10 questions for May’s election – How much of a transit expert are you?



Lisbon tram climbing a 13.8% grade!


Here are ten questions to test the knowledge of political candidates about LRT & public transit in May’s provincial election. Passing grade is 70%.

1) What is light rail transit?
2) What is metro?
3) What is capacity?
4) What grade maximum is now industry standard for light rail?
5) What is the maximum grade that LRT/tram climbs (by adhesion)  in revenue service today?
6) After the introduction of ‘busways’ in Ottawa, ridership changed by how much?
7) Approximately what percentage of operating costs of a transit system can be attributed to wages?
8) Approximately how much ridership is lost per transfer?
9) Are automated transit systems cheaper to operate than non automated transit systems?
10) What is the maximum capacity of the  largest light rail vehicle today, calculated at all seats filled and standing passengers at four persons per square metre?


1) LRT is a transit mode, generally electrically powered, able to operate in mixed traffic, that can economically carry between 2,000 and 20,000 persons per hour per direction.

2) Metro is a grade separated transit mode, electrically powered, built for average hourly ridership loads in excess of 15,000 pphpd. LRT can be operated as a metro, though a metro can’t operate as light rail!

3) Capacity is a function of headway.

4) 8%

5) 13.8% (Lisbon, Portugal)

6) A decline of ridership of 15.7% from 1986 to 1997 (OC Transpo)

7) 70%

8) 70%

9) No, studies have found that LRT is cheaper to operate, when comparing equal systems.

10) 350 passengers; the ‘Jumbo’ modular light rail cars used in Strasbourg, France. (By comparison, four Mk.1 SkyTrain cars have a capacity of 300 persons!)


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4 Responses to “10 questions for May’s election – How much of a transit expert are you?”

  1. David Says:

    If wages are 70% of operating costs, how does an LRT system that employs roughly 2.5 drivers per train (needed to cover evenings, weekends, etc.) cost less to operate than one without drivers?

    This is a serious question because you can bet it’s the type of thing the decision makers in BC use to justify SkyTrain.

  2. zweisystem Says:

    According to Calgary Transit, in 2006 light-rail driver’s wages were $6 million, when the LRT system was carrying about 250,000 passengers a day.

    The 70% figure comes from the Light Rail Transit Association.

    I do not know where you get your 2.5 drivers per train from, but let’s explore how operating LRT is cheaper than an automatic railway.

    1 driver can operate 3 or more trains in multiple unit (MU) operation; put another way 1 driver, during peak hours can be used to move 3 or more times the number of customers. Thus there is far less need for part-time drivers or split shifts.

    SkyTrain also employees auxiliary drivers, known as attendants, which roam the stations platforms and trains. Supposedly there is at least one attendant per train in operation, so there is little cost savings in direct employees.

    SkyTrain is an automatic (driverless) metro which means its operated by a complicated method of signaling, which must be at 100% efficiency or the system shuts down. Unlike LRT ‘block’ signaling or ‘line of sight’ operation (no signaling at all), automated metro’s must employ a whole army of signaling technicians to keep the the trains going. It is a very expensive proposition to keep an automatic metro running, for if one glitch happens, the metro’s failsafe devices cut in the it brakes to a stop.

    LRT is designed for glitches and with a driver, can operate over areas with signals that are not operating or not existent at all.

    Maintenance costs for SkyTrain are higher and this simple ratio may explain why. SkyTrain cars operate in ‘married pairs’ and to use MK.1 cars as an example; need 8 axles to carry 150 people. Most LRT cars in use today are articulated and need only 6 axles to carry 150 people, with larger 8 axle cars carrying 250 people! This works out to a 3 to 4 axle ratio in LRT’s favour.

    The cost per axle to maintain (which includes two wheels) is higher for SkyTrain, further increasing wages paid to maintain the automatic railway. Even the MK.2 cars, which carry 30% more passengers compares unfavourably to larger 6 axle LRV’s.

    There are many reasons why automatic (driverless) light-metros, which once were toasted as the transit mode of the future, have largely fallen out of favour with transit planners, with high maintenance and wage costs coming out on top. Unless a transit route is carrying 20,000 persons per hour per direction or more, there is no cost benefit for an automated system.

  3. David Says:

    Thank you for the detailed reply. That’s what I was after.

    Please don’t think I’m disputing any of your figures, my goal is to gather more details and explain the things you didn’t understand in my post.

    I came up with 2.5 drivers per train based purely on the number of hours the transit system operates compared with a 40 hour work week.

    A full set of drivers is needed for the M-F morning rush and a second full set is needed for weekday afternoons. I made a quick guess that the part time drivers needed for night and weekend service would be roughly 0.5 full time equivalents.

    I’m not expecting you to have all the answers, but here goes…

    If SkyTrain used drivers it would not eliminate the need for attendants. A system with few transit employees in the stations is neither friendly nor safe. Many members of the public think there aren’t enough staff at SkyTrain stations as it is.

    Traditional railways use fixed block signaling; SkyTrain uses moving block signaling. I agree that moving block is more complicated, but that’s why it’s controlled by a computer program. Unless SelTrac is a pile of crap I honestly can’t understand why they need an army of signaling technicians.

    An automated system can’t gracefully deal with minor track problems so that side of the maintenance totally makes sense.

    On the other hand I don’t understand your passengers to axels argument. Having more weight on an axel increases wear on the wheels and track. SkyTrain spreads out the load across more axels and so the wear per axel will be lower, but perhaps having 33% more axels adds more cost than the per axel savings.

    In my mind the biggest problem with automated systems is the huge capital cost needed to install them in the first place. Even if, hypothetically, they cost a little less to operate it would take centuries to pay off all the construction debt.

  4. zweisystem Says:

    Some points to remember, train wheels need to be maintained and the resilient tires do need replacing, other wheels need retiring and 33% less wheels to maintain, the cost savings add up.

    Automated signaling systems need a lot maintenance, the inductive loops are prone to aging, corrosion and damage, wiring corrodes over time and wiring in the vehicles need constant attention. One broken wire can stop the entire system. Automated transit systems just need a lot of attention (read a lot of technicians) to happily operate.

    Most LRT systems stations or stops are rather simple affairs (some as simple as a bus stop) and do not need staff. As well, most LRT systems have local signaling (switch signals and street signals) and operate by ‘line-of-sight’; let the driver drive. It’s quite safe, even to under 30 second headways and keeps the signaling cost down. In North America, transit engineers grossly overbuild LRT systems and force the installation of expensive, but not needed signaling and is one reason why North American LRT construction costs are much higher than European systems.

    Gerald Fox’s study, “A comparison of Automated Guided Transit Systems and LRT, found that given equal routes and quality of alignments, LRT was still cheaper to build and operated than AGT.

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