News Local

LRT 101: Surrey lays out its concept

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

Light rail on three arterials at a cost of $2.14 billion, able to serve a capacity of 7,500 people per direction, per hour — that’s what Surrey will receive if the transit plebiscite is approved.

The plan envisions about two-dozen electrically powered trains running down tracks placed in the centre of the three arterial roads — King George Boulevard, 104 Avenue and Fraser Highway — travelling at similar speeds to vehicle traffic in their own dedicated lanes.

Each train will have its own driver, able to control the speed, and start or stop the vehicle, with trip frequencies expected to be every six minutes during regular hours. There would be up to 20 stations in total, with all platforms built into the street, and all expected to be at intersections.

Staff at Surrey City Hall say the plan is now in “phase three,” where city staff and TransLink are mapping out exactly where the route alignment will sit, the locations of the stations, and refining cost estimates. It’s expected this phase of work would be completed at year-end — when a reference concept would be published to the market for government to accept bids.

Over the long term, it’s expected the first part of the light rail transit (LRT) project, the 104 Avenue and King George Boulevard route — currently called the L-Line for its geographical shape — would be completed seven years after funding approval.

The second portion, to run down Fraser Highway connecting Surrey city centre with Langley, is expected for opening at year 12.

Track design

Prior to embarking on its own design, Surrey staff took their politicians down to Portland, where an LRT system has operated since 1989 — the city and its surrounding areas now have four lines, with a fifth opening later this year.

It’s a system similar to what Surrey envisions. Each of Portland’s lines branches out from the city’s downtown transit mall, just as Surrey’s lines will branch out from its city centre.

Portland’s tracks also generally sit in the middle of the road. This is done to keep trains on the left side of drivers, helping preserve driving habits and prevent collisions, according to Alan Lehto, Portland TriMet planning and policy director.

“What’s good about that is in the United States at least, a lot of drivers are used to taking right turns on red — but nobody takes left turns on red, not without expecting a ticket or being careful and looking,” he said.

“If a train is coming up on the right side of a car, it could interfere with that expectation of being able to turn on red.

“(Drivers) have a lifetime of behaviours and expectations built up and … you can design and take advantage of that.”

It’s with this logic that Surrey is choosing, wherever it can, to push cars aside for double tracks taking up seven metres in the centre of roads. That amount of space — and the additional three to four metres needed for platforms — would likely mean Surrey will end up having to widen some roadways, at least in tighter areas like 104 Avenue. For 104 Avenue, this would also mean that road traffic will likely be restricted to one lane each way after the LRT line is built.

The track itself is expected to be embedded into the ground or raised slightly off the road, according to Paul Lee, Surrey’s rapid transit and strategic projects manager. Regular vehicle traffic would be prohibited from driving on the tracks to give the trains a constant dedicated lane, except where there’s a signal intersection. In some cases, emergency vehicles would likely be allowed to travel on the tracks to get around regular traffic.

An issue that would impact many drivers, however, is how almost every single side street perpendicular to the LRT track would be restricted from turning left, since they’d have to cross the tracks to do so.

The same goes for traffic driving parallel to the track wishing to turn left — these cars would be prohibited from doing so to prevent them wandering onto the LRT route.

This means access in and out of any side street that doesn’t have a traffic signal will likely be reduced to right turns only, Lee said.

To avoid confusion for drivers, the city has planned for raised curbs on the outer edges of the tracks that would separate traffic from the LRT route.

Station design

Staff said each of Surrey LRT’s stations would be placed at intersections along the routes using split platforms, one platform for each direction of travel.

This means there are technically two stations at each intersection, since the platforms are split with one waiting area on each side.

The idea is based on a practice in transit called “far side” boarding commonly used in the Lower Mainland. This practice forces buses and trains to pass an intersection before boarding and disembarking passengers, and there are several advantages.

First, trains stopping on the “near side” of the intersection — before they cross — would have to stop once to load and unload passengers, and must stop again at the intersection if there’s a red light.

Boarding on the far side allows trains to always cross the intersection when they can, without having to wait for passengers first, speeding things up.

This design also allows engineers to preserve left-turning lanes at intersections, said Portland’s Lehto, since there will be a space remaining at both sides of the intersection opposite to the stations. The turn lanes will sit directly across the intersection from where stations are.

Another advantage for putting stations at intersections is pedestrian access. The design requires passengers to cross the street whenever they’re boarding or disembarking, and existing intersection crossing signals are perfect to tackle this, since they provide a dedicated right of way for pedestrians to cross to the middle platform.

The stations themselves would need to be as long as the trains, or longer, depending on how many people are expected to be waiting on the platform, according to Surrey staff. Platforms are expected to extend out beyond the tracks by up to an additional four metres.

Surrey has made a preliminary plan for exactly where the stations will be located.

So far, the preliminary plan has placed six stations along 104 Avenue, with the farthest east station slated for the area of Serpentine Creek at 156 Street.

Towards the west, stops are also planned for 152 Street, 148 Street, 144 Street, 140 Street and Whalley Boulevard.

Seven stations are planned for King George Boulevard. The first station is planned to sit near Surrey Central Expo Line station and travel south, with stops at Fraser Highway, 96 Avenue, 88 Avenue, 81 Avenue, 76 Avenue and 72 Avenue.

Fraser Highway’s nine stops are planned for — heading towards Langley — 140 Street, 152 Street, 156 Street, 160 Street, 166 Street, 184 Street, 188 Street, 192 Street, and 196 Street — touching ground at the Willowbrook Shopping Centre.

The count makes 22 stations, but Surrey stresses the locations are still preliminary.

To make sure stations become transit hubs in themselves, it’s expected Surrey and TransLink will plan a bus “feeder” system to move passengers from nearby neighbourhoods to the rapid transit line.

“We need to start thinking about Delta, for example, how do we bring any of the catchment from Delta municipality into the LRT corridor on King George?” Lee said.

“It’s going to be a fairly comprehensive review of the existing bus system.”

Train design

Surrey predicts it will need between 20 to 25 trains for its system. But the design remains fluid until the city moves closer to being able to place an order for the trains.

It’s because LRT trains are all custom made, Lee said, with factors being how frequent trains arrive, their size, how many cars are tied together per train, how long the platform is, and so on.

What Surrey does know is that each of the trains will cost anywhere from $3.5 to $4.5 million. Train sizes are expected to be anywhere from 25 to 35 metres long.

Speeds can be expected to be up to 80 km/h, and will likely follow the speed limit of surrounding traffic.

As for how many passengers a train might carry, staff gave examples — a large train may possibly hold 300 passengers, while a smaller one might hold 175.

The trick is about finding a balance in how large the train is versus how frequent they’ll arrive — six minutes per train will likely be the trip frequency.

Too frequent, and they might bunch up. Too infrequent, and people would be waiting at platforms for too long.

Surrey also knows the method of propulsion it wants — electricity provided by overhead wire. The current plan has power wires strung up on poles that would run in the middle between the two sets of tracks. Each train will have at least one “pantograph” — somewhat similar to how TransLink’s existing trolley buses work — that sit on top of the wire.

Some other systems in the world go without the power poles, opting for diesel or gasoline propulsion — or in some areas in Europe, they’ll even use conduction technology that relies on a series of pads under the trains to provide a charge. Costs were a factor in Surrey’s preference.

Traffic interaction

The issue with an at-grade, on street system is that there will be interactions with traffic — including the potential for collisions with other vehicles or pedestrians.

The question, then, is how to minimize that. All three routes are currently part of the major road network, which means they can be used by truck traffic, and all three are heavily used by regular vehicle traffic.

Staff and council aren’t particularly worried about two of the three routes.

“On King George, KGB is wide enough that we can maintain four lanes of street traffic and also have two dedicated LRT tracks going north-south,” said Coun. Bruce Hayne.

Fraser Highway also has the same advantages as King George Boulevard. But Surrey is concerned about 104 Avenue, which would be reduced to one lane per direction for vehicle traffic.

“We would have to make up, if there’s going to be a loss of traffic lanes, we’ll have to make up that east-west as close to 104 as we can,” Hayne said.

So for 104, city hall staff are currently measuring the destinations of people travelling through the road to figure out how many are considered “pass through” traffic — those drivers can be redirected elsewhere.

Infrastructure and vehicle design also goes a long way to prevent accidents. According to LRT design guidelines, many light rail vehicles now include bumpers made to reduce the risk of a pedestrian or vehicle getting trapped underneath the train if they’re struck — the bumpers are designed to push the object over to the side instead.

Then there’s the rules against traffic driving over tracks at anywhere other than signalized intersections, and the addition of raised curbs on the outside of the tracks to let drivers know they’re not supposed to be there.

All trains will be equipped with operators also, who can halt the vehicle to avoid crashes.

Additionally, Surrey expects to tie its LRT system into its traffic management centre, which currently oversees 250 cameras at intersections across the city, and has full signal control at those intersections. The cameras cover every signalized intersection along the LRT routes.

Staff said this means that if there were an accident up ahead, they can notify train drivers immediately and reroute traffic. And in the event of emergencies or disasters, staff can similarly notify transit operators to stop so emergency vehicles can use LRT tracks to speed along.

Surrey also has infrared technology that can assist. Fire trucks in the city, according to staff, already are equipped with the Opticom Infrared System — described as an in-vehicle beam that emergency officials can use to switch traffic lights over as long as there’s a line of sight.

Staff said Opticom can potentially be used for other branches as well.

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