A second, more sobering look at the Caisse’s “REM” proposal to replace the Deux-Montagnes Commuter Rail line with an extended light rail line: how the Caisse had good ideas but is executing it badly, which will cause trains to be overcrowded from day 1.
The Caisse’s REM-line light rail proposal seems to have elicited two main types of responses: those who are excited Montreal will have great new, modern, efficient transit system, and the skeptics who feel the Caisse is taking us for a ride. My initial reaction put me in the first camp, a deeper look makes me doubtful that light rail is the right way to go.
What is Light Rail, Anyway?
Despite its apparent specificity, “light rail” refers to a range of technologies, from streetcars and trams to systems closer to a metro. This is in contrast to “heavy rail”, which is defined by the American Public Transportation Association as an electric railway with the capacity to handle a heavy volume of traffic.
The critical detail here is that “light” or “heavy” refers to capacity, not weight.
Weight-wise, if we look at the weight per car, some existing light metro systems similar to the REM have vehicles that are actually heavier than the Montreal Metro. Some are as heavy as the Deux-Montagnes commuter train cars:
Of course, since there are fewer cars, the overall weight for the whole train is naturally lower. However, the train will not run faster! The REM will be electric and will use electric-multiple-unit (EMU) trains like the Montreal metro or the Deux-Montagnes trains. EMUs have no locomotive in the front to pull the whole train. Instead, the motors are evenly distributed throughout the train and every section pulls itself.
A half-length train has half the motors: half the power to move half the weight. Mathematically, you end up with the same speed.
In any case, the REM is definitely “lighter” in terms of capacity. The Caisse envisions 4 car trains during rush hour (2 cars outside of rush-hour), which is half the length of a regular Montreal Metro and a third of the trains on the Deux-Montagnes line.
How much Capacity does the REM Have?
A transit system’s capacity is calculated by multiplying the capacity of each train by the number of trains per hour. This gives us the the number of “passengers per hour per direction” (PPHD).
The REM can carry 600 people per train, and will have a peak frequency of 3 to 6 minutes in the trunk segment (10 to 20 trains per hour), which gives a planned peak capacity of 6000 to 12,000 PPHD.
Compare that with the capacity of the Deux-Montagnes line: about 4 trains per hour during rush hour, with 2000 people per train. Capacity: 8000 PPHD.
From this angle, the REM looks pretty good. Going from 8000 to 12,000, that’s a 50% increase of capacity!
Not so Fast!
We just made a rough comparison with only one of the existing lines. But how much capacity do we actually need?
If we look at the network, the REM will need to provide the capacity of four (!) existing commuter rail lines during peak hours.
As such, it will:
- Replace the Deux-Montagnes line, which it was designed to do;
- Replace the Mascouche line for the Mount Royal tunnel stretch, as the Mascouche trains will no longer go through the tunnel (new technology for the REM in the tunnel is incompatible with the Mascouche trains). The Mascouche line will therefore terminate at the creatively named “A40 station”, where riders will transfer to the REM.
- Replace most of the Vaudreuil-Hudson line, which serves the West Island up to St-Anne-de-Bellevue, and a bit beyond that. West Islanders have been asking for improved service on that line for many lines, or some sort of replacement with better service. This is what the REM provides via its West Island branch.
- Transport passengers from the Saint-Jérôme line who will transfer to the REM at the newly-built Canora station to reach downtown 20 minutes earlier.
So how much capacity do these four commuter lines have today?
The graph below shows the capacity of the REM versus the four commuter rail lines and the Orange Line throughout the day.
We see that the current commuter lines have a combined morning peak capacity of around 25,000 PPHD, and that the peak is, well… very peaky: the network needs to move a huge number of people during the morning rush hour around 8:00. During the rest of the day, the commuter rail lines provide little service, because they are not all day frequent transit. REM on the other hand will provide all-day frequent service, but not enough capacity during the peak. Compare this to the Orange Metro line, which has all day frequent service, but can yank up the capacity during rush hour to almost three times what the REM line will offer, much more than all of Montreal’s commuter rail lines combined.
The REM marketing material boasts a 50% daily capacity increase, but that’s pretty useless for those who need to use it during the hour between 7:30 and 8:30. That’s when most people need to get to work, and they’re not going to change their work schedule just because the REM can’t handle the traffic.
And this is just the current situation, and just the existing commuter rail lines. We are not considering the added demand that will be generated by the REM as more people ditch their cars or slower bus lines for the more convenient rail system. Or the people along the Blue Line who will have a much more convenient route downtown.
What does that Mean in Practice?
1. Train overcrowding
It’s rush hour. On the Deux-Montagnes line, between 8:00 and 9:00, more than 7000 people need to get to work. The Deux-Montagnes branch of the REM will have a frequency of at most 6 minutes, which provides a capacity of 6000 PPHD. That’s already 1000 below what’s needed. Trains will be super full, people will have to wait.
Quick aside: you didn’t think 3 minutes at peak was for the entire network, did you? Nope, that’s only for the trunk stretch, where the trains from the different branches merge together.
The West-Island branch will probably run at, or close to, its max capacity of 6000 PPHD, since it provides a much more convenient alternative to the Vaudreuil-Hudson line for many West Islanders (current capacity: 7500 PPHD).
As the trains go through the downtown stations, they will have to take on all the commuters transferring from the Mascouche line (3000 PPHD). Indeed, the line, which currently goes directly downtown through the Mount-Royal Tunnel, will terminate at the REM because it won’t be compatible with the new rail system they’ll put in the Tunnel for the REM.
The REM will also have to take on the people who will choose to transfer from the St-Jérôme line at the new Canora transfer station, since this will allow them to reach downtown 20 minutes faster.
At any rate, the REM needs double its planned capacity just to transport the current commuter line riders.
Which brings us to our next point:
2. Platform overcrowding
At the “A40” transfer station, each train coming from Mascouche can offload up to 2000 people. These commuters will have to wait in line to squeeze onto the already-full REM. Given that the platforms in the REM stations will be 80m long (less than 30% of the length of the commuter train) and built for trains that carry 600 passengers, it’s not clear where and how long these people will have to wait.
Further along, the riders from the St-Jérôme line will also arrive in batches of 2000 people per train, who will wait even longer to squeeze into even fuller trains. Considering how crowded the trains are, they may choose to stay on their train and continue on their existing commutes.
You might think you’re one of the lucky ones who live far enough to be the first on the train and maybe even get a seat. But the after-work commute is the great equalizer, and you’ll be stuck waiting on the platform with all 3 branches’ riders going home. And since there are only two stations in downtown, each only 80m long, it will be like pushing towards the stage at a pop concert.
3. Passengers overflowing into the Metro
The REM proposal will have a new transfer at Canora that allows commuters on the St-Jérôme line to go downtown via the REM. This would be great to relieve the Orange Line, as many riders transfer today at De la Concorde. Unfortunately, due to the low capacity, commuters will probably keep using the crowded Orange Line.
Worse yet, the Caisse’s plan includes an ‘improved connection’ at Sauvé, which will allow more passengers from the Mascouche line to transfer to the Orange Line. This may be part of the Caisse’s plan to relieve some of the pressure on their own system, as Mascouche riders may prefer to transfer at Sauvé instead of the crowded “A40” REM station.
Given all the above, there also won’t be enough capacity on the REM for people to transfer at the proposed Édouard-Montpetit station from the Blue Line for a direct connection downtown. Since the station is labelled only as a ‘potential station’, chances are it will not be built at all. So instead of transferring onto the REM line, Blue line riders will continue using the Orange Line to get downtown.
In effect, instead of relieving the most overcrowded section of the most overcrowded line in Montreal, the REM line will instead be dumping more passengers onto it.
“Just run it every 60 Seconds!”
The capacities we just calculated already use the maximum frequencies quoted in the proposal (every 3 minutes on the trunk line). It is unlikely that we could run significantly more trains on the network as it is structured, since the 3-minute frequency is so close to the maximum theoretical capacity of the system.
The Caisse plans to build 80-metre-long stations, so trains can only be that long. Therefore, the only way to provide enough capacity to absorb just the existing commuter rail lines, without even considering the transfers from the Blue Line or any added demand, is to run the trains at 90 second frequencies.
This is double the proposed maximum frequency (and I repeat: just to absorb the existing traffic!), and poses problems on many levels:
The proposal includes an initial order of only 200 train cars (every peak-hour train will be composed of two of these). Even operating all of them would only allow 135 second frequencies, assuming the most optimistic travel times on the whole line (this is based on adding the total the minimum travel times of all the branches, adding a bit of turn-around time, and dividing by having 100 2-car trains, assuming 10% spares).
Even if they were to order more trains, it would be extremely difficult to have 90 second frequencies.
The highest frequency line in Canada is the trunk line of the Expo and Millennium lines, 108 seconds. Once you reach that level, every extra second gets harder, as the time between trains has to be longer than the time the train takes to enter the station, stop at the station and leave the station, plus padding for safety, plus padding to allow maintaining the schedule.
Since there will be very few REM stations downtown and the trains will be very full, there will be a lot of people getting off at each station. The trains will have to wait longer for people to get in and out, especially since the small stations won’t be able to deal well with all that crowding.
Moreover, 90 second frequencies are extremely hard to sustain for long periods of time, as the system needs to run like clockwork. Any delay will cascade through the system, because the distance between the trains will be too small to adjust or catch up to their schedule.
But the really scary constraint is the Mount Royal tunnel. If we run trains every 90 seconds, there will be up to 3 trains in the tunnel at the same time. If something goes wrong, the middle train will be stuck in the tunnel. That’s a bad idea, because there are no emergency exits in-between stations.
In order to safely run trains through the Mount-Royal tunnel, a frequency of 120 seconds will make sure no more than 2 trains are in the tunnel at any time in a given direction and will allow enough padding to sustain a regular schedule without cascading delays.
However, given the short trains, 120 second frequencies mean we will still have a peak capacity shortage of 6000 passengers per hour, or 50%, just to absorb the existing commuter rail traffic!
Basically, even stretching the system beyond its planned limits will not give us enough capacity to add a single new passenger!
For Some, the new Train means Going back to the Car
For all the good points outlined in my previous post, it seems that, unfortunately, the REM falls short on the most important aspect: actually getting everyone from point A to point B.
For commuters, who will be the biggest users, the REM is disappointing. Instead of getting a fast, efficient and modern system, we are looking at stuffy commutes on overcrowded trains. Seating capacity may be slightly better than the Metro, but it certainly will be worse than today’s commuter trains and will mean standing room only for more than half the people on each train.
In the marketing material of the REM project the Caisse announces “a new mode of transportation” and a “a new way of life”, to fix the “saturated and limited system”. And how does the Caisse plan to solve our transit problems? With wifi, platform screen doors and air-conditioning everywhere, to entice drivers to switch to public transit!
The Caisse needs to seriously ask itself how it can expect drivers to actually switch to their new system, when there’s barely enough capacity to carry the current passenger load. In fact, current train riders might ditch transit altogether!
I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that the Caisse may be tempted to institute higher fares, higher than the normal Metro fare you’d expect, in order to discourage ridership and bring it in line with the built capacities. After all, the Caisse is a retirement fund and wants to make money operating this line. Higher fares would be great for that – the Caisse can build the line with lower capacity than needed, then charge higher fares until those who are not willing to pay find other ways to get to work. The Caisse will end up with more money, a system running at an efficient capacity, and the public will have received less transit than what they were sold (construction cost will be shared between the Caisse and the public).
Why the Caisse is in Love with Light RailAnd you Shouldn’t be
So why would the Caisse want to tear down a whole electrified transit line and rebuild it entirely, using trains that have less than a third of today’s length? The answer can be found if you look at their previous projects. It seems the Caisse wants to simply replicate the success it had in Vancouver with the Canada Line, ignoring glaring issues like the capacity problems.
The Canada Line is a fully automated light metro line that runs from downtown Vancouver, through a tunnel, then splits into two branches: one going to the suburb of Richmond, and the other going to the airport. It uses very ‘light’ rail: the trains are only 2 cars (40m) long. The line relies on automation and high frequency to compensate for the small train length, just like the REM. Overall it works well and has sufficient train capacity, but the very short stations are already causing platform crowding issues, even though passengers are spread across many stations where they can start and end their journey.
While the Canada Line works well enough for one single line in Vancouver, it is grossly inadequate for Montreal, where it’s supposed to replace an entire network.
Given the scale of the project and the amount of money that will be invested in it, it would make more sense to build a system that is future-proof and could be eventually scaled up to much higher capacities, rather than a system that will already be beyond capacity from day one.
I hope the Caisse will rethink their choice to build a light metro, and, instead, opt for a technology with higher capacity, that can integrate with the existing lines, and that we can expand later.
And we the public, who still have to pay for half the project, and who will be stuck riding it afterwards, should hold them to that.
Thanks to JC for her help in writing the article.