Dispelling the Myths of the CTrain: After 30 years and $2 billion, the CTrain worsened Calgary’s automobile dependency

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur


Calgary’s CTrain is turning 30 this May.  While this anniversary will no doubt be met with fanfare, it is also an opportunity to examine the performance of the system. Has the CTrain delivered value for money? More importantly, does expanding the CTrain make sense for the City? Sadly, the answer to both questions is no.
Light rail transit (LRT) has become a fad among urban planners in mid-sized North American cities. They argue that LRT is a happy medium between buses and subways. In reality, LRT combines the disadvantages of both. LRT is slow, inflexible and expensive. Moreover, the CTrain has exacerbated the very problem it is meant to fix: rampant urban sprawl.
Let us look at costs.  The CTrain has been called the most efficient LRT system in North America. Indeed, as of 2000, it was the least subsidized North American LRT system by a substantial margin. The capital cost per rider of other LRT systems ranged from $8,900 in Edmonton to an astonishing $44,300 in New Jersey. The $2,400 capital cost per weekday rider in Calgary looked good in comparison. Unfortunately, all post-1990 LRT construction projects have been significantly more expensive. This is partly because it is attracting fewer new riders per kilometre and partly because construction costs are much higher. The capital cost per weekday rider due to the building of extensions since 1990 is just over $15,000. The reason for this declining value for money is simple: The most efficient routes have already been built. 
Through creative accounting, some proponents of LRT have created the illusion that the CTrain is cost effective. They point to the CTrain’s lower operating costs compared with buses. However, the massive capital costs of LRT swamp the operating-cost savings. Take the proposed Southeast CTrain extension. The price is estimated to be between $1.2-billion and $1.8-billion. That’s right, billion. Because of its prohibitive cost, the City created a bus rapid transit (BRT) route to the southeast of the city as a temporary measure until the heavily indebted City can find the money for an LRT extension. The cost of the BRT route was a mere $30-million – including a major park and ride facility. Despite the temporary nature of the project, it is an example of how the City can provide excellent mass transit at an affordable price. The total cost per paying rider on the CTrain is approximately $3. This is roughly the same cost of a subway ride on the notoriously inefficient Toronto subway. Hardly a model of efficiency.
Beyond cost, some argue that the CTrain helps curb urban sprawl and benefits low-income people. Ironically, the CTrain has done more to accelerate urban sprawl than to curb it.  This acceleration happens to the detriment of the poor. Since light rail is extremely expensive, the City can build only so many kilometres of track. Being close to a light rail stop drives up the cost of surrounding housing, and guess who can afford to live there? Not the city’s poorest. And unlike the wealthier residents, who can drive to the park and ride lots to avoid usurious downtown parking, it is not easy for the city’s poorest to get to LRT stations in the first place. 
Compounding the problem, the City uses a large number of buses to transport people to LRT stations instead of using the buses for other routes.  Therefore, the CTrain not only garnishes the City’s budget for buses, but it diverts bus resources to feed CTrain stations. Even if one is fortunate enough to live within walking distance of a CTrain station, one also has to be commuting to somewhere that the CTrain line serves. This is one of the major flaws of light rail. For the cost of building the Southeast extension, the City could buy between 1,700 and 2,500 high quality, articulated buses. This would allow for a greater diversity of routes, giving more choice to riders, which would be particularly helpful to those who cannot afford to drive to a park and ride or who do not work downtown. But let’s face it, Calgary does not need to buy that many more buses to serve a half-million more transit riders – though providing a fifth of thatwould allow for an aggressive rapid transit expansion at a fraction of the cost of expanding light rail to one corridor of the city. 
Trains are trendier than buses. If one is designing a transit system purely to impress tourists, LRT may be the way to go. However, if one wants to provide good quality public transit for a large percentage of the population – especially the city’s poorest – bus rapid transit is the better answer.