A reality check for the Broadway Subway

Above: A section of the outbound tunnel leading away from the Great Northern Way-Emily Carr Station site (Dec 2022). Photo: TransLink

Here is a letter received from Malcolm Johnston of Rail for the Valley (www.railforthevalley.com, a great source of information, commentary, and analysis on transportation planning issues, with a special focus on the Metro Vancouver region).

This is in partial response to recent media coverage, including “Subway to UBC: A popular idea with costly downsides” by Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun (6-Mar-2023).
Info on the Broadway Subway from TransLink: https://www.broadwaysubway.ca/


Reality check for the Broadway Subway

I am always astounded by those who support a subway to UBC, especially those who deem a subway to be a game changer. It’s not.

Mike Harcourt is not a transit expert. In fact, he knows little or nothing about public transport and his input is both uninformed and damaging for regional transit in Metro Vancouver and for the province.

Most politicians, once elected, think themselves transit experts, yet few ever take public transit except for photo-ops at election time.

Even the mighty TransLink is bereft of real transit experts and is now staffed by a large cadre of six-figure salaried bureaucrats and yes-men, having earlier fired those who dared to opine that Broadway did not have the ridership that would demand a subway, as TransLink did before with those who supported modern light rail!

Subways are not a transportation nirvana. Far from it, they are both expensive and user unfriendly and due to their high cost and in North America, are not considered (except for strictly political purposes) on routes with peak-hour traffic flows of around 15,000 persons per hour per direction. In Europe, which has a long history of subway construction, planners do not consider building a subway unless traffic flows on a transit route exceed 20,000 pphpd. This is partly due to the fact that trams (streetcars) can handle traffic flows in excess of 20,000 pphpd. By contrast, the maximum capacity allowed by Transport Canada’s Operating Certificate for the Expo and Millennium Lines is 15,000 pphpd!

Broadway’s current maximum traffic flow on the Broadway B-99 Express Bus, operating a peak-hour schedule of three minute headways (20 trips per hour), has a maximum peak-hour traffic flow of just over 2,000 pphpd!

Broadway is not the most heavily used transit route in Canada or in North America. This is merely political hearsay by Vancouver politicians and bureaucrats, and has no corroborating evidence to support it. TransLink has even stated that Broadway is merely “our most congested bus route”, which is not a valid reason to build a multibillion dollar subway.

The other issue with the Broadway Subway is that the proprietary Movia Automatic Light Metro system will be used.

We must remember that the name “SkyTrain” is the name for our regional light metro system, and the system consists of two very different railways. The Canada Line is a conventional heavy rail railway, operating as a light metro, and the Expo and Millennium Lines use the MALM system, now owned by Alstom after they purchased Bombardier’s rail division.

MALM, originally called Intermediate Capacity Transportation system, has a very chequered history. ICTS was developed using cast-off technology from the failed Asea Brown Boveri TransUran MAGLEV, developed in the 1970s. ICTS used Linear Induction Motors (LIMs) for propulsion, making it a proprietary railway, and unlike the modern tram or streetcar, it could not operate with any other railway vehicle.

Only two were built — in Detroit and Toronto — with the latter being forced upon the Toronto Transit Commission by the Ontario government, whose Crown Corporation, the Urban Transportation Development Company UTDC), owned the proprietary ICTS system. Studies by the TTC showed that “ICTS could cost up to ten times more to install than light rail, for about the same capacity.”

There were no further sales.

The name was changed to Advanced Light Rail Transit (ALRT), to compete against the more popular LRT, and only one was sold to Vancouver, but with its huge costs and lack of performance, there were no other takers.

The UTDC was sold to Lavalin, and they renamed the light metro from ALRT to Advanced Light Metro, and it went bankrupt trying to build a system in Bangkok, Thailand.

The remains of the UTDC were returned to the Ontario government, which promptly sold it at a fire-sale price to Bombardier, which promptly did a complete rebuild of the proprietary railway, using their universal Innovia body shell, which was longer and had more capacity than the “spam cans” used in Toronto, Detroit, and Vancouver. After SNC absorbed the bankrupt Lavalin, the new SNC Lavalin retained the engineering patents for the proprietary railway, with Bombardier owning the technical patents.

Bombardier renamed the newly-rebuilt proprietary railway Advanced Rapid Transit (ART), and only sold four such systems, with controversy following each one.

The ART system sold to Korea, which later saw Bombardier charged with bribery for paying “success fees” to senior bureaucrats and politicians to ensure a sale was made.

The ART system sold to Malaysia again saw Bombardier and SNC Lavalin charged with bribery and more, for paying “success fees” to senior bureaucrats and politicians to ensure a sale was made.

The Port Authority/JFK Airtrain, in New York, was funded by the Canadian Overseas Development Bank, because the American government, upon peer review (all new transit systems using federal funding are peer reviewed), found the system hugely expensive and badly designed and built, and rejected the use of federal funding, forcing the Canadian government to step in to fund construction to save face for Bombardier!

The Chinese government bought one to gain technology, with two results, because the Chinese government acquired patents unlawfully, being that Canadian users could not buy spare parts originating in China and the Chinese government never built another one!

There was a fifth ART built and that was the Millennium Line in Vancouver, which the then NDP government flip-flopped from much cheaper LRT to ART, and one wonders what inducements or success fees were paid to have this system built?

Lack of sales saw Bombardier group all its light metros under one banner, Innovia transit systems, and just prior to the sale to Alstom, all the metro systems were grouped into the Movia brand with ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART/Innovia, designated and Movia Automatic Light Metro. Only seven transportation agencies (cities) bought the system, which has had six rebrandings and no sales since 2005.

It has been rumoured that Alstom will cease production of MALM, as Vancouver is the only remaining customer, after the last paid-for orders are completed, and that also includes spare parts.

It is also interesting to note that Bombardier, after their legal issues, stated that the MALM system should not be used on any route without a peak-hour ridership of over 8,000 pphpd!

The current Broadway Subway plan, is just the original LRT plan before the NDP flip-flopped to ART and it stopped at Arbutus, because of the then-planned future use of the former double tracked interurban route, the Arbutus Line, to Marpole and to downtown Vancouver.

The current Broadway Subway, as well as any expansion to UBC, will garner very little new ridership, except for those using the deeply discounted dollar-a-day ride-at-will U-Pass.

The $2.7 billion for the present 5.7 km subway, plus a minimum of $5 billion investment to build it to UBC [UBCx], will not attract much new ridership for several reasons, including that subways are user-unfriendly, with stops about every one kilometer apart; subways deter those who suffer from claustrophobia (a lot more people suffer from this than most think); and the Millennium Line doesn’t go to any major destination other than UBC, which means customers will have to make troublesome and time consuming transfers (which deter ridership).

Example: Those using the Broadway Subway to downtown Vancouver, either will have to make a transfer onto the capacity-constipated Canada Line or travel to Commercial and then double back on the Expo Line, unless TransLink operates a dedicated bus service with frequencies to match the ridership demands of the subway to cross False Creek at Burrard or Granville to downtown.

I predict, based on the more transit-savvy transit users in Europe, that people will avoid the subway and drive instead. It is worth noting that the European tram or light rail Renaissance came about due to the high cost of hugely expensive rapid transit projects like subways, and that subways tend to deter ridership.

The following graph is from Ontario’s MetroLinx, comparing the 50 year costs of various transit modes.

Due to the larger construction and maintenance costs of MALM, the 50 year costs would rival that of a subway!

The huge cost of the Broadway subway to UBC, about $8 billion, could fund the following:

  1. A completely rebuilt E&N Railway from Victoria to Courtney as a modern, 230 km regional railway providing a maximum three trains per hour per direction ($3 billion)
  2. A modern 130 km regional railway connecting Vancouver to Chilliwack, using the former BC Electric interurban route ($1.5 billion)
  3. A modern European-style 25 km tramway connecting BCIT to UBC and Stanley Park ($1.5 billion)
  4. A stand-alone 25 km European-style tramway in Surrey ($1.5 billion)

Instead, we are building [the proposal is] a very short $8 billion subway to UBC to cater to a bus route which presently carries a peak-hour passenger load of just over 2,000 pphpd, with future taxpayers left to pay the huge costs associated with subways!

Sad to say, the Broadway Subway to UBC [if built] will be a financial fiasco for future generations, not just in Metro Vancouver but the entire province, paying the cost of Vancouver’s politically-prestigious subway megaproject.

Malcolm Johnston

Rail for the Valley



Map screen grab 8-Mar-2023 from https://www.broadwaysubway.ca/construction/maps/

4 thoughts on “A reality check for the Broadway Subway

  1. Please post proof of this Transport Canada Operating Certificate limit. There is zero evidence of it online and I’m pretty sure you made it up.

  2. The Expo Line’s present maximum capacity is and always was 15,000 pphpd for the Expo line and the Millennium Line it is less, as evidenced by only operating two car trains. This is not to say that the Expo and Millennium Lines can carry more, but the line must be resignalled and a host of other rehabs would be needed, meeting Transport Canada’s approval for a higher capacity.

    The following is very insightful.

    Please note: The maximum capacity of the Millennium Line will be a mere 7,500 pphpd! This is one half of the North American standard for building a subway!

    Also, the rehabbed signalling may accommodate a max capacity of 17,500, the present electrical supply cannot and that is another $1.5 billion plus rehab for that one!

    The following was cut and pasted from International Railway Journal.

    “TransLink awards Thales SkyTrain train control contracts

    Contracts enable a 22km extension of the fully automated SkyTrain system.

    TransLink awards Thales SkyTrain train control contracts – International Railway Journal (railjournal.com)

    TransLink has awarded two contracts to Thales for upgrading the train control technology on the Expo and Millennium lines of Metro Vancouver.

    TRANSLINK has awarded Thales two contracts to provide train control technology under the Expo and Millennium Line Upgrade Programme for the SkyTrain network in Vancouver.

    The contracts include a new Operations Control Centre and a new fully automated depot, Operations Maintenance Centre 4. These two new facilities are key components of the upgrade programme.

    The system will be expanded from 80km to 106km by 2028, with 41 new trains expected to be in service by the end of 2027.

    TransLink says that in 2018 the Expo and Millennium lines saw on-time performance of 96.38% – the best punctuality on record for SkyTrain and higher than that achieved by most major metros in North America.

    The government of Canada, the government of British Columbia, and the region have committed to investing $C 1.47bn ($US 1.1bn) in the Expo and Millennium Line Upgrade Programme until 2027.

    When the programme is fully implemented, the Expo Line will be able to accommodate 17,500 passengers per hour per direction, and the Millennium Line will be able to handle 7500 passengers per hour per direction, a 32% and 96% increase respectively.”

  3. Remember the “Fast Cat” ferry? White elephants’ graveyards are everywhere, politicians count on voters’Alzheimers!!

  4. Pingback: A reality check for the Broadway Subway : Rail for the Valley

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