The Failure To Understand Modern Light Rail = Public Transit Chaos

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‘Zwei’ has been taken aback by the viciousness of the SkyTrain Lobby and the great lengths they have taken in discrediting the LRT, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the marketing failure of the proprietary (ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART ) light-metro system, known in Vancouver as SkyTrain.

‘Zwei’ is also taken aback by abject refusal by many supposed experts to take the time to clearly understand modern light rail and/or modern LRT philosophy,  instead treating it the same as a glorified bus or a poor-man’s metro.  As well, ‘Zwei is dumbfounded, by many of the same supposed transit experts who do not understand the fundamentals of transit and or rail operation, especially from a customers point of view. In Metro Vancouver, many planning bureaucrats abjectly refuse to acknowledge that  modern light rail is a very strong tool to mitigate congestion and pollution, which only exacerbates our regional transportation planning ennui.

A good example of not understanding ‘rail‘ operation are those who continue to pontificate that automatic transit systems have fewer employees, therefore cheaper to operate than light rail. This simplistic view is wrong and except when traffic flows are in the order of 20,000 pphpd or more, then there are noticeable cost savings in automatic operation. The notion that automatic metros can operate 24/7 is just that, a notion as driverless metro need daily ‘down time’ to adjust and check the signaling system for if something goes wrong, the driverless metro stops and until a real persons checks the system to see why the metro stopped and if it is safe to continue operation, will operation be started again.

Unlike LRT, with an on-board driver, automatic metros need a full complement of staff to operate at all hours to ensure the safety of passengers, on trains and in stations. Many LRT operations have service 24 hours a day and with the simplicity of the transit mode, very few staff are needed. Contrary to what many ‘bloggist’s’ post, modern light rail is much cheaper to operate than metro and driverless metro.

The hysterical wailings of those wishing grade separated transit systems also ignore the fact that moder LRT is one of the safest public transit modes in the world. The fact that SkyTrain has a higher annual death rate than comparable LRT operations is forgotten in their zeal to discredit modern trams. Yes, cars do crash into trams. Yes, car drivers do disobey stop signals and deliberately drive across tram lines in the path of an oncoming trams, with predictable results. Yet tram/LRT/streetcar road intersections are about ten times safer than a road – road intersection. In Europe, if a car driver ignores a stop signal and is in an accident with a tram, the car driver is heavily fined and may lose his right to drive. In Europe, autos seldom come to grief with a tram, as the legal consequences colliding with a tram is a strong deterrent.

The speed issue is another ‘man of straw’ argument as those who want SkyTrain. They bang the ‘speed‘ drum loudly proclaiming that SkyTrain is fast and speed trumps all in attracting ridership. Speed of ones journey is just one facet of the many reasons why people opt to take public transit. What is true, it is that the overall ambiance and convenience of a ‘rail‘ transit system has proven more important attracting new ridership. Contrary to what many believe, elevated and underground transit stations tend to deter ridership. The speed issue is a non-issue and fact is, if the Vancouver to Chilliwack tramtrain comes into operation, it will have a much faster commercial speed than SkyTrain, yet Zwei would never make the claim that tramtrain would be better because it was faster!

Studies have shown (Hass-Klau Bus or Light Rail, Making The right Choice) that in urban areas the most beneficial distance between transit stops is 450m to 600m and with any greater distances between stops tends to deter ridership and stops closer than 450m tend to be too slow. Those want a fast subway under Broadway are commuting from the far reaches of the SkyTrain and or bus network and one would question why they would live so far away to commute to UBC, if they are at all?

In the real world, transit systems are designed and built to economically move people, not so in Vancouver where transit is built to cater to the needs of land use, thus we continue to build hugely expensive metro lines on low ridership routes (for metro), where selected property owners make windfall profits from up-zoning residential properties to higher density condos and apartments. This is a ‘fools paradise’, because we are spending up to ten times more to install a metro on transit routes that don’t have the ridership to sustain a metro, while at the same time failing upgrade many bus routes to LRT to cater to higher passenger flows, which now demand greater operational economies. Much needed transit upgrades and improvements in the region go wanting to fulfill the extremely expensive and questionable SkyTrain/land use dream on only a few routes.

The failure to understand modern light rail is leading the region into a massive financial black hole, by continually building extremely expensive metro while at the same time treating LRT as a yesterday’s transit mode. Today, Vancouver’s transit fares are some of the highest in North America and fares will continue to rise, largely in part due to SkyTrain and light-metro. TransLink will continue to be in financial peril if planning bureaucrats continues to plan and build with metro on the Evergreen Line and the Broadway subway.

Modern light rail has been crafted, with over 125 years of public transit experience, to fulfill  human transit and transportation needs, unlike our automatic SkyTrain light metro, which original design and selling point was to mitigate the massive costs of heavy-rail metro in an age before modern LRT. To put SkyTrain in a subway is an oxymoron and demonstrates the modes proponents gross ignorance of transit history; to continue to build SkyTrain on routes that do not have the ridership to sustain metro demonstrates complete fiscal irresponsibility.

As Zweisystem has always observed, “Those who fail to read public transit history are doomed to make the same very expensive mistakes.”

The failure to understand the role of modern LRT, streetcars and trams, will lead the region into transit and transportation chaos, where the much needed ‘rail‘ network will be but patches of expensive politically prestigious metro lines linked by buses: impractical, unsustainable, and fool-hardy.

Chaleroi light-metro station - Too expensive to complete and never used!

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4 Responses to “The Failure To Understand Modern Light Rail = Public Transit Chaos”

  1. Joe G Says:

    Excellent post, Zwei.

  2. CLC Says:

    Your article lacks technical detail to help one to classify what kind of system satisfies the requirement of “modern light rail”. It is interesting to notice that most of the high-usage light rails in different continents have started operation in the 1980s-early 1990s era. But several example of new light rail lines (noticeably in North America) lacks ridership (heavy subsidy?). Please tell me if those seemingly successful ones: Paris light rail, Hong kong MTR light rail, Calgary C-Trains are “modern light rail” or not??

    I have yet to hear if any light rail system makes good profit. Any suggestion for a list of profit-making modern LRTs so that I can look further?

    I tend to think that LRT is not optimal once the ridership has reached some threshold, for instance, Hong kong light rail was originally designed to handle minimal 2 minutes frequency when designed by the Britain, but now its jam-packed situation caused lots of logistics nightmare for MTR and resulted up to ~HK$1B operating loss per year.

    Zweisystem replies: As a previous poster stated, everyone now seems to have a different definition of light rail to suit the needs of the system. Today, LRT can be defined as a streetcar or tram that operates on a reserved rights-of-way or a rights-of-way for the exclusive use of a tram. A reserved rights-of-way differs from a grade separated rights-of-way that it can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails. The Arbutus Corridor is an excellent example of a reserved rights-of-way.

    As for operating subsidy, we must remember that just the Sky Train light-metro system is subsidized by the province for over $230 million annually and subsidies for LRT systems are much less. Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun LRT has losses because of unrealistically low fares, subsidized by property deals etc.

    Nottingham’s LRT is a good candidate for operating at a profit, but every country has different ways and means of subsidizing public transport.

    In the USA, planners now use the term LRT to define light-metro systems and by doing so incur the high costs of construction, without the benefits of at-grade light rail.

    It must be remembered that light-metro is now almost an obsolete term, made obsolete by LRT. The current debate for transit in the Vancouver Metro region is this: Do you want LRT in the region, with costs starting at about $15 million/km. to $20 mil/km; or elevated metro, with costs starting at about $100mil/km. or Subway, with costs starting at about $200 mil/km. All other arguments about driverless operation etc. are moot.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    We’re spending $50million to redo highway interchanges in Abbotsford, but not supporting rail for the valley. :S

  4. Dave 2 Says:

    i have no idea how they pull this off, Zwei, but fwiw the JFK Airtrain runs 24-7 http://www.mta.info/mta/airtrain.htm

    Zweisystem replies: I believe that they run a shadow bus service when the system is down for maintenance. As well, there are few stations and trains don’t run at close headways.

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