A Letter To Media and Politicians
This letter went out to all the usual suspects, MP’s, MLA’s, and Mayors and Council.
There is a general naivete about Light Rail Transit or LRT in the media, due in part to TransLink’s and previously BC Transits thirty five year war on LRT, with their well advertised preference for light-metro.
Today, except for “niche transit” solutions, public transport is divided into three modes, bus, tram, and metro; with each mode built to economically deal with traffic flows on an individual transit route. Transit is to move people, not to subsidize development, a grand mistake being made by TransLink, the Ministry of Transportation and the Mayors Council.
Generally, buses can deal with traffic flows up to 6,000 to 7,000 persons per hour per direction; trams (LRT) can economically cater to traffic flows from 2,000 pphpd to over 20,000 pphpd; and metro with traffic flows exceeding 15,000 pphpd.
LRT is built as an economic solution on heavily used transit routes because one modern tram (1 tram driver) is as efficient as four to six buses (4 to 6 bus drivers) and for every bus or tram operated one needs four or more people to drive, manage and maintain them. The modern tram can remain in service for over forty years, while the average bus lasts about fifteen years in revenue service; the scale of savings can easily seen in a long term business plan.
Properly built, light rail greatly reduces the operating costs of a transit system.
Currently, TransLink operates both unconventional and conventional light metro, which needs scores of bus lines to feed it customers. This drives up costs because light-metro is much more expensive to build, maintain and operate, when compared to LRT, plus the many extra buses needed to feed the light-metro passengers..
There is a myth, often, repeated that SkyTrain pays its operating costs out of fares. This is false, as GVRD’s 1993 study “The Cost of Transporting People in the BC Lower Mainland“, clearly shows a $157.63 million subsidy paid to just the Expo Line, with more SkyTrain having been built since, this subsidy has greatly increased.
It is no surprise to the astute observer that LRT made light-metro obsolete decades ago.
From the Cost of Transporting People in the BC Lower Mainland – GVRD
Metros are only built when traffic flows along a transit route exceed 15,000 pphpd, where long trains and stations with long platforms make at-grade operation very difficult and/or impossible with the transit line needing to be grade separated either in a subway or elevated on a viaduct. By their very nature, metro are extremely expensive to build, operate and maintain.
There is really no such thing as “rapid transit” or “mass transit” as they are a catch phrases used by unknowledgeable people to describe anything other than a bus. Beware of those who say rapid transit can do this or mass transit can do that because, in most cases the transit line is built to suit political and bureaucratic needs and not the customer needs and achieves very little.
A good example is our own light-metro network that despite around $10 billion now being invested, mode share by car in the region has remained at around 57%, for over 20 years.
In Europe, a new LRT or tram line is not built unless many conditions are met, including a minimum modal shift of about 20% from car to transit, thus it is imperative that new tram line must meet a transit customer’s needs.
Today, there are close to six hundred transit systems around the world that are in the light rail family and the mode is the first choice of transit planners in providing affordable transit solutions for mobility troubled cities.
Modular trams can grow with ridership
Today, modern trams are extremely versatile:
- Low-floor trams are 100% accessible by the mobility impaired without the need of expensive lifts, elevators, and escalators to operate and maintain.
- The industry standard for trams climbing grades is 8%, though trams can easily handle 10% grades. In Lisbon, their heritage trams climb grades of 13.8%.
- Modern modular trams can grow with ridership, thus saving on initial start up costs and new modules can be added when needed
- The “reserved” rights-of-way and priority signalling at intersections enables trams to obtain commercial speeds near of that of a metro.
- Today, trams can operate as streetcars in mixed traffic; as light rail on dedicated rights-of-ways; and regional commuter trains, operating on mainline railway tracks, all on one route.
- Trams are interchangeable, as one companies tram will work with another companies tram in a coupled set, which is impossible with light-metro.
- Historic or heritage trams, restaurant trams, or special use rental trams (weddings, etc.) can be used in with regular service, which is a boon to the tourist industry.
- In Dresden, German, special cargo trams are used, carrying standard containers, which helps keeping commercial trucks off city streets.
- Construction costs range from as low as $5 million per km. for TramTrain or as high or higher than SkyTrain if the tram is built as a light metro like in Seattle, Washington, which over 70% of its route is grade separated either on viaduct or in tunnels.
Lawned rights-of-way and simple station,
the hallmark of a modern European tramway.
Both of TransLink’s major transit projects in the Metro Vancouver are “vanity” projects and both will be very expensive for what they will do. The Broadway subway is being built on a route with traffic flows well under 5,000 pphpd, less than one third the traffic flows needed for a subway, which makes Broadway a candidate for LRT and not a subway.
Surrey’s proposed LRT is nothing more than a poor man’s SkyTrain, designed to feed the already at capacity SkyTrain light-metro system and seemingly being designed for failure!
Both projects, the Broadway subway at about $360 million/km and the Surrey LRT at an astonishing $80 million/km to build are hugely expensive, yet as planned will not reduce traffic congestion, while at the same time drive up the cost of transit in the region!
If the chief goal of LRT development in Surrey is to extend to Langley, there is a much cheaper way in connecting Langley to the Expo Line and that is a diesel multiple unit (DMU) service from Langley to Scott Road Station (via Cloverdale, Johnston Road; King George Highway; and Scott Road) to Scott Road Station. Such a service could be had for under $10 million/km., using Transport Canada approved DMU’s.
This of course makes many at TransLink nervous as it comes very close in duplicating the Rail for the Valley group’s Leewood Study for the reinstatement of the Vancouver to Chilliwack interurban, only using modern signalling and vehicles. As per the 2010 Leewod study, we could connect. Scott Road Station to Chilliwack, providing a three train an hour both ways, service for about $500 million; a Vancouver to Chilliwack service would cost about $1 billion.
I find that many of the people who complain about light rail are ill informed and I find it shocking that many who plan for LRT in the region are equally ill informed about the mode.
The five faux arguments against modern LRT are:
- LRT is slow. No, LRT operating in urban areas has stops or stations every 500 metre to 600 metre apart, optimizing customer demand and as such, tends to have lower commercial speeds than comparable light-metro stations which has stops about twice as far apart, which generally increases total commute times, due longer times to access stations. The maximum speed that LRT or light-metro can operate is around 90 kph.
- LRT causes havoc at intersections. No, LRT must adhere to all signals pertaining to intersections and if a tram driver passes a red light and causes an accident, he/she would be charged criminally and lose his/her job, while a car driver who ignores a red light and causes an accident, merely gets his wrist slap and maybe a moderate fine. Adding ‘red light cameras’ to LRT/road intersections will greatly reduce accidents. U.S. studies show that LRT/road intersections are about ten times safer than road/road intersections.
- LRT is expensive to operate. No, the opposite is true, it is light-metro that is expensive to operate.
- You need more density to build with LRT. No, this argument is based on the B.C. Crown Corporation’s Secretariat’s appraisal of SkyTrain light-metro and erroneously classified LRT as the same as SkyTrain, as rapid transit. Density & LRT are not an issue, it is about traffic flows on a transit route.
- LRT does not have capacity. No, light rail is able carry more people than light-metro. Presently the Expo Line is at capacity, carrying around 15,000 pphpd in peak times; the Canada line, with trains and platforms half the length of the Expo and Millennium Lines, has effectively half the capacity. Light rail, as noted above can handle over 20,000 pphpd if need be.
A comparison of Ottawa’s new LRT and Vancouver’s SkyTrain.
If the Metro Vancouver region wants an affordable public transit alternative to the car, it must abandon all planning for subways and light-metro, as the huge costs involved to build, operate and maintain light-metro greatly increases the cost of ‘rail’ transit, while at the same time, giving the region and transit customer a smaller, expensive and user unfriendly transit system that will do little to alleviate traffic congestion and pollution in the region. It is the failure of light-metro, in part, that is driving the province into building new bridges and highways to accommodate the expected traffic increases, because the regional transit system is deemed little more than a conveyance for the poor, the elderly and students.
The following quote from American transportation consultant and transit expert, Gerald Fox, sums up TransLink’s planning dilemma; ” But, eventually, Vancouver will need to adopt lower-cost LRT in its lesser corridors, or else limit the extent of its rail system. And that seems to make some TransLink people very nervous.”
TransLink is deathly afraid of a local “apples to apples” comparison between LRT and light-metro, A.K.A SkyTrain.