The SkyTrain Lobby – Just The Usual Suspects!


"It used to be something called public transit ... then for reasons you're too young to understand, they did away with the public."

Transit again is making front page news in the dailies and regional newspapers, with TransLink claiming that the next big rapid transit (read SkyTrain) line will be in Surrey, not Broadway. A few international transit blogs have picked up the story with the usual suspects singing hosannas about SkyTrain, while in the same breathe libeling anyone who supports light rail, including long time advocates of the worlds most built transit system! What is perverse about the SkyTrain lobby is that they moan on and on about how facts about LRT being distorted or untrue, yet all they have to offer in turn is TransLink’s dubious claims about SkyTrain and the Canada Line, which is a conventional metro and not ART.

What is even more sad is that the old saw, “SkyTrain is cheaper to operate than light rail because it has no drivers” is trundled out ad naseum by the usual suspects and by bloggists who should know better. Automatic or driverless railways were the flavour of the month back in the 70’s and 80’s but have been found expensive to operate. Sure the system has no drivers, but in their stead an automatic metro system must hire a small army of attendants to keep trains and stations safe for the paying public. Not mentioned too, is a rather large squad of signaling experts must be on shift at all times to deal with problems with train operation because with an automatic metro, operating conditions must be at 100% or the system grinds to a halt.

What has been found is that automatic metros are only cost effective if average hourly ridership is above about 15,000 persons per hour per direction, below that threshold, LRT is cheaper to operate and at 15,000 to 20,000 pphpd operating costs of both modes are about the same. Yet, one never hears this from the usual suspects.

We have had now thirty years of SkyTrain only planning in the region and it has left us with a massive transit deficit. Sure, the SkyTrain metro system carries a lot of passengers, but 80% of those passengers have been forced to transfer from bus to metro. Transfers, especially forced transfers not only increase travel time, it deters about 70%of potential customers. There is no evidence that the SkyTrain metro system has caused a modal shift from car to transit and with the multi-billion Gateway highways and bridge project shows that the SkyTrain system is actually fueling new highway construction!

SkyTrain is too expensive to extend and even finding funds to complete the Evergreen Line (Nevergreen Line) are almost impossible to come by, yet the SkyTrain Lobby persists that the proprietary metro is just ‘peachy‘.

To date, SkyTrain has yet to prove in revenue service that it is cheaper to operate than light rail; to date SkyTrain has yet to prove in revenue service that it can carry more passengers than light rail! These two facts accounts for ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART dismal sales record when compared to light rail and the once mighty Skytrain has now been relegated as a niche transit system for airports and theme parks. The usual suspects again remain silent about this.

Yet we knew this already. From the 1983 TTC ART Study:

“ICTS costs anything up to ten times as much as a conventional light-rail line to install, for about the same capacity; or put another way, ICTS costs more than a heavy-rail subway, with four times ICTS’s capacity.”

Or if one had read Gerald Fox’s A Comparison Between Light Rail And Automated Transit Systems. (1991), which concluded:

  • Requiring fully grade separated R-O-W and stations and higher car and equipment costs, total construction costs is higher for AGT than LRT. A city selecting AGT will tend to have a smaller rapid transit network than a city selecting LRT.
  • There is no evidence that automatic operation saves operating and maintenance costs compared to modern LRT operating on a comparable quality of alignment.
  • The rigidity imposed on operations by a centralized control system and lack of localized response options have resulted in poor levels of reliability on AGT compared to the more versatile LRT systems.
  • LRT and AGT have similar capacities capabilities if used on the same quality of alignment. LRT also has the option to branch out on less costly R-O-W.
  • Being a product of contemporary technology, AGT systems carry with them the seeds of obsolescence.
  • Transit agencies that buy into proprietary systems should consider their future procurement options, particularly if the original equipment manufacturer were to cease operations.
  • The SkyTrain Lobby, with the usual suspects, ignore transit studies from experts who have hands on knowledge about light rail and metro and continue to put evangelic faith with those who want ‘pie in the sky’ metro and subway planning. The taxpayer, especially taxpayers who live South of the Fraser are growing weary of paying higher taxes to build just a little more politically prestigious metro in Greater Vancouver, just ask Premier Gordon Campbell and the HST fiasco.

    TransLink’s new motto for ‘rail‘ transit should be:

     “Build it Cheap and Build Lots“.

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    4 Responses to “The SkyTrain Lobby – Just The Usual Suspects!”

    1. huh? Says:

      wait… “forced” to transfer from bus? for most people that’ll make travel a lot faster

      Zweisystem replies: A typical answer from a Translink employee! In the real world, transit companies strive to reduce transfers because they reduce ridership. But no, not Translink, they like to inconvenience the transit customer. it’s a perverse game they play!

    2. Michael Says:

      I am not sure that they try to reduce transfers per-se. What most try to do is have a system in place where the wait times on a transfer are as close to zero as possible.

      This requires both a well designed transfer point (station) as well as schedules that are linked.

      Neither of which I can see being the case with Translink. The Broadway Station is an excellent example on how NOT to design a transfer point, even if we ignore that the B-Line will just get stuck in traffic along the way. Fully dedicated bus lanes along high traffic corridors would be a first step for the city and translink to make public transit more usable.

      In general the problem seems to be that a certain public segment wants public transit to be a viable option but those in power do not have the will or guts to trade car space for public transit (or cycling) space. The car is still at the core of all the thinking. Translink being in charge of large car infrastructure is an indication of this.

      We can blame Translink for a lot of the problems within the public transit world here in the lower mainland, but the longer I look at it, the more I think they are trying to appease to all their masters.

      Breaking up translink, taking away any individual transport decision (e.g. car infrastructure) and either transferring it to a new agency or just outright punting it back to the Province would be a good first step. But I am not holding my breath, Translink is great of a scapegoat asset for those in Government.

    3. bulleid 35028 Says:

      Quoting from:

      Travel is often not just about one single journey, there are often connections to other modes to be made and this is often where the support for sustainable transport begins to fail. The Strategy of the Authorities is for a Fully-Integrated Transport System where the change from foot to bike to car to bus to rail to boat or plane or any combination can be made as seamless as possible.
      People prefer to make trips with the minimum of change between transport services. Inadequate or non-existent interchange facilities, or means of easy access, are a major barrier to encouraging the use of public transport. It is intended to improve interchange facilities at railway stations, bus/coach stops and at town centre interchanges, to improve access for all forms of transport and to increase user comfort and protection.

      More references at:-

      Click to access interchange.pdf

    4. Top of the mountain Says:

      I agree that there is no point in expanding SkyTrain further into Surrey or to other points south of the Fraser. It is here that LRT should be put into practice. Radiate out three lines from Surrey Central station with one heading south to Newton along King George Hwy, a second heading off to Langley along Fraser Hwy and a third running along 104 to 152 and then tipping south towards White Rock. That’s a pretty strong backbone for the region’s second largest city.

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