Opinion: Canada Line is a model example of a poorly-designed, under-built toy train

Jul 10 2019, 1:10 am

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“No, that is not the airport monorail line.”

I recall saying something to that effect some years ago when a friend from Boston was visiting me for the first time in Vancouver. She had just exited the doors of Vancouver International Airport, and was pointing at the Canada Line’s YVR Airport Station, asking whether that was an airport monorail and where the ‘real’ train to the city was.

It was a fair observation; elsewhere around the world, there are airport people mover systems — train lines that exclusively move people between airport terminal buildings and airport parking lots — with station platforms that are longer than the city-serving system of the Canada Line.

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After explaining that was the actual train to the city, she then quipped “I guess not a lot of people take transit here.”

As we approach the 10th year anniversary of the opening of the Canada Line, which served its first passengers on August 17, 2009, this SkyTrain line certainly epitomizes Metro Vancouver’s tendencies of under-building transportation infrastructure.

Not only is it a sheer symbol of under-building, but its limitations — even though it is a relatively young system — are already becoming quite functionally apparent.

Metro Vancouver’s toy train

With its super-short platform lengths of just 40 metres and 50 metres, the Canada Line can theoretically eventually reach an ultimate capacity of 15,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).

Comparatively, the Expo Line and Millennium Line each have an ultimate capacity of 25,000 pphpd, with the Expo Line currently hovering at a peak hour capacity of roughly 15,000 phppd. Recent new automation systems on Toronto’s will increase the Yonge-University Line to 36,000 pphpd, while the London Underground’s Victoria Line has 25,000 pphpd, and some of the Hong Kong MTR’s lines reach 80,000 pphpd.

Currently, the Canada Line has a peak hour capacity of 6,100 pphpd, and this will increase to just over 8,000 pphpd when 12 new two-car trains are added to the system by 2020. These new trains being added over the coming year will have an immense noticeable difference over existing conditions.

Increasing the Canada Line’s capacity mostly revolves increasing scheduled frequencies, and once that frequency limit is reached there will likely be a consideration of performing 10-metre platform extensions on all stations with 40-metre platforms to create a systemwide standard of 50 metres (stations such as Waterfront, Vancouver City Centre, Yaletown-Roundhouse, Olympic Village, YVR Airport, and Richmond-Brighouse are already at 50 metres, and the rest have void spaces).

This slight platform extension allows for slightly longer trains — an additional car for the creation of three-car trains.

Ways to grow the Canada Line’s capacity in the future, with the 2017 ridership demand noted. (City of Vancouver)

Platform lengths beyond 50 metres are unfeasible, with tunnel ventilation shafts, track curves, and grading making an extension not possible without significant construction costs to rebuild large sections of the line. This would likely also necessitate major service disruptions over a prolonged period.

Staggering ridership growth

While there is theoretically still 9,000 pphpd in capacity room to grow (from 6,100 pphpd to 15,000 pphpd), there is every reason to believe that we will reach the ceiling of 15,000 pphpd much faster than anticipated.

Right off the bat, the Canada Line was an immense ridership success, exceeding original ridership projections by about four years.

And for some years now, made worse by the terrible seating layout, the growing level of overcrowding has turned it into an uncomfortable ride — not just during peak hours, but also during other times.

Riders are regularly unable to board overcrowded trains that increasingly resemble the conditions of trains in Asia.

Trains are packed even during the evening and late night hours.

Canada Line SkyTrain

A crowded SkyTrain Canada Line train. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

And for some incomprehensible reason, this fully-automated train system runs extremely infrequently every 20 minutes during late night hours in Richmond and YVR/Sea Island segments — well below TransLink’s standard of at least every 15 minutes for a frequent transit network. On the Expo Line and Millennium Line, in contrast, scheduled late-night frequencies do not exceed every 10 minutes.

Much of the 2,000 pphpd in capacity boost from this year’s new train additions could be immediately filled from elastic latent demand. In recent years, ridership on the entire TransLink network has been growing at a rapid pace, reaching new record levels consecutively.

On the Canada Line specifically, year-over-year annual ridership grew by 6.3% in 2017 and 5.3% in 2018, with ridership now averaging at 148,000 per weekday — roughly 60% more than the Canada Line’s first year.

Canada Line

SkyTrain Canada Line. (Shutterstock)

It is safe to say the decision makers and planners in the early 2000s, when the Canada Line was being planned and designed, did not foresee the following:

1. High growth from Vancouver International Airport

Vancouver International Airport’s soaring air passenger numbers have correspondingly meant more ridership for the Canada Line.

The airport’s transit modal share is now the highest of any airport in North America; according to the airport authority, 21% of air passengers are using the Canada Line.

In comparison, Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), even with the Union Pearson Express (UPE) rail service to downtown Toronto and a number of bus services, has a transit modal share of just 10% of all trips made to the airport. Both the UPE and the Canada Line’s airport segment clock about 10,000 boardings per day, despite YYZ being a far busier airport.

TransLink data also shows YVR Airport Station saw the total number of boardings increase by 14.2% over just one year, from 2.64 million in 2017 to 3.01 million in 2018.

Canada Line SkyTrain YVR Airport Station

YVR Airport Station on SkyTrain’s Canada Line. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

When the Canada Line opened, YVR had ridership levels reaching 16 million annually. Air passenger numbers reached nearly 26 million in 2018, and forecasts call for as many as 31 million passengers by 2022. This is also correlated with Metro Vancouver’s record tourism activity and cruise ship passenger numbers.

And with large bags and luggage, these air passengers do not take up a ‘normal amount’ of space inside the packed train of regular commuters.

Recent changes that shifted long-term parking to a new facility at Templeton Station and McArthurGlen Vancouver Airport Outlet Mall’s continued growth, including the opening of a major 84,000-sq-ft expansion this summer with 35 additional retailers, are also fuelling the upswing in train ridership.

Canada Line SkyTrain YVR Airport Station

YVR Airport Station on SkyTrain’s Canada Line. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

2. Major densification in Vancouver and Richmond

None of this was planned when the Canada Line was being designed.

The extent of the densification underway or planned along the Canada Line route was not foreseen over a decade and a half ago when the SkyTrain project was struggling through the approval process of TransLink’s then-board of select regional mayors and councillors.

For instance, there were no solid plans to redevelop Oakridge Centre shopping mall until 2007, well after Canada Line construction began. The 2007 plan called for 2.6 million sq. ft. of total floor area, expanding the existing retail from 575,000 sq. ft. to 950,000 sq. ft., introducing 320,000 sq. ft. of additional office space, and 1.25 million sq. ft. of residential space.

Since then, after revisions, the approved final Oakridge Centre plan has grown to 4.5 million sq. ft. of total floor area, with the added scope largely coming from extra residential space. Aside from the new retail, the redevelopment now includes destination attractions, including a 100,000-sq-ft food hall and brewery, a unique nine-acre rooftop public park designed for events and festivals, and a significant community centre and public library.

357-475 West 41st Avenue (West Site) and 325-343 West 41st Avenue (East Site)

Form of developments around the intersection of Cambie Street and West 41st Avenue, where Oakridge-41st Avenue station is located, including Oakridge Centre. (IBI Group / Brook Pooni Associates / Coromandel Properties)

Moreover, the process of creating the Cambie Corridor Plan (CCP) — the physical plan that outlines the densification of the area from West 16th Avenue to the north, Ontario Street to the east, Oak Street to the west, and the Fraser River to the south — only began after the Canada Line was completed, and was not approved until last year.

The CCP calls for 32,000 new homes and 50,000 additional residents, with the greatest densities centred around Oakridge-41st Avenue Station and the area’s new designation as a regional town centre.

Langara Gardens Vancouver

Preliminary conceptual artistic rendering of Langara Gardens, with the towers of Pearson Dogwood faded in the backdrop. (James Cheng Architects / Peterson Group / Concert Properties)

Heather Street Lands Vancouver

The future Cambie Street Corridor skyline from West 33rd Avenue to Marine Drive. (Canada Lands Company)

Besides the new Oakridge Centre, the Cambie Corridor is also now home to a number of Metro Vancouver’s largest neighbourhood-size redevelopment projects, including the 25.4-acre Pearson Dogwood site, the 21-acre Langara Gardens project, the 14-acre Oakridge Transit Centre site, and the 21-acre old RCMP headquarters on the Heather Lands.

There is also another cluster of density growing around Marine Drive Station, anchored by the Marine Gateway complex. Ridership at Marine Drive Station in 2018 reached about 3.5 million boardings — close to one million more boardings than 2015, before Marine Gateway fully opened and other development projects were completed.

SkyTrain Canada Line Marine Drive Station Marine Gateway

Growing density around Marine Drive Station on SkyTrain’s Canada Line. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

North Richmond, along the No. 3 Road Corridor, is experiencing significant growth around the Canada Line stations, with the largest projects being the 50-acre Lansdowne Mall redevelopment and the 27-acre residential and retail addition to CF Richmond Centre.

A cluster of residential developments in the area around the intersection of Capstan Way and No. 3 Road is fuelling demand for the eventual construction of Capstan Way Station. When all of the developments in the area are complete, the station will have an immediate area ridership catchment of 16,000 people, potentially adding thousands of new daily boardings upon completion.

Lansdowne District at Lansdowne Centre

Artistic rendering of Lansdowne District, the redevelopment of Lansdowne Mall, in Richmond. (Vanprop Investments Ltd.)

CF Richmond Centre

2019 artistic rendering of the CF Richmond Centre redevelopment. (Cadillac Fairview / Shape Properties)

Canada Line Capstan Station

Artistic rendering depicting the location of the Canada Line’s new Capstan Way Station near the intersection of Capstan Way and No. 3 Road. This rendering depicts the general form and location of the station, not the actual design. (GBL Architects)

On the opposite end of the Canada Line, the employment base of downtown Vancouver is growing: over five million sq. ft. of new office space will be built in downtown over the next five years, creating tens of thousands of new jobs, which translates into more transit ridership.

These are real growing pains, but this is not to say that densification should not be happening around the Canada Line, nor should it be discouraged, as what is happening along the train route is smart growth. By locating a greater share of the urban development growth around transit services, the overall share of automobile use sees a corresponding drop.

Rather than blaming densification, which is needed to help address the region’s housing affordability and supply crisis, it is increasingly clear that the Canada Line lacks buffer capacity to accommodate the city’s economic development, especially the growing trend of smart transit-oriented growth.

3. Improved east-west bus routes funnelling more ridership into Canada Line

East-west bus routes across Vancouver that serve Canada Line stations have seen service improvements and, in turn, ridership growth.

Major bus routes like the No. 25, No. 41, and No. 49, and especially the 99 B-Line are amongst the busiest bus routes on TransLink’s entire network:

  • No. 25 UBC/Brentwood
    • 2014: 6.6 million boardings, 94,600 service hours
    • 2018: 8.3 million boardings, 102,600 service hours
  • No. 41 UBC/Joyce-Collingwood
    • 2014: 8.4 million boardings, 101,500 service hours
    • 2018: 8.6 million boardings, 99,700 service hours
  • No. 43 UBC/Joyce-Collingwood Express
    • 2014: 1.4 million boardings, 18,200 service hours
    • 2018: 2.6 million boardings, 36,700 service hours
  • No. 49 UBC/Metrotown Station
    • 2014: 6.9 million boardings, 81,000 service hours
    • 2018: 9.3 million boardings, 98,000 service hours
  • 99 B-Line UBC/Broadway Rapid Bus
    • 2014: 17.3 million boardings, 122,100 service hours
    • 2018: 17.4 million boardings, 128,600 service hours

Bus ridership on the 41st Avenue corridor is likely to see extraordinary growth when the No. 43 express is upgraded into 41st Avenue B-Line in January 2020.

Superior travel times offered by bus-only lanes and other priority measures along much of the route and high service frequencies are expected to attract big ridership numbers to this new B-Line. TransLink says this B-Line will provide the corridor with 33% more transit capacity than existing services and reduce waiting times by 50%.

To a lesser extent, south of Fraser bus routes linking to Canada Line stations in Richmond have also seen some ridership growth as well.

Bus services are slated to see significant improvements region-wide once all three phases of the Mayors’ Council’s 10-year transit expansion plan are fully implemented.

4. Overnight ridership shift when the Broadway Extension opens

This will be a regional game changer.

When the six-km-long Millennium Line Broadway Extension to Arbutus Street — replacing the 99 B-Line segment — reaches completion in 2025 with a transfer hub station at the Canada Line’s Broadway-City Hall, all of a sudden folks in East Vancouver, Burnaby, and others living further east in the region will find it far more convenient to use transit to get to destinations along the Cambie Corridor, Richmond, and the airport.

The Millennium Line extension also provides both Millennium Line and Expo Line origin riders with a new way to get to downtown by using the Canada Line, especially if they want to get to Yaletown, for example. The travel time on the Broadway Extension between Commercial-Broadway Station and Broadway-City Hall Station is roughly only six minutes.

It can be concluded that the ridership multiplier network effect of how this Millennium Line extension will interact with the Canada Line will be absolutely positively phenomenal.

TransLink forecasts 140,000 passengers per day will use the extension to Arbutus Street upon opening.

Broadway Subway SkyTrain route map

June 2019 route and station map of the Broadway Subway. (BC Ministry of Transportation)

With two SkyTrain lines converging at Broadway-City Hall Station, it will likely quickly become one of the region’s busiest SkyTrain station — up from the station’s current placement of 11th out of 53 stations.

There are even more multipliers once the UBC extension opens, especially if it happens sooner than later, by the end of the 2020s.

There is still a lack of publicly available details on how the Canada Line and Millennium Line platforms at Broadway-City Hall Station will be fully integrated below ground, but it is obvious that the passenger circulation volumes between the two lines will demand significantly-sized concourse areas and walkways.

A large number of passengers that currently use the east-west bus routes can also be expected to switch to the Broadway Extension, with many reaching the new SkyTrain extension by transferring through the Canada Line.

Challenge of squeezing more passengers through stations

Even if the Canada Line were eventually able to reach its 15,000 phppd ultimate capacity, the real immediate problem is the station designs. Several key stations cannot cope with today’s peak foot traffic volumes, never mind much higher future volumes.

Even if train-carrying capacity is increased by reaching the maximum frequency headway of every two minutes on the mainline north of Bridgeport, are the stations going to be able to handle the resulting heightened passenger volumes?

Narrow concourses, fare gate areas, passageways and staircases, and single escalators for only the ascending direction are all big inhibitors to the ability to allow for the egress and ingress of passengers.

Canada Line Vancouver City Centre Station

The congested fare gate area at the concourse level of Vancouver City Centre Station. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Ahead of the introduction of the fleet expansion of 12 two-car trains that will greatly increase station circulation flows, new additional escalators are currently being added to reach the platform levels of all three Canada Line stations in downtown — Yaletown-Roundhouse, Vancouver City Centre, and Waterfront.

For Yaletown-Roundhouse Station and Vancouver City Centre Station, the new escalators come with the tradeoff of effectively reducing the size of the narrow platform waiting areas.

And with Vancouver City Centre Station specifically, poor user-friendly design placement has resulted in passengers streaming through only the centre staircase/escalator at the platform. For this reason, few riders actually use the staircase at the far end of the platform.

SkyTrain Canada Line Yaletown-Roundhouse Station

A new escalator between the concourse level and platform level being built at Yaletown-Roundhouse Station. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Other stations that are already seeing problems only have a single track; overcrowding is a growing problem for the southern terminus stations of YVR Airport and Richmond-Brighouse.

In a previous interview with Daily Hive, Vancouver Airport Authority president and CEO Craig Richmond acknowledged the growing capacity constraints of the station, and suggested the future possibility of adding another platform area on the opposite side of the track, which would allow passengers to embark and disembark from both sides of the train.

This would be similar to the new Expo Line inbound direction at Commercial-Broadway Station, as a result of the construction of a fifth platform this year.

The little engine toy train that could

In a sense, the Canada Line is a victim of its own success, but it has taught us that speed, frequency, and reliability — and therefore complete grade separation — is what people demand and desire from their transit system.

While there are clearly many shortcomings with the Canada Line, it could have been far worse.

When the project was being planned, there were serious considerations with turning the entire line into a street-level LRT line to cut down on construction costs. Many vocal regional politicians and media commentators at the time expressed deep skepticism over the perceived unrealistically high ridership forecasts, and some of these individuals thought simply more bus service would be sufficient in attracting more ridership.

Richmond city council even wanted a separate street-level LRT system for their segment along No. 3 Road from Bridgeport to Richmond-Brighouse instead of an elevated guideway, and this was largely over aesthetic reasons.

Street-level LRT would have never achieved the ridership levels the Canada Line is experiencing today; the Canada Line’s current ridership with 19 km of track and 16 stations far exceeds the entire Portland MAX Light Rail system ridership of 121,000 per day with 97 km of track and 97 stations across five lines.


Crowds on the platform at the Canada Line’s Templeton Station. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Fortunately, we did not fall down the rabbit hole of building a street-level LRT, but the Canada Line was severely under-built — a bittersweet mistake.

The stations should have been far larger with longer platforms, more generous concourses and circulation pathways, and secondary entrances, particularly for major stations. Single-tracking should never have been allowed at the Richmond and airport terminuses as a cost-cutting measure late in the planning stage.

Indecision by municipal elected leaders who oversaw TransLink at the time (they voted against the project over two separate occassions before finally approving it) also reduced the project’s available construction timeline by nearly two years. This delay meant a larger and more complicated project scope, such as the use of bored tunnelling on Cambie Street instead of disruptive cut and cover, was increasingly more difficult to execute ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Both federal and provincial governments did not help either, and were unwilling to provide the project with further funding to enhance its scope. The provincial government even forced the Canada Line as a public-private delivery, with the selected private contracting team, led by SNC Lavalin, responsible for the design, financing, construction, and the operations and maintenance over a 35-year concession agreement.

SNC-Lavalin contributed $750 million towards the cost of the $2.1-billion project, and will recoup its costs and assemble a profit from the venture over the length of the operating contract. TransLink will assume operations and maintenance responsibilities for the Canada Line in 2040.

public transit

The single-track terminus station of Richmond-Brighouse Station on the Canada Line. (Dennis Tsang / Flickr)

But the Canada Line, and the city’s hosting of the Olympics, also completely revolutionized Metro Vancouver’s attitudes and use of public transit.

Regional transit ridership has been on the upswing ever since the Canada Line opened, and municipal governments are now clamouring over each other for the next SkyTrain extension project to their jurisdiction (Surrey-Langley, North Shore, Port Coquitlam, and Vancouver-UBC) instead of opposing these infrastructure investments. These trains of thought from municipal leaders were completely absent during the Canada Line’s planning process.

More importantly, the Canada Line has taught us both what to do and what not to do: it showed us we need to plan further into the future, by future-proofing infrastructure.

That means ample buffer capacity for both planned and unplanned growth, redundant designs and systems, and curbing the temptation of value engineering.

Canada Line SkyTrain YVR Vancouver International Airport

SkyTrain Canada Line trains near Vancouver International Airport being tested before opening in 2009. (Vancouver International Airport)

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