A Tale of Two Cities, and Their Trains

A Tale of Two Cities, and Their Trains

SMART and Metrolinx Toronto could be considered to be sister train systems – together they clubbed together to buy trains, or Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) from Japanese manufacturer Sumitomo Nippon Sharyo. This unit has been in widespread use in Japan as an Electric Multiple Unit, but its’ use in Toronto and Marin is the time it has been coupled with a tier 4 diesel engine – in this case the diesel is made by Cummins. While this is a proven diesel unit the DMUs and this engine have never before been paired – so SMART and Metrolinx are taking risks using this combination.

The Toronto line runs 41 miles from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to downtown Toronto. It is called the Union Pearson Express.

The Union Pearson Express, Toronto, uses the same DMUs as SMART

The Union Pearson Express, Toronto, uses the same DMUs as SMART

Metal Fatigue on the Union Pearson Express, Toronto

Metrolinx Toronto hit the Marin news lately as a result to metal fatigue in a crankshaft of its’ Cummins diesel engine causing a catastrophic engine failure.

Toronto, which has a double tracked line, was able to continue operations. Both train systems are having Cummins replace the crankshafts for all of their diesel engines – Toronto is doing this without disrupting operations, but for SMART this is one reason given for delaying launch.

A letter from LTK Engineering in the SMART Board of Director’s 19th October meeting packet (page 85) highlighted the differences between the Union Pearson Express and SMART in the light of the Cummins engine failure:

  • The Toronto line is a double track line, SMART is 85% single track line
  • If a SMART train breaks down there is no way to bypass the failed train. A bus bridge would need to be organized; yet it appears that there is no plan in place for instituting such a bus bridge at short notice.
  • SMART requires 6 trains for operations, it has only 7 trains available. LTK describes this as “a very low spares ratio”

LTK concludes that in the event of the same crankshaft failure, SMART operations would not resume until the next peak period. This means that  if the failure occurred during the morning peak, all trains that morning would be disrupted (would not run and would likely require bus bridges to rescue stranded passengers). Service would not be resumed until the evening peak. If the failure happened in the evening service would be disrupted until the next morning.

Were such a failure to occur the disruption to ridership could be significant as riders assess if this mode if sufficiently reliable.

As the author learned about Toronto’s Union Pearson Express he began to wonder if this might portend SMART’s future ridership and success. A review of the two systems seemed appropriate.

Toronto Doubles Ridership By Slashing Train Fares

Toronto launched with relatively high fares targeting airport business travelers. It initially offered a flat fare of $27.50 Canadian one way ($20 USD). Average daily ridership as a result was under 2,500 – far below projections and requiring heavy subsidies that had not been budgeted for. Money had to be diverted away from other transit system projects to cover these unanticipated costs.

Toronto Fare Comparison

Toronto Fare Comparison

The alternative to the Union Pearson Express is the TTC bus service costing $3.25 cash for an adult It takes 45-50 minutes, but the writer can share first hand that he experienced a journey of nearly 2 hours due to congestion.

The diagram shows just how much of a premium the Union Pearson Express was priced over a bus alternative – it was over 7 times the price when the train service launched.  The reduction in fares brings the train fare down to just over 2.5 times the bus fare.

Slashing Fares Dramatically Increases  Train Ridership

Union Pearson Express Ridership

Union Pearson Express Ridership

With the fares slashed ridership of the Union Pearson Express jumped  over threefold from 2,500 to 8,200. Trains are now routinely full and at peak commute the train can be standing room only.

A fairy tale ending – so could this happen to SMART?



SMART vs Toronto Pearson

The chart below summarizes the differences between the two systems. SMART has always been touted as serving commuters from Sonoma and northern Marin to Marin where the largest employment center is San Rafael. The Union Pearson Express directly serves downtown Toronto and Pearson airport.

SMART vs Union Pearson Express

SMART vs Union Pearson Express

It’s clear that the Union Pearson Express serves a vastly different situation to SMART. It serves a major international airport with 100 times as many daily flights. It serves a major city with a population  of 2.6 million and a commensurate number of jobs, while SMART serves San Rafael with a population of just 59 thousand – Toronto is a city with 44 times the population of San Rafael.

A second difference, speaking as an economist, is that the price elasticity for the Union Pearson Express cannot be assumed to be the same as SMART. People typically pay more for airport connections. Business travelers can expense a reasonable cost (but not the exorbitant original cost of the $29.50).

The San Diego Coaster – A Better Comparison?

The San Diego Coaster, source: Wikipedia

The San Diego Coaster, source: Wikipedia

San Diego’s North County Transit District has the Sprinter light rail and Coaster commuter trains (SMART is a commuter train) and Breeze and Lift bus and van services. Together these two rail systems collect revenues of about 22.5% of operational costs.  This is referred to as the farebox recovery ratio. By law the district has to keep this number over 20%. (The author is not aware what happens if this figure drops below 20%,or if such a figure is also a requirement of SMART and would welcome insight).

The district’s systemwide farebox recovery ratio has hovered just above the legal minimum — between 20 and 25 percent — since 2006, according to the district’s financial report for the 2015 budget year. The district’s ratio has decreased for the past three years, to 22.5 percent last year from 24 percent in 2013.

To stem the decline in revenues, with the trains causing the most inertia on the system cash flow , the North County Transit District has announced that it is raising fares systemwide – applying increases to both buses and trains. The Coaster’s fare will rise 18% from $5.50 to $6.50 – an increase exponentially greater than inflation (as a comparison this year the U.S. Social Security’s Cost of Living Index increased by just 0.3%). This is a sad state of affairs as raising fares will surely reduce ridership (just as reducing fares increased ridership in Toronto).

So instead of maintaining their intended goals of reducing traffic congestion and fighting climate change the San Diego North County Experience has shifted to one of survival – with bus fares raised to prevent the farebox recovery ratio falling below the legally mandated 20%.

So how does SMART compare to the San Diego Coaster – which is also a commuter rail system. The Coaster started operations in 1995 so it has had over 20 years to increase it’s ridership to just 5,700. It is a burden to the region and the transportation district and starving the district of operational funds. It is causing fares to be increased to ensure it’s survival. Perhaps the Coaster has a much worse situation that SMART in terms of the service it delivers:

SMART vs the San Diego Coaster

SMART vs the San Diego Coaster

Sadly SMART also compares poorly to the Coaster:

  • Line lengths and service intervals are similar
  • The Coaster serves the major employment center of San Diego with a population of 1.35m,  over 20 times the size of San Rafael
  • Even though the line lengths are similar – 41 miles vs SMART’s 43 miles, the Coaster’s one way fare is $6.50 compared to SMART’s  proposed $9.50

Train advocates would argue that SMART “goes to San Francisco”. This overlooks key facts:

  • The Coaster goes directly to downtown San Diego, SMART will one day go to Larkspur which is still far short of San Francisco, and a connection and a ferry ride away on ferries that are routinely full
  • ​​SMART was  sold to voters as a solution to help Sonoma county commuters get to Marin
  • SMART ridership projections for train riders who take the ferry to San Francisco are paltry. The SMART Environmental Impact Report contains projections showing that with the extension project SMART will increase ferry ridership by just 6 riders, and this isn’t until the year 2035 (See table on page 264; ferry ridership with project in the year 2035 is 12,752, without the project it is 12,746)

Where Does this All Lead Us?

The author started writing this article thinking that maybe the Union Pearson Express in Toronto has proven that SMART could achieve ridership enabling it to deliver on its stated goals – relieving traffic congestion and fighting climate change. But Toronto offers a poor comparison from a major airport to a major metropolitan area.  San Diego’s Coaster is a closer comparison, but even this comparison is unfair as the Coaster directly serves downtown San Diego – with 20 times the population of San Rafael.

The author would happily concede his opposition to SMART can foreseeably achieve reasonable ridership. But SMART doesn’t serve the superior transportation draws of Toronto, Toronto Airport or downtown San Diego. If the Coaster cannot achieve reasonable ridership with much lower fares serving a city over 20 times the size then there is little hope for SMART.

There’s a quote that surmises the situation:

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – George Santayana, Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

SMART’s true goals are not going to be relieving traffic and fighting climate change – it is going to be survival. Unfortunately survival will require a combination of

  1. Housing growth to generate more riders, and
  2. Increasing system-wide transit fares including those on buses.

Sadly adding more housing and increasing fares will achieve precisely the reverse of SMART’s stated goals. But as many of us have realized by now these goals were never reasonable or even intended. While a few supported SMART because it “sounded right” that Marin should return to having a rail system, and it sounded green and sustainable, those in the know always knew that SMART was always all about growth and embracing a vision to urbanize Marin and Sonoma with transit oriented development.