A Montreal tram report studies the viability of a starter line. However, the proposed line includes a downtown loop, a section with questionable utility. Also, the proposed construction costs are too high. If we want a sensible network of trams that improves rides for as many people as possible, we need to focus on utility, and we need to aggressively contain costs.
Last week the city of Montreal finally released their tram study, which the city received 18 months ago. The 1095-page study details the feasibility of a starter line. Here are the highlights:
- line length: 13.2km
- number of stations: 32
- average distance between stations: 425m
- average speed 18.1km/h
- projected ridership: 26.6 M/year (70K a day)
- trams: 26 trains, 30-35m length, 2.65m width
- cost: 850million, without tax and contingencies (about a billion with)
As you can see from the above map, the line consists of a corridor along Côte-des-Neiges and a loop around the Old Port. The line is on separated lanes on its entire length. The base service frequency is intended to be around 8 minutes. During rush hour, the Côte-des-Neiges corridor would see the frequency double to every 4 minutes. During the “peak downtown period”, the pattern would reverse, with the downtown loop now having its frequency doubled to every 4 minutes.
It is great that this study was finally released. It would be nice if the AMT did this too. Its also good news that the basic viability of trams in Montreal is shown. But looking over the documents, there are some issues that I would like to raise.
The Downtown Loop
The first thing to notice is the loop around Old Montreal, a section that seems to be a rather bad piece of planning. Actually it’s not a complete loop with trains travelling in a complete circle, because it’s disconnected at the north-west corner, where trams terminate and turn around. The construction of this loop seems to be mostly driven by political interest, and from developers. In general, downtown circulators are a bad idea, they underperform. They are not useful for enough people. They don’t let you travel the shortest distance to where you need to go. Many travels along small loops are faster by walking directly, rather than waiting for a train and taking an indirect route to a nearby location.
In 2008, The STM established the 515 bus (now 715) as a precursor for the planned tram (except that it actually runs in a complete circle). Already by Decemeber the failure of that line was obvious, with only 1200 daily boardings rather than the projected 6000. According to ridership data from 2011 that I extracted from Opus card data, there were less than 800 daily boardings on that bus. That is not nearly enough for a tram. and given that there are many bus corridors with fifty times the daily boardings like Pie-IX, Sauvé, Saint-Michel or Henri-Bourassa, focusing on this section is misguided at best.
Naturally, a tram may attract more potential riders, and more development, which should bring more riders. The study considers this induced demand, and gives us this graph of what the STM projected hourly ridership during the peak period would be like:
We see that according to the projections the Côte-des-Neiges section shows much more potential than the downtown loop, which simply cannot attract riders. And those numbers may be optimistic, just like the projections for the 515 bus. Many riders may also only be seasonal, and that’s not just tourists. And the Côte-des-Neiges and downtown loop section appear to have non-connected ridership. Trams are nearly empty somewhere along the middle of the line. There are few potential trips that cross those points.
Overall, the downtown loop is simply a waste of money considering the transportation needs of the greater Montreal region. The only section along the the loop that has some potential is the Peel corridor along the West of the loop. That portion overlaps with the another transit plan along the Champlain bridge light rail. This is a transit project to connect the Shore suburb of Brossard to downtown, via the replacement Champlain through Nun’s island and Griffintown. That project is very worthwhile and would make the less than 2km track along Peel redundant.
The study also compares two possible corridors for the non-downtown-loop portion, Côte-des-Neiges and Ave due Parc:
The above table shows that the the Côte-des-Neiges corridor is a better than the one along Parc, which appears reasonable. But why were the two corridors compared for their potential, but the downtown loop was included in both cases seemingly without question?
The two compared corridors have similar ridership, so it appears natural to just connect them into one line which will have fairly balanced ridership. This would almost exactly follow the successful rush-hour-only 435 bus. It would be possible to “unroll” the downtown loop, and instead build it along the Parc corridor. The length of that line would be about the same as the one proposed by the study, ~13km. This line would replace the 80, 165 and 435 buses, which together have about 60K daily boardings (in 2011) – when one considers the possibility of induced demand, it should be obvious that this is a much more worthwhile starting segment than including the proposed loop with only one of the useful corridors.
Another, if smaller, issue is that the downtown loop includes the steepest grade along the whole line – the ruling gradient:
Because of only the small section of 12%, all the trains have to be able to climb that grade. If excluded, the ruling grade is 10%, which is generally considered the maximum for trams. This may result in less technical complexity, more bidders on the rolling stock, and less cost for vehicle acquisition.
The cost is currently budgeted at 850$ million for 13.2km, without taxes and contingencies, a billion with those included. That means about 65$ million/km without taxes and contingencies, and 75$ million/km with. This appears pretty high. For example, the French city of Besancon is building its initial 14.5km line for 22 million$/km. This is of course only one data point. the Montreal tram study compares to five different French data points to show that the cost are not too high.
To get a more thorough comparison, I compiled a list of about a hundred French tram construction projects. It covers projects from the beginning of the tram renaissance at the end of the eighties, to projects being planned now. The numbers are all without taxes, adjusted for inflation relative to 2010 (to compare to the Montreal study) and converted to dollars using the average rate of that year (1.37$/€). According to these numbers, the construction costs in France for a kilometer of tram are about 35$ million/km on average. In comparison, the Montreal costs are estimated 85% higher than that. (I will publish the data and more details in another blog post soon).
French tram projects aren’t actually considered cheap. They tend to include a lot of urban improvement and renovation of the streetscape, and are built to a high visual standard. They are used as drivers for development not just via transportation, but also urban beautification. The tram systems tend to be a little over-designed. Some of the systems include short tunneling sections. The French also like to avoid overhead wiring in their historic city centers, using a system called l’alimentation par le sol (APS), a ground level power supply, which adds to the cost.
Compare to Germany, where trams are used as a form of transit to bridge the gap between buses and subway, rather than a chance to beautify the city. There, tram construction costs are generally considered to be at around 10 million €/km (14 million$/km) and 15million € when built in downtown (21 million $/km). A more utilitarian approach is also what allowed Besancon to keep its tram construction low.
There are some budget items in the Montreal project that are inherently more expensive than elsewhere, for example the maintenance center and garage. It has to be completely indoors, due the climate. But overall, the construciton costs should be lower, because the project is comparably simple. The tram can be completely contained inside the existing streetscape. There are no heavy works required like rebuilding bridges. It shouldn’t need any of the features that drive up cost, for example tunnels or ground level power supply. And while nice, it doesn’t need urban beautification along its entire length.
The study includes a 100$M option for a 500m tunnel under Pine, providing better access to the Montreal General Hospital via an underground station. This is probably not a worthwhile investment. But note how over-designed this tunnel station is: wider than some metro stations, three elevators, 12m deep, and a tunnel height of 6.2m. It could be designed with a 6~8m island platform, directly under the street, with a single elevator and stairs, no mezzanine, and tunnels that are barely higher than the trains themselves.
What is the Role of a Tram?
All trams are not created equal. There are different paradigms of how trams are built and what exact purpose they have in terms of transportation and urban development.
In France, the tram systems built over the last twenty years have been urban development and renewal projects as much as they are transportation projects. There has been great care to integrate those trams into historic centers with its pedestrian areas, and a lot of money spent on beautification and new technology that avoids overhead wires in certain sections. At the same time, they are the major mode of transport in some medium size cities (i.e. around and less than a million). Some of those metropolitan areas are pretty compact, so these systems have high ridership.
In the US, the development potential of trams has been recognized. Now there are a few new projects underway to build streetcars. Many of these projects have little transportation value, using single, short lines, sharing space with cars. Some are only single track for portions and have very low frequency. These projects appear to be built solely for their development potential.
In Germany, trams tend have more utilitarian transport character. They are built generally as pure transportation projects, in corridors where ridership is expected to be between about 4K and 30K~40k per day, above which rapid transit is favored. Towards the high end, they tend to build subway-tram hybrid systems (Stadtbahn), which attempt to combine advantages of subway (high capacity/speed downtown) with trams (cheaper construction or possibility of re-using existing systems to get good coverage).
So what Role Should Trams Have in Montreal?
The released study appears to orient itself very closely to the French model of tram building. That’s evident not just in the use of pictures and comparisons for cost and rolling stock, but also how the development of the line is envisioned, the complete re-configuring of streets. The loop around the old port may also be an attempt to replicate the image of the French tram through a historic city center.
Given the high cost of the project relative to its transportation value, especially in comparison to other tram systems, I’m concerned that we may end up with a project that is largely a development stimulus one. The chosen paradigm may not lead to transportation improvements throughout the city, simply because building a large network at this cost is not economically viable. This is problematic for our transportation starved city.
Montreal is currently a major bus city, with many people spending large amounts of time in crowded buses feeding into metros. Some of our bus corridors have more ridership than the 40K/day that Germans consider good enough for rapid transit, many more have lower ridership which can still be more economical to operate as trams. For many of these riders that live further away form the metro, trams could improve the quality of their commute, and thus the quality of life. A large network could spread the development and gentrification pressure, and allow less affluent people better access to jobs, again rising quality of live for everybody.
Trams in Montreal should primarily be used to improve existing bus commutes. Tram projects should be about transportation, not helping development interests downtown.
Costs Need to be Contained
If we want to build as many tram lines as possible, we have to focus more on keeping the costs down. Construction should be simplified. For example, we don’t need to reconfigure entire streets. For the tram line in the study, we could do that just for the René-Lévesque Levesque corridor, and only few parts of Côte-des-Neiges.
Beautifully rebuilt portion of Côte-des-Neiges where nobody lives and development potential is low.
The downtown loop, with its relatively small transportation value, should be scrapped. Instead, the Parc Ave corridor should be preferred. If we aim for good cost/benefit in terms of ridership and improved commutes, one could also pick a completely different initial segment. why not start the tram outside of downtown, for example along the Pie-IX or Gouin/Henri-Bourassa corridors?
Pie-ix currently has a expensive BRT project, at 20$M/km. It suffers high cost (for a BRT project) due to a similar issue as the proposed tram: rebuilding the street. The project includes widening its right of way from 30.5 to 33.5m. With a tram, the transit right of way could be narrowed from the planned 8.40m (for two bus lanes) to as little as 6.35m (using 2.4m wide trams). Steal some more space from wide car lanes, and it will be unnecessary to buy land and cut down trees, and the higher cost of the track could be partly offset by reducing the street-widening costs. The maintenance center and garage may be cheaper further away from downtown. And the potential to improve people’s commutes is greater along that corridor, that sees long, crowded bus commutes.
Other ways to keep construction costs down for any tram project may be to partner up with other Quebec cities that envision building trams, like Quebec City, (or the AMT for the Champlain bridge corridor), or cities that think about building trolleybuses, like Laval. The rolling stock and related expertise could be pooled and large orders be made, which result in lower per-unit prices. The development expertise and management may be shared and done in-house, potentially reducing costs (right now budgeted at 100$M before tax, nearly as much as the rolling stock).
I really want trams to come to Montreal. But if we cannot keep the costs down, and the city has to plunk down a cool billion for 13 km, and the possibilities of building an actual network are slim, then this will just become another project in the region that envisions one short line and yet another technology. In that case, maybe it makes more sense to invest in much cheaper improvements to our bus corridors.
Thanks to Kamal Marhubi and Julia Evans for reading drafts.