TransLink Corridors Map

Something is wrong with TransLink’s SkyTrain cost estimates

We should all be quite thankful as South of Fraser citizens that TransLink is in fact considering the provision of rapid transit here in one form or another and is examining that by collecting info and data in the recent Surrey Rapid Transit Study; but some of us here at SkyTrain for Surrey wonder sometimes whether it comes to the minds of the general public whether the people in charge of conducting the study should actually be trusted for their research or doubted for it.

As a component of the future of the city that all of us here at SkyTrain for Surrey work for, the study and the examinations, public opinions set forth for, and results do concern us to quite a degree.  We don’t concern ourselves so much about the data collection portion of the study as that is certainly an important factor in deciding on a conclusion, but the potential for issues on the options that are being debated in the study does concern us quite a lot. Ladies and gentlemen, we may have found another one of those issues – and a serious one at hand – that may be seriously affecting public opinion.

One will notice that lately that most of our latest series of posts have to do with capital cost estimates and possible mistakes in those estimates.  This article also has to do with possible capital cost estimate inaccuracies but with a different party in question.

Cost is one of the more serious factors helping to decide the implementation of South of Fraser rapid transit, and some of this result has to do with the very large service area that must be explored:

TransLink Corridors Map

A lower cost technology and implementation type might be able to cover more ground for the same price, hence the multiple-account-evaluation study by TransLink is currently taking place.

TransLink is currently examining two options if the expansion of SkyTrain as an Expo Line extension were to go ahead in Surrey.  These are:

  • an approx. 16km extension straight down the Fraser Highway to Langley (RRT1), and
  • an approx. 5.7km extension straight down King George Blvd to Newton Town Centre (RRT2 and RRT3)

The costs for these alternatives respectively amounts to approximately:

  • $1.6 billion ($100 million per km) [1]
  • $900 million ($150 million per km) [2]

Certainly there is something very seriously wrong with this estimate as it is not in line at all with the actual costs of past SkyTrain implementations.

Whereas both lines will be able to involve the use of only some elevated segments, with the possibility of at-grade operation in some areas such as through the undeveloped Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) along the Fraser Highway, the $1.5 billion ($1.5 billion is the accurate capital cost in 2011 dollars – several claimed and reported the costs as $2 billion but this is inaccurate – [READ MORE]) Canada Line rapid transit line connecting Downtown Vancouver with Richmond and YVR-Airport was a lot more special in that it featured these supposedly cost-inflating segments….

  • Nearly 9km of expensive underground alignment – this is nearly 50% of the entire line
  • Two major river crossings – the North Arm Bridge and the Middle Arm Bridge
  • Significant costs for street- and intersection-scaping and utility movement on Cambie Street in Vancouver as a result of cut-and-cover construction – much moreso than would be necessary for elevated SkyTrain construction
  • Significant costs for street-scaping on No. 3 Road in Richmond to account for major changes in the use of road space throughout the corridor section paralleling SkyTrain
  • A new operations and maintenance centre in Richmond to cater to a fleet of trains incompatible with the rest of the SkyTrain system
  • Enough trains to cater to a 180 second average frequency except on the branches to Richmond-Brighouse and YVR-Airport which operate with even lower 360 second frequencies at this moment
  • More stations per km than any other SkyTrain line
  • Additional costs related to training maintenance workers in BC who would need to familiarize themselves with the completely different propulsion method and rolling stock used by Canada Line.
  • Additional costs related to building in challenging soil conditions in both Richmond and near False Creek in Downtown Vancouver.

The Canada Line was built at a final and actual overall implementation cost estimate of just $80 million per km in 2011 dollars – this half the cost of a Surrey-based implementation to Newton that will require only elevated and at-grade track, no major river crossings, and no major expansions or new construction of any operation and maintenance facility.

No extra cash is being given by TransLink or municpial governments for the construction of the Evergreen Line as a SkyTrain-type service.Realistically, at such high cost assumptions of extensions in Surrey, surely the Surrey Rapid Transit Study team would have to be assuming that SkyTrain extension into Surrey will require:

  • Several kilometres of expensive underground alignments in bored and cut-and-cover tunnels
  • Much longer and larger station platforms than necessary with extravagant, costly designs
  • A possibly unnecessary new, oversized train yard and/or secondary full operations & maintenance centre (in reality only a small one may be necessary to serve a Langley extension and none at all to serve Newton extension, as a secondary OMC is already being constructed in Coquitlam for the Evergreen Line, and both that and additional track space will accommodate for more rolling stock)
  • Enough new trains to cater to a 162 second average frequency on the Surrey branch of the Expo Line

Other elevated SkyTrain implementations not dissimilar at all from the ones being planned for Surrey were implemented at average costs closer to $60-70 million per km [3][4].

The inconsistency is shocking.  The 200%+ inflated estimates put forward by the Surrey Rapid Transit Study team cannot be followed and make a serious impact on the credibility of current rapid transit option studies in the South of Fraser.

As a result of the lack of an accurate cost estimate by TransLink, researchers for the SkyTrain for Surrey Initiative who analyzed actual past construction costs and have come up with their own accurate formula for estimating SkyTrain costs.   We are working on a putting together a new vision for balanced rapid transit expansions not only in Surrey but across Metro Vancouver; this will make use of more accurate capital cost estimates.  The vision will split a hypothetical $2 billion in rapid transit investments beyond 2016 and to 2026 between 43km of rail rapid transit in Metro Vancouver – some of which will be Light Rail.

Our current estimates are so far showing that an on-street Light Rail implementation in Surrey will only provide a capital cost savings of 16% vs. a grade-separated SkyTrain-type implementation.  We will be publishing our results soon.

  1. Updated cost in a TransLink Listens Survey about the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – not currently available online
  2. Remained unchanged from latest cost update – [14]
  3. The physical infrastructure of the original extension of SkyTrain into Surrey from Scott Road Station to King George Station, which opened in 1994, cost just $50 million per km (2011 dollars) to build [9][10][11], with the full implementation costs (i.e. rolling stock included) of the extension having cost just $65 million per km [12]
  4. The Millennium Line SkyTrain line (2002), which is mostly elevated and does not feature many provisions that can inflate total project cost, was implemented at a similar total per-km cost of approximately $67 million (2011 dollars) [13]

The Media are using Unrepresentative Capital Cost Estimates

No, no, no. This is not what would be built for $27 million/km!

No, no, no. This is not what would be built for $27 million/km!

The media seem to have themselves in a knot when it comes to referencing certain capital cost values.

We have found that the quoted “$27 million per km for light rail” value in an article posted by the Vancouver Sun on 10th November ([CLICK HERE] to view) is questionable and possibly highly inaccurate.  The value has been repetitively used in several previous articles by the Vancouver Sun and other newspapers.

TransLink, which had tentatively proposed building a six-kilometre SkyTrain from City Centre to Guildford, has estimated the cost of light rail at $27 million per kilometre versus $127 million per kilometre for the Evergreen Line and $233 million for the UBC/Broadway line.

The “$27 million per km” value, which in the article is representing the cost of implementing Light Rail in Surrey, was a value that was presented in TransLink’s original technical assessment for operating Light Rail Transit on the Interurban Corridor from 2006 [43].  The Interurban Corridor is a relatively clear and pre-existing right of way, and this cost cannot represent the true cost of implementing on-street at-grade Light Rail Transit in Surrey.

The use of potential costs per km of the Evergreen Line and Millennium Line (Broadway-UBC) SkyTrain lines/extensions for comparison is also very highly unrepresentative.

Both of these lines would contain many special provisions that significantly inflate capital costs, and the cost per km cannot be reasonably compared to any implementation of SkyTrain in Surrey.  For example, both lines will involve extensive underground sections which are significantly more expensive to construct; none of which will be required for South of Fraser expansion,where lines will be built utilizing an elevated or at-grade construction.

Both the Millennium Line (2002) and original Scott Road to King George SkyTrain extension to Surrey (1994), which contain few or no special provisions that may inflate implementation cost, were implemented at a total cost of approximately $65-67 million/km (2011 dollars, adjusted for inflation) [9][44][45][46].

$67 million/km for an extension or new implementation of SkyTrain using currently-used technology would be a very small price to pay over an inferior on-street at-grade Light Rail Transit service that will disrupt communities and transportation within and between them while providing little service improvement.  Such a system would cost as much as $55 million/km or more to implement (estimated [6]).  The additional capital cost would be recovered in due time as operating cost savings from making use of a driverless, fully-automated system.


References: Please visit THIS PAGE [LINK] to view our unified reference list


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The “Province eyes light rail options for Surrey, Langley” article on the Vancouver Sun mentioned in this blog posted can be referred to by clicking on [THIS LINK] or seeing the below quotation:

Province eyes light rail options for Surrey, Langley

Published: November 10, 2011 by Kelly Sinoski of the Vancouver Sun Newspaper – a division of Postmedia Network Inc.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts appears to be gaining momentum in her push for light rail south of the Fraser.

In a letter to Watts this week, Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said the province is “examining the use of LRT as well as the potential for bus rapid transit and SkyTrain technology to provide frequent, fast, reliable services to communities south of the Fraser.”

“I recognize that Surrey is growing quickly and understand how important transit connections to the community will be as we work to build a more efficient and effective transit network in the Lower Mainland,” the letter said.

Watts, who has long advocated for light rail for Surrey, said Lekstrom’s letter is “both an acknowledgment of our issues and a sign that transportation in Surrey will be improving for the future.”

“It will allow us to shape out communities and connect our town centres, while at the same time increasing economic development in our city,” Watts said in a statement.

Watts, who would like to see a range of transit options in Surrey, argues light rail is “an effective and efficient form of transportation,” and, along with streetcars, would complement the existing SkyTrain and buses.

Surrey is already investigating three light routes: 104th Avenue between 152nd Street and City Centre (near the Surrey Central SkyTrain); King George Highway from City Centre to Newton (and eventually South Surrey); and Fraser Highway between City Centre and Langley.

Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender, who has been working with Watts to boost transportation options south of the Fraser, said Lekstrom’s letter is a “significant win” and expects work could begin on an LRT route as early as next year. A study is now being done, he added.

Fassbender said light rail is a better option for the two communities than SkyTrain because of the vast geography south of the Fraser and the ability to build more infrastructure at a lower cost.

TransLink, which had tentatively proposed building a six-kilometre SkyTrain from City Centre to Guildford, has estimated the cost of light rail at $27 million per kilometre versus $127 million per kilometre for the Evergreen Line and $233 million for the UBC/Broadway line.

The Canada Line, linking Vancouver and Richmond, cost $2 billion to build, while the Evergreen Line is set at $1.4 billion.

“It’s a significant win for us,” Fassbender said.

He noted the decision by Metro Vancouver mayors last month to raise the gas tax by two cents a litre and look for other funding sources will help pay for future transit projects around the region.

The support from Surrey and Langley for the TransLink funding plan, he added, shows “we’re prepared to support the Evergreen Line [and other projects] but we need to move ahead with a plan for this part of the region … to recognize the pressure and the growth out here.”

Fassbender said the transportation needs south of the Fraser extend between Surrey and Langley, with hopes that it can one day reach all the way to Abbotsford and Chilliwack. The old interurban line, which had been touted as a possible train route, is likely not acceptable, Fassbender said, because it doesn’t run through dense and populated areas.