A reader who prefers to remain anonymous for professional reasons sent me a long series of questions that are the typical thing one might expect in a FAQ, or in the arsenal of someone who was attempting to convince voters that LRT is a good thing.
Although I don’t have time to address the entire list, I wanted it to be “out there” as food for thought among all those who wonder just why those folks in Scarborough (and elsewhere) think so badly of LRT.
To put this into context, I quote the author:
My most important points address Scarborough’s mistrust and resentment. Why are we saying “yes subways are better but we can only afford to give you light rail” when we could say “light rail is better overall than a subway”? Why aren’t we proving our promises that LRT is going to be better than SRT?
As I have written at length elsewhere, this is all about advocacy, about making transit truly attractive and desirable, not merely good enough to get by.
In the following text, my responses if any are shown as indented quotes.
THOUGHTS ABOUT MARKETING THE LRT PLAN
Toronto’s LRT proponents are struggling to get their message across, especially to people who distrust the TTC (purveyor of late & crowded buses, a dinky, unreliable train in Scarborough, and ridership forecasts that did not come to fruition).
Torontonians are used to thinking of the “subway” as the only reasonably-fast transit option. We don’t have any good examples of light rail here. (The TTC damages their own arguments by using the term “light rail” for streetcar vehicles and the Spadina & St. Clair rights-of-way. )
The debate would be easier if people talked about the following choices separately:
- bus, light rail, or heavy rail
- separate right-of-way, or mixed with car traffic
- waiting at intersections, signal priority, or uninterrupted right-of-way
- underground, at-grade or elevated
But these are technical factors. We should instead be talking about the user experience:
- few transfers
- not crowded
- smooth, stable & quiet ride (even when turning corners)
- see the neighbourhood we’re travelling through
- walk reasonable distances to the stop
- get from street to vehicle quickly (even with strollers, shopping carts and wheelchairs)
- built quickly
- minimal disruption to business and traffic during building
- lower traffic after building transit
Personally I think the LRT could be a better user experience than the subway, not just better than buses!
However, I suspect people are wondering if the new LRT will really be better than the buses, streetcars and Scarborough RT. These are some unanswered questions underlying the current debate.
Could LRT be as fast as a subway? (Does speed depend on the vehicle technology, the exclusive right of way, distance between stops, or what?)
Steve: Yes, LRT could be as fast as a subway if it were operating in a comparable environment — stops a similar distance apart, no grade crossings or pedestrians wandering across the tracks, etc. Subway cars, streetcars and “LRVs” are all the same technology, just presented in a different package. Some flavours of these cars may be engineered for higher speed or faster acceleration depending on the way that they will be used, but under the covers they are all essentially the same.
How many transit users need closely-spaced stops, compared with how many need faster travel?
Steve: I understand from a contact at the UofT’s Cities Centre that about 2/3 of the travel in Scarborough north of the 401 is internal to Scarborough and only 1/3 goes somewhere else. However, I don’t know the breakdown on time of day or directional effects. Other areas of the city behave this way with much more local demand, especially in the off-peak, than regional demand.
Will the LRT be as crowded as the buses? the SRT?
Steve: This all depends on how much service the TTC operates and what arrangements exist by the time a line opens in 2020 for operating subsidies and, if needed, a bigger fleet. Don’t forget that crowding is mainly a function of the political will to operate more or less service except in cases where one hits the physical limits of a route. TTC has always tended to provide better service relative to demand on its “rapid transit” network than on the bus routes. As for the SRT, it is stuck with a too-small fleet thanks to very high cost for the original vehicles.
How frequently would the LRT run? (As often as a subway?)
Steve: As often as the TTC or Metrolinx feels like paying for. People love subways because they have 5-minute headways at 1:00 am even though the trains may be half-empty. That’s a policy decision, and a recognition that the cost of a subway line is only partly due to the crews on the trains.
Would the LRT trains get bunched up like buses, or stay separated like subway trains?
Steve: This all depends on how the lines are managed. The TTC loves to claim that bunching is caused by traffic congestion, but the primary cause, especially during off-peak periods, is that vehicles leave terminals in twos and threes and stay that way across their route without intervention by Transit Control. This is clearly visible in just about every set of vehicle monitoring data I have ever seen from TTC going back about five years.
Having said that, an LRT line should have more reliable service. It’s worth noting that even the subway has bunching effects caused by minor delays along the way including crew changes. The signal system will space out trains that are early, but trains that are late, even in a bunch, will run through without being held unless Transit Control intervenes.
How many minutes would a transit user save (daily/annually) by alighting LRT at street level, instead of going down to subway level?
Steve: This gets tricky because we need to know whether both ends of the trip are at a surface station or only one, how deep the stations are and how circuitous the path is to the platform. Don Mills is a good example of a place where the transfer is roundabout, while Kipling is just about as simple as it can be.
Compare the time required for a subway or LRT trip, door-to-door. (Depends on distance to stop + depth to descend + speed of train + delays).
Steve: Again this depends on the details of the trip and the design of the segment of a route that the trip will cover.
How much more vitamin D and mental health benefits do transit users get by travelling above-ground?
How much will local businesses benefit by transit riders seeing their storefronts and alighting to visit the store?
Steve: For the new lines on Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch (assuming they are all built), this really does not apply because none of them has sidewalks lined with shops where the routes run at grade.
How is LRT different from ICTS (the Scarborough RT technology)?
Steve: The ICTS technology must run on a grade-separated right-of-way because it uses 3rd (and 4th) rails for power pickup, and the propulsion depends on a reaction rail (the plate you see between the running rails) which is actually part of the linear induction motors on the cars. This plate must be closely and accurately spaced to the train, and have no debris or snow/ice buildup. LRT uses rotary motors that drive the train’s wheels just like on a streetcar or subway car. Note that a linear motor is not a prerequisite for an “ICTS” type car, and indeed the new Canada line in Vancouver uses rotary motors. It is really a mini-subway.
ICTS is an automated train, although the command to start from a station is given by the operator. LRT is driven by the operator (although the TTC plans to use automated operation within the Eglinton tunnel and on the converted SRT). This allows LRT to run in areas where there may be conflicting pedestrian or vehicle movements that an automated system cannot detect.
The original ICTS cars were small because in the early days of linear induction motors, there was a limit on the weight of the vehicle. That’s also why they are so noisy inside — not much sound insulation.
How long has LRT technology been in use world-wide?
Steve: This is tricky because it depends on how we define “LRT”. The only real difference between a streetcar and an LRV is how the vehicle is used. For example, Boston has had streetcars running on private rights-of-way and underground since the 1890s and built its last major line (D Riverside) in the 1950s on an old rail corridor that was linked into the existing streetcar tunnels. That was LRT even though it ran with PCCs (the style of car we had in Toronto in great numbers in the 1960s and 70s).
Toronto had a line to Lake Simcoe until the early 1930s. Although I am not sure we would call it “LRT” today, it had its own right-of-way, ran cross-country in places and made roughly the same schedule as the GO bus to Sutton does today. The speed was as much a function of stop spacing and track condition. I have ridden cars (in Philadelphia) that were built in the early 1900s that were capable of 85mph operation.
This technology has been around for a very, very long time. The term “LRT” is more recent and evolved from the need for a sexier name than “tram” or “streetcar” during an era when those modes were considered outdated. In brief, LRT is streetcar technology used in a rapid transit context, but with a minimum of the trappings of a subway line.
Which is more reliable (fewer delays): light or heavy rail? Aboveground or below?
Steve: This depends on the nature of the line and the maintenance of the equipment. Many subway delays come from fires, from ill passengers, equipment breakdowns and suicides. Surface routes tend to have more problems with conflicting traffic and some weather. Equipment reliability of streetcars is a function of age and maintenance — our current fleet is over 30 years old, and some aspects of it were problematic when the vehicles first arrived, let alone now that they are aging. Without question, streetcars in mixed traffic will have more delays from sharing their rights-of-way, but they are easier to divert around delays (although not as easy as a bus).
How does an LRT deal with snow & ice on the road?
Steve: Generally by driving through it. For heavy snowfalls, and assuming that the LRT right-of-way is paved, then the snow must be ploughed just as would be the case for a bus. If the track is open (as on the subway and on The Queensway where streetcars run on their own right-of-way), then more snow can accumulate without blocking service. We have had cases where the subway is blocked by snow, usually from ice forming on the third rail. This is also a problem for the SRT. Ice can form on streetcar overhead, and this is usually broken off by passing transit vehicles. Modern LRVs use pantographs which are better for power pickup and stronger at cutting through ice.
Streetcar/LRT systems have run in hostile climates for over a century in northern Europe and Asia. Think Russia.
How long can an LRT line be maintained before replacement? How long do the LRT vehicles last? Compare to subway cars, streetcars and buses.
Steve: The answer depends on which component one is talking about. The track structure tends to have two components — a base and the layer that holds the rails. The base lasts for a long time, at least two, if not three cycles of the replacement of the tracks sitting on top. Toronto’s streetcar track is nearing the end of a decades-long reconstruction to a modern standard that allows for this type of incremental replacement. The track layer should last 20-25 years depending on the level of service operated on it. Signal systems (if any) are good for about 50 years, and the problem is usually technical obsolescence and the availability of spare parts. Power systems are equally long-lived. In preparation for new streetcars, the TTC is replacing overhead systems some of which date back over 60 years. Substations also tend to last a very long time.
The same holds true for subway infrastructure. Things that wear out get replaced every 25 years or so like track, although places where there is greater wear (curves, stations) see more frequent maintenance. Escalators don’t last forever, nor do many other components of the stations and tunnels. The TTC’s capital budget now has a long list of replacement projects for equipment going back to the building of the Yonge and Bloor subway lines.
Claims that subways last 100 years are flat out lies. The tunnel and station structures may survive that long, but not without maintenance, and everything else will have been replaced a two, three, maybe four times over the century.
Rail vehicles last about 30 years regardless of whether they are subway cars, streetcars or LRVs. With enough TLC, a vehicle can be kept running for much longer, although these tend to be heritage cars for special occasions. The biggest problem is the lack of spare parts, and this is a very serious issue for vehicles from the mid-70s onward when control systems switched from mechanical to solid state, computerized gear.
Buses used to last about 18 years, although this tends to happen now only when an operator like the TTC invests money in major rebuilds at the half-life. Many systems throw away buses at around their 10th birthday, or cannibalize them for spare parts.
If demand on a route increases beyond LRT’s planned capacity, how can the transit be upgraded? (e.g. higher frequency, longer trains, convert to heavy rail, dig a tunnel…)
Steve: It depends. Longer trains, more trains are an option up to the point where the amount of LRT traffic and the pedestrian activity it generates at stops reaches a point where other road users are severely affected. If the demand is not entirely in the corridor where the LRT runs, a second route nearby may be a better alternative than increasing capacity. This presumes that some demand would migrate to the other route. If push really comes to shove, put some or all of the line underground either as an LRT subway for the busy part, or as a conventional subway.
Could we convert the Sheppard subway to light rail, to save money or reduce transfers?
Steve: It has been claimed by some that this is possible, although I have concerns about the stations and the fact that the subway platforms (and stairs, escalators and elevator landings) are not at the correct height for typical surface-running LRVs. I am not sure that we would “save money” given that the big expense is simply having the tunnels and stations, not the trains running through them. Reducing transfers is a question of good station design of which Kennedy and Don Mills are singularly bad examples.
(The Eglinton LRT could loop through Scarborough, back to Yonge & Sheppard, and potentially northwest to the Finch West LRT).
Steve: It would not make sense to have one big route operating as a single service. Operationally this is a nightmare because the demand is unequal on various parts of the route, and everything would have to be engineered to handle the largest train operated on any segment. For example, Eglinton and the SRT might run with 3-car trains, while Finch might only need 2-car trains. Then there’s the question of service frequency and overlapped services to boost capacity on busy sections.
Could the Bloor-Danforth subway be extended to replace the Scarborough RT? (I read that there are technical barriers to using the existing track, but maybe the alignment could be changed.)
Steve: In brief, no. Parts of the existing right-of-way are too narrow, and the curve at Ellesmere is too tight for subway cars. All of the stations will have to be rebuilt for the LRT, but the changes needed to handle 6-car subway trains (450 feet long) are much more extensive. An alternate alignment would affect the residential communities through which it passed. There is a hydro corridor running northeast but (a) I’m not sure it is available as a subway corridor and (b) getting to it would require the complete realignment of the subway at Kennedy to point north rather than east (i.e. a new Kennedy Station). I also understand that threading a north-south route through the Scarborough Town Centre area is tricky given existing building locations.
Why doesn’t the LRT plan do anything about crowding on the Yonge subway? Could an LRT meet the demand from Pape to downtown, or are we waiting for subway funding to build a Downtown Relief Line?
Steve: The Transit City plan was not intended to address problems with the subway. That’s what the Downtown Relief Line is for. The projected demand for the DRL is at the upper end of LRT capacity. Most of this route would have to be grade separated as there are no streets or corridors where it could run at grade. If we’re going to build a tunnel, it might as well have subway trains in it from the outset given the projected demand. The DRL should most definitely not start at Danforth, but should continue north to Eglinton as was planned in the 1980s. This would intercept traffic on the Eglinton line and provide much better service to Flemingdon/Thorncliffe. Where the line might travel downtown is a conundrum as there are many competing visions for that part of the route.
Which is more disruptive to build: light or heavy rail? Elevated, at-grade or underground?
Steve: Heavy rail must, by definition, be completely grade separated, and it tends to have a large footprint at stations. This leads to high disruption from construction. Light rail can be on the surface where space permits, and this is the least intrusive method notwithstanding the cock-ups on St. Clair which had little to do with the streetcar project itself. Had that been a subway, the effects would have been vastly more severe.
Elevated construction brings a need for support piers and for the vertical access elements at stations. The days of a simple narrow stairway up to “the el” are long gone with accessibility requirements. A station structure would cover the equivalent of four traffic lanes for running track and platforms, and the support columns would consume about 1.5 lanes’ worth of space at ground level.
In areas where a lane of road will be replaced by LRT right of way will the better transit take at least one lane of cars off the road, in rush hour? Or will the traffic get worse?
Steve: There is far more demand for road space everywhere in Toronto than there is road capacity. As soon as we get some traffic off of a street, it will backfill with whatever latent demand was there (possibly using other routes). The rate of growth in the GTA is such that Metrolinx estimates that, at best, a full buildout of “The Big Move” will only stop congestion from getting worse. This effect will not be uniformly distributed as the benefits of the new network are uneven from a motorist’s point of view. Traffic tends to fill up road space to the point where using a street isn’t advantageous to a driver.
How accurate have the TTC’s ridership predictions been, during previous planning exercises? Have the prediction methods improved over time? How many years out can we rely on a prediction?
Steve: This is a chicken-and-egg problem. All projections depend on assumptions about future land use — residential populations and job locations. There can also be political interference to produce “demands” justifying a particular project.
We know that the mid-80’s demand projections for Sheppard were wildly inaccurate because the model assumed growth at North York and Scarborough Centres much larger than what actually was built. In turn, that disparity came from optimistic views of the destinies of shining suburbs which would rival downtown as new metropolitan centres. Sound familiar?
More recently, Metrolinx demand model tended to make an all-underground Eglinton line look very good because it assigned a high value to fast trips across the city. There are questions, however, about just how wide the catchment area might be for a rapid transit line (as opposed to a highway), and there is reason to believe that a totally grade-separated Eglinton was eyed as possible change for a P3 implementation with proprietary technology. People have been “juicing” demand models forever, and they are complex enough that shortcomings in their methodology are difficult to find as a member of the general public.
In transit planning world-wide, is it considered best to wait until current demand merits a rail transit line? Or does future demand merit building rail? How far in the future can that demand be, to merit building rail?
Steve: This depends. If you are in a city or country that believes in directing growth and investing in infrastructure to support that growth, then build now develop later can work because there is a long-term commitment. Locations for development have to make sense in the larger scale of a city and its region. Building expensive infrastructure to a field that happens to be owned by a developer is no guarantee of success. The developer may get cold feet, or his project may languish in isolation for decades while the rest of your new line starves for customers.
Coming back to the LRT option, this allows cities to reduce their up-front costs while providing service at a capacity and speed better than what they might achieve with buses.
It is worth noting that our subways to Yorkdale and to Scarborough Centre do serve malls and, to some extent, offices, where once there were fields, but that the lion’s share of demand on these lines come from bus feeders that extend the reach of the rapid transit line well beyond any development adjacent to the stations.