Bus performance preliminaries

October 17, 2012


Today, the province has released its surprise Translink audit [1]. Among other oddities, this audit is musing on the respective merits of different propulsion technologies for the buses. The audit’s finding is that natural gas bus are 20% cheaper to operate than diesel bus; and it goes as far as to suggest to replace the trolleybuses by such buses. That finding call a comment:

When, as the author of a report you arrive to such a finding – natural gas bus are cheaper to operate than diesel- you should ask yourself the following question:

  • Why virtually no transit system around the world is operating gas natural powered bus?

The answer is either

  • you are right against the rest of the world
  • or, you draw wrong conclusion

We humbly suggest that the later option is more likely to apply to the Provincial audit. It is not to say that there is nothing worthy in this audit, and we will probably come back on it (but we can already vent out our opinion at the buzzer blog) as well as the Translink draft [4], this in a later post

Bus route performance

the following graph is a presentation of data extracted from the Translink library [4][5]

bus performance per route

The higher the ridership, the better,…the lower the operating cost the better too. A nice logarithmic trend appears, the routes above this trend can probably be considered as poor performers. Unsurprisingly, the route 99 is outperforming all others, but what this graph suggests is the the heavier route are expensive to operate, close if not more than 10 millions/year (the busiest route are often operated by artics, and their operating cost could be under-estimated [5]). For matter of comparisons, the Provincial audit suggests to eliminate the 22 lowest performing route, that is pruning 10% of the network, to achieve a mere saving of $3.6 millions, or less than 0.75% of the annual bus operating cost !!!

It is not to say that nothing needs to be done to improve the financial sheet of the lowest performing routes, but if someone want to find significant and sustainable saving, he should track inefficiency in the “heavy league” first.

Usually, in the “heavy league”, inefficiencies are due to sub-optimal average speed (those routes tend to operate in crowded corridors), and that can be addressed by a host of solution, among other:

  • bus lane and signal preemption
  • reducing number of bus stop and/or improving bus stop approach (bulge)
  • relieving local service demand, by providing express service, it is the case we do for the route #410, which in despite to show overcrowding symptom, and is a relatively poor performer (cost per boarding $1.82)

and the beauty of it, is that this kind of optimization is able to increase the ridership, hence revenue, too. It is a win-win solution.

Operating cost per sector

bus routes operating cost/year (in $M) cost per boarding
1 to 84 and 99 $161.463 $1.245
100 to 199 and 97 $73.159 $1.718
300 to 399 $48.536 $1.976
400 to 499 $29.889 $2.011
500 to 599 $11.792 $2.451
600 to 699 $7.090 $2.996

Translink fare revenue per boarding is $1.2 [3]. Roughly, the Vancouver bus network, taken as a whole is about to break even. What is degrading the financial picture of Translink is the cost to serve the suburbs (we notice that people using multi-zone fare tend to do more transfer, so the revenue per boarding per zone is assumed about the same).

That was the original intend of this post, provide some firm numbers to substantiate various in discussion pitting suburbanite against Vancouver on the right amount of service each one is entitled to receive

[1] Review of the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (Translink)BC Ministry of Finance, Oct 2012

[2] One of the major flaw of the audit in respect of the propulsion technologies comparison, is that it compare different bus, performing different duty. As an example the trolleybuses serve much more “punitive” route than other bus type

[3] 2013 Base plan-Draft for consultation, Translink 2012.

[4] 2011 BSPR Route Summaries 1 to 99, 2011 BSPR Route Summaries 100 to 199, 2011 BSPR Route Summaries 300 to 799. (part of a complete bus performance review)

[5] Those data assume that conventional bus cost ~$116/hr to operates. In fact it is probably not accurate enough to estimate the cost per route. Trolleybuses cost probably less to operate, and artics bus cost certainly more, may be 10% more, thought some suggest up to 25% more


7 Responses to “Bus performance preliminaries”

  1. Stephen Rees Says:

    The obsession with CNG among some civil servants involved in transit has never been easy to explain. Translink – and its predecessor – has now tried at least three different iterations of the CNG bus and each has been as unreliable and expensive as the last. The assertion that they are “cheaper” seems to be blind to their dreadful maintenance history and poor performance. While the fuel itself has a lower price – mainly due to favourable tax treatment – fuel costs are not an especially large factor in bus operating cost. Around 8% of the total. Gas has roughly 70% of the energy content of the equivalent amount of diesel – but energy is also required to compress it. Earlier generations of the CNG fleets had to be subsidized by BC Gas – and even then were converted to diesel, after standing idle for long periods of time.

    The auditors also seem not to understand the concept of a network. The “low performance routes” act as feeders – and if they are reduced in frequency will reduce the ridership on the busier routes. This was the pernicious effect of former exercises on other systems – most notably the disastrous Beeching cuts to British Railways. Some of the services he cut and the cost savings he introduced such as single tracking of main lines have subsequently been restored.

  2. Rico Says:

    Do before and after performance statistics exist for Main street routes before and after the bus bulges?

  3. Voony Says:


    I don’t have better source that http://www.translink.ca/en/Plans-and-Projects/Roads-Bridges-and-Goods-Movement/Main-Street-Upgrades.aspx

    Notice, that the bus bulges on Main are not necessarily following the best practice – here is an example of what is done in Nates in France:

    in that regard.

  4. rico Says:

    Thanks Voony, of course I don’t see the political will in the next few years to taking that much space from cars.

  5. Taylor Says:

    Looking at that bus performance chart, the high cost vs low performance of the 351 really stands out. I’m sure translink wants to keep this route as a FTN route, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it sees some major cuts/ revamping in the near future.

  6. […] That is a complement to one of our previous post: […]

  7. […] (difference is less than 4 cents/hr) than Surrey in terms of bus performance [SEE: another Voony's Blog analysis], but all have similar transit service […]

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