SkyTrain justifications are way off track

It seems The North Shore News’s Liz James has scored a direct hit with her most recent article andAi??I hope the rest of the Post Media papers pick this up and print it.

BC Transit and now TransLink has made the LRT/SkyTrain debate an idealogicalAi??one and not a debate about what is best for the transit customer. The result is a cacophony of idealogical propaganda from TransLink, the SkyTrain-friendly mainstream media and the provincial government about how fast SkyTrain is; how much more capacity SkyTrain has; how cost effective SkyTrain is; etc., etc. Yet, when it comes to the nuts and bolts with SkyTrain, the mini-metro system is found wanting.

Some unpleasant facts that TransLink keeps hidden from regional politicians.

  1. SkyTrain is not faster than LRT – it is TransLink that has designed SkyTrain to faster.
  2. SkyTrain does not have a greater capacity than LRT, it may have done in the 1970’s when it was compared with Toronto’s venerable PCC tramcars, but not with today’s much longer articulated trams, which have effectively tripled the capacity offered without an increase in vehicles.
  3. SkyTrain does not attract more customers to transit than LRT, in fact the opposite is true, at-grade/on-street LRT has proven to offer a better incentive attracting new customers to transit.
  4. SkyTrain, despite being driverless, is not cheaper to operate than LRT, in fact SkyTrain costs about 40% moreAi??to operate than comparative LRT lines.
  5. SkyTrain can cost up to ten times more to install than LRT (20 timesAi??more for TramTrain).

Yet TransLink continues with its anti-LRT planning bias, which has cost the regional taxpayer at least five times more for regional ‘rail’ transit than it should. Planning for more grand SkyTrain mini-metro lines in the region boarders on professional misconduct, by tax and spend bureaucrats and politicians who are locked in a “Tom Swift” era of elevated uranium powered monorails and elevated railways and not the real world which we live today.

Modern LRT, operating on a lawned rights-of-way, making it both user-friendly and non-user friendly.

SkyTrain justifications are way off track

“Many transportation planners argue for transit services optimized to serve the long high-speed commute trip at the expense of local service. In the Vancouver region this position has held sway, with billions of dollars borrowed to expand the SkyTrain system and billions more on the table for future expansions.”

Introduction to Foundational Research Bulletin No. 7, 2009

UBC authors Prof. Patrick M. Condon and Kari Dow were right in 2009 and their data is just as relevant today.

If we were to pick any radius within the boundaries of Metro Vancouver and through the Fraser Valley to Chilliwack, none of our transit routes would exceed international standards for local service.

So why is it that, after 13 years of data that show otherwise, Bowen Island’s Coun. Peter Frinton and other members of the Mayors’ Council are still being told by TransLink that SkyTrain carries more people faster than light rail?

That simply is not true; the misinformation is being force-fed by TransLink to justify the provincial government’s determination to bankrupt the region with SkyTrain.

As Condon and Dow show in their bulletin, the “maximum” and “typical” passenger-carrying capacities of a 90-foot, single articulated light-rail car exceed those of Mark I and Mark II SkyTrain vehicles.

As for speed: for more than 20 years now, light-rail advocate Malcolm Johnston has tried in vain to get TransLink to acknowledge that the functional speed from Points A to B is determined by three things: topography of the route (curves, inclines, etc.), the time-distance separation (headway) between trains, and the number of stops on the route.

Measured on the same track, with the same number of stops, the running speeds of modern light-rail and tram-trains are actually faster than SkyTrain.

Furthermore, the access and boarding speed of light-rail is faster than SkyTrain.

The multi-billion-dollar problems that plague TransLink were created before it was born. They began when Ottawa and Quebec-based Bombardier Inc. persuaded former NDP Premier Glen Clark to stop extolling the benefits of light-rail and to use SkyTrain.

In 1998, when Clark realized the Millennium Line project threatened to become another fast-ferries-style legacy on his books, he downloaded Lower Mainland transit onto the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

A major turning point for the region, TransLink has held municipal taxpayers hostage ever since.

Gordon Campbell himself outlined the crux of TransLink’s problem on October 13, 2000:

“The only reason TransLink needs this extra revenue is because of the higher costs imposed on it by the NDP’s unilateral decision to go ahead with SkyTrain, without any consultation. By imposing SkyTrain, the NDP doubled the cost of rail transit construction, for less service. And now local taxpayers are being forced to pay the price.”

When Pat Jacobsen resigned as TransLink’s second CEO, she was succeeded by Tom Prendergast, who arrived from New Jersey with “over 30 years of experience in transportation operations.”

Prendergast weathered only 15 months before deciding “to take the helm of North America’s largest subway and bus system, New York City Transit Authority,” to quote the TransLink media release.

His parting shot was less diplomatic: “There’s really no impediment,” he said as he discussed transit along Broadway and south of the Fraser River. “It’s overcoming the cultural embracement of SkyTrain that has existed to date.”

Ah, the folly of cultural embracements. Separations after 13 years of entanglement are notoriously expensive and fraught with dissension.

The most believable explanation for TransLink’s determination to ignore the fiscal red flags and to perpetuate the SkyTrain extravagance was provided by Coun. Frinton.

Addressing the possibility that a different technology could be chosen for future transit projects, Frinton wrote, “As to the type of Evergreen Line system, that battle was before my time. . . . There appear to be good arguments for an at-grade light-rail system . . . but because the province has been adamant the system they will fund is the SkyTrain option, at this point I think it best to just get on with it, unless (B.C. Transportation Minister Blair) Lekstrom takes a different view than his predecessors.”

I intend no criticism of Coun. Frinton or his mayors’ council colleagues when I say such passive acceptance of provincial interference is calculated to send me through the roof.

When he appointed the TransLink board, Campbell and his ministers claimed it would take the politics out of regional transit decisions. Then, in answer to citizen complaints that they could not hold the board accountable for in-camera decisions, the Mayors’ Council was given the right to approve or reject board recommendations.

Yet now we have tacit acknowledgement that council members may acquiesce to TransLink’s decision to put a SkyTrain-type Evergreen Line out to bid because that is the only way the province will pay its share of the bill.

They should seek our support for a determined push-back.

The burning question is this: If Victoria, directly or indirectly, is to make the decisions about South Coast regional transit, why in blazes are we paying for the eight other boards, committees and Partnerships B.C. that sit between us and the province?

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