Canadian Consulting Engineer

Light Rail Transit Is Not Perfect Answer

As infrastructure dollars pour into public transit projects across Canada, the planners' favourite child is light rapid transit, or LRT. Smaller cities like Winnipeg are building rapid busways, but la...

January 1, 2010   By Bronwen Parsons

As infrastructure dollars pour into public transit projects across Canada, the planners’ favourite child is light rapid transit, or LRT. Smaller cities like Winnipeg are building rapid busways, but larger municipalities like Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary are also building light rail (see page 20).

Light rail vehicles today are less like trains and more like streetcars. The elongated passenger cars run on tracks that are often strung along existing streets and roads. In some cases the tracks are on a podium raised a few inches above the roadway. Cars and other traffic can only cross the raised trackbed to turn left at major intersections where there are traffic lights.

There’s no doubt LRTs along existing roads cause inconvenience to other traffic, and there are definitely safety issues. I was crossing Queen’s Quay at Toronto’s Harbourfront, and halfway across thought I had reached a safe island on the raised median. Suddenly I realized a streetcar was barreling towards me and I didn’t know where to go to get out of the way. For tourists who throng this area in summer, there must be many similar hair-raising escapes.

It’s common sense that heavy vehicles travelling at high speeds along a straight trajectory do not mix well with vehicles and pedestrians moving more erratically. Just in the week before I write this, two people have been killed in collisions with streetcars in downtown Toronto: one driving a car, and another a pedestrian.

Because of safety issues and the frequent stops, light rail can never be truly high speed in dense urban areas such as downtown Toronto. Even on the more open suburban roads, LRT is not the perfect solution. However, it is the best we have, given the cost of tunneling mass transit subways. What light rail needs is abundant and clear signage so that anyone in its path immediately knows who has the right of way.

Light rail construction also needs to be managed carefully. Excitement over plans to build a vast LRT network in Toronto faded when a disastrous report on the St. Clair Avenue project came out in January. This was a relatively simple job to convert seven kilometres of existing urban streetcar tracks into a raised LRT right-of-way. But it has taken five years (it’s still not completed), and the cost has risen from $48 million to $106 million.

Toronto should look west for a better example. Vancouver’s Canada Line (see page 24) threads through 19 kilometres of new terrain, with tunnels, bridges, elevated tracks and 16 stations. The design-build-operate consortium, InTransit BC/SNC-Lavalin, finished the job in just four years, less time than it has taken to rebuild the tracks along St. Clair. If Toronto had handed the project to a public-private consortium, it might have had better results.

But in terms of costs, a comparison of the two projects shows something else. It shows just how much cheaper it is to run light rail along existing arterials, as opposed to cutting new routes through fresh pastures. Per kilometre, the St. Clair project cost $15 million, the Canada Line $100 million.


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