Light Rail Denial And TransLink

There seems to be a general naivete about Light Rail or LRT in the media, due in part to TransLink’s 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 on Transit.

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.

Though some pundits point to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in South America as a solution. BRT in South America operates on multi-lane highways, many using three section articulated buses (greatly restricted use in Canada due to Transport Canada rules) and are sustained by very cheap wages paid, compared to Canada. There is no comparison.

LRT is built as an economic mode 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 only fifteen years in revenue service; the scale of savings can easily seen in a long term business plan.

Modern LRT is nothing more than modern trams (the European term for streetcar), which today, have capacities of 250 persons or more, operating on a dedicated or “reserved” rights-of-way. A “reserved” rights-of-way can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails or as elaborate as a lawned, park like route.

Properly built, trams drives down operating costs of a transit system.


From Siemens a 1980′s ad for LRT
​Currently, Metro Vancouver operates both unconventional and conventional light metro, which needs scores of bus lines to feed the light metro customers, this drives up costs because automatic light-metro is more expensive to maintain, as are the buses.
As most light-metro’s today, including our SkyTrain system operate “driverless’ metros, the mode has very high operating costs, even though it has no drivers, there are over 170 full time attendants to see to trouble free operation, as well as TransLink’s use of very expensive to maintain transit police. Light-metro stations are also expensive to maintain, with extra power needed to operate escalators and elevators which alone are very expensive to maintain, with annual maintenance costs now over $6 million annually. Just the Expo Line costs about 60% more to operate than comparable LRT operations.
Maintenance to the grade separated guide-way and subway sections also increase costs as does the maintenance needed to keep the automatic system operating as stoppages are catastrophic to the transit customer.Light metro drives up the cost of transit.


There is a a long time myth that is often repeated that SkyTrain pays it s operating costs out of fares. This is completely untrue as GVRD’s 1993 study “The Cost of Transportation in the 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.


From the Cost of Transportation in the BC Lower Mainland – GVRD

It is no surprise that LRT made light-metro obsolete decades ago, yet the SkyTrain/light-metro lobby keep denying the truth. The SkyTrain Lobby act as a latter day “Cargo Cult“.

Metros are only built when traffic flows along a transit route exceed 15,000 pphpd, where long trains and station with long platforms make at-grade operation very difficult and/or impossible and the transit line needs to be grade separated either in a subway or elevated on a viaduct. By their very nature, metro are extremely expensive to operate and maintain.

Since the ALRT/ART SkyTrain light metro was first marketed, only seven have been built, with only three seriously used for regional public transit; Vancouver, Toronto, and Kuala Lumpor. One, the Detroit (mugger) people mover is a demonstration line; two, JFK and Beijing are airport people movers and one in Korea is a theme park people mover which has the ability to run only single car trains. Toronto’s life expired ICTS system is going to be torn down in the near future and replaced by a metro or LRT or a combination of both.

There is really no such thing as “rapid transit” or “mass transit” as they are a catch all phrases used by 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 in most cases, achieves very little.

A good example is our own light-metro network that despite around $10 billion 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 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:

  1. Low-floor trams are 100% accessible by the mobility impaired without the need of expensive lifts, elevators, and escalators to operate and maintain.
  2. 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%.
  3. Modern modular trams can grow with ridership, thus saving on initial start up costs and new modules can be added when needed
  4. The “reserved” rights-of-way and priority signalling at intersections enables trams to obtain commercial speeds of that of metros.
  5. 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.
  6. Trams are interchangeable, as one companies tram will work with another companies tram in a coupled set, which is impossible with light-metro.
  7. 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.
  8. In Dresden, German, special cargo trams were used, carrying standard containers, which helps keeping diesel trucks off city streets. Service has now been discontinued due to factory closure.
  9. 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 or even operate as a metro.

Lawned rights-of-way and simple station


Both of TransLink’s major transit projects 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 that already at capacity SkyTrain light-metro system and seemingly designed for failure!

Both projects, the Broadway subway at about $360 million/km to build and the LRT at an astonishing $100 million to build are hugely expensive, yet as built 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 apprehensive and uneasy 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 for about $500 million; a Vancouver to Chilliwack service would cost about $1 billion.

The Kassel Regiotram TramTrain, enables quality public transit to each lightly populated areas.

I find extremely disturbing that many who complain about light rail are ill informed about LRT and I also 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:

  1. 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 metro stations which has stops every kilometre or more, which generally increases total commute times, due longer times to access stations. The maximum speed that LRT or light-metro can operate is about 90 kph.
  2. 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 would be charged criminally and lose his job, while a car driver who ignores a red light and causes an accident, merely gets his wrist slap. 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.
  3. LRT is expensive to operate. No, the opposite is true, it is light-metro that is expensive to operate.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 customer an 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 problem; ” 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.”



5 Responses to “Light Rail Denial And TransLink”
  1. Dondi says:

    Zwei’s fails above to substantiate his 60% number for operating costs, just as his earlier cost comparisons of Calgary and Vancouver were unsubstantiated – see the earlier discussion at

    And Zwei again leans on his idiosyncratic understanding of an estimated $157 million annual provincial government ‘subsidy’ of Skytrain operating costs in the early 1990s. Setting aside for now his interpretation of this number from a quarter century ago, is there more than conspiracy theory for believing that such a subsidy continues until today? Previously Zwei claimed it has grown to at least $300 million.

    Evidence, please, because $300 million/year is hard to hide, even in Translink’s financial statements and the BC government’s financial statements.

    Zwei replies: I feel sorry for you Dondi I really do because you seem to really want to believe – believe in SkyTrain.

    Read >> Learn.

    There is a good reason no one wants to build with SkyTrain and it is costs.

  2. zweisystem says:

    Dondi continues the big LRT Lie, so favoured by the SkyTrain Lobby. The sad fact is, debt servicing is a very big item with all transit projects and unfortunately, the high cost associated with SkyTrain means there is little money to service the debt, thus the government has to borrow money to pay the costs. This is called a subsidy. Other transit authorities understand this, but not in Vancouver, where everyone believes the streets are paved with gold and money really does not matter.

    Again I ask this question, a question that Dondi and his ilk refuse to answer; “If SkyTrain is so good, why has only seven such systems built in almost 40 years and why has not one SkyTrain system been allowed to compete against LRT?”

    As a hint the almost $300 million figure actually came from a GVRD/Metro Vancouver Planner and is peanuts to the $2 to $3 billion needed to renew the system, to increase capacity.

  3. Dondi says:

    Apologies in advance for numbing detail below. If you don’t care about facts, don’t read it.

    Zwei, with respect, you are mistaken about this being about me cheerleading for Skytrain or bashing LRT.

    I searched for your $300 million in any source I could associate with “GVRD/Metro Vancouver Planner”, without success.

    So it remains…unsubstantiated.

    One reason why your readers need a source is to see if you are quoting numbers using the same definition as everyone else for ‘operating costs’ as opposed to ‘capital costs’. I replied to your comments about operating costs. I wrote that everyone agrees that Skytrain’s capital costs are very high in the earlier discussion in August.

    And, not that I feel the need to answer your question above, but it seems pretty self-evident that it is these high capital that account for why “only seven such systems have been built in almost 40 years.”

    So, the issue is how Skytrain’s high capital costs combine with its operating costs.

    But then your reference above to debt servicing (that is, servicing capital costs) makes it clear that you are mixing these two components up. I feel like I am in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean —neither more nor less.”

    For any serious comparison of one system to another (so we can show just how bad Skytrain is!) we must use consistent terms. Your $33 million for Calgary C Train’s “operating costs” in August was (apparently) derived by adding up:
    Vehicle Maintenance costs: $13.9M (2006)
    Station Maintenance costs: $2.8M (2006)
    Right of Way Maintenance costs: $2.9M (2006)
    Signals Maintenance costs: $2.4M (2006)
    Average annual power costs: $4.8M (2006)
    Annual LRV Operator wages: $6.0M (includes fringe benefits of 21.57%) (2006).

    But the above does not include any capital costs or debt servicing. So you must either include them for your Calgary numbers or not change the subject, as you did above, by raising debt servicing for Skytrain.

    Previously discussed CUTA numbers show that the Translink-wide (except Canada Line) “direct operating cost per passenger kilometer” were about 25-30% higher than Calgary-wide operating costs in 2013 (see graph on page 15 of )

    The above Translink-wide number doesn’t tell us much about Skytrain in particular because it includes buses, etc., and it is an operating cost, not total cost. Similarly, the Calgary number above is not just for the C-Train. There are also differences in how many costly suburban lines the two systems cover.

    But the biggest component of total operating costs in most transit systems is buses rather than rail. The Translink rail division operating costs – before amortization and interest – totaled about 23% of those for all divisions, and they were 40% of bus division operating costs before amortization and interest (see p. 33 of

    It is thus not very plausible that the above 25-30% differential in operating costs for Vancouver and Calgary systems as a whole could balloon into a 60% differential for specifically Skytrain operating costs vs. specifically C-Train operating costs.

    I don’t have the expertise or time to deconstruct the Translink financial statements. And it is frustrating that they don’t organize them to report operating and capital costs division by transit division.

    But looking at “Consolidated revenues” for all Translink divisions on p.11 of , the total listed for “Government transfers” is $155 mil for the first 9 months of 2016. Then on p. 17 for “Consolidated expenses”, the total for “Amortization of capital assets” (for all divisions) is $121 million, and for “Interest” (on the debt being amortized) is $125 million.


    My point is just that there is just no indication here of Zwei’s $300 million, which he raises, again and again, without substantiation.

    If the $300 million is not here, it would have to be in the government’s books. In the earlier discussion, I raised the possibility that the $157 million provincial government ‘subsidy’ in the early 1990s might be partly due to early Skytrain capital costs being shifted from Translink’s books to the provincial government’s books. (Actually the number in question is $120 million, not $157 million; the difference was reported as being the well-known gas tax etc.) That seems plausible, but, again, it is a different issue than the claim about Skytrain’s operating costs being 60% higher than Calgary’s C train. And for that comparison we would have to check if any C-train capital costs were similarly shifted off their books.

    But has anyone noticed $300 million per year for Skytrain in the government books? If there was such a sum would they have not pushed the Mayor’s noses into it?

    Turning from all Translink divisions to only the rail division, the “Segment report” on p. 34 of the above source for the first 9 months of 2016 indicates that the Rail Division expenses were $197 million before amortization and interest. Amortization then added $45 million, and Interest $27 million. There is also a minus $17.5 million listed under Rail Division revenue for “Amortization of deferred concessionaire credit”, which I believe it is part of the deliberately opaque 3P accounting for the Canada Line. Since I don’t really understand that one, leaving it out means that the Rail Division total on a 12 month basis would be about $359 million for operating costs plus amortization plus interest.

    If the recorded total cost is $359 million, and considering that we pay taxes to Skytrain plus a few fares to Skytrain would the BC government really need to subsidize Skytrain by $300 million?

    A final piece of indirect evidence on the issue of Skytrain operating costs: Under “Operating Indicators” on p. 36, the “operating cost per capacity km” for Skytrain/Millenium line for the first 9 months of 2016 was $0.028 (and $0.106 for the Canada line and $0.118 for CMBC [buses]). “Capacity km” is not a very useful measure for present purposes, but it does indicate something about relative costs by division within Translink. In relative terms, by this measure Skytrain operating costs (not capital costs!) are low.

    Zwei, go ahead and say this is impossible, because of the high cost of this than that for Skytrain, and blah, blah, blah. But until you can put this in terms of total, after-the-fact numbers from a serious source, your claim that Skytrain operating costs are 60% higher than the C-Train and your $300 million/year subsidy for Skytrain are unsubstantiated. I think the numbers above also show they are implausible, but go ahead, prove me wrong!

  4. eric chris says:

    Thanks for the fantastic treatise on LRT (trams). There are many other people (who aren’t members of the flat earth society or the delusional s-train lobby) in agreement with you.

    “I want transit solutions that make sense. I don’t want our tax dollars wasted on a fancy subway that will enrich developers, take longer to complete, create far higher greenhouse gas emissions through its construction, and burden taxpayers with a much bigger bill.”

    Autonomous taxi service in the sky is going to be the final nail in the coffin for s-train. Here’s the epitaph … “oh, oh I’m coming up only to hold you under … I’m coming up only to show you down for … I’m coming up only to show you wrong” …

    Good bye expensive sky train service. Hello inexpensive sky taxi service.

    Sky taxi in the following video could use one key safety refinement (wire mesh shroud to keep the propellers from slicing the passengers to bits). Aside from this minor hiccup in the current design, point to point sky taxi looks like the end of hub to hub public transit with s-train. Technology has made s-train obsolete, and s-train traveling in expensive subways or on expensive viaducts has never been an economically feasible mode of public transit. If the provincial government weren’t subsidizing s-train, it would have shut-down after the first year of operation. TransLink’s current $4 billion deficient attests to this.

    I’m not saying that public transit is doomed. Sky taxi is just the end of TransLink and all the deadbeats (600 or more of them) at TransLink.

    Public transit is still the best way to move lots of people efficiently, and the tram is the most affordable public transit mode to do it; otherwise, the Germans who aren’t idiots would be running s-trains rather than trams. Trams in Berlin blend seamlessly into the community. What I find striking in the following short video of the tram in Berlin is how the tram glides effortlessly through the busy streets in the city (could just as easily be Broadway in Vancouver), passes though forested areas (could just as easily be UBC Pacific Spirit Park) and meanders through picturesque neighbourhoods in a dedicated corridor (could just as easily be Arbutus Corridor in Vancouver).

    “The Berlin tram tracks system sprawls out through the city, … The Berlin tram network is made up of 22 lines, … a total of 430 km of tram tracks throughout the city. … Nine of the tram lines , the ones with M in front of their number, … run 24 hours a day. The other trams stop running at around 1am, … The tram has stops fairly frequently along its lines, but won’t stop if nobody requests the stop. Especially at night, when there are less people using the trams, ..” The National Geographic recently placed Berlin’s Tram Line 68 in their list of Top Ten tram rides in the world, noting the ride to the picturesque Alt-Schmöckwitz village on the edge of the city.”

  5. zweisystem says:

    You didn’t answer my question, did you. Because you can’t.

    Debt servicing charges for the ALRT/ART lines are over $200 million and TransLink pays the Canada Line consortium over $100 million annually, comes to over $300 million. Thus the taxpayer is on the hook for over $300 million annually. Simple.

Leave A Comment