LRT 2.0 - The Valley Line
LRT 2.0 - The Valley Line
*This is a long article. If you would only like to view my conclusions on the issue, please scroll to the bottom of the page.
We keep hearing that light rail transit is the way forward for Edmonton. let's take a look at the facts.
Started in 2009, the Valley Line is a new concept in carrying passengers from Mill Woods to the Downtown. At a budgeted cost of $1.8 billion in total with $800 million coming from The City of Edmonton, the line has 12 approved stops on its 13km route. (1) The new trains will be of a low-floor design, as opposed to the high-floor LRT we are used to. The stations themselves will also be significantly different than those currently used on the rest of the line to accommodate the new trains.
The planned rolling stock for the Valley Line is to be the Flexity Freedom series of trains from Bombardier. (2) These trains are also used for Metrolinx/Toronto Transit Commission's Eglington Crosstown Line, currently under construction.
Deliveries of new trains have not gone well for Bombardier. Multiple failed deliveries to the TTC have forced both organizations into legal battles and threats of cancelling Bombardier's contract. As of July 2017, Bombardier warned TTC CEO Andy Byford that they may not reach their target of delivering 70 trains by the end of 2017. Metrolinx are so concerned about Bombardier's performance that a deal was reached with a Bombardier competitor, Alstom Canada to purchase 61 trains intended to be used on the Eglington Crosstown line if Bombardier can't deliver. (3)
To make matters worse, the reliability of the Bombardier train is not meeting expectations. As reported in January 2017, the mean distance between failures (MDBF) of the trains in service at that time was 5,696km. The target MDBF is 35,000km. (4) It is hoped these problems will be solved before the trains go into revenue service.
As of May 2017, Dean Heuman of TransEd reports that there should be no delays in Edmonton's first delivery of trains scheduled for late 2018 to early 2019. (5)
The line will be comprised of mostly street level tracks and stations. Starting at Sir Winston Churchill Square and traveling South and East, will make its way to the final stop at Mill Woods Town Centre Mall. The main Park and Ride facility will be located in the Wagner Industrial area, Park and Ride is envisioned for Mill Woods, but reports aren't expected to be put before City Council until some time in September. (6) At the time of writing, there is no plan that I am aware of to manage parking at the two Mill Woods stations.
The Valley Line will not share any track with the current LRT system; in fact, the Chrurchill station will be at street level. As a result, train maintenance will be preformed at a brand new maintenance depot located near 75 Street and 51 Avenue; essentially duplicating repair services on the new and old LRT systems.
Edmonton's Valley Line will be delivered in a Public-Private Partnership (P3). What this means is the construction, maintenance and operation of the line will be contracted to private companies. The line itself will remain under the ownership of The City of Edmonton and The City will retain contract authority over these private contractors. (7) The P3 consortium operates under the name TransEd and includes Bombardier, Ferngate Capital Management, Bechtel and Ellis-Don. Transdev, ARUP and IBI Group are also members.
We need to focus on the term "operate" from the previous paragraph. These trains will not be operated by ETS staff, but by staff from the private operator. They may be unionized like current ETS operators with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), but most likely not. The City's own literature states "A P3 that includes operations and maintenance does not exclude the possibility of unionized workers providing operations and maintenance." (8) Private operator workers would not be guaranteed the same wages, working conditions, hours of work or safety training that current ETS operators receive, as they would not be ETS employees. In my opinion, this could be understood as the thin edge of the wedge in privatizing our transit system.
Some assumptions will need to be made in the following paragraphs. Firstly, I have not been able to source readily published detailed costs per unit by The City of Edmonton or TransEd regarding the Valley Line. Secondly, even though The City of Edmonton is only paying for less than half of the cost for the Valley Line, we as taxpayers, are still funding the project through tax dollars both Provincially and Federally. An argument could be made that the rest of Alberta and Canada are also shouldering the cost of the Valley Line. While this point has validity, the fact stands that Edmontonians are also shouldering the cost of major transit projects in cities throughout Alberta and Canada. I am inclined to call this a wash. Thirdly, I will not get into the operational costs of the Valley Line. We will assume similar operational costs to the existing LRT system.
The overall cost of the project is budgeted at $1.8 billion, which would cover construction and train costs. 26 trains are on order with Bombardier with deliveries between 2018 and 2020. (9) Cost estimates are approximately $4.2 million per train. (10) We will assume the cost of only the trains at $109 million.
Since all other expenses are directly attributable to the operation of the trains themselves and none of the existing LRT infrastructure will be used on the Valley Line, we will assume the remaining nearly $1.7 billion can provide us with a cost for each of its 13 kilometres. We will use a cost of just over $130 million per kilometre to compare with a conventional mode of transit; the bus.
I will begin by calculating the cost of roads. The cost of a 200mm paved asphalt concrete road, complete with signage and lane markings is $66/m2. (11) A standard single transit lane in Edmonton is 3.5m wide. (12) We will estimate the cost of a two-lane road since the Valley Line has two tracks. I will intentionally leave out the cost of sidewalks, as it is not customary to have sidewalks running beside LRT tracks. A 13km, two-lane road comprises 91,000m2 of paving for a total cost of just over $6 million.
Next, we will look at the cost of transit centres and bus stops. The Valley Line has 12 approved stops. To make things a bit fairer, let's assume both Sir Winston Churchill Square and Mill Woods Town Centre each get a new transit centre (even though MWTC already has one...that was only completed a few years ago.) The rest of the stops will make do with a bus shelter. For the transit centres, we will use the budgeted cost of the upcoming West Edmonton Mall Transit Centre; $3 million. (13) Total cost for transit centres: $6 million. Next, we will add the cost of ten bus shelters. Neither The City, nor local media quote a price on bus shelters, so I will use an estimate of $20,000 per shelter for a total of $200,000.
Finally, we will look at the cost of a conventional bus. Edmonton just signed a contract for 110 New Flyer Xcelsior 40-foot buses, with an option to purchase an additional 120 units at a later date. (14) We will use the Xcelsior bus to compare in capacity to the Bombardier Flexity Freedom train. The Xcelsior can take a maximum of 83 passengers (15), where the Flexity Freedom can handle a maximum of 275 passengers. (16) The Valley Line will require 26 trains, which gives a maximum capacity of 7150 passengers. We will need 87 buses (with rounding) to service that many passengers. The current cost for a 40-foot New Flyer Xcelsior bus is $553,000 (17) for a total of just over $48 million.
To service the same number of riders with buses would cost a total of just over $60 million, or $4.6 million per kilometre. To put that into perspective, that is 3.3% of the cost of the Valley Line. To my mind, there are no operating efficiencies which could close this price gap. The Valley Line is a shockingly expensive way to move Edmontonians.
The Valley Line will achieve its aim. It will move passengers from one place to another. It will also employ many hard working Edmontonians during its construction, thereby helping our city make its way through another tough economic time. Unfortunately, that is all I can find praise for in this project.
I hold serious reservations that Bombardier can deliver working trains on time. We will have to watch how Toronto's deliveries arrive this year. If they continue to miss deadlines we may find ourselves with beautiful new tracks and nothing to put on them.
The City plans to have the Valley Line operating revenue service in December 2020. I find it odd that there is so much left in the early planning stage at Mill Woods Town Centre when we are nearing the end of 2017. I am not aware of any formal plan to manage parking for the many people who would use the station to commute to Downtown Edmonton, and points beyond each weekday. This must be addressed immediately and actions taken.
The area of 28 Avenue and Hewes Way already suffers from traffic congestion on a daily basis. Again, I've heard little in the way of plans for alleviating this problem. If nothing is done, I fear extreme gridlock for blocks in each direction when we attempt to add commuter rush hour traffic to the area.
Building and operating the Valley Line as a P3 venture is a mixed blessing. I feel confident that it will be mostly on time and on budget; a far cry from the fiasco that was the NAIT line. Adding a private operator into the transit system is likely to create two classes of transit worker; the unionized and trained city staffer, and the independent system employee. I have reservations about the quality of the workforce that will be produced by the independent operator. This also opens up a larger conversation about privatization of the transit system as a whole. In my opinion, city services should be operated by city employees. The Amalgamated Transit Union is already voicing concern over what the future may hold. From what I can see, they have much to be concerned about.
I must address the cost of this project. $1.8 billion is an unthinkably large sum to move passengers over a distance of 13km. In my opinion, it was reckless of politicians to spend this much taxpayer money to travel such a short distance. This is not good value for any of us. As a City, Province and Country, we must reign in spending of this magnitude before more of these poor decisions leave us in bankruptcy or facing extreme and deeply uncomfortable spending cuts in all levels of government. Hopefully it isn't too late.
We've gone too far to stop the Valley line to Mill Woods. Luckily for us, we still have a little bit of time to fight the $1.4 billion extension to the West End, but we must act quickly and decisively. Do you agree? Contact details are above. Let's talk.