REM: A Look at Ridership and Costs

June 6th, 2016 by ant6n

A look at the REM project that reveals the giant project mixes good investments and bad investments, but the caisse will make us pay for them all.

Ever since the Caisse published their REM proposal, I have been trying to figure out whether their project makes sense. This post takes a hard look at the cost/benefits.

With the REM, the Caisse wants to take over the electrified, 30km long Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line, which is owned by the public, expand and convert it into a 67-km automated light metro, and have the public foot half the bill.

Not only does the project require 2.5 billion of direct public financing, it also includes a lot of implied financing and costs:

  • taking over public assets, for example the Deux-Montagnes line, and the existing busway in the Champlain Corridor
  • having the public provide infrastructure, like the right of way on the newly built Champlain bridge
  • causing the government to write off hundreds of millions of assets, such as the Pointe-Sainte-Charles maintenance center, or the existing Deux-Montagnes line rolling stock
  • pocket a percentage of real estate taxes from developments near the line, via a scheme called tax-increment financing

Given all this, we should ensure that the project is a good investment. A project of this magnitude should only receive public support if it can show a good cost-benefit ratio.

The easiest way to gauge whether a project is a good investment is to look at the projected ridership relative to the construction cost. Every dollar spent on transit should give us as many riders as possible. If another project can attract more riders per dollar, then that should be built instead.

The cost-benefit ratio should also be considered for every constituent part of the project. The REM is a huge project made of various parts that have very different ridership levels and probably different cost-benefit ratios.

The Caisse only ever talks about the REM as a whole. And as a whole, it’s very hard to get a sense of the costs and benefits, which is why it’s worth splitting it into individual parts for analysis:

  • The Existing Deux-Montagnes line from Central Station to Deux-Montagnes (30 km)
  • The Brossard Branch Central Station to Brossard (15 km)
  • The West Island Branch to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue (16 km)
  • The Airport Branch (5.5 km)

The Benefit: Weekday Ridership

The Caisse has refused to provide their ridership study. When I asked them about it at their town-hall meeting, they said they will publish it this fall, or maybe next year.

Their documentation only gives us a high level view of the projected ridership, which unfortunately (and probably intentionnally) combines the West-Island Branch and the existing Deux-Montagnes line under the “Deux-Montagnes” heading:

Ridership for the REM, with West Island and Deux-Montagnes branch thrown together. The A10/downtown corridor refers to the Brossard branch.

Ridership for the REM, with West Island and Deux-Montagnes branch thrown together. The A10/downtown corridor refers to the Brossard branch.

The table does not provide the current ridership numbers for the individual West-Island and Deux-Montagnes branches. So how do we find out the ridership for each of them?

To further complicate things, the Caisse provided the following map, which only shows the ridership increase for each branch:


So there’s no easy way to see what the total ridership is going to be like in the West Island. Luckily for us, we can actually combine the two sources to get a better picture of what’s going on.

The map tells us that the ridership along the West Island branch will increase by 11K riders per day. If we add up the numbers from the map and the table, we see:

Ridership projection for 2021 (Deux-Montagnes and West-Island line)
Today’s ridership on the Deux Montagnes line, from table:
(According to the AMT it was actually 31K in 2014, and 30.4K in 2015)
Additional Ridership on the Deux Montagnes line, from map: 22,000
Today’s ridership on the West-Island line: ???
Additional Ridership on the West-Island line, from map: 11,000
Total: 60,000

The numbers we have add up to 60K, which is actually the same as the total projected ridership for both branches! This essentially means the Caisse assumes 0 riders on the West Island Branch today and the given +11K ridership on that branch is actually the total ridership on that branch.

11K, for 16 km of new track?!

There are bus lines in Montreal that get three times that ridership! For example, the 121 and the 141 get a weekday ridership of 30K (see page 24).

And in this context, when we say ‘ridership’, we’re actually counting trips. Since people, especially commuters, will generally make two trips per day, 11K means only 5500 people will be served by that line.

I’ve been staring at these documents for 3 weeks, and I hadn’t noticed this number trick until now. Combining the ridership of the two branches in the table is quite clever, it effectively hides how low the ridership is on the West Island branch.

The low ridership is probably due to routing the REM along a highway that is surrounded by a semi-industrial area, which in turn is surrounded by low-density suburban housing. It’s so far from where people live and the access will be so miserable that not many will take it.

In any case, we get the following estimated weekday ridership drilldown:

  • Deux Montagnes branch: 49K (including 30K today)
  • Brossard branch: 80K
  • Airport branch: 10K
  • West Island branch: 11K

The Cost: Construction Cost

The Caisse provided no drilldown of their construction costs either. I asked several people at their townhall, and they told me they will publish no information about that. I asked Denis Andlauer, their operations director, whether I could assume 100M for elevated lines and 200M for underground lines, and he gave me a non-committed maybe to that. At least he didn’t disagree.

What we do know is the total cost of the project, approximately how many kilometers will be underground, overground, on ground level, on existing track, and on an old freight track. We also know how many new grade crossing removals there will be, and how many stations.

I created a spreadsheet to collect the cost in a model to add up all the numbers we have. The idea is to create reasonable estimates, that are not too far off from what the Caisse is working with, to get an idea how much each branch will cost. This gives us the following drill-down for the branches:

Collecting all the expenses required for all the branches: the various kilometers built either underground, overground, elevated, or by just rebuilding track (for the Deux-Montagnes line). Note also the separate items for stations, removing of crossings, and vehicles.

Deux-Montagnes Branch Brossard Branch West Island Branch Airport Branch total
underground track 0.0km 2.9km 0.0km 3.0km 5.9km
elevated track 0.0km 6.6km 9.2km 2.5km 18.3km
at-grade track 0.0km 5.5km 7.1km 0.0km 12.6km
upgrade track 30.0km 0.0km 0.0km 0.0km 30.0km
vehicles* 84 42 42 32 200
stations 13 4 5 2 24
crossings 14 0 6 0 20

*I calculated the number of vehicles per line by taking the travel time for each branch (20min-40min) and the trains knowing the frequency on the Brossard and Deux-Montagnes branch will be twice the frequency of the airport and West Island branch.

Cost Assumptions

We can get some some ideas about construction cost and rolling stock cost by referring to similar existing systems. The following shows the cost assumptions. All costs are given in millions.

underground cost/km 200$
elevated cost/km 100$
at-grade cost/km 30$
upgrade cost/km 10$
vehicle cost 3.5$
station cost 30$
grade separation 15$

Resulting Costs

In million dollars:

Deux-Montagnes Branch Brossard Branch West Island Branch Airport Branch totals
underground track 0$ 580$ 0$ 600$ 1,180$
elevated track 0$ 663$ 920$ 250$ 1,833$
at-grade track 0$ 164$ 213$ 0$ 377$
upgrade track 300$ 0$ 0$ 0$ 300$
vehicles 294$ 147$ 147$ 112$ 700$
stations 390$ 120$ 150$ 60$ 720$
crossings 210$ 0$ 90$ 0$ 300$
totals: 1,194$ 1,674$ 1,520$ 1,022$ 5,410$

If the cost assumptions are changed, the cost for the branches will change. But since they always have to add up to 5.5 billion, the variation is actually not that big.

It turns out that the cost of the four branches are surprisingly similar, the biggest number isn’t even double the smallest..

It also appears that the cost of the West-Island Branch and the Brossard branch end up being fairly similar, although the Brossard branch gets more than 7 times the ridership!

The updates on the Deux-Montagnes line may also end up being relatively expensive, all those stations rebuilds and grade crossings will add up. And even if rebuilding the actual line is cheap per kilometer, there are many kilometers on that line.

The Cost/Benefit

If we divide the cost per ridership, we get the following table.

cost ridership cost/rider ($)
Brossard branch 1,674M$ 80K 20,926$
Deux-Montagnes branch 1,194M$ 19K 62,842$
Airport branch 1,022M$ 10K 102,200$
West Island branch 1,520M$ 11K 138,182$

Compare this to other transit projects:

construction cost
weekday ridership
C-Train (lrt) 582M$ 187K 3,110$
Edmonton lrt 404M$ 70K 5,774$
Pie-IX Busway (brt) 316M$ 70K 4,514$
Laval Extension (metro) 829M$ 60K 13,825$
Canada Line (light metro) 2100M$ 135K 15,441$
Blue Line Extension (metro) 3000M$ 80K 37,500$
Spadina Extension (metro) 3184M$ 100K 31,840$
Pearson Express (heavy rail) 456M$ 5K 91,200$
Mascouche Line (heavy rail) 671M$ 6.5K 107,692$

Basically, the airport and the West Island branch are very expensive compared to their utility, and are bad investments. Both branches are as bad and worse in terms of investment than the Mascouche line and the Pearson Express, the worst transit projects I know of in Canada.

The upgrades to the Deux-Montagnes line are not a very good investment, since we could most likely achieve those extra 20K riders by keeping the existing technology and upgrading it incrementally to reach service that runs every 15 minutes.

By contrast, the Brossard branch will be a very good investment.


If we look at the table again, we see that the Brossard branch will basically cost the same as the West Island branch, although it will bring more than 7 times the ridership!

By throwing all these disparate investments into the same project, the Caisse is effectively using Brossard to prop up the West Island and airport branches.

It’s also using the most profitable (self-financing) line of the AMT, the Deux-Montagnes, line to support the West Island and airport branches.

Taking over the Deux-Montagnes line was not part of the government mandate given to the Caisse – it was actually quite a surprise when they announced the project. It’s possible that without it, the REM may not be profitable overall, with the West-Island and Airport branches having such low ridership. It seems like the Caisse decided to take over the line to sweeten the deal for themselves.

In the end, it is the Deux Montagnes and Brossard riders who will subsidize the operation of the other branches. That is, if the REM even turns out to be profitable overall.

And every taxpayer will subsidize their construction, because the Caisse will take over existing infrastructure, which are public assets, and because half the line will be paid directly by our taxes. And our public money will pay for the bad investments along with the good ones.

It comes down to the Quebec government mandate that was given to the Caisse, a checklist of three items: Brossard, West Island, airport.

But this checklist approach to transit planning doesn’t work; we need an integrated regional plan that considers all of the Montreal region and will improve transit for everybody, incrementally, starting with the most cost-effective projects.


Some more thoughts on the Deux-Montagnes line

The Deux-Montagnes line could most likely get those extra 20K trips without spending a billion to rebuild the line. We could most likely achieve it by improvements and changing operations for a few hundred million. Meanwhile, without the Deux-Montagnes line, the self-financing ratio of the AMT will plummet and all the municipalities served by the other lines will have to pick up the slack. Consider the self-financing ratios of the AMT lines:


The Deux-Montagnes line has a 55% self-financing ratio. And that’s despite being operated like an old-timey railroad with infrequent service and multiple staff on the train (at least one fully certified railroad engineer and a conductor). If it was re-organized like a transit line, it could become profitable even without full-on automation, and without having to rebuild the whole line.


Thanks to JC for her help in writing the article.

8 Responses to “REM: A Look at Ridership and Costs”

  1. 3MK29A Says:

    I find the 11k estimate for the West Island branch to be pretty low. There’s already that number of people taking the 470 bus to Cote-Vertu, I have to imagine a faster and more comfortable route downtown would attract many of those riders and a lot of the new residents from the condo projects up and down the major boulevards.

  2. Faiz Imam Says:

    Right? it’s the first thing I noticed. The math here does a good job showing that 11k really is the right number in their studies, but I can’t understand how.

    If I put myself in the mind of the STM network planners, the first reaction to this line would be to reorient the west island network around the REM. Especially with the confirmation that the Fairview station will move to be right next to the new station there.

    I would expect that the express buses that travel down the 20 and 40 will be vastly reduced during rush hour, and a significant increase in frequency of the lines that head towards the new stations.

    That alone would provide tens of thousands of rides, and does not include the potentially huge induced demand of these stations, both in terms of mode switch of commuters heading downtown but also shifting local mobility with shorter trips.

    Regardless, great job deconstructing this, I really like the focus on the privatization of state assets and shifting costs. The province and feds are paying for just under half this project, yet the caisse claims it will totally own the whole thing. How does that work?

  3. ant6n Says:

    @Faiz: Well, you know my view of terminal and spoke systems around highway based stations. The more time you spent on the feeder, the less effective the system will be.

    But in any case, most of the ridership on the West Island branch, even if it turns out to be much higher than this initial estimate, will come from Fairview — and most of the cost estimate is due to the almost 8km after Fairview. The branch would probably make much more financial sense simply terminating at Fairview; and would cause much less concerns regarding sprawl and developing green spaces.

  4. Faiz Imam Says:

    For sure. IMO extending to Fairview is almost as justified as the south short branch. After that its more suspect.

    If I had to guess, I would speculate that the extension after that is for two reasons. The St anne station is designed as a huge park and ride just like Rive-sud. If they didn’t have that they would saturate Fairview and the surrounding roads with parking and congestion more than it already is.

    This way they shift the cars off and may be able to develop in the fairview area with less waste. Especially with the Kirkland station being as poorly palced as it is, have you paid attention to it’s location? its the worst of them all!

    Anyways, the second reason is a political move to make this plan palatable to a lot more people.

    Even with the line going to St Anne, we quickly heard complaints from leaders in Veaudreuil and St-Lazare about it not extending off the island the same was it goes to deux montagne. If they stopped at Fairview the complaints would be much louder and may have interfered with making it happen.

    Also the marginal cost of extending beyond fairview are not that much more. It’s a very straightforward route that will be trivial to build. Which is probably why the cost benefit calculation stopped it there.

  5. ant6n Says:

    Actually, in the model I’ve built, most of the cost of the West Island branch is _after_ Fairview. This is because the 8km or so from the Deux-Montagnes line to Fairview include 7km along the existing doney spur right of way on ground level. The line still has to be completely rebuilt, tracks replaced, electrification added, and grade crossings removed. But overall it’s not too expensive. After Fairview, it’s an elevated line for 8km, because there’s no space to run it on ground level along the A-40. Maybe the cost assumption is a bit simple, but to me it appears that’s where most of the cost of that branch is.

    As in, for the cost of that branch after Fairview, it would make more sense to upgrade the Vaudreuil-Hudson line as much as possible. If the line terminated at Fairview, it would also compete much less with the Vaudreuil-Hudson line.

  6. Dimitrios Raptis Says:

    Excellent effort Anton and basic reason arguments concerning the Caisse de Dépôt half baked (data to be fully baked next autumn, maybe) presentation.
    How come the blue line extension would cost 500million$ per km, according to the troubled Transport Quebec ministry experts and ‘’only’’ 200m$/km for the Caisse ? For Laval, with corruption and going under the Riviere des Prairies was 150M$/km !
    What does our society need? Some ”profitable” lines and agricultural land conversion to buildings and free loading parking at the terminals or an efficient Quebec? Further scattering the Montreal population, with already 5 times less density than Paris is against any environmental objective. Adding this recurrent environmental cost to the present 1 hour time, minimum, to the disastrous present congestion in the A40 between Lacordaire and Decarie section of the A40, that will be left untouched, would have killed the Caisse de Dépôt idea, if it had any reasonable chance to be acceptable.
    A blue line extension from the airport to the east of A25 in Anjou is what we need, since in the morning a huge amount of people working in the industry close to the airport congests it in the east to west direction, the evening is the mirror image. Wasting 100 minutes to get to work ( STM info time) is much worse than the 60 min time for only 4% of the Germans.
    In ancient greek, somebody who was looking at his own interests only and not that of the city was called ‘’idiotis’’. The word is very similar in the modern english and so is the meaning. The penalty in those days was exile.
    Please read:

  7. ant6n Says:

    I think the 500M are because they’re planning a bored tunnel, while most of the caisse is cut-and-dover. The tunnels are also along developed areas, under houses, so the construction is more complicated and there may be infrastructure relocation issues, and there may be more property acquisition cost issues. Finally, the 200M is just for the tunnels, without any stations. The Blue Line extension includes 5 full size underground stations, which again are very expensive, and again require a lot of infrastructure relocation, real estate acquisitions etc.

    Finally, if I chose a much higher number than 200M per km for the Caisse’s project, then I’d have to dial down the costs of everything else much more in order to make it sum up to 5.5 billion, and that seems less realistic.

  8. Tom Says:

    Awesome read! Keep up the good work.

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