Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

Above: The Canada Line at Marine Dr. Station. Featured photo by Larry Chen.

There’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to the big numbers that define the planning of transit systems in Canada. It’s particularly evident when transit technology becomes a matter of discussion.

Of course, millions of dollars are at stake. So there’s no doubt that when the cost estimate for a major project is higher by so much as a few million dollars, it’s the kind of thing that sends transit advocates scrambling to get attention and some people in the media practically screaming.

So I decided to take all the recent and upcoming Light Rail projects in Canada, research their costs and alignment details, and put them in a table for proper comparison. I put the data in a Google spreadsheet:

All projects were included regardless of technology. Alignment was divided by percentage and split into/measured in 7 categories: on-street, above-grade (i.e. elevated), below-grade (i.e. tunnel, open cut), disused R.O.W. (i.e. railway R.O.W., other empty lands), bored tunnel (the most expensive kind of tunnelling), shared-lane (on-street in mixed traffic like a streetcar), and the total at-grade percentage.

Trends

Since the transit planning complaints here in Vancouver always seem to be directed at grade-separation, I decided to focus on seeing if there was a cost trend regarding the amount of grade separation for the line.

Same data as above, but sorted by amount of grade-separation

What I found is that there is a trend that occurs when the chart data is pinpointed on a graph and assessed by percentage, but it’s very inconsistent and the projects are all over the map:

Percentage below or above-grade

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Several projects end up below the average and several end up above it. As an example, there’s a difference in the four projects on this chart closest to the 100% mark. The highest mark is for the proposed Scarborough extension of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line, which will be fully underground. The lowest mark is from the estimate for a SkyTrain Expo Line extension in Surrey, which will be fully grade-separated but built in an elevated guideway as opposed to a tunnel.

Despite the use of grade-separation, many of the highest-cost projects are not fully grade-separated and feature many at-grade segments that can limit potential. Even projects with only about 20% grade-separation can come close to or even breach $200 million per km.

Below-grade segments

In order to account for the differences associated with much more expensive below-grade (tunnelled) segments, I took the data and assessed it by percentage below-grade and found a much steeper and more consistent trend-line:

Percentage below-grade

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The amount of systems at the 100% mark has decreased from 4 to 3, and the trend-line now hits the middle of these three dots. The middle dot, closest to the line, is the current ongoing extension of Toronto’s Yonge-University Spadina subway line. The lowest dot is the cost estimate for the ‘Broadway Subway’ (the Millennium Line’s proposed extension down Broadway), which is below the trend-line but is built around a medium-capacity system unlike Toronto’s fully-fledged, high-capacity subway.

Still, there are some differences to account for in terms of alignment. At the 45-50% mark there are two projects that deviate both from the trend-line and from each other.

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The vast majority of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be placed in a large and expensive underground tunnel

The higher of these two marks, at $279 million per km, is the Eglinton Crosstown LRT being built in Toronto. The Crosstown was planned as an on-street LRT system, but the central portion will be placed in a 10km dual underground bored tunnel, which spans more than half of the final construction.  The lower of these two marks is actually our SkyTrain system’s Canada Line. The Canada Line is a fully grade-separated light metro and a slightly higher total percentage of it is below grade. However, only a much smaller portion of this is expensive bored tunnel – the rest was done as less expensive cut-and-cover. Therefore, it manages to be less expensive despite the full grade-separation.

Bored tunnels

To account for that difference I created one more plot excluding everything but projects with bored tunnel segments. The plot line managed to stay the almost same, and the relationship between high capital costs and tunnels is thus made clear:

Percentage bored

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Since only 13% of the Canada Line was built in a bored tunnel, it is now to the left of where it was in the last chart and sitting very close to the trend-line (the Eglinton Crosstown is also closer to the trend-line). Meanwhile, our Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which encountered challenging soils with its single tunnel bore, is right on the trend-line when set amongst the other systems.

Canada can’t be compared to Europe

The Tyee has probably been one of the most prominent to sound the cost-comparison alarm when they published a 2012 article titled, “Why Is TransLink’s Price for Light Rail Triple What Other Cities Pay?”

This article surmised that our Light Rail cost estimates are triple what they should be, based on cost estimates being about one-third as much in European and American cities. (And it was, of course, brought up as a way of hurling tomatoes at the idea of a Broadway Subway line – which is still a great idea for a number of reasons).

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Nice try, Tyee – but the Hiawatha Blue Line is largely off-street and incomparable to Broadway!

Interestingly, of all the American cities that could’ve been chosen in the comparison, it was Minneapolis and its Hiawatha Blue Line. This comparison is invalid as over 80% of the line is placed in either disused R.O.W. or tunnel, with only 20% of it being on-street. All of the other examples are from cities in Europe.

Regardless of whether you believe these numbers or not, the reality is that transit projects and their costs are more complicated than being able to be broken down into a simple cost-per-km value that can apply nationwide, across nations, or across transit projects. There are differences in labour laws, work schedule expectations, material costs, acquisition costs, logistics costs, varying land values, differences in local terrain and differences in economy. All of these need to be accounted for and thus it can’t be assumed that a transit project that cost a certain amount in Europe (or any other country, really) could be replicated in Canada for a similar cost.

Here in Vancouver, for example, any big rapid transit projects are likely to cost more than anywhere else in Canada simply because the higher cost of land would likely significantly raise the costs of project elements such as the operations & maintenance centre (OMC).

Despite this, at the end of the day, both the Broadway Subway and the LRT proposals were consistent with the trendlines across Canadian rapid transit systems.

On-street LRTs

To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:

Percentage on-street LRTs

Open to enlarge

From the wide spectrum in cost of what would otherwise be similar at-grade, on-street LRTs, it may appear that The Tyee would have a point. Even this can be explained, however. The two lowest-cost systems on this chart are Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION rapid transit and the proposed Victoria LRT system. They also happen to have the highest percentages (44% and 31% respectively) on a disused right-of-way (i.e. beside a railway), which is the least expensive place to build any transit because there’s no utility removal, property acquisition or street-scaping work adding to the cost.

highway_401_at_hurontario_street_9192877703

With a right-of-way this wide, the Hurontario LRT is not going to need a lot of property acquisition.

In the middle are the Mississauga and Hamilton systems, which are slightly lower than the big-city systems in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto (they are also among the 3 systems with occasional mixed-traffic rights-of-way), which seems just right to me. The Mississauga system (Hurontario LRT), in particular, is being built on a wide roadway that in most places still has significant allocations on either side where the roadway can be expanded if necessary (in other words, there’s almost no property acquisition).

The cost for a Broadway LRT system is certainly on the high-end of the spectrum. This makes sense as a Broadway system would need to offer the highest capacity of all of these systems and would face street-scaping challenges with the need to stay within property lines (though this won’t stop property acquisitions from being necessary at station locations). There’s also the uncertainty around an OMC, which would have likely had to be built underground and/or expensively due to the lack of lands along Broadway and high land costs in Vancouver.

Conclusion

In the end, the amount of bored tunnel has a somewhat linear relation with project costs – but grade-separation altogether does not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid building systems with bored tunnel segments from end-to-end (at the end of the day, whether to go that far or not should come down to detailed evaluations of each corridor and transportation needs), but what I do hope to achieve with this article is to facilitate an improvement in the discussion of rapid transit projects (Especially capital costs, since it seems to be the only thing people want to talk about when thinking of rapid transit projects – I, of course, completely disagree).

It’s time to stop thinking that we can build paradise if we replicate the results of other countries, at the costs those other countries experience – it’s impossible. Let’s build transit systems that are adapted to the way our cities work, so that we are sure to be rewarded with positive outcomes.

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Fukuoka to extend SkyTrain subway

Featured above: The Nanakuma Line in Fukuoka uses LIM propulsion (SkyTrain technology)

Above video: (Japanese) report about the Nanakuma Line extension project in the City of Fukuoka

Japanese cities are leading the way in their investment in the same linear motor technology systems powering the Vancouver SkyTrain system.

A few weeks ago, the City of Fukuoka confirmed a major 1.6km extension of its Nanakuma Subway line, from its present terminus in Tenjin-Minami to the city’s intercity train terminal at Hakata Station. This extension will create a new extension from the south end of the Tenjin city centre area to Hakata Station, while passing underneath Canal City – a major mall in the city and Japan’s largest private development complex.

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Map of the Nanakuma Line extension on the Fukuoka city website

This extension will make the Nanakuma Line more accessible to intercity travellers arriving via the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Osaka, Kagoshima or Nagasaki at Hakata Station, and it will also improve transfers to the city’s Airport Line subway and connections to the airport, by allowing travellers to bypass the most congested section of the airport line at Nakasu-Kawabata.

Construction for this extension is already ongoing and is visible on Fukuoka’s city streets. The new extension is expected to be complete by 2020.

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I am pleased to hear about this extension as Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, the southwestern area of Japan where I lived in during my past year. In my time there I made frequent visits to the city, including frequent use of its subway lines. The Nanakuma Line was the first “SkyTrain technology” subway I visited, right after I arrived last September.

Sendai opening brand new SkyTrain technology line next week

Next week, Sendai will be proceeding with the opening of its east-west Tozai Line – a brand new subway system constructed with linear motor (SkyTrain) technology.

The City of Sendai has already hosted a test ride, attended by over 6000 would-be passengers of the new rapid transit line.

Above video: (Japanese) news report showing test rides last week on the Sendai Subway Tozai Line

The test rides were successful and the line is on track to open for revenue service in exactly 1 week on December 6, 2015.

Recommended reads:

We can learn from Japan on transit delays/incidents

Video shows that in Japan, even the train evacuations are orderly 【RocketNews24】

As reliable as Japan’s public transportation system is, with so many trains running from morning to night, eventually some sort of problem is going to occur. Passengers heading to work or school in central Kobe had their commute interrupted at approximately 8 a.m. on November 16, when it was discovered that an overhead line had snapped on the Japan Railways (JR) Kobe Line between Kobe and Motomachi Stations.

Seeing that the repairs would take some time to complete, some 5,000 passengers were instructed to leave the carriages, which were stopped in an empty stretch of the tracks, and walk to the nearest station, as directed by JR staff who were on the scene.

Even in Japan, which is known for having one of the world’s supposedly most “punctual” train systems, delays and incidents can occur. Last week in Kobe, this was the scene on the city’s main JR rapid transit line after an incident with an overhead power-line was found, requiring a full shut-down of the system in Kobe and service disruptions throughout the 194km-long intercity rapid transit line.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it does resemble some of the incidents that have plagued our SkyTrain system here in Metro Vancouver over the past few years.

I’m also sure many of you are aware of what happened to the SkyTrain yesterday (November 24th), when it was shut down in downtown due to a “power failure” incident that turned out to be a ‘one-in-a-million’ misplaced replacement rail part that moved on the tracks and struck/damaged the power shoe of an oncoming train.

Map of JR train lines in the Osaka/Kansai area. The blue line going west-east from Himeji to Maibara through Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto was the line affected.

[OPEN to enlarge] Map of JR train lines in the Osaka/Kansai area. The blue line from Himeji in the west to Maibara in the east was the line affected.

I was in Japan last week and happened to actually experience the Kobe incident in the video at the top of this post, although I wasn’t in Kobe when it occurred. Instead, I felt the ripple effects over 140km away at Maibara Station, on the eastern end of the line, as I transferred from another train from Nagoya intending to ride this particular line en route to Kyoto.

The featured photo at the very top of this post is my own picture of the “trains delayed” notice display I ran into when I arrived at Maibara Station. I could feel my stomach churn even more when I checked the departure time-boards on the station platform itself, which showed that westbound express trains had been completely cancelled.

This left me and perhaps several hundred other passengers waiting on the platform before having to crowd onto a smaller local train, which we would ride until another station down the line (Yasu) where express trains would re-commence. The incident was uncomfortable, cost me nearly 90 minutes in delay and had a major effect on my plans for the day.

This is, incidentally, longer than the approx. 60 minute delay I experienced yesterday when I was caught in yesterday’s SkyTrain delay. I started commuting from Surrey to the Main St. Station area to fulfill an errand, right after delays began at around 2:50PM. I went through stopped trains, crowdedness of the trains and crowded-ness again when I boarded a replacement shuttle bus at Commercial-Broadway Station.

SkyTrain has been through numerous shutdowns in the past year, which many have attributed to be an issue of system reliability. In actuality, many of them the result of the lack of an auto-restart system that was neglected by BC Transit in the 1990s; some of them were genuinely due to human error; and some of them just couldn’t be prevented no matter what anyone did.

Regardless of the cause, we don’t seem to handle these very well. Doors have been broken open, resulting in people walking on the tracks unauthorized and causing further delays as track power needs to be shut down. People tend to respond loudly and angrily on social media, not waiting for the investigation to blame TransLink on whatever happens.

There’s a lot that we can learn from the Japanese when incidents like these happen. In Japan, trains are so critical to the functions of life, responsible for moving millions of people every day in a very dense country. Punctuality is considered very important, and so train operators concentrate on providing the best service possible when everything is working. It’s important to understand that things can sometimes not work – and when that happens, instructions have to be followed and anger has to be calmed. Which is why the train evacuations showcased in the video were so smooth and orderly.

This train line didn't have emergency walkways at door-level like our SkyTrain system - so passengers had to climb down ladders to get onto the track.

This train line didn’t have emergency walkways at door-level like our SkyTrain system – so passengers had to climb down ladders to get onto the track.

The most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, these incidents don’t actually happen that often – SkyTrain has maintained a statistical reliability that tops transit systems in other cities. I pride myself over having kept myself calm throughout yesterday, and hope that other passengers who were able to do the same do so as well.

See also: Vancouverites are Spoiled with SkyTrain – Vancity Buzz

We can’t let these incidents affect the way we think about transit and play our part in shaping major transit decisions, like the recent NO vote on the regional transit referendum. It’s easy to lose sight of the facts when you’re inconvenienced and made bitter, but at the end of the day, in doing you really aren’t helping anyone.

I’m noticing many commuters on Twitter talking about how reluctant they were to take SkyTrain today. If I had let the incident from last week stop me from using the JR train line again out of fear, I wouldn’t have been able to resume with my plans to visit Himeji Castle and take these gorgeous pictures….

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Lastly, here’s a bit from the Rocketnews article that perhaps TransLink could take from for next time…

…we think what really sealed the deal is the Japan Railways representative who shows up on the platform at the video’s 0:27 mark, ready to apologize to those who were inconvenienced and hook them up with bottles of tea, which he opens for each person who walks by. Because hey, on the occasions when you can’t be punctual, you may as well be classy.

Man tea 1

Rapid bus, SkyTrain best option for Langley

So I thought I’d put up a newsletter that the Langley Times published today, along with some added sources/notes.

For anyone that’s curious, I intend to be doing some more blogging on the BCER Interurban very shortly.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Langley Times

Rapid bus, SkyTrain connection still Langley’s best option

Editor: Re: LRT announcement ignores less costly interurban option (The Times, Oct. 2)

We should welcome good transit ideas here in Langley, but there’s a reason that TramTrain isn’t one of them.

TramTrain was possible in Karlsruhe because it’s surrounded by numerous electrified regional railways. We don’t actually have that here in Vancouver; and while the BCER Interurban may seem like a tempting choice, it ran three times a day [1] and wasn’t built to service today’s cities [2].

When the province and TransLink conducted the Surrey Rapid Transit Study, the Interurban was denied because it would cost millions to retrofit yet still fall short on providing useful connections and service frequency [3]. In other words, it would be a giant waste of money.

What we do have are numerous fast highways on which we could operate inexpensive rapid buses. One of those, the Trans-Canada, now has the Fraser Valley Express (FVX) service from Carvolth Exchange to Chilliwack. This service is now providing the alternative that valley commuters asked for — but when it came time to consult locals about the FVX, Rail for the Valley did not participate [4].

That’s because Rail for the Valley’s TramTrain and LRT advocacy doesn’t come from a genuine desire to make transit better — but rather an opposition to extending SkyTrain to Langley, even though it will do the most for transit commuters.

Our SkyTrain system boasts a ridership that is higher than any LRT system in Canada and the US. That’s why over 50 cities worldwide have followed our lead by successfully employing ALRT-style driverless metros [5][6].

As an extension of an existing system, SkyTrain would have the lowest addition in annual operating costs [7]. Without transfers, commuters starting at Langley Centre Station could reach Waterfront Station within 60 minutes [8]. That’s the kind of travel time improvement that’ll get people really wanting to use public transit, and generate the fare revenue to recoup costs.

I’m all for good transit ideas; but when it comes to what will objectively serve Surrey and Langley best, rapid buses and SkyTrain are the way to go.

Daryl Dela Cruz,
Campaign manager
skytrainforsurrey.org

Footnotes

  1. BCER article in Canadian Rail No. 534 issued Jan-Feb 2010 with the writer and 4-time BCER book author, Henry Ewert, stating himself that Fraser Valley interurban trains ran 3 times per day (Mirrored on Exporail.org)
  2. An earlier technical assessment found numerous technical/construct-ability issues with interurban rail. Mirrored [HERE]
  3. Surrey Rapid Transit Study: “Compared to other alternatives, lower population and employment densities along much of the corridor and a less direct connection to Surrey City Centre would result in lower transportation benefits.” See last page of Phase II Information Boards
  4. The BC Transit Public Engagement Reports for the Fraser Valley Express, Abbotsford-Mission (CFVT) Transit Future Plan and the Abbotsford-Mission (CFVT) Efficiency Review indicate that there has been no participation by members of Rail for the Valley and other associated initiatives, with no comments on potential Interurban Rail service.
  5. The Automated Metro Observatory regularly reports on the worldwide progress of driverless transit systems. There is an expectation that the amount of fully driver-less metro systems will triple by the year 2025.
  6. In addition, numerous cities worldwide have implemented the same linear induction motor propulsion technology used by SkyTrain. A full list is on this blog: List of Linear Induction Motor rapid transit systems
  7. Funding Still Missing for LRT Operating Costs news release – SkyTrain for Surrey
  8. Based on Surrey Rapid Transit Study travel time estimates.