Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for November 22nd, 2007

More service key to transit use, poll finds

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Toronto Star

Well, what an amazing finding, who’d a thunk it, eh?

Sorry but it just amazes me that transit agencies pay polling firms to find out what it is blindingly obvious. The reason people continue to drive despite the cost, and fear of road rage and collisions, and the inability to do anything much more than just sit there and listen to talk radio, is that taking transit is even worse. Waiting for the bus is bad enough: you do don’t know for sure it is coming – it could be late – or worse have run early and its already gone. Will you be able to get on or is this another day of pass ups? The chance of getting a seat depends on how near the end of the line you live. And then there’s the transfers – will you make the connections?

“Faster travel times, frequent service and less crowding, those were the things that would motivate (drivers) to get out of their cars onto transit,” said Jacquie Menezes.

When I worked for transit operators, I would get very impatient with talk about marketing. Forget that – think about the product you are selling. It is a service, but it is not a good service. What can we do to make the service better? Service quality was always my first choice for getting more riders. Frankly I do not give a rats about the name of the service or the colour of the bus. Are the seats dry, clean and comfortable? Is the bus warm and bright inside? Does the user feel safe and confident that the bus will deliver them to their destination?

One of my happier memories is being on one of the first new buses delivered that was going to be on the new 98 B Line. It was on show at the PNE. And the one thing that everyone noticed was the fabric covered seats. Uncut moquette from a firm in Bradford who have been upholstering trains and buses for years, and know their stuff.  Clean, bright and hardwearing – but comfortable. Something hitherto unknown on Vancouver Transit. Everyone asked me if it would be vandal resistant and possible to keep clean. They were so used to split plastic held together with duct tape.

The other lesson I learned from deregulation in Britain was that the new operators all went for new minibuses. They were cheap, but it meant that they could put on unheard of service frequencies from day one.  If you go to a bus stop, you tend to look down the road. If you see a bus coming there’s a good chance you will get on it. If there is no prospect of a bus any time soon, you will find another way to get where you are going.  For reasons that I do not understand, bus service planners in Vancouver think a bus every fifteen minutes is “frequent”! Well the guys who started operating competitive commercial bus services didn’t think that – and for very good reason.

We are seeing more people use transit here – but that is because there are more people! The share of the transport market has hardly changed. Transit has not kept up – and it was not very good in the first place. (Did you follow those links in one of the comments to the old cartoons about transit of the fifties and sixties?) Translink now admits that in order for us to achieve the premier’s new greenhouse gas reductions the size of the bus fleet must double. What I do not see in Bill 43 is anything like a commitment to the sort of resources that will require.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 22, 2007 at 11:14 pm

Posted in transit

High Speed Rail

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I have just been watching “The Nature of Things” on CBC Newsworld

Rail Renaissance, our lead story, is a 20-minute segment that takes audiences to Europe where they’ll witness the exciting lead up to the launch of the new High Speed One service out of St. Pancras Station, in London. The launch signifies the end of a multi-billion dollar restoration to the rail lines between London and Paris, and to St. Pancras, the station that will be the new home of High Speed One. Along with the physical restoration, many communities along the rail line have been given a lifeline because of the new rail service. This colossal engineering project incorporates 60 kilometres of tunnel, over 150 bridges and 3 major viaducts. It has brought with it signs of newfound prosperity for east London and Southeast England, areas that have largely been neglected. This segment is hosted by the well-known urban affairs critic for The Toronto Star, Christopher Hume. The key question that this segment poses is, if high-speed rail is happening all over Europe, why isn’t it happening here, in Canada?

This was one of those serendipitous things. The furnace went out, so I had to go and find out how to get the pilot light on. But first I had to do my gig on CITR. So supper was late and I missed the news. So I turned to Newsworld to catch up and there was St Pancras in all its restored glory. Now I did mention here the record breaking run on High Speed One, and that has brought a lot of new readers to this blog. The opening of regular service on November 14 also brought me a lot of traffic.


There was discussion about London – and how it could not accommodate cars, so the motorway box was cancelled. More importantly no new car parking has been opened since the sixties. I didn’t know that. In fact when I was at the Department of Transport (as it was called then) the Thatcher government wanted to see “free market” solutions to everything – including parking. As the Economic Adviser, I was supposed to come up with ways to make the free market in parking supply come alive. What I did was point out that no-one would pay to park if they thought they could do it for free on street. So the wheels were set in motion for the toughest ever crack down on illegal parking. It included the introduction of wheel clamps. And it worked to clear out the illegal on street parkers. But, so far as I know, no-one actually wanted to build commercial car parks since there was a lot more money to made from offices and high end residential developments. And it turned out they didn’t. Since then the political wind has shifted, even though some will say that Tony Blair owed more to Thatcher than Nye Bevan. But the outcome has been startling.

Christopher Hume (the reporter on this segment) compared St Pancras to Toronto Union. He compared the Eurostar between London and Paris to VIA Rail between Toronto and Montreal. He thinks we are at least twenty years behind the times. And he blames CN. I think he should actually be looking at Ottawa. VIA Rail has been a patronage issue more than anything else. A way to reward the Liberal faithful with a sinecure. No-one takes long distance, intercity passenger rail travel seriously. It’s all cars and planes here. But it cannot go on like that for much longer.

What had to happen in Britain was that the government had to break out of the dogmatic Thatcherite straight jacket. She hated trains – and during her reign, never rode in one. She refused public funds to the Channel Tunnel and its link to London – so for the previous twenty years, the high speed trains that emerged from the tunnel were forced to slow to the pace of the London suburban services and essentially Victorian infrastructure. Well OK the Southern did bring things a bit more up to date in the thirties – but the speeds remained unremarkable. Blair, to his credit, figured out how to use upgrading the infrastructure to revitalise the run down areas through which the new line runs. Kings Cross and St Pancras will now be the centre of massive redevelopment. So will Stratford. There was much talk of “leverage” – but the reality is that London has become a major European and World centre because of its financial expertise. The real shift in my lifetime has been the change from London as major centre for manufacturing to a service economy – just as Toronto has also been transformed. The biggest change that I saw in my time was the closure of the docks and the transformation of East London that followed. Of course it was a painful process, with some notably violent clashes between the dockers and the police. Perhaps that is one reason why I find it so hard to understand why opening new port facilities here is supposed to be so terrific and forward looking.

What has been different in Britain is that the government came to realise that railways were essential. That modern trains would provide an alternative to driving and flying. That alternative would be a lot lighter on the environment – fewer emissions of both local air pollutants and greenhouse gases. One 400 meter long Eurostar is the equivalent of seven B737s in people moving capacity. Flying to Paris produces ten times the CO2 of taking the train. And those people are a lot more comfortable and happy – and get to their destinations more easily and with less hassle than flying or sitting in a jam on a “freeway”. Britain now spends three times the amount of money (in real terms) on supporting the railways than it did in the age of Thatcher. Fortunately, some of that money goes into new infrastructure, not just the pockets of private sector spivs.

Canada must start spending money – public money – on improving intercity rail travel, starting with city pairs like Edmonton-Calgary, Vancouver-Seattle, and the corridor Chicago-Detroit-Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal. It is no good expecting CN CP or Amtrak to change their ways. We need dedicated, high speed, direct rights of way with electrification from day 1. It will cost a fortune – but we are one of the richest countries in the world and we have, for now, the oil and coal revenues to make this happen. We have to invest the profits from fossil fuel into becoming independent of fossil fuels. We start with a carbon tax, and we use the revenues to build carbon free infrastructure. Paying off the national debt in an era of low interest rates must be seen as a lower priority than creating a sustainable future.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 22, 2007 at 8:12 pm