Sacramento, a LRT success?

November 15, 2011

Between 2 rants, a wellknown blog from time to time, post pictures of empty trains wandering in some soulless NA districts. those pictures are supposed to advocate by themselves for LRT everywhere in BC.

A picture of the Sacramento LRT; somewhat qualified as a success by the LRTA ; gives us the opportunity to shed some light on the claims advanced by some disengenuous LRT advocates.

a train wandering on a deserted k street, once the heart of Sacramento: where are the people gone? (credit phot (5))

Urban renewval.

Usually people cite Portland as an example of urban renewval induced by LRT: one of the main reason is that there is no other example to cit.

The vancouver LRT advocating blog suggests that we should follow the example of Scacramento K street for not less than our Granville mall.

After been closed to motor traffic in 1960, the once vibrant Sacramento K street mall, has started to spiralling into business slump, pretty much like Granville did…In 1987, the introduction of the LRT was eventually the tool supposed to revert the K street bad fortunes.

Alas, the LRT didn’t bring urban renewval in Sacramento. Some other efforts has been put in without success and it appeared lately to the local that the LRT was more part of the problem than from the solution…and, this very week-end, resident of the city was celebrating the reopenning the K street to motor traffic, as the latest attempt to bring urban renewval!

people are coming on K street to celebratre the return of car on a once LRT exclusive corridor (it was Saturday Nov. 12, 2011)

In the meantimes, on Granville Mall, it could be no LRT, but we don’t need car either to bring life…


while people of the Valley complain about bad service, bad service because poor frequency, like 30mn headway…others explain that rapid transit should be available 24h/day.

The Sacramento Gold line extension, connecting the Folsom suburb to vancouver, offer a 30mn frequency…peak day…no service after 7pm on week-end…and the 30km journey will take you 1hour. Enjoy!

In the meantime, on the skytrain lines…

Notice that Park and ride are plentifull along the Sacramento LRT lines:

whereas Vancouver people come by bus to meet the Skytrain, in Sacramento people drive to the LRT…Some in Vancouver believe it is a superior alternative but it is certainly a less efficient use of land and it contribute to maintain a reliance on the car are primary transportation mode, and per way of consequence is certainly not the most efficient way to prevent urban sprawl.

Operating cost

A frequent claim done is that a train is no more costly to operate than a bus, here again, Sacramento provides a resounding rebuttal to this claim [4]:

cost per revenue vehicle hour
bus $133
LRT $239

In short, he same operating cost expenditure can buy a 8.5mn bus frequency where LRT doesn’t offer better than 15mn.

it is more than probable than the Sacramento LRT 15mn frequency can’t be justified by ridership level, but is maintained as a floor frequency to keep some relevance to the service. In despite of this minimum, the Sacramento LRT farebox recovery hoover in the low 30%.

generalized LRT Cost

Sacramento LRT has been built on the cheap, and is still built on the cheap…the latest extension under construction will come-up at 40$ million/km…Explanation:

the LRT follow a track ROW, then a canal ROW

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

But do we really get the bang for the buck ?

The Gold line extension

What some lenient LRT fans conveninetly forget is that we need to confront number toward benefit:

A 12km extension of the Gold line toward Folsom has been built at a cost of $20 million/km and opened in stage between 2004 and 2006 and was expected to attract 6,000 more rider at opening. That ends to be an investment of $100,000 per additional customer…

Alas again, after $300 million spent, and in despite of some press report qualifying the ridership as at “healthy level“, it looks like the new rider hasn’t show up as expected, since the ridership in 2011 is virtually the same as it was in 2004 before the openning of these extensions [6]

That is not overly surprising, since the extension also shows the limit of the LRT concept: the LRT needs one hour to travel the 30km between Folsom and Sacramento, otherwise well linked by an Interstate hwy.

The south line extension

How it compare to the Evergreen line? (all number from [3] for Sacramento).

Sacramento South line vancouver Evergreen line
length 6.8km 10.9km (1)
stations 4 5 (1)
inter stations 1.36km 1.81km
Capital cost (in $M) $270 $1400 (2)
Yearly Operating cost (in $M) $8.84 $10.2 (1)
Yearly Ridership forecast(new trip)* 3.5(0.8) 17(8) (2)
operating cost per trip (per new trip) $2.5 ($11) $.6 ($1.27)
capital cost per trip (new trip)** $4.93 ($21.6) $5.86($11.1)
total cost per trip (new trip) $7.43 (33.6) $6.46 ($12.37)

* ridership come from transfer of other transit mode + new customer, trip generated by new customer only are in (), and cost per trip in () generated on the basis of new customer’s trip only.
** Capital cost assuming an amortization period of 30 years at 5%.

On one hand the Sacramento rider, will have a train at frequency no better than 15mn, 30mn after 6:30pm, last train at/around 10pm. On the other hand the Vancouver rider will take for granted a service level which stay the exception in the LRT world, but can come at a marginal operating cost increment in the realm of the automated trains.

When a “cheap” LRT can quickly reveal to be a more expensive proposition than an “pricey” skytrain

Numbers strongly suggest that in despite of looking “cheap” the Sacramento extension will be significantly more expensive than the Evergreen line on a rider basis. When considered new rider only – the eventual reason to go with LRT being it attracts more new customer otherwise reluctant to take bus- the Sacramento extension is a proposition nearly as three time more expensive that the Evergreen line.

Sacramento could have its own reasons to extend its LRT network, but considering that by tyical metric standard, the Sacramento LRT hardly qualify as a success, it is also highly probable that the Vancouver area doesn’t need to follow the path of Sacramento, and can continue to pursue avenue providing more leverage for its scarce transit bucks. This assessment is not based on the love (or hate) of a technology, but on the use of the appropirate technology

…and when a technology is appropriate, there is no need for disingenous and misleading claims as too often read on some rail fan blogs, to make its case for.

[1] Operating cost as reported in evergreen line executive summary

[2] ridership forecast as reported in Translink 2012 Moving Forward plan. notice that this number are less optimistic than the one reported in [1]

[3] number from South Sacramento corridor phase 2

[4] Sacramento Sept 2011 performance report


[6] 2011 and 204 2nd quarter ridership number from APTA


5 Responses to “Sacramento, a LRT success?”

  1. rico Says:

    Nice work, it always amazes me that people think one magic bullit will work for a complex problem like urban renewal. I should point out that to me Granville is not a sucess….although it is improving….I am sure it can be further improved.
    Now for my biases, for me the Evergreen as skytrain makes sense as part of a complete network (Coquitlam to Arbutus or UBC) but I am not adverse to LRT in some situations (Surrey?). It also seems that American cities do not seem to get the same payoff in transit investments that Canadian cities do, how would the most recent Calgary and Edmonton extentions compare to the Evergreen Line on the same metrics?


  2. Voony Says:

    I have picked up Sacramento, because it is touted as an example of how “cheap” a LRT can be by some LRT advocates…Edmonton or Calgary LRT extension come at a pretty hefty price tag ($1B for the 8km West line extension in Calgary) and we could have been accused to cherry pick “expensive” and “over-engineered” example to make up the case for Skytrain (
    (that is, it could be interesting to evaluate them on the same metric)..

    By the way, the idea is not to confront Skytrain with LRT, but to expose that we can’t judge of the relevance of a transit investment on upfront cost.only (and it was the reason to take a controversial project with “high” upfront cost).

  3. rico Says:

    Of course the Evergreen line certainly is not the most favourable comparison for RRT either, I imagine the numbers for new riders on a Broadway corridor (or Canada Line) would be much better even with the higher cost per km. Still would be interesting to get the numbers for Calgary and Edmonton (maybe the earlier Calgary lines adjusted to inflation) or a more recent Portland example for comparison. Of course to me at the end of the day it seems to me one of the most important metrics would be mode share even though there are many factors besides the technology of transit in play (Dense employment downtown like Calgary, Freeways in Portland). Seems to me Vancouver does pretty good with Public transit mode share (at least from a North American perspective) and will do much better with the Evergreen and Broadway lines. At the end of the day I would think Fare box recovery would also be an interesting number.

  4. Andrew Says:

    In my mind SkyTrain has been an overwhelming success in Greater Vancouver. It has handled the volumes of passengers traveling over significant, mostly densely populated distances with little impact on the communities they travel through. LRT could never do this.

    That’s not to say there isn’t a role for LRT, maybe in the low densities of south of Fraser where they still have wide sparsely developed corridors which would not be impacted by heaving vehicles hurling down the street at 50+ km/hr. (Much of the Portland Max is built along a freeway right of way, we don’t have many of those in Greater Vancouver) Or street cars in densely populated centers such as downtown Vancouver.

    The battle between SkyTrain and LRT is an ingenuous one. We could easily afford more SkyTrain if we didn’t collectively spend some much on roads and private automobiles (and all the public subsidies which go with them). But that doesn’t mean there are areas where LRT or buses would be more appropriate.

  5. […] the operating cost is only part of the story. Usually the debt service is pretty great, an the Sacramento example previously presented illustrates it as well for “cheap” LRT. The Skytrain debt service […]

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