The subway versus LRT debate on Broadway
In yesterday’s blog post I said that I did not want to open up this debate again, but then Patrick Condon published an opinion piece in the Tyee called “Why Is TransLink’s Price for Light Rail Triple What Other Cities Pay?” The key to his argument is in this table, which for ease of reference I have lifted entire
The article explains how they made these figures as “fair and comparable as possible” but is strangely reticent on the source of the data: it simply says “publicly available documents” and there are no links, nor a list of sources. I sent an email to Patrick requesting that first thing this morning: he has not yet replied.
Actually if you have spent any time at all on this issue you will know that the internet is awash with comparisons of this kind (Google has 17.4 million results). I am going to suggest that you go to just one – which is I think a better source than most simply because I used to work for them. The UK Department of Transport is actually now quite keen on Light Rail – but it is still a wholly objective source of information. “Green Light for Light Rail” is a downloadable pdf – and it has up to date comparisons of existing UK systems. But what it also has is a sobering chapter entitled “Cost Structure of the Light Rail Industry”
Comparisons between the capital costs of light rail projects are difficult to make because no two schemes currently in operation in England are directly comparable. They all have different characteristics.
And then there is a very useful list of “cost drivers” which explains why the capital costs can be so different, even for comparable projects – there is a longish list of things that need to be taken into consideration such as moving utilities
Light rail routes that run on highways are often deemed to require the diversion of utilities apparatus (water, gas, telephone) which is usually placed in roads and pavements. This has often been a significant part of the cost of a scheme. Space along the highway is often limited which can make this work expensive. There is also a high risk that during the initial phases of the design some of the utilities are not located, especially in central, older parts of cities, leading to additional and more costly work when they are subsequently located during construction.
There is a notable absence in the list of projects – it does not talk about Edinburgh.
It does have this neat graphic which deals with comparing the UK’s civil engineering costs to the rest of Europe
It would have been nice if they felt the need to compare the UK to North America – but there is a very useful section about what can be done to control costs. The point I make in the comments underneath Patrick Condon’s article is a bit different
But just looking at costs – and trying to minimize them – is not a good way to plan a transit system. You have to look at the benefits too – and there are always judgements that are going to be made, even when a dollar price can be placed on both costs and benefits. Much of the City Engineer’s argument in favour of a subway right through to UBC can be summed up as “it keeps it out of the way of the traffic”. For him that justifies a great deal of additional expense. I am not sure I agree but equally there are going to be arguments over how to value the speed of the journey for users and how much it is worth spending to reduce or avoid collisions with pedestrians and cyclists. (Cllr Geoff Megs has a summary of the case that was made on his blog.)
To make the point about cost minimization a bit clearer, look at the Canada Line. It was built down to a price, not up to a standard. It is therefore less safe than it could be. There are no platform edge doors, which are standard for new automatic train operated subways elsewhere. It is inconvenient with only one entrance for each station, forcing passengers into crossing the road on the surface which is also a safety concern. It is not going to be big enough if Vancouver actually achieves its 2040 goals: the platforms in the stations just cannot accommodate much longer trains.
Because I do not know where Patrick got his data from, nor what each project cost includes – or does not include – I cannot really add much more to answer his question “why so much more” other than point to both the Bloomberg and DTp material. It’s not just us.
But the DTP does make the point “In general however, there is no doubt that the construction costs for light rail should be significantly less than building new heavy rail lines”. And surface light rail ought to be significantly cheaper than either cut and cover or bored tube tunnelling. But then Patrick has also argued elsewhere that there are very good urban design reasons why you would rather have transit on the surface than underground. And those might well be worth concentrating on, rather than getting into the arcana of comparative costing of transportation projects in different places. It is the kind of place we want Vancouver to become that ought to be the deciding factor, not simply the price tag.
And don’t forget that it was the City of Vancouver Engineering Department that managed to deliver two kilometres of mostly single track railway, used by trams for two months at a capital cost of $8.5 million for two kilometres.
Before I go I also want to recommend a couple of articles How is Besançon Building a Tramway at €16 million/kilometer? (~CAN$21m/km) and a Railway Gazette article on the same project.
UPDATE Kansas City – a postal ballot of residents of downtown has approved a two mile $100m streetcar project – or $31m per km
Further UPDATE 19 December 2012
The blog “Pedestrian Observations” has a list of subway – and other rail projects – which shows how different US and UK costs are to the rest of the world. It is worth noting the author’s introductory paragraph
This is a placeholder post, in which I’m just going to summarize the costs of projects in the US and the rest of the world. I will focus on subway tunnels, but also put some above-ground rail for comparison. No average is included – all I’m doing at this stage is eyeballing numbers. As far as possible, numbers are inflated or deflated from the midpoint of construction to 2010, and exclude rolling stock. The PPP exchange rate is €1 = $1.25, $1 = ¥100. For now, only dense infill subways are included.