TransLink’s Subway Fiscal Time Bomb – A Repost from 2013

The SkyTrain/metro Lobby remain mute on the long term fiscal effects of operating subways, especially on routes that have low ridership, say less than 15,000 pphpd.

Building a subway is a very expensive proposition and many factors should be considered before embarking on such a costly investment. The first questionAi??any knowledgeable transit planner must ask is; “Is the traffic flow along the subway line enough to sustain it?”

Generally speaking, if average traffic flows are less than 15,000 pphpd, a subway is not needed , as a surface transit route would be more economic. If a subway is built on a route with low ridership, then the subway must be subsidized, with the lower the ridership, the higher the subsidy.

There are many other expensive problems associated with subways, but one that is seldom admitted to is the extremely high maintenance costs that come with a subway. Subways must be cleaned as the accumulated debris and dirt because the piston like action of every passing train acts like a sandblaster on signalling and power equipment. As a subway ages, the maintenance costs escalate. German cities that joined the subway mania in the 60’s and 70’s are now ruing the decision as onerous maintenance costs for the subways have all but bankrupted many transit companies.

It is sad that Vancouver City hall and TransLink are infected with the subway mania and our transit planning shows this as it is 40 to 50 years out of date!

The Broadway SkyTrain subway is a throwback to earlier days, where “mass transit” schemes were built to win votes, built at a time when money was thought ‘cheap’ to borrow and ; “hell anyways, it is just built for show as we must keep the road clear for cars.

In 2013, politicians lose elections due to bad transit decisions; money is not cheap; there are way too many cars on the road, so much so that gridlock is a daily occurrence, and the European light rail Renaissance has not yet reached Vancouver.


The following is from a transit specialist from Germany.

When some light rail subway systems over here (Koeln, Bochum) converted some lines built for high-floor cars in the 60/70s to low-floor cars, they simply filled the trackbed in the stations with enough ballast to lift the rails up.

The operating and maintenance cost for all those escalators, lighting and ventilation of the tunnel stations (not to mention cleaning) etc. might kill such a project, however. Over here, the electricity bill just for all that tunnel-specific equipment is already typically higher than that for traction energy of the rolling stock.

Decades ago, they wanted to put the streetcars on grade-free tracks in order to reduce cost by running them driver-less.

Today, all transit operators that have buried their streetcars face serious financial problems due to the operating and maintenance cost of the grade-free infrastructure. It’s those operators that did not follow the “tunnel-mania” that have the lowest operating cost today. Burying streetcars turned out as a huge mistake.


14 Responses to “TransLink’s Subway Fiscal Time Bomb – A Repost from 2013”
  1. Rico says:

    Hi Zwei,

    ‘The Stadtbahn led to a surge in ridership. In 2001, KVB carried 234 million passengers. Between 1986 and 2001, the number of passengers of KVB, Kölner Verkehrsbetriebe, rose by 42%. Growth is unstoppable; each year sees more passengers, one record after another broken. KVB is probably the fastest-growing undertaking European light rail operator. Only 10% of the population never make use of any of KVB’s services, a survey found, so KVB regards 90% of the local population as its clients. The city of Köln through its annual surveys discovered that the part of the population who prefer to take the Stadtbahn for their inner city shopping on Saturday has gone up from 40% to 60% over the last five years. The 40-odd bus routes, all feeder lines for the rail system, are kept in the background by KVB.’ from the Light Rail Transit Association.

    ‘This huge traffic explains the willingness of local leaders to invest in new rail. The Stadbahn is growing much faster then suggested in this magazine, in its issue of April 1999, when the impression was that the system was more ore less complete, with the exception of the second north-south tunnel. But traffic has soared since, and so has willingness to pay for it. For a few years, the city government is dominated by the conservative CDU, often quite unenthusiastic about light rail, but the merits of the Stadtbahn (with an average commercial speed of 26.3 km/h among the best in Germany) are such that the CDU councillors continue to approve new investments. In 2001, KVB reached an impressive cost recovery rate of 69.3%, with operating losses amounting to an acceptable EUR 90 million per year.’

    Zwei replies: Actually Rico, Stadbahn is LRT. Putting it in a subway has created massive financial problems.

  2. Rico says:


    Of course Stadtbahn is LRT. Koeln was specifically an example you cited above. An example of extensive LRT/tram subway segments (34km and counting). An example with good, rapidly increasing transit usage and good cost recovery. An example where they continue to plan subway segments on the constrained sections. What part of 69% cost recovery is causing the ‘massive financial problems’? A link to these ‘problems’ may help me understand better…..

    Zwei replies: you completely fail to understand that subways are are extremely expensive to build and maintain. As subways age, they demand more and more money to maintain them and these costs have crippled transit authorities who have to find funds to maintain them. Our subways are rather new, wait 20 years and the maintenance costs will be extremely high.

    Does TransLink have a VAC train to vacuum it’s subways? No? If not, the subway environment will greatly increase both vehicle and signalling maintenance costs.

  3. Rico says:


    Maybe an example of a transit authority where subway maintainance costs have crippled the transit authority…..since the example you provided seems to be a successful transit agency and does not seem crippled.

    Zwei replies: Toronto, New york, London, Boston, Paris, and just about every city that has a subway.

    Most German cities that have subways are in financial distress and require a lot of subsidy (read increased taxes and user fees). As subways suck up a lot of the taxpayers dollars, their transit system tend to stagnate and new transit lines are planned for but never built. Your lack of knowledge and using selective numbers to try to prove your case just doesn’t wash and unless a subway line is catering to extremely large passenger flows, 15,000 pphpd plus, the subway becomes a financial anchor.

    A Broadway subway will be obsolete before it will be completed; little capacity, unwanted transfer, and huge costs will make it a bit of a joke in international circles. Sadly, the joke will be on the regional taxpayer.

  4. Rico says:

    I think you just listed what most people consider to be the best transit systems in the world (although I would add a couple of Swiss and Asian cities to the list of best transit systems)….and most of the those transit agencies would be shocked to discover that subway maintainance costs have crippled them (especially since every city (not sure about Boston) on the list has amazing cost recoveries….because of their highly used subway systems) ….Toronto has the best cost recovery in North America and I think New York has the best cost recovery in America. I will throw you a bone and say I think Boston and Chicago have lots of deferred maintainance on their systems, but hey after 100years with no serious investments since the 1950s or 60s what do you expect…..

    Please provide some info on the German cities with subways in financial distress you keep talking about. One of two examples you gave was Koeln (the other was Bochum but I know nothing about that city) which has a 69% cost recovery, the second highest per capita transit trips in Germany and they are working on another subway LRT/tram section (with major problems but that is specific to the construction of that segment not the network). If you include heavy rail subways (Ubahn) almost all of the top performing German cities for trips per capita have Ubahns (the exeption seems to be Halle which has excellent per capita transit trips and is just Strassebahn (again a city I know little about) and many have Ubahns and Stadtbahns…I am not seeing evidence of financial distress based on subway segments….I am seeing evidence of improved transit usage in German cities with Subway segments. It could be I do not know enough about the German situation to see it so send me a link or a source (of course you won’t because you are you…).

    Are you still spouting that 15,000pphpd crap about subways? Really? You probably need more than that to justify the 2nd ave subway in New York because the cost is so high, but you need way less than that to justify it in Spain because subway costs are so low in Spain. A cursory look shows the Expo line has justified full grade separation (by every conceivable metric). The Millenium line and Canada line may or may not have been justified for full grade separation AT THIS POINT IN TIME but by the time a Broadway segment is completed both will also clearly justify full grade separation….so build for now (and have to upgrade later) or build for a reasonably close future….

    Zwei replies: As usual Rico, you don’t get it. Even cities with large metro systems, with large networks of tunnels, carrying a vast number of people are also in financial peril. Smaller cities, with subways are in or nearing financial suicide. Subways are a massive financial investment and are only considered on the most heavily used routes, where long trains demand grade separation and a puny SkyTrain subway under Broadway, with its limited capacity is just inviting financial oblivion.

  5. Rico says:

    I take it that means you have no source (like always).

    Zwei replies: Most of the info comes from industry news letters, trade magazines and alike, much of it not on line. In fact items on line may tend not to accurate, unlike info coming straight from industry. Your problem, like most trolls, cite questionable studies, etc. to support your hypotheses. Knowledgeable people in the field, tend to dismiss you as a nuisance and so do I.

  6. Haveacow says:

    I would suggest that the financial problems of cities operating subway /metro systems are for the most part subject to impossible standards that it also highly depends on who is doing the measuring. Let me explain. Toronto and New York for example have extremely high cost to fair recovery rates at last check, 2012, TTC 75%, NYCTA 78%. However I have seen many contradictory articles in the Toronto Sun and Star claiming the TTC is vastly inefficient and should be run by private companies because they are run by spend thrift politicians. Also in both papers I have seen many articles praising the TTC because it is more less fairly efficient. Both papers have contradictory articles about the same subjects it just really depends on what the individual writer is frothing over at that point.

    In Germany most transit systems have a wide variety of financial performance factors the cost recovery being just one. Whether it is a success is based on usage but with a sliding scale of subsidy applied to them. For example certain U-Bahn lines that break 30% cost recovery is fantastic, (they tend to be much smaller trains than most of the S-bahn line trains).

    Here if you had a subway line that only broke 30% during its best times well, just say it would not be operating. In New York the conservative group, The Riders Union of New York generally believes if a subway line does not clear a profit it should be closed. Many systems in the states were in dire circumstances because the funding grants that many transit systems were allowed to put into special private mutual funds for transit operating costs lost up 40% of their value in 2008, meaning they were receiving much less money from these funds and suddenly had to slash next years budget. Transit systems in Portland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Atlanta have yet to recover so much service had to be slashed. In everyone of these cities people blame the Rail Transit as the problem because they had never really understood how their systems were actually being funded.

    Will a light metro system on Broadway be overkill yes, but a LRT line also needs a high degree of monitoring and any surface LRT Line also must deal with the willingness of the road departments that control the intersection traffic signals to be willing to fully implement the green light sustaining system and the red light shortening systems that will greatly effect their signal systems. Toronto has actually had these systems on the Harborfront and St. Clair lines for years but the City’s road department still refuses to fully implement the system in their traffic signals. So for some in Toronto saying that the new LRT lines will be almost as fast as fast a subway but cheaper doesn’t hold any water because they don’t believe it because, they either think the road department still won’t let the TTC use these traffic signal control systems or they don’t want to be slowed down even more in their car by a LRT Line.

    My final point, being a system that is considered a success is dependant on whom and what they actually consider success to be. Are all cities with the pre METRO tunnels in financial trouble because of them maybe, but it really depends on whom you ask. Is the financial trouble related to the tunnel, bad construction, or the fact that in most cases the financial conditions may have changed that made continuing construction of these tunnels difficult. Oil embargos during the early 70’s and the continued high relative cost of oil compared to 1967 for example doomed an entire generation of supersonic airliners in all but 2 operations. Even the Soviet SST had to be grounded due to cost and maintenance issues.

  7. Rico says:

    Knowledgeable people can cite sources. Believe it or not good libraries carry industry news letters and trade magazines so you can cite those for me (for those please cite issue and year).

    Zwei replies: i find the more dishonest a person is, the more he/she cites sources. Real experts know.

  8. Rico says:

    I am a real expert and ‘I know’ you are full of it.

    Zwei replies: Ha, ha, ha. We have no real transit experts in Vancouver, except for career bureaucrats who seem to know little about transit. Unless you have a degree in “Urban Transportation”, you haven’t a clue. In fact in BC, anyone can call themselves a transit expert, as there is no legal definition.

  9. Rico says:

    Actually on a more serious note I think you discount one of the most important aspects of citing sources….it allows you to go to the information yourself and check the context and accuracy of the information. Stats Can good, unlikely to be biased, RfV……

    Zwei replies: Most of the facts I get come from periodicals and special releases and are not on line. it is so easy to source an on line for this or that, crafted to suit your argument. Real experts publish books and periodicals, faux experts quote on line. Do you have any of the Hass-Klau studies? I have purchased all four at great expense.

  10. Fix Transit says:

    “i find the more dishonest a person is, the more he/she cites sources. Real experts know.”

    This is just about the stupidest comment I’ve read on this blog — and it saddens me to read it here because I support evidence based transit planning rather than what we appear to have which is a real estate venture/monument building/pork barreling driven approach.

    Making such a statement which amounts to “just trust me” only undermines the credibility of the writer and this blog and it does nothing to either advance the discussion or support your argument.

    Currently, the only support you’ve provided for the original post is an unattributed quote from a “german specialist”. Why is this specialist not named? Why is the publication not named? Are there other sources? Does this apply to only Germany? If this is an opinion that’s fine, we can read it and treat it as that but don’t defend it as fact without supporting that statement – or at least don’t be surprised that it will be challenged.

    A blog that keeps complaining of the lack of evidence to support decisions on transit at the regional and provincial level should really make an effort to ensure that it provides (links or references to) the evidence on which it bases its positions.

    Honest reporters or writers don’t ask their readers to trust them, they provide the means for them to check for themselves and arrive at the same conclusions. They are guides that point out relevant evidence and outline connections between facts. They welcome challenges to their interpretation and corrections to their story so that (as much as possible) the truth can uncovered.

    But on top of that, responses like those above make a writer look like either a bully, a lazy writer, or worse a dishonest one – which is far more damaging than just leaving doubts about the truth of the statement. Dismissal of your critics (‘nuisance’, ‘trolls’) and appeals to real or phantom authority (“real experts”) does not bolster your position at all (see ).

    Leaving out references is also counterproductive. If you provide absolutely no means to verify your statement, only those who already trust or know you will believe it, or those ideologically inclined to do so (aka the choir). Citing sources isn’t just a means of shutting up a commenter, it helps to convince the people on the fence and it gives something to supporters that they can use to convince others and share beyond the readership here.

    You should not view answering critics as a nuisance but as an opportunity; an opportunity to further educate your readership, to address misconceptions, misinterpretations, and potential falsehoods that could spread. If the critiques are not worth addressing, then it would be better to ignore them than to respond with a petty and uninformative retort that simply gives the comment more importance than it would otherwise have deserved.

    Imagine reading these kinds of replies from a Translink representative or a politician trying to defend something they said. What would it take before you believed them? Hold yourself to the same standard you would want from those you so vociferously critique.

    Only good came come of it. This blog, this cause, and all of us who are concerned with this issue can only benefit.

    Zwei replies: I find those who want to distort the truth, do it by cunningly cite this or that on line. But many real facts are not on-line, because the periodicals they are in do not put them on-line.

    The LRT/SkyTrain debate is long and nasty in Vancouver because so many professionals have backed SkyTrain, yet the mode has been made obsolete by modern LRT. This means that decisions made by those very same professionals supporting SkyTrain, are now open for scrutiny and assumptions made then are open for debate and maybe, just maybe, censure.

    That no one buys with SkyTrain, or the mode has never been allowed to compete against modern LRT (those decisions by certain professionals) is telling. If there were just two other SkyTrain systems, operating as the main R?T system in North America, would weaken Zwei’s case considerably, but the only SkyTrain seriously used as an urban transit mode, the Scarborough R/T in Toronto, is schedule for abandonment in the near future.

    For the SkyTrain Lobby, the truth is there, without need to cite this or that, to deem the mode obsolete, unfortunately, dishonesty by the SkyTrian Lobby, as reflected in this blog, tends to support Zwei’s contention that SkyTrain is obsolete. No one builds with it anymore, get over it.

  11. zweisystem says:

    There has been much said about citing sources, well, this blog is perused by several professional engineers, including the Cardinal, Haveacow, and several who correspond privately with me and if I say something with factual basis, it will be corrected.

    The problem is, most studies supporting SkyTrain are deliberately done that way, but they do make a good source to cite, in an email exchange. Yet I fall back to my basic question, that no one in the SkyTrain Lobby are willing to answer. “Why, after being on the market for over 35 years only seven SkyTrain type systems have been built; of which only three are seriously used for urban transit?”

    Gerald Fox’s (a real transit expert in the USA) comment; “It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding. In the US, 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 analysed honestly, and the taxpayers’ interests are protected. No SkyTrain project has ever passed this scrutiny in the US.” holds true and if modern LRT is so inferior to SkyTrain, why then does no one build with SkyTrain and everyone build with LRT?

    Until the SkyTrain Lobby answers that question honestly, their wailing and gnashing of teeth over not citing sources, rings awfully hollow.

  12. Rico says:

    Fix Transit,

    You expressed it better than me. But Zwei is so intrenched in his positions he will not change and he just does not have the sources to support a lot of what he says. Zwei, periodicals are sources you can cite. If we can’t access them on line and we can’t get them from an intra library loan that is our problem not yours….but you would be surprised at what is available between online and library loans, especially if you have access to UBC.

    Gerald Fox just wishes that Portland got the ridership and cost recovery Vancouver does (and is probably embarrassed about his 1989 study that has turned out so very wrong (for those who don’t know he studied operating costs of automated systems focusing on Skytrain in 1989 using information on the Skytrain from 1986 to 1988 (it may have been 1987) when Skytrain was just built in 1986 from this he concluded that Skytain operating costs were higher for Skytrain than conventional LRT (which on the brand new system was true) of course not unsurprisingly operating/maintainance costs for Skytrain (by boarding) has decreased every year (except the strike year 2001) since and conventional LRT operating cost averages in North America have risen…Skytrain operating costs have been lower than the North American average for decades (I am pretty sure the only LRT with lower operating/maintainance costs per rider is Calgary although the Calgary info I have is pretty old and Vancouver may have passed Calgary by now)…..
    Plenty of people build mini-metros or intermediate capacity systems Zwei I believe even you should be able to grasp that NOBODY but you cares if it is Skytrain by Bombardier or Rotem or Alstrom. Some care if it is LIM or not but not many. Grade separated, short (or not) high frequency (likely automated) is what makes ‘Skytrain’ so successful (like many many other ‘intermediate capacity’ systems). By the way how many times do I in my position of ‘skytrain lobby’ (do you think I can get a paycheck for that…maybe a tax credit?) do I need to answer your repetitive question?
    ps have you noticed I generally only comment when the bullshit gets too thick or you attack something (undeservedly) in a very negative way? Disputing irrefutable facts like Tram/LRT ridership versus Metro ridership does nothing for your cause. Trams/LRT are great systems used in many many places but it is very easy to pull up the data and see they do not have very much ridership compared to metro systems (London has the 12th largest ridership of metro systems world wide 12th…Beijing has more than 3.2 billion annual rides). Argue for the benefits of Trams/LRT don’t make stuff up and don’t bash everything else just because it is not Tram/LRT. It is equally easy to look at things like mode share (via Stats Can). Why attack the relative success of Vancouver, why dispute something that is easy to check and from an unbiased source?

  13. Swiss Tony says:

    @ Rico,
    Well you said, your final paragraph is a clincher; in admitting that you are a paid Skytrain lobbyist you have surrendered your impartiality by pocketing the thirty pieces of silver to sign your name to the company disinformation.

    Sure both London & Beijing have heavy rail metro’s with annual ridership in the millions, there is no comparison with little old Vancouver Rico, which really is the boondocks.

  14. Rico says:

    Swiss Tony,

    Are you not capable of reading humor into a comment? Actually look at what I wrote. Also note London and Beijing and many other metros have annual ridership in the BILLIONS. Vancouver has annual ridership in the hundreds of millions and yes it is small compared to the big metros (but large compared to North American tram/LRT ridership).

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