A Letter to the Prime Minister – Transit Issues in Metro Vancouver

Sent November 9, 2015
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau;

Congratulations on your recent electoral success and now a fresh wind sweeps across Canada.

I have been an advocate for better public transit in the Metro Vancouver region for over 30 years. I have seen three major rapid transit projects built during this time and can honestly say all were built for political and/or bureaucratic prestige.

A historical background leading to today’s transit ills in the metro Vancouver region.

In the late 1970s, instead of the originally planned-for light rail transit (LRT) from downtown Vancouver to Whalley, in Surrey; Lougheed Mall in East Burnaby and Richmond Centre, the then Social Credit provincial government forced the propriety SkyTrain mini-metro system onto the region.

Later that turned out to be a shady deal between the BC government and the Ontario. The owners of the proprietary mini-metro system, the Urban Development Transportation Corporation was an Ontario Crown corporation that had great problems selling its ICTS/ALRT product, which we call SkyTrain. No one wanted it, including the Toronto Transit Commission.

Despite the hype and hoopla about ICTS/ALRT a 1982 TTC study found; “ICTS cost up ten times more to install than light rail, for about the same capacity…….” Yet for the cost of the proposed 1970’s LRT network to Surrey,Richmond and Lougheed Mall, taxpayers received a SkyTrain from downtown Vancouver to new Westminster!

The1982 study showed that, although modern LRT was then still in its infancy, had made ICTS/ALRT SkyTrain obsolete! This fact has been well covered up by both the media and by various governments who spent a lot of editorial and political credibility supporting ICTS/ALRT.

Later the UDTC was sold to Lavalin, which went bankrupt, in part, trying to sell the proprietary mini-metro, now called Advanced Light Metro or ALM, to Bangkok, Thailand. then Bombardier purchased the rights to ICTS/ALRT/ALM at Lavalin’s bankruptcy sale, but the newly-formed SNC Lavalin retained the engineering patents.

The mini-metro was again renamed Advanced Rapid Transit or ART, with Bombardier designing a larger new car, commonly known as the Mk.2.

Back in Vancouver, the shortfalls of the original ALRT/SkyTrain Line had become apparent and great work was done to ensure the next major transit project, the Broadway-Lougheed Transit project would use modern light rail. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, the governing NDP, in a private deal with Bombardier, again forced SkyTrain onto the region in what as now known as the Millennium Line. So expensive was ART/SkyTrain, that the planned route to Port Moody had to be abandoned and the Millennium Line eventually petered out at a station between Glen and Clark Drives in Vancouver.

The nearly-completion Evergreen Line is but the originally abandoned portion of the original Broadway-Lougheed LRT project to Coquitlam.

The BC Liberals, wanting their own vanity transit project, forced through the Canada Line, which uses conventional electrical multiple units, operating either on elevated guideways or in a subway in Vancouver. The cost of building the subway portion greatly escalated from the original cost of the project at $1.3 billion to about $2.4B. To reduce costs the scope of the project was significantly reduced. That was achieved by employing cut-and-cover construction on Cambie St. (with devastating results for local merchants) and by reducing station sizes with platforms lengths that vary between 40 metres to 50 metres, which can only accommodate two-car trains, 41 metres long.

ai??i?? The Canada Line station platforms are half as long as the Expo and Millennium Line stations, effectively giving the $2.4 billion Canada Line half the capacity! Embarrassingly, the Canada line is the only heavy rail metro in the world that was built as a light metro, having less capacity than a simple streetcar line costing a fraction to build! For added insult, the Canada Line, not being ALRT/ART SkyTrain is incompatible in operation with the the Bombardier proprietary mini-metro system.

ai??i?? The above graphic illustrates Ottawa’s LRT line (presently under construction)Ai?? with longer station platforms, will have a greater capacity than our current SkyTrain system. It is worth noting that two modern light rail vehicles (approx. $5 million each) can carry more customers than 5 Mk.2 vehicles (MK.1’s are no longer in production) costing over $3 million each.

To date, only seven ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART systems have been built. Toronto will be tearing down their life-expired ICTS system in the near future. During the same period that ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART has been on the market, over 200 new LRT systems have either been built; are nearing completion; or are in advanced stages of planning.

Metro Vancouver’s much troubled TransLink operation wants to build two more transit lines; a Broadway SkyTrain subway to Arbutus and Surrey’s ill-designed LRT. The problem with both projects is that they are being built on routes that do not have the customer flows to justify construction. If built, they will suck-up much needed funding from regions that desperately need improved transit in order to to fund overbuilt vanity projects that satisfy the whims of the mayors in both Vancouver and Surrey.

The Broadway subway is really the unfinished Western portion of the originally-planned for Broadway-Lougheed light rail project. The Arbutus and Broadway terminus and the creation of TransLink was an NDP inducement for then GVRD Chair and Vancouver Councillor George Puil to agree to fund the NDP’s switch from LRT to ART, with the added sweetener that the province would pay two thirds of the cost of SkyTrain only construction west of Commercial Drive.

Today, even with the B-line buses, peak hour traffic flows along Broadway are less than 5,000 persons per hour per direction (pphpd), which is about two thirds less than the bare minimum of 15,000 pphpd that would justify subway construction. You can build a subway, but expect to pay huge subsidies to keep it in operation; subsidies that will erode transit operations elsewhere.


Modern LRT can easily handle such traffic at one half to one third the cost to build and costing about half to operate than the current buses on that route. Modern LRT can handle traffic flows of 15,000 pphpd, the maximum capacity the current ALRT/ART SkyTrain can handle. An unpleasant fact is, a Broadway subway would have potentially less capacity than surface light rail, unless about $3 billion is spent to upgrade the current ALRT/ART system. New electrical and upgraded electrical installations would be required to handle more trains and major station upgrades, like extending platform lengths on the entire system, to accommodate longer trains needed for increased capacity!

The Surrey LRT is just more bad planning.

TransLink has not planned the Surrey LRT as a stand-alone light rail operation, rather, as a poor man’s SkyTrain, feeding the already at capacity Expo Line! Operating on routes that do not have the customer flows to justify LRT construction, it seems chosen for political reasons only.

Two more badly planned and expensive transit projects will only drive up the cost of transit, which already has made the cost per revenue passenger one third higher in metro Vancouver than Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

There is another way.

In September 2010, Rail for the Valley released their privately-commissioned study,prepared by Leewood Projects of the UK, which saw that a TramTrain service between Vancouver and Chilliwack, using the existing former BC Electric interurban route was viable and could be built, depending on the amount of money one wished to invest, between $500 million to $1 billion dollars for the 136 km. route.

The Leewood Study.

TramTrain is a variation of LRT which has trams or streetcars, operating on both trams/streetcar tracks and main line railway tracks. First operated in Karlsruhe Germany in 1993, TramTrain has proven very successful and today over 25 TramTrains are operating in Europe and North America and many more are being planned.

Using TramTrain on existing railway tracks greatly reduces costs, while providing quality transit services to areas which otherwise would go without.

TransLink and the provincial government have remained blind deaf and mute to The RftV/Leewood TramTrain and instead want to see a hugely expensive subway built under Broadway, which will not reduce congestion plus an equally expensive LRT in Surrey, which again will do little to reduce congestion.

Why are subways and light rail built?

In the real world, LRT is built on heavily used bus routes because one tram (1 tram driver) is as efficient as up to six buses (6 bus drivers) and because for every bus or tram used, one needs to hire a minimum of three people to manage, maintain and operate them. LRT becomes the better investment over a standard business cycle.

ai??i?? Though somewhat dated the preceding graphic shows the costs of new build LRT and the VAL and SkyTrain proprietary mini-metro systems. Today, both VAL and SkyTrain have become niche transit modes, with no sales in the past decade.

Subways are only built when ridership demands long trains needing large stations accommodating long station platforms, that at-grade would be problematic. The threshold for subway construction are traffic flows in excess of 15,000 persons per hour per direction. In many European cities peak hour ridership on sections of tram routes exceed 25,000 pphpd!


One can build subways on lesser routes, but the huge operating and maintenance costs means monies for other transit operation must be diverted to pay for the subway.

Solutions are needed for today’s transit needs.

I am hoping your new Liberal government will be open to fresh ideas as it provides much-needed funds to regional transit and transportation projects across Canada. Taxpayers need you to ensure that monies are spent on viable projects instead of stale vanity projects.May I offer these four suggestions:

  1. Fund new Faculties of Urban Transport and Transportation, granting degrees at major Canadian Universities. Unlike Europe, Canada does not have a School of Public Transportation and many planning for “rail” transport have little notion of the science or history of public transportation. Vancouver is a very good example of this.
  2. All major public transit projects that receive public financing must be subjected to scrutiny by a panel of ‘arms-length’ transit peers. In the U.S. all new transit projects that seek federal support are now subjected to scrutiny by a panel of transit peers, selected and monitored by the federal government, to ensure that projects are analyzed honestly, and that taxpayersai??i?? interests are protected. No SkyTrain project has ever passed this scrutiny in the U.S.
  3. Federal laws pertaining to railway operation must be changed to accommodate regional transit needs. Unlike Europe, where the mainline railways tend to be owned publicly, in Canada, the railway companies must be legislated to accept either regional rail or TramTrain. If Canadian law allows one-man operation of dangerous cargoes like volatile oil, then the law can be changed to accommodate regional transit needs.
  4. For Metro Vancouver, instead of giving monies to the Broadway Subway Project or the Surrey LRT, money would be better spent in funding the replacement of the decaying Patullo Bridge and the decrepit Fraser River Rail Bridge with a combined road/rail bridge. A high level road bridge and a three track lifting span would give ample capacity for both motorists and freight, passenger and local suburban train service in the region. A combined road/rail bridge across the Fraser River would do more in alleviating congestion in the region than a short subway line in Vancouver and a poor man’s SkyTrain being proposed for Surrey.

It is my hope and wish that transit planning is again done for the benefit of the transit customer and not for political or academic vanity. Metro Vancouver politicians love to boast about Vancouver and its transit system, but no one has copied Vancouver or its use of light metro. Transit planners and politicians come to Vancouver; they see SkyTrain; and they go home and build with light rail!



One Response to “A Letter to the Prime Minister – Transit Issues in Metro Vancouver”
  1. eric chris says:

    This is an outstanding letter and thanks for sending it. If federal funding is going to go to municipalities for public transit, it can’t favour one region or city over the other. Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Kelowna… Kamloops all deserve an equal per capita share of any federal funding for public transit:

    “The Grits intend to double infrastructure spending to 125-billion dollars over the next decade and nearly 20-billion dollars of that has been allotted to public transit.”


    On a per capita basis, Vancouver with only about 600,000 people out of the almost 36 million people living in Canada only deserves about 1.7% ($338 million) of the added $20 billion allocated for public transit by the federal government over the next 10 years. Gregor Robertson has no right to expect more money than this from other Canadians for his dumb subway.

    Supposed carbon activist and truly totally daft, Gregor Robertson of the “Vision” party running Vancouver can’t afford his $5 billion (estimated) subway line taking up to 20 years to reach UBC and needs to lower his expectations to build what we can afford: tram or LRT line taking 20 months to reach UBC. I’m sick of this idiot talking climate change and pretending to be concerned about the environment. He’s not a member of the Green party. I am.

    Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver can shut his trap about climate change until he removes the carbon emitting diesel buses running underneath electric trolleybus lines on Broadway in Vancouver. This dork is out globetrotting to talk about carbon emission reductions and he can’t get his act together in Vancouver. He’s a hypocrite and sham.


    Really though, I’m not necessarily in favour of more federal spending for public transit which is really the responsibility of municipalities. Personally, I’d rather see federal spending go towards, shipbuilding for the Canadian Navy and airplanes for the Canadian Air Force as well as to universities and health care.