Can TransLink’s business cases be trusted?


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.

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9 Responses to “Can TransLink’s business cases be trusted?”

  1. Lloyd Skaalen Says:

    That is a great statement of the ends to which TransLink has gone to justify additional Sky Train plans for the Vancouver/Surrey area. I hope all Victoria municipalities are paying attention to the LRT/LRV case.

  2. Bernadette Keenan Says:

    I would like to see such a step by step detailed analysis of the justifications for Gateway and the South Fraser Freeway, because they are essentially the same type of double speaking, biased, truth twisting, unscientific, quasi-logic. Only seems there is not even token comparison with alternatives, unless I have missed something, just a foregone conclusion that has to be supported.

  3. Bernadette Keenan Says:

    By alternatives read transit improvements, any type of interurban Rail service, buses over the Port Mann.

  4. zweisystem Says:

    The problem in Metro Vancouver is good old ‘rubber on asphalt’ pork barrel politics. Gateway has nothing to do about bringing better transit to the region, but is a government vehicle to give the business friends of government taxpayers money, all very legal, funneled through gold-plated highway & bridge building programs. The same nonsense is true of SkyTrain and RAV/Canada light-metro lines.

    For this reason, no honest transportation plan will ever be done in the region, lest some inconvenient truths arise over SkyTrain, TransLink, the Provincial Ministry of Transportation and the Minister himself. It’s a no brainer for a Vancouver to Chilliwack tram/train, yet even such a small rail service would raise embarrassing questions about regional transit planning for the past three decades.

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