Short platforms and trains: Is the SkyTrain Canada Line under-built and near capacity?
It was a piece of transportation infrastructure that nearly did not happen and had its legions of doubters, but after just half a decade the SkyTrain Canada Line has proven to be a wildly successful public transit investment.
On the other hand, can the same be said for the system in 20, 10 or even five years’ time? Could it become a victim of its own success?
If you have used and compared the Canada Line with the train systems found in other major metropolitan areas around the world, there is no mistaking that it was built with bare bone station designs consisting of jarringly short and narrow platforms for seemingly ‘toy trains.’
Most Canada Line platforms are only 40 metres long and expandable to 50 metres, though there are exceptions to a small number of stations that were built to the maximum lengths straight off the bat. At 40 metres, this means the platforms can only fit two-car trains at any one time, although an allowance for a 10 metre extension will give it the capability to accommodate one additional small car to create a three-car fully articulated train.
The fleet size is currently at 20 two-car trains, but only 16 two-car trains are used at any one time, specifically during peak hours. Up to an additional 2 two-car trains can be introduced into regular service pending on additional funding.
According to TransLink, with 50 metre platforms permitting three-car trains, this means the Canada Line has a ultimate design capacity of 15,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).
“The current capacity offered by the Canada Line is about 6,100 people per hour per direction in the peak periods,” TransLink spokesperson Jiana Ling told Daily Hive. “Recent measurements show at the busiest point, the line currently carries around 5,500 pphpd. Thus, the current ridership has not exceeded the maximum capacity in peak periods.”
But that does not provide much wiggle room until additional trains are ordered; at the moment there are no plans to undergo train acquisition expenses, an option that is complicated by the need to amend the terms of the concessionaire agreement with ProTransBC, the Canada Line’s private operator over a 35-year term.
If the system capacities of all three SkyTrain lines are compared, the Canada Line pales in comparison to the Expo Line’s current peak capacity of 15,000 pphpd and ultimate design of capacity of 25,000 pphpd with its 80 metre length platforms. The Millennium Line also shares the same ultimate design capacity.
On the other hand, each line is different – a multitude of variables give each line differing ridership levels and forecasts. “In a recent assessment for the City of Vancouver, current ridership forecasts for 2045 indicate that the peak hour demand for the Canada Line can reach 9,000 to 10,000 pphpd,” says Ling. “This demand is well within the system design capacity and can be accommodated by increasing train frequency and length.”
Even if the Canada Line train system were to have the same ultimate design capacity as the Expo Line’s present peak capacity, therein lies the other major problem of getting higher volumes of passengers in and out of the small station footprints efficiently.
Platform crowding is already becoming an issue at the system’s busiest stations while passenger flow and circulation is also hampered by small and single entrances, cramped ticketing concourses, narrow staircases and an insufficient number of escalators.
The ability to expand platform lengths beyond 50 metres and expand the footprint of the passenger circulation area of stations is largely curtailed by how eight of the 16 stations are built underground with few allowances. Tunnel ventilation systems, utilities, track turns, and steep changes in track grades forbid a major extension of the platforms without digging up the road again – a venture that is likely financially and economically unfeasible.
Service reliability and train frequency is also impaired by the shortsighted decision to single-track the final 640 metres of elevated guideway before both terminuses at Richmond-Brighouse and YVR-Airport Stations. That meant the single-tracking of both of the southern terminus stations, despite being some of the line’s most used stations.
Single-tracking at the Richmond terminuses was done to reduce costs and appease Richmond City Council’s concerns over the street aesthetics of an elevated guideway on No. 3 Road. At one point, city councillors even suggested having additional single tracking along the stretch between Aberdeen and Lansdowne Stations, rerouting the line to Minoru Boulevard, or running the line down the middle of No. 3 Road on street level through busy intersections.
The decision makers and planners of the day lacked the foresight needed to ensure the system would be designed with excess buffer capacity to allow for both planned and unplanned growth – or at the very least, be given the capability of significant expansion.
Why is the Canada Line under-built?
1. Doubts over ridership projections
The Canada Line requires 100,000 passengers per day to break-even on its own operating costs. Of this figure, project planners a decade ago estimated 60,000 would come from existing bus riders on north-south routes, particularly the now-defunct 98 B-Line, and the remaining 40,000 as new riders to public transit.
Local groups and some politicians described the project, known as the RAV Line at the time, as an unnecessary, pie-in-the-sky ‘Cadillac’ system that would never achieve its break-even ridership threshold.
Here are a few quotes from politicians who were TransLink directors at the time and were vehemently against the project and voted to reject it:
- “I’ve been trying to kill this blood-sucking vampire for some time. I think there will be a tax revolt when people realize how much this is going to cost them. You and your children’s children will be paying for this project for decades,” Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said to a crowd during the final meeting in 2004, emphasizing that 100,000 riders per day is unrealistic, according to the Vancouver Sun.
- “There is no rational reason why we should risk the entire public-transit system – 80 percent of which is buses – on an expenditure where there is dubious assurance that the ridership will arrive,” Vancouver City Councillor David Cadman told the Straight in 2004.
- “If people were going to move in those numbers, you would have seen them on the 98 B-Line,” Pitt Meadows Mayor Don MacLean told the Straight in 2004. “It didn’t happen.”
But it did happen. By August 2010, a year after opening, the Canada Line’s infrared passenger counters were recording over 100,000 riders per weekday – three years ahead of forecast schedules. It hit 104,682 per weekday in May 2010 and 106,320 in June 2010.
In July 2010, there was an average of 107,198 per week day and an daily average (throughout all seven days of the week) of 99,210.
Even on its first day of revenue operations on August 18, 2009, the day after opening day free ride festivities, the new train line was already recording 70,000 riders per day.
As of June 2014, the Canada Line’s average weekday ridership is in excess of 122,000.
Altogether, this is food for thought for the design of the future Broadway Line to UBC.
2. Politics and cost
The decision to build the project was highly controversial and political to the point that the Canada Line was killed twice over two “no” votes before being green lighted in the third and final vote.
Municipal politicians in Burnaby, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, and Port Moody did not want $1.7 billion in regional public transportation funds tied up on a single mega project that they believed was a risky venture. For these municipalities in particular, it meant that their ‘promised’ Evergreen Line, a light rail project at the time, would have to be deferred again for the future.
They suggested building the Canada Line as a cheaper light rail project or building it along the Arbutus Corridor where expensive tunnelling would not be required. They were also adamant over maintaining a $1.35 billion public spending cap on the project, while the private sector funded the remaining $750 million gap.
Ultimately, the Canada Line went ahead only after it underwent revisions that led to further under design to cut down on costs – to make the project as cheap as possible.
3. Public-Private Partnership
One of the stipulations of Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberal provincial government was to pursue the $2.05 billion Canada Line through a public-private partnership (P3). It became the first transit infrastructure project in North America to use a P3 model for design, construction and operations.
InTransitBC was chosen as the winning bid and is a consortium made up of SNC-Lavalin, Seltrac, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and the Investment Management Corporation of BC. It will see a return and profit on its $750 investment over payments made throughout the duration of a 35 year contract.
The Request For Proposals laid out some standard requirements, including the ability to reach a ultimate design capacity of 15,000 pphpd. But most of the major decisions over the system’s design and construction process was left to the bidders to establish as part of the competitive nature of the bidding process, to allow each bid consortium to create the most “cost efficient” plan to choose from – or what some would call shortcuts to reduce the front load costs of the Canada Line’s lifespan.
TransLink’s ‘fair playing field’ bid procedures also did not allow Bombardier’s bid to develop an alternative cost and resource efficient proposal of combining the Canada Line with existing SkyTrain infrastructure, operations and rolling stock. Both Expo and Millennium Lines use Bombardier’s ART linear motor technology.
Besides the capacity-related shortcuts, a major issue with the Canada Line is its poorly engineered sections where the track turns. Higher speeds around turns require more banking: for instance, the slow movement and screeching noise on the series of turns from King Edward to 41st Avenue Stations is the result of the absence of banking.
Despite its highly disruptive nature, cut-and-cover was chosen as the preferred method of building the Canada Line to reduce construction costs by $400 million. The method was favoured over tunnel boring not only because it was cheaper, but it was also faster and carried less risk to meet the deadline of completing the system in time for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
In 2008, Bombardier Transportation Total Transit Systems Division president Raymond Betler told The Province that his company lost the bid because of their decision to use the costlier option of tunnel boring under the Cambie Corridor.
“Our approach was to tunnel, as opposed to cut-and-cover… because we thought that would be more community-friendly, less disruptive than cut-and-cover.”
“In the end, our price was higher. I think fundamentally, because of that, we lost the job… [but] it was not significantly higher.”
In any case, the new line built by InTransitBC opened three months before its November 30, 2009 construction and opening deadline.
The restrictive P3 contract also limits the train frequency of the Canada Line, even though the real cost of running more trains is only electricity and scheduled maintenance. The relative operational cost is low given that the system is driverless by automatic computer control. There are 20 two-car trains on the Canada Line fleet, but up until the summer of 2011 only 14 trains were used during peak hours.
Currently, 16 trains are used during peak hour service, even though the system’s technical allowance with spares permits 18 train operations. The contract with InTransitBC mandates that higher frequencies beyond the agreed upon fixed schedule in the concessionaire contract comes with exorbitant fees to TransLink.
In contrast, on the BCRTC publicly operated and maintained Expo and Millennium Lines, increasing frequency to accommodate crush demand is merely a matter of a push of a button.
4. Planned and unplanned growth
Canada Line project planners and municipal politicians, particularly the group of regional mayors and councillors who held the decision making powers of TransLink at the time, overly depended on the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP) to model ridership forecasts and capacity needs.
While the LRSP gave town centre designation to Richmond City Centre and highlighted a form of rapid transit along the Vancouver-Richmond corridor, it did not account for the reality of high growth that happened or was happening in Richmond and other south of Fraser municipalities.
The area was not deemed as a growth zone by LRSP proponents as it is located on a flood plain, although the City of Richmond is countering by actively pursuing further densification around the Canada Line on No. 3 Road. It plans to triple its city core population from 40,000 to 120,000 by 2031.
The Cambie Corridor is also set for high growth that project planners did not foresee a decade earlier. In 2011, Vancouver City Council approved the Cambie Corridor Plan that outlined the long-term plan for significant densification around Canada Line stations.
Since then, there has been a flurry of single-family lot sales activity along the corridor for the purpose of development. It also supports the implementation of major redevelopment projects planned for Oakridge Centre, Vancouver Coastal Health’s Pearson-Dogwood site located at the future 57th Avenue Station, and the area around Marine Drive and Cambie Street, centred around Marine Gateway (which is expected to increase ridership by 5,000 per day when complete).
A fourth major redevelopment could be slated along the Corridor at a 21 acre site that was formerly the headquarters of the RCMP’s E-Division. The campus recently relocated to a new facility in Surrey, making this site – adjacent to the future 33rd Avenue Station – ripe for redevelopment.
Ways to improve Canada Line capacity and efficiency
1. Higher frequencies and more trains
The Canada Line currently has a fleet size of twenty two-car Hyundai Rotem trains. Over the short-term, more trains (up to a maximum of total fleet size of 40) can be purchased to increase the capacity of the system.
However, this will not be an option until service levels reach a usage of 18 of the existing 20 trains during peak hours. A maximum of 16 trains is currently used during peak hours.
2. Short-turn trains at Bridgeport Station
If automation and scheduling permits, trains could be short-turned at Brighouse Station to run higher frequencies between Waterfront to Bridgeport Stations. The station is a major interchange point for south of Fraser bus routes.
While this would address capacity needs in Vancouver, it does not tackle the issues in Richmond where two-car trains can be as infrequent as every seven minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes at night.
3. Longer platforms and trains
Stations platforms, with the exception of a few, are currently 40 metres long but can all be expanded to 50 metres to increase platform circulation space and allow for three-car trains.
A third ‘mini-car’ approximately 10 metres in length can be ‘inserted’ between each two-car train of the existing fleet to create three-car fully articulated trains.
4. Side seating in trains
Train interior seating arrangements can be retrofitted from row seating to side seating. This marginal reduction in seating capacity will not only open up additional standing space and greatly increase the overall capacity of each train but also improve passenger entry/exit circulation at the doors.
With the current seating arrangement and orientation, the Canada Line’s two-car train capacity is at 334 passengers.
Inefficient: Canada Line Hyundai Rotem train row seating configuration.
Efficient: Hong Kong MTR train side seating configuration.
The installation of platform edge doors on the Canada Line would not only improve passenger safety but also increase the usable space on the platform, especially during occasions of overcrowding.
Unlike the Expo and Millennium Lines, the Canada Line’s rolling stock of train cars have the same door spacings that can permit the installation of such equipment.
6. Double tracking final stretches before YVR-Airport and Richmond-Brighouse Stations
The final 650 metre stretches of both YVR-Airport and Richmond-Brighouse Stations could be double-tracked to increase the automated system’s maximum potential frequency.
Currently, single tracking begins just south of Lansdowne Station and immediately west of the future site of the airport’s fourth station (between YVR-Airport and Sea Island Centre Stations).
7. Reintroduce the 98 B-Line on Granville Street
The 98 B-Line rapid bus service from Waterfront Station to Richmond Centre via Granville Street and No. 3 Road was discontinued after the Canada Line went into service. Its 40,000 riders per day were largely transplanted onto the Canada Line, which serves the same north-south corridor between Vancouver and Richmond as the 98 B-Line.
A similar rapid bus service could be reactivated on Granville Street to help alleviate congestion on the Canada Line.
8. Arbutus Line
In the distant future, when Canada Line capacity is completely maxed out, a secondary north-south light rail or fully grade separated system could be built on the Arbutus Corridor to complement the Canada Line.
The City of Vancouver has recently acquired the Arbutus Corridor with the intent of turning it into a greenway with cycling and pedestrian paths and a future light rail transit line.