SkyTrain – What TransLink Is Not Telling Us

This reply from Haveacow who is an Engineer, to an earlier post and I think worthy of a post on its own. He is familiar with SkyTrain and worked on the Ottawa LRT and inn other words he knows his stuff.

Despite the ‘huff and puff’ from high paid TransLink spokes people about how the new SkyTrain cars will increase capacity, the system is presently at capacity until ” $500-$800 Million on really upgrading the electrical systems”.

Again, I must remind everyone, despite being on the market for almost 40 years, and with unprecedented hype and hoopla in the local and international media in 1986, only seven systems have been built; no new SkyTrain Line (the evergreen Line is the unfinished portion of the Millennium Line) has been built in ten years and no SkyTrain has ever been allowed to compete against light rail.

A historical note: Intermediate Capacity Transit System or ICTS, was first billed to fill the gap of what a Toronto PCC car could carry (pairs of PCC’s on Toronto’s Danforth-Bloor route were able to obtain a peak hour capacity of 12,000 pphpd or about 2,000 pphpd less than Vancouver’s Expo Line) and the minimum capacity that would require a subway (15,000 pphpd).

The modern articulated car, operating in coupled sets effectively made SkyTrain obsolete overnight; that is, if one wasn’t already operating one.

Toronto’s Danfort -Bloor streetcar route used coupled sets of PCC cars

and able to obtain a peak hour capacity of 12,000 pphpd!

Beyond the power supply issue that will forever haunt Translink until they are ready to drop somewhere between $500-$800 Million on really upgrading the electrical system’s actual carrying capacity, increasing by somewhere to around 50-60% the number of power blocks or better yet, doubling the number of existing power blocks. Translink has to rethink the basis behind the Skytrain way of doing things.

To make it simple, the basis behind the concept of the Light Metro Systems or Intermediate Capacity Rail based Rapid Transit technology is the basic notion that by decreasing the frequency or increasing the tempo of rail operations you can use smaller vehicles and stations thus, saving money when building infrastructure but still have higher capacity because of the higher levels of service. This basic operating assumption is at the heart of all Skytrain’s troubles. One of the reasons LRT technology has been so easily surpassing the Skytrain’s technology is because it doesn’t make assumptions about the operating system an environment needed to have the it working. It just tries to adapt it to fit as many varieties of operating environments and operating technologies as possible. Automation was added to the Light Metro System to increase the financial savings needed to offset the high cost of high tempo railway operations. The linear Induction Motors used by the Skytrain were chosen because of the lack of moving parts thus its believed, easier maintenance compared to the standard electric motors especially the motors of the time when the system was being designed and tested (70s-to mid 80′s).

Although initially the Induction motors saved some money compared to electrical motors on rail systems of the time. Much newer, smaller, more durable, cheaper and more powerful standard “Can Motors” generally used now in transit based electric rail operations are significantly easier to work with than Induction based systems. Induction motors still have some advantages when it comes to rail operations that have a greater distance between stops on very high capacity lines but they are very poor accelerators. When station stops are less than 2km’s apart there is a great deal of time lag compared to standard flywheel based electrical can motors. The flywheels can dump extra power into the motor at start up, to help more quickly overcome inertia. These motors last just as long and sometimes, much longer than Induction based motor components. The positioning of the motors on the side of the bogie or truck eliminates the needs for axels but space can be provided if bigger grades require the need to further arrest “Flange Slip” or Wheel Slip. The side mounted motors allow for the “U” shaped bogie or truck frame needed for 100% Low Floor Vehicles. Maintenance is very cheap because a single person with simple commercially available equipment and hand pump forklift dolly can in about 5 minutes test every electrical motor on a standard LRV and replace all of them if needed in 30 minutes with out assistance.

The Skytrains have a monitoring system which identifies Induction units with failing components. Unfortunately testing of the individual components is difficult unless the whole vehicle is brought in to the maintenance track, where a crew of 2 or 3 is needed to bring in any Skytrain Vehicle detach, separate and lift the frame of the vehicle from the bogie or truck, then test each external component of the induction drive. Then, if replacement of the main drive unit is needed and it usually is, a specially adapted automobile hoist is brought in to lift the drive unit or other non performing part out from the centre of the truck or bogie. A replacement is then lowered slowly back into the frame and reattached. This whole procedure can take over an hour for each unit being replaced with a crew of 2 or about 40 minutes with a crew of 3.

The high tempo of Skytrain operation means time is always short and great emphasis is placed on having to maximize maintenance efficiency thus the costs for these activities become very high. Preventive Maintenance has to be done more often because of the need to constantly have a greater percentage of your train fleet in operation means that, mileage targets get hit faster than with other types of systems like LRT and general maintenance checks have to occur by law much more often. This stresses maintenance staff a lot, when they have to admit that there masters and managers that there aren’t enough trains operating due to the fact that, there is backlog of trains waiting to complete there 1000km or so mileage PM check, which is mandated in your operational certificate for these types of rail vehicles by Transport Canada. I now for a fact that has happened on your system a few times in the past.

(A comment from Zwei: maintenance costs are also higher because the trains need to be at 100% because if a train fails, the entire system stops until a worker walks out to the failed train to drive it to the nearest station and/or siding.)

The Induction motors also require a piece of track infrastructure a 4th rail, or induction rail, that has to be kept debris and ice free for the system to operate. Improperly mounted induction propulsion units caused by damaged frames or improper placement during maintenance increases the distance the unit must be from the induction rail. This distance must be constant or the train won’t move.

(A comment from Zwei: The ‘air-gap’ or the distance from the reaction or 4th rail and the LIM is 1 cm and if this critical distance is not maintained, power consumption increases dramatically if the distance is increased or scoring of the LIM happens if the distance is less. Also keep in mind that throughout the lifetime of the track, wear by the trains can account for a 1 cm loss of rail height and it is cheaper to replace the rail (which has happened twice now in 30 years) than constantly adjusting the reaction rail.

As Mr. Cow stated, the LIM’s are very expensive piece of kit and the original advertising stated that they should be only used on routes with steep grades, as LIM’s were well suited for the task.)

This extra piece of track is responsible for almost 35% of the track maintenance budget at Translink. The Induction Motor used to be standard part of the Bombardier Innovia Automated Light Metro transportation System (Skytrain’s official marketing name at Bombardier) but is now an option. The latest Innovia System instillation designed for Saudi Arabia doesn’t even use the induction motor but standard electrical ones and a different body type designed by a local Saudi contractors, allow the platform mounting and frame are Bombardier designs.. You wouldn’t even recognize it as a Bombardier product.

Although a 3rd rail does have advantages in high tempo operations, it has very high operational and maintenance costs associated with them compared to overhead wire power collection methods. The use of 3rd rail forever means that, even if the technology greatly changes and future designs of Skytrains allow for low platform boarding and or low floor vehicles, you will never be able to run it on a street level right of way because of the 3rd rail power collection method, thus always having higher build and design costs compared to low platform and low floor operating technology equipment.

The Automation technology used, Bombardier’s CityFlow 650 System (also not being used in Saudi Arabian operation by the way) means that under Transport Canada rules, a street running right of way is illegal and thus a physically segregated and most likely a grade separated right of way must always be used. Yes, here in Ottawa we will have a certain level of automation on our physically segregated rights of way for our LRT as well. However, this is because the right of way was already physically segregated when it was a Bus Transitway, it was designed that way also to be convertible to rail technology in the future. However because our LRV’s will have drivers we can operate and are planning to operate on the median of streets like Carling Ave. for the Stage 3 program deployment in 10-15 years. All the appropriate usable Transit-ways by this time, will be used for LRT and the remaining Transit-ways will still operate buses.

Lastly, the capacity of Light metro is highly effected by many of its component technologies and thus has to operate trapped by the limits of its operating agenda. Where as LRT has no pre decided operation type and thus can be made adaptable for many operation options. The Skytrain was billed as something that was cheaper than a subway and able to move more passengers than LRT. However, the limits put on it by its pre packed operation type means that it hasn’t been that adaptable over time or as it turn out quite ironically, not that scalable either, which was one of its original claims. Edmonton now operate 5 car LRT consists that are almost 125 metres long. Calgary’s LRT is now operating 4 car consists up to 111 metres long. Ottawa’s LRT will start at 2 car consists that are 98 metres long and can be easily expanded by adding a 5th section to both cars in the consist and increase the length to 120 metres. All these system were able to add capacity without altering the schedule and hiring an extra driver and forcing up its operating tempo, helping keep a lid on costs. Vancouver’s system has no choice but to greatly increase its frequency because the concept behind your Skytrain limits physical expansion as an option by having to operate in very expensive rights of way, unless a truly massive amount of money is spent to scale it up.


2 Responses to “SkyTrain – What TransLink Is Not Telling Us”
  1. Haveacow says:

    Late yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend and former neighbor of mine who also occasionally reads this blog. His comments were positive however he was riding me quite hard about the grammar mistakes. This was primarily due to the fact that, nearly all of the comments which Zwei has chosen for publication, were done in a hurry. It is ironic that, the comments that I have the least time to write are generally the ones that Zwei choses to put up on the site, oh well! Again, my apologies for the numerous grammar mistakes.

    Now my former neighbor is quite an interesting guy, he was primarily an economist that started working for both Transport Canada and the Department of Finance who then all of a sudden, found himself in charge of one of the largest trucking fleets in Canada, while working for Thom Transport. Then he became the national manager of both Air Fleet assets and then Ground Fleet operations at UPS Canada. When it comes to the economics of transport in general and fleet management in particular, he’s one of the guys you really need to listen to. He is a very quite guy and when he does speak about something around transport, you had better shut up and listen very carefully!

    He was able to give me a very interesting and quick summation of my comments, based on a subject I was dancing around and didn’t even realize that I was! The main concept that I was talking about was the basic assumption that, the people/companies responsible for not only Bombardier’s but the whole world’s transit industry and their way of approaching to Light Metro’s technology and its customer market is primarily, incorrect. I said that the basic assumption was that, higher frequencies or lower headways using primarily smaller trains/vehicles can over come underbuilt or under-massed infrastructure. This infrastructure usually turns out to be ironically, overly expensive to build/operate because of the desperate need of having to operate at very high frequencies or what is known as having to operate at a high tempo, most of the time, just to make up for the lack of capacity built into the infrastructure.

    My former neighbor has an interesting take on this issue. Now he is an economist and has a cost/benefit approach to everything (ha,ha,ha-sorry everybody, inside joke). His primary assertion is that the people who marketed the technology genuinely believe that railways in general and public transport railways in particular, have a linear relationship between the cost of supplying transport versus the actual amount of rail transport supplied. Where he can tell you from experience, whether its roads, rails or aircraft that, the actual relationship have many more characteristics of a geometric relationship between the amount of supplied transport versus cost. Simply stated, as the amount transport you want increases the costs of providing the transport increases at higher ever increasing rate. At a certain point, the increase in the rate of the cost of transport are so far, far exceeding the rate of needed in the actual supply of transport that reassessment becomes necessary.

    It appears that, the belief among the people whom market the Skytrain is that because of certain pieces of technology used the cost of providing twice as much service should only costs twice as much or maybe even less. Where as the real cost of providing twice as much transport using the Skytrain is between three to four times as much, primarily because of the technology being used. The realization that certain costs seem to suddenly appear at higher service levels and become much more problematic, than if service levels had stayed lower.

    The transport system with the highest cost curve between the rate of supply costs when measured against the actual supply of transport, is the private car. He was one of the first people in Canada to publically question the general belief we have about the true cost of the automobile not just environmentally but economically as well.

    The reason the Skytrain or the road system for that matter, hasn’t ground to a halt completely is that, transport needs grow slowly especially when communities are small but the need for transport grows far higher as cities get larger, so does the cost of supplying it. So as long as the Skytrain was new and shinny and the amount of people using the system was relatively speaking small, so were the increases in its operational costs. Once a transport system or an urban area gets to a certain size and or the population level it serves rises to a breaking point, the costs of supplying transport hits a point that exceeds the actual amount of growth rate in passengers it is needs to serve. Until recently in Canada, only the city regions in Toronto and Montreal experienced this phenomena, now 6-8 Canadian urban areas are starting to experience this thus, a big explosion in the interest of infrastructure and transport by our politicians especially at the important provincial and federal levels of government.

    Skytrain’s basic assumption problems are now hitting home. Keep in mind that no rail based rapid transit system is perfect and there will always be many reasons, many of them local reasons, certain problems haven’t occurred yet or have already occurred much sooner than expected. The expected service and passenger traffic levels now needed on the core of the existing Skytrain system make many of those assumptions made back in the 1970′s seem kind of silly and out of touch with the need of supply.

    I suspect one of the reasons Translink hasn’t yet to really come up with an updated cost of the Broadway extension of the Millennium Line is that they are probably still trying to figure out how robust this new line will really have to be. You can plan ahead and say this line will carry “x” number of passengers per day, by some arbitrary date and so the system you construct should be able to handle that. Unfortunately, those planning numbers can turn out to be underestimated and the cost of upgrading later may turn out to be, quite expensive. So you have to really think about what the line will carry 40,50 or even 60 years down the road and how much the true costs of expansion will be. This need and cost of system expansion is a big issue with the Skytrain system because of those incorrect cost assumptions that were originally made, so many years ago.

    For example, if you design a rapid transit line to carry a maximum of 15,000 passengers/hour/direction at the peak hour, and that level is similar to all your other rapid transit lines, and then you realize that after only 20-30 years of service (a short length of time really), the busiest parts of your existing system are already at its operational limit. Upon further examination you discover that, any improvements are going to be prohibitively expensive because of the limitations imposed originally on your transportation technology and system, years ago by false assumptions. This will lead you to think that, adding some of these improvements during the construction of all new planned extensions is ultimately, a cost saving measure. But how many do you add now and how many of those improvements get added in the future? I think this realization is the real secret, that Translink must admit to trying to hide. That there low cost system isn’t scalable in any affordable way and that this is the basic problem is at the core around the debate about Skytrain system expansion.

    For example, one of the reasons a subway line can cost so much to build in Toronto is that, all of the incremental operational improvements that were added to the basic system over the last 60 years, now has to be put into every new extension at the beginning of its service life. Every Toronto subway extension has to be designed right from the start to be able handle very, very big crowds and passenger levels. So stations are built with the maximums in mind from a capacity standpoint, much wider platforms than the original line, oversized and overbuilt station entrances/exists as well as the added costs of elevators for the disabled, a cost that just wasn’t planned for in the 1940′s and 1950′s when the subway line first being planned. A signaling system designed to handle the maximum service levels right form the beginning and a operating tempo that most urban rail systems world wide, will never reach. Those high starting service levels have very high costs associated with them, especially when the design and construction of new extensions and entirely new subway lines is considered.

    Zwei replies: The figure that TransLink should look at for Broadway is their bus schedule: peak hour B-Line buses run 3 minutes headways or 20 buses an hour. Now, the capacity of an artic. bus is about 110 people, so the hourly capacity TransLink provides on Broadway, via the B-Line express buses is 2,200 pphpd. Then add in the trolley buses, which run less frequently, peak hour capacity along Broadway is around 3,000 pphpd.

    In Toronto, the TTC ran coupled sets of PCC cars on the Danforth/Bloor routes, achieving 12,000 pphpd and in the 1950′s, to increase capacity,a subway was the only solution.

  2. eric chris says:

    The City of Vancouver Transportation Plan (1997) supported the use of transit in meeting our future transportation growth needs. Council supports establishing and preserving streetcar corridors … Council directed staff (March 1999) to “report back on a proposed work program and funding requirements to undertake detailed design and cost analysis of Phase One and Phase Two” of the streetcar.”

    Then arrived TransLink in April of 1999. Calls are growing louder and louder for the NDP/Green provincial government to scrap TransLink and reallocate the $150 million wasted annually on TransLink to BC Transit for the interurban line from Chilliwack to Vancouver:

    In the following documentary, Peter planning transportation for TransLink describes to Bob and Bob how working on his time sheet for just 15 minutes each week is all that it takes to earn $200,000 annually and receive TransLink’s much coveted gold plated pension:

    Next in the documentary chronicling the real life day of Peter at TransLink, Peter did not use the new cover sheet and is scolded by one of his eight bosses at TransLink. Milton, who received an A+ on his report card at TransLink and did use the new cover sheet tells Peter that he is not going to turn down the radio which is at a reasonable volume. Peter’s second boss making his rounds reminds Peter to use the new cover sheet to emphasize the importance of the new cover sheet:

    In the final episode documenting the non-value of TransLink, one of Peter’s bosses explains to Bob and Bob what he does at TransLink. It’s kind of confusing but it sounds like he doesn’t really do much of anything at all.

    Anyhow, KN did a very good story on the war between drivers and cyclists in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Public transit in Sao Paulo sucks. It’s expensive and lousy, just like the A+ public transit by TransLink in Vancouver, Canada.

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