Is LRT becoming the new Light-Metro?



A metre gauge tram in Germany is still considered LRT.

Since the early 1970’s, the term LRT or light rail transit, has been in common use describing streetcar or interurban type rail transit. The first generation of modern LRT were German ‘Stadtbahn’ (City railway) style of tram, generally articulated and heavier built than trams or streetcars of the age. The first generation of North American LRT lines used the Duewag or Siemens, BN of Belgium, now Bombardier Inc., licensed built versions of ubiquitous ‘U-2’s’. These vehicles acted both as a streetcar and as an interurban, proving very successful in operation in cities including San Diego, Portland, Calgary and Edmonton. The original concept of LRT was build it cheap and build lots and it will be successful and LRT was.


Lille VAL light-metro.

During the same period, several proprietary transit systems were developed including Ontario’s Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC) ICTS and France’s MATRA VAL system. These proprietary transit systems were labeled Intermediate Capacity Transportation Systems (ICTS) or simply ‘light-metro’; though poor sales led the UTDC to rename SkyTrain ALRT or Advanced Light Rail Transit in the late 70’s. ICTS was supposed to bridge the gap of what a streetcar could carry and that which would justify a full fledged metro, but ended up costing as much as a heavy-rail metro, while having the same potential capacity of LRT. ICTS was designed to be elevated as speed of a transit system was the ‘flavour of the month’ and thought essential for a successful transit system. Sadly for the companies developing and marketing ICTS or light-metro, LRT and with articulated cars, priority signaling at intersections, and the concept of the reserved rights-of-way,  proved superior to its much more expensive light-metro cousin. Light-metro became another dead branch on the tree of railway evolution.

The legacy of ICTS or light-metro lives on and despite overwhelming evidence that there is little benefit of very expensive grade separated transit systems, much political, bureaucratic, and academic prestige is still wedded to the notion that speed trumps all for a successful transit system. To increase the commercial speed of a transit system, the number of stations per route km. must be reduced. Thus light-metro systems have one half to one third the stations or stops than a comparable LRT system.

Manila, Philippines.

With 4-car trains and carrying over 500,000 passengers a day, Manilla’s LRT systems justifies the need for grade separation.

Grade separation of a transit line is very expensive and propels LRT into the category of light-metro, complete with its failings. Of course, when ridership demand, such as Manila, or Kuala Lumpor is very high, then it’s quite right to build LRT as a light metro; yet operating as a light-metro, the elevated (or underground) light-rail still maintains the ability to operate on much cheaper, at-grade rights-of-ways.

Seattle LRT

Seattle’s new LRT has more in common with light-metro, than light-rail.

There is a disturbing trend in North America to build LRT on miles of viaduct or tunnels (subways), with Seattle being a good example of masquerading light-metro as light-rail! The result is a very expensive transit system, which despite their much higher costs, will attract the same or fewer passengers than at-grade LRT. Many planners have blurred the definition of LRT and plan for light-metro, while still calling it LRT, with TransLink’s Evergreen line light-rail proposals being a good example. More confusion is sewn, by calling ‘rail’ transit systems the meaningless ‘rapid transit’ or ‘mass transit’, which do not define transit mode at all.


There are several reasons:

  1. Because the huge sums involved, politicians turn light-rail projects into make work mega-projects, spreading the taxpayers money to many more politically friendly companies and organizations.
  2. Local officials desperate for funding, try to fool more frugal Senior governments by building a politically prestigious metro by calling it LRT.
  3. The auto lobby wants all transit up in the air, out of sight, leaving the roads for cars.
  4. Land next to light metro lines tends to be rezoned for higher densities, giving windfall profits to landowners.
  5. Transit bureaucrats can hire more employees with light-metro, enhancing their departmental ‘prestige’.
  6. Planners do not understand the difference between metro, light-metro, and light-rail and lump them together as ‘rapid transit’.

Despite the much higher cost of light-metro, there is little evidence of superior operation. Cities that build hugely expensive light-metro and/or LRT built as light-metro, tend to have smaller networks with higher operating costs. Higher transit costs means new taxes must be found (carbon tax?) to fund the light-metro and taxes curbs the appetite for ‘rail’ transit expansion. Smaller ‘rail’ systems mean a much smaller modal shift from car to transit and in the time of global warming and peak oil, one wants to get the biggest bang for their transit buck.

In the U.S.A., planners now consider LRT as a variant of a metro and what once was called LRT, is now being labeled fast streetcar! In Europe, a tram can be the simplest of streetcar or a commuter train (Karlsruhe’s Two-system LRT).  A dichotomy has appeared; in Europe transit planners strive to simplify and reduce costs of LRT, while in North America planners do the opposite, making LRT far more complicated and expensive than it need be! 

Have American and Canadian transit planners lost their way?

One wonders if transit planners should get back to the basics and again plan for user and taxpayer friendly transit systems that were so popular, successful, and affordable thirty years ago. Maybe the old adage: “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” should be remembered by those advocating turning LRT into a metro.


Calgary’s C-Train LRT in the transit mall. 90% of the line is at-grade.

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20 Responses to “Is LRT becoming the new Light-Metro?”

  1. David Says:

    I think North American transit planners are hostages of the automobile lobby. GM and their partners destroyed every tram system in North America, convinced Washington to build urban freeways and glorified car ownership to the point where it became socially unacceptable NOT to drive everywhere.

    Generations of political leaders have grown up believing that the priority is moving cars and trucks. They’ve completely lost sight of the fact the point is to move people and goods.

    It really would be better for all of us if GM and others went bankrupt and were forced to dramatically down size. Oshawa and other auto towns could be retooled to build modern streetcars, aerial trams and other forms of transportation. The skilled workers and transport systems for raw materials are already there, they just need to work from different blue prints.

  2. Justin Bernard Says:

    Here in Toronto, we are building a network of surface, and tunneled LRT. Much of the LRT lines will be located on the surface in their own ROW, with signal priority. The most expensive portion of the network will a tunneled portion of what is called the Crosstown Eglinton LRT. It’s necessary because the surface portion is far too narrow to place tracks. I do not know much about Seattle, but the one time I visited, I noticed it was quite hilly. Can this be the reason why? Or did the city just want a metro, and couldn’t afford it, and went with this system instead?

  3. zweisystem Says:

    Not knowing the geometry of the route I can’t comment on the narrowness of the route, but I would surmise that it was an excuse by planners to build a tunnel. Engineers love to build tunnels and bridges and many find plain and simple LRT/tram boring. This is the reason for the posting, if we over engineer LRT projects and morph them into light-metro projects, there will be little appetite to build more. In Vancouver, TransLink’s planners have so over engineered LRT projects that in some cases they have become more expensive than SkyTrain! In an age of peak oil and global warming, it is my firm belief that we must build more LRT at cheaper prices. The Europeans are doing this and we should follow suit.

    After some investigation in Seattle it now appears that planners wanted a metro/subway but could not secure federal funding because the potential ridership was far too low. So the called it LRT and built some on-street trackage in a predominant black neighborhood and got federal funding.

  4. David Says:

    I don’t know Eglington at all so I’ll simply say that the European solution to a road that’s too narrow for trams and cars to share is to remove the cars.

    Toronto is an interesting example of adding to the cost of LRT by tacking on all sorts of non-essential requirements like insisting the right of way double as an express route for emergency vehicles. I understand the thinking and actually think it’s reasonably good idea, but the costs need to be separated so Ontario taxpayers and planners in other jurisdictions can see what the LRT lines would have cost without such gold plating. Otherwise people like Kevin Falcon will be able to point to high costs in Toronto when asked why we can’t have LRT here in the Fraser Valley.

    Seattle is hardly a poster child for good urban planning. They have some of the worst traffic congestion on the continent and have responded the old fashioned way: building more lanes of freeway. The results were never in doubt. Things have gotten worse.

    Seattle is going to tear down their outdated, elevated, waterfront freeway that, like the one in San Francisco, was damaged by an earthquake and is barely staying up. San Francisco replaced theirs with a tree lined boulevard with wide sidewalks and a heritage tram. Seattle is going to widen the existing road under the freeway and then spend billions boring a huge tunnel under the city in order to restore the freeway. Some people just never learn.

    In addition to the new metro style train Seattle has gone ahead with a short section of low floor tram, but it’s only a few blocks long. There are plans to extend that line and build a longer one up 1st hill sometime in the future.

    The City of Vancouver actually has a fairly well thought out plan including reserved rights of way for a pair of tram lines, but lack of support from other levels of government has prevented any meaningful work from starting. All we’re going to get in the next few years is a “demonstration line” from the 2nd Avenue Canada Line station to Granville Island and only for the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic games. Two Belgian trams are being borrowed for the occasion.

  5. zweisystem Says:

    May I remind everyone of this earlier post.

  6. Richard Says:

    “This is the reason for the posting, if we over engineer LRT projects and morph them into light-metro projects, there will be little appetite to build more.”

    Yet we are building more light-metro projects and there is a strong appetite to build more . We continue to outpace most North American cities in construction of new rail projects. It is outstanding how you can continue to make arguments that really seem to have no basis in reality.

  7. zweisystem Says:

    Sadly, it is doubtful that SkyTrain has taken many cars off the road and TransLink fails to show a modal shift, unlike US LRT systems where a 25 % to 30% modal shift seems about average. In Europe, no transit system is funded unless a modal shift from car to tram is in evidence. Yes, we build more light-metro, but the 80% of the ridership, according to TransLink, first takes a bus to SkyTrain. SkyTrain’s high ridership, is due in part, to TransLink forcing bus customers onto the metro. This is faulty logic because we have spent about $6 billion so far (not including $2.5 billion for RAV and an estimated $1.5 billion for the Evergreen Line) just to give bus riders a faster journey time for a portion of their trip!

    You can build all the metro you want, but if you fail to attract the car driver, it is a complete waste of money. I believe RAV/Canada line will prove this in spades.

    Ask yourself this: “In an age of unprecedented investment in urban and public transit and despite one of the greatest marketing programs for a proprietary transit system, SkyTrain has been rejected by transit planners in North America and Europe and is only built in private deals when the Canadian government provides the funding! Why?

    Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, can be defined as madness.

  8. Richard Says:

    Where is your proof that SkyTrain doesn’t encourage mode shift? Transit use in Burnaby and New West has risen dramatically while auto use has decreased since 1996 and coincidentally that is where the Millennium Line is.

    SkyTrain has been rejected in the US because the ridership is much lower. LRT was a good choice given the low levels of ridership.

    If the Canada Line is successful, will you admit it and give up this tiresome and non-productive debate.

  9. Richard Says:

    45% of SkyTrain riders “Previously Used a Private Vehicle for the Same Trip”

    Click to access high_tech_bus_rapid_transit.pdf

    That is better than the 25% to 30% old chum.

    Zweisystem replies: I doubt those figures are accurate, as TransLink claims that 80% of SkyTrain’s passengers first take a bus to the metro. I doubt very many car drivers would leave their car and take a bus then transfer again to the metro. As TransLink doesn’t divulge how they count ridership, nor is there an independent audit of ridership, I would not consider the numbers accurate.

  10. zweisystem Says:

    According to who? Or, as I suspect, that ridership has increased with population growth? Richard, you are the one that is tiresome and your pro SkyTrain BS fails to stand up to fact. There is no point to argue because you just shill for SkyTrain and I repeat, why is Vancouver the only city in the world that continues to use SkyTrain Sly for rail transit? One can build all the SkyTrain one wants, but the result will be higher taxes to subsidize it and higher fares which will deter use. $3.50 one zone fare are coming and higher Transit taxes are looming, all showing the folly of building with light metro. Sorry old chum, SkyTrain is a yesterdays transit system.o one builds with it. Get over it!

  11. zweisystem Says:

    Richard, this is a self serving TransLink joke. What we need is independent audits, not TransLink’s spin. We are tired of TransLink, because they do not do, nor allow independent audits of the transit system. The 98 B-Line saw a ridership drop with Richmond to Vancouver service, as customers formally using a non-transfer service, abandoned transit because of a forced transfer, Only when TransLink reinstated peak hour, non B-Line, direct Richmond to Vancouver service, did ridership return.

    I would say the 45% modal shift claimed by the study would make headlines in the transit world, yet nothing is heard of it? I wonder why? Could it be that no one believes TransLink? In fact most overseas transit types laugh at TransLink’s claims and only when there is a full regular independent audit of TransLink, would claims be taken seriously. Nonsense like this only makes Vancouver a transit joke. Again and again I ask, “Why has SkyTrain been almost universally rejected by transit planners around the world?”; “Why has SkyTrain never been allowed to compete against LRT?” “Why has the world moved on?” If what TransLink and you say were to be true, we would see a lot of new SkyTrain’s being built, but we are not; even the RAV/Canada Line P-3 rejected SkyTrain!

  12. David Says:

    Even if Richard is right in any way, there are still indisputable facts that make SkyTrain a poor choice.

    1. SkyTrain is several times more costly to build than LRT while only capable of moving the same number of people.
    2. Light metro construction takes a long time and devastates the small businesses in its path. Canada Line destroyed dozens of lives. LRT is built in a fraction of the time with only a fraction of the disruption. It doesn’t destroy businesses or cause people to move away to avoid the mess.
    3. Once open LRT rewards business with increased sales and residents with reduced traffic.

    Oh and Richard, the report you linked came to the mind boggling conclusion that the 98 B-Line attracted more drivers than SkyTrain. If that’s true we really should stop thinking about building any SkyTrain and just add B-Line buses to more streets.

    Actually there’s a good argument for doing just that in places where there are enough major streets available. 4 parallel bus lines not only equal the capacity of SkyTrain, they reduce walking distances and transfers, the two biggest factors in building and maintaining ridership. They also have a high degree of fault tolerance and flexibility, two things a subway or aerial guideway can never achieve.

    Even better, put LRT on 4 parallel streets and you’ve got a system that makes heavy rail look anemic. 4 LRT lines can be built and operated for the same amount of money as one subway.

  13. Richard Says:


    You really need to do some research instead of just reading the postings here. LRT construction along Broadway would be far more destructive to businesses than a bored tunnel along 10th (which would essential have no impact. In Seattle, they had a $70 million dollar fund to try and mitigate the impact. In some cases, the construction tears up the street for two to three years.

    Zweisystem responds: I have probably forgotten more than what you have read on the subject. Seattle is an example of hiring engineers and not rail specialists to lay the track. Seattle is an example of building a metro and calling it LRT to get federal funds, as well they did have a compensation fund for affected businesses. Done right, LRT built on Broadway would create no more problems than relaying a water main.

    I am also far from convinced that the less expensive and disruptive techniques zweisystem describes for trams can be used on a line with the heavier, wider LRT cars needed to met the demand on Broadway or would the city be willing to experiment with such techniques that have not seemed to be used in North America.

    Zweisystem responds: Even metre gauge tram lines can carry upwards of 20,000 persons per hour per direction. North American LRT vehicles are based on 1960 & 70’s German designs, built for archaic North American streetcar guidelines. Toronto will be the first city in North America getting 21st century LRT designed vehicles.

    Before zweisystem responds with the “they over build LRT to make it more costly” line, they also overbuild SkyTrain tunnels. In Madrid, they can do it for $80 million a km by using one tunnel instead of two and probably a lot of other clever things to keep the cost down.

    You are also confusing mode share shift with capacity and mode shift on one corridor with the potential to shift mode on another. zweisystem I think would agree that both LRT and SkyTrain have higher capacities than a B-Line so they are not directly comparable.

    Don’t forget that on the Millennium Line corridor, the B-Line was in place before the SkyTrain so that the mode shift increase for SkyTrain along that corridor would be in addition to the mode shift increase that would have occurred earlier when the B-Line was put in operation.

    What you need to realize is that there is strong evidence that while it is more expensive, there is strong evidence that SkyTrain is significantly better at attracting ridership than LRT. So while you could build two or maybe three LRT lines for the cost of a SkyTrain under Broadway, the incremental number of passengers that are attracted to the system maybe the same or even less with the three LRT line.

    Zweisystem responds: Quote: “there is strong evidence that SkyTrain is significantly better at attracting ridership than LRT”. Absolutely wrong and Gerald fox concurs, when he shredded the Evergreen line’s business case. Fewer and more widely spaced stations for SkyTrain deters ridership. Studies in Europe have shown time and time again that subways and elevated metros are poorer in attracting ridership than at-grade/on-street trams. Why? Simple, trams are more convenient and easier to move. This nonsense about SkyTrain attracting more new customers than LRT is pure bunkum! I’m afraid your logic escapes me, if we could built 3 times the LRT than SkyTrain, with 3 times the capacity, people living adjacent to the other two lines would have the benefit of LRT instead of a bus. It is the network that attracts passengers not 1 line.

    For example, the LRT system in Calgary attracts a few more passengers than SkyTrain. However, that is with 3 lines that serve Downtown while SkyTrain is essentially 1.5 lines with one serving downtown. The passengers per line for SkyTrain is much better. Calgary is the best example for LRT in North America. From there, it only gets worse. Portland’s system has 3 lines serving downtown yet has less than half the ridership of SkyTrain.

    Oh and zweisystem, please approve my previous post showing the high increase in transit use in Burnaby and New West following the introduction of the Millennium Line.

    Zweisystem responds: What TransLink has done is cascade every bus rider it can to increase ridership numbers and ridership is not indicative of success. How much ridership is attributed to the U-Pass, because TransLink counts the U-Pass as ridership not the student using it. Here lies the problem, until TransLink actually tells how it counts ridership, there statistics are not worth the paper they are printed on! Portland has 5 LRT lines and two streetcar lines giving customers many 1 stop destinations. This ‘penis envy’ for ridership is really a ‘man of straw’ argument because the real question is; “has transit reduced auto use?” Portland’s transit usage is about 5 years ahead of prediction, yet in Vancouver, SkyTrain’s ridership is about 1/2 of the year 2000 prediction of over 20,000 pphpd in peak hours.

    When one looks at auto use, it has not gone down. Again and again I ask this question and again and again the SkyTrain lobby refuses to answer: “In an age of unprecedented public transit investment, despite the glowing claimed by TransLink and the SkyTrain lobby, why has SkyTrain (and its claims) been rejected in the USA and Europe and relegated as a museum piece? Why does Bombardier Inc. refuse to let SkyTrain compete directly against LRT in transit projects?

    If there were 3 or 4 SkyTrain metro systems operating in North America, vetted and passed by the local voter, like LRT systems are in the USA, then I may be a little more accommodating, but SkyTrain seems to be public transit’s version of the Edsel.

  14. Richard Says:

    SkyTrain never claimed to be the ultimate solution for every situation. None of the LRT systems in North America that have been approved by the voters have anywhere near the demand for SkyTrain so it is not surprising that there are no examples in North America vetted and passed by the voters. I know we disagree on what the acceptable level of demand is for SkyTrain, but I’m sure we agree that any of the American cities which have recently implemented LRT certainly don’t have the demand to justify SkyTrain as the highest is Portland, which has less than half the ridership of SkyTrain.

    Zweisystem responds: What we have is two operating philosophies: a) in the USA and Canada, LRT is built to move people over a transit route, just like a bus route and because LRT can easily expand with ridership, a much cheaper line can be built at first and then grow when ridership demands. b) in Vancouver the provincial government forced the SkyTrain light-metro onto the operating authority and because the cost was much higher, invented the density/ridership criteria which we debate today. To increase ridership, trying to fulfill ridership predictions, the operating authority has cascaded every bus rider (80% of SkyTrain’s rcustomers first take a bus) it can onto the metro to drive up ridership, yet the metro has yet to fulfill ridership projections.

    Vancouver is following an unorthodox transportation policy, based on whim, supported by questionable studies done in-house by the transportation authority. For the $6 billion now spent on SkyTrain, we are moving about the same amount of people as Calgary’s C-Train, which has cost the taxpayer under $1 billion. And here lies the reason SkyTrain has met with an unfavorable reception, for all the money spent on SkyTrain it hasn’t proven any better in attracting ridership than much cheaper LRT.

    Basically your musings supporting SkyTrain have little or no basis. If we had built LRT instead of SkyTrain, we would have had LRT to the Tri Cities, Whiterock and Steveston in Richmond, carrying about double the present SkyTrain ridership; a transit system that would have made the world wake up and take notice, instead we have a beached whale.

  15. Richard Says:

    With the exception of a few people such as yourself, it is really hard to say that SkyTrain has been “met with an unfavorable reception’. In general, the public and politicians seem quite supportive of SkyTrain. The main concerns are crime, which is a problem with LRT systems as well and the fear of increased density in neighbourhoods, which again would be a problem with LRT as well.

    Regarding ridership, I will again point to the Census figures in Burnaby and New West to point to the increase in the percentage of people commuting by transit from 1996 to 2006. 16.8% to 25.0% and 20.1% to 26.8% respectively. If the SkyTrain ridership numbers were simply as a result of cramming more people on buses, the mode share of transit in Burnaby and New West would not have risen. The Census is done by a unbiased third party so you can’t say that TransLink is cooking the books.

    Sure, maybe we would have higher transit ridership per line with LRT but we will never know but Portland has a longer network with half the ridership. We also might have a bigger network but Calgary has a smaller network. I’m not sure about extensions to White Rock and Steveston as they are not in the LRSP.

    The size of a rapid transit network is not related to the cost but more on political will. Here there has been the political will to expand the system and they have been willing to pay for more expensive SkyTrain because, rightly or wrongly, they perceive it as being better. As they perceive LRT as not being as good, one would expect that there would have been less political will to expand the system and who knows, we might of even had a smaller system if LRT had been chosen.

    Regarding cramming people on to SkyTrain from buses, this happens with LRT systems as well. I know this is an issue in Seattle right now. In many North American cities, funds to build LRT have resulted in a significant reduction in bus.

    Zweisystem responds: The SkyTrain lobby is very strong, yet ill read and they pervert every study they can to support the obsolete mode. Common sense and facts just do not register. Here it is in plain language: SkyTrain has been rejected by transit planners around the world, almost since it was first marketed in the late 1970’s. It is only sold in private, between the operator and the owner, Bombardier Inc. and when the Canadian government acts as banker. SkyTrain today is a hugely expensive light-metro that is used as a glorified airport shuttle and only one city in the world operates ART as a metro, Kuala Lumpur also operates elevated LRT, now called a metro and a monorail.

    The 80% figure comes from TransLink and the census figures you quote are for transit ridership not SkyTrain ridership.

    Quote: “Regarding cramming people on to SkyTrain from buses, this happens with LRT systems as well. I know this is an issue in Seattle right now.” Funny, Seattle’s LRT/light-metro system isn’t in operation yet!

    Transit experts around the world have rejected SkyTrain and have done so for 30 years. The world has moved on and it’s time that the SkyTrain lobby do so as well.

  16. David Says:

    Wow, this is getting personal. I want good value for my tax dollars and a transit system that enhances the region. I do not want to get drawn into a contest of how many transit systems I’ve used, how many transit studies I’ve read or what courses I’ve taken on the subject. I was once a SkyTrain supporter, but I’ve educated myself.

    When any city in the world that requires an open competitive bidding system and public scrutiny of the financing chooses SkyTrain for a street like Broadway, let me know.

  17. Richard Says:

    I was once supported LRT instead of SkyTrain for the Millennium Line and actually on the news saying just that. Once it was under construction, though, it didn’t make any sense to continue that battle although I knew people who where still trying to change the decision after it was half built.

    Since then, I’ve actually looked at the numbers both here and around North America. It is really hard to make the case that LRT is better. That is not to say that LRT doesn’t have a place. Of course it does. If the Millennium Line had been LRT, then I certainly would not support SkyTrain to UBC. But that decision has been made. Given that there is SkyTrain to VCC Clark, SkyTrain is the obvious solution westward.

    Zweisystem responds: You just can’t admit that SkyTrain is obsolete, nor can you admit that no one wants to build with SkyTrain. Sadly for TransLink and BC Transit before, contrived statistics have blacked the reputation of Vancouver’s transit operations; no one believes anything coming out of Vancouver. SkyTrain has been utterly rejected by planners in North America and Europe and the reason is simple: LRT can do a better job for less money. The SkyTrain lobby can pontificates all it wants, but step out of the lower mainland and transit reality prevails. this quote from Gerald Fox says it all;

    “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.”

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