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:

Montreal’s 67km driverless train system to be third longest in world

Montreal’s 67km driverless train system to be third longest in world

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:

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.

Download the case study

Significant improvements in transit service

Map of the new system, showing connection points with existing rail transit in Montreal

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

Montreal benefits
The REM case study cites SkyTrain as an example for development success.

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.

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line
SkyTrain pioneered driverless train technology. Seen here, a 2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line. By sillygwalio, CC-BY

With 24 stations over 67km, the station spacing means that the REM is a cross between suburban/commuter rail and urban rail.

The new proposal in Montreal looks a lot like the Canada Line of our SkyTrain system.

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.

Train technology

REM cars

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.

A 2-car Tokyo Metro 01-series train now in service in Kumamoto. These trains were outfitted with overhead catenaries for Kumamoto’s railway, after using third-rail power for years on Tokyo’s busiest city subway line. By hyolee2, CC-BY-SA

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.

In Japan, which is home to the world’s most well-built railway and transit networks, this is done regularly when used trains are passed on from big city to smaller-scale transit operators.

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).

See also: Montreal may use SkyTrain technology for Champlain Bridge “LRT”

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

Driverless winning
The total length of automated metro lines is expected to triple by 2025.

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.
 
(UITP automation report)

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.

The western proportion of the REM proposal has 3 separate lines that merge into a single lane heading into Montreal City Centre.
The western proportion of the REM proposal has 3 separate lines, which merge into a single line heading into Montreal City Centre.

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.

Osaka, Japan's 'Hankyu' commuter train lines have 3 branches that converge for the final segment into the City Centre. Each line gets its own set its tracks, and crosses the Umeda River into the city core on a 6-track bridge. Montreal's REM proposal is using driverless technology to avoid this setup, with 3 forking lines merging into a single line and using driverless technology to travel into the city core at high frequencies.
The Hankyu bridge into Osaka’s Umeda Station. By GORIMON, CC-BY-NC

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

Concept image of an REM station

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.

See also: The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits

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.

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

Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

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.

Trends

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.

Below-grade segments

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.

2012210-eglinton-lrt
The vast majority of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be placed in a large and expensive underground tunnel

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.

Bored tunnels

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.

Canada can’t be compared to Europe

The Tyee has probably been one of the most prominent to sound the cost-comparison alarm when they published a 2012 article titled, “Why Is TransLink’s Price for Light Rail Triple What Other Cities Pay?”

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).

14532657623_ab73087347
Nice try, Tyee – but the Hiawatha Blue Line is largely off-street and incomparable to Broadway!

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.

On-street LRTs

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.

highway_401_at_hurontario_street_9192877703
With a right-of-way this wide, the Hurontario LRT is not going to need a lot of property acquisition.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sendai celebrates SkyTrain technology with opening of new Tozai Line

sendai-map
Sendai Subway map showing the new Tozai Line (east-west line in blue)

The sun is rising over a quiet city, where the lights inside 13 new rapid transit stations turn on and the first station staff make their way down the relatively unused escalators to prepare to open the platforms for the first wave of customers.

The familiar hum of a linear induction motor system populates the station as the first of 15 four-car trains rolls in from the maintenance yard, ready to board passengers for the first service of the day.

If you think I’m describing an event in Vancouver, you would be wrong because I am describing what’s happening right now in a major Japanese city, one that decided to build a brand new rapid transit line with the same SkyTrain technology developed in Canada and pioneered here in Vancouver.

See: New subway line opens in disaster-hit Sendai – The Japan Times

Sendai, Japan is the city that was hit hard during the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The completion of the new Tozai Line, a 14km rapid transit subway with both underground and elevated stations, has turned the page for the city, marking its vibrance and prosperity as it progresses in its recovery from the devastation of 4 years ago.

I went back to Sendai for a business trip, and it also happened to be the day the Tozai line opened to the public. It was crazy! The city and its people are treating it like a big event!
-Ryukyurhymer from Skyscrapercity (LINK)

Videos and photos of the launch celebrations show thousands of people making use of the new system, and celebrations ranging from idol girl groups performing on the station platforms, local sports team mascots out to celebrate, men in samurai outfits, traditional dance performances on board the trains, and picnics at the park beside the train’s visible elevated section. It is a lively hustle and bustle and the mood appears to be as festive as when I visited Sendai just 4 months ago to attend the city’s most famous Tanabata Festival, as part of my 1-year Japan studies journey. It is arguably the biggest occurrence in the city since this August and the biggest revolution for the city since the first steps in recovery were made after 2011.

Pictures from TransLink of mockup Mark III Skytrain vehicle
SkyTrain technology was developed in Canada and pioneered right here in Vancouver.

Since the first km of demonstration track opened in early 1983 here in Vancouver, SkyTrain technology has made its way around the world with just over 20 systems complete or being proposed in 15 cities worldwide. We have reinvested in it and expanded our system several times, yet we’ve been overtaken by a certain Guangzhou, China that has made a monstrous investment in this technology with over 99km of track – reaching 130km by next year.

Sendai’s will to revitalize their city with the help of a technology pioneered here in Vancouver, Canada should be seen as a wonderful treat and a mark of our contributions to this technology’s progress, and a reminder of the big impacts we can make with choices that we would otherwise deem irrelevant. Sendai’s choice of SkyTrain technology will help the city fast-track its ongoing recovery from the events of 4 years ago.

The line will serve 80,000 riders a day next year, with an additional 3% more estimated to come each year and grow the system’s ridership. According to the schedule on the city’s website, trains will run every 3-4 minutes during peak hours and no less frequently than every 7.5 minutes at off-peak times and weekends – an excellent service standard for a medium-sized city of 1 million people.

The new line is already enabling new transit-oriented development nodes in the city, maximizing the line’s potential and giving a nod to the transit-oriented development practices that Greater Vancouver pioneered for every city in North America.

In an area around Arai Station, work to establish a new community of nearly 20,000 people is progressing. Public apartments have been built for those affected by the tsunami, with people moving there from areas closer to the Pacific coast as part of a collective relocation program. (The Japan Times)

We should celebrate a technology that’s made an impact around the world

As a result of the practical research for three years from Fiscal 1985, we confirmed that low-cost subway “Linear Metro” that has been developed as a public transport is suitable for regional hub city as a semi-main metropolitan line or branch line. For this reason, the Japan Subway Association established the “Linear Metro Promotion Headquarters” within the association in October 1988.

ml98pr_fig2
Comparison of conventional subways and linear motor subways. From Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau’s info page on LIM technology

Japanese researchers started studying linear induction motors (LIMs) as train propulsion in 1985. After Osaka built Japan’s first LIM line (the Nagahori Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line), it was found that the city had saved approximately 20% in construction costs. This is one of the key advantages that come with LIMs – the less-complicated motors enable trains to have lower platform heights, which  means tunnels can be significantly smaller and less costly without impacting the quality of service. There is no doubt that with the majority of Sendai’s new subway line tunneled, millions in cost savings were found with the use of SkyTrain technology.

This same advantage was directly to blame for the use of an existing railway tunnel on our Expo Line SkyTrain downtown, a choice that saved us hundreds of millions of dollars as a traditional light rail system would have required new and larger tunnels to be dug under our downtown core.

“The new line is a symbol of development for the disaster-hit Arai district. I hope the Tozai Line will play a major role in leading the city.”
– Emiko Okuyama, Mayor of Sendai (The Japan Times)

See also: List of Linear induction motor rapid transit systems

Sendai’s system brings the amount of in-service SkyTrain technology systems from 17 to 18. 14 cities/areas are currently using SkyTrain technology, and a 15th (Okinawa Island, also in Japan) has declared its use for a major future transit investment.

I am pleased to hear about and report on this successful launch, and I encourage all of us in Vancouver to cheer this Japanese city and its people in celebrating a brand new era of progress and motion.

Local news report (Japanese)

Watch trains arrive and depart at Sendai Central Station

Fukuoka to extend SkyTrain subway

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.

mainvisual02
Map of the Nanakuma Line extension on the Fukuoka city website

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.

Recommended reads:

SkyTrain technology is not outdated and not proprietary

RE: Critics say SkyTrain technology is outdated – Global News

Pictured above: The new Tozai Line in Sendai, Japan uses SkyTrain technology – and is opening in just 7 days.

Nathan Pachal was incorrect in stating that Bombardier “dictates what we’re going to do in our region” in a recent interview with Global BC, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed at what he said. I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the report either, which claimed and brought attention to SkyTrain technology being “outdated” and a “boutique system is made by only one company.

This is misleading and untrue, and I have proven this many times in my research and advocacy efforts throughout the past few years.

SkyTrain technology is proven, efficient, and used around the world in more than just a handful of cities. The idea that SkyTrain is a single-company offering, and that it’s outdated, comes down to a lot of miscommunication, misinformation and the sheer lack of information in discussion circles here. It’s important to get some perspective, so firstly…

What is “SkyTrain technology”?

Used in our Expo and Millennium Lines, SkyTrain technology basically comes down to two unique aspects:

  1. Automatic train control (ATC)
  2. Linear induction motor (LIM) propulsion

See: NEARLY ONE IN FOUR METRO CITIES HAS AT LEAST ONE AUTOMATED LINE

Longest metro systems
The world’s longest automated metro systems are in major global cities including Dubai, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, among others.

The former (automatic train control) has become the global standard in rapid transit, with more than 1 in 4 cities now having at least one automated metro line as part of their system, according to the Automated Metros Observatory. There are 732km of automated metro lines, and the observatory expects this to triple in the next 10 years.

I can imagine that the latter (LIM propulsion) has become the popular subject of contention – since only 5 systems have been built if you only count the systems installed by Bombardier.

However, if you count all of the other systems offered by other companies, LIM technology is now used in over 20 systems in cities around the world, including many busy, large-scale systems in China and in Japan.

Bombardier isn’t the only manufacturer of LIM cars

See also: List of Linear Induction Motor rapid transit systems

Osaka's Nagahori-Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line was the first of numerous linear motor train lines.
I took this photo when I was visiting Osaka in March of this year. Look, a reaction rail!!!

The biggest thing we misunderstand is that we think Bombardier is the “owner” of LIM technology and is the only manufacturer and provider of LIM cars. This is false.

In the city of Guangzhou, China, the world’s largest linear motor train system has over 100km of track. Already, three train lines in the city are using the technology and are responsible for carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers each day.

These are some of the newest subway lines that have been built in the city. One of them, line 6, opened just 2 years ago and is now the busiest line in the whole city.

The 3 Guangzhou metro lines use cars that were jointly manufactured by ITOCHU and CSR-Sifang. Meanwhile, in some of Japan’s biggest cities, Kawasaki Heavy Industries has manufactured LIM transit cars for systems serving hundreds of thousands of passengers a day in Kobe, Osaka and Tokyo.

sub_i_20150330_h_1
Brand new linear motor trains on Tokyo’s Oedo Subway line were made by a different manufacturer than the one that made the first-generation cars.

Kawasaki isn’t the only Japanese manufacturer of LIM cars. The upcoming system in Sendai is being supplied by Kinki Sharyo, and the Fukuoka system was supplied by Hitachi.

The Oedo subway line in Tokyo, one of the busiest lines in the city, is using several different manufacturers’ offerings: the first generation cars were manufactured by Nippon Sharyo and Hitachi, while new-generation cars delivered just this year were made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Tokyo’s example is proving that more than one manufacturer can be the supplier of linear motor trains.

These companies aren’t unaware of each others’ presence and do work with (and compete with) each other. They have even collaborated on certain occasions (as an example, Bombardier supplied bogies for some of Guangzhou’s metro cars – while Mitsubishi supplied the actual linear motors).

These cities chose SkyTrain technology for various reasons, one of the most popular reasons being the reduction in tunnel sizes and – as a result – the reduction in capital costs for building the system. In Japan, SkyTrain technology systems are directly promoted as a way of saving money.

See also: Linear Metro promotion page by Japan Subway Association

New systems are being announced and built very often, speaking to the success of this technology. The systems are responsible for moving many more people than even SkyTrain does – and do so reliably, every single day.

The newest system is opening in just 7 days in Sendai, Japan. I am looking forward to the launch celebrations.

Above: A promotional video for Sendai’s upcoming Tozai Line, showing the use of SkyTrain technology. The Tozai Line opens on December 6.

This technology is still very much being developed

Last month we were greeted by the arrival of the first “Mark III” SkyTrain vehicles. Bombardier’s Innovia Metro 300 product is the newest generation of Bombardier’s offering of SkyTrain technology. It has won orders here in Vancouver, for an expansion in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and – of all places – for a new rapid transit line in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The renaming of what was previously called “ART” (Advanced Rapid Transit) into a “Metro” class product shows that Bombardier is as committed to keeping up with the development of linear motor propulsion technology, as its competitors are in China and Japan.

But what about all the breakdowns?

I’ve been feeling that SkyTrain technology critics would be motivated to speak as such due to the intensity of the recent SkyTrain breakdowns. For this, it’s important to get some perspective – particularly on what’s been causing some of these incidents to occur.

skytrain-control-cc-by-nc-sa
Track displays at SkyTrain control in Burnaby

Many of the recent break-downs on SkyTrain have been made worse by a particular shortfall that was identified in the commissioned SkyTrain performance review.

In the 1990s, BC Transit decided not to add a simple component to the automatic train control system which would have allowed the system to recover more quickly when a train is stalled. Other driverless transit systems have installed this component and thus do not face this particular problem.

From the independent SkyTrain performance review:

The SELTRAC technology of the 1980s has been upgraded with new control and software elements. SkyTrain was upgraded to the 2nd generation of the SELTRAC technology in 1994. However, SkyTrain did not include the auto-restart module that was available. Therefore, in a temporary loss of communication from the VCCs or VOBCs, SkyTrain SELTRAC technology still requires each train to be manually introduced into the control computer system.

Averaging 5-10 minutes per train to enter the necessary data, this equates to approximately 5 hours to fully recover operations, as there are approximately 40-58 trains operating depending upon when a service delay related to a train control communication failure occurs.

TransLink has identified the addition of this system as an immediate priority, but it may not be happening for another 5 years as the installation is a complex undertaking.

If BC Transit installed it 21 years ago, it would have been in place before the Millennium Line was built and we would be saving a lot of time with recent issues.

See: Fast SkyTrain restart 5 years away – Surrey Leader

Other breakdowns simply amounted to – in the case of last week’s incident – misplacement; – in the case of one of the 2014 breakdowns – human error; or – in the case of both the recent birds nest fire and tree hitting train incident – sheer bad luck.

Perhaps some of these breakdowns have resulted from the particulars of how our system was designed. Regardless, any transit system is prone to a breakdown of some sort. There are many different reasons.

breaker
At the same time as the SkyTrain incidents last week, a light rail train struck a pedestrian in Seattle and caused a 3-hour closure of the line in that area. Courtesy KIRO 7

My last blog post (We can learn from Japan on transit delays/incidents) was about a similar transit mishap in Japan last week on the JR Kobe Line, due to a fallen power pole. This is a conventional electric train line with rotary motors.

And, it seems no one knew about this but on the same day (and at the same time) as the SkyTrain breakdown of this week, Seattle’s LINK Light Rail line faced a 3 hour closure and disruption, when a pedestrian was struck by a train on an at-grade section.

What about the Scarborough RT?

You definitely can’t excuse the fact that Toronto wants to shut down the Scarborough RT, one of the first SkyTrain lines built and in-service, and replace it with either an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT on the same route – or an extension of the Bloor-Danforth Subway line.

However, I reckon that the conversion and replacement has more to do with the desire to provide a through service with these other lines and reduce transfers. From a transportation planning perspective, that’s a very natural thing to want to have. It’s part of why the City of Vancouver has preferred that the “Broadway Subway” be built as an extension of the existing Millennium Line and not in any other way.

However, it’s also importance to have some perspective. The Scarborough RT was the first SkyTrain-technology line ever built, and was converted from what was supposed to be a standard extension of the Toronto streetcar system. The system was built to run only shorter Mark I cars, with newer Mark II cars deemed incompatible without a refurbishment.

Scarborough RT
The Scarborough RT was built well before a “Mark II” train car was even considered as part of the design.

This refurbishment was in fact studied, and was valued at $360 million. Going with a refurbishment was considered one of the most cost-effective ways to improve transit to Scarborough. The existing line and stations would be rebuilt to accommodate newer Mark IIs and Mark IIIs, and so provide a better service.

It would have cost less than rebuilding the line as an LRT system to integrate with the Crosstown line, and far less than building a new subway. It would have also avoided 28 additional months of transit service disruption for riders in Scarborough.

542-transit-chart
See: Our neglect of Scarborough RT is shameful: James – The Star

For whatever reason, be it political or otherwise, this suggestion fell on deaf ears – and that has been the subject of plenty of criticism. Transit planners in Toronto have condemned the neglect of the Scarborough RT’s infrastructure, calling it “shameful” and “inefficient”. It is pointed out that a January 2013 report by the TTC, commenting on the technology matter for a Scarborough rapid transit project, explicitly stated that:

“Notwithstanding criticisms and misinformation over the years, the Scarborough RT has been the single most-reliable service operated by the TTC. The service has been very successful at attracting ridership and has been operating over-capacity for a decade.” (2013 TTC report – page 9)

In addition, the Scarborough RT is run with drivers who operate the doors – breaking the fully-driverless design standard to which it was built to. As Toronto has not seen the full benefits of running ALRT the way it was designed, it’s hard to consider today’s judgement of replacing/shutting down the RT fair or unbiased.

2 years ago, Michael Schabas, a UK-based railway consultant of the Neptis Foundation, published an excellent report hypothesizing that the acceptance of SkyTrain technology in Greater Toronto could have saved billions of dollars and prevented a lot of the choking debate that’s put transit expansion there at a standstill today.

See: Toronto rapid transit review recommends SkyTrain expansion over LRT

Reports and viewpoints like these provide great insight and in my view are worth serious consideration. We all lose when someone is dismissive to consider really great alternatives, and ignores facts when there are facts at hand.


Help me put an end to the misinformation

Share this article on Twitter, Facebook and with anyone you know who’s concerned on transit matters. I believe that regional transit planning has been damaged significantly by misinformation like this, and it’s time to put it to an end for good.

I urge everyone reading this to help me spread the word and help me pressure Global into allowing me to respond to their article.

 

We can learn from Japan on transit delays/incidents

Video shows that in Japan, even the train evacuations are orderly 【RocketNews24】

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.

Map of JR train lines in the Osaka/Kansai area. The blue line going west-east from Himeji to Maibara through Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto was the line affected.
[OPEN to enlarge] Map of JR train lines in the Osaka/Kansai area. The blue line from Himeji in the west to Maibara in the east was the line affected.
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.

SkyTrain has been through numerous shutdowns in the past year, which many have attributed to be an issue of system reliability. In actuality, many of them the result of the lack of an auto-restart system that was neglected by BC Transit in the 1990s; some of them were genuinely due to human error; and some of them just couldn’t be prevented no matter what anyone did.

Regardless of the cause, we don’t seem to handle these very well. Doors have been broken open, resulting in people walking on the tracks unauthorized and causing further delays as track power needs to be shut down. People tend to respond loudly and angrily on social media, not waiting for the investigation to blame TransLink on whatever happens.

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.

This train line didn't have emergency walkways at door-level like our SkyTrain system - so passengers had to climb down ladders to get onto the track.
This train line didn’t have emergency walkways at door-level like our SkyTrain system – so passengers had to climb down ladders to get onto the track.

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.

See also: Vancouverites are Spoiled with SkyTrain – Vancity Buzz

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.

Man tea 1