SkyTrain and UBC

I live about 3 minutes from an express bus stop, where I can get the express bus and be at UBC within 15 minutes, whereupon I can walk from the diesel bus loop to my classroom in 6 minutes. Since I teach at 10 in the morning, it means I should leave around 9:30 or just before and then with rush hour headways I can be guaranteed not to be late to my own class. Unfortunately, because classes start on the hour, everyone wants to ride the last bus that makes the 10 am classes, and by the time this bus gets to my neighborhood, it is full. To guarantee getting on a bus I need to be at the bus stop by 9:20 or not much later, which since I have no real reason to show up to campus 15 minutes ahead of time lengthens my effective commute to 40-45 minutes. A bus that is in principle faster door-to-door than any proposed SkyTrain extension, which would serve my area at a much farther away station, becomes more than 10 minutes slower at the time of day relevant to me.

Vancouver has a general problem with passups – that is, passengers at a bus stop who have to let a full bus go. A list of the bus stops with the most passups is dominated by UBC’s peak caused by classes starting and ending at a synchronized time: eight of the top ten stops are for east-west buses serving UBC, and at those stops the passups are concentrated in the AM peak for westbound buses and the PM peak for eastbound ones. Of those eight stops, two, on the 49, are partially connections to the Canada Line (compare passups east and west of Cambie here), but the six on the 99-B are not, since a sizable fraction of riders ride end to end and there are substantial passups west of Cambie as well.

The demand generated by a traditional CBD can be smoothed with flex-time work and with a general spread of the peak around a peak half hour. With a university this is not feasible: to ensure maximum flexibility for students’ class schedule classes should be synchronized. When I was at NUS, a commuter university like UBC, I had a similar problem with full buses heading from campus to the subway stations after classes. Because UBC is nowhere near SkyTrain, its demand has to be spread among many bus routes, and is so great that it’s clogged not just the 99-B but also parallel routes such as the 25 and relief lines such as the 84.

The only alternative for investment in the Broadway corridor that has enough capacity to meet this demand is a full SkyTrain option. Any option that relies on a connecting bus part of the way not only won’t solve the capacity problem, but might even make it worse by concentrating all the UBC-bound demand at the westernmost SkyTrain station on Broadway, at either Granville or Arbutus. Today, people who take the Millennium Line can use the 84, which is faster than the 99-B; any extension of the Millennium Line west, even just to Cambie to complete the gap from Commercial to the Canada Line, is likely to concentrate demand on one corridor, overwhelming the truncated 99-B even further.

A light rail option probably has enough capacity, but does very little for Central Broadway or for completing the SkyTrain gap, and would also require pedestrian-hostile reconfiguration of stoplights and left turn cycles, making crossing the street even harder than it already is. UBC, which doesn’t care about Vancouver’s own needs, advocates an all-light rail option, while the city, which doesn’t care about UBC’s, wants a subway initially going as far west as Arbutus with a bus transfer to the west. A combo option with SkyTrain to Arbutus and light rail the rest of the way exists (Combo A in the alternatives analysis), but is almost as expensive as a full subway. The ridership projection for the combo option is almost even with that of a full subway, but such a projection is based on optimistic assumptions about transfer penalties and passengers’ willingness to travel on slower transit: the combo option is slower by about 7 minutes than the full subway from most preexisting SkyTrain stations as well as from Central Broadway, and requires an extra transfer for people traveling from the Millennium Line or Central Broadway.

Because the project has a $3 billion price tag, various critics have already begun complaining that it’s needlessly expensive (in reality, the inflation-adjusted projected cost per rider is the same as those of the Millennium, Canada, and Evergreen Lines) and proposing inferior solutions, and I believe that this cost is why the city and Translink are thinking of truncating the extension to Arbutus and only doing the rest later. It’s fine to spend a higher sum on the combination of the Canada and Evergreen Lines, which look nice on a map and make a lot of suburban mayors happy, but when it’s just one line that more or less stays within the city it’s too expensive and needs to be chopped into phases.

The other issue is that SkyTrain extensions have been more about shaping than about serving, i.e. serving areas that can be redeveloped rather than ones that are already dense. Look at the density map by census tract here: the residential density on Central Broadway and in the eastern parts of Kits is high, comparable to that of the census tracts hosting most SkyTrain-oriented developments. Even as far west as Alma there’s fairly high residential density. However, this is low-rise density, distributed roughly uniformly in the census tract, rather than clustered in a few high-rise buildings next to the SkyTrain stations. High-rises are possible throughout the corridor – there already are a few near the future Alma and Sasamat stops – but because of Point Grey’s affluent demographic it’s easy to write it off as not densifiable. Empty or very low-density plots are easier to redo from scratch than an existing neighborhood, even if the neighborhood already has enough development to justify a subway.

I suspect part of the problem comes from the context in which Vancouver’s TOD is located in. The Expo Line follows a private right-of-way with pedestrian-hostile streets connecting to stations, and the Millennium Line is elevated over the mostly sidewalk-free Lougheed Highway. The fastest way to get from some houses that are close to SkyTrain on a map to the station is to walk through mall parking lots. The walking range of SkyTrain stations located in unwalkable parts of Burnaby is not as high as it would be at ones located in a walkable urban context. At the level of how many people would live within a kilometer of SkyTrain, Kits and Central Broadway are already outperforming most of the Expo Line’s TOD, and even at the 500-meter range they do quite well; but in Burnaby the relevant distance is much shorter, and this may affect Translink’s ridership projections elsewhere in the metro area.

The only medium- and long-term solution is to find the $3 billion for the UBC extension, just as the metro region will have spent $3.5 billion in 10 years on the Canada and Evergreen Lines. Nothing else works for both UBC and Central Broadway; the counterarguments are based on generalizing from a different urban context; the difference-splitting intermediate solutions make some of the transit problems even worse than they are. It is always wrong to downgrade projects just because of a sticker shock, and if a very large project still has a good cost-benefit ratio then it’s a good investment to raise taxes or borrow money to fund it.


  1. Eric

    Which leads to the next question. Cut-and-cover or deep bore? Temporary inconvenience for all Broadway users, or permanent inconvenience for subway users?

    • Ryan

      Could you please explain to me how deep bore stations result in a “permanent inconvenience” for subway users?

      I’m not disagreeing with you yet, I just genuinely don’t understand your position.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Cut and cover stations are close to the sidewalk. Deep bore stations are a very long escalator ride from the sidewalk.

        • Patrick Meehan

          Which really doesn’t represent a significant inconvenience…

          You essentially have to deep bore Broadway. Unlike Cambie, which had a plethora of alternate routes (And was never a heavy goods moving route anyways), Broadway is an extension of the highway system and necessary for goods to travel.

          There aren’t enough alternatives to allow for Broadway to close.

          • Miles Bader

            It seems more of a religious issue amongst some transit advocates.

            Deep stations are certainly a little more inconvenient in some ways, but they’re often more convenient in others (e.g., mezzanines tend to make it much easier to have wide and convenient exit distribution, which is good for passengers).

            In any case, the vitriol you see on transit forums against deep-bore systems seems way out of proportion with any actual issues.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            In reality, deep stations overwhelmingly end up with few (most typically one) points of access unless they connect up into shallower existing concourses and access points of existing stations.

            The reason is simple: deep access shafts are expensive and large and hard to site.

            Moreover, given the expense of deep station construction, there is a strong cost incentive and tendency to build only a single concourse level between the platforms and the surface: much more than the station cavern and a single concourse cavern and you’re talking extreme per-station costs. This concourse can’t be made too large for economic reasons, so its footprint at surface level is small, so there are limited surface locations from which to sink shafts.

            For the deepest stations one is looking at banks of express elevators. Locating multiple sites for deep and wide shafts is difficult. Then tend to pop up in one location. (See for example Barcelona L9/L10.)

            For intermediate depth stations escalators can work. But one ends up looking at multiple flights of escalator banks, which means monumental scale shafts. (See for example Jubilee Line extension in London.) And these are even harder to locate, so again station access tends to be from a single point.

            Basically, in order to have several entrances into a deep station, ie escalators reaching “outwards” to multiple points around the station, one needs a shallow- or shallow-er-depth concourse to which the escalators connect before heading down deep to the platform(s). And now you’ve got all the disadvantages of shallow construction together with all of those of deep construction. Together with a “transfer” (don’t laugh, it’s real) in the middle of the platform-to-street connection.

            The trade-offs aren’t “religious”. It really does take a long time to get deep underground, and one is more likely to be able to do so from only a single point, which adds to the surface walk component of trip times.

            I don’t for a second buy olde-tyme-NYC-type shallow subways with tracks directly under the street and escalator/stair access from the sidewalk only to one side of narrow outside platforms under the sidewalk, but there’s a useful intermediate level, where all other things being equal (which they never are), there’s can be excellent and widely dispersed access points from the surface to intermediate concourses along with quick surface-to-platform transit time.

          • Patrick Meehan

            You’re falling into the natural trap of religious devotion.

            Does deep bore have difficulties? Sure. Does cut and cover? You bet.

            Can both be done poorly? You bet. Can both be done well? You bet.

            Are there places predisposed to one or the other? Probably, but it doesn’t rule out the other by any stretch.

            The problem with public transpo discussions is that everyone tends ot get there heads hunkered down into the ONE FORM OF TRANSIT THEY LIKE to the exclusion of all others. That kind of thinking is ridiculously detrimental to the cause. It divides people who, in the end, all agree.

          • snogglethorpe

            Certainly something “in the middle” is nicer than either extreme… Basically mezannines are good, so it’s good to be deep enough to leave room for one. [Beyond that, many of the deep stations I’ve used are clearly built down from the surface anyway, though the tunnels are bored, and end up with multiple mezzannine levels (some of which are often partial) rather than narrow access ports to the surface.]

            But there very much is a religious component to many of the attacks on deep stations I’ve seen, with people defending even olde-timey side-platforms because they’re shallower “and shallower is better!1!” ><

          • Alon Levy

            For what it’s worth, the cut-and-cover Canada Line only has one entrance to the Broadway station, at one corner of the Broadway/Cambie intersection. The deep-bore Yaletown and City Centre stations are also single-entrance if I remember correctly. But that could be specific to Vancouver and its uncharacteristically short platforms.

          • Patrick Meehan

            Both the lack of entrances and the short platforms were extremely shortsighted government decisions to cut costs in the short term at great cost in the long term. Broadway-Cambie will need an additional entrance at some point as that area surges in both employment and residential. In order to double the train cars, as is done on the Expo Line, you have to either stop with either end of the train still in the tunnel (losing some door access in the process) or dig out longer platforms later, which will be fairly prohibitively expensive.

          • Henry

            New York is basically the land of cut-and-cover, and the few exceptions I can think of are extremes that should never, ever be replicated. 63rd/Lex and Roosevelt are deep bore, but have one exit because another would be impossible due to geometry (a second exit at 63rd would interfere with an interlocking, and a second exit at Roosevelt would lead into the East River).

            The Archer Av Line stations, and potentially 21st/Queensbridge were also bored, but weren’t extremely deep – these stations are characterized by one or two exits leading onto below-surface mezzanines taking up the space of a street intersection, with multiple exits and entrances.

            ESA (and the former ARC) were also designed to be deep-bore caverns – ESA because underpinning the skyscrapers in Midtown to prep GCT’s lower level would have been noisy, disruptive, and potentially cause overcrowding in the passageways leading to platforms, especially during times of service disruptions; and ARC, because NJT didn’t want to share. Both came with the expense that comes with blowing up a giant hole several stories into some of the hardest bedrock in the world.

            Cut and cover is not a one-size-fits-all solution – in hilly places such as Hong Kong and New York’s Washington Heights, it would require excessively high grades on approach tracks to stations. Deep stations, if maintained properly and outfitted with reasonable points of egress (escalator maintenance is crucial!), are not detrimental to the transit experience – Hong Kong’s MTR is a pleasant, efficient system to use, and some of its stations see upwards of 100K passengers a day, so station capacity with deep bore isn’t an issue. Thus, deep stations are useful where the following conditions apply:

            1. An area is excessively hilly and cut-and-cover would require steep grades
            2. Surrounding building stock is valuable, highly-used, and/or old, and may not be able to handle explosive detonation of a large amount of rock
            3. A station relatively close to the water is required, but the train is coming out of a deep tunnel traversing said body of water.
            4 (Maybe) Traffic conditions would be awful for the relatively short duration of cut-and-cover, and neighborhoods would also suffer severely negative effects. (Note: This was the justification for SAS being bored, but this hasn’t worked out – it’s slower, more expensive, traffic on Second Avenue is awful, and neighborhoods are cut off, suffer from high amounts of dust and noise, and occasionally building foundations are disrupted.)

            Like many other things, deep bore has to be carefully implemented, just like cut-and-cover, and basically every other aspect of a transit expansion.

    • Alon Levy

      I’d say cut-and-cover, but I’m basing this on the experience of Second Avenue Subway, where the use of a TBM to reduce inconvenience has failed and there’s massive inconvenience at station sites, lasting for years longer than the inconvenience of a quick cut-and-cover job. However, Vancouver is almost certainly going to use a TBM even though it’s more expensive, because the Canada Line was done cut-and-cover under Cambie and so the merchants associate the disruption with the specific technique rather than with subway construction in general.

      • mike0123

        There are two parts of the line that probably require a bored tunnel because the slope is too steep for a cut-and-cover tunnel.

        To avoid disruption at station locations along Broadway, the line might be built under 10th Avenue instead. East of Macdonald, this street could be described as a bikeway, a minor residential street with one stretch of adjacent hospital buildings, or a 66-foot-wide ROW often with trees inside its edges. West of Macdonald, it is a minor arterial or collector widening to 4 travel lines in total west of Alma.

        The first bored tunnel is from Great Northern Way at Prince Edward to Broadway or 10th at Main. In addition to the slope, there’s also a Catholic school and an old mall in the way. There are several big old trees along 10th Avenue between Main and Ash that might be enough to prevent cut-and-cover construction there. Likely, the line from Great Northern Way to Ash will be bored. Presumably, the boring of this tunnel would be staged on Great Northern Way at the bottom of the hill.

        The second bored tunnel is from Alma to Blanca. There are also several big old trees along 10th Avenue between Blenheim and Alma. To avoid messing with the trees and traffic west of Macdonald, the tunnel could be staged in the large park and school site just east of Macdonald.

        Regardless, any Millennium Line will be a mix of elevated, bored tunnel, and cut-and-cover tunnel. The elevated extension of the Millennium Line to Prince Edward is just under 1-km long. The first bored tunnel is about 2-km long. The stretch between Ash and Larch that could be cut and covered is just over 3-km long. The second bored tunnel is about 4-km long. The stretch between Blanca and Main Mall at UBC that could be cut and covered or elevated is about 2.5-km long.

        • Eric

          “To avoid disruption at station locations along Broadway, the line might be built under 10th Avenue instead…”

          “There are also several big old trees…”

          Once again, a little temporary convenience at the expense of a lot of permanent inconvenience.

          • mike0123

            The horizontal distance walking from the centre of the platform to the sidewalk at stations like Yaletown, City Hall or City Centre where the station entrance is on the street the station is under ranges from 80 m to 120 m. The minimum practical distance might be a little over 50 m for a shallow station with a concourse level.

            The curb-to-curb distance of 83 m between Broadway and 10th Avenue would put the platform to sidewalk distance within the typical range above. The convenience or access time from station entrances on Broadway to a line under 10th Avenue would be negligibly different than to a line under Broadway.

            There has been some talk on the local blogs and forums over the years of the possibility of using ramps instead of escalators to access stacked platforms by taking advantage of the grade change between Broadway and 10th Avenue. Actually, this is only possible at Oak and only for the top platform because the ramps would need to be too steep otherwise.

          • Alon Levy

            Does it really save money to do the disruption on 10th but then have to build each station on two adjacent streets, with ramps/escalators down from Broadway to 10th?

          • mike0123

            I know very little about costing subway lines. More ground area would be touched to build connecting corridors between Broadway and 10th, but it’s mostly under city-owned land in an existing right-of-way.

            If 10th Avenue can be completely shut down for a few years at the station pits – or permanently to add to the already extensive traffic-calming – there would be no need to temporarily cover over the pit, change traffic patterns periodically, direct traffic, repave the street seven times near the end of construction, etc. The pits would not only be much less disruptive to traffic, but the need to move traffic would be less likely to disrupt station construction.

            Station entrances should be as close as possible to the intersection of the arterials, regardless of the street the line is under, but a line under 10th would require a corridor between Broadway and 10th Avenue at each station. There are city-owned rights-of-way or properties between Broadway and 10th at Main (i.e. the 33-foot-wide Watson), Cambie (the entire block is city-owned), Granville (i.e. a 20-foot-wide alley and an adjacent library and fire hall). At Oak, the proposed office building includes a roughed in station entrance on the corner, presumably connecting to a corridor under Oak to either Broadway or 10th. At Arbutus, the Arbutus Corridor is a disused CP-owned 50-foot-wide rail corridor that the city seems to want

            In addition, the most convenient station location in Mount Pleasant is between the two arterials that intersect Broadway, Kingsway and Main. Beause Kingsway runs on a diagonal, the distance between Kingsway and Main is about 70 m on Broadway and about 130 m on 10th Avenue. An 80-m Millennium Line-length station would fit on 10th Avenue without disrupting either arterial during construction.

          • mike0123

            There are precedents for placing a subway under buildings, a street or an alley adjacent to an arterial in both Montreal and Toronto. The distances are similar to the distance between Broadway and 10th Avenue.

            Montreal’s Orange Line through the Plateau is over 100 m east of St. Denis. Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth Line is generally 60 m to 120 m north of Bloor or Danforth. Toronto’s Yonge Line between Bloor and St. Clair is 50 m to 90 m east of Yonge.

            This separation of the line from the arterial doesn’t seem to have resulted in any inconvenience or loss of utility in those cities. Presumably, the decision to build a short distance from the arterial was similarly made to reduce cost and to reduce disruption during construction.

          • Joey

            But construction under buildings most certainly increases costs.

          • mike0123

            There are corridors without buildings, mostly city-owned, between Broadway and 10th Avenue at each potential station location between Main and Arbutus.

            The exception might be Granville, where the corridor might be too narrow at just 20 feet wide. Still it’s about the size of the corridor between the Canada Line platforms at Waterfront and Waterfront station proper.

  2. anonymouse

    As far as I know, with modern TBMs, bored tunnels are much cheaper to build than cut and cover, though as always, that depends on geology and urban context. World best practice seems to be to have relatively shallow bored tunnels with cut and cover stations. The stations end up being a bit deeper, but this allows for a mezzanine, which allows for island platforms with access from both sides of the street.

    • ant6n

      Most of Berlin was done cut-and-cover, and there are mezzanines, and generally tons of exits. A lot of Montreal was done TBM with cut and cover stations – but since the tunnels are fairly deep (15-25m), the cut-outs are small, only in one place. So you end up with stations with only one exit, and that exit being in a little building somewhere, i.e. there’s only one single access. This is inconvenient for access to the station – lengthening the walk by up to 200m horizontally (if you get out the metro at the end where you want to go, but the exit is on the other end), and going the extra 10-20m vertically to a subway station can be quite a schlepp. I sometimes feel like it can take 5 minutes from street-level to platform level, whereas in Berlin I can make a subway if I hear it while I’m still on the street.

      • Miles Bader

        Well certainly both methods are flexible enough to have quite a range of possibilities, and you can screw up anything … :]

        But really, “deep” isn’t the negative some people seem to think it is.

    • Alex B.

      The context definitely matters. The other key element of the urban landscape is utilities. The cost of relocation and working around utilities is a big problem. That alone can evaporate the cost savings of cut and cover, if there were any to begin with.

      Station construction is also different from tunnel construction.

      • ant6n

        My claim was not about cost, but about how cut-and-cover with it’s generally much shallower stations relates to access – generally, cut-and-cover is more likely to result in mezzanines spanning larger areas such that there are more access points to the street, and the accesses themselves would be more convenient due to the reduced walking distance down to the platform.

      • Alon Levy

        My understanding of Vancouver is that it considers cut-and-cover cheaper but more disruptive than bored tunnel. The cost estimate provided in the alternatives analysis is for bored tunnel all the way to UBC. It’s possible to cut costs somewhat by going above ground along University Boulevard, which is adjacent to a golf course; however, it’s unlikely UBC will agree to this – the ornamental greenery in the median may not be usable by anyone since there’s nothing along the boulevard, but people tend to be emotionally attached to ornamental greenery.

  3. Tom West

    UBC could help smooth out demand by varying the start times of the first class of the day. Instead of them all starting at 9am, have some starting at 8:55/8:50/8:45. The second class of the day would keep the same start-time. The effect would be those people with earlier start times with have to wait a bit longer for their second class. (Or alternatively, have a bit more time to get to that class)

    • Ryan

      At the cost of creating a bizarrely irregular schedule at the start of the day, which is bad – and your 8:50/8:55 am “on paper” classes are still effectively 9 am anyway.

      If any variance in start times is to occur at all, you might as well bite the bullet and start the “first” classes of the day at 8:00 or 8:30 instead, and move some of the existing 9:00 am classes back into the new 8:00 or 8:30 blocks. 8:00 am classes suck, but when that’s the only option that works effectively…

    • Andre Lot

      That is not feasible for most universities. I work at one, here all classes must start at xx:45 and finish at xx:30, in blocks of 2 or 3 hours usually. If UBC is not a completely strange animal, creating a schedule like you suggest would make impossible for students to have flexibility on their course selection, which is a no-go for most universities that don’t operate on a close serialized schedule (all students of a given year attending the same classes for a given program).

      If you want students to be flexible, classes must the scheduled uniformly as much as possible.

  4. Richard

    Good post. A few of points.

    The City of Vancouver is now strongly pushing for SkyTrain all the way to UBC. I’ve also heard that UBC now supports any option that connects Commercial to UBC without a transfer.

    The costs of the various options include the vehicle costs and the capital cost of the storage and maintenance yard (over 30 years I believe) to carry the ridership projections. As the ridership projections of SkyTrain to UBC are twice that of LRT, the cost for SkyTrain includes the costs needed to handle twice the passengers.

    The cost of vehicles and the yard space for LRT is around $400 million so if the capacity was the same as SkyTrain, the cost of the LRT would increase by around $400 million.

    The high ridership on SkyTrain, 320,000 by 2041, will generate high levels of ridership revenue. When taking operating savings and the ridership revenue into account, the full 30 cost of SkyTrain is only around $500 million. Much less than the $2 billion in capital costs.

  5. Rico

    I agree with pretty much everything in your post but…….unfortunately I think the political reality is such that the UBC line will not get built at the expense of Surrey expansion no matter how much more important to the region the UBC line would be (or how much better the metrics would be). For full disclosure, I grew up in North Delta (south of the Fraser, close to Surrey) but a UBC line would connect me with more destinations than the much closer to me Surrey extensions.
    As too the bored vs cut and cover debate I think it would depend on the final design and how deep the alignment would make the stations, the geography in Vancouver should make cut and cover cheaper than boring as long as the cuts are not too deep. That said after the length of time Cambie was left as a construction zone I think it would be politically difficult to go cut and cover on Broadway.
    Agree it would be difficult to adjust the UBC schedule in a meaningful way to reduce the congestion.

  6. Henry

    Not to mention, building an LRT in a city where no previous LRT existed before means that they’ll need to build a yard to maintain and house the vehicles, whereas SkyTrain could expand its yard, build holding tracks, etc, but nothing as potentially disruptive as siting a brand new train yard.

    • Alon Levy

      They did have a short LRT line in Vancouver, for the Olympics. There’s still a stub line near Granville Island; this is the part of the Combo A alignment’s light rail portion just north of the subway portion. Alas, it’s a few blocks away from Broadway, and the Central Broadway commercial development is clustered around Broadway itself rather than 6th Avenue.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Which brings up the US (North American?) practice of grossly oversized, inefficient maintenance facilities, large “spares ratios” (portion of rolling stock that is never planned to be in service), and elephantine train parking yards.

      All part of the culture of avoiding lifecycle cost analysis, larding up capital budgets, and treating operations and maintenance as welfare/patronage undertakings.

      Really, an “LRT depot” is little more than a glorified bus yard. And at the extreme, people do maintain buses under shade trees.

      Trains are supposed to be in service, not sitting in yards. Trains undergoing scheduled maintenance are supposed to move through a defined set of programmed maintenance steps and get back to carrying passengers, not idle in depots for weeks. etc etc etc.

      It’s a culture in which failure and efficiency are the only goals rewarded or aspired to. How to escape this perfect local minimum? I have no idea.

      • Andre Lot

        I’m pretty sure modern life is incompatible with maintaining buses under the shadow of a three. That is detrimental to both the service performed and the working conditions of maintenance crews.

      • Alan Robinson

        Translink has spare ratio target of about 20% depending on the vehicle type. They do have too many trolleys and this was pointed out in the government review of Translink in October. I remember reading that the Skytrain cars have about a 12% spare ratio at present service levels.

        These numbers do not seem terribly out of line. There are certainly fleets in the US with quite despicable spare ratios for which the operator has no incentive to reduce the fleet size (due to the separation of capital and operating costs.) The concept of excessive fleet size doesn’t apply in gross to Translink.

      • Henry

        Spare trains come in handy if a train breaks down during a service run, is pulled out of service because of graffiti, etc. At least at NYCT, the main reason trains sit in depots is because they’re usually being rebuilt from the chassis up.

        Plus, if you end up having a Berlin S-Bahn style fleet breakdown, having any amount of working cars on the side is a plus.

        If anything, transit agencies in the United States mostly overstock on buses, and that’s because federal law prevents spending money on operations.

        An LRT yard for Vancouver, for a line that is going to railstitute the busiest bus line in North America (and probably siphon off riders from parallel bus routes) is going to need a yard where maintenance can be performed, from basic checkups to actual overhauls.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        Stop willfully misconstruing.

        It’s not that spares aren’t needed, it’s that large numbers of spares are a waste of capital to purchase then and capital to construct parking lots for them. Add this to typical ridiculous operating practices (long turnbacks, feather-bedded rostering, heavily peaked and CBD-tidal service, etc) and the number of vehicles and the size of the parking lots for storing them (all too often not in revenue service) becomes unjustifiable.

        It’s not that maintenance doesn’t need to be done, it’s that North American transit agencies typically maintain extremely inefficiently, with low employee productivity (direct operating expense) and low throughput (driving up spares ratio, yard size, inventories, etc, etc,etc.)

        The number of train yards are excessive, the facilities super-sized, and the rolling stock fleets bloated.

        A culture in which capital funding (ie politically juiced earmarks) are “free” and in which efficiency is never rewarded (“Who wants a smaller maintenance division and a smaller operating budget and a smaller capital budget? Any takers? I thought not!”) leads inexorably to over-purchasing, sloppy maintenance, and far too much taxpayer funded equipment sitting out of service, whether that be at a terminal, in an idle train parking lot, in a waiting-for-maintance parking lot, in a low productivity maintenance facility, or in a parking lot for dead equipment.


        • Alon Levy

          The corridor in question is bidirectional (because of Central Broadway-bound service) – it just has more leptokurtic demand in the westbound am peak and the eastbound pm peak because classes start and end on the hour. Translink also has very low operating costs on both SkyTrain and the bus corridor in question: SkyTrain is about a dollar per boarding, the 99-B is $0.61.

          Also, remember that this is Canada, where truth is not absolute defense against libel, a head of government with 40% of the vote has almost unlimited power, and people can’t pronounce the word “out” properly. Agencies are responsible both for operating costs and for scrounging capital costs from a variety of sources, and those capital costs are only for major projects rather than for buying more buses. When the federal government contributed 25% of the cost of a subway line, it was considered so high they named it the Canada Line.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Alon, got that. Nevertheless, there is a strong prejudice in North America towards super-sized yards and maintenance. Agency people tend to think that they’re in the business of forging iron ingots into locomotive frames or the like, and all sorts of people have all sorts of incentives not to disabuse them of such notions.

            A small new system, with new equipment, maintained using contemporary practices (ideally build-maintain or build-operate-maintain so the vendor has real incentives and the total lifecycle costs to the public are up front) can get away with much more modest and much leaner non-revenue facilities (and fewer not-in-revenue-service revenue vehicles) than many seem to assume.

  7. Andre Lot

    I think many people misunderstand the basics of civil engineering on this “cut-and-cover” vs. “deep bore” debate.

    Nothing would preclude (as indeed it doesn’t) the use of tunnel bore machines to bore out shallow tunnels. Actually, most “shallow” subways under construction right now are bored with TBMs, or even mined out. It is usually more efficient and cheaper to build narrow bores with machines instead of digging them out from the surface. TBMs are efficient in plastering concrete shields and for physical reasons a cylindrical tube is structurally easier to be made safe than a bowl or a box-type design.

    Even so, deep tunnel excavation per se is not really a very expensive activity, just look at the costs of railway tunnels under several thousand feet of mountain and rocks…

    What makes costs skyrocket is the mining out of station caverns under urban built-up areas. That is where serious money is poured in. Most newer lines anywhere in the World actually use bored tunnels + cut-and-cover stations, for it is cheaper to build them that way. When you can build stations dug out from their footrpint, construction becomes easier, faster and cheaper (take a look on the recently opened – two weeks ago – Line 5 in Milan, for instance). Now when you don’t have full access to the ground-level footprint, and need to excavate a station beneath existing buildings’ foundations, things become much more expensive.

    Summarizing it, my point is that this cut-and-cover vs. deep bore silly debate, which indeed gains religious contours, is misplaced by confusing design profiles with construction techniques. It is akin to the endless debate on whether suspension bridges are better than cable-stayed ones.

    • Eric

      It is similar to the LRT vs BRT debate (in the US). With one option, you are generally promised a quality result and don’t get it. So you become very suspicious of all claims that “but THIS time it will be done correctly”. That it can in theory be done correctly isn’t very relevant.

      • snogglethorpe

        It is similar to the LRT vs BRT debate (in the US). With one option, you are generally promised a quality result and don’t get it. So you become very suspicious of all claims that “but THIS time it will be done correctly”. That it can in theory be done correctly isn’t very relevant.

        WTF are you talking about? Tons of great subways get built using either technique… There hardly seems to be any negative reputation associated with either.

        [BRT, on the other hand, does indeed seem to have a reputation for pie-in-the-sky promises followed by a horrible dysfunctional reality…]

        • Henry

          That’s mostly because politicians think of BRT as lines you can splash on a map on the cheap, rather than as an actual, high quality transit product.

          • snogglethorpe

            A couple of dubious examples (you may think of all of those as being negative examples of tunnel boring, but that is hardly the common view) from a single city which tends to screw everything up do not a trend make. There are far more examples of successful projects.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Nearly all US “transit” projects are dogs.

            They’re undertaken for welfare (contractor welfare, agency welfare) reasons, and they deliver to those clients, and those clients only. The “investments” pretty much never make sense from a wider social investment perspective.

            BRT is “bad” because un-analytical railfans (I was one once, back in my teens, before I sat in on my first transportation economics course, which happened by accident) overlook how truly horrible US rail projects nearly alway are.

          • Eric

            Richard: Just because most US transit projects do not meet your ideal of efficiency means that all Americans are better off driving down the freeway to work?

          • Henry

            At least part of this extra cost can be attributed to the fact that they are all going for super-big station designs – if I’m not mistaken, SAS is doing IND-style full mezzanines at every station (but those are cut and cover, anyways).

            New York’s transit cost problem is at least partially influenced by the fact that the feds basically handed money to the region in the aftermath of 9/11, to help with rebuilding – hence why the MTA and Port Authority are spending at least $5B on two station complexes less than two blocks away from each other. (If I remember correctly, these station complexes will also eventually get a connection between them, as well.)

          • Ryan

            You know, Richard, statements like “Nearly all US “transit” projects are dogs” are mutually exclusive with statements like “BRT is “bad” because un-analytical railfans … overlook how truly horrible US rail projects nearly alway (sic) are.”

            I can, at the moment, think of two BRT projects fairly local to where I am. There’s the busway to nowhere that Boston built for the only part of the Silver Line which actually qualifies as BRT – unfortunately, those buses are belched out into general traffic long before they get to their final destination and anyone riding them to the Airport is subjected to the one-two punch of being forced to sit through actually doubling back half a mile to access the Mass Pike and having to wait for the bus to be shut off and restarted before it can actually leave “Silver Line Way.” There’s also Connecticut’s billion dollar busway, still in progress, and although we don’t know what the final damage will be quite yet, we do know that significant portions of the busway have been crippled down to a single lane total, that Connecticut agreed to pay out to Amtrak without even stopping to find out how much Amtrak will charge them for the privilege of using parts of the Springfield Shuttle Line’s ROW, we know that Amtrak has retained the right to rip up the busway at their discretion (and that they will be doing this within 10 years to expand New Haven – Hartford – Springfield to three tracks), and we know that half the communities to be served by this busway don’t want it and are actively looking for any excuse they can find to stop it.

            Oh, but lest you think that I’m just an “un-analytical railfan” – I can think of some local commuter rail projects, too. Guess what? All of those are objectively horrible too – from the Greenbush Line and it’s special single-track tunnel so that Hingham NIMBYs don’t have to look at it, to the completely unnecessary glass palace South Station Expansion project, a “critical” undertaking necessary to solve a problem which doesn’t actually exist, to the ongoing South Coast Rail debacle being driven by a delusional group of cheerleading Massachusetts pols at the expense of several legitimate infrastructure projects and “hindered” by a perfect storm of false-flag NIMBY “advocates” from Fall River and New Bedford who really truly want the train as long as all the less glittery parts of the infrastructure end up in the other guy’s town and more traditional NIMBYs from Raynham and Taunton who have managed to take by hostage concession most of the project’s second track and with it any last shred of hope that something of legitimate value was to be produced by the state’s greatest traveling circus. Even the ones that “tragically” got left on the cutting room floor, such as the ubiquitous North-South Rail Link that could have been, manage to suck by consequence of their omission – although I don’t doubt that it would have become every bit the bloated catastrophe I’m coming to expect from ‘my’ commuter rail.

            Now, I’m genuinely not sure if you’re trolling, but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Either way, you need to pick a better argument. Your current one sucks.

          • betamagellan

            @Ryan and @Eric: Richard isn’t really trolling. I would not be surprised if most recent American (i. e. since 1960s) rail projects, even ones called successful, have a benefit-cost ratio of less than 1 (I recall a study that claimed Minneapolis’s Hiawatha line was around 0.8, and that’s a project which already hit its thirty-year ridership goals). The issue is that there is almost no analysis of costs and benefits done anywhere in US transportation planning (and what little is done is either pure GIGO or comes from NGOs, who have limited power to set planning priorities)—it really is having lines drawn on a map (highway, rail, bus, trail, whatever), seeing how the most popular lines align with current federal funding priorities, and then trying to bring as much money in as possible, regardless of the state of the current system, actual transportation needs, etc. Some cities may be better at aligning this process with the general good than other, but the overall it’s mostly there for ribbon-cuttings.

          • Ryan

            @Beta Magellan: Yeah, I get that. And, in fact, I agree that there is a dire, dire need for more and/or better cost/benefit analysis of transportation projects. My issue with Richard’s argument entirely stems from the last line of it, which (at leasts reads like it) proceeds to write a free pass to BRT projects to be exempt from any criticism, even good criticism (I wouldn’t be nearly as infuriated with the Silver Bus Tunnel if it didn’t abruptly stop before D Street at a signal lacking priority, for example). There’s a pretty big implied “only” in his statement about why BRT is “bad.”

            And to be honest, blanket generalization dismissals of an entire point of view piss me off even if said point of view is totally illegitimate.

          • Nathanael

            Richard is trolling.

            Fact is, most recent rail projects, *even the relatively bad ones*, have had pretty good cost-benefit ratios in the long run. This is because we have a massive undersupply of passenger rail and it’s practically impossible to go wrong, unless you do something exceptionally stupid like not going where the people are. (Example of that failure: Austin.)

            In contrast, “BRT” projects frequently amount to spending money and getting what is, objectively, no improvement whatsoever. That’s a benefit-cost ratio of 0, or if you prefer, a cost-benefit ratio of infinity.

            Richard can’t tell the difference between “problematic” and “awful”. It leads him to throw babies out with bathwater.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          Ryan and Eric,

          Actually it’s just because I hate you for your freedom.

          Traffic signal prioritization is just the first step to repealing the Second Amendment.

          There’s no way to get anything past you guys, is there?

          • Eric

            “Actually it’s just because I hate you for your freedom.”

            What I don’t understand is how you spend so much time writing comments, and yet lace every one of them with obnoxious and/or unnecessarily sarcastic remarks like this one. How can you not realize that your intended audience tunes out as soon as they read something like this? Are you autistic or something?

          • Richard Mlynarik


            I’m “given up”. Though who’s to say that your psychological analysis doesn’t match your other insights?

            PS Anybody who seriously thinks that blog comments are a mechanism for effecting or affecting public policy has some problems.

          • Ryan

            PS Anybody who seriously thinks that blog comments are a mechanism for effecting or affecting public policy has some problems.

            Blog comments are a mechanism for debate and discussion, which generally leads to new insights and more refined ideas that one could – if they were so inclined – proceed to apply to avenues that do stand a decent chance of shaping public policy, such as public hearings and other forms of civic engagement.

            But even if absolutely nothing comes from the posts on this page other than the fact that a discussion actually happened, that still doesn’t change the fact that comments like these aren’t helping anybody. They’re also not stopping anyone from continuing to engage in discussion… so why continue to make them?

          • Alon Levy

            For what it’s worth, after the previous Governor of Rhode Island vetoed signal priority six times, the current one signed the bill and the state is about to finally install it on the busiest bus lines.

          • orulz


            I don’t think you’re really “given up” as you obviously care quite a bit. Frustrated, sure. You often make good points but your sarcasm gets old.

            The current American political environment makes it impossible for any real decisions to be made by objective criteria. Politicians on the winning side of an election (and their constituents) view it as their right and duty to immediately seize direct control of everything and mold it into Their image. If by some miracle, politicians do manage to put aside that notion for a moment and set up an impartial technocratic process for selecting and designing projects, the second the other party gets in power it’s out, not because it was doing bad work but just because it was instituted by the other guy and politics is winner-take-all. So therefore all decisions that are made anywhere at any level of government are always 100% political, and that opens it up to the kind of inefficiency and corruption that Richard rails on and on about.

          • Nathanael

            Alon: if Rhode Island actually implements bus signal priority, that will be very interesting.

            Toronto couldn’t even get *streetcar* signal priority implemented.

  8. Rico

    @Betamagellan, I don’t know that much about US projects but I find it hard to believe that there are not a lot of recent American rail projects (or BRTs) with cost benifits of greater than 1 (at least if externals are factored in).

    • Nathanael

      Yeah, it’s all about what you count. If you actually bother to measure externalities, it’s pretty obvious that most of the American rail projects have benefits greater than costs.

      The same is sadly not true of “BRT” projects. The misbegotten projects which rip out railroads to put in busways are invariably making the situation worse.

      The projects which build huge piles of infrastructure in the suburbs but then leave all the buses in general traffic at the worst bottlenecks, arguably do not have any benefits at all.

      Projects which actually make sense and have good benefit-cost ratios have occasionally been branded as BRT, of course, such as the LA Metro Rapid lines. It’s just that BRT is usually a brand name for stupid ideas.

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