TransLink’s rather tiresome non-news story, singing hosannas about the Canada Line has peaked the interest of the North Shore News. Unlike the reporters, columnists and radio types in the mainstream media, Ms. James asks real questions which need real answers. SkyTrain and public transit in general, have been given a free pass by the regions mainstream media where any and all investment in public transit is good and those who want important questions answered, are treated as troublesome naysayers, somewhat like those questioning deep-sea oil drilling before the BP/Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
One tires of TransLink’s highly paid spin-doctors ‘puff’‘ stories about SkyTrain and the RAV/Canada Line with the mainstream media treating TransLink’s news releases as ‘gospel‘ and not doing any sort of investigated reporting at all.
The public deserve better.
Looking for the rest of the ridership story
By Elizabeth James,
North Shore News June 9, 2010You know already what the news is; but in a minute you’re going to hear . . . the rest of the story.” – ABC Radio Networks broadcaster Paul Harvey Aurandt
Paul Harvey Aurandt, better known to radio audiences as Paul Harvey, was not above creating himself some of the news stories he aired on ABC Radio for almost 70 years.
Harvey’s career began casually enough at the age of 14, when he sat down at the microphone of ABC’s KVOO affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. Few would have predicted that he would go on to a lifetime of urging his listeners to look beyond the press release or journalistic interpretation of an issue, if they truly wanted to know “the rest of the story.”
The advice is particularly well-taken when it comes to stories about the spending of taxpayer dollars by the governments of British Columbia and their unelected agencies.
Unbidden, thoughts of Harvey have popped into my mind several times recently, and never more so than last Wednesday, when two interesting transportation developments were headlined by local news outlets.
At breakfast-time, came Global-TV coverage of an on-camera interview with TransLink Director of Communications, Ken Hardie. The discussion centred around the fact that, after only 10 months in service, Canada Line ridership had exceeded expectations with a ridership of around 94,000 per day — only 6,000 short of the 100,000 milestone which had not been anticipated to occur until 2013.
The interview then went on to discuss the matter of passenger capacity, not just of the cars but of the line itself.
All in all, it was a good-news beginning to the day — but for the Harvey principle.
With respect to our ability to judge its worth, the TransLink discussion lacked information on several important points:
What was so new about the number that it rated a re-announcement that morning? Had TransLink not given the same number to journalist Frances Bula on Feb. 17, five days into the Olympics (www.francesbula.com)?
Does the newly announced “average” include the February-March ridership surge? If so, it would be no surprise that the “once in a lifetime event” had exerted a significant enough skew on the data as to render them suspect over the short term.
Also, if taxpayers cannot know how many of today’s 94,000 trips are made by riders forced onto the Canada Line because their bus routes were removed, again the numbers have little value, except insofar as they contribute to TransLink’s arbitrary contractual obligations to the concessionaires.
It is not beyond belief that the now-cancelled bus routes were already servicing a majority of the 94,000 trips, albeit not crushed in a shiny new train.
In the absence of the missing details, taxpayers have no way of judging whether the Canada Line was worth even the initial $2.2 billion capital outlay, let alone the long-term debt-servicing.
Details about TransLink’s ability to provide increased capacity on the route are even sketchier and, again, the missing information is essential, if we are to know what financial risk will accrue to taxpayers for necessary capital upgrades.
Come on, Mr. Premier, when do we get to hear . . . the rest of the story?
At present, the line runs two-car train sets. At the combined seated-standing capacity of 200 riders per Rotem car, TransLink’s maximum car-capacity numbers appear closer to the six-passengers per square metre squeeze-formula favoured in Asia, than to the more comfortable North American standard of four square metres or 165 passengers.
No matter which formula is used, however, TransLink’s ability to increase capacity is constrained by two interdependent factors: operational capability of the train-sets and the as-built length of station platforms.
Technical specifications dictate that the Mark I and II cars on the Expo and Millennium lines must run in one of two configurations: either two-car or four-car sets.
However, light-rail advocate Malcolm Johnston believes that Bombardier’s proprietary SkyTrain was already out-of-step with international technological advancements before the Millennium Line project was commenced.
No surprise, then, that TransLink’s online Canada Line Fact Sheet revealed what he had anticipated, namely that the new line is technologically-incompatible with the first two because “Canada Line trains are more modern and run on a different drive system than SkyTrain; the vehicles are wider and longer than existing SkyTrain cars.”
In theory, the Canada Line has more flexibility, in that a 30-40 foot “trailer” section can be connected between the two cars, thus creating more capacity in a three-car train set.
When asked about use of this technique to increase capacity, Johnston again expressed concerns.
“The difficulty becomes one of access — particularly for passengers at subway stations,” he explained.
“Passengers cannot board or depart all cars when the platforms are too short, as is the case on the Canada Line. Industry experience has shown that a ‘selective door-opening’ system doesn’t work well. Passengers in the know crowd into the cars where doors open up first, while those unfamiliar with the procedure often activate the emergency-stop when they can’t exit the train.”
Johnston then added, “And we can’t ignore the fact that capacity is also constrained by the decision to go with single-track “stub” stations at the Brighouse and airport congestion points and the cost to build a double-track would be around $200-300 million.”
When the TransLink board finally sent the project out to proponents for “best and final offer” in June 2004, it was under the public gun with respect to the fast-escalating budget. So were the single-track sections and short platforms chosen for budgetary reasons? If so, how much more expensive will the project prove over the long term?
Beyond all that, though, there was something off-kilter about the flurry of Canada Line headlines last Wednesday, and it seems I was not the only one to have been left with the confused impression that the Canada Line was “racing toward capacity” as one headline put it. So much so that, on June 3, TransLink communications posted an immediate online clarification headlined Addressing Canada Line Capacity Questions (readers will find it at http://www.translink.ca).
So — when do we learn what the province has in store for the third incarnation?
Journalists and news junkies have become accustomed to the strategies employed by political spin-doctors: the late-Friday bombshells and the bad-news-good-news combo-releases. And so it was that, Harvey-like, I wondered: We’ve heard all about startling “milestones” before; so where’s the bad news they don’t want us to notice?
Was it the news that a reduction in Golden Ears Bridge tolls is being considered as a way to bring vehicle traffic up to snuff? Has TransLink or, more likely, someone in Victoria not bought Mr. Hardie’s claim that a loss of $5 million in toll revenues is “manageable” in a $1.2 billion budget?
Not bad enough news, surely, to require a cover.
Could it have something to do with last year’s report by comptroller-general Wenezenki-Yolland that revealed, “Despite strong ridership, the cost of operating the Canada Line will . . . exceed incremental revenue by $14-21 million until 2025?”
Speaking of Victoria and TransLink in the same breath reminds me. . . .
The semi-elected format for the first under-funded TransLink board proved to be “dysfunctional.”
The second, appointed, incarnation discovered it was still impossible to carry out provincial directives without enough dollars in the kitty.