from the picture, frequent bus service is nearly as cost-efficient as LRT (in terms of the cost for every rider on the end-service).
Many advocates of LRT would rather have you look at the bus vs LRT operating costs per rider, as they apply to the entire transit system. This creates misleading attitudes surrounding buses, because the numbers include the local and suburban bus services that are naturally poor-performing (and on top of that, will likely never be replaced/justified by an LRT, ever).
The numbers above demonstrate that when you give buses the service quality and frequency usually associated with a more expensive LRT investment, they can be nearly as cost-efficient to operate. Likewise, if buses are also given the same amenities that add to comfort, image and sleekness, then they will likely be appreciated as much by the public.
BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. Many BRT systems have adopted innovative features that go a long way towards bridging the gap between BRT and LRT.
BRT advocates often cite examples in South America (such as Bogota, Colombia and others) that use BRT so extensively and so innovatively, that it is considered a replacement for heavy rail. I believe there is another worthy example that deserves some serious attention, and it’s within North America:
“Look ma, no hands”! In Eugene, Oregon, the “Emerald Express” BRT system adopted a magnetically-guided automated steering system, allowing the bus to make more precise turns and dock with precision at every BRT station. The revenue service of this guided system was introduced in June 2013 and is now celebrating its 2nd anniversary.
This guided BRT design allows for reduced lane-width requirements. Steering is automated through the electronic guidance, which only requires pavement under the wheel tracks. This provides an opportunity for the inclusion of additional green space between the tracks. The guided bus technique allows for “precision docking” at the stations.
While the buses do need to be specially equipped, they can still run on other roads. This system does not require the extensive infrastructure and costs of previously-developed “guided” BRT systems, and can in fact save costs by allowing a tighter, narrower running right-of-way for rapid buses.
It’s time to consider BRT
Where could you go with Bus Rapid Transit? I personally think that a lot of the potential of BRT systems is dismissed not necessarily because of disapproval, but also because the discussion is never really started. You would never be able to travel from King George & 88th and end up in South Surrey or even Coquitlam without transferring, on the currently proposed LRT system. Unfortunately, that’s been pushed out as a key consideration in transit planning here.
The Emerald Express is an excellent example of how current technology can be used to bridge the gap between BRT and LRT. And, on top of the examples showed in Eugene, there are so many other ways to “bridge the gaps”.
At this point, basically every heavily-promoted LRT feature can be replicated with BRT (and likewise, every streetcar feature with buses). Well-designed BRT systems incorporate lements such as: sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance. Hybrid diesel-electric or electric trolley buses can be used to lower or eliminate carbon emissions – and provide the smoother, non-jerky ride quality of electric vehicles. Plus, double-articulated buses are increasingly being used – giving a little more flexibility in terms of capacity (Light Rail’s current running advantage).
If BRT can gain more traction in this decade, it will pave the way for much better transit in all our cities, because BRT costs a lot less to implement, and has numerous flexibility advantages over Light Rail systems in urban settings. You could build more BRT than an LRT with the same dollar, and extend its reach further by through-running onto other corridors.
In order for this to happen, transit advocates must abandon any and all adherence to the “only rail creates development” myth. The fear-mongering, excuses and nay-saying from pro-LRT activists is becoming a serious setback to the realization of transit potential in our cities.