Stephen Rees's blog

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

Fuel cell cars still 15 years away at best: study

with 18 comments

Reuters via Environmental News Network

The study concluded that the best way to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years would be a range of alternatives, including hybrids and improvements in the efficiency of gas-powered combustion engines.

“We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in these technologies because they will probably all be important in the future,” said Michael Ramage, a retired Exxon Mobil researcher who chaired the fuel-cell study committee.

It would have been better had Reuters actually provided a link to the study itself. And the composition and brief of the committee seems to be worth investigating too. But the point is well made: hydrogen is not ready for prime time and needs huge subsidies.

What is not said of course is that the car itself is not a sustainable idea. The US interstate highway system is literally crumbling. Cities cannot cope with traffic congestion – and the suburbs were never designed to cope with expensive transportation fuels. So looking for a new kind of car is just a way of avoiding the important questions.

North America does not just need to wean itself off cheap oil, it also has to come up with ways of getting around which are not predicated on car ownership. That means tackling the need for lots more transportation options. And as far as technology goes, we know that there are much more efficient systems that have been around for years and work well. So if government funds are going to be spent, there are much more effective, workable options than hydrogen or ethanol.

Electric trains and streetcars served America well before the car took over, and can do again. And electricity can be made in all sorts of ways that do not require fossil fuels. Land use will be slow to adapt – but will. It has to because low density, car oriented development is now a thing of the past, based on economics that no longer apply.

The sensible thing to do is to allow the bridges to fall down – and in many cases, blow them up before someone gets hurt. Reallocate existing road space to transit – and in urban areas make walking and cycling the preferred means of transportation. Copenhagen started doing this 25 years ago. This is a model which we know has worked well. This pattern of change does not require a leap of faith, or future technological changes. We have to stop throwing money at R&D of dubious value, and start investing in building systems which we know will work.

Cars will be around for some time, and will gradually become more civilised. Ownership of a car will become less important – due to innovations like car co-ops, or the funding arrangements planned for Israel’s new battery powered cars based on cell phone contracts. Urban areas will adapt – they always have done – and none of this will happen overnight. But the very first thing to do is stop building and expanding car infrastructure. We simply don’t need it.

UPDATE Wednesday July 23 The Guardian has a piece on the British Motor Show which opens tomorrow and is emphasizing how green the industry is getting. Except that it is isn’t doing very much, very fast. Most of the really innovative vehicles are years away from production. The y clearly are not taking the threat of increasingly rapid climate chaneg seriously – and are not even responding to the inevitability of passing peak oil and having very few years of gasolione left to play with.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2008 at 8:03 am

18 Responses

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  1. Excellent post. I’ll be showing this to people who whine about congestion and fuel prices in future. Thank you…

    Andy in Germany

    July 22, 2008 at 8:10 am

  2. “…the car itself is not a sustainable idea.”

    “Electric trains and streetcars served America well before the car took over, and can do again. And electricity can be made in all sorts of ways that do not require fossil fuels. Land use will be slow to adapt – but will. It has to because low density, car oriented development is now a thing of the past, based on economics that no longer apply.”

    “Reallocate existing road space to transit – and in urban areas make walking and cycling the preferred means of transportation. Copenhagen started doing this 25 years ago. This is a model which we know has worked well.”

    Right on!


    July 22, 2008 at 8:23 am

  3. In response to a question I posed to the members of the LRTA about Ballard/hydrogen fuel cell technology, I think that the hype and hoopla over fuel cells was a bit of a scam. Strangely enough the one industry that the fuel cell proved to be a contender was the ‘arms’ industry, where fuel cell powered submarines were superior to nuclear submarines (nuclear subs make noise and fuel cell powered subs don’t). The rail industry in Europe rejected fuel cell powered trains and trams as being not powerful enough and too heavy and inefficient to be practical.

    There is no magic bullet for our fuel/auto/transportation crisis, but a mixture of good planning and good common sense would be far better than a dream of a hydrogen fuelled car.

    Here is the question I ask over and over and no one answers. Do we continue to build SkyTrain at $100 million/km. or more, or start building with modern LRT with costs starting at $7 million/km. with finite financial resources the answer should be easy, but all I hear is a deafening silence.

    In Europe, because of greatly declining ridership on public transport in the 70’s and 80’s, the management of regional and urban public transit systems went to the public and asked what they would want on the public transit system that would entice them to leave the car at home and then implemented it. To no ones surprise, ridership on public transport increased dramatically.

    In Europe, public transit is designed to suit the needs of customers and in Vancouver, transit is designed to suit the needs of bureaucrats, politicians, car drivers, etc. No wonder ridership only increases with population!

    Malcolm J

    July 22, 2008 at 1:20 pm

  4. Ballard sold several stationary power plants to Japan about eight years back.


    July 22, 2008 at 1:42 pm

  5. Japan also had a fuel cell passenger train in service last time I checked, in a remote area of Honshu I believe.


    July 22, 2008 at 3:51 pm

  6. I Googled ‘Ballard’ fuel cells and there was no mention of a Ballard train in Japan. Also, what was mentioned were ‘back-up’ power plants for sale, not first line power plants. I’m afraid the Ballard is the ‘Mcawber’ the Hydrogen race – always a new product or a Ballard powered train/bus, just around the corner!

    Malcolm J

    July 22, 2008 at 5:17 pm

  7. It’s a shame that today with battery and engine technology there exists the ability to reduce car emissions by 90% (depending on the source of electricity) just by using using plug-in hybrid vehicles optimized to 60 mile range on a single charge. We might even be able to keep our bridges, but people would might have to limit themselves to one car in the driveway.


    July 22, 2008 at 10:32 pm

  8. Malcolm if you are so sure of your 7 million per kilometer cost in the United States and Canada, using local labour, then I’m ready to invest. All you have to do is cost out system that will be turn key with land acquisition, rail infrastructure developed from scratch and with predictable maintenance costs for 30 years for rolling stock and 50 years for infrastructure.

    And please do so as soon as possible because somehow all but one scenario (none in North America within 2 generations) has been able to obtain this figure, and this figure remains immune to inflation and rising energy and commodities cost. Our transit programs desperately needs to find out how.

    Otherwise a message that should makes sense loses all credibility with pie in the sky figures, and accusations of being on the Bombardier payroll for all those who dare to say contrary.


    July 22, 2008 at 10:45 pm

  9. The Spanish city of Véléz Malaga opened a short new light rail line in the Autumn of 2006 costing less than $7 million/km.; in Germany, the famous (well famous everywhere else but here) Karlsruhe zwei system LRT has costs less than $7 million/km. when it track shares with mainline railways.

    The problem in Canada and to a lesser extent in the USA, planners grossly over engineer light rail/tram planning, with needless tunnels, viaducts, etc.; engineering costs money, a lot of money. LRT is designed as a heavy rail metro, operating light rail vehicles. TransLink is very guilty with its over engineered LRT planning, planning that on the Evergreen Line drove the cost over $100 million/km. to build!

    Seattle’s so-called LRT has much more in common with our SkyTrain/RAV light metros, than modern LRT, with its miles and miles of viaduct and tunnels and planned 4 car trains.

    I believe Prof. Condon’s streetcar/tram study has realistic costs of modern LRT, which is why TransLink and the BC Liberals ignored it. The question that has never been asked in any of our ‘rail’ planning is “how cheaply can we build it.” A question that is asked with all new light rail construction in Europe and the USA.

    Malcolm J

    July 23, 2008 at 7:15 am

  10. Julien, SkyTrain is subsidized by the taxpayer for over $200 million annually. Modern LRT rolling stock is designed to last 30 to 40 years and could last 50 years with proper maintenance. In Europe, 30 to 40 year old rolling stock is being refurbished and sold to former Eastern countries who plan to use them for another 30 to 40 years!

    Maintenance costs are not high as electric traction is much easier and cheaper to maintain than diesel or gas powered traction. Electric traction is the cheapest way to go. It is your post that lacks credibility as just about every transit company operating tram/LRT has their will give you their annual operating costs, if only you just ask. It’s TransLink which feels such information is a ‘State Secret’.

    From the Calgary transit web site.

    Operating Costs

    Vehicle Maintenance costs: $13.9M (2006)
    Station Maintenance costs: $2.8M (2006)
    Right of Way Maintenance costs: $2.9M (2006)
    Signals Maintenance costs: $2.4M (2006)
    Average annual power costs: $4.8M (2006)
    Annual LRV Operator wages: $6.0M (includes fringe benefits of 21.57%) (2006)

    TransLink doesn’t offer the same information with SkyTrain.

    Malcolm J

    July 23, 2008 at 7:30 am

  11. SkyTrain is subsidized by the taxpayer for over $200 million annually???

    Really? I think you need to recheck your numbers my friend. The Expo line has been turning a profit for numerous years, both lines combined have been profitable for the last few years and last year was the first year that even the Millenium line cracked a profit.

    We get you don’t like Skytrain, that’s great, but don’t make up some numbers to try and justify your opinion.

    Just Joe

    July 23, 2008 at 7:57 am

  12. Sorry Joe to disappoint you, the BC taxpayer subsidizes SkyTrain (capital costs and more) for over $200 million annually. Have you ever hear the BC Auditor General say SkyTrain operates at a profit? No, just TransLink’s hacks.

    It is doubtful that the Expo line does turn a profit, for if it were true, everyone would be building it. The sad fact is, TransLink hasn’t a clue as to real ridership, nor the revenue SkyTrain makes. TransLink doesn’t apportion fares (bus, seabus, SkyTrain) between modes, thus it is impossible to find out Skytrain’s true revenue.

    If 80% of SkyTrain’s riders first take a bus (this is from TransLink) then 80% of the fares must be apportioned between bus and the metro. But, what percentage of customers take more than two buses and SkyTrain or Seabus? Then the fares must be properly apportioned per each mode.

    With TransLink, fares are just go in one big pot!

    It is the apportioning of fares between the Tube, Trains, Buses, DLR, and Tram, that tipped the balance for London’s Oyster card. With Oyster all fares are automatically apportioned, without having 100’s if not 1000’s of accountants checking figures.

    As for facts, the SkyTrain subsidy is available in several GVRD studies and the figures are not made up, in fact it is the other way around, TransLink keeps talking nonsense.

    Now in most cities operating public transit, there are annual or bi annual independent audits to make sure the operating authority is on the straight and narrow. When did TransLink have an independent audit of operation? Never you say, well isn’t it about time.


    1) What is the revenue (apportioned) that SkyTrain earns per year?
    2) What is the operating costs including vehicle maintenance, station maintenance, right-of-way maintenance, signal maintenance, power costs, attendant’s/police wages, and annual capital costs that must be paid to SkyTrain.

    Subtract one from the other and a true picture of profit/loss will show.

    P. S. The last annual operational cost mentioned, not including the SkyTrain police and capital costs were roughly $80 million a year for SkyTrain. And that was printed in the Vancouver Sun!

    Malcolm J

    July 23, 2008 at 9:56 am

  13. The taxpayer subsidizes the automobile at about $3 billion every year (directly and indirectly) just in Metro Vancouver. It’s probably over $40 billion nation wide At that price one can justifiably set an annual reduction in the car subsidy in the single digit percentage points by building rail transit, and not get hung up on the lowest denominator capital or operating cost. Even the neocons in the Vancouver Sun editorial board said a few years back that subsidized transit is justified as long as the car is subsidized.

    Trouble is, the rail has to be designed not just to move people, but to build more sustainable cities (i.e. transit and pedestrian-based development). If it takes road space away, or requires some tunnels or bridges to get it to developable sites like our ubiquitous gargantuan auto-oriented suburban malls, then so be it.

    Cost is an important criteria, but to limit it as such is just beancounting.


    July 23, 2008 at 11:01 am

  14. Cost is important Meredith, especially when a government closes schools and hospitals to fund politically prestigious light-metros. Cost is very important when the taxpayer can’t pay the TransLink tax. Not all of us are well heeled planning bureaucrats.

    Here is a fundamental problem, there is only one taxpayer and however you want to play the “tax the rube” game, at the end of the day, it all comes out of the same pocket. And this pocket is getting sorely stressed.

    Malcolm J

    July 23, 2008 at 11:37 am

  15. Then you should start attacking the car subsidy and asphalt politics with as much vigour as you do SkyTrain, Malcolm.


    July 23, 2008 at 12:35 pm

  16. Malcolm,

    You don’t seem to beleive Translinks numbers so whose numbers do you use to beleive there’s a $200Million annual shortfall.
    Heres a article from the province I found, it’s from 2007 so the numbers are even better now.

    SkyTrain turns profit of $2.72m for 2006
    Frank Luba, The Province
    Published: Friday, July 13, 2007
    SkyTrain is running in the black.

    After recovering 100.4 per cent of its operating costs in 2005, Greater Vancouver’s automated light-rail system collected 3.6 per cent more revenue than it cost to run in 2006.

    Statistics from TransLink, the regional transportation authority, reveal that SkyTrain revenues last year were $78.12 million, compared with costs of $75.394 million for a “profit” of $2.72 million.

    A big part of the reason for the SkyTrain success is increased ridership on the Millennium Line.

    The older Expo Line, whose cars can be as crowded at peak hours as a sardine tin, has been covering its operating expenses for some time. But losses on the newer Millennium Line, which began operating in 2002, were such that TransLink stopped breaking out figures separately.
    In 2003, the Millennium Line cost $17 million more to operate than it generated in revenue. Another $10 million was dropped on various one-time costs for the line.
    Daily Millennium Line ridership in the spring of 2003 was 35,900.
    Last year weekday usage of the Millennium Line was 69,600, which was finally approaching the 2006 ridership forecast of 75,000 that was predicted by the B.C. government’s Rapid Transit Project office in 1999.
    Other components of the Greater Vancouver transit system did not recover their operating costs in 2006.
    The SeaBus recovered 82.1 per cent of its costs, West Coast Express 76.4 per cent, buses 49.2 per cent and community shuttles 38.1 per cent.
    Transit is not generally regarded as a moneymaker. Seattle Metro’s fare recovery, for example, is in the 20-per-cent range.
    © The Vancouver Province 2007

    Look forward to your comments.

    Just Joe

    July 23, 2008 at 2:41 pm

  17. Funny how a transit system that has a $200 million or more annual subsidy can make a profit. Frank Luba is just repeating a TransLink press release. Read Stephen’s todays posting, which gives great insight into TransLink’s hocus pocus ridership calculations.

    I also pointed this out to Frank and he took my point. TransLink has not even attempted to apportion fares from bus, Seabus, and SkyTrain, thus their claims are stuff and nonsense.

    I am not alone, today on the news, Kevin Falcon rejected Price Waterhouse’s ridership and fare evasion claims. Until there is a clear regular independent audit of SkyTrain from the Auditor General, claims of SkyTrain operating at a profit are just that, claims.

    Funny also that TransLink doesn’t make these claims to the wider public transit fraternity, I guess they do not want real experts, like Gerald Fox, exposing their drivel.
    This making the profit stuff is just for local consumption and TransLink would be laughed out of the room if they tried to claim this at any international event.

    Malcolm J

    July 23, 2008 at 3:24 pm

  18. The local annual car subsidy is 15 times that of Skytrain. I don’t have the figures handy, but I’d bet my $100 “carbon” rebate that entire transit systems in Canadian cities receive 4 to 20 times LESS total taxpayer subsidy than cars, depending on the source of information.

    And that’s not even touching on the topic of car versus rail in terms of land consumption per passenger.

    Somehow the automobile reality constantly gets lost in these narrow and perpetual circle-like arguments focussed only on rail mode.


    July 24, 2008 at 10:17 am

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