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Friday, January 28, 2011 - Calgary, AB - Calgary C-Train's Light Rail System leaves the city centre on Friday, January 28, 2010. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Friday, January 28, 2011 - Calgary, AB - Calgary C-Train's Light Rail System leaves the city centre on Friday, January 28, 2010. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Calgary's C-Train: Light rail that works Add to ...

Mayor Rob Ford has left no confusion about how he feels about light-rail transit. One of his first acts as mayor was to declare the death of Transit City, a multibillion-dollar plan for a network of above-ground transit lines.

Listening to Mr. Ford, you might get the impression that LRT is a crazy scheme cooked up by his predecessor, David Miller, to frustrate motorists. In fact, light-rail systems operate in dozens of cities, from Portland and Phoenix to Salzburg and Toulouse. One of the more successful is right here in Canada.

Calgary's C-Train, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the second busiest LRT in North America, outdone only by a system in Monterrey, Mexico. It carries 270,000 people on the average weekday, half of all Calgary transit riders.

Since the first line opened in May, 1981, it has grown to three lines with 38 stations. A fourth line heading west from downtown is under construction, and two more are planned for the future. The expansion would eventually add 45 stations, creating a network of six spokes from the downtown hub. The annual number of riders has more than doubled over the past decade to 75.8 million, far outpacing the growth in the city's population. The C-Train is so heavily used that the city is rebuilding stations to accommodate longer trains.

To get the most track for the money in hand, Calgary built a no-frills system with simple station platforms, cheap cars, no air-conditioning and station-arrival announcements recorded on cassette tape. Without the cost of tunnelling and building underground stations, the city managed to reach far into the city's south, northeast and northwest.

Even the relatively extravagant West Line, which will include elevated track and the city's first subway station, is projected to cost $1-billion for eight kilometres of track. By comparison, Mr. Ford's plan to extend Toronto's Sheppard subway eight kilometres to Scarborough is projected at $3.6-billion, not including $500-million for a new train yard.

"Our experience out here in Calgary is that it actually works very, very well," says Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi when asked about Mr. Ford's plan to kill LRT. "I think sometimes people are a bit scared of it because they think it's like streetcars running in traffic. But if it's done well it can work brilliantly at a fraction of the cost of going underground."

Critics such as Mr. Ford like to say that in a cold winter like Toronto's, underground rail makes much more sense than LRT lines exposed to the snow and cold. Calgary has snow and cold. The LRT still runs. So does the LRT in still-colder Edmonton.

Critics also say it's folly to build rail lines on low-density suburban routes like Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton, as envisioned in the Transit City plan. Calgary's C-train goes through even less-dense terrain, passing sprawling subdivisions and malls. People take the bus or drive their cars to LRT stations, then ride it to jobs in downtown office towers. Nearly half of all downtown workers arrive by C-Train.

To be fair, Calgary's LRT differs from what was planned under Transit City. Unlike Toronto, with its scandalously haphazard, stop-and-start approach to transit expansion, Calgary planned its LRT rollout years, even decades, in advance. It restricted the number of parking spots downtown, driving up parking rates and encouraging people to take transit. It reserved segregated corridors for LRT lines so they could be kept apart from traffic. C-train routes follow railway rights-of-way or broad highway medians, with trains given priority whenever road and track intersect. Toronto would have to carve out new medians on streets such as Sheppard, leaving less space for traffic.

Mr. Nenshi himself says that LRT is not the be all and end all. In some parts of Calgary, he argues, it might make more sense to put in segregated bus ways than to lay down expensive LRT track. In the same way, though, in some parts of Toronto it might be better to put in light rail than to spend a fortune on underground subway track.

It depends on the situation. What is wrong is to dismiss any mode of transit out of hand without considering how it actually works elsewhere. Before the mayor buries Toronto's light-rail plans and splurges on a subway, he might want to look at Calgary's C-Train success story.

 

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