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.

Surrey’s Mayor thinks helicopters for the 1% are more important than transit

Surrey’s Mayor thinks helicopters for the 1% are more important than transit

From The Globe and MailPeople travelling the 40 kilometres between Surrey and Vancouver tend to drive or take transit. Surrey’s mayor wants to add a third option: helicopter.


…I have often shared the sentiment that Surrey’s transit future is in a bad shape as it is, but an announcement today by the City Mayor just took that sentiment to a whole new level. A network of helicopter take-off and landing pads to service business-men and wealthy commuters who can afford it has just jumped the priority list over a rapid transit system to service the city’s transit-dependent.

Yes, I said that right. The City of Surrey has decided to leave the city’s transit commuters behind to facilitate helicopter commutes for the 1%. If you don’t believe me, you can read her speech transcript for yourself.

Hepner between helicopters and LRT

The media still has yet to catch onto the ridiculousness and mismatched premise of this idea, but soon will come the rewatches and re-reads of the Mayor’s State of the City speech during which this is bound to be uncovered. The announcement was made immediately after a segment of the talk that focused on the city’s transit ambitions (specifically, the City’s plan for an LRT system). The segment was very short and offered no promises on the transit, and then quickly segued into announcing the plan for helicopters and helipads – which did come with a solid promise to start construction by 2017.

Now, let me back up a little bit and tell you exactly what is wrong here.

First, Mayor Hepner stated that she could only “believe” that construction of a proposed Light Rail Transit network would be started by the year 2018. And, that’s after initially promising that it would be finished by 2018 in the last elections.

“[Ms. Hepner] said she hopes to have construction [on the helipads] under way by this time in 2017.”

Secondly, she announced that the City would potentially be spending untold millions of taxpayer dollars on a network of helipads (and the associated land) with construction starting in 2017 or at least a full year before anything on rapid transit begins.

Now, a rapid transit network for far more people might be a significantly bigger public investment with bigger risks, so to an extent it is kind of understandable why this has ended up jumping the gun into first place.

Surrey’s LRT proposal has suffered major delays in producing a business case and a $500 million increase in cost

No less, the City’s Light Rail Transit proposal been thrown in limbo due to major delays in producing a business case, a $500 million increase in cost and ongoing standstills in finding regional fundingno thanks to a serious lack of confidence in the establishment conveyed in the transit referendum “no” vote. Not to mention, the serious drawbacks of an LRT system and the significant opposition to LRT from a group which I lead (opposition that’s so strong that even the Mayor of the City of Langley announced his preference for a SkyTrain extension instead).

Although the LRT proposal has its serious problems, deciding that facilitating helicopters can come first is inexcusable. To be unable to make a serious commitment on a transit network meant to service thousands of city residents, yet be completely able and willing to commit on something that will pretty much exclusively service the “1%” and let them literally fly over everyone else, really suggests to me that the Mayor’s priorities aren’t to ensure the best for the people that the city wouldn’t be without, if we’re to believe what she mentioned earlier in her speech.

What is a city, but its people helicopter-entitled 1%?

And what is Surrey but its helicopter-entitled Mayor. If there’s any tidbit of the proposal that we should all be looking at, it’s Mayor Hepner’s personal stake in desiring the service…

“She emphasized the city is looking beyond links between Vancouver and Surrey to flights to the B.C. capital of Victoria, which she said she would use herself.”

We already know this Mayor and Council to be relentless in billing taxpayers for the cost of trips. With the helicopters being said to cost $12 to $16 a minute I can’t imagine how much taxpayers will be paying to give the Mayor the luxury to fly over traffic to Victoria. And I certainly don’t think, from any feasibility perspective, that it is acceptable.

As a young, transit-dependent person living in this city (and one among potentially thousands of others now and in the future) I think to say that I’m outraged would be a serious understatement.

I must also seriously question the timing and viability of this proposal.

Sky Helicopters, a helicopter company mentioned by the Globe and Mail that is considering partnering with the City in delivering the service mentioned in the Globe and Mail’s article that they had been discussing this with the city for “several years”. This really makes me wonder why steps couldn’t have been taken earlier to implement this infrastructure within the City at a reasonable and low cost.

For example, the City decided to blow over $100 million on a new city hall that’s been put through significant criticism over its over-budget cost. For $100 million I don’t think it would have been too much of a stretch to include a rooftop helipad in the design of the new City Hall and within that cost.

This is the same Mayor who at the beginning of her term insisted that Surrey taxpayers should pay for a waterfront ferris wheel. Photo: City of Surrey

So why now? Well, only a couple of months ago, The Province came out with an article (“High-end Metro Vancouver real estate buyers commuting by helicopter” – March 14, 2016) discussing how real estate buyers, realtors and other business-people in the developer community are commuting by helicopter between Vancouver and expensive Fraser Valley estates.

“Usually we take six (Concord Pacific realtors) at a time, flying two of our smaller helicopters in formation,” Westlund said. “In one trip we covered about seven of their developments. They like getting the lay of the land.”

It should be noteworthy that the company that is mentioned in the article as facilitating these commutes is the same one that’s in talks with Surrey in establishing the heli-service.

I wonder which of the numerous developers, business elites and business associations who donated big bucks to the Surrey First election campaign is Hepner trying to feed from her hand.

Surrey LRT cost increases to $2.6 billion

Surrey LRT cost increases to $2.6 billion

Surrey LRT header generic

If you've hard about the Surrey Light Rail Transit project (and how I am leading the opposition campaign), you've probably heard most people refer to the project as having a projected cost of about $2.1 billion.

Well, that changes today. The capital cost of Surrey's Light Rail Transit (LRT) proposal has increased to $2.6 billion, according to a new corporate report released by the city.

Download the City's report

From City report 2016-R050
From city report 2016-R050

Pending whether the City claims there was a typo in the report, you're reading the above correctly. The cost has increased to $2.6 billion, which is slightly above the rate of inflation compared to the previous 2012 estimate of $2.18 billion, reported in 2010 dollars.

Rapid transit to White Rock is officially out

I became the centre of something of a publicity flip last week when CKNW news radio attempted to turn around an issue I pointed out over the lack of a rapid transit link to South Surrey/White Rock on the City's LRT promotion map, something the City responded to by saying that the map was only meant to show the LRT network, and that I edited the map and was messing up the context (I wasn't).

Now it's become clear that proper bus rapid transit to White Rock has been dropped from the city's project radar, because it's not included on the list at all.

This also means that the actual cost increase for the LRT project is closer to $700 million. The 2012 "LRT1" estimate in the Surrey Rapid Transit Study included the BRT link from Newton to White Rock. This estimate only includes the LRT project portion of the original plan.

What this means for LRT in Surrey

While the cost of the LRT project has increased, the major issues with the project have probably remained the same: it's still an on-street LRT system, and so it's still going to come with major trade-offs such as potential safety issues, a compromise in speed and reliability, fewer travel time and economic benefits, and higher long-term operating costs.

The most interesting thing about this cost increase is the effect it's going to have on the project's business case.

Staff anticipate that the Surrey LRT Project will be successfully screened-in for Round Seven. This will require the submission of a completed P3 Business Case in March 2016. The scope of work for completing the Business Case includes additional engineering design, geotechnical work, preparation for environmental assessment, and public consultation.

City report dated June 2015

Supposedly, according to the City, the business case isn't finalized, and the City and TransLink have been rushing to put together a new one in time for a March 2016 (as in, yes, this month) deadline to qualify for P3 Canada project funding.

However, any new, final business case that attempts to portray the LRT proposal in a positive light will come into serious conflict with the results that were found in Phase 2 of the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which found the overall business case for the Light Rail proposal to be negative, with a 0.69:1 benefit-cost ratio (compared to a more positive 1.45:1 benefit-cost ratio for SkyTrain). And, that result was based on the original (lower) LRT cost estimate.

With all of this in mind, I'm starting to believe that there isn't going to be an LRT business case ready for this month. I haven't heard any new technical details on this project (until word of today's cost increase reached me), with everything happening behind closed doors (if it's even happening at all). The standstill reminds me of the one faced by the Evergreen Line as a Light Rail project, before the Province stepped in with a final business case and changed the Evergreen Line to its present form as a SkyTrain extension. (See also: The Real Evergreen Line Story).

After a desperate and questionable LRT poll, a broken LRT promise by the City Mayor, silence over brand new transit buses and still no update from TransLink on Phase 3 consultation, it's becoming more and more apparent that the City of Surrey's LRT project is seriously doomed to fail.

Sign my petition

LRT? How about Skytrain instead! Sign my petition now below

Sign the petition

Surrey deserves fair debate on LRT issues

Surrey deserves fair debate on LRT issues

Traffic jam sim header

I was caught off-guard by the new viewpoint article in The Now Newspaper, which claims that there is no more reason to pursue the SkyTrain vs LRT debate because voters supposedly “elected” the party supporting it, so therefore, the debate is dead. Here’s the scoop:

Surrey First was elected in an overwhelming sweep of city council in late 2014, after campaigning with promises of building light rail in Surrey

That means they have a mandate – a mandate to build light rail. That means all the debate surrounding what Surrey wants and doesn’t want is pointless.

(From The Now Newspaper: OUR VIEW: Debate over LRT in Surrey is moot – that train has left the station)

The viewpoint is implying that within the framework of a municipal election, Surrey residents were participating in a fair debate surrounding these issues. It’s implying that by electing the Surrey First Party (led by current Mayor Linda Hepner), Surrey voters endorsed Light Rail because Surrey First also happened to endorse it. The problem with this claim is that….

Surrey residents never had a choice.

Surrey residents did not have a choice to oppose LRT because at the time of the election, as all three major parties competing for Council seats were in support for Light Rail technology. Our candidates for Council never tried to foster a debate to begin with. The SkyTrain vs LRT debate was effectively shut out.

Transportation wasn’t the defining issue in the last elections.

Before you go ahead and conclude from the above that this is indeed not significant enough to result in debate, it is also extremely important to note that in the last elections, transit was not considered to be the most important election issue; it was considered to be the second most important issue – however, it was a distant second. The dominating election issue, affirmed in multiple overlapping polls, was crime.

More than half (55 per cent) of respondents to an Insights West poll conducted earlier this month said crime is the most important issue the city is facing heading into the Nov. 15 election. That’s a big leap from transportation, which came in a distant second at 14 per cent. (From CTV News – “Crime is Surrey’s top election issue, new poll reveals”)

The online survey conducted Thursday to Saturday among 510 Surrey residents aged 18 and over found that crime continues to be the most important issue for most residents (54 per cent), with transportation (16 per cent) a distant second. (From the Vancouver Sun – “Surrey Election extremely close: Poll”)

The Now’s viewpoint article would seem to imply that Surrey’s voting decision was based largely on transportation and support for Light Rail, but that was clearly not the case. So I think it’s pretentious to say that we should just follow the elections results – which could have been a result of numerous factors – and stop the rapid transit debate altogether.

A picture of myself participating in the CiTI rally in 2013
A picture of myself participating in the CiTI rally in 2013

Over the years, I have watched the concern on Surrey transit matters fade into relative insignificance. There used to stronger calls for expanded transit, and so many people here who were passionate on transit issues, particularly on how the South-of-Fraser wasn’t getting its “fair share” on transit compared to the North-of-Fraser. There used to be organizations, like the Surrey Citizens’ Transportation Initiative (Surrey CiTI), which hosted rallies on issues of transit that I participated in (can you see me in the video above?). However, the leaders of these organizations didn’t show up during the 2014 elections. In fact, they have disbanded them or otherwise completely disappeared, because these groups no longer even exist (the www.surreyciti.org website has been out of service for over a year).

Surrey citizens are already less motivated to discuss transit issues than before; now, there has been virtually no discussion on major issues with things such as the proposed LRT system. Now is not the time to apply the brakes when it comes to local transit issues that will affect the lives of everyone living in this city.

More than 1100 people are now calling for a fair debate on the proposed Light Rail.

Say what you will about how (in)significant the issue I am now raising was to decision-makers at election time, but that has changed significantly today. Over 1100 supporters have signed the SkyTrain for Surrey petition urging that the proposed Light Rail Transit line be changed to SkyTrain. This momentum is no secret – and I think Global, News1130, Omni and others had good reasons to bring me in to talk about these issues the other day.

The fact is, issues around the proposed Light Rail system have remained unresolved. Those who are supporting our organization are concerned about issues like whether this is the best way to spend lots of money, how much the LRT will cost to operate, whether congestion will be caused, and what safety issues may arise by having trains interface with everyone on-street. And with the Surrey First-dominated City Council being entirely in support of this, there has practically been no debate allowed. The Mayor and Council aren’t just forcing us to go with their vision – they are forcing us to take in all the issues that will come with it, even if they have gone without discussion.

So here’s what I’d like to say about this: we are demanding a fair debate. It seems like the decision to proceed with Light Rail technology was done with very little actual consultation from potential users. It was practically forced onto us by our Mayor, and moved forward through the stifling of a dialogue on the benefits and tradeoffs.

LRT was not the best option for Surrey

If there was anything that resembled a “fair debate” on this issue – it happened 3 years ago, and concluded LRT was not the best option for Surrey.

Does anyone even remember the Surrey Rapid Transit Study anymore? Let alone the people and the media forgetting it and how important it is to consider the study in this context, but the decision makers and planners that are working on the Light Rail Transit project seem to have forgotten about it as well. They’re now clamoring to have a new business case analysis to qualify for P3 funding, even though there was a perfectly good business case analysis in Phase 2 of the Rapid Transit Study – although it did not come out with a positive outlook for the favoured on-street Light Rail Transit system.

Grassroots advocacy has shaped transit planning in the region.

In this LRT versus SkyTrain debate, there is no referendum. And so, if the proponents of SkyTrain really think they’re going to throw Mayor Linda Hepner and her crew off the LRT track, well, fuggedaboutit.

I want to single out this last paragraph because The Now seems to be in need of a history lesson. They don’t seem to recall that a certain other famous young transit spokesperson from Surrey, who ran for Council on rapid transit issues, was one of the first people to put the consideration of street-level Light Rail on the map in the first place.

Back in 2008, then 18-year-old Paul Hillsdon took on the local media by storm, looking to break-up an impasse on transit planning and offered a solution – street-level Light Rail Transit – that was considered by many to be better than a planned 6km extension of SkyTrain at the time (the recent proposal was for a much better 16km extension to Langley). He then took this issue with him and ran for Council, although did not succeed in getting a seat.

Regardless, Paul put Light Rail on the map and took his success in transit advocacy to even further heights. He was successful in establishing himself as a voice on transit issues in this region (through his website Civic Surrey), and later went on to develop (with a colleague) Leap Ahead, the regional transit vision that became a model for the Mayor’s Transit Plan formed in advance of last year’s transit funding referendum.

The grassroots effort that had started with rapid transit advocacy, continued with the establishment of Civic Surrey and through that the inspiration of numerous other startup transit blogs and bloggers, managed to make this major difference in the way transit is being planned in our region today.

So, I think it’s more than a little unfair to rule out the potential that any of my campaign work (or for that matter, any grassroots transit advocacy) has in shaping transit planning in this region. Paul showed us that a consistent voice and a genuine interest in local transit issues is able to make a real difference – without the context of a public referendum.

There has never been a fair debate.

For the record, I’m not entirely sure if Paul Hillsdon was factual on his argument. When I had a look at his LRT vision, which was built from scratch (my vision for SkyTrain + BRT, by comparison, is based on an already-studied option), I noticed that he had an inconsistency in his cost estimates. Paul’s estimates that came from non-on-street, separated right-of-way Light Rail systems, without accounting for street-scaping costs and other construction costs associated with on-street building. In other words, it seemed misleading.

The capital cost estimates are based on a conceivably generic number of $27 million per km, and that is a problem.  One cost estimate for a certain type of LRT cannot be used generally unless the implementation described is the same kind of implementation and not something totally different.

What this cost he is using describes is the cost of a fully electrified light rail service on the Interurban corridor, a pre-existing right of wayThe same cost cannot describe the cost of implementing an at-grade Light Rail service on-street in Surrey, which is not a pre-existing right of way.

Read more: Inconsistencies in Paul Hillsdon’s 2008 “Transit for Tomorrow” LRT proposal on SkyTrain for Surrey)

Yet when Paul touted his LRT plan back in 2008, as faulty as it seemed, it was met with virtually no resistance. Anyone with a technical/research background could have easily spotted the major flaw in his proposal, but it was never brought up and there were never any attempts by local media to smear him and his efforts to advocate on transit issues.

So why shut me, and my campaign? What’s so special about this campaign that the debate it raises does not deserve attention? Is it special because it happens to be taking sides with grade-separated SkyTrain over ground-level rail? Is expanding SkyTrain something the Surrey Now’s writers and editors hold a long-running bias on, like many people in this region, to the extent where they would want to shut down a productive and highly-needed issues debate?

I don’t understand why The Now Newspaper is having us think that the train has left the station, when it was never even there to begin with. Light Rail isn’t even going to be built for at the very least, the next 3 years. Why are they trying so hard to stifle a debate that still hasn’t happened, and needs to happen? Why say no?

It seems that the Now just doesn’t want to either acknowledge or handle this campaign, given how successful it has become, and how much work it will give them as a result. However, it is their duty to do this as local media. The people of this fine city deserve a fair debate on LRT issues.

FOR SLIDER

Who’s telling the truth on Surrey’s Light Rail?

Who’s telling the truth on Surrey’s Light Rail?

salt lake LRT

Global News had me on air this morning to comment on the SkyTrain for Surrey movement, which has been gaining some pretty serious momentum recently with over 1000 supporters on our site’s petition calling for a SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit system instead of LRT. While this should have certainly raised some eyebrows, not everyone has been on the “supporting” camp.

Earlier today, CKNW’s assistant news director, Charmaine de Silva, had me give the station a call to comment on an issue raised through my organization that the City of Surrey was not considering rapid transit to South Surrey as part of their Light Rail Transit vision. The resulting article, no less, has attempted to frame me as misleading, because of a difference in context and a sound bite during the telephone interview. Here’s the scoop:

Where it went wrong

For his part, the blog’s creator, transit activist Daryl Dela Cruz says it’s not his job to double check the facts he publishes on his website.

“And the end of the day, we’re here as a voice for citizens to raise…”

“So, you don’t think it’s irresponsible of you to put out information that’s just not true without double checking your facts?”

“Well, we’re an advocacy group.”

The City of Surrey says the current plan for rapid transit in the area continues to include LRT and a B-Line, and has not changed since it was approved by the Mayor’s council in 2014.

As you can see, CKNW is trying to make it look like I don’t double check my facts and, in light of that, am misleading people.

There is one thing here that I’m willing to own up to: In this particular case, I did not previously ask the City whether the omission of the rapid transit link to South Surrey was intentional or attached to some sort of context.

However, finding that answer is not my job and it is not the job of my advocacy group either. When I offered the previous response “we are an advocacy group”, I meant that in the context that we are as bound to be misled by the info that is supplied to us as is anyone else who is following us on these issues. Like all advocacy groups, there is a certain degree to which we work off of the information that is supplied to us as-is and as-published. We don’t make up these things from scratch.

CcEmMQ8UUAAIbkw

It should have been up to the City to clarify in the first place whether rapid transit to South Surrey was still being supported. Previous maps showcased on the city website clearly showed a rapid transit link extending to South Surrey, in the form of a Bus Rapid Transit line. The previous maps also showed the proposed Light Rail Transit “L Line” extending as far south as King George Blvd & Hwy 10, and as far north/east as 104th Ave & 156th St – stops that have been removed in the new LRT map.

Regardless of what the context of the City’s current map is, the main issues that SkyTrain for Surrey raised were that communities are being missed, and that the selection of LRT technology was being put in front of the people and the service. That concern still stands today, and brings forth with it a lot of questions Such as….

  • Why exactly is the city only promoting the Light Rail part of its ultimate rapid transit vision for the city, which supposedly includes BRT to White Rock?
  • Doesn’t that show technology-first thinking rather than people-first thinking?
  • Wasn’t LRT supposed to be about “serving more communities”?
  • Or, is the City suddenly ready to admit that this supposed philosophy is a fallacy?

All of these are legitimate questions that deserve better answers from City of Surrey representatives than “they cropped our map”. (I’d like to note, by the way, that the post on our website included a link to the city’s full LRT map, below the image that CKNW called into question)

I think that this fact also makes CKNW’s takeaway that I am “misleading” people more than just a little unfair. I would even call it misleading in itself.

Failing to show up gets you low marks

The thing that strikes me even more is how one-side this debate has become, with little discussion happening on the issues my organization raises – many of which are, arguably, far more significant. In these regards, CKNW has been failing to show up.

When I called the City of Surrey’s recent Ipsos Reid poll claiming high LRT support in the city into question – something that should easily be far bigger than this – CKNW conveniently reported on the Ipsos Reid poll, but didn’t take any interest in the issue I was raising. Did Charmaine de Silva do any of her homework checking on those?

CKNW also failed to show up when I pointed out a number of other issues, which should honestly receive more attention from everyone observing, listed below:

Promise to start LRT construction last year was broken

In case anyone doesn’t seem to recall it, present Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner – a big champion of the City’s LRT vision – wanted to have construction of the system started last year.

That is a year later than the start date promised by Surrey First candidate Linda Hepner, who said she plans to break ground for the first phase of the line in 2015 and use revenues from development along the route to pay for it. (From The Vancouver Sun – “Need for light rail transit unites Surrey candidates”)

Now, instead of having started the construction last year, she now wants to see the LRT system’s first phase construction process started in 2018. Voters in Surrey elected Hepner on an LRT promise, which was to – no less – have the first phase of LRT up and running by the year 2018. So she is also breaking that promise.

Despite the significance of this major discrepancy, hardly anyone has bothered taking a look at whether the Mayor is serious about her plans.  If the City Mayor can’t make a realistic promise on when LRT would be up and running, who’s to say that any of the technical claims the City has made on its LRT vision are valid?

Progress on the Surrey Rapid Transit Study has frozen

There was supposed to be a 3rd phase of the TransLink and provincial ministry-sponsored Surrey Rapid Transit Study – one that was meant to move and finalize and refine the design of the many examined options (four of which were presented by TransLink at the end of phase 2), and consult with the community on the refinement of the designs. It is mentioned on the TransLink website. TransLink committed the funding for its portion of this phase back at the September open public meeting, so at this point we’re just awaiting on cooperation from others participating – including the City of Surrey. In any case, it still hasn’t happened.

There’s still no business case for the LRT

Staff anticipate that the Surrey LRT Project will be successfully screened-in for Round Seven. This will require the submission of a completed P3 Business Case in March 2016. The scope of work for completing the Business Case includes additional engineering design, geotechnical work, preparation for environmental assessment, and public consultation.

City report dated June 2015

City reports have emphasized the need to advance the development of a final business case for the LRT system – which currently remains incomplete – by March 2016, in order to qualify for a P3 funding application deadline set by Transport Canada.

Well, there are only 4 days left until March. Where’s that business case?

The previous Surrey Rapid Transit Study business case was negative

Also, any new, final business case that attempts to portray the LRT proposal in a positive light will come into serious conflict with the results that were found in Phase 2 of the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which found the overall business case for the Light Rail proposal to be negative, with a 0.69:1 benefit-cost ratio.

The benefits in the rapid transit study were based on a monetized net present value conversion of the travel time savings, economic benefits and reliability benefits (expressed as “other travel benefits” in the study), auto operating cost and collision cost savings, and air emissions savings (or negative savings, in the case of an increase). I can’t imagine there would be any reason to think of this analysis as in-comprehensive.

Surrey launches a questionable LRT poll

As I previously mentioned, Surrey In my earlier post, “Deconstructing Surrey’s LRT survey”, I called into question numerous things about the City of the Ipsos Reid survey sponsored by the City of Surrey, which that trumpets that 80% of City residents support the proposed Light Rail Transit system (although using a rather tiny sample size of 600, about 0.1% of the city’s actual population). The issues included that:

  • Relatively Few transit riders were asked in respondent pool (85/600, <0.1% of transit users),
  • Many respondents didn’t live near the proposed LRT lines,
  • The age of the respondents was out of touch with the city’s composition (there were more respondents in a single group – age 55+ and said they would never use an LRT – than there were transit users of any age group),
  • Respondents weren’t asked to consider LRT against other alternatives,
  • A phone survey may not have been the best way to collect the info,
  • The City has withheld other surveys on the LRT matter as they have never been released.

The hypocrisy is stifling

So who’s telling the truth on Surrey’s proposed Light Rail Transit anyway? Because to me, it doesn’t seem like anything that LRT’s supporters have been saying contains any semblance of the truth. More alarmingly, these are big discrepancies and yet the media hasn’t been willing to take appropriate notice.

Mike Folka offered an excellent Tweet earlier that caught my attention and got me thinking whether there is something else going on behind the scenes…

Perhaps his might be a great opportunity to offer a throwback when I became one of the biggest names opposing Jordan Bateman’s No TransLink Tax campaign with the post Referendum Myths: TransLink and Executive Pay, which is still the biggest post on this blog to date, a post that gained so much popularity that it caught the attention of a columnist on the Vancouver Sun, and even TransLink eventually incorporated the data-set as part of their The Facts Matter campaign.

I think this fact will offer more than just a little context on whether CKNW is playing this game fairly or whether they aren’t. The hypocrisy is stifling.

Deconstructing Surrey’s LRT survey

Deconstructing Surrey’s LRT survey

EXCLUSIVE - Surrey, BC - February 16, 2016

Some of you might be already familiar with the comments I made through SkyTrain for Surrey on the new LRT survey that was released by the City, claiming 80% of residents are in support of the LRT project. If you aren't, my chief complaint is that only 600 residents were asked, which means that about 0.1% of residents are being asked to represent a City of over 500,000.

This statement has been met with a mixed response: some people agreed that such a small number shouldn't represent the city by any means; others disagreed, telling me that I was going up against a professional organization and that the sample size and margin of error was acceptable.

With that said, I was prompted to look into finding even more answers. After turning to my connections in the community, Ipsos Reid's entire, detailed LRT survey results paper managed to find its way to my e-mail inbox. You can download the results and verify my findings yourself below:

LRT survey screenshot

Download the results

When I opened the PDF document for the first time, the first thing that caught my eyes within the tables and tables of info was the composition of the respondents (this data I am very glad to have collected), followed by the composition of the actual questions. Here are the things that stood out the most to me:

The survey asked only 85 actual transit riders.

A next-generation 96 B-Line bus
A next-generation 96 B-Line bus

Yes, not 85% - 85 out of 600. Out of thousands upon thousands of Surrey transit riders, the surveyors are asking for representation from just 85. All other respondents drive for their commute.

This isn't only low to begin with, but it's also lower than the "weighted" base (i.e. if the amount of transit riders asked is to be in-line with the actual percentage of transit users in the city, then the poll should have asked 111 transit riders). For a poll that's supposed to decide on future transit matters, you'd think that more actual transit riders would be consulted on this - which is sorely disappointing.

Let's put that into another perspective. Surrey's 4 SkyTrain stations service 39,169 passenger boardings per weekday. There are many more transit boardings on buses in Surrey, but if we start with the amount of SkyTrain riders, then approximately just 0.2% of Surrey's transit riders are being asked to decide for all of them on future rapid transit.

I get that there aren't relatively a lot of people in Surrey who ride transit compared to the amount driving, but neglecting transit rider input for a transit project is absolutely ridiculous. If you agree that it's ridiculous, then prepare yourself because this is only where I begin...

Many respondents didn't live near the proposed LRT lines.

LRT survey table 1

The three LRT lines are supposed to travel on 104 Ave, Fraser Highway and King George Blvd. - serving City Centre, Fleetwood, Guildford and Newton. But when compared against the weighted average, the amount of respondents that were from Cloverdale and South Surrey - areas that aren't necessarily near the proposed LRT lines, requiring connections by bus - was significant in contrast to the amount of respondents that actually live near them and would more likely use them. Both of these areas exceeded their "weighted" base.

Concerningly, very few of the respondents (just 89, compared to a weighted base of 147) live in Whalley or City Centre, which is where one would expect most of Surrey's transit ridership to come from - since riders here would have access to all 3 proposed lines, SkyTrain and other buses.

The survey weighs these answers in attempt to gather a fairer perspective from these neighbourhoods; regardless, with these numbers on where the respondents are actually from, I definitely don't feel that accurate information has been collected. The survey neglects people whose lives would actually be affected by the construction and operation of the new LRT lines.

The age of the respondents is out of touch with the city's composition.

LRT survey table 2

I don't mean to pick on seniors for any reason, but there were 270 people aged 55+ who responded to this survey - against a significantly lower weighted base of 186. On top of that, forty-five per cent of this group said they would never use an LRT system. Yes, you heard that right - there were more non-transit users aged 55+, than transit users of any age group, polled in this new Surrey LRT survey. Is that misleading or what?

The thing I'm even more concerned about, however, is that very few of the respondents (120) were aged 18-34. That means that the least responses were collected from the age demographic that is statistically the most likely to use transit.

That these respondents were weighted serves as no excuse. This is completely out of touch with the city's composition, and I would expect the input to be more considerate in its distribution considering that over 25% of the city's population - by that I mean children and youth aged 0-19, many of who will be moving into the 18-34 age bracket by the time of the LRT system's launch - was not included in the survey.

Respondents weren't asked to consider LRT against other alternatives.

For me one the most alarming aspects of this survey is that the question of whether a respondent supports LRT or doesn't was narrowed down to a simplified yes-or-no question, without any chance to weigh LRT against other alternatives (like SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit) - and without any consideration of the LRT project's own practicalities.

In some cases (like on 104th Avenue, which is served by both the 96 B-Line and a nonstop frequent #337 bus), the future LRT is not as fast as existing buses. If the questions were modified to reveal the future LRT travel times then the conversation would probably have changed immediately. Instead, we're supposed to rely on answers to vague questions that don't create the opportunity to consider issues with the LRT proposal.

If a survey is going to conclude a support for LRT technology, it must absolutely consider the alternatives and present them to respondents. I've been saying for a long time that the City of Surrey has refused to open a dialogue on LRT benefits/tradeoffs, as well as LRT alternatives, and that it is something that badly needs to be done. Instead, we're supposed to decide the future based on uneducated opinions supplied by a handful of completely misled people.

Was a phone survey even the right idea?

Phone lulz

My professional day job happens to be in the same field as the people who conducted this survey: canvassing people over the phone. As the client manager for a service-oriented company, having phone conversations with people is something I do all the time. And, while I approach this from a business/sales environment rather than that of a polling company seeking opinions, there is one thing I will say in confidence: this kind of survey should not have been done over the phone.

The thing about phone calls is that they're unexpected - people don't want to stay on the phone; they just want to get off it and go back to their day. The telephone is a great place to repeat a written statement, have a quick chat with a friend or land a sale/appointment for your service; but it's a terrible place to expect a well-thought-out, educated answer from a stranger who's expected to provide one with very little thinking, on-the-spot.

As a demonstration of this, when respondents were asked some of the more detailed questions, like: "What would be your main question or concern about building this LRT network?" or "What do you think would be the main benefit of building this LRT network?", most of the answers grouped into specific ones like: "Cost/funding" or "Traffic flow/congestion problems/concerns", but relatively few of the answers were unique answers in the other categories. There are places for phone surveys, but this clearly wasn't one. I hate to say it, but we really shouldn't expect people to spend time and effort thinking about transit issues over the phone.

How many people rejected the survey phone call? Well, the survey numbers I was sent don't even reveal that number. We will never know whether the 600 respondents were 600 out of 1,000, or if they were actually 600 out of 10,000.

What about the other surveys?

By the way, this isn't the City of Surrey's first LRT survey.

Back in the fall of last year, Surrey had an LRT survey done on their internal, online CitySpeaks platform. I took this survey, and in the process made notation on SkyTrain for Surrey of an error in the comparison between rapid buses and the proposed LRT system.

However, the results of this survey were never released. There is mention of the survey on the CitySpeaks page on the City website, but Surrey has never released the survey results or used them anywhere.

It is plausible that the respondents, given room to think (as this was an online survey with no time-limits or on-the-spot pressures), did not respond favourably to the idea of an LRT system. And, it is plausible that this was withheld by the city in favour of paying a pollster to perform another survey with the intention of achieving a favourable result.

In conclusion: The public is being fooled.

Vehicle train collision small header

What in the blazes is going on here?

I can't even think of where I should start but the numbers that I've been given have made it expressly clear that this is a terrible survey. It definitely does not confirm that 80% of Surrey residents support an LRT system, or come to any other conclusion on matters of Surrey transit.

Not only is it unable to effectively conclude that an LRT system would be popular with transit riders (because it doesn't ask them), but it makes no effort to consider the younger residents who will grow up and be stuck with such a system, by neglecting to include them as part of the conversation and favouring responses from non-transit users aged 55+ instead. It is also using the worst possible format to collect this sort of information (over the phone), and that weakness is visible in many places in the survey results.

The end result is nothing short of unacceptable, and that's before you even take into account the fact that the 600 respondents makes up approximately just 0.1% of the actual population of this city - a percentage that will get smaller as the city grows ever larger.

Before we come to a conclusion on surveys like the new Ipsos Reid survey, I would like to see more and different surveys - and I would like to see them done fairly, with a consideration of those who actually ride transit, and with the ability to consider LRT against different alternatives including SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit.

Surrey deserves better

Sign my petition to get Surrey's LRT system changed to SkyTrain + BRT!

Sign the petition

Why isn’t the City of Surrey more excited for the new 96 B-Line buses?

Why isn’t the City of Surrey more excited for the new 96 B-Line buses?

96 headerThere are 5 of the new 96 B-Line buses in service today, which has me thinking that by now there should be some excitement in the city regarding this brand-new transit infrastructure. The new buses are absolutely wonderful: they’re smooth and quiet; have more space inside for passengers; and feature security cameras, modern LED lighting and air-conditioning. These are the first hybrid diesel-electric buses in Surrey, and it is the first time that Surrey’s bus depot has received brand new buses (instead of old hand-me-downs) in 17 years.

While great investments like these tend to come with big political photo-ops, only TransLink seems to be bothering with any sort of advertisement about the fact that there are new buses in Surrey.

The City of Surrey’s own Twitter feeds are blank, the Facebook page is blank, and not one Councillor or the Mayor has offered a single word about the new buses. No one from the city had anything to say about the buses during the time before their arrival, and this has continued now that many of them are in service. I thought politicians in this city really cared about transit issues, but it seems that riders are expected to enjoy the new buses without even a single word from their representatives.

As a regular 96 B-Line rider, this leaves me more than a little disappointed. The new buses are a huge step forward in improving the quality of transit in Surrey, and deserve the excitement from City representatives that transit riders will have today.

So what do I think?

Well, the main transit item on the City’s agenda is the replacement of the 96 B-Line with Light Rail Transit, something that was politically deadlocked with an election promise. Perhaps the City of Surrey fears that the appeal of these buses will take attention away from future LRT.

If the City of Surrey were to assist in advertising these buses, it might foil their LRT master-plan by exposing some of its major shortfalls. The expected overall travel time savings on King George Blvd and 104 Ave is only 1 minute over the existing 96 B-Line. In addition, the construction process for the LRT system will require the street to be closed from edge-to-edge and create huge disruptions for transit riders on the 96.

A street-level LRT would be limited to the same speed as on-street traffic and will not bring anything that can’t already be provided by a high-quality bus service. At best, this LRT is years away from opening (due to continued conflicts over transit funds) and I think the City should be proud of the service improvements that TransLink has been able to introduce today. The new buses are hybrid-electric, giving riders the same smooth-and-quiet ride experience that a street-level tram brings and bridging the gap between today’s bus service and LRT. They can also get around accidents and road closures that would close down an LRT service.

However, anything that bridges the gap between existing bus service and future LRT is likely something the City of Surrey doesn’t want. It’s no secret that the business case for the proposed LRT system is extremely questionable, and I’ve already caught the city trying to mislead citizens in a CitySpeaks survey on the difference between bus rapid transit (BRT) and LRT.

As well, in terms of neglecting the 96, the City of Surrey has done that in more ways than refusing to give it deserved attention. While other B-Line bus routes have been introduced with high levels of accompanying investments (such as the median bus lanes on Richmond’s No. 3 Road for the previous 98 B-Line), the City of Surrey has spent little to boost the 96 B-Line, if it has even spent anything at all. Some portions of King George Boulevard have had exclusive bus lanes installed to speed up the 96, but these bus lanes were funded by TransLink. The City could have implemented traffic signal pre-emption to keep B-Line buses moving, last year when it renewed the city-wide traffic management system at a cost of $2.7 million dollars. That also didn’t happen.

96 riders are extremely satisfied with the service.

Regardless of all this, the SOFATP 2015 monitoring report indicated that nine in ten (91%) rate their overall satisfaction with the 96 B‐Line as good‐to‐excellent, with an average rating of 9.0. This was measured before the introduction of these new buses. Is the City of Surrey not interested in addressing its many happy B-Line riders? Or perhaps there are fears that within these riders, there are people who will organize against the City’s plan for LRT?

In any case, I guess the City of Surrey is not interested in taking any credit for this wonderful investment. The new buses have brought as much improvement for 96 riders as a future LRT and perhaps even more. Their loss, and our gain.

Next generation 96 B-Line bus "S15003" at Newton Exchange | Photo by me
Next generation 96 B-Line bus “S15003” at Newton Exchange | Photo by me

TransLink launches next-gen 96 B-Line buses

TransLink launches next-gen 96 B-Line buses

NEW – Read my follow-up: Why isn’t the City of Surrey more excited for the new B-Line buses?

On this rainy day in February, TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company debuted the first 2 of 12 new next-generation New Flyer Xcelsior XDE60 articulated buses on the 96 B-Line in Surrey.

I managed to catch the first of the new buses, “S15003”, on a ride home from Newton Exchange and took several pictures. The second bus, “S15002”, entered service later in the day.

(Full-size photos are available on my Flickr)

Back in December of last year I posted the first report on the arrival of these buses. The bus order replaces the 11 existing, old articulated buses (delivered 18 years ago in 1998) with 12 brand new, hybrid-electric buses. As the new buses probably won’t need to be taken out of service as often as the old ones (requiring standard-size bus replacements), these buses will allow every bus running on the 96 to be articulated.

The new buses feature a hybrid diesel-electric transmission to improve energy-efficiency and solve the ride jerky-ness of plain diesel buses. Improved LED lighting is used, there are security cameras, and the seating layout is optimized – accommodating more passengers than the older buses.

As well, these buses are equipped with air-conditioning – meaning more comfortable rides during summer months, and windows that aren’t fogged in the winter.

My experience riding the new buses has been very pleasant: the new buses are fluidly smooth on Surrey’s roads and – owing to the hybrid system – are extremely quiet while they’re running. As most of the buses running in Surrey tend to be older and louder, the difference riding on these buses is like night and day.

(Additional info on the order of 21 new buses in total was posted on The Buzzer!)

With the addition of the new buses, the old existing buses - introduced in 1998 and among the region's first - can now be retired after 18 years of service to the region.
With the addition of the new buses, the old existing buses – introduced in 1998 and among the region’s first ever “bendy buses” – can now be retired after 18 years of service.

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