LRT and Subway Capacity — Sheppard, Spadina and Afar

Reactions to posts about LRT schemes, the Spadina extension and the Sheppard subway line are starting to pile up, and so it’s time for a compendium reply.

Don Quinne writes:

The comment that the Sheppard subway rides half full is nonsense. I have been using it for over a year (during all parts of the day except late night) and in rush hour it’s as packed as the Yonge line is.  During midday it’s pretty busy too.  It would be used by so many more people if it went across town through to Etobicoke or the airport and out east to Scarborough or veer north to Highway 7.  This way by intersecting the Spadina and Yonge lines travel across the city would be much easier.

It’s usually “downtown snobs” that produce comments questioning the growth of places like Vaughan.  Those people of downtown Toronto who still think the city stops at Eglinton, have no concept of the expansion of the city northward.  Both homes and businesses are sprouting everywhere.

To those who decry the subway causing construction in their neighbourhoods, (Parkwoods) - too bad.  At some point they will all either move away or (I hope from old age) die. When that happens people will be moving into those very neighbourhoods - because of the subway.

The GTA welcomes hundreds of thousands of new residents but has none of the infrastructure in place to keep them moving.  The TTC is a second rate system, with delusions of grandeur.  That’s because of inter-governmental nonsense, poor management from people who can’t see past their old impressions of the old Toronto.  The GTA should never stop building it’s subway system.

A similar letter from another writer appeared in this week’s eye weekly chastising Gord Perks for his recent column on the subject.  You can read it here.

The central point that both Gord and I are making is that the region needs a lot more transit to handle the growing demand for travel, the congestion and the changing demographic that is already transforming the look of the original suburbs inside the 416.  We cannot afford to provide this service with subway lines and frankly don’t need that sort of capacity on every potential corridor.

What we do need is a network of services that provide good transit service covering a large area.  Some travel demand belongs on GO trains (commuting to downtown from the 905 and even some outer parts of the 416).  Some travel demand should be on a new network of LRT lines, and some will remain on buses.  Good service is a fundamental requirement.  All of this costs money, but nowhere near as much as it would cost to build a subway network, and we will have much better service to far more people far sooner.

To put this in context, the oldest students who will still be at York as undergrads when the subway line opens are now in grade 6.  Anyone now in grade 7 or up will still take the bus to York unless they plan postgrad work.  Should we have to wait a decade for one line?

The Wogster writes:

The question the TTC should be asking, along with everyone else, is, should the Spadina extension be built as a subway line, or as an LRT line.  An LRT line could be built along a slightly different route, for a lot less money.  LRTs can also have a greater stop density than a full subway line.  In fact, you could probably build 2 or 3 lines for the same money.  If density increases, and a subway is warranted 20 - 30 years down the road, then they can build it.  In the mean time, you have service into 2 or 3 areas, rather then just one area.  These could branch, so that it looks like a tree, with say one branch going to Hwy-7, and another coming in from say just East of Downsview station, which would take pressure off Yonge St.

Another issue, is who is going to pay for running the subway into Vaughan?  Think TTC budgets are complex now, with Toronto and Ontario arguing about additional money needed, add York Region into the mix.  Suppose the TTC determines that it costs $20 million a year in subsidies, to run from Steeles to Hwy 7, and YR says, we can only afford $5 million, do they run fewer trains north of Steeles, does the Toronto taxpayer end up footing the bill, or does it end up costing an additional fare north of Steeles, like it does with the buses, would people pay it, and how do you go about collecting it.

An important point raised here is that with LRT, you can build more, sooner for less money.  If, eventually, you need more capacity, you build it then rather than carrying a huge upfront cost and long periods of construction. 

I had a note recently from William Hamilton in Calgary with comments about that city’s LRT expansion plans.  That deserves a post of its own, but the salient points are these:

  • Calgary now has three LRT lines with three more on the drawing books.  You can look at very detailed studies and plans for these at this link.  [Beware that these are very large files and they don't have a very fast server.  Best to do a download/save operation and then open the file when you have a local copy.]
  • Current am peak hour volumes are 3,400 (Northwest line), 4,700 (Northeast line) and 6,600 (South line).  The South and Northeast lines combine to give a demand of 11,300 per peak hour along their shared route which is on the transit mall in the middle of 7th Avenue.  This demand is carried on 26 3-car trains per hour.
  • Growth in demand and the new lines are projected to raise the total demand westbound along 7th Avenue to 27,200 in the am peak.  Eastbound demand on 7th would be 9,200.  Before this occurs, the LRT operation will be split with two of the lines being rerouted into a proposed LRT subway under 8th Avenue, one block south of 7th.

The demand projections correspond to the point where Calgary will reach a population of 1.5-million.  It is on the cusp of 1-million today.

To put this in perspective, the current service operated on the Sheppard Subway is about 13 trains/hour each with a capacity of 800 (crush load) or 650 (design load).  That works out to 8,450 as the design capacity of current Sheppard Subway service.  The Calgary LRT running on street is carrying more than that today.

Calgary is a very different city from Toronto (more about that in a future post), but what they have done is to build with a technology that is easy to extend.  If the three proposed lines go ahead, they will double their coverage of the city and this will likely be completed while we are still arguing where the next subway line after Spadina should go.

Yes, Sheppard could be upgraded and extended, but my question is simple:  how much more could we get over a much wider area for the same or less money in less time? 

This question will really hit home when the current Scarborough RT replacement study comes out later this year.  Scarborough could have an LRT network for less than a subway extension would cost, and it could be operational before the Spadina extension is finished.

David White asks:

I would be interested in a similar analysis of streetcar capacity ranging from the Queen Street type of operation to the type of LRT that Calgary and Edmonton operate.

From the figures above, I have already answered part of this question.  The Calgary studies have to deal with LRT running on a city street where there are level crossings with cross streets and pedestrian traffic.  The right of way is much more aggressively protected than the one on Spadina, and of course there is no road traffic on 7th because it is a transit mall.  (8th, one block south, is a pedestrian mall.) 

The short blocks in downtown Calgary restrict station lengths, although the 73.2 metre long 3-car trains now in operation could be extended to 4 or possibly 5 cars (the latter is unlikely).  The capacity per car used for planning purposes is 180 although the detailed technical info on Calgary Transit’s site at this amazing page claims a design load of 200.  One 3-car C-train has more capacity than two SRT trains.

The practical limit on service is 36 trains per hour for a capacity of over 19,000.  This is very impressive for surface operations especially on downtown streets and shows the effect of dedication of roadspace to exclusive transit usage.

When I and other LRT advocates talk about what could be done here in Toronto, we are not talking about some far-off mythical city where nobody owns a car and everyone rides on transit.  This is Calgary, and they’ve been building their network since 1981.  Total costs to date are $548-million for 42 kilometres of LRT.  Yes, it would cost more to do it today, but even with inflation, my rough guess is that the whole thing could be built for no more than the cost of the Spadina Subway extension.

Imagine what Toronto could have done in the last 25 years!

One Response to “LRT and Subway Capacity — Sheppard, Spadina and Afar”

  1. Geoff Says:

    It leads one to wonder as well, what if Toronto also incorporated the 5-car platforms being built and retrofitted by Edmonton?

    The fact that Calgary’s LRT has to fight traffic lights downtown, has extremely long headway between cars (approx 15 minutes in midday) and that the 3-car length limit exists (if you thought the Yonge line is crowded at 5:05pm…) are blights on its system.  Toronto should look at co-opting the best of both cities systems - along with that of the Metropolitan Area Express in Portland, Oregon.

    Steve, do you believe that there would be opportunities for Toronto/GTA to integrate the Karlsruhe model for transit (light rail/heavy rail combinations)?

    Steve replies: 

    With respect to 5-car platforms, I think that’s really falling off the end of the “light rail” concept.  After all, using the Calgary loading standards that would be a 900-passenger train.  You really can’t run something like that at close headways down a street.  Calgary has the advantage that their network is almost completely on right-of-way and station size is less of a problem.  There are comments in the proposed South-East line study there concerning the advantage of low-floor cars and associated low-level platforms that would be much less intrusive on streets.  I would prefer that LRT be part of a neighbourhood rather than overwhelming it with large-scale infrastructure. 

    There are big problems in North America with the Karlsruhe model due to differing standards for collision strength on mainline railway and transit operations.  Also, very few of the railway rights-of-way in Toronto go places that would provide good local service.  That’s the reason my proposals have involved better GO service on the rail lines for regional travel to downtown with LRT being mainly in streets where the people are.

    The handful of exceptions would be the Weston corridor (where there is space for a parallel LRT operation) and possibly something in the Union Station area linking the Weston LRT with a Don Mills service.  There is no way we could shoehorn the combined demand of existing and planned waterfront transit lines plus these two services into even the proposed expanded station at Union Loop. 

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