Post updated on January 29th, 2017

Ill conceived, since according to Translink [1], The proposed Surrey L line (Guilford, Surrey central newton, titled LRT 4 in the transit study), was among the poorest options Translink has studied for Surrey. An option which will saddle translink with increased operation cost without matching revenue to sustain it, for generation to come [1]. and an option which provide a deeply negative return on investment:

Even  a multiple account  evaluation (taking account social benefit at large), The return on investment is simply not there!

Even a multiple account evaluation (taking account social benefit at large), The return on investment is simply not there! (figure from [1])

Ill conceived because the Surrey LRT approach is in essence local and ignore the regional demand.

Missed opportunity because it will hinder the region to do the right thing to develop alternatives allowing the south Fraser area to become a less car dependent place before it is too late. At the root of this poor decision making is an original sin: A Vancouver centered optic where Surrey is seen as a fringe area in need to be connected to the Expo line; and a ideological bias from the Surrey City council making the streetcar the only answer whatever the question is. This optic ignore the development occurring in the Fraser valley, in Langley and beyond, more noticeably Abbotsford and Chilliwack, and the subsequent regional transportation demand; something we have touched in 2012:

Context and opportunities

A first draft of Regional transportation in the Valley

A draft Regional transportation demand in the Fraser Valley

The region becoming more vast than Metro-Vancouver, people travel longer distance, with more dispersed destinations, the challenge is then to provide an appealing transit alternative for people in the Valley and the south Fraser area: that means, fast comfortable, and as few as possible transfer toward meaningful destinations.

A LRT running not faster than a bus is not a compelling solution on which to build a regional transportation backbone, but a transportation mode such as the skytrain is not suitable for long distance travel; Also the skytrain technology, designed for very frequent service, become too expensive to maintain as soon as less frequent service is needed [9], so extending the skytrain forever is not a solution able to address the need beyond Langley.

The Interurban vision

It is time for the Vancouver region to explore new paradigms, and reconsider the regional train with an European eye. That is to not entertain solution such as the West Coast Express, but to consider light passenger trains able to achieve a commercial speed in excess of 70km/h (typically means max speed in excess of 140km/h)[13], with comfortable seating: the bombardier Talent, once used for the Ottawa’s O train, is a good starting point to entertain the discussion. below is the kind of rolling stock we have in mind:

Bomabrdier Talent 2, able to run at up to 160km/h and a Alstom Regiolis tram-train, able to run at 100km/h on mainline, and still able to run as a tram on the street (credit wikipedia)

Thought the Fraser valley has the former interurban line, the BCER, this line is not suitable for most of its length: it presents a too meandering horizontal alignment. It is also already heavily used by freight trains in some sections[3], while in other, the tracks need to be completely renewed in order to accommodate off the shelve European train set [17], so there is no clear value at constraining the option on the sole BCER corridor. Below is an example addressing the challenge, with a 70km long rail line (in blue) from Richmond Bridgeport to Abbotsford (connecting with the former BCER for potential extension to Chilliwack) using mainly BC Hydro corridor (and rail rail fo way in Richmond).Part of the line reflects also a vision once expressed by the White Rock Transportation and safety committee [12]

Interurban line, from Richmond Bridgeport to Abbotsford; using  BC Hydro corridors on most of its length

Interurban line, from Richmond Bridgeport to Abbotsford; using BC Hydro corridors on most of its length (the map highlight the BC hydro as well as existing rail corridors)

The advantage of this line is that

  • it provides a fairly straight line without too short curvatures [4] and an adequate vertical profile [5]
  • it requires virtually no private land acquisition
  • It is completely separated from freight trains; a Transport Canada requirement to allow train built on European standard to operate on the line

The expo line then needs to be extended 3km along King George to provide a seamless transfer with the regional train[6].

Fraser crossing in the vicinity of MacAdam creek, in Delta, where the alignment takes advantage of the bluff on the south side, to reduce the approach to a bridge which clearance should be at least as high as the Alex Fraser bridge – new Panamax ship class allows an air draft of up to 58m

To preserve the future, The regional line should be built for European style standard train EMU (such as the Bombardier talent-2). That supposes to build the line to UIC standards allowing speed in excess of 160km/h, ideally 200km/h: that means in particular:

  • double track platform width of ~13m
  • no level crossing

Estimated travel time (in mn) between key stations with an express train calling only at the below mentioned station [19]

Abbotsford Langley Surrey Queensborough Richmond
Abbotsford 15 24 31 42
Langley 15 9 16 27
Surrey 24 9 7 18
Queensborough 31 16 7 11
Richmond 42 27 18 11

cross section of the track platform for the Lyon-Marseille High speed line ( 350km/h max speed) - source (2); 500kv double circuit tubular tower able to to replace a lattice tower if the tower foot print is an issue - source (15)

Numbers suggest such a line could be built at cad$35M/km [7] putting the total cost of the regional line at $2.5Billions (remember that the Brunette interchange alone costs $0.5B). However, the line doesn’t need to be built in one shot, and can be phased, a first phase consisting of the 12km Langley-Surrey section, estimated then at ~$500M.

For this short first section, a tram-train, able to reach 100km/h and to ride the Langley streets could be considered at first [8]. Since it could benefit of a totally segregated infrastructure (in trench) between Langley and Surrey, a 12 mn travel time could be easily reach. (A Translink study [1] suggests such travel time could attract up to 6,000 pphpd in 2041, what is the relevance zone for such a transportation mode)

Cost and benefit

The skytrain extension has been costed at $85M/km (2010)[1] in viaduct and $140/km (2010)underground [11] (all including stations), so that the total cost of the project in its first phase could be keep in the $1B envelope, and still include a BRT lines Surrey 88th-Whiterock, as well as some B line connecting Guilford not only to Surrey central but also to the interurban and Coquitlam.

The closest studied option by Translink was the option titled RRT 1A (skytrain extended to Langley and BRT on KGH and 104th)[1]: our proposed option in its first phase is slightly less appealing on the Langley Surrey section (doens’t go directly to Surrey center, and doesn’t eliminate the skytrain transfer). On the other hand, it still provides similar travel time, between the 2 cities (and Vancouver), and a tram-train option allow a finer coverage of Langley downtown. Subsequent extensions make our proposal of better value.

A Skytrain to Langley , means, the train could run well below capacity (or at very spare frequency, what is not without issues). an extension collecting both the traffic flow coming from the King George corridor, and Langley could make better use of the skytrain capacity

Our proposal makes also a better use of the skytrain capacity (the extension collect ridership from both the Langley Regional train and the KGH BRT). Our proposal offers a shorter BRT route on the KGH branch (due to the skytrain expansion here), and equal on the 104th branch: We can consider our proposal carries all the benefit of the RRT 1A option, at half of the price tag. In any case, it is a much better solution than the one currently imposed by the Mayors’council, which will not benefit to Langley and will be detrimental to White Rock by introducing an additional transfer with no travel time benefit, and which cost has already escalated to a whopping $100M/km

[1] Surrey Rapid transit Alternatives Analysis – Phase 2 Evaluation, Translink, 2012.

[2] V. Profillidis, Railway Management and Engineering: Fourth Edition, Routeledge 2016

[3] In addition to the operating constraint imposed by the freight trains, Transport canada requirement for passenger train mixing with freight train make such solution a non starter beside commuter train such as the West coast express)

[4] The curvature suggests speed limit of 160 to 200km/h speed between Langley and Surrey, 160km/h around the Nordel Mac Adam Creek section (thought requiring some expropriation), 120-140Km/h, in the approach south of Langley…that is assuming a typically a minimum curve of 1250m for 160km/h; some figure also roughly and intrinsically adopted for the californian HST [10]

[5] French high speed rail tracks have gradient of up to 35/100, and 40/1000 on the german Koln Rhein [2].

[6] In the proposed scheme, the track along King George Highway could be branched before the eponymous station. The later could be retired, and
a new one built.

[7] French high speed line, built on higher standard, are typically build at a cost of cad$35M/km or €22M/km (10% for land acquisition, 65% for civil engineering, and 25% for rail, power and signalling)[16]. However the Fraser crossing could require a specific estimate

[8] Such choice, should not hinder the capacity of the line to run faster train. If electric, the tram-train should then be dual voltage, the main line, equipped with standard 25kv AC60Hz, the street extension in 750V. Similarly the stations should be designed to allow a layered service with tram train calling at local stations, while faster train could call only at main stations.

[9] The skytrain vehicles (and consists) are designed to maximize the throughout of the line, so seating is minimized, and comfort of it is not a priority. The driverless technology allow very high frequency at marginal cost, but it imposes also high “minimal operation” cost, to both maintain and operate the line, making this technology not a prime choice in the current condition.

[10] California High-Speed Train Project : Technical Memorandum, Alignment Design Standards for High-Speed Train Operation TM 2.1.2; California High-Speed Rail Authority, 2009

[11] UBC Line rapid transit study: Phase 2 Evaluation report Steer Davies Gleave, August 2012

[12] South Fraser Strategic area transit plan, Transportation and safety committee, City of White Rock, August 22, 2006

[13] This tends to be a typical requirement for new regional transit lines in european conurbation. As an example the new subway line planned in Paris area are targetted to have a commercial speed of 55 to 65km/h.

[14] It is interesting to notice that the LRT line in Surrey is costed higher than a french High speed line, the later arguably incurring more extended civil engineering work: it is possibly due to the fact that Surrey LRT construction cost include the relocation of the underground utilities, and the construction method must include important traffic mitigation.

[15] Proponent’s environmental Assessment: Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, Southern California Edison, 2009, Figure 3.2.4.

[16] La grande vitesse ferroviaire : un modèle porté au-delà de sa pertinence, Cour Des Comptes, Republique francaise, 2014

[17] the track renewal cost can be estimated at Cad$5M/km, including electrification, for a single track, and work progress can be as fast as 600m of track renewal/day, this from a similr work done to establish a tram-train in the vicinity of Nantes. This number is in line with the provided by a Leewood report[20] for the Rail for the Valley organization

[18] Camille Saïsset, Tram-train Nantes-Châteaubriant, une liaison efficace pour la réouverture de voies, Actu-Environnement, July 27, 2012.

[19] the numbers assume a average speed line of 140km/h, an average acceleration of 1m/s/s, and a dwelling time of 2.5mn. The 24 mn travel time between Surrey and ABbotsford, can be compared to the 44mn travel time given by [20] between Abbotsford and Surrey Newton using the BCER or the Google estimated 35mn road travel time between Abbotsford (Highway 1#11) and Surrey Central (with clear traffic)

[20] Lower Fraser Valley British Columbia, Chilliwack to Surrey Interurban, proposal fro rail for the Valley, David Cockle, Leewood Project, 2010.

The Metro Vancouver mayors council plan, proposed to a 2015 referendum, calls for $765 millions of expenditure on the Expo an Millennium line over the next 10 years. This could result in an increase of 50% of the vehicle fleet and skytrain operating cost: Are those investments justified or just an extravaganza?

As of today, the Skytrain comfortably copes with the demand, thanks to the recently added vehicles in the years leading to the 2010 Olympic games, and should be able to serve the Evergreen line without hiccups, considering the expected addition of 28 cars. In fact the vehicle productivity (measured as rider/vehicle) is 20% lower from its 2008 peak. When the average increase in vehicle capacity is considered (83 passengers, before 1999, to 108 passengers in 2014), Skytrain vehicles productivity is at a 20+ years low (see our spreadsheet for detail).

To define the fleet requirement, Let’s see what the future ridership is planned to be:

Ridership prediction [1]
without a Broadway subway

2041 AM peak hour transit flow (without a Broadway subway)

2041 AM peak hour transit flow (without a Broadway subway)

..and with a Broadway subway

2041 peak hour transit flow with a Broadway subway up to Arbutus

2041 peak hour transit flow with a Broadway subway up to Arbutus

[1] doesn’t give explicit peak hour numbers for year 2021, but we can still infer them from [1] and [5] for the year 2021:

Maximum passenger per hour per direction (pphd).

without Broadway extension 2021 2041
Millenium Line 8400 10000
Expo Line 16000 23100
with a Broadway extension 2021 2041
Millenium Line 10400 12600
Expo Line 16000 19000

Thought the above projections could not have factored other transit investments such as the Surrey LRT or B lines, as contained in the Mayors council plan [3], they are not expected to significantly affect the peak pphpd requirement on either the Expo or Millennium lines.

The actual skytrain fleet is composed of

  • 150 MK1 cars.
    The 114 oldest car are currently refurbished, for an estimated amount of $38million [2], providing them an additional 15 years life span, so they are good to go up to ~2027
  • 108 MKII cars + 28 cars to be delivered in 2016 (Evergreen line).

The below table illustrates the usually used consists and associated train capacity:

4 car MKI train 4MK1cars-consist
332 passengers/train
6 car MKI train 6MK1cars-consist
498 passengers/train
2 car MKII train 2MKIIcars-consist
256 or 264 passengers/train
4 car MKII train 4MKIIcars-consist
512 or 528 passengers/train

We place ourselves in a scenario post Evergreen line:

  • The Expo line operates from WaterFront to King George (one branch),and to Lougheed (other branch): that is also called split-tail service by [2]
  • The Millennium line operates from VCC to Douglas college
The 3 skytrain lines, after integration of the Evergreen line spur

The 3 skytrain lines, after integration of the Evergreen line spur

Thought we are aware that Translink is considering to extend the Expo branch from Lougheed to Production Way, we are not considering it for the below reasons:

  • It doesn’t make good use of the skytrain capacity due to the poor expected ridership on the considered section
  • It creates operational and reliability challenge, due to the meddling of the Expo and Millennium operation
  • It significantly limit the capacity of the Millennium line: this one could be not required in the short-term, but discontinuing a service people get use to consider as granted, could prove to be troublesome in the future

2021 Rolling stock requirement

  • As per [2], we assume a minimum 93s headway and a 87mn round trip on the expo line and 78mn return trip on the Millenium line. Due to the ill designed Lougheed station, headway below 108s on the Millennium line could be challenging.
  • The extension of the Millenium line up to Arbutus increases its round trip by 15mn [1], and increases the pphpd requirement to meet by 2021, from 8000 to 10400.
  • We don’t consider short trains such as Commercial (or Metrotown)-WaterFront. They could still be used to reduce the fleet requirement or increase the spare ratio. Such strategy is not without issues [6].

No ext Broad. ext
Expo line Desirable (2021)
headway 93s 114s 114s 120s
train requirement 56
31 4xMKII cars
25 6xMKI cars
21 4xMKII cars
25 6xMKIcars

9 5xMKIII cars
12 4xMKII cars
25 6xMKI cars

15 4xMKIII cars
26 4xMKII cars
1 6xMKI cars
capacity (pphpd) 19,900 16000 16000 16000
Millennium line Desirable (2021)
headway 150s 120s 108s
train requirement 32
32 2xMKII cars
40 2xMKII cars
36 4xMKI cars
16 2xMKII cars
capacity (pphpd) 3,000 6,000 8,000 10,600
Total Desirable (2021)
train requirement 150 MKI cars
136MKII cars
150 MKI cars
136 MKII cars
150 MKI cars
136 MKII cars
9 5xMKIII cars
150 MKI cars
136 MKII cars
15 4xMKIII cars
~10% spare ratio 6 5xMKIII cars 8 4xMKIII cars

The Broadway subway extension will involve at least the command of 7 new train consists (6 train consists to operate the segment + one spare)[1] which will be accounted as part of this project. So the extra rolling stock required to continue to meet the demand on the Expo and Millennium line in the next 10 years is:

Without Broadway ext. With Broadway extension
15 5xMKIII cars 16 4xMKIII cars
$262.5 millions $224 millions

the refurbishing of the remaining 36 MKI cars, estimated at $10 millions from [2] need to be added.

In the case of the Broadway extension, all other Expo line upgrades are already financed (federal gas tax subsidiary) and continue to carry on on schedule, so that the non yet financed cost is ~$240 millions (some minor egress improvement could be required here and there, especially on the Millennium line))

Potential additional storage requirement should be seen in the context of the Broadway extension project: The Coquitlam vehicle storage facility should apriori be expanded to accommodate, with the Burnaby OMC, the fleet up to 2031 [7].

Regarding the 5 and 4 cars consists

  • If the Broadway extension is not built, the expo line will require 5 cars train consist before 2041, so it eventually makes sense to consider to start to add such trains on the rolling stock from now, but that supposes also ancillary cost to adapt the line and the OMC, to longer trains it could also require upgrade of Waterfront and Stadium station, which are not yet funded. It requires also an upgrade (stage 3) of the propulsion power to enable the delivering of 25,000pphpd [6].
  • If the Broadway extension is built, there is no need for 5 cars train in the next ~30 years or the usual lifespan of a train: 4 car trains (MKII and MKIII generation) will be able to absorb the 2041 demand, and the line is already prepped out (or upgrade funded).

In any case, what should be ordered are trains able to maximize the capacity at a given length: The idea to order 3 cars train is a flawed one, since it doesn’t allow to realize the maximum train capacity, but more importantly prevent platform door installation (due to train assymetry making train doors location not always the same):

It is more than time to order rolling stock which will:

  • enable future platform screen, since such installation allow much greater system reliability than the current passive track intrusion detection model.
  • minimize dwelling time

That should imposes constraint on the train door location for any future procurement.

4 car MKII train 4MKIIcars-consist
512 or 528 passengers/train
4 car MKIII train 4carsMKIIconsist~540 passengers/train
3+2 car MKIII train 3and2MKIIcars-consist
~670 passengers/train
5 car MKIII train 5MKIIcars-consist
~680 passengers/train

~2030 Rolling stock requirement

Circa 2030, the original 114 MKI car will reach their end of life, as well as the 60 MKII (ordered for the opening of the Millennium line). we place ourselves in a scenario where those cars are still in service, and before a decision is done regarding their eventual life extension or replacement

By that time, the Expo line should be able to carry ~18,000pphpd and the Millennium line, ~12,000pphpd (number inferred of both the 2021 and 2041 projection). The rolling stock could be assigned as below:

Expo line (2030) Millenium line (2030)
headway 108 150
train requirement 48
26 4xcars MKIII consist + 22 4xMKII cars
25 6xMKI cars + 12 4xMKII cars
capacity (pphpd) 18,000 12,000

Considering a ~10% spare ratio, 36 new 4 cars train should be ordered by 2030. More likely 30 in the next 10 years with an option to order 6 more circa 2025. That includes the 7 train part of the Broadway extension project, so the effective requirement could be 29 4 cars train – or 23 train in the next 10 years period, that is ~$320M (with a 6 additional 4 cars-train option to exercise ~2025)


  • the possible availability of second hand MKI car (from the Scarborough RT or the Detroit People Mover), and potential acquisition for refurbishing should be considered
  • the decision to go with 4 or 5 car consist order should be reexamined in the next 10 years, in light of the ridership evolution

The Mayor council plan

In brief the Mayor council plan[4] calls for the below

cost (in $M) % increase
additional operation cost 53.5 50%
additional capital cost 765
145 new vehicles 500 50%

The above doesn’t account for 27 trains to be procured between 2025 an 2029

In the light of the previous sections, this seems to be an inconsiderate expense to

  • address purposeless goals; such as doubling the capacity of the Expo line by 2020 (the main reason for the mayors plan extravaganza)
  • and still failing to address basic requirement, such as the 10,000 pphpd ridership on the Millennium line in the case of the Broadway line (the Mayors council’s plan consider only 8,000).

The Mayors council’s plan implicitly assumes 3 cars train: This is a bad idea as we have seen before

A fundamental reason to put the Broadway subway as the top priority transit investment is to spare the considerable expense to upgrade the Expo line to meet the ~23,000pphpd 2041 demand; which could happen only on the very short section Commercial-Stadium:

A Broadway subway will reduce the Expo line demand at ~19,000pphpd: something achievable as of today, and could save ~$300 million of investment on the Expo line, according to the council mayors numbers [8], and associated operating cost, otherwise necessary.

The fact that the passenger load is much more balanced along the Expo line, in the case of a Broadway extension, make a much better use of the line capacity.It is still possible to operate short train in the other case, between Commercial (or Metrotown) and Waterfront, but it doesn’t come without issues ([6]), such as passenger bunching or platform crowding (due to passenger waiting for the expected less crowded short train)

It is unfortunate the Council of Mayors missed this important point.

[1] UBC Line rapid transit study: Phase 2 Evaluation report Steer Davies Gleave, August 2012

[2] Translink 2013 Business Plan Operating and Capital Budget Summary

[3] Regional Transportation Investment: A vision for Vancouver – Appendices, Mayors council, June 12 2014

[4] Regional Transportation Investment: A vision for Vancouver – Appendices, Mayors council, June 12 2014

[5] TransLink’s Rapid & Regional Transit Model , PTV America Inc. and Translink, Vancouver and Wilmington, DE, February 2007 and December 2008

[6] Expo Line Upgrade Strategy, SNC Lavallin and Steer Davies Gleave, Sept 21, 2010

[7] We estimate the current storage capacity at 114 MKI + 126 MKII at the Edmonds OMC, 36 MK1 and 34 MKII on the main line an the Coquitlam Facilities storage center. See the Translink Finance Audit – Specific Project Approval. Subject: SkyTrain OMC Expansion – Phase 2. October 19, 2007 and an ensuing discusssion on the skytrainforsurrey blog

[8] That is the difference between the Mayors council plan, $765M and our ball pack numbers, $320 for rolling stock expansion/upgrade and ~$150M for infrastructure upgrade, including storage/OMC expansion: Those numbers are in fact consistent with [6]

Skytrain fizzle again

October 2, 2014

A recurring and cherished headline at RailForTheValley : Tought time to be either a Translink or skytrain cheerleader those days, isn’it?

Let’s ignore the disastrous Translink crisis communication and let’s go to the facts:

The facts

The system control lost communication with a group of 10 switches (the one in red in the map below), defacto neutralizing Metrotown, the 2nd busiest station on the network [1], and Patterson:


The cause

Some people claim it is due to lack of funding for proper maintenance of the Skytrain system. Either they are right:

    That could mean the reinsurances by both Translink and BCRT officials that they are able to keep the skytrain system in a state of good repair, were lies…proper action should be hence taken to sanction such misbehavior.

…or they are wrong: The cause is not due to a lack of funding.

Some also call for redundancy for each piece and bit of the system they see failing: If we follow this logic we could end up to have a full redundant Expo line 2!

…In fact here we don’t have enough information to dissert on the cause of the failure but we have nevertheless some questions regarding the below items:

  • The time to restore the system
  • The problem switches which don’t need to move in normal operation, but still neutralize the system on a communication failure with them (which apparently can’t be manually overriden).
  • The switches at both end of Metrotown monitored by the same communication device.
    • A different switches partition control, (Switch group East of Metrotown under a card, group west of Metrotown under another one) could have left the 2nde busiest station still open, whether a single communication control card fail.

…But here we touch to the Skytrain system design itself, for which we have already expressed concerns.

The Contingency plan

Skytrain operation

At first they have operated the Expo-Millenium line in 2 different segments Waterrfront-Nanaimo and Edmonds-King George/ VCC Clark with a shuttle train Nanaimo to Joyce (6th busiest station on the system [1]“).

The way this is operated have system wide consequence:

    Frequency on any section of the system is constrained by the fact only one train is allowed on a single track section, either Commercial-Nanaimo or Edmonds Operating Center-Edmonds Station (…and only one track per station was used, as per my observation).

It is apparently for this reason, that Royal Oak was closed (too long a single track section between Edmonds and Royal Oak). Keeping Royal Oak open, could have

  • Drastically reduced the bus bridge length.
  • brought metrotown area/ in walkable distance of the skytrain for many patrons providing well needed relief to the bus bridge

It could be a better operation arrangement that the one in place on “dead end” sections (e.g Edmonds operation center-Edmonds), to enable to preserve or minimize the impact on the overall train frequency on the rest of the system:

tracks on the left side of the switches are used as 2 single tracks with a drawer to preserve good frequency on the double tracks section (right side of the switches)

see also here for other single dead end track operation

Translink/BCRTC should have better Skytrain operation contengency plan, to make the best use of their system, in degraded mode.

Bus operation

The bus bridge was working relatively well – at least in the West direction around 7:30pm – but could have been improved:

    Instead to have a single special bus route serving all the closed Skytrain station, what involve many street detours, when most of the rider are just interested to go to the other end, it could have been better to have 2 routes:

  • A non stop route (Joyce-Edmonds)
  • All skytrain station stop route

In addition, of it, Translink staff should advise existing alternative route – route 106 Edmonds to Metrotown was painfully underused – and beef up some other regular routes – Route 19, the obvious alternative to Skytrain was oversubscribed, but was running as per schedule (no additional buses)


Passenger information could have been much better

  • 22nd entrance station had a sign reading “All trains stop at Edmonds station”…what is true every day…
  • Announce of skytrain station closure should be done on buses before alighting at skytrain stations
  • Announce of alternative regular bus route to reach main destinations should be done both on the skytrain and the buses

We have already noticed the poor reliability of the skytrain, but on the bright side, we are noticing some slight progress in the handling of the recurring skytrain failures.


On Thursday July 17th, the SkyTrain system was shut down during the evening peak travel period due to a failed computer component. This left many passengers stranded both at SkyTrain stations and in SkyTrain cars for many hours. Then on Monday July 21th the skytrain system was brought to halt due to a tripped electric breaker protecting the SkyTrain’s operations centre. The power outage also halted the public announcement system

Having two skytrain melt down in a row is statistically improbable. Improbable but not impossible…drawing some hasty conclusions on the general state of the system based on exceptional event shouldn’t be done at this stage:

Some observers have been quick to link the skytrain glitches to lack of funding. We notice that the latest meltdown is linked to the extension of the Skytrain (Evergreen line work)…

Identifying the root cause of the trouble is a good step. Translink, which seems to have learnt how to manage crisis in Pyonyang, thinks it has then took the adequate measure: suspend the electrician whose is alledgely responsible for the tripping of the breaker.

We will note that if a breaker exists in the first place, it is to allow it to trip, and the consequence of a tripping should be known as well. so a first question

  • Does the risk of accidental tripping of a critical breaker due to electrical work was properly assessed? and its corollary: Does the electrical work was appropriately scheduled to minimize risks on skytrain operation?

The handling of a crisis communication

A tripping breaker or something else shutting down a whole transit system is a rare occurence, but not something unprecedented:

During the great 2003 North east blackout, whole transit systems, in cities such as Toronto or New York, grind to a complete halt…

In such occurence, The question is: What is the response of the Transit authority and is it adequate?


  • Does Translink expect people to roast in trains for hours without any information?
some train has been evacuated by he staff, some other have seen their door pried by passengers...

some trains have been evacuated by the Translink staff, some others have seen their doors opened by passengers…

If a train evacation plan was in place, something one could have excepted to be decided in the minutes following the skytrain halt (a tripping breaker is a priori something quick and easy to troubleshoot, and the consequence on the time to “reboot” the system should be well know).

  • Why Translink didn’t inform its customers about it?

Thought the passenger announcement system was down, medium like twitter was available (but used only to mention an unspecified “technical issue”). That brings us another aspect of the issue.

Is the Skytrain system rightly designed?

  • In crisis situation, more than ever, communication is key: the passenger information system should be insulated of other control systems (be able to run on onboard battery…)

Wrong per design, is also the fact that a Skytrain “glitch”, seems always to bring the whole Skytrain system on its knees. The system seems to be too much centralized. The corollary of it:

The more the system expand, hence add complexity (be by mile of trackage or by number of trains in operation), the more the chance to have catastrophic glitches.

The occurence of it can be reduced by increasing the reliability of the system as is (that can be typically achieved by providing redundancy on key part [3]…but eventually that will not prevent embarassing issues where the whole skytrain system break down, due to a too centralized management of it.

Better overall resilience could be achieved by a more decentralized system: having the different lines operated as much as independently as possible is a step in that direction [4]. That could not necessarily means less over-all break down, but a break down could be of much minor consequence on the system (typically confined to one line). In that regard:

  • With the advent of the Evergreen line (VCC-Douglas college), the Millenium line should be shortened to be (Watefront-Lougheed) which should reduce catastrophic break-down effect
  • the poor design of the Lougheed station which can be already criticized for the lack of same platform transfer between future Evergreen line train (VCC-Douglas) and Millenium train (Waterfront-Lougheed), can also be blamed, for preventing to operate one line in total disconnection of the other in normal operation (excluding OMC access)
  • We have to celebrate as an an eventually uninentended advantage, the fact that the Canada line is operated totally independently from the rest of the skytrain network

Skytrain reliability?

The Skytrain reliability is touted at 95%: that measures the % of train running no later than 2mn of its schedule.

A measure providing little meaning for the customer:

    train can run late, but as long as speed and frequency is maintained, the level of service for the customer is maintained.

The measure of the skytrain reliability doesn’t provide us with a good idea of how “late” or “slow” the 5% of trains not “on time” are.

The problem is that when a Skytrain is “running late”, it can very quikly means hour delay for the customer. In that light, 5% trains “running late” could be then considered as way too much (a bit like if a driver was facing incident like flat tire or engine break down once a month, but should feel content because the rest of the month, or 95% of the time, the drive is unevenfull…).

For matter of comparison, the reliability of french driverless subways is usually north of 99% [1]

To the risk to be at odd with Translink, a review to all of the above question is necessary: the findings could eventually help to reduce the occurence of skytrain systemic issues and more certainly will provide some guidance to help to improve the handling of such occurence in the future

PS:one could be also interested in the opinion of Daryl dela Cruz, Natahn Pachal or Gordon Price

[1] see Twenty Years of Experiences with driverless metros in France, J.M. Erbina and C. Soulas. As an example, the Paris automated line 14 reliability (percentage of passengers who waited less than 3mn during peak hour or less than 6mn during off-peak hours) is at 99.8% on the Paris automated line 14

[3] Per definition a “back-up” system is not working when the main system is…and back up system issue are typically discovered when we need it if not thoroughly and recuurently tested what involve significantly ongoing maintenance cost.

[4] As an example in Paris, each automated subway lines (taht is line 1 and 14 has its own central command center. That is also true of the Lille VAL system, which has 2 lines opened in 1983 and 1989

Grounded on principle previously exposed, we present here some more concrete ideas of what could look an ideal transit network in downtown. In a top down approach, we naturally ensure that the regional and city transit lines are optimized: that is the main purpose of this post

The regional transit network:

The regional bus network: the extension of the North sore bus route to the Main street Station

The regional bus network: the extension of the North sore bus route to the Main street Station

The Hasting buses (named HSB) such as bus 135 are considered as regional bus, as well as all buses heading to the North Shore (named NSB for the one using the Lions gate Bridge).

A major change is with the North shore buses.
All routes coming are extended to Main terminal:

  • The actual connection with the Granville station is preserved, but patrons will eventually find that Stadium or Main will provide better transfer: that will reduce crowding pressure at the Georgia#Granville stop
  • Georgia street, sometime called a traffic sewage, is where some want hide Transit and its users: it is not without creating challenges.

    Corwding at Georgia#Granville bus stop is reduced by the extension of the north shore buses to Main station

  • It resolves North shore bus layover issues in the downtown core: there is ample space at The Main/Terminal
  • It provides a direct connection with the Main street bus routes (3,8, and 19)
  • it provides a direct connection with the train and intercity buses station.

A potential extension to the future Broadway line station, at Great Northern Way# Fraser, could be doable too

City Bus routes:

the city bus network

the city bus network

A major change on the main street corridor:

Bus #3 and #8 are short-turned at the north end of Main. It is a result of an observation: most of the patron of those routes, transfer onto the Expo line at main terminal, leaving bus #3 and #8 wandering empty in the downtown core. It is also a follow up of a previous Translink recommendation [1].

  • The saving in term of operating cost is tremendous, and it helps to address bus congestion (mainly at bus stop) on the hasting corridor

Bus 19 can preserve a direct connection between the downtown and the Main Corridor.

The route 22 toward the Knight street corridor
In the context of the 2013 Bus service optimization consultation, we came up with a “counter proposal” to improve the bus 22 and C23 route (then proposed to be extended to Terminal Avenue) which has been discussed in comment section of the buzzer blog:

proposed extension of route C23 (in blue) and rerouting of bus 22 (in red) to serve the Terminal avenue area, and provide a good connection with the Expo line

The bus is permantly routed thru terminal avenue (instead of Prior and Gore).

  • it improves the connection to the expo line (for people using its East branch)
    • to avoid a left turn at Main street(preventing to have a bus stop in direct connection with the Expo line), the route 22 is routed thru Columbia and Quebec street.
  • The actual 22 use Pender street, but Hasting could be a superiori choice (direct connection with hasting bus corridor, and closer to Waterfront):
    • Toward it a section of Columbia (North of Pnder) could need to be reverted as a two-way street.

The Bus 17

It is used to provide a North south service East of Granville from Waterfront (bus termini on Cordova). Due to the street layout, Cambie street is the only reasonnable choice:

  • Beatty closer to the Staidum station end up at pender, is often closed to traffic with special event at Canada place.
  • Hamilton and all western choice, are to too far away of the Statdium station, and roverlapping too much with the Granville corridor.

The route 50 case.

This aim of this route is to provide some transit service to Granville island and on the South False Creek slope. That said, the routing of this route make it of little value for too many people:

We redesign this route as a peripheral one, linking Broadway#Granville, Granville Island, Olympic station, Main street station and Main#Hasting:

bus 50 as a peripheral route connecting Main#Hasting to Bradway#Granville via Main station, Olympic station and Granville Island

bus 50 as a peripheral route connecting Main#Hasting to Bradway#Granville via Main station, Olympic station and Granville Island

Among other benefits: Such alignment allows to improve the transit offer in the South East Flase Creek area, and remove one diesel bus route of the Granville Mall.

The inconvenience of this design is the eventual lost of a direct connection between Downtown and Granville island: The implementation of an elevator between granville island and the Granville bridge span could be a good solution, which could be part of the Granville Bridge greenway proposal

The route 15 is then prolonged to downtown, following the alignement of route 17, able to provide a more consistent bus service on the peninsula section of Cambie

The Hasting bus corridor

We include the bus serving Powell in this corridor (essentially route #4). Even with the removal of bus #3 and #8, there is lot of bus service redundancy (#7,#14,#16,#20): The rationalization of it should be the object of a study focusing on this corridor rather than a down town study.

The Burrard bus corridor

At this time, it consists only of bus 22 and 44. If the Broadway subway is designed to terminate at Arbutus, it is expected that this corridor will see much more bus traffic, and a revamped route 44 -using Broadway to connect with the subway line- could see a level of service similar to the actual bus 99.

[1] Vancouver/UBC Area Transit Plan , Translink, July 2005.

At a time when “both TransLink and the City of Vancouver are aiming to establish a common vision for bus service in downtown Vancouver“, it is still interesting to have a look at what has been done in past in that respect

In 1975, the Bureau of Transit Services, then depending from the Minister of municipal affairs prepared a transit service plan to complement the City land plan [1]:

1975 Vancouver Downtown transit Plan

1975 proposal for the Vancouver Downtown transit Plan, extract from [1]

This plan is important in many aspects, and mainly the adopted methodology

It lays down the general picture in which a downtown plan can take shape

Thought not in service in 1975, the West Coast Express concept were already discussed, and the terminals and vessels, for the seabus, were under construction. The skytrain was still a quite distant concept [2], but the LRT discussed in the plan is clearly considered as a pre-metro, aimed to be underground in the Core Business district.

But More importantly,

It lays down 7 principles guiding the plan
Those principle are subdivized into 3 common service characteristics:

  • Direct Routing
  • (1) Don’t divert routes to serve specific needs: Diversion means a less attractive service for most of the travellers
    (2) Use secondary services connecting to main ones, to serve “out of the way” area (rather than divert main routes)

  • Minimize unecessary transfers
  • (3) Use the downtown grid for “random schedule” transfers

  • Minimal walking distance to final destinations
  • StraightThru
    (4) Go Straight thru the “center of gravity” of an area, and not its periphery, which increases the total walking distance by half.
    (5) Transit and pedestrians: the concept of pedestrianization and transit must not be treated independently.
    The study cites Jane Jacobs [3] to support the idea of bringing together the transit network with the pedestrian area [6]
    (6) Prefer two way operations over one way, since it offers the maximum coverage
    (7) Prefer nearside bus stop over farside, sinec it allows the passengers to alight before have to wait at a traffic light.

Many, if not all, of this principles are what Jarret Walker calls the geometry of Transit, and that is the reason why they are still as valid in 2013 as they were in 1975:

  • Principle (7): Thought some cities like Montreal and Toronto, have bus stopa on the nearside, most of the cities adopt a farside model, since it usually allows a better general traffic output, and modern LRT/trams use also farside bus stops, since it allows a more efficient signal preemption
  • Principle (1), (4) and (6): They are very strong transit geometry principles which have justified the conversion of Manners Mall in Wellington New Zealand, from a pedestrian only street to a transit mall.
  • Principle (4) and (5) are why transit needs to be considered as part of the urban fabric

Some comments on the DT plan
The geometry of transit largely comfort the relevance of the historic streetcar grid:

Robson bus 5 ( Ex-Saskatoon Brill trolley 2363), at Robson square, in May 1980. Note the “Shoppers Free” Bus sign – Photo, courtesy from Angus McIntyre

  • The choice of the streets is guided by principle (4)
    • At the time of drafting the plan the Robson bus was using the couplet of one way streets Smythe/Robson: a two way service along Robson is clearly the privilegied choice.
  • The streetcar service along Hornby, was expected to use the Arbutus line outside the DT core: the routing thru Hornby plan is consistent with the 1972 Erickson plan developped for the court house complex.
    • The advent of the Canada line kind of fullfill this vision.
  • The Robson square is envisioned to be a pedestrian oriented area, serviced by transit in full accordance with principle (4), and the Arthur Erickson’s vision for Robson square:
      The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square […]

The underlying philosophy leading to the plan, articulating pedestrian areas around transit, and not the reverse, illustrates the dramatic shift of the current Vancouver council approach, which dismiss the transit geometry, as illustrates the Robson bus circling the square
to serve a “specific need”.

At the end a transit service is envisioned on Nelson to complement the planned development of the westend, as well as a pheripheral line, to serve the “social and recreational” place on the pheriphery of downtown:

Remarkably, they are echoing recurring wishes for Transit in downtown, but the plan warms that “…there really is not much to be gained in professing support for programmes to get more people to use public transit without commitment to actions to give transit priority use of streets in Downtown Vancouver and in other urban centres in the metropolitan area.”

Alas, the current Vancouver council policies could not be farther apart of this commitment to transit.

One can also consult [5] for a different coverage of [1]

[1] Draft memorandum on transit service planning to complement downtown peninsula plans of the City of Vancouver, Bureau of Transit Services, BC Minister of Municipal affairs, Sept 19, 1975. (13.6MB file)

[2] the underlying concept had been drafted by Harry Rankin by 1970, see The Case for Rapid Transit…in 1970

[3] The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1961

[4] 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974

[5] Vancouver’s 1975 downtown transit plan, John Calimenete, April 7, 2010

[6] This view is echoed by Jan Gehl, among others, providing rational for Transit on Sydney’s George Street.

Not long time ago, Jarret Walker has written a post explaining the value of the isochrone maps, he presents as freedom maps: The freedom measure here is not that much about mobility than access: “how many new choices – jobs, shopping, schools, houses of worship or philosophy, sports facilities, and so on, are brought within a given travel time of how many people”-by a proposed project.

When it is time to build a new bridge across a river, this concept is usually clearly understood. When it is time to build a new transit line, it is far less the case, and eventually in Metro Vancouver it quickly boils down to who gonna get its fair share of rail tracks… that eventually dues to the fact that transit investments are not understood as transportation ones. Here below is an example of what additional freedom can be brought by a Broadway Skytrain (all isochrones are rough approximate and generated with mapnificent).

Approximation of how much more destination (in purple) can be reached in 15mn from Cambie#Broadway

What is also very important to understand is that a transit project is not necessarily reduced to serve the people living in its immediate vicinity:

30mn Isochrone from Richmond Brighouse, New Westminster, Lougheed and metrotown: in purple, approximation with the Broadway line

The isochrone maps above are with a commute time of 30mn on way (average commute time). As presented above, they carry little more value than improved mobility, in the term of how much more square km of area become more accessible: a good metric for urban sprawl, but not necessarily for economic value of the project and development sustainability

To measure how much the accessibility is improved for how many, integration of different density maps are needed:

metro population density map and vancouver job density map

All that and more give how much new opportunities are provided for how many people.
Translink certainly use the above datas to predict the ridership of any transit project, but the presentation of it under a “map of freedom”, can eventually allow a better visual grasp of the potential, influence, and sensitivity to land planning of the investment.

To be sure, you have to agree with the premise, that giving opportunities access to people is a good thing:

Compact development and constrained development

In some circles idealizing a certain past, people could tend to confound these 2 notions: A urban form constraining the opportunity options, be to learn, work… is per nature demanding to its residents to do some sacrifices. Conversely, an employer having access to a smaller labor pool will have less chance to find an adequate match. That provides in fine an economy not capitalizing on its talents, hence unable to perform as well as it should….and the purpose of any transport investment in history has been to improve the economy efficiency of the regions it connects.

A compact development can be achieved by constraint-i.e. lack of communication link- or by well designed communication links, where people want live at some specific nodes, because it is where they get the maximum freedom, in term of opportunity to work, learn, shop…It is eventually what the isochrones above represent: Some regional town centers become more attractive because a Broadway line gives them

  • Better connection connection between each other, that is noticeably the case of Richmond and Lougheed (and beyond Tricities),
  • Access to the central Broadway area, which is the second concentration of job in Metro Vancouver after Downtown.

The regional benefits of the Broadway line are undeniable, and probably are much greater than the local benefits, but can the served area accommodate further population/job growth?

Development potential

in those matter “land use” planning is key, and it is a common misconception that growth needs to be accommodated by further sprawl. The connected areas still have lot of reserve for infilling and densification, which can be leveraged on both potential future rapid transit stations and arterials serviced by local bus routes [1]Not only in Vancouver, but also in the regional nodes benefiting of the Broadway line, as seen before

Broadway at Fraser;in bad need of revitalization; offers tremendous opportunities for densification among other

The question is hence more how to enable this potential, which need to be quantified, this to allow the best return on investment.

[1] In that respect, See also What Would It Take? Carbon Neutral Cities, Jeremy Falud, February 15, 2012 (and “key quotes” at pricetag ) and “Creating Places for People — The Melbourne Experiences“, Rob Adams, at SFU October 4, 2011