Catching a local radio last week, the old saw about capacity and that SkyTrain had a higher capacity than Light Rail, again was used as a example why light rail was not as good as SkyTrain.

Sadly, there was no fact check, just blind acceptance of fake news.

Really, after the $1.49 billion resignalling contract, the maximum capacity of the Millennium Line will be a mere 7,500 pphpd. I just shake my head, as Toronto was operating coupled sets of PCC cars on select routes providing a peak hour capacity in excess of 12,000 pphpd!

The following was first published in 2009 and it remains as pertinent today as it did 15 years ago.

A coupled set of PCC cars in the early 1950's in Toronto.

A coupled set of PCC cars in the early 1950’s in Toronto.


The Light Rail Transit Association
THE CAPACITIES of different modes of transport are generally quoted as 0-10 000 passengers per hour for bus, 2000-20 000 for light rail, and 15 000 upwards for heavy rail.

Maximum capacity is only likely to be required for a few hours during peak hours, and even here there are likely to be variations both day by day and within each hour. The capacity required originates from the route’s social characteristics.

As for the vehicles, buses have a comfort capacity equal to the number of seats, and a maximum capacity equal to seats plus standing load.

In the case of trams, it is more complicated. The nominal maximum capacity is calculated at four passengers per square metre of available floor space (a reasonably comfortable level), plus the number of seats.

As trams are designed to carry a large standing load, the ratio of standees to seats is quite high. The standing area is also important for the carrying of wheelchairs, pushchairs, shopping and sometimes bicycles. Some manufacturers quote maximum capacity using 6p/m2 while a figure of 8p/m 2 is used as a measure of crush capacity. This last figure is also employed to determine the motor rating of the vehicle.

A further complication is that even when there are seats available, some passengers prefer to stand. This may be because they are only travelling for a few stops, that they want to stretch their legs, or may just prefer to stand.

A tram’s comfort capacity can therefore be considered as the number of seats, plus the voluntary standees who may amount to up to 10-15% of the nominal maximum number of standing passengers.


It is the difference between the average passenger load for any particular time and the crush load which gives light rail its Elasticity Factor, allowing it to cope with variations in conditions such as sudden surges or emergency conditions.

Standing is made more acceptable by the design of track and vehicle, reducing the forces acting on the passenger to a minimum. This makes for a smooth ride, as well as ensuring ease of access, good support and the ability to see out without having to stoop.

Where a route is mainly urban with short journey times, the number of vehicles required should be calculated on the nominal maximum. On longer journeys outside the central area, a lower level may be more appropriate, dependent on the route’s characteristics. Even on rural sections, there are likely to be a a number of short distance riders, and the loading factor will increase nearer to the urban area.


While it might be thought desirable to offer every passenger a seat, it is in fact the ability to carry high loadings in a confined area (the Compressibility Factor) which enables light rail to achieve many environmental benefits, allowinglarge numbers of people to be carried withoutharming, and often improving, the features of a city.

It is city centres where several routes combine that the most capacity is required. A typical situation could be a pedestrian street with six routes operating at 10-minute headway giving 36 double coupled trams per hour each with a capacity of 225. This gives a nominal capacity of16 200 passengers per hour which can be increased to 25 200 pph in extremis without extra vehicles. Light rail is unique in this ability to operate on the surface with its capacity without detracting from the amenities which it serves.A further factor in setting the resources required is the need to lure motorists out of cars. The more difficult the traffic conditions, the higher the loadings will be acceptable. It is however important that crush loads are not allowed for morethan the shortest of periods on an infrequent basis, both to maintain customer satisfaction and prevent elasticity of the system being compromised.

It is vital that public transport can cope with sudden changes in demand, such as extreme inclement weather or air quality violations which can cause private traffic to be halted. This is where the elasticity inherent in light rail is so beneficial in enabling an instant response in an economical fashion. A tram may be crowded, but its infinitelybetter than having to wait in the snow of smog untilextra vehicles are brought into service.

It is this unique combination of Capacity, Compressibility and Elasticity rather than capacity alone which makes light rail so successful as an urban transport mode.

 Note Statistics are based on Karlsruhe, using GT/8 cars

GT-8 Tram/TramTrain

GT-8 Tram/TramTrain


  1. The sad fact is that the system that was demonstrated by Bombardier at the 2012 Olympics—here in Vancouver—is now operating in Edmonton (Valley Line), and between Kitchener and Waterloo (Ion Line).

    In both cases the new lines cost less to build that the Broadway tunnel, or the projected costs for the Langley extension, carry more passengers (more capacity, elasticity and compressibility), and are cheaper to maintain and operate. Although the maintenance and operations costs will be hard to prove, given Transport Canada does not make available annual or biannual reports on operating costs for all systems in Canada—like happens in other nations. And Translink plays all its cards close to its chest.

    On the basis of simple passenger capacity, Edmonton carries 275 passengers per car; Kitchener 251; and the new Expo Line MarkV 135. Edmonton and Kitchener are Flexity systems that can couple up to 4 cars per train set. After the uprade is completed, and the new rolling stock delivered, the Skytrain will be operating 5 car train sets.

    However, as it has been pointed out in comments here on this blog, after 3 cars the Flexity lines in Alberta and Ontario will have to add more power to operate 4 car train sets. So for now we can count a maximum possible service of 3 x 275 in Edmonton (825 passengers); 3 x 251 in Kitchener-Waterloo (753); and 5 x 135 in Vancouver’s upgraded Skytrain (675).

    I’ll just float here the concern that the cost of the Skytrain upgrade is not justified by the added passenger capacity obtained. As with every decision since the Olympics, it would have been wiser to leave Skytrain where it stands—as a gold-plated People Mover—and put Streetcar|LRT on the Granville Island-Arbutus-Chilliwack interurban ROW of yore.

    In any case, operating at its maximum, Skytrain carries 675 passengers per train; Ion 753; and Valley 825. Since the Skytrain number is post-upgrade, perhaps a better comparison shows the passenger capacity on the Ion & Valley Lines after power upgrades—obtaining: 1004 & 1100 passengers respectively. Almost doubling the Skytrain 675 number.

    Traffic engineers typically specify 85% of crush load when comparing systems. Which would lower the numbers proportionately for all lines. The glaring difference between Skytrain and Streetcar|LRT (i.e. Ion and Valley lines) would remain unaffected.

    When we turn to consider the construction cost differences, we find they are gobsmacking.

    The Broadway tunnel is being built for just under $600 million per km ($540); Edmonton was completed last year for $138 million per km; and Kitchener-Waterloo two years ago for $46 million per km. No, that is not a typo: forty-six million per km for the Ion line—sign me up for three of those!!!

    The fact that must be appreciated is that the prohibitive costs of the Skytrain technology are just that: prohibitive. They STOP the Skytrain from being able to reach places where we can find land cheap enough to deliver houses to Canadians in quantities sufficient to meet or exceed demand. Which, if you follow my line of thinking, will end the Housing Crisis.

    More on that below, let’s finish with the trains first.

    1. Total cost for Broadway tunnel: $2.7 billion (5 km long)
    2. Total cost for Valley Line: $1.8 billion (13 km)
    3. Total cost for the Ion Line: $0.868 billion (19 km)
    4. Total cost for Skytrain upgrade: $2.5 billion (36 km)

    Now, neither Transport Canada nor Translink report transparently. Thus the cost for the Skytrain upgrade is being clouded behind layers of obfuscation. To the best of our knowledge we believe the cost shown here does NOT include electrification and cars.

    What is known is how much more capacity was bought for the $2.5+ billion: maximum passenger capacity per train for Skytrain will increase from 512 to 675 passengers per car, or an increase of 31% in the number of passengers per train.

    However, the $2.5 billion could have built 3 ION lines. And that is not all. Government still owns the BCER right-of-way from Granville Island to Chilliwack. Needing no land acquisition generates savings vis-a-vis the Ion line. Savings we calculate in the following manner:

    5. Total cost for a RftV|Leewood Line: $1.89 billion (130 km long)

    For the purposes of this discussion the system travels between Marpole and Chilliwack. Service between Marpole and Surrey is every 15 min.; Marpole-Abbotsford every 30 mins.; and Marpole-Chilliwack every 60 mins. The service might start with just one car carrying 300 passengers, plus a Bistro car with 75% as much capacity asthe first car, or 225 passengers. The combined capacity per train would be 525. Of course, more cars can be added as demand increases.

    *. *. *. *

    When we turn to consider the flip side of the ‘good urbanism’ equation—which considers transit to be a primary element or integral part of good cities, neighborhoods and towns—we discover a different kind of fog clouding government planning.

    On the side of building houses in sufficient quantity to meet or exceed demand, the contest sets up around what kind of ‘demand’ will be satisfied: demand for houses? Or demand for land?

    With the Skytrain-and-Towers bill, passed on a dark night in late November last year, with no consultation, debate curtailed, and just a bare-bones announcement, the provincial government staked the future of our province, and the well-being of our people, on their wager that the way to End the Housing Crisis was to build more towers. For government demand for buildings trumps demand for land.

    A curious contention since we began building Skytrain-and-Towers in the 1980s (planning started at the very beginning of that decade), and all we have to show for it is the steady rise in the price of housing. Of course, there is also the creep in the footprint of where land valuations are inflating at break-neck pace, growing from the core into the periphery.

    However, no one disputes fact that the increase in house prices ‘is all in the land.’ This may be the only place in the entire project of providing affordable houses where there is a broad consensus.

    Yet, if the increase is ‘all in the land,’ then how is it possible that we have government ‘growing’ the supply of towers, but not the supply of land?

    ******If the rise in price is ‘all in the land,’ clearly the commodity that is in demand is land, not towers. And if we are to access more land—just as clearly—the Skytrain is the wrong technology to get the job done.*****

    Of course, we have yet to account for a dirty little secret. Over the past 40+ years government has been repositioning itself to keep homeowner’s taxes the lowest in North America, while shifting to extract all new revenue from development fees collected from the towers.

    Thus, under a corporatized model of governance, it pays for government to keep the Housing Crisis going because only that course of action will keep the cash cow alive, and keep revenues flowing to City Hall. Though it is not unconceivable that the Province is moving in to extract its own pound of bacon.

    Yet, as we have shown already, the Skytrain is a gold-platted People Mover, serving just 9% of the Metro Vancouver region, with 0% chance of ever reaching our neighboring regions in Squamish-Lillooet-Whistler, and the Fraser Valley. Fulfilling any desire to increase the supply of land, by increasing access to land beyond the Skytrain footprint of service, would require a new transit technology.

    *. *. *. *

    What we failed to appreciate as the Regional Growth Strategies were being hatched, was that ‘High Densities’ would precipitate ‘High Prices.’

    What has been achieved by building the Skytrain-and-Towers paradigm is perpetrating a fraud on the people. The Skytrain—a People Mover—is being passed off for a regional transit system. And the towers are being passed off as environmentally responsive, socially responsible urban form.

    Of course, these propositions are nothing but lies. The Towers-and-Skytrain both build with concrete, steel and glass. Materials all with gargantuan carbon footprints.

    In contrast, building in the regional vernacular, with renewable, value-added, light and earthquake proof forestry materials, we can not only guarantee affordable houses in quantities sufficient to meet or exceed demand, but we can do something else just as important.

    By switching to the hybrid Streetcar|LRT technology, and keeping the Skytrain in its proper People Mover role serving the core of the regions, we can give citizens access to land where we will live in sustainable neighborhoods and towns, a walking distance away from fast and efficient transit.

    Another aspect of the fraud being perpetrated by government is confusing hyper-density for high-density.

    Building in the local vernacular at four storeys in height, we can build 10,000 doors in a quarter section of land, with all households living not more than a 5 minute walking distance from the tram stop. That is high density. Tower neighborhoods are hyper-density. The difference is that =the crowding created by the hyper-densities brings along all sorts of social problems, elevated crime rates, and environmental degradation.

    Thus, along the Vancouver-Chilliwack interurban corridor, 2.2 million souls will be able to live in guaranteed affordable houses, in revitalized neighborhoods and new towns, strung along the new transit routes, served by Streetcar|LRT.

    The Streetcar|LRT, with its hybrid capacity to operate in the core and the periphery, will finally make possible the age old dream living where the food is grown. This will provide local farmers with the benefit of a supplemental income from selling product to their neighbors.

    In fact, the tram trains themselves can be fitted with cars to transport farm goods to markets along the network.

    *. *. *. *

    It is always difficult to see just where to begin to unravel the ball of twine. If you look back to the top of this comment, you will see that the Expo Line travels 36 km, vs the Marpole-Chilliwack Line’s 130 km.

    The upgrade to the Expo Line we calculate will cost $2.5 billion; while the Marpole-Chilliwack Line will cost $1.89 billion.

    You see the Bizarro math that is presenting?

    One system locks citizens inside a narrowly inscribed footprint covering about 9% of Metro Vancouver. The other provides inter-regional service, and access to land in sufficient quantity to meet or exceed demand.

    Only by adding land supply can we hope to End the Housing Crisis.

    Only transit technologies capable of travelling 200 km will break us free of the Crisis. The Skytrain costs too much to ever get much further than Coquitlam and Langley. The North Shore? Forget it!

    Other concerns in the region can be dealt with in a similar manner.

    Streetcar|LRT can connect UBC with Downtown and Stanley park for the cost of the first kilometer of tunnel NOT built west of Arbutus.

    Rather than build an 8 km tunnel to UBC at 12-times the cost of Streetcar|LRT, we can build 96 km of the hybrid technology for the same price. Given that the 16 km Pratt-Livingston corridor will be upgraded free of charge by terms of lease, that nets a total 112 km of service for the price of the UBC tunnel.

    A six km tunnel under Burrard Street and the Burrard Inlet will not only finally take transit to the North Shore, but it will provide a subway under Burrard Street—Vancouver’s Great Street—in the downtown. Jump on the train downtown, and the next stop after Waterfront will be Lonsdale Quay.

    The Canada Line would be able to use the Burrard Tunnel to reach Whistler and beyond (Mt. Currie). Canada Line trains, being pulled along railway mainlines by DMUs, would offer a direct connection between North America’s premier skiing destination and the International airport at YVR.

    And so on. The Marpole-Chilliwack Line will serve Delta, Newton, Clovverdale, Langley, the Township of Langley, Abbotsford, Huntingdon, Cultus Lake, Chilliwack and Rosedale.

    Skytrain will NEVER reach these places.

    It would appear that the REAL “Question of Capacity” lies with government. Where the ability to understand the synergies required to grow ‘good urbanism’ without triggering a Crisis in Housing Affordability are still not understood today.

  2. Haveacow says:

    The other big issue with the Skytrain (Light Metros in general), the “Light” in Light Metros denotes not only a smaller capacity than a full scale metro (like the Toronto Subway or the Montreal Metro) its the lighter capacity infrastructure that comes a long with its supposed lower “Light” capital cost. This is a bid rabbit hole actually. The lightness of the Light Metro is supposed to allow for high frequencies in use. However, high frequency service wears out infrastructure faster and since it’s already “lighter” infrastructure anyway, said infrastructure won’t last anywhere near as long as standard metro infrastructure or LRT infrastructure for that matter.

    Stations and rights of way that are above grade, like Skytrain, actually cost more to upgrade than tunneled or below grade infrastructure cost to upgrade. Mainly because everything has to have extra support against gravity as work goes on with the upgrade project. It’s relatively speaking, easier to expand a tunnel station because you simply build into the existing tunnel. Whereas with an above grade station, you are building a 2 to 3 story tall building extension onto an existing structure.

    Don’t get me started on the ever increasing cost of structural concrete, reinforced with rebar! Rail rapid transit systems that limit its use are not only better for the environment (curing concrete gives off enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses) but definitely lowers capital costs and makes upgrades, done usually decades after the original line opens, a whole lot cheaper.

  3. Haveacow says:

    @Lewis N Villegas has a good point, the lower cost of the simple surface LRT, Tram Train or hybrid diesel LRT (a DMU or EMU as LRT similar to Ottawa’s Trillium Line & Airport Branchline aka, Line #2 & #4) makes longer lines and therefore a bigger network thus accessing more land supply over a greater area.

    What was always important was the Skytrain’s sheer lack of scalability. When you build a Skytrain line it can never be a simple construction. It has to be a full station with no fewer than 2 platforms multiple elevators and escalators and nearly always multiple level structures. Therefore the high complexity and cost of station construction leaves us with only stations that can generate major amounts of passengers. This severely limits the number of station opportunities, while also severely limiting the number of places the lines can serve.

    The original O-Train stations were simple surface passenger platforms with heated bus shelters, most of the time, with single track and therefore single platform stations. Good placement of passing tracks, allowed surprisingly, relatively high frequency service. This means stations could be inexpensive and vehicle fleets didn’t have to be massive in size. This means longer lines and more places serviced.

    As part of Stage 2 LRT, we spent $810 Million and got a 20 km main line (Line#2), with a 4 km long airport branchline (Line #4), station platforms as long as Skytrain platforms (80 m long) 8 to 10 minute service frequency using a fleet of only 13 vehicles (6 Alstom Coradia Lint 41 DMU’s and 7 new Stadler FLIRT DMU’s).

    Plus a badly needed, new maintenance facility. The old one was an overly modified, 65 year old, undersized, ex-CPR diesel switcher servicing facility, with an unstable floor and trackbed and no ability to grind or lathe its own wheels. The wheel lathe was too heavy for the floors of the original building or the single track, non-permanent vehicle cleaning facility that was built on the cheap beside the old diesel shop.

  4. Peter says:

    Another problem with the station/ tower model is the reaching of the maximum capacity. A prime example is the Canada Line from Richmond to Vancouver. Almost instantly, more than 30 towers were built around the starting terminus in Richmond. During the rush hour, by the time the train reaches the first Vancouver stop, Bridgeport, it is almost fully occupied. All the inbound suburban buses now terminate at Bridgeport, so the crowding becomes acute. Many times, one has to wait for the branch line to arrive from the airport. The next stop, Marine Drive also has numerous towers around it with more being built. A few stops along at Oakridge/ 41st, a planned community of 10+ towers with 6,000 occupants is being built. Unfortunately, because of bad future planning by TransLink, the Canada Line platforms are too small to be expanded, thus train lengths can’t be increased. The station/ tower model just doesn’t work along the Canada Line, but that doesn’t stop the rosy statements from the developer minded politicians.

    Zwei replies: The big problem with SkyTrain is, it is a light metro and because of the design and operation, lacks scalability.

    The Canada Line is that it was actually designed as a lucrative financial tool for the concessionaires, SNC Lavalin and the Caisse du Depot.

    The Canada Line’s limited capacity (around 9,000 pphpd crush) did not take into the account the agreement with the government and TransLink that all south Fraser buses that once service Vancouver proper, were now forced to terminate at Bridgeport Station to force transit customers onto the Canada line ………… Ca-Ching!

    This has had some big problems attached, as past transit customers stopped using transit. South Delta ridership on the once maxed our 602/3/4 express buses has all but collapsed, with once full to the brim buses now 75% empty. The same is true for South Surrey, except for the fact as local population exploded, has hidden the fact that on a per capita basis is almost 20% less!

    To increase capacity ion the Canada Line a now $2 billion must be spent retrofitting stations for at least 4-car trains (80 metre station platforms), which will happen after the 35 year operating concession has ended and the Canada Line is handed back to the taxpayers, only that $2 billion today, will be $3 billion plus!

    The other big problem is demographics as the older boomers are buying electric cars and shunning transit and Vancouver will not be a major destination, as businesses will flee the huge costs of doing business in the city.

    Basically the Canada Line was a politcal gimmick with no thought for the future and now we must suffer decades more of bad transit planning because the popitcians and bureacrats are so damned afraid to say “we got it wrong!”

  5. legoman0320 says:

    To Lewis N Villegas

    Olympic line LRT Flexity 2 rented out 2010 Winter Olympics hosted in Vancouver. Flexity freedom Operated by TTC, ION and ETS. Edmonton Plan their city for an extension. ION Built for reliability in comfort. Toronto LRT Line 5 with Flexity Freedom “Built because it was cheaper than a Subway.”lol, Most expensive LRT projects I have seen yet.

    A practical test Make a 1 m² is 1 Meter by 1 Meter. How comfortable you will be with 2 or 4 or 5 or 6 People in the same square as you. Skytrain uses the metric of 4 people per square meter. Other Transit agencies go off with the manufacturers 6 people per square meter. A comparable number between the mark 3 Skytrain vs flexity Freedom from the same manufacturer. Max of MK 3 skytrain 940 People per train vs Flexity Freedoms 3-4 set train maximum capacity 825-1,100 People per train. New SkyTrain MK 5 at 1,207 People Per train. All the number equal in vs at 6 people per square meter.

    Utilization of 85% the numbers would be at Flexity freedom 701-935 People purchase.
    MK 3 799 People per train.
    MK 5 1,025 People per train.
    There’s a noticeable 98 People difference LRT set 3 to MK 3
    Difference between LRT set 4 to MK 5 is 90 People.

    You comparison against the metro to LRT is a joke. But going for coverage networks need replace bus services with something better It’s a no-brainer to go with LRT System. Metros are used for high to Medium capacity corridors or directions across the city. Or in Lower mainland’s case build it Low capacity eventually to be at medium too high capacity down the road.

    Too major Skytrain upgrade is Signaling system in the new trains that we’re gonna replace the old ones. The electrical system Upgrade and replacement is under one time investment.

    It’s only a capacity increase 25% If you compare it to MK 3 but It’s replacing the older rolling stock MK 1 set 6 Capacity 480 People Per train. Is Increase 40% per train capacity.

    We still haven’t finished talking about how to fix the housing crisis. But here’s some my opinion.

    There’s 2 ways of increasing supply during the housing crisis. 1 Have more land available for building new houses. 2 having more units available on a per lot basis. Each one has a pro and con. Living in the lower mainland no more extra land without ruining the wonderful forest or parks in the lower mainland or Fraser valley. Only other bit of land is the agricultural land reserve Frederick protected land for agricultural purposes only. Towers have a better cost to benefit ratio for the consumer and the developer if all units can be filled. Currently, there is a backlog of housing developments and towers that are on hold because of labor shortages in the construction industry. There’s a reason why we have Translink to talk to the city planners and transit planners Integrity 2 things together really well. There’s a backlog of transit improvements that are not funded right now. Translink’s priority is to reduce overcrowding one of its mandates from the BC government. Priority on mass rapid transit projects like the SkyTrains extensions to shorten travel time across the region.

  6. legoman0320 says:

    Peter and mr Zwei

    P3 contractor has been pushing back against a service increases Stating that they don’t have enough ridership. In other words People are not gemming themselves into the trains.

  7. legoman0320 says:

    Mr haveacow

    If you were talking about the Canada line, you are right with the automatic train operations part of the higher frequencies( Anything greater than 5 minutes.) Heavier mass of the Canada line train lead to more decoration of the rail over time Vs MK car mass 21.5 Tons is feather weight compared to others LRT or Metro rolling stock. ALRT Designed to reduce wear and tear on rail and the axle. But Bogey Well maintained or TTC Line 4 accident.

    It’s not a matter of if it matters when we need to expand the EXPO line stations platform length.

    Rail rapid transit is significantly less than people using personal vehicle of GHG

  8. Major Hoople says:

    After reading the last comments, i was going to respond but, as with so much of your politic, invention takes the place of fact and those offering invention as legitimate debate embarrass themselves on an international basis.

    Why bother having automatic trains in the first place? At the low ridership your transit system achieves, compared to our metros, automatic operation must be costing you a lot of money.

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