Stephen Rees's blog

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

Cost of rail

with 9 comments

The following is from Transport 2000 in Ottawa

Last week’s Mayors’ Summit in Ottawa was told by two Ministers, one federal and one provincial “they should not dream up hugely costly public transit systems that municipalities can’t afford to operate” (mentioning rail). The Ministers should take reassurance from the cost performance of such rail operators as GO Transit, Calgary Transit and OC Transpo, reports Harry Gow, President of the Transports Collectifs des Collines.

GO Transit carries 48 million passengers a year of which 85% go by train. It is the cheapest transit system per passenger to operate in North America, with 89.4% cost recovery from the farebox. Calgary pays 25 cents per passenger for operation of its light rail trains, but it pays $1.28 per passenger for buses. Labour costs for Ottawa’s O-Train are about one-sixth of those for enough buses to provide service on the same line of travel, and fuel costs per passenger a third of those for buses of equivalent capacity, Gow reports.

Just thought that those who keep on banging away at the bone headed resistance at the BC MoT might like a bit more ammunition.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 24, 2008 at 3:28 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

9 Responses

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  1. As an aside, I noticed that Light Rail Central is back up and running posting news stories on light rail systems:

    Ron C.

    June 24, 2008 at 4:55 pm

  2. WAY off topic, but I have a challenge for anyone:

    Find the Federal Government’s Environmental Assessment report for the Port Mann/Hwy 1 project online.

    It seems to have vanished into thin air.


    June 24, 2008 at 6:09 pm

  3. I had the opportunity to go to the Translink 2040 information session yesterday and was surprised to hear a representative of the Surrey Chamber of Commerce supporting community rail on the old Interurban line:

    I also attended the Metro Vancouver visioning session this morning (South of the Fraser edition) and the comments on transportation were overwhelmingly for a light rail system supplemented by buses, bikes and pedestrian facilities. There was also a very strong anti-Gateway (and no more Skytrain) sentiment, although the Metro Vancouver viewpoint seemed to be operating on the assumption that the project would go forward, although not explicitly (talk of “expanded goods movement, etc.)

    A few real estate and business people there were in favour of Gateway, however I would say that their grasp on issues like peak oil was either poor or nonexistent.


    June 24, 2008 at 7:08 pm

  4. The last figure for TransLink’s operating costs for SkyTrain were about $80 million annually, compared to $32.8 million (2006) for Calgary’s LRT, including drivers wages of $6 million. As well, Calgary’s C-train carries more passengers than SkyTrain.

    I understand that (News 1130) that TransLink will run annual $150 million deficits starting in 2012.


    “TransLink says their current surplus, which they say is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will be used up by 2011. And with the province already unveiling their $14 billion Transit Plan starting in 2012, TransLink is looking at projected deficits of $150 million per year.”

    So here now is the folly of building expensive light-metro (SkyTrain and RAV) on routes that do not have the ridership to support them.

    The current TransLink board of Campbell cronies couldn’t even plan for an outhouse, let alone understand its function.

    Malcolm J.

    June 24, 2008 at 11:33 pm

  5. To be fair, when people talk about the high cost of rail, they’re generally referring to the capital costs (which *are* huge) rather than the net operating costs. The fact that the latter is typically lower for rail does mean that nominally less money will be spent in the very long term, but that doesn’t really matter, if you apply any sort of realistic discount rate.

    However, I honestly think that the whole farebox recovery issue — which people so often use to attack transit projects — is a red herring. It’s like measuring the success of a road by how much gas tax revenue it generates. That’s not why we build roads; we build roads because they facilitate economic activity. Public transit should not be treated any differently.

    This is where rail wins big. In stark contrast to buses, the assuredness provided by fixed-infrastructure transit systems allow them to become catalysts for high-value transit-oriented development. The magnitude of this effect vastly outweighs whatever is going on with the farebox. The streetcar in Portland (where I used to live) is a great example of this: its initial segment cost $60 million to build, and around $1 million per year to operate (the farebox was mostly free). A bus route covering the same area could have been initiated for perhaps 10% of the capital costs and 50% greater net operating costs. However, the streetcar catalysed the development of the Pearl District — which was approaching $3 billion worth of economic activity, last time I looked — whereas a bus would have catalysed none of that.

    So, the crude value equation for the streetcar would be: (-$60 million capital costs – $1 million annual operating costs) + ($3 billion economic development). It’s in a very large number, in the black. A bus would give you a very small number, in the red. The times to use a bus is when there is no development potential (or no development desired) in the area that you are serving.

    Nathan Koren

    June 25, 2008 at 2:11 am

  6. I really appreciate your comments, Nathan, on the value that fixed rail transit brings to communities, and the comparison to the capital and operating costs. There’s really no contest there; fixed rail truly stimulates the economy in good ways.

    I would suggest that the benefits of the total worth of development permit applications over time is a good economic counter to the rhetoric espoused by the anti-tax / anti -transit folks. But real value may be in the quality of life transit-based and walkable neighbourhoods bring.

    That’s what it’s all about.


    June 25, 2008 at 8:12 am

  7. […] with 140 USD a barrel oil, North America  is poised to become much more interesting.  The cost per passenger is cheap with rail and there is evidence of high cost recovery. Other studies involve a comparison […]

  8. The point of the original post was that senior governments are still trying to scare municipalities away from rail with bogus arguments – in this case about operating cost. Information is a weapon – and the better informed we are, the better we can fight those who would mislead us

    Stephen Rees

    June 25, 2008 at 10:49 am

  9. True, true. Point well taken. However, when fighting a battle, weapons are only one element — the battlefield is another. The battlefield of “costs” isn’t one that’s worth fighting on, in my opinion; even with the information that rail is operationally cheaper than buses, opponents can always divert the discussion to capital costs, or else simply claim that it’s still more expensive than doing nothing at all (which is usually where I see these discussions go). My general strategy is to avoid this conflict entirely — regarding it as a tactical diversion — and head straight on to the battlefield of “benefits”. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, over there.

    Nathan Koren

    June 25, 2008 at 3:57 pm

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