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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Summary: Most people are still asking the question of why the province decided to suddenly switch the Evergreen Line to SkyTrain technology in 2008. I think we should be asking questions about why the LRT design process suddenly stopped, with no reason, back in 2007.
It’s coming to our region, but it’s opening in 2017, which just happens to be yet another delay in a consecutive series. These Evergreen Line delays have injected a new wave of doubt among transit observers here in Metro Vancouver, who may remember a time not too long ago when the Evergreen Line was comparable to a hot potato – hardly anyone could come to an agreement about it.
During the late 2000s the Evergreen Line went through numerous hurdles that we worry about in transit issues today; ranging from funding shortages to planning issues to a lack of clarity in the political commitment to the line itself.
But, to some people, I can imagine the most perplexing thing about the Evergreen Line story was the controversial change from an at-grade Light Rail Transit system, to the currently-being built extension of the existing SkyTrain system. It took people by surprise, changed the focus of the discussion and was so significant that it caught the attention of transit bloggers in other Canadian cities.
The move was controversial because of the creation of a new business casereleased by the provincial government (hereafter referred to as the “2008 business case”) that overrode a previous business casereleased by TransLink (the “2006 business case”) for the Evergreen Line as an LRT. A following, final business case by the province(the “2010 business case”) adopted the results of the 2008 business case without making major changes to or addressing its supposed issues.
The new business case explained that its recommendation for SkyTrain (ALRT) on the current corridor was based on 4 key findings:
Ridership – ALRT will produce two and a half times the ridership of Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology; this is consistent with the ridership goals in the Provincial Transit Plan.
Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
Benefits and Cost – ALRT will achieve greater ridership and improved travel times at a capital cost of $1.4 billion, with overall benefit-cost ratio that favour ALRT over LRT.
System Integration – ALRT will integrate into TransLink’s existing SkyTrain system more efficiently than LRT.
Light Rail advocates who looked into the study insisted that the new analysis, in its rejection of what was supposed to be a sound business case, was biased in favour of SkyTrain – some of which alleged that the switch was a result of insider connections, shady agreements, and other under-the-radar proceedings. 2008 was a time when it wasn’t as clear to people that SkyTrain isn’t a proprietary transit technology and it was probably no surprise that critics of the decision came in waves.
They were joined by others, including City Councils of the time, who expressed concern about some aspects of the newer business case. Two particular major players come into mind:
1. The City of Burnaby released a staff report that injected doubt into the Evergreen Line’s cost estimates, ridership estimates and evaluation. (See [HERE] for report)
“This report recommends that the Province and TransLink undertake to re-evaluate the choice of technology and prepare a business case of LRT technology for the Evergreen Line based on the concerns and questions raised in this report with regard to service speed, ridership estimates, operating and capital costs, inter-operability, community service and other factors.”
2. A Portland-based transportation engineer named Gerald Fox alleged that the analysis had been manipulated to favour SkyTrain. (The original letter was posted [HERE]).
“It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding.”
However, when the Auditor General of British Columbia was asked to look into the Evergreen Line technology switch, the Auditor General’s finished report in 2013 concluded that while some information was missing, the switch to SkyTrain was the right decision.
The Auditor General summarized the missing information as a shortfall in explaining the following:
Options’ risks, costs and benefits;
Assumptions underpinning SkyTrain ridership;
Wider transit system risks and dependencies; and
How agencies would measure performance
In the approximately 3 years since this Audit was released and the 7 years since the decision to switch to SkyTrain, new information has been released that makes it possible to fill in all four of these gaps, as well as the other concerns raised by critics and the City of Burnaby.
In an effort to compile this new information, I performed the research myself, which included extensively looking into all business cases (2006, 2008 and 2010) and other supporting evidence (including all 61 archived pages of the original Evergreen Line LRT discussion thread on Skyscraperpage). With the conclusion that the Evergreen Line business case was not manipulated to favour SkyTrain, I present my results below.
1. Were SkyTrain and LRT compared properly?
The first and foremost concern by the auditor general was that the SkyTrain and LRT options may not have been compared properly – as sufficient information on aspects like ridership wasn’t provided. An explanation of how the ridership estimates were conceived was not provided in the 2008 business case, but there is little reason to believe that the 2008 business case was wrong in assumptions.
The City of Burnaby’s staff report probably best summarized the issues that were raised surrounding the comparison. However, much of the research I performed has explained these perceived shortfalls:
Capital cost estimates
As the capital cost estimates for LRT increased from $970 million (2006 business case) to $1.25 billion (2008 business case) with little explanation, the City of Burnaby complained that this increase was unreasonable – especially as it brought the cost difference with SkyTrain down to a mere $150 million (12%). Light Rail advocates and critics, including Gerald Fox, complained that the cost increase was manipulated to favour SkyTrain.
It was noted in the 2006 study that the cost estimate of then was done at a 90% preliminary design stage – not a fully detailed design stage presenting a finalized cost. It thus seems conceivable that costs increased while the final alternative was being analyzed for the 2008 business case.
Recently I performed some research on the capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems. With several rapid transit and light rail systems now proposed across the country, I took the opportunity to compile an inflation-adjusted comparison of the project capital costs – adjusting each project for the amount of grade-separation (tunnelled or elevated) and using that as a guideline to compare the costs. This extensive research took me several weeks to complete as I had to manually measure most of the proposals to assess the amount of grade-separation.
Unsurprisingly, I reached the conclusion that with the steepest trend in perecentage-to-cost, bored tunnel is the most expensive alignment to construct.
The Evergreen Line, no matter whether it were to be SkyTrain or Light Rail Transit, has a 2km bored tunnel as a part of its alignment through the mountainous terrain between Burquitlam and Port Moody. This accounts for about 20% of the entire route.
My measurements indicated that the 2006 cost-per-km estimates were the lowest of the other projects. The estimate was significantly below other projects with a ~20% bored tunnel percentage, and below the average trend line that related percentage in a tunnel to rapid transit cost per km.
In other words, the 2006 cost estimates are too low and were probably incorrect.
And now that we know how much trouble it took to construct the Evergreen Line’s 2km tunnel, it’s certain that the LRT project’s final cost would have come closer to $1.25 billion. LRT tunnels need to account for pantographs and higher vehicle heights; whereas the linear motors used on our SkyTrain technology lines are more optimal for tunnels as the train is lower and closer to the ground. As a result, an LRT tunnel would have been larger and more complex and would have likely lead to additional potential problems.
Just imagine what kind of liability chaos there’d be if a sinkhole did open under a home above the tunnel route. It hasn’t happened with our SkyTrain tunnel, but it’d be more likely under a larger tunnel (and larger tunnel boring machine) needed for an LRT.
The operating costs rose from $12.21 million in 2006 to $15.3 million in 2008 (both measurements were in 2007 dollars). While it doesn’t seem that anyone in particular raised this as an issue, the cost increase can be explained by a difference in service frequency.
The 2006 business case’s estimate was based on a 6 minute initial operating frequency. The 2008 business case’s operating costs were based on a higher 5 minute initial operating frequency. Whereas the 2008 cost estimates are 25% higher while a 5 minute frequency is 20% higher than 6, the newer numbers seem just about right to me.
The City of Burnaby’s assessment of travel times suggested that the SkyTrain alternative’s travel time estimates were far too high and the LRT alternative’s estimates were far too low. It provided this graphic to show the disparity:
Burnaby complained that the Evergreen Line’s LRT speed estimates were lower than two existing LRT systems in Canada (Calgary and Edmonton). However, most of Calgary and Edmonton’s LRT systems are built off-street, and with gated crossings and absolute priority like railway systems. Most of the Evergreen Line as an LRT would be in the middle of streets and would have to follow the roadway speed limits (typically 50-60km/h). Naturally, this would result in slower average speeds than Calgary and Edmonton, where trains may run at 80km/h on dedicated rights-of-way.
While the SkyTrain alternative had much higher average speeds than the current system (with its average of 43km/h), the addition of Lincoln Station has added some length to the travel time to the extent that the Evegreen Line’s end-to-end travel time is now usually described as 15 minutes – an average speed of 43.6km/h.
Even then, at the end of the day these differences aren’t really dictated by the transit technology. The Evergreen Line will have the system’s longest station-less segment, which is largely in part due to the 2km tunnel between Burquitlam and Port Moody stations. The higher average speeds near here would be comparable to other long sections crossing geographical features, such as the 2.3km SkyBridge segment on the Expo Line over the Fraser River.
Gerald Fox also raised an issue that the stated maximum LRT speed in the 2008 business case (60km/h) was lower than the potential speed limits that could be achieved in the off-street, 2km tunnel. The 2006 business case accounted for faster running speeds of up to 80km/h inside the tunnel.
However, the end-to-end travel time estimates in the 2008 business case were actually lower than that of the 2006 business case by 0.4 minutes.
Thus the 60km/h expression was probably meant to highlight the speed on most of the on-street sections (outside of the tunnel).
Based on the data I’ve collected above it doesn’t seem that SkyTrain and LRT were compared unfairly. There could’ve been better distribution of the info at hand, and some improvements in the planning process (like the addition of Lincoln Station from the beginning). However, no skewering of the numbers and manipulation to favour SkyTrain has taken place.
2. Was ridership over-estimated?
Ridership was an additional concern raised by the City of Burnaby, which complained that the ridership estimates for the SkyTrain option (at 2.1 million passengers annually/km) were too high, and that the LRT ridership estimates were too low.
The LRT ridership estimates were said to be too low because they were lower than two existing Canadian LRT systems (40% lower than Calgary, and 9% lower than Edmonton). For the same reasons as I explained above, it’s not possible to put the Edmonton and Calgary systems in the same category as an Evergreen Line LRT. The Evergreen Line LRT is largely on-street; the Calgary and Edmonton systems are not, and tend to run on exclusive rights-of-way at speeds of 80km/h.
This leaves the high ridership estimates with the SkyTrain system. The auditor general raised an issue that the SkyTrain ridership assumptions with the Evergreen Line were made with assumptions that a completed transit network would be built by 2021 following the Provincial Transit Plan. This included SkyTrain extensions in Broadway and Surrey, neither of which will be built by 2021 based on the current situation.
Burnaby complained that at 2.10 million annual passengers per km, the estimates were higher than the existing SkyTrain system (1.60 million annual passengers per km) and thus much higher than would be realistic.
When this annual ridership is worked out per-km, the Canada Line is carrying 2.10 million annual passengers per km – the same amount that was projected for the Evergreen Line.
A huge part of the reason the Canada Line was so successful was because efforts by the City of Richmond to make the elevated segment on No. 3 Road at-grade (like a light rail system) were defeated, resulting in the construction of a fully grade-separated line. The full grade-separation enabled higher trip speeds, which have been cited in rider surveys as the #1 most-liked aspect of the Canada Line system – outpacing every other favourable aspect mentioned by riders.
The Evergreen Line’s SkyTrain switch decision was largely based on favouring the faster travel-times and transferless journeys of a SkyTrain system. It’s thus conceivable that the Evergreen Line could see the same kind of ridership success that the Canada Line did.
3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?
The auditor general commented that the 2008 and 2010 business cases did not provide information on the risks that came with connecting Evergreen Line outcomes with the performance of other parts of our regional transit system. In particular, the Evergreen Line’s performance estimates did not account for the potential impacts of:
the level and coverage of bus connector services on ridership;
parking at the more popular Evergreen stations;
changes to the West Coast Express (WCE), which provides peak commuter services for passengers who want to travel between the northeast Metro Vancouver and downtown Vancouver
Evergreen services on those parts of the SkyTrain system that are near or at capacity in the commuting peak periods (for example, around Broadway station).
These concerns present significant risks and it is of my opinion that they should have been addressed.
However, accounting for these risks whenever a large transit priority is laid out in our region doesn’t seem to be common practice. The transit projects of today have continued the practice of tying performance estimates to grandiose plans for the rest of the regional transit system, like the transit vision crafted by the Regional Mayors’ Council that was defeated in the March 2015 referendum.
When the referendum went down the toilet, so too did the additional commitments to connecting bus service that would have been critical to the success of the included rapid transit projects. It’s raised concern among decision-makers such as Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, for example, who raised a concern with the potential costs of increasing parking as additional bus services connecting to the Evergreen Line were rejected along with the other proposals.
Nevertheless, local governments have forged ahead in planning for these lines, despite the new risks created with the lack of a regional vision component. As I believe that there will be opportunities in the future to return to those other critical transit priorities, continuing planning is the best practice for moving these projects; it has certainly moved the Evergreen Line.
4. How are we going to measure performance?
The last issue concerned the collection of performance data to measure performance after the line’s opening. No framework had been set in the 2008 and 2010 business cases, and the lack of such a framework would have a consequence on future transit planning.
However, the Auditor did acknowledge in his report that a framework could still be completed in time for the line’s opening. Although it remains to be said if the province has followed through on this recommendation, this issue isn’t relatively as much of a concern as the others as it has an immediate, clear solution.
So what’s the real “Evergreen Line Story”?
When the Evergreen Line was changed to a SkyTrain extension project in 2008, the switch came after an extended halt in design work and public consultation.
Like today’s rapid transit projects, the Evergreen Line was determined through a multiple-account evaluation that includes a Phase 1 (draft option comparison), Phase 2 (detailed option comparison) and a Phase 3 (finalized option comparison and detailed design). The 2006 study was finalized at the phase 2 stage, and it noted that its cost estimates were done at the 90% preliminary design stage.
After that, there was silence in the project design work.
At the time, there were plenty of issues around project funding (which can be backtracked to on the Skyscraperpage archives). I can understand delays with transit funding (still a very big issue with projects today) but the funding issue shouldn’t have delayed detailed design work on the Evergreen Line LRT project. We didn’t hear anything from planners, politicians or anyone involved regarding the project’s design until rumours of a major announcement surfaced in January 2008. The final business case that was then released in February had been completed by the province rather than TransLink.
So it honestly has me raising questions: what exactly was going on in there? Why did Evergreen Line design works come to a stop, and why didn’t the next phase of consultations take place? Perhaps the planners at TransLink realize they under-estimated the LRT costs, and had nervousy about going public with the news? Did local governments start losing confidence in the at-grade project’s business case?
There’s all these disconnects that don’t seem to make sense, and I would argue that this should have been of far greater concern than the provincial government’s decision to switch the project to SkyTrain. It’s not the province’s fault the planning department of the time had decided to cut us off for just over a year on the project’s progress. It’s almost as if the sudden switch to SkyTrain was a measure to deal with these problems.
All I do know is that in October 2007, the B.C. Finance minister came to the public with a statement that the Evergreen Line’s progress had indeed been frozen, but that it wasn’t due to the funding shortfall…
“The premier did say last week that the Evergreen will be built,” Taylor said. “The funding is not holding it up. They haven’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops. So, we have made the commitment to financially be there when everybody’s ready to go.”
This almost certainly indicates that the LRT planning department had run into issues with the design, since the 2006 business case had anticipated the start of construction by September 2007.
Instead, in October 2007 the design hadn’t been finished and the planners in-charge “hadn’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops.”
You be the judge, but it sounds a heck of a lot like that the province managed to narrowly get us out of an Evergreen Line LRT fiasco in its decision to build SkyTrain instead.
Jaded by SkyTrain and a lack of LRT
There hasn’t been a single, grade-level Light Rail project approved in this region except for the currently proposed project in Surrey, and that’s probably what has raised the irk of some people who have been enthusiastic about the idea of at-grade rail. It’s probably why there’s a commonly-held belief that only provincial government overrides result in SkyTrain, and that at-grade Light Rail systems don’t have major shortfalls of their own that have resulted in their rejection here in Metro Vancouver so far.
At-grade rail advocates argue that the lack of at-grade rail infrastructure in this region really caused us to lose out on transit benefits (i.e. we could have built a bigger transit network!) but at this point that’s entirely debatable.
I think part of this is because the benefits of SkyTrain (and how we’ve built it) don’t seem to be that clear to decision-makers, planners and transit enthusiasts in our region.
Despite the constant use of grade-separation and SkyTrain technology, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network expanded at a faster pace than any other system in Canada. Vancouver’s rapid transit growth has lead Canadian cities – and when the Evergreen Line opens to the public next year, we’ll have the longest rapid transit system in Canada spanning nearly 80km – and the longest driverless transit network in the world. The lower operating costs of driverless trains make it possible to keep expanding our transit network without bankrupting our operating budget on the cost of drivers.
SkyTrain also has the highest ridership of any rapid transit system in North America that isn’t classified as “heavy” rail. At nearly 9,000 boarding passengers per kilometre, SkyTrain outperforms every single at-grade rail system in Canada and the U.S.
* Q3 numbers were not reported. Data from Edmonton Transit, collected during the same period, used instead.
** Q3 numbers were not reported. NJ Transit’s own FY2014 data is used in place (the same number is reported in APTA’s Q4 ridership report).
On top of everything, SkyTrain has made us one of the most successful metropolitan areas in transit ridership with an annual ridership per capita that is 3rd highest on this continent (beat only by New York City and Greater Toronto)
Despite ongoing attempts at service optimizations that fix costly and inefficient oddities in the Metro Vancouver transit system, there remain a number of service oddities at different locations throughout the system.
In Richmond, the 407 and 430 – which primarily service the Gilbert Rd., Garden City Rd. and Bridgeport Rd. corridors are no exception to this. I ride these two routes occassionally on trips from the Metrotown area to Kwantlen University (taking advantage of the at-the-door drop-off) or to Richmond’s night markets and personally find that they could be far more useful than the current arrangement, with a bit of creative tweaking.
The 407 took on its present form in 2002, when it was extended onto Bridgeport Road in lieu of 402 service (before the introduction of the 98 B-Line – the Canada Line’s rapid bus pre-cursor – the 407 serviced the Gilbert corridor only and continued as an express route to Vancouver). Today, it continues to provide a basic local-access service on Richmond’s Gilbert Rd, Garden City and Bridgeport corridors.
The 430 was introduced in late 2004, with 30 minute peak and 60 minute off-peak frequencies, to service a regional travel market between Richmond Centre and Metrotown in Burnaby. The route was cited to “make it easier for commuters to travel between Richmond and Burnaby” and “save travel time for students travelling to the Richmond campus of Kwantlen University College”, according to TransLink’s original press release. The result was a very big improvement in the links between these two centres – as previously, connecting riders would have to take the 98 B-Line to Granville & 49th and take the 49 for the rest of the way to reach Burnaby; while destinations along the current 430 would require multiple routes (i.e. present-day 407, 22, 100) to be reached. Today, the 430 operates with slightly enhanced frequencies of 20/30 (peak/off-peak).
Moving towards today
In recent years, the structure of transit towards and within Richmond has changed significantly. The most significant change was the introduction of the Canada Line (a SkyTrain rapid transit service) in 2009. This created a different way of travelling into Richmond, and required the reorganization of most bus routes. Many routes had their frequencies increased, which included the 430. Routes were reorganized to connect with the SkyTrain station, and some routes that continued express to downtown Vancouver via Granville Street were shortened to terminate at Bridgeport Station, allowing for frequency improvements.
The unfortunate result of these service changes is a service pattern that’s not necessarily optimized for the Canada Line, nor is it optimized for local travel, on some of Richmond’s bus routes. For example: with the introduction of the Canada Line, it is often more convenient to now use the Canada Line and the 49 for Metrotown-bound trips. The 407 and 430 suffer from issues such as service duplication, different routings, and lack of service simplicity.
(Scroll down to view my proposed solution to fixing the 407 and 430!)
Here are some of the problems I took note of on the two routes:
Confusing service patterns
As you can see from my above sketch of the different routes on TransitMix, there are different routings for riders to worry about.
While the 430 has one routing, 407 riders can be dealing with three different trip patterns throughout the day. For example: in the peak hours, the 407 detours via Vulcan Way to service numerous industrial establishments and prioritize linking residents to their jobs. All in all, there are usual 407 trips, peak-hour 407’s via Vulcan Way, and 407’s that only service the Gilbert segment and short turn at Brighouse.
The two routes also don’t necessarily take you to the same place. The 407 uses Cook Road rather than Cooney and Lansdowne to exit Richmond Centre, and additionally detours towards No. 3 Road in the vicinity of Capstan Way.
This is confusing, inconsistent throughout the day and can result in one route being much longer than the other. It’s probably also a rider deterrent – as the job centers being serviced in the northeast are very close to fast, limited-access expressways making driving a very attractive and fast option.
Service duplication: poor off-peak service on Bridgeport/Garden City
The actual service is another story. The routes have very varied frequencies, which combines with the confusing service patterns to amplify the issues with the route. None of the service can be considered consistently “frequent” (every 15 minutes or less) and useful in that sense
During some parts of day, the service can be really poor. Interestingly, a half-hourly service is maintained on the 407 during the evenings – this is probably a result of the earlier termination of 430 service at 9:30PM, and transit demand from the International Summer Night Market – but the mid-day services on Bridgeport Rd. are very paltry.
Whereas the 407 generally traverses the entire corridor between Steveston and its northern terminus at the Knight St Bridge, every second trip terminates at Richmond-Brighouse mid-day. This results in a paltry and barely usable hourly service during mid-day weekday and weekend periods on the 407 – which was probably justified as a result of duplication with the route 430, which runs every half-hour. However, as the 430 is an express route, not all stops on Bridgeport and Garden City are served.
If the 407 and 430 service on Bridgeport and Garden City were coordinated – on the same route with the same stops – those corridors could theoretically be enjoying a more useful 20 minute off-peak frequency. Instead, buses come every half-hour or as infrequently as every hour depending on the stop, making it difficult to effectively avail transit service. Contrast that to service on Marine Drive across the Fraser River, or on Cambie Road. Both corridors have only a single bus route (100, 410) – but the service is frequent all-day, every day. Both services are easy to use, popular, and warranted by the ridership figures.
Similar issues: 332 and 335 in Surrey
This was also a problem in my home community of Guildford, Surrey. Until some fairly recent service changes, two different bus routes that were otherwise the same used the 108 Ave corridor: the 335, continuing to Fleetwood, and the 332 (the 332 was the same as the current 335 short-turned at Guildford Exchange, usually interlined with 326 service on 156th Street).
The 335 operated every 20 minutes in the peak hour, whereas the 332 would operate anywhere between 15 and 30 minute service. On the weekends, half-hour 335 service was complimented by duplicate, once-hourly 332 service. All of this proved inefficient and unuseful, so TransLink made some changes in the 2013 service optimization round, with consultations from the community.
With the changes, the 108th Ave segment of 335 now enjoys consistent 10-minute peak period frequencies and a frequent 15-minute mid-day weekday service. The service optimization also enabled an extension of the 335 to Newton Exchange. Overall, riding those routes in conjunciton with new 96 B-Line rapid service has been very pleasant for me.
Service duplication: poor service for through Gilbert riders
In addition to the above shortfalls, Gilbert Road 407 riders also have a shortfall with the existing setup. With only every second 407 trip making the entire route during most off-peak periods, this also results in a very poor through service during those periods for Gilbert Road riders headed for destinations on Bridgeport. Riders on 407 trips to Brighouse only could transfer to the 430 express for the remainder of the trip, but the transfer is not a guarantee – and riders who miss their 430 connection could end up waiting 20 minutes for the next bus.
With a combined service cost approaching $4.4 million, the 407 and 430 service cost is comparable to that of the similarly lengthy, but more frequent 401. Neither route ranks particularly high in terms of service efficiency, and the 407 is dangerously low on the list at 113th of 206 routes in terms of cost per boarded passenger.
The Capstan Way detour on the 407 is an interesting oddity that goes back to the 98 B-Line days, when Bridgeport Station was unbuilt and 407 passengers on Garden City would connect to the 98 B-Line at No. 3 Rd. and Capstan Way. Today, the detour does not connect to any rapid bus route and can add up to 10 minutes for riders on the 407, when combined with the detour to service Bridgeport Station. There’s an improvement in access to some businesses with this routing – however, given the numerous alternatives within very close walking proximity such as the 403 and 410, and the planned opening of a Capstan Way station on the Canada Line, it’s very negligible.
This also becomes a weakness as the 407 can get caught in congestion delays at No. 3 Rd. at Sea Island Way – especially during the evenings when Richmond Night Market is operation, causing buses to reroute and end up avoiding this segment anyway.
If the detour were removed, it could make for a net balance or improvement in access, travel time and service provision.
430: The Usefulness Debate
With the introduction of the Canada Line providing a faster service to Richmond Centre, it has raised some debates in the transit community on the usefulness of the 430.
The rational (sp) for it, is that since the advent of the Canada line, it is always faster to board on the Canada line and transfer along the way toward Metrotown, than to use the 430 from Brighouse. So it is reasonable to retire an “express route” which has been made obsolete by recent transit improvement (which is eventually illustrated by a relatively poor ridership).
Voony’s Blog opined that the 430’s usefulness ended with the introduction of the Canada Line, which can be used in conjunction with the existing 49. His Richmond Transit Plan proposal creates a “630” linking Metrotown with Tsawassen Ferry, following the 430’s routing up until the Knight St Bridge – with local service continuing on Bridgeport Road afterwards, and insists that this arrangement would be more useful. I think this would be a bit unfair given the establishment of the 430 with the current ridership, which actually does outperform the 407 and other Richmond routes.
But, indeed, if one were to prioritize a trip between Metrotown and Richmond Centre, a similar travel time could be had with the local 49 service and 430. In the peak hours, the 49 takes about 30 minutes to traverse the segment between Metrotown and Langara, with the Canada Line able to provide for the rest of the way. The 430 also takes about 30 minutes to reach the Canada Line at Bridgeport Station. This is slightly closer to Richmond, but only slightly faster and with the risk of being delayed at the congestion and accident-prone Knight Street Bridge.
The segment between Bridgeport and Brighouse serves few important destinations, (with the only notable one I can think of being Kwantlen Polytechnic University), and most of them are still accessible through other quality transit services.
Defenders of the 430 who may advocate that the existing route be kept at all costs may cite the need to continue servicing heavy demand to access destinations on Bridgeport, including Richmond’s night markets (Magical Candyland and ISNM) as well as IKEA Richmond, nearby retailers and other nearby industrial outlets that are centres for many jobs. Because the current arrangement actually restricts potential service usefulness on the corridor, however, this argument can be effectively nullified. In addition, the earlier end time of 430 service negates the usefulness the route may have to Richmond’s night markets.
One of the things that caught my attention in the recent Mayors’ Council report was the proposal to convert the 430 into a full, rapid B-Line service. It’s one of the two primary things in this report making me reluctantly ask the question of whether our Mayors can be actually trusted to PLAN transit (the other being the apparent approval of a Light Rail system in Surrey – see my reasons for disapproval at [CLICK HERE]).
Even as a 430 rider myself, who could benefit from the increased frequencies and capacities of such a service, I found myself thinking of the idea and saying to myself, “this is silliness.”
For the busy 49th Avenue corridor, turning the 430 into a B-Line is definitely not the right solution. Every transit planner I can think of would advise TransLink to operate an express B-Line route straight down 49th instead, linking Langara-49th SkyTrain station and Langara College. It would create a more effective, straight route with a faster connection to Canada Line and for Metrotown-Richmond downtown-to-downtown riders, providing improved rapid access where it is needed most on 49th.
I think it’s just so silly to propose to create a B-Line out of an indirect routing – with a very limited business case, as noted by the Mayors’ Council Vision appendices report – that doesn’t even warrant frequent service levels at the moment.
I understand that a lot of the decisions in this proposal may have had to do with transit-oriented growth-shaping in addition to the transportation element, and that such planning might have the intention of creating such destinations on Bridgeport and south Knight. Howver, not only are there so few destinations of note on the corridor in particular right now – I also seriously doubt the redevelopment potential of the industrial lands on the 430 corridor.
Areas like River Dr, Cambie Road and the Olympic Oval area actually do have higher-density residential or mixed-use developments being planned or even built right now – but those weren’t industrial lands to begin with. Those were empty lands that were much cheaper to develop and build up. With the amount of still-undeveloped land in other areas of Richmond – especially closer to City Centre – I find it doubtful that the redevelopment to create a business case for a 430 B-Line would materialize for years.
A short-term plan
I usedTransitMixto rearrange the services and found that with $4.4 million annually, not only would a much better service plan for all corridors serviced be attained – a new community shuttle route could be introduced, expanding transit service in North Richmond to service and spur new developments.
(I understand that this map can be edited by anyone, so I ask that you do not mess it up, for the sake of other blog viewers! 🙂)
407 on Gilbert, 430 on Bridgeport
Under this plan, the 407 and 430 would be split into two different routes – and service duplication segments would largely be removed:
The 407 would continue to operate from Bridgeport Station to Steveston via Brighouse Station. The route would largely assume existing frequencies, but would operate twice as frequently on weekdays between Brighouse and Bridgeport on Garden City Road to replace additional 430 service, serve demand to proposed commercial areas and open up Garden City for higher-density, mixed-use development.
The 430 would be shortened to operate between Bridgeport and Metrotown, replacing the 407 on Bridgeport Road.
A peak-hour extension of the 407 to Vulcan Way, terminating at Knight & Marine, will continue to operate during peak periods only – doubling service on Bridgeport between Bridgeport Station and No. 5 Rd.
Under my proposal, the 430 ceases to be an express service, serving 5 more stops than currently and providing the bulk of service on Bridgeport Road. At present, the 430 on its limited-stop route does not actually save any significant time over the 407 – with the scheduled time difference being only 1 minute. This may have to do with the low popularity on the 407 – likely a result of paltry off-peak service – resulting in fewer stops being made – and 430 service duplication.
The increased popularity of this setup, resulting from vastly improved frequency, may further slow down the 430 – but for regional through riders between Metrotown and Richmond Centre, this difference would likely be made up anyway if riders use the Canada Line (with a travel time of 6 minutes and a 6-minute frequency – vs. 13 minutes on Garden City via the 430) to complete their journey. All in all, the more frequent and consistent service would likely make up for the shortfall.
These services can be interlined at Bridgeport Station so that 407s continue into 430s, and vice-versa. This would allow the revised routes to operate much like the existing setup, for passenger ease and convenience. For example: during peak hours, 407 runs from Steveston can continue as 407’s extended to Vulcan Way, whereas 407s starting from Brighouse – to provide additional Garden City Rd. service – can interline into the 430’s continuing to Metrotown.
Routes are straightened out and simplified – the Capstan Way detour is removed, and service is not provided on Cooney Rd and Lansdowne Rd. Kwantlen University students will continue to have access to the 407 and 430 by way of a very short, 2-minute walk to Garden City – while riders from Cooney Rd are a very short walk from Lansdowne SkyTrain station.
New C91 community shuttle
The second component of this plan involves the introduction of a new community shuttle service: the C91 River Dr.
As a number of medium to high density residential developments rising on River Dr. will soon warrant a transit service, this would be a great opportunity to begin a service to these developments while also bringing expanded, all-day transit options to Vulcan Way corridor industrial and the International Summer Night Market.
The shuttle will run every 30 minutes for most of the day, with enhanced frequencies of 20 minutes during weekday peak periods. On weekdays, the route provides an extension to the northeast end of Crestwood Industrial Park, linking Richmond residents with their jobs.
In conjunction with the existing 407 to Vulcan Way, riders from Bridgeport Station can catch a bus to the Vulcan Way corridor every 10 minutes – significantly improving the transit accessibility of Crestwood Industrial Park. By servicing this market in addition to the market of River Dr. residents riding in the opposite direction to/from Bridgeport Station, the C91 has the potential to be a very cost-effective transit service with high usage in both directions.
The IKEA and Home Depot area around Bridgeport Rd and Sweden Way, where riders can access – among other things – a 24-hour McDonald’s, would also benefit from a 15-minute service or better at any time of day and any day to/from Bridgeport Station, with optimal timing of combination C91 and 430 service.
This shuttle would cost approximately $713,000 annually to operate and could be accomplished within the same budget used for the present 407 and 430, if the two routes are optimized as outlined above.
Further service improvements
Apart from the C91, the plan also incorporates a number of service improvements to both existing route corridors:
Late-night service on the 430 is extended to approx. midnight on weekdays & Saturdays.
Saturday service on the 430 starts one hour earlier
Saturday service on both routes improves to every 20 minutes between 9AM and 6PM
All service generally operates at least every 30 minutes at any time
In addition, two key segments will – on the same route or on combinations of two routes – improve to a consistent 10-minute service in the peak hour, as well as a 15-minute mid-day weekday service:
Garden City Road between Bridgeport Station and Brighouse Station (407)
Bridgeport Road between Bridgeport Station and No. 5 Road (430, 407)
For a massive service improvement, it would take only the same amount of operating money being put in the 407 and 430 right now – approximately 4.4 million annually – including the cost of additional, 10-15 minute frequency evening shuttle service on the C91 for when the International Summer Night Market is in operation.
A long-term plan
In the long term, the introduction of a frequent, all-day express service on 49th Ave from Metrotown to Langara-49th SkyTrain Station (B-Line or otherwise) can be anticipated. With this, it would be ideal and efficient for the 430 to change.
With the introduction of such a route, the 430 can be cancelled; in place, 22 Knight service is extended beyond the current Knight & Marine terminus to Bridgeport Station, resulting in further increases in frequency on Bridgeport Rd. and through service to Knight St. Riders on the former 430 can now use the 22 in conjunction with the 49 rapid route to maintain a fast connection. Meanwhile, the 407 continues to provide a peak-hour-only extension to Knight & Marine via Vulcan Way.
This would permanently solve an issue where presently, riders must transfer to connect to local Knight Street service – and create new Vancouver-Richmond connection opportunities.
The savings in operating cost would allow the new rapid 49 to be more frequent, improving transit for all people.
What do you think?
If you like my plan, I encourage you to comment on it below and share it where you can – perhaps re-blog and do a feature on your website! I’m hoping that with the release of TransitMix, I can create “transit ideas” articles like these way more often than I was initially planning – touching on several areas here in Metro Vancouver.
Transitmix is what allowed me to visualize this entire article. It’s new and simple way to think about transit in terms of bus requirements and real costs. Map-makers draw a route on a map and plug in span and frequency. The app then calculates a vehicle requirement and cost in both hours and dollars, factoring in an adjustable layover ratio, average speed and dollar cost per service hour.
This is one I will have to go “huh” at, because the writer brings up a very interesting and very legitimate point.
Although I think Surrey at this point has a greater need due to increasing car use, I’ve experienced transit on the West End (the densely populated area on the western end of the downtown Vancouver peninsula) and I will have to agree – it sucks.
West End transit is very slow and exceptionally inconvenient, and cannot be relied on by those who want to travel around on a timely basis. Robson, Denman, Davie and Granville are almost always clogged by traffic, and this is part of why buses in these areas are often delayed. These are the four major streets servicing the West End area – and about the only streets with bus routes, meaning capacity can be and is an issue. Unfortunately, these major streets are very narrow and few and far between, leaving light rail/streetcars as a not very viable option for the West End on Davie, Denman or Robson to increase capacity. Mixed-traffic streetcars would have trouble navigating the undivided four-lane roads in mixed lanes, which have no turn lanes and are restricted to two lanes during off-peak hours as parking takes over curb lanes. Extremely restricted roadway capacity and parking space for on-corridor business in the area means taking away lanes for either buses or light rail is not an option.
A streetcar/LRT line down Pacific Blvd and Beach Avenue remains a last possibility, but probably stands to bring little or no travel benefit, because of its longer and indirect route with no improvement in connections to important destinations or hubs downtown – such as bus terminals, Waterfront Station, and others. A streetcar on this corridor has actually been proposed as part of Vancouver’s streetcar proposal, but only as far as Granville; it would not extend to the West End or English Bay.
The issue with the West End is that it is simply far too dense for the local infrastructure in every way. It’s an issue that I am familiar with as this issue is present everywhere in my hometown city of the Manila, Philippines – where the city’s high density is serviced with very much underbuilt transportation infrastructure.
It seems logical to think that the only solution left for the West End is a grade-separated subway rapid transit extension. However, a subway would be far too disruptive of a priority based on the needs in other areas of the region. So, that leaves this as a matter to be discussed – and a great matter to bring up in advance of an election where transportation funding will be a primary debate topic. It should remind us that, let alone the transit problems that have been brought up and are priorities (like Surrey and the Broadway corridor), there are other problems to address that should be priorities but have not been made as priorities – and that’s how serious the issue of transit need is here in Metro Vancouver.
After the Evergreen Line is finally completed, TransLink’s next big project could be light rail in Surrey or some sort of rapid transit in Vancouver’s Broadway corridor. One option the regional transportation authority isn’t studying is an extension of the Expo Line in downtown Vancouver.
At the Straight, we get all sorts of reasonable and far-fetched proposals in our inboxes. This proposal is one of them, but I’ll let you decide how realistic it is.
Frank Jameson, who has a barely-there site calledVancouverrr, wrote in to say: “The Expo Line should come to English Bay.” He wants to see a new tunnel bored under the West End, and he plans to make it a provincial election issue.
This tunnel would carry the Expo Line to two new stations: Mount Robson station at Cardero Street and English Bay station at Bidwell Street. Presumably, this means the first station would be at Robson and Cardero streets and the second would sit near English Bay Beach.
It’s not clear whether the Expo Line would split into two branches (English Bay and Waterfront) at Burrard Station. Perhaps a new English Bay line could have separate trains, requiring a transfer at Burrard.
The rationale? Jameson says the English Bay area has the “slowest transit service” in the Lower Mainland. Fireworks and festivals also disrupt bus service in the area. And, you know, lots of people live there. “We deserve better transit. We want a subway,” he writes.
So, over to you. Is it time for the SkyTrain to pull into English Bay?