How could the Toronto LRT Schemes be improved?

Consider using ALRT or similar technology

Neither Metrolinx nor TTC seems to have given serious consideration to development of Scarborough and Eglinton Crosstown lines using ALRT or similar “light metro” technology. This technology has been applied very successfully in more than 20 cities around the world.[1] Some architects and urban designers prefer surface LRT, because it is less visually intrusive, and can run in mixed traffic and pedestrian environments, albeit at much lower speeds. But faster services on exclusive rights-of-way are far more effective, and efficient, at getting motorists to switch to transit.

The Toronto LRT schemes could be greatly improved by building them with fully exclusive rights of way, perhaps automated ALRT or similarly technology. Ridership would be much higher, as would the benefits to the region. And the costs could actually be less.

Metrolinx could begin by negotiating with Bombardier to supply ALRT cars, as are being built for Vancouver, in place of the 182 Flexity Freedom low-floor LRT cars. To the best of our knowledge, Bombardier has not actually started building these cars.[2] Currently it is building the Flexity Outlook cars for Toronto’s streetcar lines. The first Flexity Freedom is not due to be delivered for at least three years. ALRT cars are smaller than Flexity cars, but also cheaper. Metrolinx should be able to order at least 182 ALRT cars from Bombardier, for the same price. Toronto is a key customer of Bombardier and, although the negotiation may not be easy, Metrolinx should be able to get a reasonable deal.

ALRT Mark 3 cars have a top speed of 100km/h, compared with 80km/h for the Flexity LRT.[3] With the short, 0.7-km average station spacing currently planned along Eglinton, there is little point in being able to run faster, but with wider station spacing, the time saving is significant. On a line like Eglinton, which will eventually have about 20 stations, the total saving would be about 5 minutes, for an end-to-end trip. While power costs are higher to run faster, passenger numbers and revenues would also be higher. Also, with faster trips, fewer trains are required to provide the same capacity; with 2-minute headways, saving 5 minutes from the one-way trip time means 10 fewer trains will be required to operate the service. As the line is extended eventually to the Airport and into Mississauga, faster running speeds would bring a substantial benefit.

If Bombardier refuses to negotiate a change to ALRT technology at a reasonable price, Metrolinx should be prepared to cancel the contract and invite new competitive bids, even if it means paying substantial cancellation penalties. There is no point burdening Toronto for the next century with the wrong system.

Operating costs for ALRT would be substantially higher, perhaps twice as high as the existing line or the Transit City LRT, because TTC will be operating 6-car trains in place of 2-car RT or LRT cars. Unless frequent service is maintained, ridership would actually fall from current levels.

Ways to improve the Eglinton Crosstown scheme

There are five main ways to make the Eglinton Crosstown scheme better, reducing costs while increasing ridership, revenues, and benefits:

  1. Reduce the number of intermediate stations, to reduce capital and operating costs, offer faster journey times that will attract more new riders, and reduce disruption in surrounding communities. There should be a maximum of 10 stations on the 11-km underground section. The Avenue Road, Chaplin, and Oakwood stations could be omitted. Laird Drive station can be deferred, and built if and when a developer makes a substantial capital contribution to the station. Capital cost savings would be about $600 million, with a further savings of $1 million per year O&M costs per station.
  2. Use high-floor cars with a top speed of 100km/h, such as the ALRT Mark 3 being supplied to Vancouver, instead of the 80 km/h low-floor cars TTC has specified. Besides saving staff costs, the higher speeds and faster journey will attract additional riders. Note that, as on the subway and existing RT, high-floor ALRT cars  stop at high platform stations and will therefore be fully accessible.[4]
  3. Grade-separate the entire line, so trains will not affect road traffic and will offer faster journeys for transit riders. East of Laird Drive and west of Weston Road, Eglinton is a wide street with plenty of space to build an elevated line without harming the environment. This would add about $800 million to project costs, or perhaps $100 million per km, compared with the surface line that is currently planned. Road traffic disruption will be greatly reduced and there will be little or no permanent loss of road space.
  4. Automate the trains. With an entirely grade-separated line, trains can be automated, with large operating cost savings and the ability to offer more frequent off-peak services.
  5. Build shorter platforms to reduce station costs. Current plans show 150-metre platforms, similar to the subway. Savings of about $10 million per underground station, or about $100 million could be captured by building 60-metre platforms, sufficient for all foreseeable traffic.

Overall, average trips times (including wait times) would be reduced about 25%, and we would therefore expect ridership to be about 25% higher with these improvements. Trips will be faster, both because trains run faster and stop less frequently, and are not delayed in traffic. They will also run more frequently, with shorter waiting times, especially at off-peak hours.

We estimate passenger benefits of $2.50 per trip, as the time savings for many passengers will be about 5 minutes more than with the surface LRT scheme. Road user benefits should also be higher, perhaps $5.00 per new rider, as faster service should attract more inter-regional trips that would otherwise be made by car.

Altogether, these changes would bring the Benefit:Cost ratio to 0.94.  Construction of the tunnels is, of course, already underway. This analysis suggests that, with the changes we suggest, the line might just about be worth the costs.

Our estimates for these improvements are summarized in Table A10 in the Appendix.

Consider BRT for Finch West

At present, there appears to be no reasonable economic case for building the Sheppard East or Finch West LRTs. In Section 11 we suggest an alternative way to serve the Sheppard East corridor.

For the Finch West corridor, we think it would be worth considering whether an extension of the existing 3-km BRT line from Dufferin to York University, in the hydro corridor, might give similar benefits at a far lower capital cost. If either the TTC or Metrolinx has evaluated this alternative, neither has made the results public.

In the Environmental Project Report,[5] there is a brief consideration of BRT. The report states LRT is chosen because although “the capital costs of…BRT are lower than for LRT, roughly $10 million per km in contrast to approximately $40 million per km for LRT … ongoing maintenance costs … for LRT is anticipated to be cheaper than BRT.” There is no consideration of whether the maintenance cost difference can offset the large capital cost. By comparison, Mississauga also considered an LRT for the Dundas route, but decided that BRT offered better value for money.

Even if LRT turns out to be preferable to BRT on a stand-alone basis, we think there is a good argument for deferring the Finch West scheme until a decision has been made about whether and how to integrate the Sheppard Subway and any extension east to Scarborough. If this could be done with ALRT technology, then it might be sensible to anticipate construction of the “missing link” from Yonge/Sheppard to connect with the Finch Line at the Finch/Spadina station. Before building another line that might end up as an “orphan,” it would be worth investigating whether a coherent integrated plan can be implemented.

We have identified a way to extend the Scarborough RT and connect it into the Sheppard Subway. Further details are provided in Section 11 (A Solution to the Scarborough Impasse: The Scarborough Wye).


Notes
[1] Completely driverless metro or light rail systems now operate in Barcelona, Brescia, Copenhagen, Dubai, Hiroshima, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, Lausanne, Lille, London, Lyon, Manila, Milan, New York, Nuremberg, Osaka, Paris, Rennes, Sao Paulo, Singapore, Tokyo, Toulouse, and Turin. There are also driverless systems at many airports. 
[2] Confidential discussion with Bombardier senior manager, May 2013.
[3] This is an evolution of the original RT cars supplied to Toronto and Vancouver, and the Mark 2 version currently operating in Vancouver, Kuala Lumpur, New York (JFK), Beijing, and Yongin.
[4] For example, Calgary, San Diego, Manchester, and other cities combine high-floor cars with high platforms on surface routes, thereby ensuring accessibility for those with wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers.