Saturday 27 August 2011

Light-rail disease

Christchurch isn't the only victim...

Forget AIDS or SARS, there’s a new billion-dollar contagion popping up across the country. Symptoms include visions of grandeur, severe loss of reality and a propensity to enact massive tax hikes. It’s called LRTS: Light-rail transit syndrome.
And while the surest cure for this new ailment is a large application of public input and a quick dose of common sense, the antidote appears in extreme short supply.
Patient zero in the current Canadian outbreak of LRTS is southwestern Ontario’s Region of Waterloo, a high-tech hub as home to BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion and the University of Waterloo. The diagnosis was confirmed this June when the region, population 500,000, approved an $818-million light rail transit project.
Light rail transit is beloved by bureaucrats and planners for its sleek and modern look that provides the aura of a big-city amenity. Those susceptible to LRTS claim it can transform modest cities into booming metropolises by instantly boosting transit usage, curbing congestion, spurring rapid downtown development and attracting young mobile workers of the Richard Florida ilk.
But like any fixed-track mass-transit system, light rail is best suited to moving high volumes of commuters to and from dense downtown employment cores, as is the case in Calgary. It requires specific densities and geographies to work effectively and even large cities such as Baltimore and Buffalo have struggled with light rail. And it’s expensive.
For anyone wondering about palliative care for terminal cases of LRTS, consider an earlier outbreak on the other side of the Atlantic:
Edinburgh, Scotland, population 490,000 was infected by LRTS a few years before Waterloo Region. Its $870-million light-rail transit project was also presented to local taxpayers as the means by which their city would boldly march into the future. And it would be free — paid for by higher levels of government.
Today three-quarters of the budget has been spent but less than a third of the infrastructure is in place. With cost overruns entirely the responsibility of local taxpayers, this summer Edinburgh city council (after rejecting calls for a referendum) debated tearing up the whole thing and forgetting it ever happened. In the end they decided to shorten the route substantially. And they still need to come up with $438 million.
Don’t let Light Rail Transit Syndrome happen to you.
Christchurch light rail fans may wish to read the whole thing.....

The same disclaimer applies to this post as applied to my prior post on light rail.


  1. Eric - have you seen the "monorail" episode of the Simpsons?

  2. So it's interesting to see the comments on that post, and the arguments that people use.

    1. We have to do something, cars are getting more expensive
    2. Actually, our situation is just perfect for light rail
    3. Only 12% of people need to use it for it to make sense

    To me, this is an opportunity cost type discussion. The question isn't whether perhaps light rail is better than cars, the question is whether light rail is better than the next best alternative.

    I think the next best alternative is a well run bus system. Comparison points are:
    - a bus system uses existing infrastructure, therefore is more easily scalable
    - a bus system can have dedicated busways to avoid congestion - but as compared to light rail, busways are cheaper and you can still drive a bus on a road that has no busway
    - a light rail system can be can a bus, better still, gas/electric hybrid
    - light rail (trams) look nice. So, you can build buses that look like trams (which illustrates why this is a stupid reason for preferring light rail)

    I've never yet seen a convincing argument as to why light rail is better than buses. It's taken on faith that "we need to do something" and "doing something means light rail". Those two decisions are quite independent.

  3. @Frances: It's one of my favourites. It's hard not to think of Brock Langdon whenever I hear proposals for light rail in places like Springfield...

    @PaulL: Exactly. And, in earthquake-prone cities, buses are incredibly flexible. Right now, they have temporary bus exchanges in places where they never previously existed because the existing bus exchange is out of commission. Buses were re-routed all over the place as roads were blocked, closed, repaired, temporarily re-opened, closed again, and so on. Trams and trains can't do that quite as easily.

  4. Eric, I've done a bit more research, because it's Sunday and I can.

    The interwebs tell me that light rail starts to make sense at high densities - a single lane bus route even with dedicated busways realistically tops out at around 10,000 passengers per hour, whereas light rail with 4 car units can go up to around 20,000 passengers per hour.

    The trick is that if you really don't need 20,000 passengers per hour on a particular route, and in fact, if you realistically need only 1-2,000 passengers per hour, then buses look enormously more efficient.

    Most of the costs of the bus option are the buses themselves, the bus stops, and any works you need for dedicated busways (often shared with high occupancy vehicle lanes). In short, the bus option costs are much more variable, and scale with demand. The light rail costs are more fixed, and you have to build it on faith in order to convince yourself it's a good idea.

  5. Bit of a strawman argument isn't it?
    Nobody is arguing at doing away with buses for light rail, merely that long term some routes are probably going to need upgrading to light rail for capacity reasons.

    Therefore good to have plans in place now, rather than end up like Auckland has. What has been the cost to NZ in terms of lost business due to Auckland looking so unattractive internationally in this regard.

  6. Wouldn't it be cheaper to move the University into the CBD, where it once resided?

  7. @V: I have a really hard time believing that Christchurch will expand to the point where light rail is justified. The most I can imagine is running commuter rail on existing tracks from Rolleston up if Rolleston grows enough consequent to earthquake.

    @Anon: There's rather more than $900m in physical plant at the Ilam Campus. And, if the University would be the first part of a line later to go on to the Airport....

  8. If you made that statement regarding expansion at anytime in the past you would be wrong.

    In that article you cited, it mentions Calgary as a good example of light rail. Their transit corridors were reserved at least a decade before they were actually needed.

  9. @V: Calgary has better than a million people in its metropolitan region. It grew by better than 150k people from '06 to '09. If there were any chance that Christchurch were likely to grow to a million people any time in the next quarter century, I'd be with you.

  10. V, I'm not seeing any evidence that long term some routes will need upgrading. I'm not seeing any evidence that buses wouldn't meet all Christchurch's needs for the future. And they're a hell of a lot cheaper to start than light rail is.

    The point here is that they're not arguing about designating corridors for it. They're suggesting building the bloody thing. So surely you're the one arguing the strawman - i.e. changing what's being asked for and arguing for that.

  11. @EC
    You miss my point: the system in Calgary was planned in the '60's when their population was sub 500,000. Sure they now have 1 million population, but that isn't really relevant.

    Equally I'm not seeing any evidence that you can possibly know buses are the solution into the indefinite future. Indeed if you have any experience of being stuck in a bus jam, you will see that the 'efficiency' of buses drops off rapidly.

    Sure they are going to need to set aside corridors, that will be part of the argument if there is to be a network established?
    Aren't we still at the stage where this is a draft plan?

  12. @v In the fifties and sixties, Calgary was growing quickly; it wasn't nuts to project continued strong population growth. Recall that the Leduc oil strike wasn't until what, 1947? On what basis are you here projecting the kinds of population growth that Calgary got consequent to the oil finds? Because we would need growth near that for rail to make sense.

  13. @ V

    Just to add some context to PaulL's capacity numbers (10,000 for buses, 20,000 for light rail). In the morning peak, the Auckland Harbour Bridge carries 15000 people an hour. Thats the entire 5 lanes - buses, cars and motorbikes. This is a much more intensely used corridor than anything in Christchurch - both because of Auckland's population and geography.

    I have a hard time believing there would ever be a corridor in Christchurch in the forseeable future that would have a demand for public transport anywhere near two thirds the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Therefore buses will definitely suffice with corridor improvements and priority measures added where they are of most value.

  14. We had David Hensher, transportation economist (ITLS, Sydney), at the NZAE conference last year. He said something that made a lot of sense to me. Instead of building light rail, you can build dedicated bus lanes/bus routes. It costs less, and the physical plant is more flexible. If a particular route doesn't pan out, you can move the buses to a different route. So, if LR is a good idea, then dedicated bus lanes should be an even better idea.

  15. @Bill I agree, surely we should go with a Bus Rapid Transit system rather than Light Rail for all the reasons everyone has listed above.

    The Brazilians seem to have had good success using articulated buses, dedicated lanes and raised passenger platforms.

  16. Duncan,

    To go further - yes the Brazilian's have great success with articulated buses, dedicated lanes and raised platforms. But don't use that to expect that we need to build those.

    The right answer is to start with standard buses and bus routes, and get the frequencies and reliability up so people actually use it. Make it a pleasant experience.

    Then, put in dedicated bus corridors (still with standard bus stops) for key congested areas - particularly for key arterial routes and close to the city. This is still a small investment, but makes every route more efficient.

    Then, if Chch actually grows and needs the investment, you enhance the busiest routes with the articulated buses and raised platforms.

    Key efficiency measures can be addressed with technology - one big bottleneck on buses is payment when you get on, a card system fixes this for example.

    The upshot is that you can build it and then make it more efficient when you need to. Rather than installing expensive hardware today to try to provide efficiency for 20 years in the future. That's just poor economics.

  17. I quite like the idea of light rail, but I accept that it is probably a bit of a financial white elephant, so in all honesty ought not go ahead. Our current bus service has served me well over the years, and is, as so rightly pointed out above, eminently flexible and expandable. I wonder if ardent proponents of light rail are caught up in the supposed romance of rail travel, much like starry-eyed train spotters, at the expense of common sense?