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

Archive for March 2010

Transit tests out hybrid bus

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Times Colonist

Can you hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth? Once again the sub editors have undermined a transit story. The whole point about this bus isn’t that it is a “hybrid” (I am not at all sure it meets any normal usage of that term) but that it runs on hydrogen.

The pictures that accompany the article show that photographer Darren Stone was playing around with a wide angle – maybe even “fish eye” – lens, and it is this quite difficult to determine what the thing really looks like.

BC Transit CEO Manuel Achadinha with a fuel cell hybrid powered bus in Victoria, B.C. March 11, 2010.

BC Transit CEO Manuel Achadinha with a fuel cell hybrid powered bus in Victoria, B.C. March 11, 2010.

Built to be environmentally friendly, its batteries can be recharged at night by plugging it in to the electrical grid and hydrogen fuel tanks — stored in the roof of the bus — can be refilled.

OK so that explains the “hybrid” tag – so then we are back to the usual quibble I have about the claims that are made about “environmentally friendly”. It all depends on where the electricity comes from – and the hydrogen for that matter. In BC we get most of our power from existing hydro, so it is about as clean a power source as you can get. There was a lot of environmental impact when the dams were built and the valleys flooded – but most of that was in the past. Of course, a lot of fish habitat has never been restored or replaced either, but compared to other power stations hydro generation is reasonably benign. But elsewhere in North America a lot of electricity comes from coal – which is about as bad as it can be. And a lot of new power generation in BC is going to be a lot less environmentally friendly than it could be. That’s because in the rush to allow private sector generators to make a lot of money, many corners were cut off – including the critical environmental assessment process.

But I digress.

B.C. Transit spent about $15,000 and the Canadian and U.S. federal governments each chipped in $45,000 to bring the bus to Victoria

Which is not very much for a project like this – the demo of the Bombardier trams here cost a great deal more!

But what does it really tell us? That one of these buses – which currently cost double a conventional bus – will be quieter and a bit cleaner. No mention, you notice, of trolleybuses – which can do all of this as far as the wires reach. I also wonder if the batteries are really the best choice. They tend to be a significant environmental issue themselves: might super-capacitors be a better choice? I don’t know, I am not an engineer – and there is no information in the story about what type of batteries these are. And I read somewhere recently (no, I am not going to look it up) that shortages of rare earth elements may be more significant than peak oil.

But most importantly, as with the hydrogen buses in Whistler, in BC we do not have a suitable source of hydrogen and it is now being trucked in from Quebec.  That is not at all environmentally friendly. Indeed, it is not economical nor is it energy efficient. The “hydrogen highway” was just the Potempkin village  put up for Olympic PR purposes.

It might be a pretty bus – I like the idea of lightweight composite materials: they could be used in any bus. It might be a quiet bus – but then so are trolleybuses. But I really do not see why anyone within Transit should get excited about hydrogen. Frankly, we cannot afford it. Transit is starved of cash, and needs to make the most of every dollar. And I am afraid that experience to date of just about every “alternative fuel” (and hydrogen is not really a fuel either – its just an expensive way to store and move electricity) has been that they have been both expensive and technically inferior to well established technologies.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2010 at 10:49 am

Mayors fear being railroaded on transit financing

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BC Local News

Speculation about what the province intends to do about financing the Evergreen Line continues.  The Mayors think they ought to be consulted – but it looks rather like legislation is in the offing

The province’s solution is expected to be contained in a new overhaul of TransLink, with legislation possible as early as next month.

And, so far at least, Victoria is not returning the Mayors’ calls. Instead heavy hints are being dropped – as I noted in my most recent comments. It does seem to be a very odd way of going about a big decision making process. Conducting an exchange not directly, but in the pages of the press – with all sorts of nods and winks, but no actual information. I suspect that it could be an officially sanctioned “trial balloon” – something not at all unknown elsewhere. The government faces a tricky decision so leaks some information in the hopes of getting an early indication of what the reaction might be. If the response is muted, full steam ahead: if hostile, then a quick rethink is possible  since it does not look like a “flip flop” as no actual decision was announced. And it’s all very deniable so far.

The problem of course is all of the province’s making. On the one hand they hog tie the regional authority and accuse it of inefficiency, and limit its funding. But on the other hand they did promise to build both the Canada Line and the Evergreen Line and the project to build the latter as a SkyTrain extension has been rumbling along for a while now. And, as Frank Luba was pointing out last night on CBC radio, the problem is not just the financing of the missing $400m capital, it is also Translink’s inability to pay for the operations and maintenance costs of another rapid transit line, since the extra fares they collect will not cover anything like those costs.  It does seem highly improbable that there are savings of the scale required within Translink, which is what the province appears to believe. And there will be howls of rage if the whole region has to pay more for transit which many of them will not be able to use. Places like Surrey, with low transit mode share now and only a token rapid bus project on the way, will much more annoyed than the residents of the Tricities will be pleased. This political accounting is what will, in the end, make the difference. All the figures for deciding what to build and where were long ago set into a form which cannot now be changed without all kinds of embarrassment. Do not expect any change from SkyTrain – or the route. It is going to be all about how to raise $400m. I would bet that a P3 partner would be produced if times were normal – but P3s are not easy to fund these days. So maybe the Mayors Council gets the chop after all?

UPDATE Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail, Monday March 15 with a useful summary of the current state of play

Written by Stephen Rees

March 10, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Posted in regional government, transit

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Bombardier presentation to the Transport Action Group

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Transport Action Group at the Firehall Library March 9

Steve Hall of Bombardier

Steve Hall of Bombardier

I was invited to attend a presentation by Steve Hall of  Bombardier. The group is the former Transport 2000 which has now adopted a new identity nationally. Before transcribing my notes I looked at what I wrote on January 15 after my sneak preview, since much of the material he presented I had already seen from that event. I hope I have avoided any duplication.

His topic was entitled “Light rail” but what he addressed were the current sate of the rail business and the trends trends that are now shaping it. Bombardier has a turnover of around $20bn pa with 96% of revenues come from outside Canada. The business splits roughly 50/50 between aerospace and rail – in fact they are now the largest rail equipment supplier in the world. The two businesses are counter cyclical: business jets are mot much in demand due to the recession but rail spending is increasing due to the  “climate change push” and US federal stimulus funding. The rail business employs 34,000 people across 50 engineering sites, which collectively have a 2 -3 year’s backlog of orders to deliver worth  $24.7bn. They have delivered over 100,000 railcars to 60+ countries. The customers are governments, with 73% of the revenue from Europe and only 10% in North America. The fastest growing part of the business is the service sector – that is running and maintaining trains and signalling systems.

The most significant trends influencing the business are urbanization, population growth, road traffic congestion, oil scarcity and rising energy costs. 23% of the world’s manmade greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation – only 1% of which comes from rail. In Metro Vancouver it is estimated that costs of congestion exceed $1.2bn a year. The US is seeing the highest demand for transit in 50 years. In Europe demand doubled in recent years, and there is huge growth in the Asia/Pacific region.

The specific trends influencing Bombardier’s approach to the rail business are

#1 push towards full automation – eg Madrid – driven by reaching the maximum capacity of the existing infrastructure: automation allows for the closer spacing of trains and also produces operational cost savings.

#2 push for High Speed Rail – US investment in ten corridors – China is planning 6000km of HSR – $155bn – for speeds of up to 350km/h. Bombardier has 3,000 employees in China and now has a huge order for its Zefiro 380 which will begin deliveries in 2012.

#3 unprecedented expenditures in Research & Development. In Bombardier this includes MITRAC energy storage – essentially a bank of super capacitors that are more efficient than batteries and the development of Primove – a no catenary, no contact induced power delivery system which is currently on a test track in Bautzen, Germany.

#4 rebirth of interest in streetcars and light rail. There have been 30 new projects in Europe in last ten years. These have been driven by the question “How do you get people out of their cars?”  Most projects in North America take 10 to 15 years in planning, but one major order has been for 204 replacement cars for the Toronto Transit Commission. These cars have to cope with 11.2m curves (the sharpest in North America) they are single ended with doors on one side only and use the non-standard TTC gauge. There are options for 400 more for new lines, and it is expected that expansions to the light rail network in the Toronto region will be at standard gauge.

Bombardier’s Flexity tram as used on the Olympic Line is aimed at delivering a capacity of 2,000 persons per hour per direction (pphpd) to 6000 pphpd at average service speeds of between 12 to 34km/h. He emphasized that there is no single answer – no technology meets all needs. The Brussels design has older trucks with motors on the outside of the frame. This produces the narrow car cross-section over the truck but newer designs now offer a wider flat floor area.

trams in Valencia

Valencia, Spain

The choice of technology and vehicle is not driven by technical issues but rather the clients’ view of the kind of city they want to see int he future. Their vision determines design and materials. For instance, research shows that there is a perception of a health risk of using transit (concerns about contagious diseases like H1N1 or SARS) so they now use materials in the interiors that kill all germs for a year.

In many European cities  there is growing interest in the “tram train” which operates at higher speeds on main line railway track for longer distances in the outer suburbs,  then goes to onstreet running in city centres. This could be the solution needed for Rail for the Valley [and indeed exactly describes how the interurban was running 100 years ago!].

What Bombardier now offers is the “empty room concept”. The technical components are standardized to keep costs down but the operator can specify exactly what they want for the interior. This is based on their design concepts and reflects local values. It is worth noting that Brussels had been plagued for year with graffiti and vandalism on its trams but the introduction of the Flexity with its leather seats and high quality interior fittings has produced a dramatic decline.

Trans in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey


Talent diesel multiple units are not now being sold in any number (most recent Talent deliveries have been electric). There is not enough demand to develop a car that could meet (US) FRA standards.

Bombardier have delivered over 1,000 bi-level commuter rail cars – a design that is now 30 years old.

SkyTrain: they  have sold over 700 cars “that’s a successful product for us”. He acknowledged that it is a “niche market”.  “It wins on operating cost. On the original SkyTrain cars the linear motors are now 25 years old have never been touched.”

The streetcar gets positive public reception wherever it is proposed. This is in strong contrast to almost every other type of rail project

He also acknowledged that P3s are complicated but they are interested when there is a need to get smaller amounts raised. He pointed to the original  McQuarie studies. He also emphasized that the point is risk transfer not cost savings – Bombardier cannot borrow money as cheaply as a government.

Asked about rubber tyre solutions he pointed out that they started in the rail business with the Montreal subway. “We bet the company, since snowmobiles went in the tank”.He pointed out that Taipei works at 30 deg every day but dealing with ice and snow is different.

“Nobody has taken the bicycle into account successfully. We need to look at that in a different way. Biking and walking are the fastest growing portion of trips. What would a BC car look like? People respond to what they are offered.”

Written by Stephen Rees

March 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Light Rail, Railway, transit

Pay parking taxes spike to more than 35 per cent

with 16 comments

BC Local News

Another no news story with very little added to what has been said many times.

I really wonder why this gets coverage, and also why there is no discussion in the article of why this is happening. Translink, of course, bears the brunt of the complaints but really the blame lies squarely with the provincial government – firstly for blocking Translink’s access to revenue sources that make more sense and secondly for falling for the blatant bribery of the federal government’s offer of a one time transfer to sweeten the pot of sales tax harmonization. The province has, of course, had to introduce all kinds of special exemptions to soften the blow of HST. It is quite remarkable that the parking issue did not get the same attention. I had had the impression that Gordon tended to listen to downtown Vancouver’s business people. Apparently he no longer does.

Downtown Vancouver BIA executive director Charles Gauthier said …a vehicle levy would be a more even-handed method of raising money while deterring driving.

Well of course he would say that now. A vehicle levy not being on the cards, it is quite safe for him to promote what is not going to happen. Of course, it was highly unpopular when it looked likely – and now looks better than some of the other options. But a flat levy that does not vary with distance driven does not deter driving any more than the current annual licence plate validation sticker does. Compared to the cost of acquiring and insuring a vehicle an annual levy of around $75 (as was proposed last time) looks trivial. Would you give up your car if someone offered to pay you $75 a year? The savings to a household of reducing the number of vehicles are, of course, significant. And those who can find alternatives like transit, walking, cycling or a car co-op (or combinations of some or all of those) do save a lot more money than $75 – but the take up rates are tiny. To deter driving we need congestion charges – preferably charges that vary by distance driven, time of day and route used. The technology to levy such road prices has been around for decades. The political courage to introduce it is absent – as are the necessary commitments to provide workable alternatives to driving.

For now, raising the cost of parking for those who commute to pay parking lots is better than nothing, but is far from adequate. But it is the sort of outcome one expects when planning is thrown out of the window in favour of dogma – and spin doctoring. In the last eight years, the political processes around regional planning and transportation – never very impressive in the first place – have become utterly shambolic. All that matters are the bees in the bonnets of a few provincial politicians. I would argue that the province actually ought to play a minor role in the process. There ought to be sources of revenue adequate for the purpose, some co-ordination on cross boundary and international issues, but generally beyond that it should be up to a directly elected regional body to determine. The sort of institution that most other major cities outside of Canada have had for generations. Most other countries also recognize that national governments have a duty to support better public transport.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 5, 2010 at 11:22 am

Province pushes Evergreen Line ‘aggressively’

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Vancouver Sun

No it doesn’t. There is absolutely nothing new in this story at all. It is simply a rehearsal of what the current provincial administration has been saying all along.

Transportation Minister Shirley Bond said Tuesday the province expects to start construction on the line linking Burnaby, Port Moody and Coquitlam by early 2011 and have it running by late 2014.

There’s a reference to the use of transit during the previous couple of weeks, but given that those conditions (street closures and a lot more transit service than usual) are not going to be seen from now on, it is not a relevant concern to 2014.

But, she added: “We’re still expecting the region to pay its fair share of this project.”

In other words, there is still a gap that Bond wants filled by property tax – which she knows the Mayors will not go for.

Bond said she is reviewing the comptroller-general’s report on TransLink and expects to find some wriggle room around the governance of the transportation authority. She said that will “shape” how the funding is provided.

Which I see as a not very veiled signal that if necessary the Province will force the funding of the project through over the opposition of the Mayors. This government now feels very secure, can summon a legislative majority if needs be, and is not prepared to listen to anyone who dares to disagree with them.

At the same time the provincial budget concentrates on more road building. The only transit project is the Surrey Rapid Bus – which again is not exactly news. And the huge amounts of money that were added to the debt in recent years – and are planned to be added in the next three years – shows that the BC Liberals are far from reluctant to find money for projects they really care about. And they are still determined to press ahead with gating SkyTrain even though it is quite clear that will be a complete waste of money and can never pay for itself.

Moreover, despite the on going slump in container imports, and the serious prospect of continuing economic recession in the US, the South Fraser Perimeter Road construction will also go ahead. The whole of the Gateway project ought, of course, be subject to a serious rethink, given the changed circumstances – but the Liberals are committed to business as usual. All the rest of the declared intention to tackle global warming is simply greenwash.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 4, 2010 at 8:39 am

Posted in transit

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