Stephen Rees's blog

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

Light Rail Transit in San Francisco

with 17 comments

I just happened across this image. It shows a San Francisco MUNI light rail train. It is what is used to get people around the city – for regional connections there is BART. Note the combination of exclusive right of way and surface street running. And the complete absence of crossing barriers, flashing lights, bells and cross bucks. These trams are more common in SF than the cable cars – but those are iconic, this is prosaic. But along with trolleybuses this is what the residents use mostly. In the centre of the city there is a cut and cover section to downtown – and in fact is double decked with BART underneath. The trams then run in a tunnel underneath Forest Hill. The two systems are run by different agencies (a bit like TTC and GO in the centre of the known universe).

I think that a system like this along Arbutus would still be useful – except now it could follow Kent Avenue past the Canada Line and wind up in New Westminster. In fact in the early days of the Evergreen studies something like that was actually looked at as the CP tracks go all the way to Coquitlam. But being Metro Vancouver we never really take using existing railway track for transit seriously. It just works well everywhere else and could not be tried here. Except for the Vancouver Heritage Railway of course. But no-one takes that seriously.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 11:42 am

17 Responses

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  1. Hey,

    I was wondering if you had anything to say on Liquor Licensing policy in this city. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Vancouver’s terribly boring nightlife has something to do with city planning policy.

    Some sources:
    And a facebook group for concerned citizens is at:

    Chris H

    April 3, 2008 at 2:04 pm

  2. Why not LRT to Steveston? Oh, sorry, it would attract more riders than RAV. Can’t have that, can we!

    Malcolm J.

    April 3, 2008 at 2:28 pm

  3. I can definitely see it down Arbutus to Marine Drive Station – but try telling that to a condo owner who is as close to the ROW as that second floor apartment shown in the pic!

    The DMU proposal was nixed for the Kent Ave. ROWs because the heavy rail lines are still heavilty used by industry – catch 22 there – if industrial use declines, then the health of the City’s economy will suffer (and jobs will be placed farther from the City), but you can install rapid transit – to condos on the former industrial lands (?!?!).

    Ron C.

    April 3, 2008 at 2:43 pm

  4. Just you wait Stephen. Surrey will do it right – with both the Interurban and LRT instead of SkyTrain – if I have anything to say about it!

    Paul Hillsdon

    April 3, 2008 at 3:54 pm

  5. Chris – I am sure that BC’s licensing policy – and attitudes around it – is badly out of touch with reality. The idea of concentrating “seats” in a short length of Granville Street seems especially misguided. I am very much in favour of the neighbourhood pub – but then I am English. I like French and Greek cafés too. North American attitudes to alcohol are incomprehensible to me.

    Ron – It would be easy to intersperse passenger and freight service along the CP line – it is called “temporal separation” and worked nicely for the O train on Ottawa. Any time I have been around that line it has been as quiet as a grave. Very little of the sort of freight that line carries is time sensitive.

    Stephen Rees

    April 3, 2008 at 4:33 pm

  6. LRT is very quiet, much quieter than diesel buses and easily fits in with housing.

    With track-sharing with mainline railways, it is the type of signalling one uses, for safe operation. The Germans have been using the ‘Indusi’ ( I believe what this is called) signalling system with their famous zwei system LRT in Karlsruhe. The French use a GPS signalling system and by all accounts, is very safe.

    With LRT on Arbutus, one could lawn the rights-of-way and make it a linear park, which now is done in Europe. now, wouldn’t that be ‘green”?

    Malcolm J.

    April 3, 2008 at 5:48 pm

  7. Sorry, I couldn’t resist this. Stuttgart’s rack & pinion LRT next to houses. The ‘rack’ light rail services a university, which is located on top of a rather large hill. Sound familiar?

    When one builds a major transit destination in extraordinary places, extraordinary measures must be take to service it.

    Malcolm J.

    April 3, 2008 at 6:04 pm

  8. I notice those gorgeous red French trains aren’t plastered in advertising from end to end.
    Beautiful things. Wow. And so quiet!

    Some discussion about transit happened on the Langley bus the other day. One man said they could have SkyTrain to Guildford in 6 years, not 12, and after he had left I brought up LRT. I think the first response was, wouldn’t people get run over by it? I said nooo and, not sure what else to say, said “that’s what grade separation is for,” which isn’t true of course. It’s like any other vehicle and people speed on municipal highways all the time. More likely to get crushed by a SkyTrain. I mentioned the cost difference and how the tracks were already there.. he said they’re busy. That’s irrelevant of course (and they’re not THAT busy). I mentioned the government owns ’em. He left and the woman nearby said “yes, the Interurban” and knows all about this stuff. Her father took it from Chilliwack to Vancouver regularly in the 40s. She mentioned a heritage railway society in Chilliwack, and I optimistically said it was great telling people about LRT. She said not enough people care, that the only ones who care take are already taking transit. Well, with LRT’s attraction we’ll get more ridership but I bet most drivers don’t have a clue about this idea.

    Time for some guerilla poster tactics…

    Erika Rathje

    April 4, 2008 at 10:45 pm

  9. holy crap – the arbutus/kent lrt idea looks really, REALLY appealing, esp. when the marine drive connection to the canada line is complete.


    April 7, 2008 at 12:49 am

  10. People do get killed by LRT. Calgary’s C-Train did in my cousin in the mid-90s, and he left behind a wife and four young sons.

    My research of that incident has shown that most of these accidents with pedestrians at level crossings were preventable and were caused mainly by poor system / station / crossing design and lousy urban integration, both complicated when winter whiteout conditions occur, not by the ignorance of pedestrians.

    After that incident I was most concerned for my mother who was forced to cross two LRT tracks on 7th Ave using a walker. She managed to avoid getting hit mostly because the trains moved very slow on a curve at that crossing. Even then, there were some close calls. To her, C-Train was a barrier and forced her to deek two blocks out of her way, then two blocks back to her regular destination street on infirm 75-year old legs.

    Moreover, I am an urban designer with a quarter century experience who was influenced greatly by these incidents. You will not find a stronger advocate for public transit. However, nothing will ever convince me — not even the cutest tram pictures — that anything less than the following are required: (i) the interface between surface rail and especially pedestrian crossings must receive the highest priority treatment regarding safety in all seasons; (ii) slower trams and rail rapid transit are two separate things, the latter requiring a higher level of separation by grade or barriers due to its higher speed; and (iii) the success of using existing industrial rail corridors for light rail is completely dependent on station location.


    April 7, 2008 at 2:48 pm

  11. I am of course saddened by those who die in collisions with transit. It is amazing to me that people still use the expression “if I don’t get run over by a bus” as though that were an everyday occurrence.

    What is an everyday occurrence, and one we do very little about is the carnage every day due to vehicle collisions. The standards we apply to road safety would be completely unacceptable if applied to trains, or planes, or ferries. I feel there shoudl be similar requiremnts that Meredith asks for but for protection against single occupant behemoths operated by distracted, over-tired drivers. Cars that will not start unless all the seat belts are fastened on occupied seats, the driver has given a clean breath sample and swiped a valid driver’s license that matches an iris scan. 30kph speed limits on streets where there is a reasonable expectation of pedestrians needing to cross. New Jersey barriers to protect all bike lanes. I could go on indefinitely. It will have no effect.

    Transit is safer than driving in terms of fatalities per passenger km travelled – but that is because we have much tougher standards for bus drivers. But that is no help to the pedestrians walking on the side walk while the boy racers speed by on Marine Drive is it?

    Stephen Rees

    April 7, 2008 at 3:16 pm

  12. The death and injury rate in our car culture is near absolute when compared to the same by transit. But Calgary’s C-Train has killed dozens of people at crossings in perfectly preventable accidents. [Note to Malcolm, I am excluding suicides, a different matter altogether.] This does not mean that all LRT systems are “bad”, only that Calgary’s possesses significant key design flaws that need to be addressed sooner or later. Light rail should enhance, not threaten the pedestrian experience.


    April 8, 2008 at 1:56 pm

  13. FYI – regarding use of the railway tracks in New West – residents want no night time use!

    Ron C.

    April 8, 2008 at 2:59 pm

  14. Note to Meredith. A little late but please don’t say Calgary’s C-Train has killed dozens of people at crossings, because that is a stretch of the truth. And I see you have a deep personal interest, which may have biased your views.

    The C-Train’s death rate is about one half of that of SkyTrain’s and yes, cars have been hit and peopled died – when the cars deliberately disobeyed crossing signals and drove around level crossing barriers, to beat the train! Don’t blame C-Train. What happens if a car runs a red light at Granville and 41st? Accident.

    C- Train did have a problem with people getting stuck in the doors and 2 or three were killed as a result. Modifications were made and the problem has been more or less solved.

    Many deaths on Calgary’s LRT are also suicides like SkyTrain and in another blog I see that a shocking number, over 250 people committed suicide on London’s rail network!

    In Europe, 100’s of trams systems operate along city streets without a massive death toll and certainly the onus is on the pedestrian to ‘stop, look, and listen’ and not walk blindly across the tracks.

    SkyTrain’s suicides could be prevented with a little forethought, by putting screens at every station, to open only when the train is stopped. Far fetched? No. In Europe, EEC safety rules demand this on automated transit systems and the automated French VAL system has them and has a very good safety record..

    Suicides are not a different matter, they are a fact of life and your cavalier attitude to these poor souls astounds me and who’s to say that those car and other accidents on Calgary’s LRT were not suicides. Death by train is an ugly affair.

    Malcolm J.

    April 24, 2008 at 4:41 pm

  15. > C- Train did have a problem with people getting stuck in the doors and 2 or three were killed as a result. Modifications were made and the problem has been more or less solved.

    I have not been able to find the details of accidents involving people stuck in the doors to verify this, but I am sure that this was likely with the older U2 cars. On those cars the door actually folds opens into the train car. Not only did it have a safety issue apparently, but during peak times it is very awkward to move around the door if you standing near it and it needs to be opened. I’m not sure what Siemens was thinking with that design.

    Thankfully, the newer SD-160 doors open by popping out towards the platform and sliding horizontally along the train car. Half of Calgary’s fleet is SD-160’s I believe.
    Regarding accidents, one death in Calgary I remember hearing about a couple of years ago involved alcohol. 2 adult brothers were horsing around on the platform after a hockey game and one fell between cars of an approaching train. It was really tragic. Sure it could it have been prevented by a different station design – one involving gates or barriers that only lift after the train has come to a complete stop. But I would prefer that people take responsibility for their own actions and act in a safe manner rather than designing mass transit to accommodate people who can’t act responsibly in the most basic of ways.


    May 7, 2008 at 7:51 am

  16. You can say all you want that c train accidents are design flaws but when dozens stop and one runs as happened tonight…


    July 11, 2009 at 1:54 am

  17. I have approved this comment but I have no idea what MT is referring to. A link to a news story might have been a good idea.

    Stephen Rees

    July 11, 2009 at 9:31 am

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