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Winnipeg: Rail better than bus for rapid transit

Commentary by Jeff Lowe • November 2004

As Light Rail Now! has previously reported, on 29 September 2004, Winnipeg's city council voted to shelve the city's planned "BRT" system (a scheme for magnetically "guided" buses on freeways) and instead redirect most of the $50 million formerly planned for the first segment into other uses. While Winnipeg transit advocates bemoaned the postponement (or seeming demise) of this Quality Bus project, the city's peculiarly single-minded focus on motor bus "rapid transit" has raised questions – Winnipeg, after all, is the headquarters of New Flyer industries, one of North America's leading bus and motor coach manufacturers. This exclusively bus-focused planning policy is challenged by other proponents of multi-modal public transport. The following commentary by Winnipeg transit activist Jeff Lowe was also published in the Winnipeg Free Press of Wednesday, 6 October 2004.

The recent vote by which Winnipeg city council repudiated bus rapid transit (BRT) for the second time since 1990 illustrated the pitfalls of political calculations muscling aside technical and popular ones in the shaping of a transit plan.

Yet to be achieved in any form, rapid transit has been an item of public and political discussion for 50 years in Winnipeg. A lack of ongoing and formal funding assistance from senior-level governments had posed an unyielding obstacle to getting construction of a system of some sort off the ground.

Determined to break the logjam, in December 1983 ardent Winnipeg champion Lloyd Axworthy believed he'd succeeded in delivering the sought-after largesse. Axworthy was able to secure millions in grants from the federal ministries of Transportation and Regional industrial Expansion to be put toward the construction of a busway, the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor. He likewise persuaded the ministries of Urban Affairs, and Highways & Transportation, of the Manitoba government of the day to ante up for the ride.

Corridor for bus "innovations"?

As a piece of political dealmaking, the Canada/Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding on Urban Bus industrial Development was a work of rare artfulness and finesse. It was premised on utilizing the corridor as a "demonstration project" for "innovative bus-propulsion technologies" (such as flywheels and storage batteries.) Winnipeg's two major bus manufacturing firms and their unions could anticipate contracts coming their way. Mr. Axworthy was convinced he'd hit a home run.

Before the City of Winnipeg could be induced to sign on, he was erased on the basepaths – his government turfed by the voters, and replaced by the Mulroney Conservatives (who scrapped the deal.)

Twenty-one fruitless years along – despite its tattered obsolescence and its failure to fire the public's and the business sector's imaginations – the Axworthy-inspired plan lingers on.

But rubber-tired buses perform poorly on Winnipeg's snowy roads. They burn diesel oil, fouling the air; whereas rail vehicles would showcase Manitoba's clean, abundant, inexpensive hydroelectric power. Cities of Winnipeg's size usually build a rail system and use buses for local service. Ottawa never built the downtown segment of its busway and is now extending its first light-rail line (while initiating construction of a second.) [For more on problems with Ottawa's "BRT" system, and plans for rail expansion, see Ottawa's Rail and Public Transport Developments]

Busways are more expensive than rail lines of the same carrying capacity because buses wear out faster than rail cars, the stations have to be bigger and the road has to be wide enough to allow vehicles to pass.

The proposed Southwest Transit Corridor amounts to the transit equivalent of Hamburger Helper. It seeks to milk additional efficiencies out of the existing all-bus system by merely aiming to cycle the bulk of buses which presently travel on Pembina Highway through their trips more quickly through shifting them onto a parallel, bus-only roadway. Winnipeg should instead grow the diversity, capacity, versatility and reach of its transit system through the addition of a high-capacity, high-speed rail component.

Calgary's C-Train light rail transit system (in the neighboring province of Alberta) is regarded as a tremendous success, with ridership growth of 93% since 1995.

Passengers attracted to rail

Bus Rapid Transit fans hugely oversell the notion that the setup acts to preserve one-seat rides. Most passengers arriving from areas outside the BRT corridor will still need to change buses.

Knowing that busway service can be scaled back simply by withholding buses, developers will be wary of undertaking sizable investments in its vicinity. They invest more confidently in buildings beside a rail line because they know the trains have to run where the rails have been laid. The smooth ride, comfortable seating, luxurious dimensions and inherent dependability of rail vehicles are crucial in attracting the patronage of car owners

Buses are (and always will be) the workhorses of the transit system. With the advent of rail, the urgency of perfecting and adopting innovative, more environment-friendly techniques of bus-guidance and -propulsion will be no less than before: New Flyer and Motor Coach will not want for incentive or work. But casting buses in the rapid-transit role (for which rail vehicles are ideally suited) merely invites ridicule and discredit.

The Steering Committee of TransPlan in 1995 found in a public opinion survey that 71 per cent favoured a city-wide, rapid-transit system (expressly defined as, a monorail or subway.)

For rapid transit to be worth doing, it must be done properly: as genuine rapid transit (harnessing rail vehicles); not as, pseudo-rapid-transit (substituting buses). Let's hope that this time around, the politicians and planners give us what we desire.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/11/07

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