Stephen Rees's blog

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

SkyTrain no slam dunk: Falcon

with 12 comments

Jeff Nagel on BC Local News

This is an astonishing reversal – because he is talking not just about South of the Fraser but also in Vancouver to UBC. Gordon Campbell has always been very clear that he wants a bored tube tunnel all the way from VCC (I wish still it was called Glen Clark Station) to UBC – with a price tag of $2bn.

“Light rail could be the smartest, wisest thing to do,” Falcon told Black Press.

“I wouldn’t rule that in or out. But for goodness sakes, let’s do our homework first and make sure we actually know what we’re talking about before we make a decision on what the answer should be.”

Which is also a reversal. Lots of us have been working – on and off – on evaluation of various alternatives, and some of us were on the provincial or regional payroll or as consultants at the time. Not that it made the slightest bit of difference how much analysis was done, or who was in charge. The outcome – expensive, grade separated, automated – was never in any doubt.

Falcon denies the province has settled on SkyTrain.

“That’s subject to further analysis,” he said.

And he says light rail fans shouldn’t blindly champion that technology either.

“I’ve just got to believe people aren’t so woolly-headed about these kind of things that they think we should just plunge forward with a solution they’ve come up with before anyone’s done any homework to determine whether or not that makes any sense for taxpayers and transit riders.”

The cheaper per kilometre cost of light rail is just one part of the calculation, he said, adding capacity and expected ridership are also critical.

Actually there is no such thing as “light rail technology”. There is a whole spectrum of available cars and methods of fitting track on to both existing rights of way or building new ones. And while there is a rough and ready US set of “definitions” usually for regulatory reasons, there are all kinds of examples where the line between “Heavy” and “Light” rail gets very indistinct. Many countries have adopted light rail approaches to such issues as train control and accessibility, and it is not unusual to see things that look like trams running on main line railways, and very train like vehicles on streets.

The Canada Line is not SkyTrain – and it is incompatible with it – but from the perspective of the user it might as well be. And from the point of view of the people who will be paying the bills – us. And certainly adding capacity to that line is going to be very expensive indeed (though they apparently now think they may be able to insert a third car into each set if it does get overcrowded).

And as for “expected ridership” let us hold our chortles for a second. The opponents of light rail – and there are many and I don’t mean here the folks who promote SkyTrain – have for many years made hay out of the unfulfilled demand forecasts made for systems (usually to attract funds) which have never got anywhere near where they said they would. Equally, there are systems such as the built down to a fixed price Docklands LRT that were too small from day one. Using the current generation of transportation models and the usually very suspect assumptions that get thrown into them you can produce almost any forecast of ridership you want to, and very few people will actually ask the right questions to reveal how it was done.

And as for people being “woolly-headed” what you are describing Minister is exactly the way you and your friends have behaved over the Gateway program and its planned freeway expansions.

I will take what he says seriously when someone from his Ministry offers me a job. But even then I wouldn’t take it.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 4:14 pm

12 Responses

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  1. I could easily see an LRT network out in Surrey and the valley.

    As for Broadway, I’d still question the modal switch (for the same reason that I think Evergreen should still be SkyTrain).

    But if Broadway West is to be LRT, I think it would probably have to be LRT all the way from VCC-Clark Station so that the railyards could be located on the False Creek Flats. If a hybrid of the previous SkyTrain-Rapid Bus proposal is pursued (with LRT replacing the Rapid Bus), you’d end up having to put the LRT railyard on either the Arbutus corridor or the UBC endowment lands (the latter, a non-starter for sure) – unless they do something really crazy like extend SkyTrain to Arbutus as planned and build a separate LRT Line from the railyards at the False Creek Flats along the streetcar/interurban ROW to link up at Arbutus and then out along Broadway (in the street) to UBC.

    BTW – here’s the old City of Vancouver report after which the City supported SkyTrain plus Rapid Bus over LRT all the way to UBC. Note that this is a City of Vancouver report and not a TransLink report, so any suggestion of a bored tunnel is from the wrong authority. Note the removal of on-street parking and narrowing of Broadway west of MacDonald to one lane each way with turning lanes.

    Click to access beyondthebline.pdf

    Ron C.

    November 14, 2008 at 4:43 pm

  2. Edit: The intro to the report says it was partially funded by TransLink, so I’ll revise the proviso so that any suggestion as to tunnel boring technology would be the opinion of the engineers writing the report, not what would necessarily be built.

    Ron C.

    November 14, 2008 at 4:49 pm

  3. The sad fact is, despite all the hype and hoopla about SkyTrain, the mode has yet to out perform LRT in revenue service, yet we still build more!

    Building LRT on Broadway requires a philosophical change on how and why be build rail transit and to date I have not even seen a hint of it.

    I remember a conversation with a transit specialist who worked for ABB in the 1990’s; if one built LRT/tram from BCIT to UBC, plus a line North, through the downtown to Stanley Park, it would double present bus ridership (1998) in three years, so much so, it would operate at a profit – after paying off debt servicing charges. They do it in Dublin and Nottingham!

    As for SkyTrain on the Evergreen line, if one has followed my ramblings on the subject, I believe that there isn’t the ridership to support LRT, let alone a SkyTrain metro. Harken to G. Fox’s shredding of Translink’s business case for the Evergreen Line, this line could be a greater ‘white elephant’ than the RAV/Canada line!

    Malcolm J.

    November 14, 2008 at 6:12 pm

  4. Realistically, we know that what should happen and what will happen are two different things when it comes to transit around here. Always has been, always will be. We don’t have a single rail transit line that has not been built under the complete direction and orchestration from the Province. The stripe of the political party in power in Victoria surprisingly seems to have absolutely nothing to do with it.

    Sure, the Province will cast a glance towards conventional LRT. They may even commission more studies (as if the matter has not been studied to death already). They will come up with a price for LRT. Then the fixing begins. Nobody wants to lose a single intersection or single foot of road space. Businesses, now on high alert after the cut and cover fiasco on Cambie, will go ballistic over losing their precious parking over an LRT line that will never go away….at least the cut and cover has an end (this is the mind of your typical unenlightened business owner you see). People would rather crow and cry until they can do it no more rather than try to see things from a different point of view.

    So, you end up seeing the LRT proposal morph into a completely grade separated line. Once you have that, the leap to a completely automated line is a short one, and if you are going to do that on Bway, you may as well hook in with SkyTrain at VCC-Clark Stn. The Evergreen Line was one of the furthest proposals we ever got to LRT, and even then, even with a government that proclaims to watch the penny like no other, the LRT proposal was trashed. Nothing has changed the fundamentals of why the nod goes to SkyTrain, or SkyTrain like technology every time. I doubt those fundamentals ever will change. Certainly not in the foreseeable future.


    November 14, 2008 at 10:18 pm

  5. There is a common misapprehension that SkyTrain and LRT are different technologies. This is not true. Both are ‘railways’ and adhere to the same principles of railway (steel wheel on steel rail) operation. SkyTrain is referred to as an unconventional railway because it uses Linear Induction Motors, which have proven expensive to maintain (maintenance costs to keep the vital 1 cm. air gap between the LIM and reaction rail). Being an automatic (driverless) railway means it uses a very expensive signalling system, demanding a very expensive grade separated rights-of-ways, either on viaduct or in a subway. By doing so it loses the flexibility of light rail.

    To date, SkyTrain has not matched modern LRT in passenger capacity, speed, durability, cost and economy; a fact not lost on transit planners around the world. Only 6 SkyTrain’s have been built since the late 1970’s. Compare with the over 100 new LRT lines built or 100 or so being built, during the same period.

    Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon fibs in this article and his statement; “…..Canada Line will carry passengers from Richmond to downtown Vancouver in just 23 minutes. If TransLink had built the line using light rail instead, he said, the trip would take an hour.” This is a complete falsehood. The truth: given the same quality of rights-of-way LRT could easily match the speed of SkyTrain and at a far cheaper cost! The Arbutus route, being longer, would have a slightly longer travel time.

    There is so much misinformation about SkyTrain and LRT, the lay person can be excused for making assumptions that are based in quicksand.

    Malcolm J.

    November 14, 2008 at 10:53 pm

  6. John:

    Hit the nail on the head there.


    November 15, 2008 at 8:45 pm

  7. The LRT/intersection debate has been used with great success by the pro SkyTrain crowd, yet it fails logically. LRT can easily trundle through an intersection during a ‘green’ light phase and with priority signaling there is no delay to road traffic.

    If we follow the logic of anti light types then we must abandon all controlled intersections for autos!

    What has been found in Portland and most cities operating LRT, is that businesses adjacent the route see an improvement in sales in the order of 10$. In Portland, merchants fought to have the ‘tram’ operating on their street.

    John is right and the reason is that we do not train transit planners in the art of rail transit. To the average planning student leaving university, streetcar/LRT is just a poor cousin of SkyTrain, yet both are different modes designed to accomplish two different things.

    Until UBC has a degree in urban transportation, like many European universities, we will not have the people who can plan for viable ‘rail’ transit.

    Malcolm J.

    November 16, 2008 at 5:55 am

  8. Malcolm

    You are wrong on a couple of counts. My friend Eric Doherty just got his Masters in Transportation Planning from UBC.

    Many planners and engineers come here with training and experience from other countries both from Europe and Asia. There is nothing magical about LRT. The techniques for assessing and planning it are no different than other transport modes. It does help to have some familiarity with the local legislative restrictions but that applies everywhere and in any mode.

    Our major problem in this region is that we have been car oriented since the 1950s. This suits the establishment very well and no serious effort has ever been made to change that. The reason we favour grade separation for rapid transit is the perception that it keeps the road traffic moving. Most other places long ago realised that an extensive network of bus priority measures is essential to keep buses as clear of traffic congestion as possible. (And that is true whether or not there is rail available) We have never even got that far.

    The decisions about route and mode are always made by politicians in any event, not professonals. And the typical successful BC politician (no matter what party label they carry) is contemptuous of the professional advice they get, if it is not carefully crafted to be congruent with their prejudged opinions.

    Stephen Rees

    November 16, 2008 at 8:19 am

  9. I should add, the closest this region ever had to turning the tide was during the Canada Line (then RAV) debates at TransLink. What the Province branded as indecisiveness and petty politics was actually a very healthy display of local democracy at work. In the end, there were a lot of very secret meetings and the Provincial mandate was rammed through. Seeing the close call and that the local pols were starting to think for themselves, the Province restructured TransLink to its current form to ensure that sort of thing would never happen again….at least not while the current Provincial government is in power.

    The current structure guarantees that the Province will get their way on any big ticket transit decisions here in the future. In a way, the current SCBCTA legislation shows a sort of evil genius in that the Province gets the power and glory for all the big ticket items and the local authority gets all the grief from the not so nice bits like how to pay for it all.

    At any rate, no rail line is built without a great deal of debate. Unfortunately, the first victim of most any high profile debate these days is the facts. Too few people around here have seen conventional LRT and how it works. People know and like SkyTrain, because that is what they know. To be frank, there are many things to like about SkyTrain. It does a pretty good job for what it was designed to do. Where it falls short is that you are paying the price for high quality exclusive right of way, but not necessarily getting the same ultimate capacity. The Canada Line will suffer the same fate because of all the many little cuts that occurred to stay within budget. I do think the Canada Line will be a ridership success…but there will be many reminders of how it could be that much better if we had spent another $500 million. Of course, all that capacity would not be needed right now…but one day it will. One should not build expensive systems like these without looking 50-100 years into the future.

    There are many debates on ultimately how much capacity you could cram on SkyTrain. What is certain though is that a lot of money must still be spent to see the upper limits of what SkyTrain may ultimately be capable of.

    If conventional LRT is to have a chance in this region, the Surrey and Fraser Valley is where it will be. I do see some holes in Paul Hillsdon’s proposal, but do think it is in the right spirit. Ultimately if that part of the region does end up getting conventional LRT, it will boil down to various trade offs in order to get the lowest per km construction cost. The ultimate trade off is how much road space do we want to give up to bring LRT in. If we are prepared to make the LRT the main driver of the roadway, the centre piece, it can be built for a very reasonable price indeed. Is the public prepared to make that sacrifice however? Can enough people change their thinking to convince the politicians that this won’t get them tossed out of office? The advantage for Surrey and the Fraser Valley is that they have the most road space available to give up compared to any other parts of the region. Whether this will make the debate any more reasonable or be one of the first facts to become the victim fear and uncertainty remains to be seen. From what I’ve read, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts is starting to become very interested in LRT. Unfortunately, the real struggle is the time between the dreaming stage where we currently are, to the stage where plans are in hand and construction is ready to begin. That is where the LRT proposal will often die in these parts….and that is where it often dies in most places where the plans never come to fruition.

    Who knows, the Province may be very good about this and realize that a longer conventional LRT system just means more ribbon for them to cut. They may leave the final decision up to the locals. Then again, they may not if the debate gets too out of hand. If this LRT in Surrey and the Valley ever ends up going anywhere, the period of debate will be very interesting indeed.


    November 16, 2008 at 10:58 pm

  10. Again, John you are on the right track. The problem with SkyTrain, one forgets one can elevate LRT, operate as a light metro with an equal or greater capacity than SkyTrain, but still retain the option to operate it as a tram.

    Manila is a good example, as it is LRT operated as an elevated light metro and one line is now carrying over 500,000 people a day.

    To many people are still thinking car first and until that changes, prestigious light-metro’ like SkyTrain will always be on the menu.

    Malcolm J

    November 17, 2008 at 12:19 pm

  11. Has anyone checked the LRT being built in Seattle? it will open for service in late 2009 but vehicles have been doing trial runs for months. That LRT will run underground downtown then at grade (there is a station by the Safeco stadium, unfortunately a tad too far from it) then on an elevated track in the Tukwila area all the way to SeaTac airport. It does look like SkyTrain at first glance. I have used modern LRT in various medium size European towns (and even in Paris where there are 4 of them..). When the first ones were built in the mid-1990s local businesses were up in arms. Now LRT are built all over the place and the first systems from the 1990s have been expanded and business in streets where the LRT run is booming. Contrary to some people believe here in Vancouver European are just as car crazy as we are, as proven by the number of freeways that have been built in Europe in the past 30-40 years (there were none in many countries when I was a kid). However the majority of the people living in towns from 250 000 to 1.5 millions (Much bigger well known capitals are a different story that has no relevance to Vancouver)agree that car use should be restricted within these towns to keep then livable and transit be given a high priority. Their enticement to leave cars at home is a LRT system from downtown to suburbs and also numerous commuter trains and commuter buses bringing people from /to far and wide (some towns much smaller than Vancouver have 5-10 lines of commuter trains radiating from downtown, with trains every 30 minutes or less all day long). The stick are downtown streets off limits to cars (there isn’t a town without major shopping streets closed to cars during business hours), high parking fees and truly expensive gas($ 2 per litre). Quite a few Vancouverites were born outside Canada or have travelled abroad extensively and are open to an efficient public transit system and less car use. Our politicians aren’t and until they understand that we live in the 21st century we are doomed to mediocrity.

    Red frog

    November 26, 2008 at 12:01 am

  12. Altho Surrey and Fraser Valley suburbs have more road space available to accomodate light-rail, the model may be wrong for them. Suburbs are less dense than inner-city, so a Skytrain-like system, which runs fast and unimpeded and is oriented towards fewer stops and greater distance between stops, is actually better suited for suburbs than inner city.
    Also, I disagree with the notion that grade-separated LRT will achieve the same speed of transport as elevated or tunneled. I have seen ‘signal-priority’, forbidding left-hand turns etc etc … and despite it all, you simply create havoc by having a big LRT running in a street along with pedestrians and cars. It’s ok if you dont want to get places fast.. but to me a transit system that doesnt get me where i want to go in a quick timeframe is an inferior transit system.
    I dont care how much extra money it costs, it has to be tunneled or elevated! I dont care thta much whether it is LRT or Skytrain that is running on the tunneled or elevated portions…the vehicle doesnt matter… the separation from cars and pedestrians does!


    December 18, 2008 at 7:46 am

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