Monday, December 28, 2009

Transit Tunnel is no Turkey

The usual suspects are carping about the transit tunnel, again. Did the province provide funding? Apparently no good news is good enough -- they didn't provide 15-25% more than was asked for ... so it's disaster time. Ring-a-ling. Ding-a-ling. It's disaster time in the city ...

So what might happen if the tunnel portion was cancelled? Critics are quick to attach huge price tags to the tunnel portion. But these won't disappear if the tunnel is cancelled. After all the tunnel includes tracks (won't these be needed for the surface rail?); it includes stations and platforms (which will be needed at the surface too, and may have to be located on what is now private property that may have to be acquired by the city); signalling (which will be way more complex and expensive on the surface as it will have to accomodate private cars, trucks, and bus movements too), etc.

Surface rail brings its own unique costs too - streets will have to be dug up for years beforehand to relocate all access hatches (wo/manholes) outside of the track right of way, etc. Anyone visiting Toronto knows how slow the streetcars are and what chaos results in repairs to utilities crossing streetcar tracks or repairing the tracks themselves.

The last numbers I saw showed that cancelling the tunnel in favour of surface rail would result in a construction saving of about $300 million.

However, the system would suffer severe traffic flow impairment when it snows, or the streets are congested, or some bozo from upper lower Pointe Gatineau decides to block the track in order to squeeze through the intersection on his yellow light ....

And this doesn't even count the delays caused every day by north-south streets having a regular green light (which means the surface rail track is closed to train movements 60% of the time so the north-south motorist enjoys its green-yellow cycle). Let's throw in some Tamils or other protestors ... or striking civil servants who every few years close down the transitway by picketing at Place de Ville and a few other key spots that "accidentally" block the transitway.

What surface rail gets us in the downtown is a vulnerable transit system. Reliable it won't be. It will be  a very expensive rapid transit emulation system, aka a streetcar pretending to be a rapid transit system.

Transit committee received estimates that going for a surface rail option will, on a daily basis, result in sufficient impairment of service that a number of additional trainsets and operators will be required. How many? Well I saw estimates/calculations of about $100 million dollars per year of capital and operating cost for the additional equipment. [ Readers should see the comments received on this blog, which contest the dollars, time period and payback period for the operating savings. Once I receive the transit committee submission I'll post it on the blog ]  The "savings" in not building a tunnel would be eaten up  ...  by increased costs of surface rail in the core.

We can spend the money to build a tunnel that gives us a fast, reliable service in all weathers. Or we can spend the money operating a congested, grid-locked surface streetcar system. I know which one I choose.

For more on this same subject, including the source doucment, go to : Indeed, readers might want to scan several other entries in the last few weeks on the tunnel and station design.


  1. If surface rail is so unreliable, why does it work in Calgary? So Calgary has a grid-locked streetcar system, do they?

    I don't know where this $100M per year is coming from, but it makes no sense whatsoever. Hume Rogers thinks that $60M extra will be required to acquire the extra rail vehicles. The capital carrying cost of $60M is less than $5M annually, so the rest of this $100M has to be from operating costs. Is this reasonable? Not really in a city where transit costs about $275M to operate. A surface light rail system is still going to offer operating savings against the status quo (the rest of the service on the transitway will be the same as with a tunnel-based system, after all, and light rail downtown will still be better than the buses downtown), so to claim that a tunnelized light rail system is going to offer operating savings upwards of $95M against the savings of surface light rail is straining all credulity: the annual cost of the entire transit system would have to be reduced to $100M or less for all these savings on top of savings to add up - and that simply cannot be. No matter how large the light rail system gets, it will always be accompanied by an extensive bus system whose costs cannot be reduced further.

  2. Surface LRT is not streetcar service.

    It doesn't matter if intersections are "closed to train movements 60% of the time"--the lights are synchronized to the train schedule, so that 60% of the time will always fall within the time that the train needs to cross.

    As for costs for stations, there is no way surface stations will cost anywhere near the $50-$150 million the DOTT stations will. Surface stations also won't need Ottawa's famous elevator service, either. The City will have to purchase much more land in order to get two vertical access points per DOTT station, plus the rights to go under all those buildings.

    Can you reference the Transit Committee estimates you mention? I'm not familiar with those and I'd like to have a look.

    - RG>

  3. At the Dec 16 transit committee a presentation by the downtown business coalition went into the business case for the tunnel option. I asked the committee secretary for a copy of the presentation, which she promised as soon as they got it. I'm still waiting, and will post it in its entirety when I get it.

    In the meantime, critics continue to harp on the cost of the tunnel as if it is a saveable cost without consequences. I believe there are severe impacts on service levels that in tern have their own costs.

    You can pay now, or pay more later.

    Any number of cities have successful surface rail. A large number have also opted for (partially or totally )underground systems. The choice depends on local circumstances. Every city is unique. I want Ottawa to have a system based on its own needs, not someone else's.

    In Ottawa, we have the example of surface rapid transit that can be shut down by picketers, protestors, gridlock, selfish motorists, or a window falling out of a building. Its been a fun ride ... now its time for something better.

  4. Gridlock and selfish motorists are not unique to Ottawa, nor are they even all that great a problem here. Our bus system is failing not because of these.

    Falling windows is a particularly egregious red herring. Windows shouldn't be falling out of buildings onto the streets below where they can maim and kill. Decisions of surface or subsurface transit should not be based on something like this because this is a serious public safety issue that should be addressed regardless and once addressed it would cease to be a concern for anything, including light rail. At any rate, it's also pretty uncommon and exceptional.

    So we're basically down to protestors and picketers as being the "unique" factors. Well if we had a tunnel, wouldn't it be fairly easy for these same groups to block the tunnel access points downtown, which we know are going to be few and far between? The trains might still be moving below, but everything else in between could be solidly jammed with people. I would also point out that protestors not from Ottawa (i.e. the Tamils) might not have realized - indeed, probably did not realize - that they were actually blocking our rapid transit system because there's no obvious indication of it, unlike with light rail. We don't know that they wouldn't have acted differently with rails in the streets. I think you have to be very careful about transferring our experience with various people blocking the BRT system (quite possibly by accident) and assuming that the same would necessarily happen with LRT. Calgary gets its share of protesters and picketers and there does not appear to be an issue with blocking the CTrain there; indeed it seems that setting up within sight of the CTrain is the usual tactic, not blocking it.

    At any rate, if the engineers in charge of this venture had stuck to a shallower tunnel following the street grid with a greater number of lower-cost cut-and-cover stations there'd be far fewer grounds on which to oppose a tunnel, but instead they've gone for a high cost solution with reduced functionality.

  5. The very idea of putting surface light rail on Albert and Slater Streets is hilarious for anyone who has driven in the central area during business hours. A surface light rail system will cost a lot of money and will not really solve the problem. Nor will it provide a sustainable basis for long term development of the system. If we can't see our way to doing it well, we should not do it at all. My guess is that most of these opponents are suburban car addicts who would not use public transit it their lives depended on it.

  6. Anonymous, you're quite wrong on all counts. The reason the surface transit system (which happens to be buses at the moment) doesn't work is because we don't have a proper hub-and-spoke system. We've got every bus route and its grandmother going through downtown, clogging Albert and Slater with mostly-empty suburban 'express' buses. The previous North-South LRT plan, which espoused surface rail, wouldn't have worked because it wanted to mix rail AND buses on the surface, with separate platforms for each, which would have led to chaos.

    I know many people who are ardent supporters of surface rail and sensible transit. Most of them live in central areas, and they always take the bus when they can. They don't want to take ten storeys of elevators to get to the surface when they arrive downtown in the tunnel.

    - RG>