Putting Downtown Calgary’s C-Train Underground

Please note: It is often difficult to find serious numbers for some of these discussions. I am using a What If approach of  providing numbers based on rough calculations and intuition. I will provide sources for real number when I obtain them.

Calgary is proud of it’s Light Rail Transit system. For a car-centric city that serves as the headquarters for a large amount of the companies involved in the oil sands, we still seem to use our transit system with great regularity. Despite all of this, people manage to find all kinds of things to complain about when it comes to the transit it Calgary. One comment I hear often (other than “my bus is always late” – I’m working on that one, guys!) is that the LRT should have been put underground in the downtown corridor during its initial construction.

For those who aren’t familiar with Calgary’s C-Train network, let me paint you a brief picture of what the system looks like currently. The network consists of two radial lines (four arms in total) that meet and run through downtown along 7 Avenue South. This road is reserved exclusively for transit and emergency vehicles, and runs through the entire downtown district. During peak periods, trains run with headway of approximately 5 minutes, which means in the downtown corridor, where the two lines run on the same track, trains are spaced about 2.5 minutes apart. There are 9 cross-streets in the downtown section which is served by both directions. With the exception of the block between 3rd and 4th street Southwest, all the blocks along 7 Avenue are long enough to support 4-car trains. Trains are currently 3 cars long, but plans are to have 4-car trains running in 2015. Almost every alternating block has a station for one of the directions of travel, and the lights for cross streets are timed so that the majority of loading time at stations occurs during a red phase. All of these factors combined means that even at peak periods, trains flow fairly quickly through the downtown corridor.

There was an original plan to put the LRT underground in the downtown core, and a tunnel was even started which branches off of the McLeod trail tunnel coming North after the Victoria Park Stampede station, but the plan was scrapped due to high costs. Calgary’s downtown is on a riverbed, and tunnel construction is difficult enough with good ground conditions. In this Metro News article, Calgary Transit planner Jon Lea cites underground construction costs at 10 times that of street-level costs.. With that figure in mind, let’s take a moment and address some of the potential advantages that would have been gained the LRT underground in the first place, and some of the beefs I have with them.

  • No cross-street traffic congestion – This is one of the major advantages of a subway system in general, is that trains get exclusive right of way for their entire journey. In the current LRT systems, right-of-way is exclusive everywhere outside the downtown corridor, and one of the very purposes of LRT systems over heavier-rail systems like some metros is the flexibility gained by the smaller, more versatile cars. Additionally, lights are timed to allow boarding at station platforms to happen during the red phase of a traffic signal. This timing means that trains rarely wait for long periods of time at signals.
  • Higher speed through downtown – The idea here is that the presence of pedestrians, cross-traffic, and the general business of the city causes trains to run slower than than they would if they were placed underground. The problem is that in the downtown corridor stations are only spaced approximately 350m apart, and trains are not able to reach top speed with as much regularity compared with the outside lines. With an acceleration and braking rate of 1.07m/s/s, trains could briefly reach a top speed of 70km/h before having to slow down. This potential time saving advantage is essentially negated by the random occurrences  at stations caused by different loading times of passengers.
  • Shelter from the cold – This is often a general sentiment against LRT in general, as discussed in this Globe and Mail piece from 2011. The argument doesn’t stand here, since the rest of the LRT (the vast majority of the network) would be operating outside, as it does currently without too much trouble. Edmonton’s LRT also operates in even colder temperatures.

Personally, I don’t think any potential advantage gained by this warrants the enormous cost increase associated with placing the LRT underground. There are some other benefits of having the LRT at street level which are not logistical in nature. A portion of the 7 Avenue track runs parallel to the Stephen Avenue (8 Avenue) pedestrian mall, a place that attracts a large amount of lunch and after-work pedestrian traffic to visit the many establishments and shops on that street. Some of that has spilled over on to the 7 Ave street, due to the natural pedestrian traffic generated by the LRT stations. This is definitely not the case on 9 Avenue, which runs one block south of 8 avenue. It is likely that placing the LRT underground would have resulted in a 7 Avenue that more closely resembles the busy one-way streets like 6, 5, and 9 Avenue. I consider that a disadvantage.

One more note: There are plans in the works to provide additional North-South lines which would presumably run North-South through the downtown corridor, an alignment that would require an underground LRT due to the short block lengths between avenues. This, to me, seems like a more logistically sound reason to spend the extra money to place the LRT underground.

With the costs saved from putting the LRT at street-level in the downtown corridor, further expansion along all the routes (including the construction of the West LRT) could happen more easily. The slight increase in congestion caused by a street-level LRT route is, in my opinion, overwhelmingly compensated by the cost savings. And hey, if the added congestion leads more people to take transit, that’s a win-win.



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