The Streetcars are coming, The Streetcars are coming – or are they?

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There has been some media attention given to the arrival of the the two Bombardier Flexity Outlook trams from Belgium, for a demonstration operation on a short section of Vancouver’s ‘Downtown Historic Railway’, during the Olympics. I was very disappointed in BCTV News when the commentator described the trams as “old fashioned“, as the Flexity generation of trams are probably the most modern public transit vehicle on the market today.

The Flexity family of modular trams, as with Siemen’s ‘Combino‘ and Alstom’s ‘Citidis‘, can be either unidirectional or bidirectional, with two driving positions at either end. Being modular, the Flexity tram can be made to custom suit any operator and shorter cars maybe delivered to starter systems and can be economically lengthened, by adding more modules, when customer demand warrants. Being low-floor means that the Flexity tram can cater easily to the mobility impaired, with no expensive ramps or the need for attendants.

The Flexity comes in a standard length of 2.65 metres, unlike other modular trams which designed to cater to metre as well as standard gauge transit systems. Also of note is that trams designed solely for urban or city lines, with stops every 400m to 600mTram The, have smaller (cheaper) motors and lower maximum speeds; Flexity trams designed for suburban routes or tram tram service, with much longer station spacing have higher maximum speeds.

32.5 metre Flexity Tram

The Flexity family of trams 

Name Floor   Top speed   Length
Flexity 2   100% low-floor            32.5m
Flexity Classic 65–74% low-floor      70–80 km/h      21–45 m
Flexity Outlook 100% low-floor      65–80 km/h      27–43.4 m
Flexity Swift 70–76% low-floor
or 100% high-floor
    70–100 km/h     25–42 m
Flexity Link 50% low-floor    100 km/h     37 m
Flexity Berlin 100% low-floor      70 km/h    30.8 m–40 m

 

42 metre Flexity tram

I also see Vancouver’s Engineering department has relaid a portion of the “Downtown Historic Railway” track, which seems to be built to a much more expensive heavy-rail standard, suitable for TGV operation with cement ties and Pandrol clipped rail, which is overkill for a tram designed to operate on trambahn and/or girder rail. No doubt city engineers are pleased, but this rather expensive track may skew the city’s estimates for the cost future streetcar development. It would be nice to see some sections of trambahn, girder rail and even some L-55 low profile rail to give a real look of modern tram track.

The ‘Downtown Historic Railway’ operates on a route that never did have streetcar or interurban operation (the line was original a GNR/CPR interchange track) and very few people in Vancouver will have the opportunity to see modern LRT in operation; and modern light rail it is, as the Flexity trams will operate on a fully reserved rights-of-way, with no on-street operation. A streetcar it is not.

There are financial clouds hovering over the Historic Railway, as Vancouver is in a budget crisis and Vision (Visonless by many) Vancouver who now control the reigns of power may cut funding or not even fund the ‘Downtown Historic Railway’ in 2010.

One hopes that the very short operation of the two European trams will spur on development of light rail in this light metro city, but I think the powers that be believe in massive tax and fare hikes to fund a few more SkyTrain Lines.

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5 Responses to “The Streetcars are coming, The Streetcars are coming – or are they?”

  1. Justin Bernard Says:

    You would think the Engineers would consult with the TTC, or even Trimet on how to build tracks for streetcars.

    Zweisystem replies: Not if they want to drive up the cost of streetcar installation. The problem in North America is that LRT/streetcar is treated as a heavy rail railway and city engineers have forgotten the term “LIGHT”.

  2. Tappen Says:

    I’m holding out hope that the post olympic expansion plan for the trams gets pushed through. That would put them on mixed use streets. It’ll be a lot of work to get that far, as I’m sure the usual NIMBY’s will start screaming about parking and car-discrimination. But if we can get to that point we’d have at least one solid example of successful light rail in the region. If Translink refuses to operate the system and do the expansion, the City needs to figure out a way to take over.

    Zweisystem replies: If the city was really interested in operating streetcars or as I prefer, trams; to gain experience, it would be advantageous to operate a Marpole to Vancouver tram service via the Arbutus Corridor. The R-O-W is there and the tracks can be extended over the Granville St. Bridge straight to the station. Such an operation would bring a vast knowledge of tram operation with little inconvenience to the public. One could even lawn the R-O-W, as per European practice to make the Arbutus Corridor a linear park.

    What transit planners here have to realize that metro (RAV & SkyTrain) is a different transit mode than a tram, which is something our current lot of planners must learn. It would be costly but a basic demo line along the Arbutus, to downtown Vancouver should cost no more than $15 million to $20 million a kilometre including purchase of the Arbutus R-O-W, cars and maintenance facilities. And her lies the problem, if LRT were to be built so cheaply, serious questions would be raised as to continue with SkyTrain, especially a Broadway subway. One must remember, the SkyTrain lobby is very strong and powerful.

  3. mezzanine Says:

    Funny, I would think that Vancouver’s Flexity route is good news, aside from the fact that it is a demo route only. I agree with Tappen, IMO it will set a good foundation for future tram impementation in Metro.

    Zweisystem replies: A good foundation is as only good as the people who plan and build it, I don’t have high hopes for the present lot to achieve anything useful as most of those involved do not know the difference between LRT and a streetcar.

  4. David Says:

    Having the Flexity in town will give a lot of people the chance to see what modern vehicles are like in terms of comfort and noise. I have many concerns, however.

    Most significantly I expect the trams will be operated at low speed, which will only reinforce the impression that trams are slow whereas SkyTrain/RAV is fast. If you look at the frequency versus length of route it becomes obvious that there will be no need to exceed the low speeds that the DHR ran at. With only a single passing track the trams will no doubt stop at that point. Again, that will reinforce the impression that trams are slow, even on a reserved right of way.

    An Arbutus line would not show off the full potential of LRT in Metro Vancouver. It’s a low density route in a high income neighbourhood. Potential ridership is low and the NIMBY factor is extremely high. Besides, the Province will never directly or indirectly fund something that makes SkyTrain look bad and the CPR that owns the right of way will never sell the land at fire sale prices. They’ve been holding it for 135 years and will wait another 135 if they think there’s half a chance of selling the property for commercial/residential development.

    A Surrey line would really show off LRT and that’s why the Province and TransLink never mention the possibility of rail returning to the interurban line. They know that a successful LRT route, built for a tiny fraction of the cost of SkyTrain and operated for little more than the cost of a bus, could permanently destroy their credibility as transport planners for BC.

    Zweisystem replies: Actually David, the Arbutus would be an excellent demo line, it is exactly the type of neighborhood that accelerated the Renaissance of modern LRT in Europe. The Arbutus Corridor actually has a higher density than Cambie Corridor – so density is not the issue for a transit mode costing a fraction of that of the RAV/Canada Line subway. It is high income neighborhoods that will use light rail and where residents would not take a bus, will take a tram as it is perceived as high quality transit. There is a big positive, LRT preserves neighborhoods from densification as there is no need to drive up density to secure ridership for a metro like SkyTrain. The experts I have talked to (experts who reside outside BC) fell and still feel that the Arbutus is ripe for LRT/tram operation.

    As for the CPR owning the land, I understand that a city can buy an abandoned R-O-W for scrap value if a passenger rail service is to be installed. By doing so, Vancouver could secure the R-O-W for scrap value and ‘region’ would be an assured operation of LRT on the route.

  5. David Says:

    If true the scrap value purchase would be awesome, but there aren’t any spare millions floating around Mayor Robertson’s pockets these days and there won’t be any until the Olympic Village gets sold to the highest bidder.

    While portions of the corridor would probably be receptive to a tram and I totally agree with your point that people who wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus will take rail transit, I think you’re underestimating the NIMBY factor. There are old money families along that route that have been fighting to get rid of the trains since the 1950s. Those people fund the right wing party of the day and Gordon Campbell would sooner arrange a contract hit on his own brother than lose their money and support.

    Zweisystem replies: Some years ago, Zwei faced the NIMBY Arbutus crowd at a public meeting. Strange was the reception, all but 3 people were open to some sort of transit on the route, especially LRT if the route was lawned and hedged a la Europe! The 3 people who consistently naysayed LRT didn’t even live on the tracks. I think the NIMBY’s were 1) afraid of an elevated SkyTrain and 2) afraid of a Toonerville trolley type operation. When presented with lawned and landscaped R-O-W for trams, most understood a light rail option was the best of all options presented.

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