SkyTrain for Surrey, not LRT!

From The Seattle Times - Light-rail service was held up for three hours Tuesday after a train struck a pickup at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Dawson Street.

You may have seen one or more mentions we have made of the reliability issues that we may face with the implementation of an at-grade, on-street Light Rail system in Surrey.

We would like to show you an example of what we mean.  Without further ado, here is an image excerpt from a Seattle Times article from last summer (2010):

From The Seattle Times - Light-rail service was held up for three hours Tuesday after a train struck a pickup at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Dawson Street.

The full article chronicling this incident and the problems that delays have on Light Rail in Seattle can be found at [CLICK HERE].

It took a full three hours before the truck could be removed and Light Rail service could resume in South Seattle.

Meanwhile, during those three hours, both directions of track were blocked, and several buses were required to fill in for the LRT service (as, unlike buses, trains on fixed tracks cannot be easily rerouted).  There were thankfully, no serious injuries; however, there was a serious disruption in system-wide service.  The risk of service disruption posed by the operation of Light Rail at street-level must be explored.

It is true that this once-only scenario was certainly more unusual than other scenarios, which was part of the reason that an absurdly long 3 hours were required before service could resume along the line.  Spokesman Bruce Gray mentioned that normally, after an accident, trains can restart about 30 to 40 minutes later.  Even so, a 30-40 minute delay would be a fatal experience should an accident happen during the peak hour commutes.  Given the position and role of this line in Seattle, a 30-40 minute delay could be quite fatal to the schedules of airport travellers, putting them at risk of missing their flight.

How would this a serious problem in the City of Surrey?

We have stated many times that any accident on a light rail service (accidents can happen!) can and will shut down the service for several hours.  This has happened, can happen, and will happen at some point if we choose to implement an at-grade, on-street light rail system in Surrey.

Surrey is unfortunately a city that is running out of headroom.  Being one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, Surrey is quickly out-growing its road and transit network, to the point where closures of major connections within the city, as well as between Surrey and other cities – such as the Port Mann Bridge – can create both transit and traffic havoc and quite fatally affect the commutes of several thousands.  Surrey is quickly on its way to reaching a point where there’s simply no room for any accidents to happen.

Should accidents and reliability issues like these happen on a weekly basis (and it might indeed, for you might drop by the Twitter feeds of Metro Vancouver traffic reporting organizations such as AM730Traffic and find accidents on the corridors proposed for Light Rail quite common) it would certainly invoke a spell of bad image for the Light Rail system that the City of Surrey wants, impacting both ridership levels and passenger revenue – and perhaps, through that, level of service (i.e. maintainable frequencies).

While it is indeed possible to use buses temporarily in the event of such an accident, doing so would be particularly difficult because Light Rail trains would take away traffic lanes & capacity required by these buses.

In particular, we will note this example: were an accident to happen on 104th Avenue (a major city corridor connecting Surrey City Centre and Guildford Town Centre), which would be narrowed in operation to 1 lane per direction as opposed to the current 2 to make way for Light Rail Transit [6], delays would be particularly at large for transit riders.  The removal of a general purpose lane in each direction would surely cause congestion to begin with, as the 104th Avenue corridor is one of the busiest and most important Surrey corridors, carrying in excess of 33,000 vehicles daily [5].  It is a fragile corridor that is over capacity and has no headroom for a lane closure.

Even somewhat minor incidents such as the closure of 2 blocks of 104th back in October for protestors during the visit of former U.S. present, or the temporary narrowing of a single lane for construction/utility purposes (also chronicled in this article) have been found to create much traffic havoc on 104th Avenue as well as surrounding roads in the Guildford community, bringing even localized traffic to a halt.  Buses acting as temporary shuttle services in the event of an accident would highly likely be unable to navigate the stretches of 104th Avenue or alternate east-west roads that they must maneuver upon without facing severe traffic congestion and the spurred delays.

On-street light rail systems simply cannot maintain the reliability levels maintained by automated, segregated rapid transit systems such as the SkyTrain,

and this is true whether most of the incidents are actually accidents, or not.

Automatic train control allows trains to keep to stricter schedules and reliable running times even with what would be a much more frequent service than practical on driver-manned systems.  Safe automation requires grade segregation, although grade segregation in itself is already a good measure at improving reliability and safety vs. at-grade operation including interfaces with other transportation modes.  Several mass rapid transit networks around the world aside from SkyTrain are turning towards automation for the sake of the proven benefits in doing so.

Now even some of the world’s biggest cities such as Tokyo [56], Madrid [57] and New York [58] have chosen to implement or have already implemented automatic train control technologies on one or more of their existing rapid transit lines.  There are also several cities constructing new rapid transit networks that are opting to go with grade-segregated, automated rapid transit lines akin to SkyTrain, such as Honolulu.

Honolulu is among several cities building or looking to build a new Automated Rapid Transit system akin to SkyTrain.
Honolulu is among several cities building or looking to build a new Automated Rapid Transit system akin to SkyTrain.

The Vancouver SkyTrain, which pioneered this automation technology in the mid-1980s, today provides more than 95% of its service on schedule, as measured by TransLink to a high standard of within 2 minutes [15].  Light Rail systems like the Portland MAX Light Rail, on the other hand, have historically been not so reliable, statistically.  TriMet just last year measured that the MAX Light Rail in Portland, OR was able to provide approximately just 86.7 percent of its service on-time (measured with a lower standard of within 5 minutes) [54].

The implementation of at-grade Light Rail, for which TransLink has little experience in implementing and operating, would be an uncertain and risky move.  It must be thoroughly evaluated by the City of Surrey, TransLink and transit planners whether this risk is even worth taking.

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Light Rail: Reliability will be an Issue