Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘tram

Why can’t we be like Zurich?

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I retweeted this video this morning and as I sat watching it, I kept thinking about that question. Or perhaps we just need to rephrase: when Vancouver grows up, it will be like Zurich.

The bit of history that I think is important that is not mentioned in this video is about the trams. It is part of a European awakening. Cities like Amsterdam seriously considered replacing their trams (streetcars) with a subways. Others used a technique they called “pre-metro” to put the trams underground in city centres. And of course what happened in every case was the traffic expanded to fill the space available. So they stopped doing that. Places like Strasbourg designed the trams to be a desirable part of the city, not just a regrettable necessity. There is a lot about public transport in North America that reminds me of other public conveniences.

The same thing also happened in Toronto. When the Yonge Street subway opened, traffic in the City Centre increased because there were no longer streetcars on Yonge getting in the way of the cars. It might be significant that Toronto still has streetcars. It is also very significant that while the planners (transportation, urban and regional) all now think in terms of surface LRT, Rob Ford wanted a subway.

Some people have even referred to the referendum as Vancouver’s Rob Ford moment. And even Daryl dela Cruz is convinced that the choice of LRT for Surrey is increasing the No vote there.

In Zurich they did plan on a subway system. But the costs were astronomical. And they already had a tram network as well as really good railways, which provided both suburban and intercity services. The Swiss are very well off, of course, and Zurich is the centre of financial services. But they are also very keen on democracy and civic minded. An American in that video almost cannot believe that government can be genuinely concerned about people.

I have often thought that the reason we like SkyTrain so much here is that it keeps the transit out of the way of the cars. An elevated structure does provide a more attractive ride than a tunnel – and is considerably cheaper. But it also has an impact on area through which it runs. Not as horrible as the old elevated railways – which may have been taken down in Manhattan but are still the dominant mode of the New York subway in the other boros.

El Queens

I wonder if in some future Vancouver, having finally got up the courage to rip down the viaducts we will start planning to get rid of the SkyTrain structures. Or perhaps turning them into High Line style parks. SkyTrain of course has to grade separated because of the LIM rail.

The British method of light rail is to use old railway lines wherever possible, but on street running in town centres. In Paris even though there is a disused Petite Ceinture railway line parallel to its route  – grade separated at street crossings – the new T3 runs in the centre of the boulevard. The “art of insertion” is actually just removing space that is now taken by cars (moving and parked) and replacing it with people. Lots of people.

New tram station under construction

Here we seem to be much less concerned about people. The Cambie Street line had to be underground because the City had designated much of the route as The Heritage Boulevard. A broad strip of grass with some large trees. Not actually usable. No one plays on it, or sits watching the cars speed by. There are no couples strolling hand in hand on those lawns. Cutting down trees for a transit line – or widening the Stanley Park causeway – is a red flag. Oddly, not for wider sidewalks and bike lanes apparently.

The other thing I noticed about Zurich’s city centre was the absence of towers. This is also common in much of Europe. In cities like Rome or Florence the centro storico is four to six stories maximum. Unless it’s a cathedral or something. Paris does have towers – but only one at Montparnasse which is widely derided or clustered in La Defense (which is the location for shooting dystopian SF films).

You will also note that the film concentrates on the decisions to limit parking and the volume of traffic allowed into the centre.

One other thing that needs to be said too is that the Swiss are very particular about who they let in to live there. I haven’t looked but it seems to me highly unlikely that the Zurich region is planning on absorbing another million people in the next thirty to forty years.

Haven’t I written all this before?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2015 at 10:31 am

Bombardier Flexity Freedom

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Bombardier has a mock up of the streetcar Light Rail Vehicle they are building for Toronto at Granville Island. Not at the DHR station, of course, which remains out of use – or even the Olympic Village station where they mounted a pre-Olympic event for the Brussels cars they brought here. This one is wider (2.65m) with two by two seating. And it is mounted on a truck chassis – so it is not quite as good a demonstration of its “low floor” quality as it might be.

"Freedom: Riding the winds of change"

The mock up has doors both sides – and a mirror at the back to make it appear double ended. The Toronto streetcar is single ended with doors on one side only as it uses turning loops at termini.

Front end

The real thing is low floor (about 30cm): the model – erm – not quite

Front end with stairs

Curiously this blind spot about the door mechanism cover also affected Rotem/Canada Line for its showcase

I think you forgot something

As you can see from this image the claim that this car is “100% low-floor, entirely step free interior” is not strictly true. There is a step to the floor between the seats over the front axle – you can see the yellow warning strip clearly in this image even at the size it appears on the blog page. The two by two seating is clearly better than the narrow Brussels cars that were here for the Olympic Line

You had privileged acces, and you still couldn't get out of the way

There is a wide clear area next to the door for mobility devices – and no doubt the cyclists will commandeer that if they can. In Paris it is the strollers that fill this area. And the sharp eyed will note that Mike Shiffer was an early bird visitor too.


Visitors were offered a cardboard push out model of their own


Now I do want to be fair, but it does seem to me that Bombardier could have made a bit more of an effort. It is true that this event is the second go here – they were out in Cloverdale, in Surrey for Canada Day. Maybe there was more organization there. There were media around today, and I am sure that the mainstream guys got their quotes and sound bites. But there were others, like me, who had their cameras and questions at the ready, even if they did not carry press credentials. They did have, on board, a full size brochure. One of the sales people dug one out when asked a question (about the hight of the step) that he did not know. The brochure went back into the carton with all the others. Of course you can get the info on line – but why keep the story from those who want to know?

Brochure PDF file

Giving adults a postcard and a cardboard model seems to me to be a bit cavalier. Especially when the card reads

“The streetcars that Bomardier will deliver to Toronto …”

But didn’t they want this referred to as an LRV? And how hard would it be to remove the stickers on the model that referred to the TTC? Yes I know the model and the publicity material was created for that market – and the western Canada is getting the benefit of the left overs. But Edmonton and Calgary both have light rail systems – and seem wedded to Siemens – one worth making an effort for, I think.

And I am also unconvinced about the claim “Combination of 100% low-floor technology and conventional axle wheel-set bogies for a significantly smoother ride”. There was nothing wrong with the ride on the T2 and T3 trains I rode on in Paris recently – and they both have flat floors due to “unconventional” axles. Smoother than what? They are also Alsthom-Bombardier products (Citadis). The floor of the mock up was definitely sloped over some quite significant areas  – so I hope they have got the tie down issue sorted for passengers who are in wheeled devices.

I have now deleted the Bombardier press release – but I copied this snippet in case it proves useful to someone

 More information about Bombardier FLEXITY Freedom is available at:

Interior Citadis T2 tramway Paris

Interior Citadis T2 tramway Paris – my photo on flickr

To illustrate the discussion in the comments section, this is the competitor from Alsthom, the Citadis used in Paris and many other french systems. The floor is both low and flat since it does not have conventional bogies.


UPDATE 22 November 2012 CTV now has pictures of the new TTC streetcars 

Written by Stephen Rees

July 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Hill climbing tram

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The photo below is posted to flickr. The image in fact comes from there – I am just posting a link in a way that displays the image in the middle of my text. It was taken in Lisbon, Portugal – last month. As you can probably tell, this is an old tram – and it is a simple electric, steel wheel on steel rail vehicle, not a cable car or a rack railway.  I like it because it reminds me of the number of times I have been told in all seriousness by certified professional engineers that a tram – streetcar – light rail vehicle – whatever you want to call it, cannot possibly climb a hill steeper than 6%. I have heard this about Burnaby Mountain, and why trams couldn’t possibly go to SFU. We need a cable car. We would had to have a tunnel or a major structure through the Miller Ravine because light rail just would never work on North Road. LRT could never be considered for Cambie Street past City Hall – its much too steep they said.

Carris 575 - Lisbon

Tram in Lisbon - image by Neil Pulling on flickr

Written by Stephen Rees

June 8, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Posted in transit

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Unterwegs mit der Kirnitzschtalbahn

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This image on flickr caught my eye.

It is a rural tram line in Eastern Germany near the Czech border. Of course, the former regime in this part of Germany was not driven by market considerations, which is why the line survived. And is probably a boon now as a tourist attraction – but also to provide an alternative form of local transport in an era of steadily rising oil prices. Which is what is going to start happening as the world realizes the meaning of the term “peak oil”

Written by Stephen Rees

December 4, 2008 at 10:43 am

Posted in Light Rail, Transportation

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SkyTrain Billions Better Spent on Trams: Study

The Tyee

None of this will be of any surprise to readers of this blog, and it confirms what Malcolm Johnson keeps on writing about here – and I keep talking about whenever I think anyone is listening.

Map on left shows the conceptual location of the $220-million-per-kilometre Broadway SkyTrain line proposed by the province. On the right is an illustration of how much tram infrastructure you could install for the same price. Map shows heritage streetcar routes as solid lines, and a conceptual expansion of that historic system in dashed lines.

Actually I think that map could be a red rag to the region. It shows trams all over Vancouver – which already has a much better transit system than the rest of the region. What is actually needed is a system which serves the places which currently are under served but have quite dense pockets of development, separated by big chunks of green. Exactly the right sort of land use for on street running in towns with fast sections of reserved right of way across rural areas which thus remain undeveloped. Rail means you do not get ribbon development or sprawl as people will only move to where they can walk to a station.

But to provide you with some sources, here is the top of the Tyee article

The planned SkyTrain subway spur along Broadway and out to the University of British Columbia campus will cost taxpayers 15 times what it would take to build a tram line along the same route.

In fact, for the $2.8 billion cost of the single 12 kilometre SkyTrain tube from Commercial Drive to UBC, Vancouver could build 175 km of tram lines crisscrossing the city and beyond.

That is the finding of a study led by Prof. Patrick Condon of the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability. His team based their calculations on the recent experiences of Portland, Oregon, and various European cities with light rail transit.

“This study demonstrates that the money needed for one 12 km subway line would be more than enough to rebuild and substantially expand the region’s entire historic streetcar system,” state the authors, noting that Vancouver and surrounding communities were built along trolley lines dating back to 1890.

Read the rest of David Beers’ article here

and the actual report here (downloadable pdf)

NET 209 approaches Highbury Vale 14Ap04

I took this picture in the suburbs of Nottingham, England. In the centre of town the tram runs in street – mainly on narrow streets closed to other traffic, but also, on wider streets in its own lane with general traffic around it. Out of town it operates just like a train, and moves much faster between stations more widely spaced than the on street tram stops.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 5, 2008 at 11:40 am

Posted in transit

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Paris – what do they know that we don’t?

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This story appears in Wired and carries the headline “Paris’ Metro Gets Bigger, Faster and Better”. But it is not about “metro”, it is about trams – or if you prefer American “Light Rail Transit”

Paris Tram line T3

Photo by Fanch on flickr

The €650 million ($1.02 billion US) project will include new 25 stations from Porte d’Ivry to Porte de la Chapelle, of which 13 will have transfers with a Metro or RER lines. The line will require 22 new train cars costing €67 million ($105 million US). The city will invest €137 million ($214 million US) in urban landscaping along the tram’s corridor.

The whole package that Wired describes costs half of the ridiculous Canada Line. The image shows a long tram running on a reserved right of way with grassed track. In other words what could have been put into the Arbutus Corridor easily and cheaply with no disruption to anyone. Certainly not one business would have needed to close. And the length of the trams and the frequency of service can be readily adjusted to meet needs. The Canada Line has short trains which cannot be lengthened without rebuilding all the stations, most of which are underground. Its frequency will be restricted to the time it takes a train to negotiate the last half mile of track (Lansdowne to Brighouse) unload, reload and then run back. That’s what cheaping out on single track gets you. And of course both branches will have to interleave service adding more delays and lowering service standards as the people of Surrey discovered when the Millennium Line opened.

As as Malcolm keeps repeating, this system and systems like it have been around for years, and are in use in cities of all shapes and sizes all over Europe and other parts of the world that understand concepts like “value for money”, “convenience” and “urbanity”

Some 155,000 daily passengers are expected to use the extension alone, which means some 255,000 passengers will use the T3 line each day

The Canada Line forecasts that peak hour loads will be 5,300 northbound and 3,400 southbound through Cambie Street in 2021. Or around 90,000 daily passengers. Less than half the ridership for twice the cost. (source: RAVP Final Report on Ridership and Revenues 2003

But of course when we need to carry a fraction of what the Parisian trams carry,  our provincial government thinks it makes sense to put yet another tunnelled system through Point Grey at a cost of over $2bn!

I hope a resident of the west side of Vancouver or along the new Evergreen line will give me one good reason – and the need to transfer is not an overwhelmingly convincing one – why a system like the one illustrated above is not acceptable in their area. I would also like someone to defend the idea that we cannot even consider a system like this for the Fraser Valley for another thirty years!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 21, 2008 at 9:49 am

Streetcars for Langley?

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Langley Times

Maybe I need a new category called “retrofitting the suburbs”. If Langley – and especially the dreadful 200 St – is going to become human something like this is essential.

Why is 200 St dreadful? Because it was turned over to the developers for Highway Oriented Development, which of course is the easiest option if all you want to do is make money. But it does not have a human scale, and is inimical to walking and cycling. It screams at you that only people in cars are worth considering – actually make that oversized pick up trucks.

Jordan Bateman is proposing a new mass transit option for Langley’s 200 Street corridor

Turn 200 Street into San Francisco, with streetcars running up and down the hill, taking travellers to shopping, sporting and business parks, says Township Councillor Jordan Bateman.

I don’t think he means the cable cars.

San Francisco - Cable Car

Photo by “Blende8” on flickr

Though I think these could find a useful home in North Vancouver and New Westminster


Here is his slideshow

and here is that image of a streetcar climbing a hill in Lisbon

Lisbon tram

Image from John Mariani

Written by Stephen Rees

May 5, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

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