Archive for December, 2008

Transit lessons unlearned – Lesson #1

December 31, 2008

In the very early 1980’s, the Ontario Conservative Party (the William Davis Government) tried to force the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to build with the new Intermediate Capacity Transit System or ICTS, now known as SkyTrain; produced by the Urban Transit Development Corporation (UTDC) an Ontario crown corporation. The TTC commissioned a comprehensive study comparing streetcars/LRT and metro with ICTS. The results were not encouraging to those wishing to sell ICTS and even gave the City of Hamilton enough ammunition to reject, provincial government lead, construction of ICTS in the city. The major TTC transit study, the Accelerated Rapid Transit Study or ‘ARTS’ found that:

“ICTS costs anything up to ten times as much as a conventional light-rail line to install, for about the same capacity; or put another way, ICTS costs more than a heavy-rail subway, with four times its capacity.”

ICTS was dead in the water as a product, so UTDC did what every other manufacturer does when faced with this dilemma, they changed the name from ICTS to ALRT or Advanced Light Rail Transit and sold the unsellable ICTS to some political rubes out West, namely Bill Bennett and Grace McCarthy, the leader and deputy leader of the British Columbia Social Credit  party and the rest, as they say, is history.

The wheezy SkyTrain – a real snow job!

December 30, 2008

Again, SkyTrain embarrassed itself during the snowy Christmas holiday. For over a week TransLink announced fewer, longer trains, manual operation, service disruptions and complete systems shutdowns. SkyTrain is not a new system, being in operation 23 years, there should be no ‘Gremlins’ to fix, but SkyTrain proved again, when it snows in Vancouver DO NOT TAKE TRANSIT!

Saturday night was the climax when someone shot a video of an open door (1 of 3 open doors on the train) 10 metres above Stewardson way, between New Westminster Station and 22nd Ave. Station and posted to U-Tube and subsequently was a leading news feature on Sundays news programs.

TransLink’s spin doctors were hard at it, claiming it was a “one in a million” happening, etc. Sorry old chums no dice, as open doors on SkyTrain is an infrequent occurrence, only this time we have the video proof. The excuse that the “door alarms were turned off because technicians were working on the doors” is appalling and utterly stupid. Does TransLink regularly send technicians to repair SkyTrain while in revenue service? Does Work-safe BC condone this? Evidently transit customers protestations forced TransLink to take the train out of service at 22nd Ave. Station; why wasn’t it taken out of revenue service when the technicians started to work on the problem?

This week has been completely embarrassing for TransLink and the SkyTrain lobby, as they send out the ‘spin doctors’ to placate the transit customers over and over again. Sorry no dice, my friends – TransLink completely screwed up and continues to show that the organization is completely incompetent. What is even more unbelievable, Kevin Falcon and TransLink’s Brass want to build more SkyTrain in even snowier areas in the Tri-Cities and Surrey!

SkyTrain’s problems in the snow can be traced to major design flaws including.

  1. The Linear Induction Motors are only 1 cm. above the reaction rail and are prone to snow and ice damage.
  2. The outside sliding doors fail due to ice build up.
  3. The switches (movable frog switches) and switch motors are prone to ice and snow damage and cannot be operated manually, unlike failed switches on a at-grade LRT system which can be operates manually safely in case of problems.
  4. Poorly designed stations allows falling snow onto the tracks and sets of the anti-intrusion alarms.

Please note, that LRT has little difficulty operating in snowy conditions and during the recent great blizzard in Denver Colorado, the at-grade LRT system was the only public transit system left operating in the city.

VANOC must be shaking their heads with this years disastrous transit operations in the snow. Certainly it has showed the TransLink can’t be trusted to provide vital transportation in snowy conditions. The 2010 Winter Olympics must be the only Winter Olympics in history, where the Olympic Committee prays that there will be no snow!

The case for Diesel LRT for the metro Vancouver region.

December 29, 2008

Diesel light-rail is a light-rail vehicle which is powered by a diesel engine, rather than electricity, conforming to the operational parameters of modern LRT. This means Diesel LRT can be installed very cheaply on routes that would otherwise not be considered for ‘rail’ transit, as it forgoes the expense of the ‘overhead’ for electric transmission, giving large cost savings on longer routes. Being light-rail, Diesel LRT can also operate on tram tracks in city centres, on ‘reserved rights-of-ways, and track share on mainline railways. The following is a U-Tube feature, showing the New Jersey Diesel LRT line.

Being powered by a diesel engine, the light-rail vehicle can operate on existing railway tracks, track-sharing with regular freight and passenger trains, with safe operation ensured by modern signaling methods. There are five routes in the metro Vancouver region that could be considered for Diesel LRT operation.

  1. The Vancouver to Chilliwack interurban.
  2. Vancouver to Whiterock.
  3. Coquitlam/Port Moody to Vancouver via New Westminster, Marpole and the Arbutus Corridor.
  4. New Westminster to Queensborough and Annacis Island.
  5. New Westminster to Richmond.

Five Diesel LRT routes, using existing railway infrastructure and a new Fraser River Rail bridge with a 3-track lift span, could be had for the cost of one new SkyTrain line. What is needed is the political will to provide affordable LRT solutions and Federal legislation to compel mainline railway operators to accept Diesel LRT operation on lightly used rail lines in urban areas. With ‘peak oil’ and a severe economic downturn, precious transit money should not be spent on prestigious ‘metro’ projects that will achieve very little, but on ‘workhorse’ solutions, bringing LRT to as many people as possible at the cheapest cost.

It is time that our provincial and federal politicians and regional transportation authorities end their fixation with hugely expensive light-metros like SkyTrain and RAV/Canada Line and start planning for affordable LRT projects, including diesel LRT, that would provide the all important seamless journey from residence to destination that has proven time after time, to attract the all important motorist from the car.

The seamless (no transfer) journey – Transit’s Holy Grail!

December 27, 2008

It has been long known that the seamless or no transfer journey is the ‘ticket’ to attract customers to public transit as it is well understood that one could lose upwards of 70% of ridership per transfer, even inter modal. On older tramways and streetcar systems, many lines offered more than one service, providing the all important seamless journey to many destinations. Cities that abandoned there streetcar/tramway’s in favour of subways, forced many customers to first take a bus to the metro and then for many, transfer again. Many former transit customers found that the car provided the seamless journey and with the added advantage being easier and less time consuming to use.

Though transit officials were aware of the problem of loss of ridership due to transfer, little was done to improve the situation until a very dramatic event happened in 1993, in Karlsruhe Germany. When Karlsruhe’s first two-system or tram train line opened, replacing one major transfer point (commuter train to tram) at the main train station, ridership surged way beyond expectations! Weekday ridership on the tram train increased 423% in just a few weeks.

Before LRT

Commuter train            After LRT                  % increase

Weekdays – 488,400                    2,064,378                      423%

Saturday   – 39,000                         263,120                         675%

Sunday  –  6,200                               227,478                       3,669%

Total     –  533,600                       2,554,976                          479%

(Albtal-Verkengesllschaft Karlsruhe & ABB Henchel)

Since Karlsruhe’s dramatic increase in patronage on their tram train system, European planners have put great emphases on the all important seamless (no-transfer) journey and designed new transit lines, not as feeders to subways or regional railways but as stand alone transit lines servicing major destinations, even in competition with other transit modes.

The lesson of Karlsruhe should not be lost on the advocates for the return of the Valley interurban service, who want the new service to terminate at Scott Road SkyTrain Station and compel those who want to go to Vancouver to transfer to SkyTrain. The all important seamless journey from Vancouver to Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack may just provide the ridership to make the new service successful!

Can TransLink’s business cases be trusted?

December 26, 2008

Since last spring, the Light Rail Committee has circulated an E-Mail sent by American transit and transportation expert, Gerald Fox to a Victoria transit group that wants to promote LRT and diesel LRT into the Capital Region. Mr. Fox easily shreds TransLink’s business case for the Evergreen Line which should forewarn transit groups in the Fraser Valley that TransLink easily manipulates statistics to favour SkyTrain to the detriment of light-rail and is not to be trusted with any transit study. The following is the text of the E-Mail and for those lobbying for the return of the Interurban, just substitute the Fraser Valley for Victoria.

From: A North-American Rail Expert

Subject: Comments on the Evergreen Line “Business Case”

Date: February 6, 2008 12:15:22 PM PST (CA)




The Evergreen Line Report made me curious as to how TransLink could justify continuing to expand SkyTrain, when the rest of the world is building LRT. So I went back and read the alleged “Business Case” (BC) report in a little more detail. I found several instances where the analysis had made assumptions that were inaccurate, or had been manipulated to make the case for SkyTrain. If the underlying assumptions are inaccurate, the conclusions may be so too. Specifically:


Capacity. A combination of train size and headway. For instance, TriMet’s new “Type 4” Low floor LRVs, arriving later this year, have a rated capacity of 232 per car, or 464 for a 2- car train. (Of course one must also be sure to use the same standee density when comparing car capacity. I don’t know if that was done here). In Portland we operate a frequency of 3 minutes downtown in the peak hour, giving a one way peak hour capacity of 9,280. By next year we will have two routes through downtown, which will eventually load both ways, giving a theoretical peak hour rail capacity of 37,000 into or out of downtown. Of course we also run a lot of buses.


The new Seattle LRT system which opens next year, is designed for 4-car trains, and thus have a peak hour capacity of 18,560. (but doesn’t need this yet, and so shares the tunnel with buses). The Business Case analysis assumes a capacity of 4,080 for LRT, on the Evergreen Line which it states is not enough, and compares it to SkyTrain capacity of 10400.!


Speed. The analysis states the maximum LRT speed is 60 kph. (which would be correct for the street sections) But most LRVs are actually designed for 90 kph. On the Evergreen Line, LRT could operate at up to 90 where conditions permit, such as in the tunnels, and on protected ROW. Most LRT systems pre-empt most intersections, and so experience little delay at grade crossings. (Our policy is that the trains stop only at stations, and seldom experience traffic delays. It seems to work fine, and has little effect on traffic.) There is another element of speed, which is station access time. At-grade stations have less access time. This was overlooked in the analysis.


Also, on the NW alignment, the SkyTrain proposal uses a different, faster, less-costly alignment to LRT proposal. And has 8 rather than 12 stations. If LRT was compared on the alignment now proposed for SkyTrain, it would go faster, and cost less than the Business Case report states!


Cost. Here again, there seems to be some hidden biases. As mentioned above, on the NW Corridor, LRT is costed on a different alignment, with more stations. The cost difference between LRT and SkyTrain presented in the Business Case report is therefore misleading. If they were compared on identical alignments, with the same number of stations, and designed to optimize each mode, the cost advantage of LRT would be far greater. I also suspect that the basic LRT design has been rendered more costly by requirements for tunnels and general design that would not be found on more cost-sensitive LRT projects.


Then there are the car costs. Last time I looked, the cost per unit of capacity was far higher for SkyTrain. Also,it takes about 2 SkyTrain cars to match the capacity of one LRV. And the grade-separated SkyTrain stations are far most costly and complex than LRT stations. Comparing 8 SkyTrain stations with 12 LRT stations also helps blur the distinction.


Ridership. Is a function of many factors. The Business Case report would have you believe that type of rail mode alone, makes a difference (It does in the bus vs rail comparison, according to the latest US federal guidelines). But, on the Evergreen Line, I doubt it. What makes a difference is speed, frequency (but not so much when headways get to 5 minutes), station spacing and amenity etc. Since the speed, frequency and capacity assumptions used in the Business Case are clearly inaccurate, the ridership estimates cannot be correct either. There would be some advantage if SkyTrain could avoid a transfer. If the connecting system has capacity for the extra trains. But the case is way overstated.


And nowhere is it addressed whether the Evergreen Line, at the extremity of the system, has the demand for so much capacity and, if it does, what that would mean on the rest of the system if feeds into?


Innuedos about safety, and traffic impacts, seem to be a big issue for SkyTrain proponents, but are solved by the numerous systems that operate new LRT systems (i.e., they can’t be as bad as the SkyTrain folk would like you to believe).


I’ve no desire to get drawn into the Vancouver transit wars, and, anyway, most of the rest of the world has moved on. To be fair, there are clear advantages in keeping with one kind of rail technology, and in through-routing service at Lougheed. But, eventually, Vancouver will need to adopt lower-cost LRT in its lesser corridors, or else limit the extent of its rail system. And that seems to make some TransLink people very nervous.


It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding. In the US, all new transit projects that seek federal support are now subjected to scrutiny by a panel of transit peers, selected and monitored by the federal government, to ensure that projects are analysed honestly, and the taxpayers’ interests are protected. No SkyTrain project has ever passed this scrutiny in the US.




But the BIG DEAL for Victoria is: If the Business Case analysis were corrected to fix at least some of the errors outlined above, the COST INCREASE from using SkyTrain on the Evergreen Line will be comparable to the TOTAL COST of a modest starter line in Victoria. This needs to come to the attention of the Province. Victoria really does deserve better. Please share these thoughts as you feel appropriate.

Diesel light-rail to Chilliwack – What will it cost?

December 26, 2008

One Canadian transit line, seldom mentioned by TransLink or the Minister for Transportation is Ottawa’s 8 km. diesel LRT line, called the O-Train. The five-station route connects to Ottawa’s existing east-west bus Transitway system with simple stations at its north and south ends. Because it uses an existing rail line, it cost only about $4 million per kilometer to set up this 8km line, including the cost of track upgrades, signaling, simple stations, and three Bombardier Talent diesel light rail vehicles. The current cost of Ottawa’s lack lustre busways is about $15 million per km. to build, which is about $10 million per km. more than tramway construction in Helsinki. Please see Trams on the cheap – Part 2.

Using the figure of $4 million per km. to install, a 90 km. a basic Vancouver to Chilliwack diesel LRT service could cost in the neighbourhood of about $450 million (90 km. x $4 million + 25% contingency), including about 30 diesel light rail vehicles.

The same $450 million would buy just a little more than 4 km. of SkyTrain on the proposed Surrey or Evergreen line SkyTrain extensions. This LRT/light-metro cost comparison makes the SkyTrain lobby within the provincial Transportation Ministry and TransLink very nervous, for it exposes the SkyTrain/light-metro planning only policy for regional ‘rail’ transportation policy a sham, being supported by inaccurate assumptions and manipulated analysis.

The return of the interurban is a viable proposition for the Fraser Valley and its budget could easily fit in the provincial Liberal Party’s $14 billion regional transportation plans.

Trams on the cheap – Part 2

December 26, 2008

Another news item from the Light Rail Transit Association (, dispels the myth that light-rail or streetcars are very expensive to build. Here we have 5 km. of double track, including overhead, costing EUR 15 million or EUR 3 million per km. to build. In Canadian funds, EUR 15 million = CAD $27.75 million or $5.55 million per km. to build. Compare this with the proposed Surrey SkyTrain extension which is expected to cost well over $100 million per km. to build!

Helsinki grows : Sunday 10 August saw the opening of Helsinki’s first new tramline for 17 years. The new route 9 includes five km of new double track which cost EUR 15 million to build, and links Kaartinkaupunki in the city centre with the northern suburb of Pasila via Kallio and Alppila. It means the HKL tram network has reached its largest length since 1959. More new tracks are under construction in the Kamppi area, where route 3 will serve a new alignment in 2009.

13 August 2008

Trams on the cheap!

December 23, 2008

The following news item from the Light Rail Transit Association, in October 2006, should dispel any notion that modern light rail is too expensive to build, with construction costs approaching that of SkyTrain.  The equivalent cost of the Véléz Malaga tramway today in Canadian funds is $30.5  million or about $6.6 million per km. to build, including three articulated vehicles. By comparison $30.5 million would by about 300 metres of Kevin Falcon’s proposed SkyTrain extension in Surrey. If TransLink can’t plan for inexpensive LRT, then we should hire some Spanish transit planners who can!

Véléz Malaga opens : The Spanish town of Véléz Malaga finally opened its tramway for public service on 11 October. Over 15000 passengers were carried on the first two days, but the service was free until 16 October. The 4.6-km line links the town (20 km east of Malaga) with its beach resort of Torre del Mar and cost EUR 18 million. The fare then became EUR 1. The infrastructure was completed more than a year ago, but in order to provide the three trams necessary to work the initial service CAF had to take them from the production line of a batch ordered by Sevilla (which is running late with its infrastructure). When cars were delivered and tested it was found that power supply to the Torre del Mar end of the line was weak, and additional electrical infrastructure had to be provided. An extension at the northern end of the line is under construction

16 October 2006

Streetcars – light-rail, what’s the difference?

December 22, 2008

With the ongoing transit debate, there is some confusion between streetcars and LRT, so what’s the difference?

Streetcars are just that, a rail guided transit mode that has the legal right to operate on the public highway. Streetcars in Europe are known collectively as trams, a term dating back over two hundred years, where ‘trams’ mostly coal carrying rail cars, traveled on a ‘tramway’ on the public highway. Back then, the public highway was merely a muddy track.

The term streetcar is strictly North American and with a few exceptions (Diesel LRT), describes a steel wheel on steel rail, electrically powered passenger vehicle, that operates strictly on public streets.

During the heyday of streetcars, many operators ran on routes that had few stops between urban centres and operated on an exclusive rights-of-ways, giving a much faster service. This was known as the ‘interurban’ or a streetcar that ran between urban centres. The interurban could operate on streetcar tracks in city centres and then network on to its own rights-of-ways, giving much faster journey times to its various destinations.

In the 1930’s several transit operators in Europe and the USA took the interurban concept and applied it to cities by giving  streetcar lines exclusive or ‘reserved’  rights-of-ways in city centres, giving much higher commercial speeds and faster journey times for customers. The depression, World War 2, and the auto revolution, started a chain of wholesale streetcar abandonments in many cities in North America and Europe and the lessons of the ‘reserved’ rights-of-ways were lost.

By the late 1960’s, streetcars had all but disappeared in North America and in Europe abandonments increased, with the old tramway’s being replaced by metro systems. A few cities in Europe upgraded their tramway systems to smaller pre-metros with large sections of grade-separated rights-of-ways, operating articulated cars. This was very expensive and the results were not all that encouraging. Overall transit ridership in cities with new metro or subway systems declined as the customer perceived that metro and buses (which replaced trams to take the customer the metro station) were not user friendly and it was just easier to take the car instead. As auto congestion increased in urban centres, more subways and metro were planned, with the thought at the time that the transit customer wanted fast subways. The customer, as it turned out wanted his or her the tram back.

A crisis of transit philosophy evolved, the transit customer wanted faster trams, but did not want subways (nor did the taxpayer) and one universal and unpleasant fact emerged, the customer did not want to take a bus! In the early 1970’s, the idea of the reserved rights-of-way reemerged and the results were encouraging. By giving a tram line even sort sections of reserved rights-of-ways, greatly increased commercial speed, which both increased ridership and increased productivity. The success of the reserved rights-of-way was instant and combined with the articulated rail car, the concept of priority signaling, and operating on a reserved rights-of-way gave the tram or streetcar almost the same commercial speeds of a metro at a fraction of the cost. A new name was coined to market the old tram/streetcar/interurban – Light Rail Transit or LRT.

Today a tram or streetcar system which operated at least 30% of its route on reserved rights-of-ways is considered LRT. In the USA and Canada, transit planners have tried to reinvent light rail as a light-metro(Vancouver & Seattle) and the streetcar as small trams, operating on marginal routes. It should be noted that Hong Kong’s 1067 mm, gauge tramway, operating small double-deck tram cars, carry over 80 million passengers a year and in France, Strasbourg’s tramway’s largest cars, called Jumbo’s, have a capacity of 350 persons. Any streetcar or LRT system can carry over 20,000 persons per hour per direction, the only difference being, LRT is able to obtain much higher commercial speeds.

A streetcar is considered a rail operated transit vehicle, operating on-street, in mixed traffic, with little or no signal priority at intersections, while Light Rail or LRT is a streetcar that operates on a reserved rights-of-way, which can be as simple as a High Occupancy Vehicle Lane (HOV lane) or on a park like boulevard like the Arbutus Corridor, with priority signaling at intersections, giving it commercial speeds equal to that of a metro.

LRT operating on segregated rights-of-ways such as in a subway or on viaduct is considered a light-metro.

It is not the vehicle that dictates whether a transit line is a streetcar or tram, rather it is the quality of rights-of-way.

Transportation improvements not fast enough

December 22, 2008

Another column in the Province newspaper today: Transportation improvements not fast enough (Jon Ferry)

…And so far the story of Fraser Valley light rail hasn’t been made to sound too compelling, at least to folks in Victoria. The platform hasn’t collapsed, but the train’s still stuck in the station. That’s a pity because, while governments play politics over transportation for one of our fastest-growing regions, its residents spend a lot of their time choking on traffic.

There seems to be plenty of eagerness in the Ministry of Transportation to expand highways, twin the Port Mann bridge etc., but when it comes down to actually doing anything to diminish valley traffic, to decrease the number of cars on the road by providing an alternative way for people to get around, so far nothing.

Any ideas how to make the story of Fraser Valley light rail more “compelling to Victoria?”

One idea involves May 17.