Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Light-rail bait and switch

Monday's National Post (April 19th 2005, P A10) has an interesting piece on the possible replacement of the TTC's streetcar's with a light-rail system. This is full of interesting tidbits I haven't seen elsewhere.

I knew that City Councillor/TTC Commissioner Joe Mihevc has been pushing for the TTC to consider buying light-rail equipment instead of following through on current plans to refurbish the CLRV version of the streetcars. Last fall, I emailed Mihevc inquiring as to whether the planned dedicated streetcar lanes on St. Clair West would be built to be able to run light-rail equipent. The councillor was kind enough to respond - but didn't have answers ready at that time.

Well, now answers are becoming available. It seems that - at least as far as light-rail equipment made by Siemens and now running in Houston TX is concerned - there would be serious difficulties in deploying this equipment on the St. Clair line:

- the grade up the hill from Bathhurst to St. Clair is too steep for the heavier LR vehicles
- the turning loops along and at the end of the routes are too tight
- longer platforms would need to be built to accomodate the service
- new carhouses would be needed to support maintenance work

It is not clear if equipment from other suppliers would have the same problems.

Mihevc puts the pricetag at about $1 billion in total - which is a chunk more capital than the $214 million to refurbish the 196 CLRV streetcar models. What the article does not include is any discussion of the operating costs savings that the TTC could garner with the new equipment.

Light rail service would require fewer vehicles and hence fewer operating hours - hence lower costs. Furthermore, the operating costs per hour of light rail equipment is lower than the streetcar. Let's do a quick calculation:

Streetcar total operating hours (2001): 843,000
Number of hours CLRV (2001): 843,000 * 196/248 = 666,242
Number of hours of LRV replacement: 666,242 * 134/196 = 455,492

Steetcar hourly operating cost (2001): $133/hour
Assumed cost growth since 2001: 10%
Estimated current streetcar hourly cost: $146.30 / hour

Average light-rail operting cost (2001) : $88.50 / hour (Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, SRT)
Ratio vs streetcar: $88.50 / $133.00 = 66.5%
Estimated cost for LRV in current $: $146.30 * 66.5% = $97.35

Estimated current cost of CLRV operations: $146.30 / hr * 666,242 hr = $97.47 million
Estimated total operating cost of LRV replacement for CLRV = $97.35 / hr * 455,492 hrs = $44.34 million

POTENTIAL ANNUAL SAVINGS: $97.47 million - $44.34 million = $53.13 million

Now at a 6% rate of return, $53.13 million a year in savings can finance capital of $885 million - which is actually almost $100 million greater than the $786 million gap between the figures mentioned earlier.

The big unknown is whether the TTC could achieve cost / hour comparable to other light-rail systems. In my view, most of the current streetcar lines would not be suitable to achive the costs. St. Clair W. might be the only current route with a good chance of successful LR operations. The Spadina line's underground terminal loops would seem to me to be too tight for light-rail equipment.

My suggestion would be for the TTC to abandon most of its current streetcar lines. Any new LR equipment would be used on new arterial routes - in locations to be determined. Wellington and Adelaide - as they are one way in opposing directions - could be used as the downtown collector for the LR system.

The annoying part is that the TTC's PR campaign for the St. Clair ROW (a.k.a. the sham environmental assessment) practically promised residents that they would be getting light rail. The promo material was full of pictures of the light-rail vehicles from Houston, Strasbourg and the like. This seems unlikely at this point.

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