Light Rail

Grenoble Building Fifth LRT Line While Hamilton Backpedals

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published September 05, 2011

From Andrew Dreschel's column last week on the velodrome, another ridiculous and gratuitous attack on LRT from our Mayor. How he can possibly claim to support 'the LRT concept' with a straight face is beyond me:

[Mayor Bratina] managed to sow more confusion about the city's position on Light Rapid Transit by saying it's "not a priority" unless 1 million people move into Hamilton in the next five years.

The same day I read this we passed briefly through Grenoble on our way from Geneva to Paris. I notice that Grenoble, with a metropolitan population of about 400,000, a little smaller than Hamilton's, is currently building their fifth LRT line (line E).

The line is 11.5 km long, passes through four municipalities, has 18 stations and will cost €300 million ($420 million Cdn) to build. They expect 30,000 to 45,000 users per day. Since Grenoble has already built four lines, they should know how to cost them pretty well.

Note also that the construction will take only two years. Grenoble's first line opened in 1987, which means they've been opening new lines at an average rate of one every 6.75 years.

Given that construction costs are certainly much higher in France than in Canada, this suggests that the cost of Hamilton's 13 km line - at about $800 million or €560 million - is highly over-inflated. Using today's exchange rate, Hamilton is costing their line at $61 million per km while Grenoble is $36.5 million per km. This doesn't seem right.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By Woody10 (registered) | Posted September 05, 2011 at 11:59:53

If you don't want it but the people do, then you jack up the costs and let the people fret over their hard earned money. Politics at it's finest. Can you say Ivor wynne?

Comment edited by Woody10 on 2011-09-05 12:00:46

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted September 05, 2011 at 13:53:59

Given that construction costs are certainly much higher in France than in Canada

Is this a given? I don't know how much about French v Canadian construction costs.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 05, 2011 at 14:26:08

The average building cost in France is about 1500 euros per square metre ($2130 per square metre)

while in Ontario the cost seems to be roughly $1425 /square metre ($133/square foot).

Thus, building construction costs are about 50% higher in France. I would expect that LRT costs would also be much higher in France, especially given the high quality materials and finishes I've seen in both Bordeaux and Grenoble.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2011-09-05 14:26:41

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted September 06, 2011 at 23:09:12 in reply to Comment 69069

Just a comment that costs for commercial buildings are not directly comparable to those of other kinds of infrastructure. So these differences may not apply.

One might consider whether there are other reasons for the cost difference related to what needs to be done to the road bed to support the new rail lines (and perhaps the Hamilton cost estimates include rebuilding more of the whole roadway cross-section? just a thought).

There is also the issue of demand driving up the price - we live in a high-activity construction region simply because of the rapid growth of the Golden Horseshoe. I don't know what Grenoble is like, but I can understand how The Big Move may affect an already booming construction market in the GTHA.

I'm a firm believer though that the best course of action is to build a plain but very functional system; save the bells and whistles and put the focus of the investment in the moving people aspect of it. Calgary followed that philosophy and it's worked well for them.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2011 at 12:19:22 in reply to Comment 69069

I would expect that LRT costs would also be much higher in France, especially given the high quality materials and finishes I've seen in both Bordeaux and Grenoble.

You would be wrong to expect this. North American and UK rail construction costs are typically far higher than they are in mainland Europe. See this discussion for some examples.

Comment edited by mdruker on 2011-09-06 12:19:40

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 06, 2011 at 14:44:56 in reply to Comment 69091

Thanks for this interesting link.

However, is also a mistake to assume that Canadian LRT costs would be similar these American tunnelled rail costs. The article is a bit misleading in comparing American subway costs with recent French LRT (surface) costs in Paris, which are obviously going to be much lower.

In particular, one comment on the article points out that Canadian costs for recent surface rail construction in Montreal and Vancouver is much lower than American costs, more in line with the cheaper European costs.

The article focuses on underground tunneled lines, which are much more expensive than surface LRT and more liable to cost over-runs. As one commentator pointed out, it would be good to see costs for surface LRT lines.

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By Alon Levy (anonymous) | Posted September 06, 2011 at 20:14:03 in reply to Comment 69104

Well, I was comparing subways with subways, not subways with LRT.

With French vs. Canadian LRT costs, the intranational differences are much larger than the international differences. France has built entirely on-surface LRT for costs ranging from €10 million/km in Lyon to €45 million/km in Nice. And Canada has built LRT for costs ranging from about $20 million/km for Calgary's first three lines to $90 million/km for the West LRT line.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 07, 2011 at 02:50:26 in reply to Comment 69127

Thanks very much for clarifying, Aron.

I agree that there is much more difference between the costs of different projects in the same country than between different countries. The comment I was replying to claimed that US and UK costs were much higher than continental European costs.

One of the main reasons for the wide spread of costs of LRT projects in France is how big the project is (does it involve extensive re-building of infrastructure along the line, or new technology such as APSL, alimentation par le sol as in Bordeaux) and what is actually included in the cost.

This is an issue in Hamilton where the definition of 'direct costs' is not clear. Staff has assumed that if infrastructure, such as sewers, would have to be replaced within 10 years or so this is not included, but otherwise such infrastructure upgrade is a direct cost.

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By Alon Levy (anonymous) | Posted September 07, 2011 at 14:13:27 in reply to Comment 69143

Well, it's true that US and UK costs are much higher than Continental costs. But Canadian costs are a somewhat different species. Toronto costs are pretty high, though not as high as US/UK costs. I think but don't know that the same is true of Montreal. Vancouver and Calgary generally have more reasonable costs.

Sometimes the costs include things other than actually building the rail, you're right, and it's exceptionally hard to get a completely apples-to-apples figure.

For what it's worth, the Nice numbers above exclude the 30% of the tramway's budget that went to streetscape improvements rather than to the tramway itself and required infrastructure. In the range of French costs you've found from Wikipedia (which annoyingly excludes lower-cost Lyon) the Nice numbers are more or less in line with the figure I'm invoking, coming ultimately from Railway Technology, so I imagine this is true of all French costs in question.

I'm pretty sure the low Calgary cost exclude streetscape projects, too - Calgary Transit prided itself in building minimalistic infrastructure to save money. I don't know if they still are doing it with the West LRT; presumably they are.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2011 at 16:07:49 in reply to Comment 69104

Ride the tide: Norfolk's light rail 'proof of concept'

With a population of around 250,000, Norfolk in the US state of Virginia is set to become the smallest city in the country to be served by a light rail system, dubbed The Tide.

"While some light rail transit systems can cost as little as $15 million a mile, difficult conditions can inflate that cost by ten times or more."

As such, it could be seen as the US' proof of concept for light rail in cities with smaller populations, as conventional wisdom dictates light rail systems make back their development costs through large passenger numbers.

Due to begin operations on 19 August this year, the project certainly didn't get off to a strong start, with planning complications and high initial cost estimates seeing it scaled back from an 18-mile link between the city centre and Virginia Beach to a 7.4-mile line serving Norfolk only.

The project has also been plagued with cost overruns and delays. The Tide's total cost eventually ran to $338.3 million, more than $100 million over budget, and the line's opening has been delayed several times since its proposed launch of January 2010.

It appears that many of the project's issues stemmed from unrealistic cost expectations, as the original budget was simply not enough to build a sufficiently advanced system. The increase in cost and project time allowed for extensive testing and the installation of a safety signal system and communication system, features that were not originally planned.

But the system is now operational and ready to take its first passengers through the line's 11 stations, carried by nine 95ft electric cars powered by overhead catenary wires; daily use is expected to start at 2,900 people and rise to 7,000 by 2030.

If the line prompts private investment and economic growth in Norfolk, as it is expected to do, it seems only a matter of time before other small US cities start making plans of their own.

Ottawa: betting big on LRT

Over the border to the north, Canadian capital Ottawa is in the very early stages of its own LRT, the latest in an impressive line-up of light rail projects in the country being funded in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, among others.

Ottawa's C$2.1bn light rail plans are intended to relieve rush-hour congestion in the bus-reliant city centre. The project, which will implement an east-west, 12.5-kilometre, 13-station light rail line with an underground tunnel for a downtown section, was approved by city councillors on 14 July.

Like Norfolk's Tide light rail project, Ottawa is also seeking to control costs for its LRT system to keep the project at its C$2.1bn budget. Cost-cutting measures include shorter platforms and simplified facilities at stations and moving Campus Station from underground to the surface, but most significant is the decision to move the line's underground section to beneath Queen Street, allowing for a shallower tunnel (15-16 metres rather than 39-40 metres) that will reportedly reduce total tunnelling costs from C$793m to C$493m.

This will primarily be achieved by employing the 'cut and cover' method, a more basic, inexpensive but potentially much more disruptive shallow tunnelling technique.

Even though the project is at its very earliest stages - after the approval, contractors will be awarded in 2012, with construction set to run from 2013 to 2018 - one particular challenge of inner-city rail development is already becoming apparent.

As the line is being built through some of the city's most treasured downtown areas, observers are concerned about the line's effect on important heritage sites. For example, top staff at the city's National Arts Centre (NAC) and Arts Court are concerned noise and vibration from the line could disrupt performances.

"Anything that relates to noise or vibration would disrupt the performances inside the building," NAC spokesperson Carl Martin told CBC News. "In our case the building exists already so you can't go back and isolate the building. There are engineering issues that are very complex."

From: All Aboard for Light Rail - Lower emissions and relatively inexpensive operation is making light rail an attractive option for many cities. Chris Lo investigates the advantages and challenges of light rail networks, and examines three case studies from around the world that highlight key trends in modern LRT development. - 29 Jul 2011

More articles on LRT projects from diff. parts of the world.

Light Rail in Canada -- "In general, Canadian cities have rates of public transit use which are two to three times as high as comparably sized U.S. cities. Census data for 2006 show that 11.0% of Canadians use public transit to commute to work, compared to 4.8% of Americans. This means that transportation planners must allow for higher passenger volumes on Canadian transit systems than American ones."

"As a result of lower government funding, Canadian cities have to recover a much higher share of their costs out of operating revenues. This lack of funding may explain why there is resistance to the high capital costs of rail systems and there are only a few light rail systems in Canada."

Transport Action Ontario - comprehensive advocacy on environmentally, socially and economically sustainable public transportation and freight movement.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-09-06 16:44:20

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 07, 2011 at 14:06:06 in reply to Comment 69110

only problem with this is that all of Hamilton's naysayers (and we've got plenty) will say, "we can't compare Norfolk to Hamilton. It's half our size!"

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By Fleming (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2011 at 15:48:23

insult spam deleted

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-09-05 16:40:08

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By dwntwninvstr (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2011 at 19:48:25

Has anyone from the City's LRT team consulted with other places where these systems have been successfully built? It's not like we're inventing the wheel here. Why can't municipalities share information to help with decision-making?
Wrt the velodrome, wouldn't the first you'd do would be to pick up the phone, call the one in LA, ask them how much it costs to run, where do the revenues come from, what has been working, what hasn't, etc.

Why is there so much uncertainty and confusion?

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2011 at 20:16:12 in reply to Comment 69071

Why is there so much uncertainty and confusion?

I've often wondered whether cities have informal arrangements wherein they share info and insights. You know, as in 'twinned' cities. For a city the size of Hamilton, there must be dozens of similar places all the world over. When you're dealing with something as universal a concept as LRT, surely there's a goldmine of empirical data to be shared.

And regarding the 'uncertainty and confusion', it does seem a little bizarre that the basics weren't handled by someone at City Hall, huh? (Especially if you witnessed the GIC meeting last Monday, where it sure seemed to me that everyone was talking about a creature that was so exotic, so strange, one that nobody really seemed to grasp.)

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2011 at 22:38:22

Though French construction costs are high, a fifth LRT line is likely to be less expensive than the first. They already know what kind of trains, tracks and stations they need - it's only a matter of ordering more. Added to that they have lots of practical experience to go on. We need to start from scratch.

How have the costs of Grenoble's lines evolved over time? How about other systems? Can we expect the same here?

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2011 at 14:12:32 in reply to Comment 69077

How have the costs of Grenoble's lines evolved over time? How about other systems? Can we expect the same here?

Great questions.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 06, 2011 at 14:51:40 in reply to Comment 69101

If you look at the bottom of the page:

there is a cost comparison of 13 French LRT ('tramway') systems built between 2000 and 2011.

You'll see that the cost varies between about 20 and 40 million euros per km, with a median cost of 30 million euros per km ($42 million dollars per km), far less than Hamilton's estimate of $60 million per km.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2011-09-06 14:52:08

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted September 06, 2011 at 08:11:03

What you're forgetting is that Hamilton is unique.

Demographically, geographically, densityally, mystically, botanically, etc..., it is impossible to find an example that is perfectly matched to Hamilton in any way.

Therefore we know nothing will work here because we have no perfect example of it succeeding anywhere else in an environment exactly like ours.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 06, 2011 at 11:49:05 in reply to Comment 69081

yep! so we're just going to give all of our money to the owner of a local sports team and let him decide how to spend it ;-)

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