SkyTrain vs LRT

Decades of the political pendulum effect have stuck Vancouver with an expensive and inefficient proprietary SkyTrain system

D. Malcolm Johnston

Vancouver can’t afford to continue favouring Bombardier/SNC-Lavalin’s expensive proprietary SkyTrain systems over modern light rail.

With transit planning in Metro Vancouver focused on the proprietary SkyTrain light-metro, the world has passed us by. Congestion is endemic in the region and TransLink, the governing agency responsible for public transit is held in high odor by a large percentage of the population.

How has this come about?

Until the early 1950s, Metro Vancouver enjoyed a comprehensive streetcar and interurban network extending to Steveston in Richmond and Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley.

By 1955 all was gone, but there were plans aplenty for the two former interurban routes – the Arbutus corridor in Vancouver and the Central Park Line in Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster.

In 1981, instead of the originally-planned light rail transit (LRT) from downtown Vancouver to Surrey, East Burnaby, and Richmond Centre, the then-Social Credit provincial government forced the proprietary SkyTrain mini-metro system onto the region.

The owner of this proprietary system, the Urban Development Transportation Corporation (UDTC) was an Ontario Crown corporation that had great problems selling its ICTS (Intermediate Capacity Transit System) /ALRT ( Advanced Light Rail Transit) product, which we call Sky-Train. No one wanted it, including the Toronto Transit Commission, although the Ontario government forced the TTC to try the system.

“Bombardier Inc. may abandon SkyTrain altogether, leaving TransLink and the taxpayer holding the bag.”

A study done in 1982 by urban transportation planning consultant IBI Group, Inc. for the TTC found, “ICTS costs up to ten times more to install than light rail, for about the same capacity; or put another way, ICTS costs more than a heavy-rail subway with four times its capacity.”

For the cost of the proposed 1978 LRT network to Surrey, Richmond and Lougheed Mall, taxpayers received a SkyTrain from downtown Vancouver to New Westminster.

Obsolete Overnight

The 1982 study showed that modern light rail transit had made ICTS/ALRT SkyTrain obsolete almost overnight. Ontario’s unprofitable UDTC was sold to Lavalin, which went bankrupt. Bombardier purchased the rights to the proprietary mini-metro, now called Advanced Light Metro, during Lavalin’s bankruptcy, but the newly-formed SNC-Lavalin retained the engineering patents for the proprietary railway.

The mini-metro was again renamed Advanced Rapid Transit or ART.

Back in Vancouver, the shortfalls of the original SkyTrain Line had become apparent and great work was done to ensure the next major transit project – the Broadway-Lougheed Transit project – would use modern light rail. Instead, the governing NDP again forced SkyTrain onto the region in what is now known as the Millennium Line. So expensive was ART/SkyTrain, that the planned route to Port Moody had to be abandoned and the Millennium Line eventually petered out at a station between Glen and Clark Drives (sic) in Vancouver.

The Campbell Liberals, wanting their own vanity transit project, forced through the Canada Line, which uses conventional electric multiple units, operating either on elevated guideways or in a subway in Vancouver.

The cost of building the subway portion greatly escalated from the original budget of $1.3 billion to about $2.4 billion. To control costs, the scope of the project was significantly reduced, achieved by employing cut-and-cover construction on Cambie St. (with devastating results for local merchants) and by reducing station sizes with platform lengths that can only accommodate two-car trains, 41 metres long.

“To date, the region has spent about $7 billion more for SkyTrain, than it would have for a comparable light rail network.”

The Canada Line station platforms are half as long as the Expo and Millennium Line stations, effectively giving the $2.4 billion Canada Line half the capacity.

Embarrassingly, the Canada Line is the only heavy-rail metro in the world that was built as a light metro and has less capacity than a simple streetcar line, which could be built at a fraction of the cost. For added insult, the Canada Line is incompatible in operation with ALRT/ART SkyTrain lines and trains cannot transit from one to the other.

Only seven of the proprietary ALRT/ART systems have been built in the past 40 years; during the same period over 200 new LRT systems have either been built, are nearing completion, or are in advanced stages of planning.

So why all the angst in Vancouver with light rail?

The simple answer is politics. All rapid transit decisions have been made in Victoria, by the premier of the day, with little or no real public consultation. Think of Bill Bennett with the ALRT Expo Line, Glen Clark with the ART Millennium Line, and Gordon Campbell with the hybrid heavy/light metro Canada Line.

All transit studies were crafted by both BC Transit and TransLink to support ALRT/ART SkyTrain over LRT.

The Evergreen Line’s business case is a good example. Noted American transit engineer, Gerald Fox, questioned the Evergreen Line’s business case, stating: “The Evergreen Line Report made me curious as to how TransLink could justify continuing to expand SkyTrain, when the rest of the world is building LRT… I found several instances where the analysis had made assumptions that were inaccurate, or had been manipulated to make the case for SkyTrain. If the underlying assumptions are inaccurate, the conclusions may be so too.”

To date, the region has spent about $7 billion more for SkyTrain than it would have for a comparable light rail network.

As no SkyTrain system has been sold in the past decade and Bombardier’s rail division is in a shambles, Bombardier Inc. may abandon SkyTrain altogether, leaving TransLink and the taxpayer holding the bag. Those who support more SkyTrain construction do so on a foundation of financial quicksand.

Looking at it a different way, if light rail had been built as originally planned, the region could easily have a rail network two to three times as large as it has today, a network that would extend to Steveston in Richmond and Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley. Hitching our rides to SkyTrain has been an expensive way to travel.

We need transit in the Valley, more than ever, but let’s go with cheap affordable interurban light rail transit, and let’s get moving!


D. Malcolm Johnston is a tireless advocate for affordable and user-friendly public transport. He has been working on regional transit issues in the lower mainland since 1986.

Light Rail Transit (LRT)

What we call light rail is a family of transit modes all compatible with each other, from the simplest of streetcar or tram operations, to that of a light metro. The modern light rail vehicle has the ability to operate on rights-of-way and tracks of various quality. This gives modern LRT a tremendous flexibility in operation and is the main reason why it made SkyTrain (ALRT) obsolete in the mid-1980s.

The main modes of light rail are:

TramTrain, which is a modern tram or light rail vehicle that can operate both on tram lines and the mainline railways. Costs for TramTrain start at $5 million/km to build.

Streetcar or tram, which is simply a tram operating on-street, in mixed traffic. Costs for a simple tram system start around $15 million/km to build.

Light Rail Transit, which is a modern tram operating on reserved rights-of-way with priority signaling at intersections. Costs for LRT start around $30 million/km to build.

Light metro, which are trams using grade-separated rights-of way, such as subways and viaducts. Cost for light metro starts around $130 million/km.

It is interesting to note that in Karlsruhe Germany, the city tram system has various routes where the tram operates as TramTrain, tram, LRT, and light metro, without the transit customer transferring vehicles.

Modern LRT can carry more customers at a cheaper cost than SkyTrain-type systems, which illustrates why only seven such systems have been built around the world in almost forty years. By comparison, during the same period, over 200 new LRT lines have been built and the vast majority of the existing 350 heritage streetcar systems have been rebuilt to a light rail standard.

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