A streetcar named $16 million Desire

October 5, 2009

As recently as September 24th, we were reading in the Straigth that a European tram type system could be built for less than $16 million per km. A number whose has been touted around for quite a while by as credible people as academic Patrick Condon, professor at UBC, as shown in a special post on Stephen Ress’s blog.

On could ask the questions:

  • Why Toronto is pricing a 15km LRT line on Sheppard Avenue for
    $950 million?
  • Why Seattle built its central link at a whopping cost of more than US$100 million per km[1]?
  • And obviously why an LRT for the evergreen line has been priced at $1 Billion if not more?

So, it is interesting to understand where come from this magic number of CAN$16 million per km, to justify to crisscrossing the city with an extensive streetcar network, and we could have a begining of answer with the latest series of post of zweisystem listing some features of the tram line of Paris area, T1, T2 in one post and T3 in a second one, and noticeabily claiming construction price as low as €10millions / km, what effectively roughly convert into CAN$16 millions. This deserves some complement of information and this post focuses mostly on the Parisian Tram


Though Paris has seriously invested in its tram [2] network, one should note it has not been exclusive of other investment in new subway line (line 14) and other underground express train (line E), as well as extension of existing subway network lines (line 13) in the meantimes. The Paris’s Tram network can be considered complementary of a backbone rapid transit network, and not an alternative to it as we gonna see it.

Line T1

The line T1 has been estimated effectively at €10millions / km, but in… 1985 [3]. Furthermore, this initial line has been built with a railtrack too weak for the kind of ridership it is today supporting (in excess of 100,000 pax when the line has been built for 55,000pax [9]), so less than 15 years after the inspection of the line, all the railtracks are being renewed on a 5 years period involving complete shutdown of the line for a period of around 6 weeks every years since 2006.

An extension of 4.9km is currently estimated at €150 million by its parent authority [10]

Line T2

The line is reusing a formerly existing railtrack of the french national railway network, still in service up to 1993, when the requalification of the line in LRT is decided in such sort that the €10millions / km relates to the necessary investment related to the LRT requalification by 1997.

One will note that its full segregated right of way original segment allows an average speed of 32km/h with an inter station of 950 meters[4]. A 4.2km extension is currently under construction at an estimated cost of €276 million as posted by its parent authority [11] (average speed on the extension in urban area will be of 20km/h[11]).

Line T3

The line is implemented on the so called “boulevard des Marechaux”, an inner ring urban boulevard offering a minimum of 40m right of way and displaying probably the closest typology to Broadway (Though Broadway right of way vries between 26m to 30m maximum between Commercial and Alma), so if in the context of the Briadway line, some benchmarking with Paris need to be done, it is probably with this line

This line has opened in 2006 at a of CAN$62 million per km [5] and has an average speed of 19km/h[6]. A 14Km extension is considered at an currently estimated cost of €775million by its parent authority [7].

Line T4

The last line came into service in 2006 and is factually a so called “tram-train” line of 8km length, it reuses an existing platform, of the French national railway. It can be a relevant benchmark toward the introduction of a similar service in the Fraser Valley using the BCER right of way or the downtown streetcar in South False creek. Cost to open this line has been estimated at €120 millions by its parent authority [8] for an average service speed of 25km/h [8].

In conclusion, from Paris examples, it looks that in a very favorable configuration where the right of way railway is already existing, the most recent benchmark indicate us a bottom price of $25 million per km, which become order of magnitude more according the line typology. But one could reply that Paris is a whole different world, let’s look closer to home: Portland and its famous streetcar.

Portland streetcar
Portland’ streetcar original loop of 5.7km single track has been opened in three phases between 2001 and 2006 at a cost of only US$88 million, including rolling stock [13], so below the famous US$16 million dollar per km (note it is US$ here)

  • The line carries less than 10,000pax per day and eventually the railbed has been designed for such low ridership
  • A 5.3km extension of the streetcar is now estimated at US$147 million [12]

Back to the streetcar reality
It looks like that the original cost pattern of the streetcar can’t be reproduce, far from it, and again we are talking of a cost of US$30 million/km in a favorable case of very light rail system designed to handle a very low ridership. Nevertheless, the Portland’s streetcar give a a good benchmark for a downtown streetcar, which could be undoubtfully successful, if we subjectively judge by the ridership of adjacent bus routes along Main between DownTown and Main/Science world station

In any case, it looks that the magic number of $16 million per km is

  • Specific to very few system and ample evidence show it can’t be generalized
  • Outdated estimation not anymore achievable even in a very favorable context

Streetcar enthusiasts, in their passion will have forgot the points above. For purpose of illustration, actualized number from some selected systems (as discussed above) can be found in the figure below


[1] Audit of the Seattle Central link Rail project’s initial segment, July 2003. The refered memorandum of the Office of the inspector general of the DOT mention a US$2.4 billion by 2009, including a US$209 million in debt interest incurred by the project completion but not including US$657 million long term debt interest payable between 2009 and 2025, for a 14 miles long line.

[2] By Tram, we refer to a rail system intermediate between the typical American LRT such Portland’s Max and streetcar like in Portland’s Streecar which is popular in Europe and Australia

[4] From Le prolongement du tramway d’Issy-Val de Seine a Paris-Porte de versailles[Fr]. For matter of comparison, average speed on the Canada Line is of 36km/h for an inter-station of 1000 meters (computed from a total posted travel time of 25mn from Richmond Brighouse to Vancouver Waterfront by Translink).

[5] Article Paris T3 Light Rail Development and Extension, France, from railway-technology.com qu,otes €311 million for 8km. Number itself coherent with the study of Patrick Condon and al. dated of May 2008 The Case for the Tram: Learning from Portland

[6] As posted on http://www.tramway.paris.fr [Fr]. For illustration, the posted average speed of the bus #9 Westbound around 9am weekday is of 14.5km/h while the one of the #99 is of 21.5km/h (from translink timetable)

[7] http://tramway.paris.fr/ewb_pages/f/financement.php [Fr] provides a breakdown of the financing.

[8] T4 – Ligne des Coquetiers “Aulnay – Bondy” [Fr] provides a breakdown of the financing in 2003 €.

[9]As stated by wikipedia [Fr]


3 Responses to “A streetcar named $16 million Desire”

  1. mezzanine Says:

    Wow, great research! This is what people need to know when they hear another story about tram down broadway.

  2. Adam O'Neill Says:

    Very interesting and eye opening. Looks like steetcars are only good to spur re-development. Food for thought.

  3. […] this 40$ million/km give probably a good proxy to evaluate the cost to build an LRT in a BC hydro right of way…for other case, we will refer to a previous post […]

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