From the Surrey Leader – Exposing The SkyTrain Urban Myth


The following letter to the Surrey Leader certainly shreds the SkyTrain Urban Myth that it is faster and has more capacity than light rail. What the SkyTrain lobby and mainstream media forget, that both modes are railways (SkyTrain is an unconventional railway) and adhere to the same operating principals. SkyTrain’s reputation has been created by BC Transit and TransLink, yet outside the lower mainland, SkyTrain continues to be rejected by transit planners and only can be sold in private deals that are largely funded by the Canadian government! There are only seven SkyTrain type systems in operation, despite being on the market for over 30 years.

There is no evidence that the SkyTrain light metro or any light metro for that matter is faster or has a greater capacity than LRT and is the prime reason why light rail made light metro obsolete almost two decades ago.

Light rail capacity rivals SkyTrain

Published: November 24,

The article “TransLink’s Prendergast offers parting advice” contains an error, which is commonly made by those who know little about modern LRT, which must be rectified.

The comment: “At-grade light rail typically can’t carry as many people or run as fast as grade-separated SkyTrain,” is absolutely false.

The maximum capacity of a modern LRT line is over 20,000 persons per hour per direction and even some European streetcar or tram systems do manage 20,000 persons per hour in peak hours on portions of their lines.

SkyTrain, limited by automatic (driverless) train control can only manage under 15,000 persons per hour and needs a billion dollars or more in upgrades just to match what modern LRT can achieve today.

As for speed, SkyTrain’s higher commercial speeds can be, in part, accounted for fewer stations per route kilometre than comparable LRT systems.

The maximum speed for SkyTrain is about 80 km/h, yet in Portland, their MAX LRT line travels at 90 km/h on portions of their line.

MAX’s commercial speed is lower than SkyTrain because it has about twice as many stations per route kilometre than SkyTrain and the light rail travels as a streetcar through downtown Portland, with no track reservation or signal priority at intersections.

St. Louis’ LRT system in fact has a higher commercial speed than our SkyTrain light metro.

One would wish the media stop listening to the many SkyTrain urban myths and start dealing with established facts about modern light rail.

There is a good reason only seven SkyTrain type systems have been sold in the past 30 years.


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13 Responses to “From the Surrey Leader – Exposing The SkyTrain Urban Myth”

  1. Warren Says:

    Any time a system of any make has to stop for cars and pedestrians it will be slower. That’s just common sense.

    Further to that, any time you have a system that has even a slim chance of having an accident with people or other vehicles, it is only a matter of time before there will be accidents, and possibly deaths resulting. Here’s the latest LRT line in Hong Kong, already having accidents:

    Zweisystem replies:Trams do not stop for cars and pedestrians; cars and pedestrian stop for trams. Streetcars or trams operate on-street and are subject to traffic flows, yet in many citeis trams operate 10 kph to 15 kph faster than other traffic. Part of the reason for lower commercial speeds is that there are more stops for streetcars, but more stops attract more passengers.

    Certainly streetcars will come to grief with other traffic and they are designed for such happenings. Light Rail operates on a reserved rights-of-way, thus there is a far lower incidence of accident. That being said, streetcars to have accidents with auto traffic, but many of the accidents are fender-bender, etc. SkyTrain’s annual death rate is about twice of that of Calgary’s LRT, so when one compares death rates between SkyTrain and light-rail, SkyTrain tends to be the loser.

  2. BCPhil Says:

    The “article” you are quoting is written by none other than your pal Malcolm Johnston, and printed on a local news website as an opinion piece. This isn’t news, or fact, or even relevant.

    It’s just Malcolm Johnston saying that Tom Pendergast, a man who now has the job of running of largest public transportation provider in the Western Hemisphere, is wrong, with absolutely no hard evidence, just some anecdotes about Portland and St Louis.

    You can’t go around, getting your friends to write an opinion piece, rehashing your same, trivial arguments, then quote it as if it’s the holy grail proving you are right and others are wrong.

    It doesn’t shred any myths what so ever on anything, except it shows that you have absolutely no integrity. You are just finding shameful ways of beating a dead horse.

    Zweisystem replies: I find it so sad that the SkyTrain lobby resorts to slander, when their holy grail “SkyTrain” is seen in a negative light. The fact is light rail or LRT has proven superior in operation to SkyTrain, making the proprietary light metro obsolete and it is only in Vancouver does the proprietary metro hold sway. Transit is as fast or as slow as it is designed to be and TransLink designs light rail to be slow and capacity constrained. It is the SkyTrain lobby that has no integrity and as Mr. Prendergast stated, “…..TransLink is seeking to cut through the pro-SkyTrain “cultural bias”.

  3. John Says:

    BC Phil,

    In the article “Prendergast offers parting advice”
    Prendergast does NOT say that “At-grade light rail typically can’t carry as many people or run as fast as grade-separated SkyTrain,”

    If you read the article again, you will see that was the reporter’s addition, and not something quoted or paraphrased from Prendergast.

    By the way, I hardly would count commercial speed of LRT in St. Louis in the “anecdote” category, as it is easily verified. Actually, unlike the content of your own comment, I would count it in the “hard evidence” category.

    If you are interested in quotes from Prendergast, you might be interested in these:

    [On building light rail in the Fraser Valley] “There’s really no impediment. “It’s overcoming the cultural embracement of SkyTrain that has existed to date.”

    “TransLink is seeking to cut through the pro-SkyTrain “cultural bias” as it embarks on a careful examination of rapid transit technologies for line extensions west along Broadway and south of the Fraser.”

    “The first light rail line that comes to the Lower Mainland will lead to much greater appreciation of its potential.”

  4. Justin Bernard Says:

    The article speaks the truth. LRT capacity can be greater than Skytrain capacity. Skytrain is nothing special, other than it`s an expensive, and overly complex technology. Skytrain can work as a niche airport mover, but it has clearly failed as a regional transport system. If you want to attract riders, you need to provide transit that is convenient, and accessible. Skytrain is not as convenient, and accesible as LRT.

  5. mezzanine Says:

    It seems the MTA in NYC covets Predergast’s experience with automated metro:

    “Tom’s work running one of the most technologically sophisticated systems in Vancouver will be invaluable as we take the MTA to the next level in performance and customer service.” = MTA CEO Jay H. Walder

    Zweisystem replies: Sad to say Tom didn’t run SkyTrain, nor knew much about it, you amply describe the pitfalls of news releases and fact. In fact, Prendergast seemed to understand the pitfalls associated with SkyTrain and our local “SkyTrain culture.” Prendergast was a heavy-rail metro man and understood that SkyTrain was a poor-man’s metro, costing lots and achieving little.

  6. Warren Says:

    Yep, those 20,000 riders on Seattle’s LINK system sure have Skytrain beat.

    “Cars stop for LRT”. I suppose in your ideal world nobody runs red lights or jaywalks?

    Try planning for reality.

    Zweisystem replies: Your comment is so silly, I’m posting it to show how silly the SkyTrain lobby is. Seattle’s hybrid light metro/rail system is the worst of two worlds; expensive light metro built on a route with little or no ridership. There result is predicable: high costs and little ridership.

    An ideal world world would be no one jumps in front of SkyTrain; but they do, making the annual death rate on SkyTrain more than twice as much as Calgary’s LRT system!

    Reality is old chum is that LRT has outsold SkyTrain almost 40 to 1 in the past 30 years.

  7. Richard Says:

    “Reality is old chum is that LRT has outsold SkyTrain almost 40 to 1 in the past 30 years.”

    It is ridiculous to compare the sales of a specific product made by one company against a broad product category where many companies compete. It is not even apples vs. oranges. It is much worse. It is more like comparing granny smith apples to vegetables. Of course the total of all vegetable sales is greater than granny smith apples. That does not mean that granny smith apples are not tasty or that people don’t like them.

    What would be a reasonable comparison is to compare light rail to metro or even better, compare high capacity light rail systems to light metro systems. Comparing low volume and capacity LRT systems to SkyTrain is just not valid. Don’t forget to include the Copenhagen system and the four or five other systems from the same company. There is also VAL and I think one in Madrid. Don’t forget the Canada Line. I’m not sure what the numbers would be but it certainly would not be 40 to 1.

    If you want to compare SkyTrain sales to a specific LRT product from one company then fine.

    Not to say there is not a good case for LRT in many situations but your comparison of LRT sales to SkyTrain is not one of them.

    Zweisystem replies: Sorry Richard, the proprietary light-metro, SkyTrain, was marketed in such a way as to replace light rail thus it is important to illustrate that it did not. Same is true with the VAL light-metro. The Canada Line is a heavy-rail metro built very cheaply and, as built, cost over $1.5 billion more than a comparable LRT line, but with much less capacity! It now seems at least $2 billion, more must be spent just to make it achieve what many LRT systems achieve in daily service.

    LRT is a generic transit mode with all companies products able to operate on the same track, unlike SkyTrain, which as a proprietary railway can not share tracks with another light-metro other than a SkyTrain. Portland operates LRV’s built by Bombardier, Siemens, and Skoda, as well many other LRT lines operate cars from many manufacturers at the same time.

    SkyTrain has been a marketing failure, get use to it.

  8. David Says:

    I’ve actually ridden on the St Louis LRT, and yes while it has an average speed of 49 km/h compared to Skytrain’s 45 km/h, keep in mind that it operates almost exclusivly in a protected ROW (unlike it would on West Broadway), utilizes an abandoned railway tunnel to traverse the downtown (sound familiar?), and has station spacing (on the original Lambert Line) that averages 2.175 km betwen stations, even farther apart than the Expo Line. I’m actually agreeing with you Zwie, of course LRT can be as fast as “skytrain”, but only under these circumstances.

    Zweisystem replies: But, LRT would operate on reserved rights-of-ways on many portions on Broadway, thus LRT/tram will achieve higher commercial than a simple streetcar type operation. The main determiner of commercial speed will be station spacing and a combination of Reserved R-O-W’s, signal priority at intersections, and stations every 500 to 600 metres, will give a commercial speed of the 20 kph to 25 kph range. If a SkyTrain subway were to have stations every km. apart, it would have only a slightly higher commercial speed as SkyTrain’s dwell times at stations are very much higher than light rail’s.

    Dwell times are an important factor in determining commercial speed on a line and SkyTrain’s dwell times at stations are about two to three times longer than LRT’s, but TransLink and BC Transit before, never included dwell times in their commercial speed calculations.

    Station spacing at 500m to 600m is the optimum for LRT/tram/streetcar operation in an urban area, stations further apart deter ridership.

  9. Richard Says:

    You missed my point. I was merely pointing out the logical fallacy of your statement, “Reality is old chum is that LRT has outsold SkyTrain almost 40 to 1 in the past 30 years.”, in making the case for LRT. You would be well advised to make better quality arguments otherwise people will start dismissing everything you say.

    Further to that point, pretty much everyone including myself would agree that SkyTrain would not be appropriate for all the recently opened LRT lines in North America as their ridership is way, way to low to consider SkyTrain. Given this, it is not surprising at all that many more LRT systems have been implemented.

    Zweisystem replies: Considering the number of SkyTrain systems sold since the late 1970’s, when SkyTrain was first marketed, the amount of light rail systems built, under construction and/or in the later stages of planning amounts to about 40 to 1. This number does not include system extensions. The fact is, very few people want SkyTrain and even fewer build with it, unless the Canadian Government provides funding, etc.,etc. Only in Vancouver do people dismiss what I say, but the world laughs at the SkyTrain lobby.

  10. Warren Says:

    Please detail an LRT route from either VCC-Clark, Commercial-Broadway, or City Hall station to UBC, using “existing ROW”.

    The bottom line is this type of line would have to be completed grade-separated, and because of the NIMBYs on the west side, it would be a bored tunnel. Any system you pick would have similar costs.

    I don’t know what kind of fantasy land you live in, but typical LRT, especially at-grade systems, simply wouldn’t handle the volume required of such a line.

    LRT has it’s place in areas that already have ROW, and don’t require as much volume or frequency, like areas south of the Fraser.

    SkyTrain marketing? What are you talking about? Skytrain is simply another system like the London Underground, NYC subway or other moderate speed commuter systems. It happens to eliminate the need for drivers (which I remind you is 70% of the cost of our bus system). It has been somewhat expensive to construct here because we have complicated geography (bridges, tunnels), and it was built during modern times, when the city was already built up, and modern standards and costs of labour and materials come in to play.

    Zweisystem replies: Sadly it is the SkyTrain Lobby who live in a 1950’s fantasy land, but to answer your questions:

    1) Building LRT or trams on Broadway would be a reinstatement of streetcar service, in the median lanes, of course built to modern light rail standards including reserved rights-of-ways.

    2) An at-grade LRT or streetcar can handle in excess of 20,000 pphpd, more than enough capacity to serve Broadway for generations.

    3) The automatic SkyTrain actually uses more employees than comparable LRT systems and the issue of drivers is a “man of straw argument” as drivers on LRT are called attendants on SkyTrain. Automatic metro operation comes more cost effective to operate than manual systems when ridership exceeds 20,000 to 25,000 pphpd on a transit route.

  11. Warren Says:

    1) Yep, simply lay tracks down West Broadway. Problem solved eh? This is why nobody takes you seriously.

    2) With how many cars exactly? What would the speed of something like this be down Broadway? Might as well just ad more 99 B Line buses. In fact LRT would be worse since it’s tied to a track and buses can’t hop over each other so an empty bus can get ahead of a full one.

    3) Another laughable point. You must be kidding. I ride the Skytrain and rarely see an attendant. There is certainly less than 1-2 per train that would be required to drive an LRT system.

    Zweisystem replies: Funny that places like London and Paris are building LRT on city streets and they are successful. Your gross ignorance on the subject is telling and its hard to explain the issue with someone who hasn’t taken the time to read up on the subject. By operating LRT/tram down Broadway, connecting to UBC, BCIT, and Stanley Park would double present transit ridership in 2 to 3 years, something that the SkyTrain lobby is afraid of.

    2 drivers on a LRT train no sorry – one driver can carry upwards of 600 customers if the trains operate in MU. One light ail vehicle can do the same work as 6 buses and that’s one of the reasons of light rails success.

    As for the attendant issue, with LRT one knows a driver has to be on a train, with SkyTrain the attendants just hide in dark corners. The operating cost of just the Expo Line is about 60% greater than Calgary’s LRT and Calgary’s LRT carries more passengers.

    Next time you post, please use hard numbers, not casual observations for your opinions.

  12. David Says:

    Adding more B-Line buses would cost significantly more than replacing it with a tram. As zwei pointed out, one tram driver can move as many passengers as 6 bus drivers. With salaries eating close to 70% of a transit system’s expenses, LRT is much more affordable in the long run.

    Vancouver has other streets where peak traffic is approaching the economic limit for bus service. If current plans to densify the city come to fruition 7-10 streets would have sufficient passenger demand to warrant streetcar service in place of buses.

    This all comes down to one thing: operating costs.

    Senior levels of government are happy to pose for photos while they pay a fraction of the capital costs of a new project, but they bugger off the moment it opens leaving local authorities to find the money to keep the system going.

  13. BCPhil Says:

    First, Slander is spoken, and Libel is written. Second, I have to write something untrue and defamatory. Am I wrong in assuming that you and Malcolm Johnston know each other and are members of the Rail for the Valley Campaign? Third, it is my opinion that Malcolm Johnston’s opinion doesn’t carry as much weight as Tom Prendergast’s.

    But WRT the actual article, your response, and Malcolm Johnston’s opinion are about a small, almost insignificant generalization by Tom Prendergast.

    Who cares IF LRT can carry more people per hour per direction if there ISN’T any demand for that? Malcolm Johnston even says in his article that quote: “SOME … systems do manage 20,000 persons per hour in peak hours on PORTIONS of their lines”.

    The fact of the mater is that Skytrain DOES carry more people than either of the 2 LRT systems brought up directly by Johnston.

    St Louis:
    Ridership: 62,000 average
    Length: 75km
    Ridership/Km: 838

    Ridership: 120,000 (high)
    Length: 84.7km
    Ridership/Km: 1417

    Ridership: 354,000
    Length: 68.7km
    Ridership/Km: 5152

    All cities have a comparable metro size but our Skytrain seems to be much more ridden. St Louis also has fewer stations/Km than Skytrain and the stations in the subrubs are eve further spaced apart, and the train does not share ROW with cars at any point, allowing the high service speeds compared to the much much lower speeds of Portland Max.

    Zweisystem replies: I severely doubt that SkyTrain carries 354,000 passengers a day, as it is probably carrying in the region of 250,000 to 290,000 passengers a day. As TransLink does not do, unlike Portland and St. Louis, independent audits of ridership and can claim what they want. TransLink has never divulged how they count ridership and as there are no turnstiles or alike methods for counting passengers, they can claim what they wish.

    What in essence TransLink is claiming that they are carrying half as many passengers on a London TUBE Line with about one fifth the capacity in car space – nice if it were true. Until TransLink introduces independent audit of ridership on SkyTrain, any figures from them are “stuff and nonsense”.

    Why do you think TransLink is so scared of turnstiles and fare gates for the metro, they are very good in counting ridership!

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