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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 2010

Report says Evergreen Line is already six months behind schedule

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The Georgia Straight headline above refers to a City of Burnaby report. (City reports are a lot easier to locate than Translink reports!)

Construction of the 11-kilometre line was expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2010, but according to a City of Burnaby staff report, the project is already half a year behind schedule.

Even worse, members of Burnaby city council, who received the report at a meeting on June 28, believe that the line is actually going nowhere.

“If I can say from council last night, most people feel like it will never be built because there’s no funding, and now we see that Vancouver is pressing for the Broadway line to be a priority,” Coun. Colleen Jordan told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview on June 29. “It doesn’t look good.”

This seems to reflect the anxiety that I reported on last week, that was heard at the community meeting in Kitsilano. Quite why the province is supposed to be prejudiced in favour of Vancouver is not articulated, but I suppose that since the Premier runs everything in this province out of his office, and he represents a Vancouver constituency, then whatever was promised previously (the Evergreen Line was supposed to be built at the same time as the Canada Line) has no validity. Well that last bit is, of course, quite true. As we have seen with the HST. And BC Rail – I could go on but won’t.

Out of an estimated total project cost of $1.4 billion, the federal government is kicking in $417 million, while the provincial government’s share is $410 million. TransLink is supposed to pony up $400 million, while the provincial government is supposed to find private funding for the remaining $173 million.

As I keep on repeating, Translink does not have $400 million. Its current three year plan has nothing for transit expansion, and the major chunk of capital funding it is being forced to spend on the ridiculous fare gates project. That does nothing to improve service – or net revenue either. As Translink themselves state, there is no business case for turnstiles on Skytrain, and that does not change even if the province does kick in some additional funding. It might make Translink’s books look a little bit better, but it does not change the rate of return on the capital employed one bit. Since it all comes out of taxpayers pockets one way or another, there should be outrage. But the common misperception that no-one pays when they get on Skytrain persists – and it does not matter what anyone says to the contrary.

Dave Duncan, spokesperson for the transportation ministry, told the Straight by phone that the line is still set to be completed by the end of 2014. Construction will start in the spring of 2011, he said.

But he does not explain where the missing funds will come from. Until those are identified – and confirmed – do not expect to see anything started between Lougheed and Coquitlam. Unless the ministry is wiling to take the risk of there being one of those embarrassing projects that are started then abandoned. Toronto has had more than one of those. So far we have managed to avoid that pitfall – but there’s always a first time.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 30, 2010 at 10:42 am

Posted in transit

TransLink’s draft three-year plan freezes transit service hours

with 9 comments

This is based on something I saw on the Straight’s web page. The first thing I did was go to Translink’s page to see if I could find and read the original. As usual, I had no luck at all. It’s not on the the “press” page – not is it linked to Board reports. It’s not on the “Transportation Planning” page either. Of course not. Transit service hours never had anything to do with planning at Translink. And one can only access very outdated material if you use the site’s search engine. This is what it told me

No results were found containing “2011 Base Plan and Outlook”

Basically, Translink really doesn’t want just anyone reading its reports.

When  I spoke at the BARSTA meeting this week, I made the point that Translink cannot expand its system. They are all worried about what they see as the imminent threat of a bored tube under Broadway, thanks to some Translink meetings held in the area. But really, it cannot happen.

TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie explained in a phone interview that the plan will “keep things in a state of good repair”. But he also admitted that it doesn’t fund projects that would increase transit use, such as the long-delayed Evergreen Line.

“The base plan represents the level of services that TransLink can sustain based on its current revenues,” Hardie told the Straight.

Now it is also true that Translink doesn’t actually decide about major rapid transit projects – that’s always done by the province. They might proceed with the $2.8bn project (there is not, of course, any budgetary provision for that) but given the current state of their finances and the lack of private sector ability to fund P3s post 2008, it seems a remote possibility to me.

And, elsewhere it is noted that the extension of U Pass is going to create significant increases in transit demand, especially at peak periods.

Which is going to be met by service cuts. I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Becuase demand is going to increase, and there is no spare capacity, some places will lose some bus service so that others can get more. ‘

Although the plan maintains overall service, about four to five percent of conventional bus-service hours will be redirected by 2012. Through this, the transportation body expects to “increase the productivity of the system by just over two percent through increased revenue ridership”.

“It’s not the intention to cut service to save money,” Hardie explained. “It’s the intention to cut service to reallocate those services to where they can basically do a better job in terms of meeting demand in moving people.”

The last time I made this point some commenters took exception to my use of the words – but even Ken Hardie is now using the phrase “cut service”.

Elsewhere, like Whatcom county, matters are much worse: they are reducing transit service overall. So we could be worse off. But that is not much comfort – nor is it what should be happening. The idea that cutting public services is a good idea in a recession was shown to be bunk in the 1930’s. It did not work then in the way its proponents said it would. It is also the case that we need more transit – getting people out of cars is still one of the best ideas around for a whole range of worthy objectives – as regular readers of this blog will know. But the people we keep on electing to govern us still cannot see beyond their own short term self interest, and empty rhetoric. What saddens me is the number of people who appear to agree with this stupidity.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 24, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Posted in transit

The Live Undergound Train Map

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Ok this is just a bit of transit fan geekery – at least it is for now – I am sure that we can turn it into a debate about what we should be doing here.

I learned from the Guardian that

you can now see a fascinating animated Google Map (requires Javascript) showing where London Underground trains are – live. Built by Matthew Somerville of MySociety at Science Hack Day over the weekend, it uses the new Transport for London API (via the London Datastore) – combining the train predictions service plus “a bit of maths and magic..

It is far from perfect – indeed one of the fun things is watching one of the “trains” whizz up a street that has no underground route underneath it. If that is your idea of fun.

It is all due to the new “open” architecture – in this case an API. Which I only know about because I use an application that tracks my flickr photos using their API (whatever that is).

One (outside) developer I’ve spoken to says that for years TfL has been “a black box that the Greater London Authority pours money into which generates outputs, but nobody can see inside”.

It looks like that is changing, though, and one has to say that the efforts of Emer Coleman, head of London’s Data Store have been instrumental in getting TfL to open up its data in this way.

Now that sounds familiar. Firstly because the City of Vancouver has a commitment to open data – Andrea Reimer is the name that pops into my mind when I think about this but I am sure there are staff involved too. Secondly, transportation data was supposed to have become not only much more plentiful but also more accessible under Translink. That’s when I picked up that usage of “architecture”: there was one guy who seemed to talk about nothing else back in the day. Except, of course, nothing seems to have come from it. There is more data around now – passenger counters, GPS on buses and even the Alcatel system that tracks trains on SkyTrain and the Canada Line. And “real time” displays at some stations and stops – and even on board the new Mark II trains I am told. But nothing like this yet – as far as I know.

And my cell phone resolutely refuses to look up the next bus scheduled data by bus stop number – let alone the realtime stuff

Richmond Centre BLine  disabled=

Richmond Centre B Line Real Time Display Disabled

Written by Stephen Rees

June 22, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

No good work goes unpunished

with 13 comments

WTA 822

WTA bus unloading at Bellingham

I must admit I was not aware of what a good job Whatcom County transit has been doing. But then I had also never heard of crosscut.com either – “News of the Great Nearby”.

the Federal Transportation Administration hailed WTA as the bus service with the highest ridership increase in the United States — up 32 percent in 2007-2008. Last year, its buses managed nearly 5 million passenger trips in a service area of only 196,000 people. It carries more riders per dollar than any other communitywide transit system in the state.

The title I chose comes directly from the article. My father used that aphorism frequently, only he said “No good deed goes unpunished”. I had of course heard about the effect that HST would have on cross border shoppers from here to there. Indeed, I do not think most of us in this region think about Whatcom County except in terms of cross border shopping. I did once supervise a project that tried to establish a cross border transit service for the large numbers of people who work on one side of the border but live on the other. That went nowhere – mainly due to inter-governmental bureacracies. A bit like the cock up over the second Amtrak train.

The whole thing turns on an administrative decision at state level that says the HST is not a “sales tax” but rather a “value added tax”. Which seems to me to be a fine bit of legal sophistry.

The exemption is one the state legislature created 45 years ago, for residents of states and provinces with a sales tax lower than 3 percent. Oregon, Idaho, Alberta, and Alaska qualified.

But Alberta doesn’t have a sales tax! Alaska gets in there because of the direct ferry service between the two states: visitors do not have to set foot on Canadian soil.

But I digress. The is no way that the WTA can challenge the ruling in court, because it was not the result of a case but rather the result of a ruling by the state Department of Revenue.

Gov. Gregoire and Director Holmstrom have told border community leaders. B.C. shoppers will get a free pass from Washington sales tax on purchases they buy to take back to Canada.

So no hope of a political decision by the state legislature either – since retailers expect a big boost in sales from the exemption.

Some Bellingham stores do as much as 40 percent of their business with B.C. shoppers. They sniff a bonanza, as the tax-free bargains draw Canadians by the thousands. It may also be bit of a paperwork nuisance.

Based on my own unscientific parking lot surveys at Bellis Fair Mall I would have guessed an even higher  figure. But then how do they measure these things? After all, the people who go cross border shopping are not especially open about their purchases. The exemption does not apply to day trippers. But then neither do the Canadian exemptions. In theory Canadians are supposed to declare everything they buy – no matter how long they are away – and then calculate how much exemption they are entitled to based on the amount of time they have been out of the country. I suppose these days there could easily be a number plate matching program on the computer in front of the border agent. But I rather think that most agents go by other “tells” – and are less concerned about small sums of sales tax than drugs, guns and illegal immigration. If you have to pay for an overnight stay (or two) to get the exemption, then you probably have to spend quite a bit before the trip breaks even.

At one time I used to take advantage of travel exemptions to bring back things like booze and cigarettes – but I stopped smoking many years ago, and decided that having a collection of single malts was not exactly a high priority. And I have always avoided buying consumer durables from places that would be difficult to get to if I needed to return something. So I have no personal axe to grind here. I do teach a course at Whatcom County Community College – and (sometimes) they even pay me!

I do begin to wonder when it will become apparent to politicians and bureaucrats in general that public transportation is something that they have to consider as being something worth spending taxes on  – like they now see defence or prisons.

WTA 827

Written by Stephen Rees

June 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Posted in silly, transit

Tagged with , ,

TransLink’s projected deficit turns into $24 million surplus

with 12 comments

The Province this morning has some good news. So in case anyone thinks I am just interested in knocking Translink, I thought I would pass this along.

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis said Tuesday that, partly due to the Olympics, revenues were $7.5 million higher than budgeted for January through March.

“Transit-fare revenues are up $3.4 million and fuel taxes are up $4.3 million,” he said. “Those are the two most significant factors.”

More importantly, operating expenses fell $25.8 million below budget.

Huh? How can operating expenses have fallen when they were operating more service then? They just told us – in their responses to the Canada Line “capacity” stories that it costs more to operate more trains – and we know it also must cost more to operate more bus service hours since every bus has to have an operator! Indeed, the reduction in the number of buses operated can seen quite nicely at present by taking a look at the fleet of recently retired buses now parked at off Dyke Road near No 4 Road in Richmond.

Going nowhere

The key might be to look again at the phrase “below budget” – maybe they just budgetted more generously than they needed to?

Jarvis said that was due to reorganization, cutting duplication and chopping 100 jobs, along with lower interest rates.

But did they do that in the first quarter – when they needed more operators to run these old, now retired, buses on the additional service that was run during the Olympic Games period – which was, apparently much longer than just the two weeks of the sporting festival itself?

It also shows that the average transit fare paid per passenger was $1.79, compared to a target of $1.86.

Well, once again, knowing how these targets are arrived at – and the “average fare paid” come to that – I am not sure that means very much. Surely they should be telling us what the actual data says – say year on year average fare. I would bet too that the additional ridership generated by the Olympics had a different travel pattern in terms of number of zones and time of day – both of which are important in the Vancouver region.

See, I do my best to be positive and encouraging, but they don’t help themselves with this kind of story management.  Maybe they should simply abandon the idea of “spin” and just be much more open with real data that anyone can look at. Budgets and targets they can keep for their internal management purposes. I want to see real outturn – and data that has been collected from reliable sources. So I trust Canada Line data (since InTransitBC has passenger counters and contractual need for good data) and also SeaBus data – since the turnstiles are there for vessel safety. But tiny sample surveys, and infrequent trip diaries, do not impress me much.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 9, 2010 at 11:36 am

Posted in transit

Some Sound Transit light-rail screeches just won’t stop

with 21 comments

Seattle Times

Just to raise the sights a little, light rail, often promoted here as the solution to all our transit concerns, is proving far from problem free in Seattle. Noise is a serious issue – and they are working hard to do something about it.

Surface light rail does have impacts on its surroundings. Indeed, it would be foolish to think that any technology has no impacts at all. Wind farms look very good in comparison to off shore oil wells these days, but are still a threat to birds.

While I do not recall there being very many public outcries against the noise of our rapid transit, the one that bothers me as a reasonably frequent passenger is the squeal on the Canada Line as it winds its way around the granite outcrop underneath Queen Elizabeth Park. Initially I thought this might get better as the track was conditioned – or through a combination of wheel turning and rail grinding. I cannot say I have noticed any improvement. That did seem to work at some places in Seattle – but not all of them

Rail grinding last winter improved the sound on much of the line but loudness inexplicably increased near the river

They are also going to to try flange lubricators

Transit contractors installed lubrication machines to reduce screeching on curves. The biodegradable gel automatically is squirted on the rails, where wheels pick it up and spread it near Mount Baker Station. The lubrication is helping somewhat, and Gray said one lube point will be moved closer to the Beacon Hill Tunnel soon.

Since the squealing only occurs inside a tunnel there are no neighbours to annoy, and I suppose that users of the Canada Line are expected to simply tolerate it. It does not happen on SkyTrain since the trucks under the cars have steerable axles. I don’t think that is an option with conventional traction motors which tend to be hung on the axles on most electrical multiple unit trains. But I would also think that since the noise is created by metal grinding on metal that is must have cost implications in track and wheel wear too.

Canada Line nb tunnel under False Creek

Written by Stephen Rees

June 7, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Canada Line races toward capacity

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Yaletown Roundhouse Stn

The Canada Line last Sunday midday

The Vancouver Sun (and over the weekend the local press too) has a longish piece on how fast ridership has risen on the newest part of our rapid transit system. While generally a good news piece, there are several comments made by Ken Hardie – the Translink flak catcher – that deserve closer examination.

Hardie said that now, TransLink typically runs 14 of its 20 Canada Line trains, each with two cars, at 3.5-minute intervals, with another two trains added at rush hour.

By August of 2011, the transit authority plans to regularly run 16 trains, which will represent a 12-per-cent lift in service, every 3.33 minutes.

Hardie wouldn’t say how much this would cost.

But he noted that when “we run more transit, we spend more money.”

That is actually only true of the bus system. It is not true of a rapid transit system that has no drivers. Indeed, very early on in my career with BC Transit (as it then was) I was taken on a tour of the SkyTrain depot, and told that one of the great advantages of automatic, driverless systems was their responsiveness to unexpected surges in demand. SkyTrain staff were especially proud of the way they could deal with crowds leaving the stadium after a game. It was, they said, “just like turning on a tap”. They contrasted that with the difficulty and cost of getting operators in and paying them overtime if transit wanted to put on more service to meet a surge in demand from the PNE.

With driverless trains, there really is very little change in cost – some energy (but that is diminished by the ability of trains to produce power during braking) – and some small change in mileage based maintenance. But the system itself requires the same number of people if the trains are full or empty – and running 16 or 20 really costs very little different. What Hardie may be revealing is the impact of the P3 with InTransitBC: they may be able to charge Translink more if they run more trains. Indeed given the following – Translink is thinking about increasing bus operation (which do cost a lot more as 80% of their costs are labour ) – it may be that the secret deal is worse than anyone thought.

having buses scheduled for Brighouse shifted to Bridgeport, where commuters can catch a second, nearly empty train, from the airport.

Now that is expensive – since the schedule has to be revised (means it can’t be done until the next sheet change) and buses added, as lengthening the route increases the vehicle and operator requirement. Not exactly “turning on the tap” is it?

Mark II SkyTrain 329/330

The newest SkyTrain cars between Stadium and Science World

For my years at Translink the biggest constraint on SkyTrain was that there were not enough trains, and there were no capital funds to expand the fleet while there was plenty of theoretical available capacity in the signalling/operating system. We could have run trains at tighter headways, or longer trains, we just ran out of equipment really quickly and could not sustain it all day.

It is possible to run trains more often on the Canada Line and there is spare capacity on the airport branch. But once again the peculiar funding arrangements with YVR seem to preclude a schedule change – for example 2 trains to Richmond for every 1 to the airport. Again that ought to be technically easy to do with the Alcatel system, but seems inconceivable on the Canada Line. It’s our money that is paying for this but we are not allowed to know the details of the contracts Translink has signed. This is not the case in other places where there are private sector contracts to run public services: just look at the amount of detail in the public domain on Britain’s privatised railway – or Transport for London’s battles with its underground system providers/maintainers – recently brought back in house due to the unsupportable demands of the private sector for more cash.

There is nothing in the story at all about what this means in the longer term. The Canada Line is capacity constrained by lengthy sections of single track and short stations: it is feasible to insert an extra car in each train but that is not anticipated for a long time. While most systems hit a physical maximum at a train every two minutes (imposed by the ability of people to get on and off trains at crowded platforms) the single track sections impose a much longer turn around time requirement.  These physical constraints have not yet bitten. It is the contractual constraints that seem to be biting now, but no-one is talking about that either.

Hardie noted he expects ridership to continue to grow, especially as municipalities continue to densify areas around the transit stations.

But all that leads to is the day when Translink does not have to subsidize In TransitBC for ridership under 100,000 per day – one of the few details of the contract we are allowed to know. What happens after that? What sort of system do we have where the demands of the operating entity are more important than the demands of the customers? Ridership won’t grow if the system is unresponsive to increasing demand. Pass ups and overcrowding do not make for happy transit riders, and they start looking at better ways to get around.

UPDATE The story now gets covered by Jeff Nagel of BC Local News. While he reads this blog, he has to talk to me to get a quote. Obviously his employers do not want to provide a link to a blogger. Selective quotation may be standard practice but given the amount of information above I think it is clear that I am aware that there is more than just power costs in train operation. It is also clear that I am pointing to the difference between price and cost – especially when it comes to P3s. But then you read me here and not in your local paper: thank you!

Written by Stephen Rees

June 2, 2010 at 11:21 am

Posted in transit

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