Archive for the ‘Montréal’ Category

2017 in Review

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

View of Montreal and Mont-Royal from the North. Note the Mont-Royal tunnel entrance below the center.

In 2017 for this blog, the big story continued to be the REM. Early in the year the BAPE (environmental consultation process) published their report, in which they concluded that at this time they can not recommend that this project should continue. I had been following that consultation closely, and wrote a long memoir and gave a presentation at the BAPE, which focussed on issues with the project and possible ways to address them (see 1-page synthesis map).

I also noted VIA Rail’s strange contribution to the consultations, where it appeared they were in favor of a project that will compromise their plans for an intercity rail network.

During the year, CDPQInfra continued undeterred and unwilling to address the problems identified in the consultations, backed by municipal and provincial governments whose highest priorities were that the project continue as fast as possible, at any cost. The provincial government even passed a law to override processes and construct an alternate reality in order to rush the project through.

One particular concern, besides the planning issues and CDPQInfra’s continuing misrepresentations of numbers and facts, is the privatization of important existing rail infrastructure. Late in the year I made an accounting of the value they will receive via the privatization of the Deux-Montagnes line and Mont-Royal tunnel, estimating that this will represent a subsidy worth about a billion dollars.

Other stories in 2017

But there were other things happening this year.

On big story in 2017 in Montreal was the municipal election in the fall. I kept relatively quiet overall, but did write a long and pretty successful article about the technology and planning behind Barcelona’s Line 9 project, and how it allowed the construction of a long and complicated metro line.

The Barcelona metro line was used as an example by municipal party Projet Montreal to show that it is at least possible to build their proposed “Pink Line” at the suggested cost-levels. Meanwhile, incumbent mayor Coderre derided the proposal as ludicrous.

Coderre lost the election.

Another story that was big on this blog was the Vendome second access project. I wrote a report and gave a presentation at the public consultations to point out the long transfer distances in the plans and proposed changes to shorten them.

Late in the year, another transportation story was the call by Prime Minister to Cuilliard to build a high speed transit link between Montreal and Quebec City, but he didn’t want it to be conventional rail. As proponents of speculative fixed guide technologies popped up to advocate the supposed superiority of their yet undeveloped solutions, I warned about trusting them too much in an article titled “What’s a Gadgetbahn?”.

2017 and Me

On a personal level, I stopped working at Transit App in 2017. I had worked there for three and half years. Among other things, I developed an algorithm to automatically generate pretty transit maps. After moving on from my developer role there, I took some time off to go to Recurse Center in New York City, a sort of “writer’s retreat for programmers”.

During that time I kept getting dragged back to transit and transportation issues. For example I spent a lot of time to prepare for the previously mentioned Vendome Consultation.

That led me to think that I should focus my professional career more around transportation, and in the second half of 2017 I started an MBA in Sustainable Mobility at the Technische Universität Berlin.

In 2018, I’ll spend about half my time in Berlin, and half the time in Montreal.

Most Popular Posts in 2017

Privatization of the Deux-Montagnes Line:
How to Value a Transit Line?

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

How do you make subsidized transit profitable overnight, without moving a single stone?
– By privatizing it, but not in the way you’re thinking.

During the BAPE consultations for the REM last year, I ran into Aref Salem, a city councillor who was a board member of the AMT (now RTM). He was quite in favour of the rail project: his riding is bisected by the Deux-Montagne commuter rail line, which will be replaced by the REM. He was also part of then-mayor Coderre’s administration.

When I expressed concerns about below-value privatization of the infrastructure of the Deux-Montagnes line, including the important Mont-Royal rail tunnel, he assured me: “there will be a detailed accounting”.

Well, Quebecers are still waiting for that detailed accounting, which is starting to be urgent, since the project is still rapidly moving forward: in 2 months, the CDPQ hopes to announce the consortium who will build the REM.

How much will the CDPQ pay for the Deux-Montagne line?

CDPQInfra has repeatedly dodged the question of how much they will pay for the line. So far, there has been no clear answer, although they claimed they won’t receive subsidies via the line, and that they will pay “market value” – the market value of an asset being the price that can be obtained on an open and competitive market.

It’s hard not to be cynical about this kind of statement, as there isn’t exactly an open “market” for underground rail tunnels. There also isn’t any competition, for example in the form of a bidding process. Instead, the government has decided to transfer the Deux-Montagnes line to the CDPQ, just like that.

So how much will they pay for the line?

From the few numbers that are available, we know that:

  • the CDPQ planned to pay 585M$ for the “acquisition of the corridor” (which includes the line), relocation of utilities and soil decontamination.
  • the responsibility for moving utilities and soil decontamination was apparently later shifted to the government of Quebec, which lists it as 180M$ in this budget note (see page 16)
  • Which leaves only 400M$ for all land acquisition. But the existing Deux-Montagnes line is only 30km out of the 67km required for the REM, so they can’t have counted more than a couple hundred million to buy it.

Although CDPQInfra hasn’t given explicit numbers on how much they expect to pay, they like to remind us that the AMT bought the line from CN in 2014 for only $97 million. As if to insinuate that the line is really only worth that much.

We’re talking 100M$ for an electrified, rapid transit line that is 30km long, including a 5km tunnel. Am I the only one who thinks that seems just a little bit too low for a line that would surely cost billions to build today?

Yet we keep hearing that number, as if that was all the money we’ve ever put into the line.

Evaluating the actual value of infrastructure is not exactly a straightforward task. In this article, I’ll be looking at:

How Much Money did we actually invest in the line?

It turns out that we’ve invested much more into the rail line over the last decades. Even the original construction of the line and the Mount-Royal tunnel a hundred years ago was actually paid by the public. The tunnel and line were built by the private Canadian Northern Railway, but the Federal government paid for it when the company was nationalized (aka bailed out) in 1918 in exchange for funds to repay construction debts.

Of course it probably doesn’t make sense to count investment from that far back, and the line didn’t see much investment in the 60s, 70s and 80s anyway.

However, there was major renovation starting in 1992. It cost about 300M$ to rebuild the overhead electrification infrastructure and buy new trains. After that, the AMT invested more money, most notably over the last couple of years.

To figure out how much in total, we can look at the three-year capital plans of the AMT. This document is published every year and contains not only a breakdown of funds the AMT hopes to spend on every project in the future, but also the total amounts spent in the past.

By looking at consecutive years and calculating the difference in the total amounts spent, it is possible to figure out how much money was actually spent every year:

Example: some capital plan entries for the Eastern Junction Grade separation project.
In any year, the AMT never really spent as much as they hoped beforehand.
Also, the total estimated budget keeps increasing.

Going through the capital plans since 1996 (I found 20 in total), and tracking every project related to the Deux-Montagnes line, I found that we spent the following:

Big Projects 733.3 M$
DM infrastructure rebuild (1993-1995) 168.0 M$
Trains – MR-90 acquisition (1994-1995) 130.0 M$
Acquisition from CN (2014) 97.0 M$
Jonction de l’Est (2011-2015, 100%) 50.6 M$
Reno Tunnel (2012-2017, 100%) 43.2 M$
Reno Tunnel (2018-2019, 100%) 50.2 M$
Centre Entretien P-St-Charles (2008-2017, 60%) 175.2 M$
Centre Entretien P-St-Charles (2018, 60%) 19.1 M$
Small Projects 152.5 M$
Trains – MR-90 improvement projects 19.7 M$
Parking lots 11.6 M$
Stations 3.0 M$
Infrastructure (tracks, signals, overhead,h etc) 20.2 M$
Studies 5.3 M$
Other Deux-Montagnes Projects 1.0 M$
Various Shared Projects 91.8 M$
TOTAL 885.8 M$

We find that even though we only bought the line 3 years ago for 97M$, the public invested about 886M$ in the line over the last 25 years. Even if we remove the trains (rolling stock) from the calculation (the RTM will likely keep them), that still leaves 736M$ invested [3]. If CDPQInfra takes control of the line, acting like a private entity, shouldn’t they reimburse us for these investments?

But it may not be so easy: The money invested may not ended up on the books of the RTM. Maybe we could check how much these investments are considered to be worth on the books.

How much is the line worth on the Books of the RTM?

When a company invests money into assets, these assets will show up on the balance sheet with their book value. The book value is basically the original cost of the asset, minus amortization. Amortization reduces the book value every year to account for the fact that assets may have a limited useful life (and may eventually become worthless and will need to be replaced).

The AMT has a very basic asset statement in their annual reports, which was broken down by line, but unfortunately only until 2008. Since then the AMT has become more secretive, and I wasn’t succesful trying to get this information via an access-of-information request. Either way, the data we have allows us to get an idea of the book value at least until 2008:

1997 2002 2005 2008 2017
Book Value: Trains
   cost 129.2 M$ 129.2 M$ 129.7 M$ ? ?
   amortization ? 27.5 M$ 54.3 M$ ? ?
   net ? 105.0 M$ 75.4 M$ ? ?
Book Value: Land & Infrastructure
   cost 87.6 M$ 93.9 M$ 95.5 M$ 97.1 M$ ?
   amortization ? 50.8 M$ 40.4 M$ 29.9 M$ ?
   net ? 43.1 M$ 55.1 M$ 67.3 M$ ?
Comparison: Land & Infrastructure Investment
Investment 171.0 M$ 179.7 M$ 1,837.3 M$ 209.1 M$ 666.9 M$

We see that the “Cost” of the Book value is lower than the money invested, and the amortization keeps reducing it further. Of the big renovation project in the early 90s, only the trains (about 130M$) ended up on the books in its entirety, whereas only half of the 168M$ infrastructure investment did – and was reduced to only a quarter within ten years by amortization!

By 2008, even though about $200M were invested in the line (excluding trains), the net book value was only about $67M. Since then, there has been much more investment into the infrastructure, and the line (land) was purchased for $97M.

If the book value has continued trailing the invested money as much as it did until 2008, my best guess is that the book value may be somewhere between $200M and $300M, maybe some more.

We see that, even though the AMT invested a lot of money, this is likely not reflected in the book value of the assets. Maybe it’s related to the AMT investing in infrastructure that was owned by CN, a private entity. Since the AMT/RTM isnt’t a private company, and they don’t pay taxes, this doesn’t really matter.

But it does matter when we want to privatize their assets: It is quite possible that the CDPQ hopes to pay exactly this low book value for the Deux-Montagnes line, as the estimates seem somewhat similar. It also matches Aref Salem’s assurance that “there will be a detailed accounting”.

A further problem is that the book value is not representative of the market value anyway. The book value is really just a tool used in accounting and taxation. And in the case of the Deux-Montagnes line and the AMT, it seems to be much less than the money we invested.

In general, most businesses are actually worth much more than their book value. This is because in a business, the assets come together to create a more valuable whole, which keeps increasing in value over time as well, whereas the book-value is always going down!

For comparison, utility companies are worth about 3x more than their book value on average, meaning the the Deux-Montagnes line, if considered like a utility company, could be worth $600M – $900M (assuming the book value isn’t an under-estimate).

The raw book value, while higher than the $97 million acquisition, still seems rather low. To see that, let’s compare it to the value of the land alone.

The Land Value

We can actually make a good estimate of the value of the land the line is on. For any building, we can go to the assessment roll, plug in its address (or lot number) and find the municipal valuation. It’s not quite a market valuation, as it is only used for tax purposes, but it gives a pretty good idea. If you’ve ever bought or sold a house, you know that municipal valuation is often much lower than the selling price of the property.

It turns out that almost every piece of land is in the assessment role, including public land.

Lots belonging to the Deux-Montagnes line can be found by collecting them with infolot.
This image shows the lot just outside of the Northern Mont-Royal Tunnel portal.

I have collected a list of lots belonging to the Deux-Montagnes line in Montreal, Laval, and Deux-Montagnes, and tallied their municipal valuations in a spreadsheet. Here’s the summary:

Land Valuation – excludes tunnel, infrastructure, rolling stock
Property value 238,760,007 $
Building value 2,932,400 $
Land value (property minus building)
235,827,607 $
Terrain area (square-metres) 1,149,038
Value per square-metre 205 $
Number of roll entries 55

The actual value of the Deux-Montagnes line is much higher, since:

  • Some lots are valued at only 1$ (maybe because the AMT/RTM doesn’t have to pay taxes anyway).
  • The list only includes the lots that I could find, there may be some missing.
  • It’s not a market valuation of the land, as previously mentioned.
  • The building values (the values of what’s build on top of the land) are very low — which means the valuations effectively only include the value of the land, it doesn’t include the infrastructure (rail + electricity supply + parking lots).
  • It doesn’t include the trains, the Mont-Royal tunnel, or the downtown connection.

Even so, the municipal valuation of just the land itself is similar to what I estimated for the book value.

Clearly the market value of the line must be much higher than that, given all the infrastructure that is on it. But how do we make a more rigorous and accurate estimate, based on accounting principles, that’s not just a guess?

Business valuation – the Value of the Contract

One key element is that the REM is a business. Its goal is to make money by operating the transit line. And unlike what the news have been saying, the profits won’t come from ticket sales, but from the per-passenger subsidy paid by the ATM, which is guaranteed in the contract between the CDPQ and the ARTM.

This is how it works: the ARTM will collect the fares, and pay CDPQ Infra a fixed price of 70 to 71 cents per passenger-kilometre, which is actually more than what it costs to run the line today (30cents)!

People like to think that privatization is a good way to increase cost efficiency, and REM proponents like to suggest that it will be profitable because of automation, but this is simply false. The REM will be profitable because of the Contract, and the subsidies granted by it.

So how do you make subsidized transit profitable overnight, without moving a single stone?
— By privatizing it and over-subsidizing it, and suddenly the subsidies are called “profits”!

If you think about it further, without even building the REM, if the Caisse just keeps running the Deux-Montagnes line as it is run today, the line will suddenly become profitable!

And if you have a bit more imagination, the CDPQ could take ownership of the line, contract the operations back to the RTM and STILL make millions in profit every year without doing anything!

But back to our valuation: the fact that the Deux-Montagnes line will be a profitable business, thanks to the large amounts of subsidies, allows us to use a simple business valuation method usually used for valuing companies on the stock market (i.e. for stock valuation), the dividend discount model.

This method is used for dividend-paying companies, which pay out their profits to shareholders instead of investing into growth, and thus have relatively little growth. The REM fits this category. The idea behind the dividend discount model is that a company is worth the sum of all future dividend payments, adjusted back to their present value.

In simplistic terms, it says if a company pays 5$ in dividends each year, and you believe that a company with that risk profile should yield 5% every year, that the company should be worth 100$ (meaning you will make back your initial investment in 20 years). If there’s an expectation that the dividends will increase, than company should be worth some more.

The valuation will depend on:

  • The expected profits
  • The expected growth in profits
  • The target return rate (i.e. annual return on investment)

The target return rate depends on how risky your investment is: you want more return on more risky investments. As a comparison, bonds, which are one of the safest forms of investment, typically only return 2 to 3%, whereas the overall stock market returns about 5 to 6%. Riskier investments require much higher returns to make financial sense.

In the case of the Deux-Montagnes line, the risk is pretty low. The ridership is already established (based on population) and has been consistent for many years. In fact there’s pent-up demand that the line cannot serve. Furthermore, there’s language in the agreements/laws with the CDPQ that public transit agencies are not allowed to establish competing transit services, which basically grants the REM a cushy monopoly!

In fact the only risk for the line is operational (can we continue operating the line at the current cost without major issues?). It is quite reasonable for a company like that to have a return of 5%-6%. This is also similar to Canadian funds of dividend-paying companies, which have total returns in the 5-6% range (but tend to have higher risks because they are businesses that need to compete with others).

For the growth, let’s just assume there’s no ridership growth whatsoever, and simply assume that income, cost and thus profits will rise with inflation, about 2%.

To figure out the profit, we need to deduct the operating cost (30c/passenger-km) and the capital costs from the subsidy per passenger-km (70c/passenger-km), and multiply that by the total number of passenger-km per year (140 million km).

To complete the equation, we need to find the capital costs. During the last 25 years, the public invested about 25M$ per year in the line, mostly for the renovations in the early 90s and further investments in recent years. These were done to significantly increase ridership. If we are only interested in keeping the infrastructure in a good state of repair (and replace the trains every 40 years), we only need 15M$ per year, as a sort of steady-state capital cost.

To go back forth between the cost per passenger-km and the total cost, we simply have to multiply or divide by the total number of annual passenger-km on the line, 140 million km.

$/passenger-km total $
operating cost 0.30 $ 42,000,000 $
steady-state capital costs 0.11 $ 15,000,000 $
revenue (subsidies) 0.70 $ 98,000,000 $
profits 0.29 $ 41,000,000 $

Applying the dividend discount model, we get the following valuations:

target annual rate of return 5% 6%
profit / year 41,000,000 $ 41,000,000 $
profit growth per year 2% 2%
Valuation 1,366,666,667 $ 1,025,000,000 $

Business valuation – With some Investment to Increase Ridership

One thing to consider is that there’s a lot of pent up demand on the line that cannot be met because the capacity of the line is too low today. Investments in recent years were aimed at providing more service to catch all that potential ridership, but there’s been no increase in service yet. So even a small additional investment, like 200M$, could get a ridership increase of 25% [1]. This changes the valuation as follows:

target annual return rate 5% 6%
profit / year 41,000,000 $ 41,000,000 $
growth per year 2% 2%
one-time investment 200,000,000 $ 200,000,000 $
one-time ridership growth 25% 25%
valuation 1,508,333,333 $ 1,081,250,000 $

This business valuation indicates the Deux-Montagnes line and Mont-Royal tunnel may be worth $1.2B. A transfer to the of the assets to the REM for some hundred(s) of million would then be a subsidy of a cool billion dollars.

So why should we care? – The Ownership Model of the REM

The REM markets itself as a “public-public partnership”. Since the RTM (former AMT) is a public agency, and the CDPQ is a crown corporation, who cares who owns what. Who cares about subsidies, isn’t it just a case of moving money from the left pocket to the right pocket?

Except… that’s not actually quite true: when the RTM owns the infrastructure, it’s both under control and ownership of the government. Once it’s transferred to the Caisse, it won’t be owned by the public anymore.

Today, if we want to transfer infrastructure between different government agencies, then only the government needs to agree. For example, the AMT built the Laval Metro extension. After it was finished in 2007, the assets were transferred to STM. The government owned the AMT, the government owned the STM [4], deal is done, thank you, goodbye.

So how is it different if we transfer assets to CDPQInfra? Because CDPQInfra is not owned by the Caisse de Dépôt; it is part of the assets that are managed by the Caisse de Dépôt. And these assets belong to the Caisse’s depositors: Government employees’ pension funds (62%), Retraite Québec/Québec Pension Plan (23%) and others.

It’s the same principle as your personal investments: you have an investment portfolio (RRSP, for example) that is being managed by a financial institution (let’s say Desjardins). Your portfolio may contain shares of Bombardier. Desjardins manages your money, but ultimately you are the owner of these Bombardier shares.

The diagram below shows the ownership structure of the Deux-Montagnes line before and after the REM. As you can see, under the REM, if you start at the Deux-Montagnes line and go up the ownership chain (green arrows), you end up with the Depositors of the Caisse, 62% of which are the pension funds of government employees, and only 23% belong to Québec’s pension plan, the proverbial “bas de laine” everyone talks about.

But ownership is only half the story, and if this was the only problem, I would have given up a long time ago and just accepted that we’re making a very strange deal.

The real problem, the bigger problem, for anyone who cares about the future of transit in Montréal and mobility in the whole province, is control of our infrastructure.

If you go up the control/management chain (blue lines) in the chart above, you see that it ends at the Caisse de Dépôt. Moreover, the Government of Québec explicitly states that it gives up all control to the Caisse.

Losing control of the infrastructure means losing the ability to determine how it will be used: The Deux-Montagnes line includes the Mont-Royal tunnel, which many transit lines need to use to reach downtown. But after privatization, the line will not only have a lower capacity, but half the lines that need to use it will be cut off from direct access downtown, maybe forever.

Also, while in the rest of the world, public-private partnerships have private corporations build new infrastructure that are eventually given back to the public, our innovative public-public partnership privatizes already-built public infrastructure, without reverting back to the public, and with no chance of ever getting it back.

Transferring it back under public control would effectively expropriate the pension funds who own the assets, while breaking contracts and laws in the process. Essentially, getting our transit line back may require an act of communism.

Of course we could maybe buy it back from the Caisse… I wonder how much they charge for a 30-km line with 5 km of tunnel, which happens to be the only access to downtown Montreal? When the government must negotiate at arms length, and has very little leverage. Do you think they’d let it go for $100M?

But maybe I’m concerned for nothing. After all, I’ve raised the issue with politicians and other proponents of the REM, and the attitude I’m getting is a dismissive “we’ll just build another tunnel”. Piece of cake.

This brings up a new kind of valuation — how much would the Deux-Montagnes line cost if we built it from scratch?

Replacement Value

To get an idea how much the line would cost as a hole, we can make a simple comparative analysis. We can break down the line into the surface section (25km) and the tunnel section (5km), and make an estimate by comparing to various per-km costs.

We could compare the Mount-Royal tunnel to various other comparable, recently built rail tunnels (ones with no stations inside the tunnels), but this will not account for the downtown connection. A lot of the value of the Mount-Royal tunnel is the fact that it directly connects to Gare Centrale.

If we built a new tunnel, it would be very difficult to make a new connection to Gare Centrale — there are buildings in the way! Plus, the REM will use up a lot of space of the station.

This means we’d either have very complicated and very expensive construction to make the connection; we could purchase expensive buildings and tear them down; or build a new underground central station. Either way it’s going to be very expensive. This is where a lot of the cost of a new Mount-Royal tunnel would come from.

Deux-Montagnes Line Replacement Cost
item cost length item cost
25km of surface rail 70 M$/km 25km 1,875 M$
5km Mont Royal Tunnel 140 M$/km 5.4km 756 M$
Downtown tunnel Station / Access 350 M$ 350 M$
TOTAL 2,981 M$

We see the Mont-Royal tunnel adds up to a cool billion, and the surface part to almost two. The Mont-Royal tunnel is the most likely part that will need replacing, and again we’re coming up with a billion dollar figure.


We’ve looked at various ways to grasp the value of the Deux-Montagnes line and Mont-Royal tunnel, and made a comparison to how much CDPQInfra will pay to privatize it.


type of valuation valuation amount (M$)
What CDPQ may pay 100-200?
Book Value
Note: estimate based on continuing 2008 book value
Municipal assessment of Land

Note: excludes tunnel, infrastructure, downtown access, parking, trains – and it’s a below-market, municipal valuation
Total Investment excluding trains 736
Total Investment including trains 886
Business Valuation (dividend discount model) 1000-1400
Business Valuation assuming small improvement 1100-1500
Replacement Value of whole line 3000
Replacement Value of Mont-Royal Tunnel only 1100

In my opinion, we should get reimbursed about a billion dollars, maybe a bit more, in exchange for transferring the assets of the transit line, losing control of the infrastructure forever, and giving CDPQinfra an operating contract that would make them profit from day one. Anything else would be a large subsidy, and completely inappropriate to give, without bidding process, to a company acting like a private, commercial entity.

The Deux-Montagnes line is an essential puzzle piece in the creative accounting at work that will create a profitable transit line owned by a private entity — and I worry the public will be “taken for a ride”.


[1] The estimate that 200M$ investment will allow a 25% ridership increase comes from the 2005 annual report of the AMT.

“An estimated $173.9 million is recommended to increase the line’s capacity in order to accommodate the ridership estimated at over 40,000 passengers a day. The work includes the grade separation of the East junction, double railway tracks between Bois-Franc and Roxboro, the addition of two stations and the purchase of 22 new cars.”

Note the current ridership is 30,000 passengers per day.

The Eastern junction project was completed (for about 60M$), the 22 rail-cars where purchased but allocated to different rail lines, the double tracking is still outstanding. It’s reasonable to assume that the double-tracking and purchase of new rail cars will now cost 200M$.

[2] To arrive at the estimate of 70 M$/km for surface rail construction and 120 M$/km for tunnel construction (for a tunnel without stations), I used the following comparative projects:

Comparative tunnel costs
project length location opening year cost inflation- adjusted in CAD cost per km (CAD)
Mount-Royal tunnel 5.0km Montreal 1918 10 M$ 145M 29 M$
2nd Hudson-Tunnel 3.7km New York 2026? 11.1B USD 14.3B 3,865 M$
Barcelona AVE tunnel 5.8km Barcelona 2013 179.3M€ 277M 48 M$
East Side Access, only Manhattan tunnel contracts 3.8km New York 2023 415M USD 535M 141 M$
Crossrail, only tunnel contracts 21km London 2019 1.5B £ 2.6B 124 M$
Fildertunnel 9.5km Stuttgart 2021 754M€ 1142M 120 M$
Tunnel Obertürkheim 5.7km Stuttgart 2021 350M€ 530M 93 M$
Comparative Surface costs
project length location opening year cost inflation- adjusted in CAD cost per km (CAD)
Eagle PPP electric surface commuter rail (A-line) 54.7km Denver 2016 2.2B USD 2.83B CAD 52 M$
REM St-Anne Branch 16.8km Montreal 2021? 1400M CAD 1400M CAD 83 M$
REM Rive-Sud (includes tunnel) 15km Montreal 2021? 1730M CAD 1730M CAD 115 M$

In order to calculate the costs of the individual branches of the REM, I distributed the the estimated construction costs from this document as follows:

REM Branches Breakdown
branch length km infra-structure cost system & rolling stock cost parking / terminus cost acquisition cost (approx.) total cost
St-Anne-de-Bellevue Branch 17 km 680 M$ 446 M$ 125 M$ 147 M$ 1 398 M$
Deux-Montagnes line incl. tunnel (upgrades) 31 km 820 M$ 810 M$ 266 M$ 1 897 M$
South-Shore Branch 15 km 1 090 M$ 399 M$ 110 M$ 131 M$ 1 729 M$
Airport Branch 5 km 320 M$ 125 M$ 41 M$ 486 M$
 TOTAL 67 km 2 910 M$ 1 780 M$ 235 M$ 585 M$ 5 510 M$

[3] 885.8M$ (total) – 130M$ (MR-90 acquisition) – 19.7M$ (MR-90 improvements) = 736M$

[4]The STM is actually owned by the city of Montreal, not the government of Quebec – but being a public body regulated by the government and existing because of a Quebec law. Arguably, the city of Montreal is owned by the government of Quebec.

What’s a Gadgetbahn?

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

For some time, I’ve been meaning to write about German transportation systems like what’s an S-Bahn or what’s a Stadtbahn.

With the recent news out of Quebec, I figured I’d instead talk about a transportation concept that doesn’t actually transport anybody at all: the Gadgetbahn.

The word is a portemanteau of the English “Gadget” and the German word “bahn”, which means rail or train. A gadgetbahn is a speculative transportation concept that proposes to solve planning and financial issues via some sort of magical techno-fix, likely some technology that doesn’t even exist yet.

Classic examples of gadgetbahns are: monorails, “personal rapid transit”, maglevs, or the newest addition to the family, the “hyperloop”.

Proponents of these technologies may be referred to as gadgetbahn enthusiasts, or more derogatorily, “pod-people”. They often promise the sky in terms of reduced cost and increased speed and comfort, often with little consideration for capacity, risk, safety or realism.

Back to  Quebec: the prime minister decided he wants a fast transit link between Montreal and Quebec City, but not a train, because “we can do much more modern things now”.

Instead, he wants something “futuristic”, something from the minds of Quebecers. (note from editor: Sorry to pop his bubble, but Quebec is not exactly known for having a long history on the bleeding edge of transit technology.)

The problem of the gadgetbahn isn’t necessarily that it’s a techno-fix. It’s that it is a technology for the sake of technology, a shiny gizmo to brag about, with little regard to solving the actual transportation problem.

The transportation minister clarified his position himself: he wants anything you can conceive of, any project; innovate, come up with new ideas!

And somehow, some consortium sprung up ready with proposals, renderings, promises and deadlines to build a high speed monorail (“MGV”), and all they want is a quarter of a billion dollars to develop it.

Cost, Speed, Comfort
– The problem is geometry, physics and the Right of Way

The beauty of proposing a gadgetbahn is that since it doesn’t exist, proponents can make up all sorts of quasi-magical properties for their technology, which supposedly make it superior. Since there aren’t real-world examples, proponents can use the most optimistic theoretical scenarios they can come up with, and compare them with the actual performance of projects that have been built and which are bound to the constraints of the real world.

For example, the high speed monorail promoters claim their system is cheaper than conventional rail, because they could just use existing highway medians, with an elevated rail system where vehicles are suspended from above.

The “MGV” (monorail a grande vitesse), high-speed pods on elevated tracks, suspended from above

When you look at its basic structure, compared to conventional rail, this monorail essentially differs in the method of propulsion: instead of two wheels on two rails below the train, we have two wheels on one rail above the train.

The main conceptual difference between conventional rail and ‘MGV’:
the location of the wheels

Like for any gadgetbahn, the claim is that this new technology provides more speed, more comfort at lower cost.

But in the real world, these three aspects are always intricately connected and subject to tradeoffs – due to simple geometry and physics.

Want faster transportation? Then you need very straight tracks. Don’t have straight tracks but still want high speed? Then your trip will become a barf-ride, so less comfort.  Want to build cheaply in an already existing highway median? Well the highway curves are made for cars going at 100km/h, so your choices are:

  • slow down (less speed),
  • run inside the existing geometry at higher speed (less comfort),
  • straighten the curves (more expensive).

These problems will always come together. At the end of the day, you’re still pushing a metal can full of people at high speeds you can’t get out of issues of geometry and physics by changing where you put the wheels.

Going further, once it appears the basic problems have been overcome, the next issues become capacity, safety, energy and access (stations).

For example, Elon Musk is proposing to build tunnels with his “Boring Company”, which will supposedly be cheap, because the tunnels will be relatively narrow. This reduces capacity, because only smaller vehicles will fit in the tunnel. To compensate, he may propose that vehicles will run super close together – which will represent a huge safety issue unless they run slowly. A small tunnel with a lot of vehicles that are barely smaller than the tunnel diameter, running at high speed may become a death trap in case of emergency, if there isn’t enough space and facilities for egress. If somehow he manages to solve all these issues, there’s still the problem of getting everybody into this tube of his.

All these considerations come down to the one fundamental constraint on which everything else depends: the right of way — how much space do you have available, how straight is your path, how and where is the downtown access, and how much space is available at stations.

The Maglev

An example of this issue is the maglev technology (essentially magnetically elevated monorails). The concept has been around for ages. The Germans and Japanese have been developing the technologies for a long time. In the early 2000s, the Germans were able to sell their Transrapid technology to China for the Shanghai Maglev airport connector, a 30-km line. It was a pilot project, with the hope to eventually cover the whole country with maglev network.

The Maglev was seen as the next generation of trains, mostly by being faster. But there was also the hope that it could even be cheaper, by putting the whole track on stilts, without having large elevated bridge-like structures. But in the end, conventional high speed rail and maglev require similar geometries, a similar kind of infrastructure, and it turns out that the speeds are not that different (Shanghai Maglev up to 430km/h, conventional rail up to 350km/h, both with a maximum experimental speed of around 600km/h).

At more than 300km/h, a lot of energy is spent to overcome the air drag of the trains themselves. Issues also become noise, and the required straightness of the infrastructure. And the issue that with stops, decreasing travel time by increasing maximum speeds becomes marginal. Overall, speeds above 300km/h tend to become uneconomical, no matter the propulsion system.

From a distance, elevated conventional high speed rail (left) and maglev (right) appear strangely similar – the requirements on the tracks are due to physics and geometry, so the propulsion method alone won’t give one system a clear advantage over the other in terms of infrastructure cost

All of these issues come together to make the technological choice a bit of a wash.

In the end it makes more economic sense to build from conventional technology which has been developed for a longer time, has multiple vendors, has existing infrastructure that can be built on top of. This way, you can upgrade lines for high speed service, while being able to run the new high speed trains on existing tracks inside cities or to other cities. This provides a huge economic advantage.

So indeed, although the Shanghai Maglev works, in an economic sense it’s a failure. It convinced the Chinese to focus on high speed rail: ten years after the opening of the Maglev, the country still had the same 30km of maglev, but built 20,000km of high speed rail.

(Oh and btw, I’ve taken the maglev, it’s not a very smooth ride; it rumbles like a rollercoaster)

The Real Issue: Economics

The real issue of using a gadgetbahn to solve a transportation problem is not really technical. It’s that it re-frames the problem to build an infrastructure as the problem to develop a new technology — now you’ve got two problems to solve!

The technical problem should really be solved through private investment, not public funding. Thus I view the ‘offer’ to develop the “high speed mono-rail” for “only” 250M$ with a great amount of distrust. If the idea is viable and the people behind it are competent, it should have attracted private investment, as there should be a potential to make profit selling the technology. After all, the proposal has been around for 23 years.

When proposing a completely new technology in order to solve a specific transportation problem, the major problem is Risk:

  • Technological risks: Will it even work? Will it deliver on claims? Will it have sufficient capacity?
  • Cost-related risks: How much will it cost to develop? How much will one kilometre cost once the technology developed?
  • Regulatory/safety risks: Will it be safe? What will safety requirements be? How fast will we be allowed to run?
  • Risks because timelines are not understood: How long will it take to develop? How long will it take to plan & construct?
  • Operating Risks: How much will it cost to operate? How much will it cost to maintain the infrastructure? Will automated/unattended operation actually be possible?
  • Risks because we need to build complete systems at once, rather than incrementally updating existing infrastructure.
  • Also, new technology means relying on a single vendor, which is again extremely risky, both in terms of cost and availability of the technology in the future: Will the vendor exist in the future? How much will they charge us once we depend on them, given the lack of competition?

For any technology that’s already existed and been researched for decades, and that may have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of kilometers of infrastructure built today, all these question are much easier to answer. There will be much less risk, and thus less cost.

Be distrustful of Gadgetbahn Concepts

Any time somebody in power proposes to solve an infrastructure problem by first developing some new technology, or by using some proposed technology that hasn’t been delployed yet, we should be distrustful.

Often, the proposal may simply be an excuse to not invest in infrastructure today, because tomorrow some techno-fix will come along and solve all our problems ‘for free’. This tactic may work especially well if the proposal includes an appeal to some futuristic dream or a nationalistic project.

The gadgetbahn may really just be a big diversion. For example in Quebec, the most realistic scenario to get a fast link between Montreal and Quebec is the “high-frequency train” proposed by VIA rail, which would link the cities with conventional rail. After repeatedly proposing high speed rail for the last 40 years and getting no support from the governments, VIA decided to propose a system that’s not true high speed rail – but it would use dedicated passenger rail tracks, allowing somewhat faster speed than today, and no interference with freight.

This would hit an economic sweet spot for VIA, allowing them to almost finance and build the system themselves, with only relatively little public support.

But the main problem is the access to Montreal – VIA hoped to use the Mont-Royal rail tunnel to access Gare Centrale. But with the REM light rail project pushed hard by the prime minister, the tunnel would be converted to light rail, an incompatible technology, which will cut VIA off. In some sense, the prime minister’s announcement that he wants some gadgetbahn to Quebec City means VIAs rail project would become obsolete, and the conflict would become moot.

So is it really just a diversionary tactic to hide the regional rail planning problems in Montreal?


Interesting related reading (and with thanks for some inspirations) by Alon Levy:
“Loopy Ideas Are Fine, If You’re an Entrepreneur”

Mont Royal:
Convertissons la Conduite Urbaine en Ski Urbain!

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Go to English Version

La mort récente d’un cycliste sur Camillien-Houde, le chemin passant à travers le Mont Royal, a amené plusieurs à demander de faire cesser la conduite à travers la montagne. Une fermeture partielle du Chemin pourrait permettre de maintenir les lignes d’autobus sur la montagne, de même que la pratique de sports et autres activités.

(Trivia: le Chemin a été construit par le maire Drapeau dans les années 60, et a été nommé comme insulte au précédent maire Camillien Houde, qui était contre la construction d’une route sur la montagne. )

Une façon intéressante d’utiliser la route serait de la transformer en piste de ski alpin durant l’hiver.

Une piste de ski sur la montagne permettrait aux personnes n’ayant pas accès à la voiture de s’adonner au sport d’hiver et serait particulièrement intéressant pour les familles urbaines. Où d’autre pourrait-on prendre le transport en commun pour aller skier?

Et si on possède une voiture, on pourra toujour se stationner près du Lac aux Castors, sur la montagne. Pourquoi ne pas y aller pour une activité neige après le travail?

Une piste au milieu de la ville augmenterait sûrement l’attrait touristique de Montréal, particulièrement en hiver: ski durant la journée avec vue sur la ville, après-ski dans un resto ou café sur le Plateau ou au centre-ville. Ce serait une accroche, comme le Ski-Dubai ou la rampe construite sur une centrale électrique à Copenhague, au Danemark.

Amagger Bakke à Copenhagen et Ski Dubai

La montagne est-elle assez grande pour le ski?

Certains cyniques se plaisent à appeler le Mont Royal une “colline”, et pourraient penser qu’il est un peu petit pour le ski. Il s’avère que notre colline est beaucoup plus grosse que les pistes mieux connues de Dubai et Copenhague. Le Mont Royal est aussi plus gros que la pente la plus proche: le Mont St-Bruno! Il y a bien sûr des montagnes plus hautes dans la région, mais il faut conduire beaucoup plus loin pour ça.

La hauteur de la montagne est assez acceptable comparé aux autres stations de ski, et la longueur est très bonne. Ceci est dû à la pente douce (8,5%), qui la place entre une piste débutante et une piste verte.

La pente douce est parfaite pour les familles avec de jeunes enfants, qui n’ont pas beaucoup d’expérience de ski.

Faisons un projet pilote aujourd’hui!

Pour montrer la viabilité du projet et avoir un peu de plaisir, on pourrait avoir un projet pilote simple cet hiver. Comme première étape, on pourrait diviser Camillien-Houde et utiliser une moitié pour le ski, et l’autre moitié pour des navettes de remontée (et pour les autobus locaux).

Pour l’expérience de ski, c’est un peu étroit, mais comme la pente est très douce, il ne devrait pas y avoir d’inquiétudes majeurs pour la sécurité.

Avec seulement quelques autobus, des clôtures, et une seule dameuse, on pourrait commencer les activités d’hiver dès maintenant!

Si le ski s’avère populaire, cela pourrait devenir un attrait permanent: on pourrait alors utiliser la largeur complète de la voie pour avoir des pistes plus larges. Éventuellement, on pourrait même construire un téléphérique permanent jusqu’en haut de la montagne, qui permettrait d’améliorer l’accès pour les personnes à mobilité réduite et les familles toute l’année.

aller à la version française

Mont Royal Mountain:
Let’s turn Urban Driving into Urban Downhill Skiing!

The recent death of a cyclist on Camilien-Houde, the road across the Mont Royal, has led to calls to remove driving across the mountain. A partial closure of the road could maintain bus routes across the mountain, while allowing sports and other activities.

(Trivia: The road was built by mayor Drapeau in the 60s, and named as an insult to previous mayor Camillien Houde, who was always against having a road across the mountain.)

One interesting way to repurpose the road would be to turn it into a downhill ski slope in the winter.

A ski slope on the mountain will allow people who don’t have cars to enjoy the winter sport, and will be especially great for urban families. Where else could you take local public transit to go skiing?

And if you do have a car, you’ll still be able to drive to the ski slope and park near Beaver Lake on top of the mountain! Why not go for some after-work snow activities on your way home?

Having a ski hill in the middle of the city will definitely add to the tourist appeal of Montreal, especially in the winter: ski during the day with a view of the city, then après-ski in a Plateau or downtown restaurant or café. It could be a hook, like Ski-Dubai or the ski ramp built on a power plant in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Amagger Bakke in Copenhagen and Ski Dubai

Is the mountain big enough for skiing?

Some cynical people like to call Mont Royal a mere hill, and may think it’s a little small for skiing. Well, it turns out that our hill is much bigger than the ski toys in Dubai and Copenhagen. The Mont Royal is actually even bigger than the closest ski hill near Montreal, Mont St-Bruno! There are of course bigger ski hills in the region, but you’d have to drive much further for those.

The height of the mountain is pretty acceptable compared to other ski facilities, and the overall length is very good. This is due to its relatively shallow slope (8.5%), which puts it somewhere between a bunny hill and a green slope.

The slope means it’s great for families with young children, who don’t have a lot of skiing experience.

Let’s do a pilot project today!

To show the viability of the project and to have some fun, we could have a simple pilot this winter. We could divide Camillien-Houde and use half for skiing, and the other half for a ski shuttle up the hill (and also to run the local buses).

As far as skiing goes, it’s a bit narrow, but since the piste is not very steep, there shouldn’t be major safety concerns.

With only a couple of buses, some fences, and a single snow groomer, we could start the winter activities today! (Note that the city already does snow grooming on the mountain, for the cross-country pistes)

If downhill skiing proves successful, this could become a permanent feature. We could use the full width of the street, and have a much wider piste. Eventually, we could even build a permanent gondola or aerial tram to the top of the mountain, improving access for less mobile folks and families all year round.

The Cost of Montreal’s Free Transit Weekend

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Update: October 4, 2017 (added missing day pass in last table)

Two weekends ago, Montreal had a weekend with free transit. In general, this sounds like a good idea. It’s a way to get people to try out transit, maybe encourage them consider to use it more often. Or maybe use it on a path to make transit much more affordable or even free, as some advocate for.

Rumors are transit was jam-packed all weekend.

However, the whole thing does leave a bit of a bitter after-taste, because this wasn’t planned ahead of time in order to advance transit in general, but rather as a last-minute mitigation measure for the Formula E. This car-race set up in Eastern downtown brought barriers all over that part of the city, and by making transit free it was hoped some of the traffic and mobility problems could be aleviated.

The politicians in charge are trying to sell the Formula E as advancing electric transportation, because the race cars run on batteries. Others view it as a bunch of green-washing. In any case, there’s been a lot of criticism due the large amount of money Montreal spent on the event, largely to build a temporary race track in the middle of the city (2km away from the permanent Formula 1 race track). And the free transit weekend can be viewed as adding to the bill.

I’ve been asked to make an estimate how much the STM lost in transit fares that weekend.

So let’s look at some numbers, without going too deeply into the political story.

What fares do people use in general?

If we want to know how much money was ‘lost’ in fares that weekend, we need to have an idea what the relative make-up of the various fares is, i.e. how many people use monthly, weekly, daily passes, or single trips. We also need to know how many such fares are bought for a weekend in the summer.

The STM doesn’t really publish such detailled information, but we can infer it from some OPUS card tap-in data that was released for 2011 at some hackathon.

STM Fares used for each trip
monthly 60.4% 248,040,271
single trips 19.3% 79,403,645
TRAM 11.9% 49,089,075
weekly 5.7% 23,359,274
gratis 1.3% 5,162,210
24h 0.7% 2,876,060
3 days 0.6% 2,434,481
evening 0.1% 612,571
other 0.0% 22,413
total 411,000,000

We see that a good 60% of all trips use STM monthly passes, another 12% use regional tickets (TRAM), most of which are also monthly passes. Together with weekly passes, nearly 80% of trips are done via passes. About 20% of trips are done with single passes (most are bought as 10 at a time). The rest are basically rounding errors.

What fares do people use on Summer Weekends?

During the weekeend, especially in the summer, the make-up of fares will be different. Luckily the OPUS data includes some weekend days, so we can make a more exact inference. We actually only have data for one weekend in July, so the data may not be very representative — take it with a grain of salt.

We get the following make-up of fares:

Summer Weekend Trips (per day)
monthly 54.2% 352,716
single trips 27.3% 177,505
TRAM 6.2% 40,144
weekly 6.5% 42,215
gratis 1.4% 8,972
24h 2.2% 14,393
3 days 1.5% 9,937
evening 0.8% 5,191
other 0.0% 29
total 651,102

We see that during the weekend in the summer, there’s a much larger percentage of single trips (27% vs 19%), and much fewer regional passes (TRAM, 6% vs 12%). This makes sense: there are more occasional trips on the weekend, and fewer of the commuting suburbanites coming into town. There’s also a higher use of 3-day, 24-hour and evening passes, although their absolute number is still low.

How much revenues were ‘lost’ on the Free weekend?

Two big factors made the ridership increase on the free weekend: The events going on in downtown, like the Formula E, and the fact that the transit was free.

If we want to count only ‘lost’ revenue, we have to discount the fact that the transit was free — you can’t really count the lost revenue of users that only used the transit because it was free.

Regarding the impact of the event itself, it’s hard to make an estimate. We can simply take the number of trips we know about, and note that this is a lower bound.

For ‘lost’ revenue, we only have to consider usual revenue from weekend, day passes, evening passes and single trips. Weekly and monthly passes are paid ‘already’, so the impact should be small.

On our given summer weekend, we find the following number of trips for the various fare types, and the resulting cost:

Summer Weekend Tickets (adjusted for 2015 ridership)
# regular # reduced regular fare reduced fare revenue
1 passage 126057 7589 $3.25 $2.25 $426,761
2 passages 51227 1943 $3.00 $2.00 $157,567
6/10 passages 127587 40604 $2.70 $1.65 $411,482
evening 5329 $5.00 $26,645
1day 10778 $10.00 $107,780
3days/weekend 4531 $13.75 $62,301
total 314731 50136     $1,192,535

(Note that I scaled the 2011 data to 2015 ridership levels, to account for trips missing in the data and the increase in ridership in ridership over the years)

There we have it. Apparently, the STM Montreal lost at least 1.2M$ as a mitigation measure for the impact of the Formula E. This matches earlier estimates. But it’s possible that this was always going to be a weekend where a lot of people were going to take transit, even if fares where charged, so the actual loss may be higher than that.

Does Automating the Metro Save Lots of Money?

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

As a continuation of my recent post on the cost of operating the Montreal Metro, I wanted to look at the merits of automation. The recent discussion of the planned REM light metro has brought that subject up repeatedly, with the implication that drivers are super expensive and that you can save a lot of money by running completely unattended trains. The PR keeps touting that it would be one of the largest automated metro systems, often along the claim that transit will be profitable from now on.

But can automation actually turn a heavily subsidized transit system into a suddenly profitable one?

A while back I spoke to the technical director of CDPQInfra (the private company which wants to build the REM), at one of their poster sessions. I was doubtful automation would reduce operating cost very much. How expensive can the drivers possibly be, compared to the rest of the system? The technical director emphasized that back in Lyon, where he gained a lot of his experience, they had three automated lines, and one non-automated one — and that line always gave them problems, and was much more expensive to operate.

I looked it up later, and it turns out that this one manually operated line of the Lyon Metro, the Line C, is a tiny, 2.4km-long cog-railway, with steep inclines of 17%, operated with a tiny fleet of 2-car trains that were built specially for this operation. Of course this line is going to be expensive to operate!

Lyon Metro Line C

Lyon Metro Line C (source)

I find it rather strange that this example was being brought up at all in the discussion of automation. It means a line that is inherently very expensive is being used as an example to show the expensiveness of manual train operations.

Back to the Montreal Metro. My previous article on the cost of the metro already showed that it is likely cheaper to operate per passenger-km than the REM will be, despite one having drivers and the other not. This is probably thanks to its concentration in urban areas and resulting high ridership. But how much could we save if we automated the metro and get rid of the drivers?

One way to estimate this is to calculate the cost of metro drivers, and compare that to the cost of converting to automatic operation.

The Cost of the Metro Drivers

In 2011,the STM employeed 308 metro drivers – and more than 9000 employees overall. Already there’s a hint that 3% of the employees will probably not have a very large financial impact overall.

Assuming 100,000$ cost per metro driver in 2015 [1], and assuming that the number of metro employees increased by the same amount as the amount of service between 2011 and 2015 [2], this means the drivers cost about 31 million $ per year.

The table below shows the cost of drivers compared to the operating cost and total cost of the metro:

STM Metro Drivers 2015     cost Cost per
% of
operating cost
% of
total cost
Total pay of Metro drivers 31M$ 1.4¢ 7.6% 3.5%
Metro operating cost 406M$ 18.3¢ 100.0% 46.2%
Metro operating + capital cost 878M$ 39.7¢ n/a 100.0%

(see spreadsheet with complete calculations)

$31 million may sound like a lot, but it only represents about 7.6% of the metro operating costs, and only about 3.5% of the total operating + annualized capital costs of the metro system.

The number of metro drivers is relatively small — there are many more people tasked with maintaining the trains and tracks. There are also a lot more ticket booth attendants than driers: 447. It would probably be easier to save money by removing those.

Still, let’s say saving a couple of percent on the operating cost of the metro would be great. A penny saved is a penny earned!

In order to know how much it will save, we need to know how much it will cost.

The Cost of Automation

The problem with automation is that in order to create a completely unattended system, the industry best practice is to install platform screen doors to ensure that nobody can ever enter the tracks.

Platform screen doors at Sacoma station in Sao Paolo (source)

The STM estimates the cost to install platform screen doors to be about 10M$ per station, or 5M$ per platform. (In Toronto a detailed study came up with the same amount.)

Let’s assume this is still a realistic cost estimate, that this is the only cost needed to get to full automation and that the Montreal signal system is already ‘ready’ for automation. This would give us the following cost:

Platform screen doors cost per platform 5M$
Number of metro platforms 146
Total capital cost 730M$
Annual cost of capital 4%
Annual cost of platform screen doors 29.2M$

So assuming that we can get rid of all metro drivers by automating, and assuming that we can automate by simply installing platform screen doors, we find that the annual cost of drivers matches the annual cost of paying off the upgrades (~30M$).

In our completely optimistic calculation, the already small savings are being completely undone by the costs.

But the reality is more complicated than that. Firstly, you can’t get rid of all employees in the metro system. In Vancouver’s automated Skytrain network, a large number of attendants are roaming the system to ensure safety and deal with emergencies.

Further, salaries paid to employees living in Montreal have a way of circulating back to the budget (via taxes), but also circulate in the local economy. I don’t think it’s the role of the state to employ people, but I think this consideration does skew the equation towards paying people rather than buying things from international vendors where most of the money will get exported away.

So if we’d take these points into account, we will actually lose money every year by converting the metro to automatic operation, based on the cost of platform screen doors alone.

There’s another problem: Platform screen doors have to be placed exactly to match the location of the doors of the trains. But the new Azur trains of the Montreal Metro have 3 doors per car instead of 4 like the existing trains. So any automation effort can really only be done after the line is converted to all new trains.

Are there Arguments for Automation besides Cost?

This analysis so far has only looked at the cost of drivers. But are there other arguments in favor of automation?

When talking about automation, we generally separate “automatic train operation” (ATO), where a computer drives the trains to the next station, from “unattended train operation” (UTO), where a computer also opens and closes the doors.

So under ATO, there are still “drivers”, who open and close the doors, ensure the safety of passengers, and deal with emergency situations. But the driving itself is done by a computer. It ensures that the trains respect safe distances and speed limits, accelerates and decelerates the trains, and makes it stop at the next station.

The ability to increase the frequency of trains and thus capacity is the main argument in favor of automation, not necessarily driver cost.

The Montreal Metro is actually already operated this way, the drivers mostly ensure safety of the passengers, but the trains drive themselves to the next station.

Being able to increase the frequency of the metro would be incredibly useful, especially on the overcrowded Orange line. But the bottleneck is not the computer or signalling system that drives the trains. The main problem is the safety in the tunnels.

The metro uses only a single tunnel for both directions, so there’s no separate one that can be used for egress in emergency situations. Therefore the system has adopted a rule that a train may only leave a station when the path to the next station is clear.

If we want to increase frequency and thus capacity, we would have to upgrade the safety systems and plans to allow multiple trains in the tunnels between stations.

So in the end, the main benefit of automatic train operation isn’t the removal of drivers, but the increase in capacity. But for the Montreal Metro, further automation would not help at this point, because the bottleneck today is due to the safety rules in the tunnels — which we would have to fix first.

[1] Every of the 9374 employees cost the STM about 90,774$ on average, including all benefits (see page 50 of the 2015 budget).

[2] total vehicle-km increased by 1.7% between 2011 and 2015, from 77 million to 78.3 million vehicle-km.

Is the Montreal Metro Profitable?

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Recent discussions about transit and profitability seem to imply that a transit system could be profitable if you privatize and automate it. This led me to wonder whether the Montreal Metro, a semi-automated system, is actually profitable.

From an accounting perspective, profitability is simple: add up the revenues and the costs of doing business, and if your revenues exceed your costs, you’re profitable.

I don’t do this with a view of exploring the merits of subsidies, but with a desire to get a more accurate accounting of the cost of transit, in particular comparing different modes of transit.

A transit system generates revenues through fares and other activities like selling ad space (other revenues). Costs include not only operations (ongoing labour, maintenance, energy/gasoline, etc.), but also capital expenses (building new lines, buying trains/buses, major renovations, technology upgrades like the Ibus tracking and fleet management system, etc.). A transit system also receives subsidies (which it counts as revenue) because fares generally don’t cover operations and capital expenses.

The STM’s numbers are easily found in their budgets, Which gives us the totals for costs and revenues of the bus and metro system.

The budget pools together paratransit, bus and metro, so if we only want to calculate the profitability of the metro, we’ll need to split up the costs and revenues by mode. Also, the investments shown in the operating budget do not include all the capital costs of the STM, so we will need to find those numbers as well.

To be able to compare the revenues and costs across the different systems with different number of passengers engaging in trips of different lengths, we need a common measure that accounts for these differences. One such measure is the passenger-km, which represents the total number of kilometers all passengers are travelling in the system. It provides a good way to compare the revenues and costs across different networks, and provides a common point of reference when discussing profitability and subsidies.

An example of the use of passenger-km (or pass-km) is in the following chart published by CDPQInfra, the promoters of the REM, to compare costs and subsidies of the REM and the existing networks in Montreal.

Back to Metro profitability, we will need to do the following:

  • Find the passenger-kilometres of the STM and how they are split between the bus and metro
  • Divide the cost of operations between bus and metro
  • Divide the revenues between bus and metro
  • Divide capital costs between bus and metro.
  • Divide all the costs by the total passenger-kilometres.

In order to make numbers more comparable, we will exclude paratransit. I’ll show my calculations for the year of 2015, but numbers don’t change much during the years.

If you’re not interested in the detailed breakdowns, you can skip ahead to the result:

1) Passenger-Kilometers of the STM

The STM publishes very little information about the passenger-kilometers they achieve. Luckily we have access to the Canadian Public Transit Association (CUTA) factbook, which provides this number. According to the CUTA factbook of 2015, the STM moved passengers a total of 3.45 billion km.

Unfortunately, we are still left with the problem of splitting the kilometres between the bus and the metro. There is almost no information available about this. After much searching, the only reference I found is in a 2013 presentation given by the STM at a conference in the Czech Republic. It indicates that the metro accounts for 64% of the passenger kilometers of the system. This number is a few years old, but it still provides the best estimate for our calculations — even if the total ridership has changed, the proportions are likely similar.

Passenger-Kilometers of the STM
metro passenger km 2,211 million km
bus passenger km 1,243 million km
total passenger-km           3,455 million km

2) Cost of Operations of Bus and Metro

The budget of the STM provides the the following revenue and cost summary in their 2015 budget (page 10):

On the revenue side, we see plenty of income from fares, but also a lot of subsidies.
On the expenses side, most of the money is spent operating the bus and metro, but a large chunk also goes towards paratransit. The budget also includes some investments (capital costs).

To split the costs by metro and bus, we can look further in the budget, where the STM provides a breakdown of operating costs by administrative unit (page 61):

Luckily for us, the operating costs of the metro is shown separately from bus and paratransit. However, to get the complete picture, we have to figure out how to allocate the cost not directly associated with the metro or bus system, but represents services shared between them. In the absence of specific information, the best we can do is find a reasonable split. On the one hand, the metro transports more passengers and is generally more technically complicated to operate than buses. On the other hand, the bus network has twice the numbers of employees (page 62 in 2005 budget) and costs twice as much to operate compared to the metro. Considering this, I decided that splitting the shared services 40% for the metro and 60% for the bus was reasonable.

Strangely, the costs shown in the STM chart do not add up to the budget’s total operating cost but we will ignore this for our calculations.

Bus & Metro Operating Costs of the STM (2015)
metro 405M$
bus 679M$
bus & metro 1,085M$

3) Revenues of Bus and Metro

The next step is to allocate the revenues between the metro and bus, as they are reported together in the STM budget. Again, this is not a trivial task.

To illustrate the complexity, imagine a passenger purchases a single ticket and takes a bus for 2 km, then the metro for 6km, then another bus for 2km. How should we split the fare between the bus and metro? Should we split the fare 60/40 based on the number of travelled kilometers? What if the passenger transfers from one metro line to another? Or 50/50 between bus and metro? Or 33/66 because the metro was taken once, but buses were taken twice (or, in industry terms, “by boarding”)? What if the passenger transferred from one metro line to another?

To answer this question, I tried to find out how the STM and agencies share revenues for passes that span multiple transit agencies. I found that a hybrid is used: for TRAM monthly passes covering multiple agencies, the first 23.75$ are shared in proportion to the number of trips, the remainder according to passenger-km travelled (budget 2015, page 141). I applied a similar sharing model to the calculations, and allocated 20% of the revenues by boarding and the rest by passenger-km.

While analyzing revenue-splitting, I considered factoring-in the type of tickets to get more accurate numbers. Analyzing STM OPUS card tap-in data, I found that there are more single and short term tickets used on the metro compared to the bus, which in turn sees more weekly and monthly passes. This may be relevant, since single tickets bring in more revenue per trip compared to pases. On the other hand, the Metro sees more monthly passes that are shared with other agencies (TRAM passes), which complicate revenue allocations.

Without being able to model these accurately, we’ll simply assume that the usage of different tickets across the different networks has a negligible impact on revenue.

Bus & Metro Revenue (2015)
per boarding per km combined
metro 384 M$ 422 M$ 415 M$
bus 275 M$ 237 M$ 245 M$
total 660 M$ 660 M$ 660 M$

4) capital cost

Capital costs are the big one time costs used to build lines, upgrade them or make large renovations.

It is possible to trade operating costs for capital costs — for example, a system could decide to spend a lot of money to replace an expensive-to-operate heavily used bus line with an automated light metro line, which may reduce the number of staff required and thus the operating cost – but requiring a lot of capital expenditure.

On the other hand, a system could decide to never build capital-intensive rail lines at all and transport everybody by bus all the time. Then the capital costs will be much lower (since you basically only need the buses and garages), but the operating costs will be very high.

So in order to get a complete picture of the total cost of running transit, we need to consider the capital costs.

Generally, we expect the capital costs for a metro system to be large due to the expensive infrastructure, and the capital costs for a bus system to be small. For the operating cost it’s the other way round — and depending on how many users there are running on the line, the total cost of one or the other may be cheaper per passenger.

Figuring out how to count the capital costs can be quite tricky. Some investment spendings come out of the operating budget. Capital spending may vary from year to year, depending on the construction projects. Capital costs are also often paid via debt, which then spreads the costs over many years and makes it hard to identify when the costs happen.

From an accounting perspective, there are two approaches to counting the capital costs: when the money is made available and when it is spent. Both approaches have shortcomings, as debt makes it hard to track when the money for capital projects is paid out. The STM budget also doesn’t provide a detailed view to track this information. Further, it’s impossible to split the information to bus and metro spending.

Tracking when the money is spent is much easier: each year there is a capital budget, and there is even a listing of the projects where most of the money is spent. This allows to differentiate bus and metro spending. The problem is that this pretends that the capital cost of the system is only due to projects that are being done in one year, when in reality most of the capital spending may have been done in the past, with the debt being paid off slowly.

Looking at the capital budget over multiple years, we see that the spending has been relatively constant, around 600M$ per year (although there were some spikes in recent years due to the purchase of new metro cars). Also consider that the only metro extension in nearly thirty years, the 2007 Laval extension of the Orange line, cost 745M$ in total — not much more than a single year of capital budgets now.

The capital budget can be relatively easily split into bus and metro, since most of the budget is for major projects:

It seems overall, using the year-of-expenditure view of capital cost provides a reasonable approximation of the total capital cost of the system, and allows us to break it down into bus and metro spending.

The Results

Putting all of these numbers together, we’ll get the following results:

Bus & Metro Cost & Revenue per Passenger-km (2015)
Metro Bus Overall
revenue (per passenger-km) 18.7c 19.7c 19.1c
operating cost (per passenger-km) 18.3c 54.6c 31.4c
capital cost (per passenger-km) 21.4c 11.9c 18.0c
total cost (per passenger-km) 39.7c 66.5c 49.4c

As expected, the metro is cheaper to operate, but the capital costs are higher, compared to the bus. The capital costs for the STM bus system actually seem a bit high — this may be due to large bus infrastructure projects going on right now, work on garages and updated real-time tracking systems.

Also note that the bus has more revenue per kilometre. This is because metro trips are longer on average compared to bus trips, ever since the metro extension to Laval (page 20).


We find that the metro is barely profitable operationally. Since the subsidies are provided to both the metro and the bus system, we could claim that the metro is profitable after subsidies, and that these profits are used to subsidize the capital costs of the metro, or more likely, the operating costs of the buses.

One important thing to remember is that the STM forms a system of buses working together with the metro. Many passengers use buses to get to the metro, meaning the buses extend the reach of the metro. Without the feeder buses, the metro could not attract enough riders to be profitable.

So we can say overall that the metro is operationally profitable but only if we ignore the help of the feeder buses.

See the detailled spreadsheet for all the data.

Aside: On Presenting Reproducible Numbers

One thing I found during this work is that the story could change if the numbers were picked slightly differently, if I made different choices and assumptions. It would be possible to make the metro look unprofitable or make it look much more profitable, by changing the way costs and revenues are split between buses and metro, or if one were to sneak the cost of paratransit into the equations.

So if somebody provides numbers like this, it’s important that they publish their assumptions and calculations alongside it.

This brings us back to the graph made by CDPQInfra, the private promoters of the REM. Firstly you can see that the Montreal metro is as cheap or cheaper to operate than the fully-automated REM would be in the future (19c vs 19-25c).

But also, note that both the Metro system itself and the STM overall are cheaper to operate than whatever ‘existing networks’ CDPQInfra presents, and that the total cost including capital costs is much lower as well. They are showing numbers without providing the details of their calculations, trying to tell a story that may not withstand scrutiny.

This is a bit concerning, because their whole story of profitable transit, which is presented as having the same overall cost as the existing transit lines, is used to justify important policy decisions and spending of large amount of public money.

The CDPQ and Bill 137:
Constructing Alternate Realities

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

It’s been quite a while since I wrote about the REM, Montreal’s controversial light rail project. Since my last analysis on the subject, I spent more time following the official channels to try to participate in the discussion — I submitted a 100 page brief and a 20 minute presentation at the independent environmental consultations office to try to improve the project and point out problems.

The final BAPE report, generally warned of the many issues that I have also discussed on this blog, and indicated they could not recommend this project to go forward at this time.

One thing that the BAPE criticized was the lack of information regarding the financing of the project, especially the operating costs. So shortly after, CDPQInfra released a Note on the financing that does include a few numbers on the operating cost, mostly trying to show that the it will not be larger than for the existing public transit system, even though the REM will have to pay off the capital costs and the rather large 8% return demanded by the Caisse.

Most of their document is concerned with trying to prove that the existing transit system is basically crap and that the REM is the only way to fix that, and that the REM will be much better than the current network.

I’ve become weary of the proclamations by CDPQInfra, I’ve previously written about how they like to cook numbers and distort facts in order to make their projects appear great while dismissing criticism. They’ve made claims that later turned out to be half-true or not true, or true only from their own narrow point of view.

For example the claim that “transit would be profitable” turned out to be that “transit would be profitable for the Caisse, as long as the public pays a large number of subsidies”. Or the claim that “there would be no shut-downs of the Deux-Montagnes line, except may for a weekend or two” turned out to mean “we will single-track the whole line and only offer some rush-hour service in one direction”. They also keep referring to their project as a public-public partnership, when it is actually a full-on privatization project.

The “Financing Note” for the REM

What struck me in this “Financing Note” document is that they even misrepresent facts that can easily be verified, numbers that we can just look up.

Case in point, the following table from their document, which I helpfully annotated with some corrected numbers:

Let’s go through some of these numbers.

Note that the “Existing Networks” is labelled with “(2022)”, meaning that we should also take into account the improvements that were planned on the network before the REM was announced.

1) “Deux-Montagnes frequency (peak): ~30 minutes on average”
If we look at the actual schedule (link) during the peak hour, we see that the departures are actually 20 minutes apart (4 departures between 6:35 and 7:37, and 4 departures between 16:30 and 17:25).

Furthermore, the AMT has recently done some upgrades to allow running their heavy dual-mode engines and multi-level passenger cars on the line, which could allow increasing the service. The AMT capital budget for years has shown an unfunded project to increase double-tracking on the line, an item costing a mere 50M$, which would also allow increasing peak service substantially – and it could easily be implemented by 2022.

2) “Deux-Montagnes – Downtown Travel time: 40-45 minutes”
A quick look at the schedule finds that the travel time is actually 35-40 minutes. CDPQInfra simply adds 5 minutes of travel time to make their project look better.

3) “South Shore Frequency (peak): 15 minutes”
Looking at the actual schedules, we find that Terminus Chevrier is served by the 90, during the peak, every 3min-5min, with some departures only 2 minutes apart.

Terminus Panama is served by the 45 bus shuttling downtown. During the peak it runs less often, in the 8min-10min range. But also during the peak, 20-30 bus lines that generally terminate at Panama are through-routed to downtown, most stop at Panama. The Transit App trip planner tells me there are departures every 1min-4min.

4) “Airport Travel Time: 45-60 minutes”
To get to the airport by transit, you have to take the 747 express bus. This bus stops at two large metro stations (Berri-Uqam, Lionel-Groulx) and at various places in-between that connect pretty well to several downtown hotels. Generally, most people come from the metro system, and most connect at Lionel-Groulx.

During my last couple of trips to the airport, I have measured the bus travel time from Lionel-Groulx to be around 20 minutes. Indeed, the scheduled time is around 18-22 minutes, increasing to about 28 minutes in the rush hour direction. Once the construction around the Turcot highway interchange and the Dorval circle is finished by 2022, the bus will run on dedicated lanes — which should bring the travel times to 18-22 minutes at all times.

5) “Additional Capacity: Saturated Networks”
This claim is the most egregious. It basically comes down to claiming that if the REM is not implemented, there could be no improvements to the existing networks. Even though there are current projects in the pipeline to increase service (like the previously mentioned 50M$ double-tracking project of the Deux-Montagnes line). There are ways to add capacity for much cheaper than the complete rebuild that the REM proposes.

Overall, the theoretical capacity of the existing heavy rail network is much higher than today. It’s possible to triple the capacity with some investment — as for example proposed in the 2007 AMT study to place stations at Edouard-Montpetit, which assumed 5 minute frequencies in the tunnel.

Beyond that, there do exist North American heavy rail lines that allow 120 second frequencies – for example the North River tunnels in New York City. If similarly advanced signalling and emergency measures were implemented in the Mount-Royal tunnel, it would essentially six-tuple its capacity compared to today.

The REM would run at 150 second frequencies from the beginning — very close to the claimed maximum theoretical frequency of 90 seconds. Assuming this is actually possible, this would mean the absolute maximum theoretical capacity is only about 66% higher than the initial capacity — really much less room to grow.

And this absolute maximum theoretical capacity of the REM (24,000 PPHD) is still less than upgrading the existing heavy rail system to 120 second frequencies (60,000 PPHD).

So the claim that additional capacity opportunities are “substantial” for the REM, while the existing networks are “saturated” is simply not true.

CDPQInfra: A company of Spin and PR

Just taking a closer look at the above table, it’s easy to see that the CDPQInfra relies on simply printing false numbers in their pronouncements. They have trouble being honest. Whatever they say should be questioned vigorously, especially by journalists repeating those press releases. For a company that claims to be public (which isn’t actually true either), it is probably one of the least trustable.

Within this context, their first reaction after the release of the BAPE report is rather ironic: CDPQInfra came back blasting the whole BAPE process right away, in a press release titled “BAPE report on the REM project: An analysis that overlooks facts and distorts reality”. “Distort reality”, that’s pretty rich.

A similar thing happened when journalist Francis Villes form La Presse crunched some numbers that indicate that the operation of the line will cost the public a lot of money every year in order to ensure the profitability to the CDPQ. When he asked CDPQInfra for comment, their spokesperson responded with the following:

“Le REM offrira un service de qualité et à haute fréquence, qui promet de transformer la mobilité dans la région et d’améliorer la performance du transport collectif. Et ce, au même niveau de coût par passager-kilomètre que les réseaux actuels. Pour des revenus par passager-kilomètre équivalents à ceux des réseaux actuels, le REM couvrira non seulement ses frais d’exploitation, mais également les coûts d’immobilisation, ce qui démontre la très grande efficacité du modèle d’affaires. Prétendre le contraire revient à induire le public en erreur.”

Effectively he’s again repeating this will be a great project, and it will supposedly cost the public the same in subsidies as the current public transit system — and to be pretending otherwise would be to “mislead the public”.

It’s the pot calling the kettle black.

Enter Bill 137

This brings us to bill 137. It’s a rather concerning development, a bill proposed by the government of Quebec to fast-track the REM project.

The bill

  • Disallows those being expropriated from contesting the expropriation.
  • It exempts the REM from municipal taxes.
  • It simply declares that the REM will be deemed in compliance with the BAPE.
  • It overrides the act respecting the preservation of agricultural land allowing the REM to convert a bunch of agricultural land.
  • It stipulates that the ARTM (the AMT replacement) will have to transfer 512M$ to the REM project “in lieu of land value capture” (receiving no equity in return).
  • It forces the ARTM to enter into an agreement with the REM for the ongoing financing of the REM — and if the ARTM doesn’t do it, the minister can just decide the terms of the agreement.
  • It gives servitudes to public roads in order to build the REM.

This is basically a law that that overrides existing rules and gives powers, large amounts of subsidies and resources to a private company that will privatize essential transit assets, move it out of public control, and extract large amounts of money from the public to run it.

And just like CDPQInfra keeps trying to construct an alternate reality to advance their project, the government is constructing an alternate reality where the REM doesn’t break the rules of the environmental consultation process and the preservation of agricultural land.

My trust in this company is rather low at this point, but apparently the Liberal government trusts it more than actual public agencies.

I look at this with concern and agree with UdeM urbanism professor Gérard Beaudet, who calls the REM the creation of a “Barony in the heart of the Metropolis”.

The New Vend̫me Station РLong Transfers Ahead

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Last Wednesday, I presented a memoir at the the Société de Transports de Montréal’s (STM) consultations on the “Vendôme Access Project”. The STM plans to build a second entrance and pedestrian corridor at Vendôme Station, to link together the Metro station, the commuter rail station, the new MUHC hospital, and the residential area to the North of Vendôme. The project will also add elevators, which will finally make the station accessible to people with reduced mobility.

Originally, I did not plan to attend these consultations, and hoped that the STM would come up with a reasonably efficient design. However, after seeing the video mockup of the new station, I found the STM’s proposal inefficient and decided to participate after all.

The main issue: long-winded transfers that force commuters to take stairs up and down and up again, without any escalators.

The STM always presents the project with an image that shows a modern, airy station building, presumably one that passengers would enjoy using:

While very pretty, this image does not represent the actual user experience of most travellers, who do not exit at Vendôme, but instead want to transfer between the AMT and STM trains.

Those transferring from buses will not be using this new entrance. In fact, this new édicule will essentially be used by residents East of the station and people with mobility issues who need the elevators.

The majority of passengers, those transferring between the Metro and the commuter trains, will perceive the station like this:

The Planned Vendôme Station, with Eastbound (purple) and Westbound (red) transfer walks shown.

A 104m transfer, 3 times the geographical distance between the 2 platforms, stairs totalling 94 steps that make users climb 3 times the actual height between the overground and underground platforms. No escalators, and those who need elevators must take 3 separate elevators along the way.

The walking distance is more than the existing concourse at Vendôme, which has a transfer length of 88m to 105m (depending on which platform you are coming from) and ~60 steps.

This is surprising given that the physical distance between the platforms is much shorter at the location where the new transfer will be built. One should expect the new concourse to have a shorter transfer!

Existing (left) vs proposed (right) transfer concourses at Vendôme Station, metro-level view (source)

Effectively, the new concourse squanders the opportunity for a shorter, more efficient transfer, made possible by the better positioning along the platforms, by instead providing a transfer-walk which is worse than the existing one!

And this matters, because people really hate wasting time in transfers. Transit agencies consider the psychological penalty of transferring to be more than two times the actual time it takes for the transfer. The problems are exacerbated by the many long flights of stairs, which require more time and effort.

In the end, when users have to choose between taking the car or the train, these extra minutes during the most inconvenient time of the commute may tip the scale and result in many people choosing driving over transit.

Why Vendôme Matters

Vendôme is an important transfer point between the Orange line and 3 commuter rail lines. These lines form the “CP division” of the commuter rail network. While these 3 lines see about 33,700 passengers per day, the infrastructure is very much underutilized. This is largely due to the limited number of trains (low frequency), more expensive fares compared to the STM, and lack of stations in NDG (between Montreal-Ouest and Vendôme).

The CP line passes through one of the densest areas of Montreal that is not served by rapid transit. Several bus lines running parallel to the corridor have more ridership than the commuter rail lines, so the demand is clearly there.

Population density near the transit network centered around Vendôme station (source: 2011 census).
The area in NDG is one of the densest areas of Montreal not already served by rapid transit.

At the same time, Vendôme sits in the corridor that is the main access point downtown from the West of Montreal, and there have been multiple proposals to connect various areas using this line. If utilized better, this line could easily triple its ridership.

Still, the rail line has one major issue: the quality of the connection downtown. The terminal station is Lucien l’Allier (built when access to Gare Windsor was cut off by the construction of the Bell Centre). It is located downtown, but the walking distance to many work places is rather long.

Work places in Eastern downtown can not be reasonably reached by walking — commuters will have to use the metro to reach them.

Lucien l’Allier (red, centre-left), compared to the places of work in downtown.
Every red circle represents 500 workplaces (source: 2006 census).

Note that Lucien l’Allier also has a connection to the metro. But this transfer is rather long, because of the distance between the metro and AMT station locations and the depth of the metro station.

Vendôme station is therefore the most important transfer to connect the AMT CP division to downtown.

How Could We Fix The Proposed Design?

Thanks to a question during the information session by Matthew MacLaughlin, who runs, the STM was asked to provide plans for the new station. Starting with those as a template, it’s possible to analyze the “constraints” that were often mentioned during the question session, when people asked about the inefficient design.

During my presentation at the consultation, I made the following suggestions for improvements:

Proposal 1.1: Connect the STM and AMT concourse

If we look at the proposed connection, we see that inside the green area highlighted in the below image, the paid Metro area (blue) and the AMT tunnel (grey) almost touch. But since these areas are not connected, passengers are forced on a detour up and down stairs, just to get on the other side of a wall.

The area highlighted in green looks like like this at the metro platform level:

STM Metro platform area (left), AMT tunnel area (right),
representing the area previously highlighted in green (modified from this)

Again, you see the paid Metro area on the left (highlighted blue) and the AMT area on the right (highlighted grey), separated only by a wall.

At the information session, the STM claimed that the AMT and STM areas don’t have exactly the same floor height — but the plans they provided do not show that. In fact it appears that people transferring from the Metro will have to walk up 31 steps on the right, then down 31 steps on the left, meaning the floor heights should be the same. Any difference should be minimal, and the floor height of the AMT tunnel could easily be adjusted to match the Metro platform.

If we realize that the main problem is the absence of doors in the wall between the AMT and the STM, we could fix it like this:

Proposal 1.1 (underground level)

Here, I simply added doors between the AMT and the STM area. The heavy turning doors are required because the STM needs a closed system for ventilation purposes. Note also that I removed one set of stairs on the left, and one elevator, because they have now become redundant — people coming from the left can use the stairs and the elevator on the right. Note also the added turnstiles, which passengers have to pass through to get to the metro platform.

Proposal 1.2: A single Concourse for STM and AMT

One of the quirks of the proposed design is that the station is divided into two completely separated areas: one with a paid fare area for the STM (with its own ventilation) and one for the AMT, which uses proof-of-payment and different ventilation. This is very strange, given the constrained space.

Basically, the planners of the Vendôme Access Project beautifully created a large amount of space by taking it from the adjacent bus loop and building. They then filled the space with all sorts of infrastructure, dividing it and making the space cramped and hard to use. It also means the AMT area does not benefit from the large window facade.

But it would be possible to have a shared concourse, by placing the whole station under STM ventilation and having turnstiles closer to the platform. This is done like this for example at station Bonaventure.

Current plan vs current plan removing all the walls inside the proposed edicule.
Imagine all the space and light opened up by using a shared concourse! (1m grid)

A single, shared concourse can allow an even better connection between STM and AMT:

Proposal 1.2, assuming shared concourse (underground level)

In the diagram above, we see that by opening up the space, we can now have two connections between the metro platform and the AMT tunnel, reducing walking distance along the platform to reach the tunnel.

Proposal 2: Escalators!

At information session, the STM was asked why no escalators were planned. They said there is not enough vertical space. This makes sense when we look at one of the cross-sections they provided:

Profile of current plans, with escalator envelope superimposed, showing conflict.

As you can see, the “machine room” of the escalator would conflict with the existing metro tunnel.

But this problem exists only at this one spot; the various other stairs don’t have that problem!

Stairs with clearance issues shown in red, stairs that should not have escalator clearance issues are shown in green.

And even for this one critical set of stairs, it would be possible to add escalators if we lowered the floor above the metro tunnel and move the stairs Westward, which will provide more clearance under that “crash-wall”.

This would allow us to add one upward escalator:

Proposal 2. Location of single upward escalator,
with enough 2m clearance (shown in blue) between the Metro tunnel and the escalator.

Proposal 3: Maximize Tunnel Level, minimize Mezzanine Level

The design so far has reduced the length of the transfer between the Southern metro platform and the AMT concourse from more than 100m to about 40m. To make an impact in the other direction, i.e. the transfer between the Northern (Westbound) metro platform and the AMT trains, we should try to remove the total number of stairs.

Optimizing this transfer essentially requires raising the AMT tunnel up, and lowering the mezzanine above the metro tunnel down, like so:

Profile view of Optimizing the Vendôme Station transfers

As the the two levels move towards each other,

  • the total number of stairs required for transfers from the Northern metro platform to the AMT goes down,
  • long flights of stairs will be turned into several shorter flights of stairs, which require less effort.

In an ideal world, the Metro tunnel should have been built lower or the AMT tracks raised at some point, so we could have a single mezzanine strategically placed between the Metro and the commuter rail platforms. Building this now would involve such a large impact on the existing infrastructure that it would be too optimistic to propose.

The ideal solution: a single mezzanine between Metro and commuter train.

However, without making major changes to the existing construction, we could still maximize the floor level of the AMT concourse by using a very low height for the tunnel (2.20m), and a very low profile rail bridge.

This would result in three split levels: the Metro platform level, the AMT tunnel, and the mezzanine above. They could each be about 2.20m apart:

Proposal 3, profile view. The height is meant to be to scale,
the horizontal features are approximate. The boxes represent elevators.

The area between the Eastbound Metro platform and the AMT tunnel, could look like this:

Proposal 3. (underground level). The darker area represent areas that are
At the STM level. The white areas represent areas that are at the AMT level.
The blue area represents the vertical clearance required for an escalator.
The dotted bar is the crash wall (all elevators have to be North of it).

The above design can easily deal with any separation between the STM and AMT level, up to about 2.5m — as long as a single, shared concourse is used between AMT and STM. Note the efficient use of the available space, the insertion of elevators in the constrained space between the “crash wall” (dotted line) and the existing metro tunnel, and the arrangement that allows adding an escalator for every set of stairs.

So using a single, shared concourse between AMT and STM, rather than two separated turf areas, together with some optimizations, we can significantly improve the transfer experience for tens of thousands of passengers.

Conclusion: Participate in the Consultations and Demand Improvements!

I believe my presentation has at least piqued the interest of the Commission (the president thanked me for the “well-researched and thoroughly thought-out presentation” and another wondered whether I was an architect).

After my presentation, I also spoke with attendees who seemed interested in the ideas I put forward.

This consultation has convinced me of the importance for people to voice their opinions.

For this project, many people asked questions about the inefficient design and the lack of escalators at the initial information sessions. But at the session where the public may make presentations, nobody besides me talked about these issues — so although the independent commission was aware of the problems, if nobody had come and complained about them, they couldn’t mention those in their report. It was my impression that the Commissioners were glad to have someone there who talked about station design.

Projects like these are often “designed by committee”, and the public isn’t directly involved. It’s only during the consultations, even if they are non-binding like this one, that we get a chance to “pull up a chair” and participate, and ask for improvements for users.

This time, one person showed up and entered concerns into the record, so there is a slight chance that improvements may happen. This chance increases with every voice that is added to the chorus. Participation is important, there may be nobody doing it for you.

See video of my presentation here, and read my brief here.

La Controverse Autour du REM est Devenue une Guerre Médiatique…

Monday, October 17th, 2016

English version below. The following was written as a response to the most recent ‘opinion’ published by the CDPQInfra in La Presse and Le Devoir.

La controverse autour du REM est devenue une guerre médiatique… sur un projet de transport en commun! Ça n’a aucun sens. Le projet devrait être évalué selon son mérite, avec l’objectif de construire un réseau intégré de transport.

Au lieu de cela, on se chicane sur des faits. CDPQInfra ne cesse de publier des article pour “corriger” ceux qui soulèvent des problèmes. Mais CDPQInfra ne fait que souligner les chiffres en leur faveur et tente de brouiller le débat sur les chiffres qui leur sont défavorables, pour nous convaincre que le REM est économiquement viable.

Par exemple, leur plus récent article paru dans La Presse et Le Devoir compare le coût de construction par kilomètre du REM avec celui du Canada line et du Confederation line, pour montrer que le chiffre est inférieur pour le REM, ce qui en ferait un meilleur projet.

Mais cette comparaison n’est simplement pas pertinente! Les lignes Canada et Confederation ont été construites de zéro; des tunnels neufs ont été creusés dans le centre-ville, la partie la plus onéreuse des projets. C’est complètement différent du REM: la moitié de la ligne et le tunnel existent déjà! Il est donc tout à fait normal que le coût par kilomètre soit moindre. Cela n’en fait pas un meilleur projet, malgré ce que CDPQInfra voudrait prétendre.

Le coût par kilomètre est un chiffre que la CDPQ brandit à tout vent car elle obscurcit tous les problèmes qui font du projet un mauvais investissement:

1) l’utilisation inefficace de l’infrastructure existante, particulièrement du tunnel du Mont Royal. Cet actif stratégique devrait être partagé entre le REM, les lignes de l’AMT et de Via Rail, mais la CDPQ refuse de prendre en considération un tel partage, car ils n’ont que faire des coûts occasionnés aux autres agences, ni du développement à long terme du transport à Montréal. Sans accès au tunnel, les lignes de l’AMT et de VIA Rail ne pourront jamais réaliser leur plein potentiel.


La CDPQ continue de prétendre que ce partage est impossible technologiquement, prétention réfutée à maintes reprises par des experts indépendants et par Via Rail.

2) la reconstruction non-nécessaire de la ligne Deux-Montagnes. Contrairement à ce que la CDPQ laisse entendre, la reconstruction n’augmentera en rien la capacité aux heures de pointe. Le REM ne fera qu’étendre le service durant la journée, alors que l’infrastructure actuelle permet d’atteindre ce résultat avec des améliorations beaucoup moins chères.

3) les antennes vers l’Ouest de l’Île génèreront très peu d’achalandage. La ligne est construite sur le bord de l’autoroute, là où très peu de gens habitent, et est mal connecté au réseau d’autobus. La ligne dépend presque exclusivement sur le parking incitatif, davantage même que les trains de banlieues existantes, ce qui en limitera l’achalandage.

Si le REM n’est pas fait pour maximiser la fréquentation, pas construit pour optimiser l’infrastructure existante, pourquoi voulons-nous aller de l’avant? Parce que nous avons mandaté une entité privée pour planifier notre transport en commun, à profit. Beaucoup de profit. Ce profit, qui sera extrait du public québécois, car nous devrons repayer la contribution de la Caisse d’une façon ou d’une autre.

Et ce motif de profit explique la guerre médiatique. La CDPQ veut le projet, même s’il ne fait aucun sens, même s’il ne maximise pas l’utilité publique, car elle n’est concernée que par le profit. Nos agences gouvernementales sont restées particulièrement silencieuses sur ce projet, et la plupart se sont rangés derrière la CDPQ malgré les failles du projet.

Étant donné l’inaction de nos institutions publiques, c’est au public québécois de s’assurer que la CDPQ soit redevable, et de demander les améliorations qui s’imposent.

The REM controversy has become a media war

The REM controversy has become a media war — over a transit project! It’s completely crazy. It should be about merit, about weighing positive and negative impacts. About building an integrated, regional transit network.

Instead, we’re arguing about facts. The Caisse keeps writing articles trying to ‘correct’ people bringing up issues. The Caisse only highlights facts to try to make them look good, and misleading the public about others, all to prove that their project supposedly makes financial sense.

For example, in the most recent article in La Presse et Le Devoir, CDPQInfra compares the construction cost per kilometre of the REM with the Canada line and Confederation line – showing that it is lower, supposedly to prove theirs is a much better project.

But this comparison is simply not apt. The Canada and Confederation lines were built from scratch, including downtown tunnels, which is the costliest part. This is completely unlike the REM: Half the the line already exists today; the downtown tunnel exists today. Most of the new stretches are along highways, where it is cheaper to build, but where it will have less ridership. It is normal that the cost per km is lower, but, contrary to what the CDPQ wants us to believe, that doesn’t mean it’s a better project.

The cost per kilometre is a number that the Caisse provides try to obfuscate the problems that make this project an inefficient investment:

1) The inefficient utilization of existing infrastructure. In particular the Mount Royal tunnel. This strategic infrastructure asset should be shared by REM, three AMT lines and VIA. But the Caisse simply refuses to consider sharing, because they do not care about the cost to other transit agencies and long-term transit development in Montreal. Without direct access to downtown, the AMT and VIA lines they will never be able to realize their full ridership potential.


Instead they’re arguing about whether a shared system is possible, a fact which many independent experts and VIA rail itself have explained multiple times.

2) The unnecessary rebuilding of the Deux-Montagnes line from scratch. Contrary to the claims of the Caisse, these upgrades will not improve capacity during peak hour. The REM will merely extend service throughout the day. The existing infrastructure could support this with simple, much cheaper upgrades.

3) The West Island antennas have very little ridership. This is because the line is planned along highways, where almost nobody lives, and it has poor connections to buses. The line relies almost exclusively on parking, even more than the existing commuter rail lines, and this will keep ridership low.

If the REM will not be not built to maximize ridership, not built to maximize utilization of existing infrastructure assets, Why are we building it? It’s because we’re asking a private entity to plan our transit, for profit. A lot of profit. This profit will be extracted from the Quebec public, we will have to pay back the financial contribution of the Caisse one way or the other.

And the profit motive explains the media war. Once we take infrastructure planning away from our democratic institutions, and give it to a private entity to produce profit, then that entity will fight for the project no matter whether it makes sense, no matter whether it maximizes public utility. Our public agencies have been incredibly quiet, most are getting in line magically despite the obvious flaws of the project.

Given the lack of oversight from our public institutions, it is up to the public to hold the Caisse and the government accountable and demand improvements of the project.

How VIA Rail Torpedoed its Own “High-Frequency Rail” Project and Montreal’s chance for Regional Rail

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

VIAs high-frequency rail project is a great opportunity for an integrated rail network in the greater Montreal region. This would require shared access to the Mount Royal tunnel, which the Caisse refuses to consider with the REM project. Instead of fighting for track sharing at the environmental impact hearings, VIA decided to throw themselves under the bus train.

The dream of high speed rail in Canada

Canadians have long dreamed of High Speed Trains in the Quebec-Windsor corridor. Many studies were done, but the problem was usually cost: a 2011 study put the cost at 19 to 21$ Billion.

Map showing two possible route options proposed by the 2011 HSR study (Page s-6). Both options use the same route through Montreal, using the Mount Royal tunnel

Map showing two possible route options proposed by the 2011 HSR study (Page s-6).Both options use the same route through Montreal, using the Mount Royal tunnel

VIA’s new approach: “high-frequency-rail”

With the appointment of Yves Desjardins-Siciliano as VIA CEO in 2014, the focus changed from speed to frequency. Instead of competing with flights, they decided to compete with cars. And in the short term, the new plan will only focus on Montreal-Toronto, and worry about Quebec to Windsor later.

Instead of spending 10$ billion high speed rail, VIA would build lower speed, dedicated tracks for 3-4$ billion, mostly along existing rail corridors. This would allow VIA to run trains as often as they want at full conventional speeds. According to Desjardins-Siciliano, “it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit”

VIA also started a procurement process for new rolling stock that would be able to travel at 200km/h in diesel or electric mode, allowing gradual electrification.

The hope is to get this project up and running in the fall of 2019.

So far, the Federal government has only provided funding to prepare studies. But VIA has been in discussions with several large public-sector pension funds to get investment for the project. It’s interesting to note the projected return on investment on the slide posted above:

  • “mid-teen %” for HFR
  • “6.9%” for HSR

(holy cow, I’d like portfolio returns like that).

How would HFR be an opportunity for Montreal’s Regional Rail?

To understand the opportunity for Montreal’s regional rail, we have to consider that VIA wants to build dedicated tracks along existing rail corridors, and then share them with the AMT and other transit operators. Yves Desjardins-Siciliano explains the vision behind dedicated tracks as follows:

“We’re not promoting high-speed-rail, we’re promoting high-frequency-rail, which means dedicated tracks on which only passenger services run.

And when I say passenger services I mean not only the VIA rail intercity service but the metropolitan or regional services of our partners, metrolink here in Toronto, AMT in Quebec and whatever other operating enterprise the Caisse de Depot may come up with as part of its new mandate.”

The map below shows the likely trajectory of the VIA HFR line in red:

REM proposal, VIAs HFR proposal and AMT lines (including the St-Jerome line rerouted into the tunnel)

REM proposal, VIAs HFR proposal and AMT lines (including the St-Jerome line rerouted into the tunnel)

The map shows that the VIA and AMT lines overlap on the Vaudreuil-Hudson line in the West and on the St-Jérôme line in the North.

So if VIA and the AMT could share these new, dedicated, electrified passenger tracks, this could be a great opportunity for the AMT to greatly expand service.

The electrification makes operating trains much cheaper, which allows more frequent service. Electric trains are also faster and can stop more often, allowing the addition of more stops within the city. With updated signalling, VIA and AMT trains could run only minutes apart on the same track.

Imagine: service from downtown Montreal to Parc-Extension, Chabanel and Laval, every 10 to 15 minutes all day long. In the North we could create a new rapid transit line serving new areas while relieving the overcrowded Orange Line.

In the West of Montreal, we could implement the Train-de-l’Ouest project that West Islanders have been demanding for decades: frequent service on the Vaudreuil-Hudson line, with the possibility to serve the airport as well.

And the cost for all these upgrades could be shared with VIA, whose higher-paying passengers would finance a large amount of the capital costs. We would get new transit lines almost for free.

How will the REM affect the HFR project?

The REM proposed by the Caisse de Depot adds a giant snag to this plan. Instead of adding to the synergy of the regional rail network, the Caisse is doing its own thing and destroying regional network opportunities.

The big issue is the sharing of the Mount Royal tunnel. VIA, AMT & REM could all use the tunnel, which could provide a high-capacity trunk line through Montreal serving the whole region and cities beyond.

The REM will cut off direct access to downtown for many lines

The REM will cut off direct access to downtown for many lines

But the Caisse wants to privatize the tunnel and monopolize it. They insist on converting it to an incompatible technology, citing regulation and the need for frequency. But the automated light rail technology to be used by the REM and the heavy rail technology used by the other lines could be made compatible with each other and provide service at high frequency.

Some might say it’s crazy to have all these lines share a single tunnel. But consider that the REM and AMT will each only need a capacity of about 20,000 passengers per hour per direction (PPHD). Since two-track rail tunnels can accommodate 40,000 to 60,000 PPHD, it makes a lot of economic sense to have all lines share the same tunnel.

But the Caisse stubbornly refuses to consider this option, and its privatization and monopolization plan appears currently supported by all levels of government.

If the Caisse monopolizes the tunnel, the synergies between VIA and the AMT fall apart, and so will the chance for a large regional network.

VIAs Reaction to the REM

When the REM project was first announced, VIA didn’t seem to understand the implications of the project. In an interview with the Financial Post about a month after the REM project was unveiled, Desjardin-Siciliano only spoke of issues of funding:

“The Caisse announcement is somewhat bittersweet, (…) On the one hand, it supports our suggestion; on the other hand, their people will now be focused on delivering a very aggressive project on a very aggressive timeline, so it makes our project less of a possibility for them.”

Track Sharing is the Main issue

Since then, the issue of track sharing has come up numerous times. VIA itself has said that track sharing is technically possible if VIA and the Caisse sat down and designed the project together. They provided numerous examples of heavy and light rail sharing tracks, to show that is possible technologically. They also provided examples that show that it is possible to circumvent get around the regulatory issues for sharing of light and heavy rail.

CDPQInfra has simply dismissed this possibility. For instance, Jean-Vincent Lacroix, claimed the example of the O-train in Ottawa is not a relevant example because it has a different frequency and traction system than the REM — but completely misses the point of the example, which is to prove the willingness of Transports Canada to give waivers to antiquated rail-safety regulation if it is proven that safety can be provided by other means.

At the environmental assessment consultations, the BAPE hearings that ended last week, numerous experts came forward and described the possibility of track-sharing between REM, VIA & the AMT. Several environmental and municipal groups demanded track sharing as well.

Around the same time, Jacques Fauteux, Government and community relations at VIA Rail Canada wrote:

“Il est essentiel que le réseau de transport ferroviaire canadien [offert par VIA Rail] conserve son accès direct au centre-ville de Montréal [via la gare Centrale] pour optimiser la fluidité des transports et la connexion entre les régions du Québec et la métropole.”

Just days later, on the last evening of the hearings, towards the end of the session, VIA gave a presentation at the BAPE as well.

They did not submit a brief beforehand, and only made a verbal declaration (for video, see Jeudi, 29 septembre 2016, 19:00).

VIA at the BAPE hearings

Given the importance of track sharing, and how VIA has talked about the possibility of track sharing, most people expected that VIA would bring it up again. After all, the reason of the BAPE is to identify possible impacts, and to make recommendations to reduce them. It was a perfect opportunity to get the commission to recommend that the Caisse should investigate track sharing.

But at the BAPE, CEO Desjardins-Siciliano affirmed the opposite.

Instead of talking about impacts and warning about the need for integration, he declared the REM project basically perfect, that it “got to be executed without delay”. Despite the fact that VIA wouldn’t be able to access the Mount Royal tunnel if the REM goes forward without track sharing, he also claimed that both the VIA HFR and REM project are complementary and that there are zero impacts for VIA beyond the “usual construction impacts” that you’d expect from a project of this size. He dismisses concerns about the long-term impacts:

“It is not surprising that the project at the scale as the one projected by the Caisse de Depot whose scope is transformational has elicited its share of comments and opinions. But they should be analyzed without losing sight of the longer-term objective: implementation of a sustainable transportation infrastructure for the 21st century.”

Desjardins-Siciliano claims to advocate for “sustainable transportation infrastructure for the 21st century” as the “longer-term objective”, yet in the same breath pushes for the destruction of any possibility of an integrated regional network in the long term.

The commission seemed to be quite puzzled at these statements, given the many people who talked about track sharing before. They asked Desjardins-Siciliano numerous times about VIAs plans and the REM impacts, and the VIA CEO would merely repeat the same words over and over.

For any transit advocate interested in regional integration and concerned about the long-term effects of the decisions of today, this is a really frustrating hearing to watch. It felt like VIA Rail was sinking their own ship (and taking all of us with them).

“there's a way to increase ridership, as long as you only have one thing in mind, one concern: the customers” (2:06:17)

“there’s a way to increase ridership, as long as you only have one thing in mind, one concern: the customers” (2:06:17)

However, despite all the obfuscation, VIA’s CEO eventually did admit that their plans included the use of the Mont-Royal tunnel to reach Quebec City, and that it would have significant time savings, “we have an edge of one hour”.

But rather than admitting the importance of the Northern alignment via the tunnel, he used the fact that the travel time is much faster as an argument to dismiss the impact of the forced transfer, which is far away from downtown, in the middle of an industrial park, and inconvenient with luggage:

“…if it would cost 3-5 minutes of that hour (to transfer), this would still remain an important difference, so that most people would take it, independently of a transfer”.

He also kept repeating the fiction that forced transfers will not have an impact as long as you integrate tickets.

Why did VIA torpedo the BAPE process and their own passengers?

VIA rail could have just said something like “well it would be nice to have shared access to the Mount Royal tunnel, but if it is not possible, we can find a way around it”. But it took them several questions from the commission to even admit that it was in their plans.

Why would they argue so strongly for the project in its current incarnation, be so dishonest about the impact, and simply not answer questions regarding the technical feasibility of track sharing at all?

We can only speculate, and may never find out what happened here.

Maybe by the time the second phase of HFR will be built, which requires the use of the tunnel to connect to Quebec City, the VIA rail president won’t be in charge anymore so it is not his problem. He did previously say that VIA are looking at “strictly Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal as the first phrase to profitability and then expansion by other generations after my time.”

Or maybe it was an order from above to get in line.

Or more likely, maybe the Caisse promised some funding for their HFR project if they shut up about problems and get in line. After all, VIA did hope for private funding of their project, given that governments don’t seem very eager to invest in rail infrastructure. VIA’s presentation describing the project was done at a PPP conference, and Desjardins-Siciliano promised a high rate of return to investors. And he did describe the REM project as “bittersweet” when it first came out, as it had shifted the infrastructure funding priorities of the Caisse away from VIA.

It would be especially cynical if the reason that VIA will allow the cutting of the Quebec-Windsor corridor in half, adding two transfers for anybody travelling through Montreal, if it is done to ensure funding of the HFR project in the short term — after Desjardins-Siciliano’s big pronouncement that we should not lose “sight of the longer-term objective”.

The concern of privatizing public infrastructure planning

When the REM project was first announced, there were some rumblings from the AMT about how this will affect their network, but they quickly got in line.

Now, with VIA also getting in line and torpedoing the experts at the BAPE calling for a shared, regional system between AMT, VIA and REM, it strengthens the Caisse’s case for privatizing the strategic infrastructure assets and building a line that will prevent building a regional network in the long term.

How a private equity firm suddenly has so much power to make public infrastructure decisions against the long-term best interest of the public, against the warnings of expertise, how heads of big public agencies are made to make pronouncements against the interest of the people they serve – that’s the truly scary part.

We could go ahead and build a shared system. The technical and regulatory hurdles aren’t even that big. But we don’t, because we are in the process of moving decisions affecting the public for decades outside of the democratic control of our public institutions and into the control of private equity.

And we will only understand the impact of these decisions when it’s too late.

STM By-Law on Tickets Found Unconstitutional:
the Judgment Explained

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

The following article is written by JC, a non-practising lawyer who sometimes collaborates with Ant6n on his blog posts, and is not a legal opinion.

Make sure you hold onto that ticket. Image by Cedric Same - source

Make sure you hold onto that ticket. Image by Cedric Same. source.

On September 7, 2016, a Municipal Court judge rendered a judgment that declared unconstitutional sections 6 and 9 of the STM by-law that allowed STM inspectors to fine transit users who could not provide proof of payment.

The judgment is quite thorough (and quite long, 55 pages), and I encourage you to read it if you can. The issues are pretty complex. This post is a simplified summary that, I hope, will provide an understanding of this specific case, and constitutional principles in general.


The defendants

A quick word on the 3 defendants:

  1. Defendant 1 and his wife, both living in Chambly, bought individual tickets. After entering the metro system, they threw their tickets away and were subsequently fined for not being able to provide their tickets.
  2. Defendant 2 was traveling with 2 others who both had monthly passes. He bought a six-pack of tickets, used one to enter the metro system and threw it away.
  3. Defendant 3 had a monthly pass, but forgot it that day. She therefore bought a single ticket, then threw it away. She was traveling with a large suitcase that contained work equipment.

All of the incidents happened in 2009, about 1 year after the STM introduced the new ticketing/Opus card system.

For the evaluation of constitutionality, the important facts are that all Defendants had all paid the fare, and they had all been stopped and fined by STM inspectors.


The defendants contested their tickets on the basis that sections 6 and 9 of the Règlement R-105 (the “STM by-law”) were unconstitutional.

They claim that:

  • section 6 (the obligation to pay the fare and keep your ticket) violates the presumption of innocence
  • section 9 (showing proof of payment to inspectors) violates the protection against arbitrary detention.

Constitutionality is evaluated with a 2-step process:

  1. Is there a violation of a Charter right?
  2. IF there is a violation, is it justified in a free and democratic society? (this is commonly known as the “section 1 test”)

In this case, the judge had to answer 3 questions:

  1. Do sections 6 and 9 of the STM by-law violate the presumption of innocence?
  2. Does section 9 of the STM by-law violate protection against arbitrary detention?
  3. If yes at 1 and 2, is the violation justified in a free and democratic society?

Question 1: Presumption of innocence

The principle of presumption of innocence is guaranteed by section 11. d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms . It applies in criminal matters as well as for statutory infractions (see par. 64-71 for full discussion.)

The Charter simply states that “any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty”. In practice, this means that it is up to the prosecutor (the “State”) to prove the guilt of the accused, and a reversal of the burden of proof, where the accused must prove his innocence, may be considered a violation of the presumption of innocence.

The infraction and the burden of proof

Section 6 reads as follows:

6. Anyone using the transportation services offered by or on behalf of the Société, shall, according to the applicable fare and in the manner prescribed, pay the cost of his fare or use a transit fare recognized as valid by the Société. Once he has paid his fare, the person shall retrieve and retain the fare media as evidence of payment for purposes of section 9.

After considering the history of the legislation, the Court concluded that here was a reversal in the burden of proof in 2008:

  • Before 2008, the by-laws explicitly stated that any user who went through the turnstiles was presumed to have paid the fare
  • After 2008, the STM by-law put the onus on the user to prove that he paid the fare by showing proof of payment

The STM’s claim that not having proof of payment is an infraction by itself under section 6 was dismissed by the Court based on the wording of the by-law and the fact that the fine for users who didn’t keep their tickets and those who actually did not pay was exactly the same (par. 55-60.)

Does section 6 violate presumption of innocence?

The wording of the second sentence of section 6 (“shall retrieve and retain” / ”doit récupérer et conserver”) makes the ticket the only acceptable way to prove payment. Any other proof via testimony or circumstantial evidence would be inadmissible.

Had the STM accused the Defendants of traveling without paying the fare (an infraction under section 57), Defendants would actually have been able to defend themselves via testimony or circumstantial evidence.

And that’s where the problem lies.

The judge points out that the system under section 6 is even more strict than “absolute liability”. Under “absolute liability”, proof of the actus reus (the act prohibited by the law) automatically leads to a declaration of guilt, even if the accused was in good faith.

According to the judge, under section 6, the STM does not even need to prove the actus reus (the non-payment of fares, in our case) AND, on top of that, Defendants have no way of proving that they have paid.

[77]      Il faut donc voir plus loin que la surface du nouveau règlement. Le véritable effet des articles 6 et 9 est de mettre sur les épaules des gens interpellés le fardeau de prouver leur innocence — sur le champ. S’ils ne peuvent pas le faire sur le champ et de la manière exigée par la STM, l’affaire est réglée : ils devront payer la même amende et les frais que s’ils avaient sauté les tourniquets. La STM n’aura jamais à prouver qu’ils n’ont pas payé. En termes d’efficacité de poursuite, la STM pourrait difficilement imaginer mieux.

The principle of presumption of innocence requires that :

  1. Guilt be established beyond reasonable doubt.
  2. The State must present its proof before the accused needs to respond.
  3. Criminal proceedings be carried out in accordance with lawful procedures and fairness.

Sections 6 and 9 of the STM by-law violates all 3 principles because:

  1. They allow a declaration of guilt when there is reasonable doubt, and (worse) even when a judge is convinced of the innocence of the accused.
  2. They force the defendant to present its proof before the prosecution, and before they actually get to court.
  3. The proceedings are against the rules of lawful procedures and fairness as they disallow proving innocence by other normally accepted means (testimony and circumstantial evidence).

For these reasons, the Court concludes that section 6 and 9 of the STM by-laws violate section 11 of the Charter.

Question 2: Arbitrary detention

Arbitrary detention means just that:

  1. there was detention
  2. it was arbitrary


When an STM employee stops a user inside a “control area”, does it constitute “detention”?

The Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that detention may be “psychological”, when a person has a legal obligation to comply. This is the case here, as section 9 clearly states:

Subject to section 11, a person shall, at all times, when travelling on a bus or a metro car or when inside the control area of a station, provide evidence that he has duly paid his fare in compliance with this By-law.

He shall, upon request, allow an agent to check if he has paid the cost of his fare in compliance with the fares and regulations in force and if he has valid transit fare and fare media.

The Court therefore concludes that the Defendants have been detained.


The STM claimed that since its inspectors are authorised by law to check tickets, users are not detained arbitrarily.

The judge points out that the Supreme Court has many times over declared that a detention, even when authorised by law, is arbitrary when there are no selection criteria or procedure, and the selection is entirely left to the agents.

In this case, the stops were entirely random and left at the absolute discretion of the agents (“complètement aléatoires et constituaient l’exercice d’un pouvoir discrétionnaire absolu”).

The STM claimed that users in the STM system voluntarily entered a regulated area (“une zone d’activité réglementée”) and must submit to the rules in force.

The judge’s response, which I will copy in full, really puts forward the basic principles at the root of our democratic institutions:

[111]   Cette comparaison à une activité réglementée est boiteuse, parce que contrairement à la personne qui choisit de s’engager dans une activité industrielle ou commerciale, l’usager du transport en commun ne tire aucun profit monétaire de son activité. Et contrairement à la chasse ou la pêche, le déplacement en métro ou en autobus de la STM n’est pas une activité de loisir. La réalité du transport en commun est qu’il s’agit d’un service public essentiel qui appartient à tous et dont l’utilisation est un droit. Le paiement du tarif n’est qu’une façon de financer le service et de répartir ce financement équitablement entre les usagers en fonction de leur utilisation. Mais l’utilisation de ce service reste un droit et le quai du métro reste un espace public qui appartient à tous.

[112]   Il ne faut pas comparer le quai du métro à une propriété privée que le propriétaire peut gérer à sa guise. Il ne faut pas non plus le comparer à un immeuble à bureaux de la fonction publique où l’accès peut de façon légitime être limité aux fonctionnaires qui y travaillent.

[113]   Moyennant le paiement du droit au moment de son entrée, et dans la mesure qu’il respecte les règles de sécurité et ne dérange pas les autres, l’usager du métro a le droit d’être sur le quai et à tout endroit appelé « zone de contrôle » sans craindre d’être « contrôlé » ou appelé à justifier sa présence. L’usager du métro ou d’un autobus a les mêmes droits que toute personne sur un espace public et cela comprend le droit de ne pas être interpellé sans raison par un agent de l’État, en uniforme ou non, qui exige qu’il produise des papiers. Ce genre de contrôle par un agent de l’État est contraire à nos traditions de liberté publique et évoque des mauvais souvenirs d’autres pays au siècle dernier. Il ne doit pas être toléré lorsqu’il existe d’autres moyens, moins répugnants, pour atteindre le même objectif.

The Court concludes that there was indeed arbitrary detention.

Question 3: the section 1 test

Given that section 6 and 9 violate rights protected by the Charter, the STM must prove that they are reasonable and justifiable in a free and democratic society in order to avoid having them declared unconstitutional. This requirement stems from the wording of section 1 of the Charter.

The actual test is broken down like this:

  1. A sufficiently important objective, related to concerns which are pressing and substantial
  2. The means chosen are reasonable and demonstrably justified
    1. The measures must be carefully designed to achieve the objective
    2. They should impair “as little as possible” the right or freedom
    3. There must be a proportionality between the effects and the objective

1. A sufficiently important objective

The STM claimed that the measures are put in place in order to reduce fraud, although no evidence was submitted showing a reduction of fraud after the implementation of the new system.

The STM did, however, submit voluminous evidence (“une preuve volumineuse”) on the amounts lost every year through fraud.

The STM reports and testimonies are detailed in par. 127-170 of the judgment, which is well worth a read and could be the object of its own blog post. Overall, the judge concludes that the STM fraud studies were methodologically flawed and mostly showed fraud committed by its own employees:

[169]   Au delà des problèmes de méthodologie, il y a, selon le Tribunal, un sérieux problème avec l’utilisation par la STM des ces deux rapports dans le cadre de la présente requête. C’est le fait que les deux études ont estimé le manque à gagner causé non pas par les usagers, mais par les employés de la STM qui ne font pas leur travail! La première étude a estimé ce qui arrive quand les chauffeurs d’autobus ne font pas leur travail de perception. La deuxième étude a estimé ce qui arrive quand les changeurs du métro ne font pas leur travail. Et au lieu de sévir contre les chauffeurs et changeurs qui ne font pas leur travail, la STM utilise ces données pour blâmer les usagers et justifier des méthodes plus répressives contre eux.

[170]    Par conséquent, la « fraude » invoquée par la STM pour justifier les articles 6 et 9 de son Règlement est essentiellement une perte d’argent causée par l’incurie de ses propres employés — quand ce n’est pas carrément des vols commis par ses employés!

The Court considered that the STM has not proved that fraud was a sufficiently important objective to justify suppressing Charter rights.

A failure on this first criterion is sufficient to declare the sections (6 and 9) unconstitutional.

2. The means chosen are reasonable and demonstrably justified

The Court actually analyses the second criterion, since both parties presented thorough arguments in court. We will not summarize this part, as both sections have already been determined to be unconstitutional and cannot be “saved” by the second part of the test.



Overall, the Court found that both section 6 and 9 of the STM by-law were unconstitutional.

Section 6 violates the presumption of innocence because it reverses the burden of proof and creates a situation where an accused could be found guilty even when a judge was convinced of his/her innocence.

Section 9 violates the right to be protected from arbitrary detention, because it allows STM inspectors to stop any user at will, without requiring any suspicion of wrongdoing.

A violation of charter rights does not automatically mean it is unconstitutional. A law that violates charter rights can still be constitutional if it is justifiable in a free and democratic society. In fact, many of the precedents presented by the STM were cases where the violations were justified (they passed the “section 1 test).

In this case the Court was not convinced, from the evidence presented by the STM, that fraud was a sufficiently important objective to justify the rights violations.

Therefore, section 6 and 9 of the STM by-law are found unconstitutional.


This judgment probably doesn’t change much just yet, as the STM can still file for an appeal, which it intends to.

We will have to wait and see how the appeal goes. If the unconstitutionality is maintained on appeal, we can probably expect the STM to modify its by-laws to bring them in line with the constitution.

Le REM perd le nord

Friday, September 16th, 2016

This text was published as an opinion in the metro newspaper on September 15, 2016, excluding the last paragraph.

Le tunnel Mont-Royal

Le tunnel Mont-Royal

Des nos jours, des centaines de milliers de montréalais du nord et de l’est de l’Île de Montréal s’entassent durant des heures chaque jour dans les bus des lignes 67, 139, 32, 48, 49, 60 et 121 pour se rendre au travail.

Cette situation est incongrue puisqu’un train existe à proximité: la ligne Mascouche de l’AMT, anciennement le Train de l’Est.

Cette ligne traverse le nord de Montréal, près du lieu de résidence de 200 000 personnes – autant que le West Island au complet – et se rend directement au centre-ville via le tunnel du Mont-Royal. Mais presque aucun montréalais l’utilise.

La ligne de Mascouche, construite il y a quelques années par l’AMT, a été conçue et optimisée pour les banlieues seules: presque aucun arrêt dessert Montréal, les tarifs de l’AMT sont plus chers que ceux de la STM, les autobus de la STM ne se rendent pas aux gares et le service est tellement peu fréquent qu’il est inutile pour les résidents de Montréal.

Mais il est encore possible d’améliorer le service, par l’ajout de voies et de nouvelles stations. Il ne faut pour cela que de la volonté politique pour négocier une entente avec le CN, qui possède la ligne.

Ces améliorations, beaucoup moins chère que la construction d’une nouvelle ligne de métro, permettrait aux résidents de Montréal Nord et de l’Est de se rendre au centre-ville 15-20 minutes plus rapidement!

Tel est le rêve d’une ligne de transport rapide pour Montréal Est et Nord: une connexion rapide, construite à une fraction du coût d’un métro.

Et ce rêve meurt avec le Réseau électricque métropolitain (REM).

Ce n’est pas seulement parce que le REM s’accaparera du financement dédié au transport en commun pour la décennie à venir, et dont l’Ouest de l’île en sera le principal bénéficiaire. Non. C’est que le REM, tel qu’il a été conçu, bloquera toute amélioration future à la ligne de Mascouche.

Premièrement, le REM coupera l’accès direct au centre-ville, puisque le tunnel du Mont-Royal sera monopolisée par le REM. La ligne de Mascouche sera donc coupée et les usagers devront y transférer vers le REM pour se rendre au centre-ville. Un terme technique existe pour cette situation: une “rupture de charge”, un transfert forcé qui rendra la ligne moins attrayante et résultera en une diminution de son utilisation.

Deuxièmement, si on décide, après le REM, d’améliorer la ligne de Mascouche et que des dizaines de milliers d’usagers empruntent cette ligne, leur transfert vers le REM causerait une surcharge. Après tout, le REM a à peine assez de capacité pour accommoder l’achalandage provenant de l’Ouest.

Il serait possible de concevoir le REM pour qu’il puisse partager la voie avec le train de Mascouche, et également avec les trains de VIA Rail et de la ligne de St-Jérôme. VIA a déjà présenté à plusieurs reprises les options possibles.

Mais la Caisse refuse systématiquement de de considérer un partage de voies, optant plutôt de monopoliser le tunnel et, ce faisant, démontre un désintérêt total pour les besoins des résidents de l’Est.

(Ceux qui habitent le Nord et l’Est de l’Île ne sont peut-être pas intéressés par un projet du West-Island, mais ils devraient y regarder de plus près. Nous devons exiger que les infrastructures soient partagées pour que l’Est ne soit pas laissé pour compte, aujourd’hui et dans le futur.)

The New Champlain Bridge – Barely Built for Rail

Friday, September 9th, 2016

An investigation into how the New Champlain Bridge is being built for only very light railway axle loads, and how this would make it difficult to build an integrated regional rail system shared between REM, AMT and VIA, but not impossible.

The New Champlain Bridge

The New Champlain Bridge (source)

One issue regarding the REM light metro project that has come up during the BAPE hearings, and that has come up in the news several times, is the one of sharing the Mont-Royal tunnel.

The Caisse intends to privatize the tunnel and monopolize it, although the Mascouche and St-Jerome line of the AMT, and VIA rail need to access it. VIA rail needs access the tunnel for its proposed high frequency train between Quebec City and Montreal – the routing via the North Shore and Trois-Riviere is 45 minutes faster, and has more population along the way.

The refusal of the Caisse to design a shared system between the REM, VIA and the AMT is probably the main issue, which also informs most of the concerns related to privatization.

One of the issues for for a compatible system is the change of the electrification from 25KV to 1.5KV. The former is usually used on mainlines and on regional and commuter rail systems, the latter on metro systems.

25kv vs 1.5kv Railway Electrification

25KV provides more power, and due to the higher voltage there are less resistive losses. This means substations, the equipment buildings along the line that feed electricity into it, can be further apart. Fewer substations is great for a system involving large distances. So most long distance, regional and commuter rail systems use or will use 25Kv electrification (including VIA).

However, 25kv electrification also requires heavier transformers on the trains that convert the power to be used by the motors, so the trains were historically heavier.

The Deux-Montagnes line was actually converted in the 90s from 1.5KV to 25kv, and new, more powerful trains were ordered, the MR-90 railcars. Back then, this project cost 300M$. We are now reverting the electrification back, although we don’t know the expense for that.


The MR-90 vehicles (source)

When I asked the REM people about the reason for changing the electrification, they told me that “1.5KV is more appropriate for a light rail system”, and that trains using it are lighter. They also told me that the weight of the trains is a big concern, due to the low allowed axle weights on the Champlain bridge, which is built to light rail standards.

They said you that you couldn’t just extend the existing Deux-Montagnes line with its MR-90 vehicles onto the Champlain bridge because they are too heavy.

This seems strange. We’re building a new rail bridge that’s still under construction; and there are already weight concerns?

Rail Weights in the Specification of the Champlain Bridge

I decided to investigate the issue. What are the exact weight requirements on the Champlain bridge?

I e-mailed the New Champlain Bridge to ask about rail axle weights. They forwarded my request to Infrastructure Canada, which pointed me to the Project Agreement between the Canadian Government and the “Signature on the Saint Lawrence Group”, a consortium of SNC-Lavalin and others to build the Champlain bridge.

This is a giant document, provided as a collection of pdf files in English and French, which come in a 175MB zip file. Infrastructure Canada pointed me to Schedule 7, Part 7, Section It reads:

For the SLR phase (as defined in Section 4.1.1 herein) the live loads shall be taken as rail traffic in accordance with EN 1991-2: Eurocode 1- Actions on structures – Part 2: Traffic loads on bridges. Section 6 of the Eurocode together with the Project-specific application rules contained in this Agreement shall be considered applicable for SLR loading.

The structure shall be verified for both Load Model 71 and Load Model SW/0. Classified vertical loads shall be applied. The factor alpha referred to in Clause 6.3.2 (3) of the Eurocode shall be taken as 0.50 and shall be applied to both load models except that the classified value of the axle load Qvk to be used in Load Model 71 shall be taken as 146 kN.

This sounds good! The railway is defined according to a standard, a European one on top of that! They know how to build trains, right? But we still don’t really know what the actual weight requirement is. So the search continues, now for what this “EN 1991-2” specification is, what the “Load Model 71” and “Load Model SW/0” are, and how those alpha and QvK values fit into that.

Load Model 71 in EN 1991-2

The EN 1991-2 standard is only a quick Google search away, and on Page 68 it explains the weight model using this drawing (the other load model SW/0 is less constraining and thus not relevant to this discussion):


This basically explains that a train is allowed where four following axles may all be at least 1.6m apart, and each may apply a force of 250kN (25.4T) to the track. These correspond to the bogies (trucks) of two adjacent railcars, which each hold two axles. Beyond that, the train is allowed to apply 80kN (8.2T) per metre.


The text of the specification also explains the value alpha. It allows scaling the model to deal with different kind of traffic. For example, A factor of 1.3 would allow traffic that is 30% heavier than the figure, for heavy freight, a factor of 0.75 would allow traffic that is 25% lighter than the figure, for example light electric multiple unit trains.

The specification of the champlain bridge has an alpha of 0.5, except the value QvK (the axle load), which is allowed to be 146kN. So the particular model for the Champlain bridge looks as follows:


One interesting bit about this is that an ‘alpha’ value of 0.5 is outside of the spec of EN 1991-2, which allows a minimum value of 0.75. This results in minimum weights that are outside of any European track norm.

The Champlain bridge allows only 14.9T per axle and 4.1T per metre. The lightest track that exists in Europe, the nowadays only seldom used track class A, allows 16.0T per axle and 5.0T per metre.

It seems odd that the Champlain Bridge was specified using a load model following a standard specification, but then overrides values to be outside that spec.

But there we have it, the maximum allowed train weights for the Champlain bridge:

  • 14.9T per axle
  • 4.1T per metre

What is the Axle weight of the current vehicles used on the Deux-Montagnes line?

The MR-90 vehicles used on the Deux-Montagnes train consist of motor and trailer cars. The motor cars weigh 57T, the trailer cars weight 44T. The railcars are 25m long. Given that there are four axles per railcar, this gives a weight of 14.25T per axle and 2.28T per metre for the motor car. Good news, that’s (barely) within spec!

When I pointed this out to one of the technical directors of the REM, he was actually pretty surprised.

But there’s a problem: we also have to add passengers. It’s an ancient wisdom in railroading that everything would be much easier without passengers.

Each vehicle is allowed to carry up to 200 passengers, and using 80Kg (176lb) as the average weight per passenger, the weight of the motor-car goes up to 73T. This gives us the following weights:

  • 18.25T per axle
  • 2.92T per metre

This means the axle weights of the vehicles are 22% too heavy, without any padding. Therefore, the MR-90 vehicles of the Deux-Montagnes line can not go on the new Champlain Bridge.

Anything that has a locomotive in front or bilevel-rail cars is so heavy that it will never be able to go on the Champlain bridge. So forget your phantasy maps drawing high speed rail lines across the bridge to the United States.

Why did we design the bridge for such a light standard?

We have to remember that it’s been decades that we’ve been talking about putting a light rail system on the Champlain Bridge. The plan kept changing back and forth, sometimes there was talk of a metro, sometimes of expanding the busway, usually the goal was a ‘light rail’ solution. This usually assumed a very light rail system, something like a tram, sometimes maybe like the Vancouver skytrain.

The Champlain Bridge Rail as envisioned in AMT's annual report for 1999

The Champlain Bridge Rail as envisioned in AMT’s annual report for 1999 – a tram

It’s only with the Caisse’s REM plan, first announced in April of 2016, that there was any official plan to connect the heavy rail Mont-Royal tunnel and the Champlain bridge light rail. One transportation official of Montreal I talked to called the idea of connecting the Deux-Montagnes line and the Champlain bridge corridor “genius”.

I would not be so generous. I would call it necessary.

The Champlain bridge LRT always had the problem of access to downtown. Previous plans assumed some sort of aerial station south of the downtown, always with the problem that a direct access to downtown and connections to the metro would be very expensive. Later plans called for a streetcar going downtown via Peel street, which would have the problem of very long trams frequently piling into dense downtown.

Making the connection into Gare Centrale is an ideal solution. There’s a right of way leading into the station from the South, and another line that continues North. There’s plenty of space, for many rail lines, and the potential for many connections.

The idea of connecting the two lines terminating at Gare Centrale, coming from the North and South, then becomes more obvious. The resulting connected line would provide the starting point for a regional network composed of a high-capacity trunk line and many branches in the North and South. In the downtown section, there would be the chance to connect to three metro lines, assuming the construction of extra tunnel stations.

All these ideas come together fairly easily if you look at how other cities design transit, for example the several RER lines in Paris. Montreal should’ve always followed those examples.

Example Paris RER A: a regional network built of a high capacity trunk line and multiple branches

Example Paris RER A: a regional network built of a high capacity trunk line with many metro connections and multiple branches

So with these ideas in mind, the Champlain bridge should’ve always been designed with enough flexibility of axle load to create such an interconnected system.

Given this constraint it will be difficult to build a shared system. We’d need a vehicle that can both mix with the heavy rail trains used by AMT and VIA, but be light enough to go on the bridge.

At this point it’s moot to argue about the planning mistakes of the past, the contract is drawn up and the bridge is under construction. The issue now is whether we can salvage our regional rail system.

The main question is whether it is possible to purchase mainline rail vehicles that are light enough for the Champlain bridge, but are nevertheless compatible with heavy rail (and its 25kv electrification).

Are there 25kv mainline rail cars that are light enough for the Champlain Bridge?

We have to remember that the MR-90 vehicles were built 25 years ago. The vehicles are longer than the ones used on the REM (25m vs 20m), and they were not optimized for weight. In fact, the configuration of motor-car and trailer-car encourages more weight on the motor car: since weight gives you better adhesion, you want as much weight on the motored axles as possible, and as little weight as possible on the deadbeat trailer cars. This way you can maximize the power you can apply to the rails.

In the last twenty years, railway technology has improved tremendously, as has the technology of 25kv transformers, which have become much lighter. If you optimize a rail vehicle for weight today, is it possible to make a mainline rail vehicle that is much lighter?

The answer is yes.

There are not too many mainline railcars that that light that they can go on the New Champlain Bridge, but they do exist in places that optimize for weight. In Japan the Shinkansen E6 is a high speed train that weighs only 11.8T per axle, fully loaded (see page 6). The main way they accomplish that is by distributing all equipment evenly along the train, every axle is powered (also, they only have seated passengers, so there are fewer of them overall).

Hamburg’s urban rail system (S-Bahn) also has vehicles that are light enough (class 474, class 490).

But the most relevant examples are in Britain. There, the weight of vehicles is largely optimized to reduce maintenance costs. The result is that manufacturers build very light trains. Two vehicles are being produced right now to be used on networks that are each composed of a downtown tunnel connected to many branches (sound familiar?): Thameslink and Crossrail.

Both use automation in in the tunnel section, both use 25KV electrification, and are based on railcars 20m vehicles (like the REM). And both use rolling stock that obey the 14T axle limit:

  • The class 700 built by Siemens for Thameslink
  • The class 345 built by Bombardier for Crossrail
British Rail class 345 and 700

British Rail class 345 and 700

Both these vehicles show that it is possible to fulfill several constraints of a possible shared system for REM, VIA, and AMT, using existing technology that has already been built.

Regulatory issues

While these vehicles could be used almost directly in shared Mont-Royal tunnel and the New Champlain Bridge, including providing the automation that the Caisse is so keen on, there are regulatory issues when mixing a European-built train with AMTs and VIAs passenger trains built to North American standards. Other agencies have gotten waivers to allow this sort of intermingling, and there are signs that the regulations itself are changing, but this is a big issue that is better explained in another post.

Alternatively, it may be possible to utilize the technology that makes new railway vehicles lighter in order to build ones that are compatible with North American Heavy rail standards, although such a custom-built vehicle may be more expensive.

What these trains do demonstrate is that it is possible to built lightweight mainline trains using the same electrification as exists today; and that obey the necessary weight limits.

This is one of the hurdles to building a shared system has already been overcome.

REM – A Look At The Ridership Study Summary

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Ridership Study Reveals Suburban, Car-Centric, Peak-Centric Focus; Airport Ridership is Abysmal; brings into Question again the Cost-benefit of the West Island and Airport Branches; ignores urban network effects.


Things are starting to roll for the REM, the BAPE (environmental impact) hearings started this week, there are more presentations and people have started asking questions. The process is moving super fast, and it can feel difficult to keep up. The process is strange, with people asking questions from the high level-political, financial and high-level technical on the one hand, to people asking about some specific impact near their house, all jumbled together in one giant process for a giant project worth billions.

One very interesting question asked at the BAPE was the first one, by journalist Michel Morin, who asked what the Caisse expects as a return for this project, 6%, 9%? The Caisse people didn’t answer the question. He then went on to say that if the return is that high, then why shouldn’t the government just borrow money, at 3%, and pay for the damn project itself!

We’ve also gotten confirmation that the REM is refusing to share track with VIA rail.

Meanwhile we’re getting drowned in paperwork, studies over studies that makes it hard to identify issues.

One document published yesterday is the ridership study for the REM, or better, a summary thereof. The most interesting tables are the the daily ridership per branch…


…and the table showing ridership in the morning peak per station:


Here are some observations:

1. The First-Year Ridership and 20th-year Ridership are very similar

Most new transit lines take years to grow their ridership to their target level. Apparently the REM will have most of its ridership in the first year of operation already. I’m not sure what the reason for this is; is it due the used model or will this actually happen like this? This is a concern since the capacity of the line is chosen a bit low, being a light metro. Will the capacity be sufficient twenty years after opening?

Update: It has been pointed out to me that the per-station ridership is shown without ‘adoption progressive’, i.e. without assuming high ridership growth. If you look at the per-branch table (above), which does show ‘adoption progressive’, you can see a 30% ridership gain over twenty years. The question whether we will have enough capacity in the future does remain.

2. Nothing New in the North And South

The ridership study considers the four branches of the REM: the existing Deux-Montagnes line, the West Island (St-Anne-de-Bellevue) branch, the airport spur and the Champlain bridge corridor serving Brossard, also known as the A10 corridor.

Out of these, the A10-corridor and the Deux-Montagnes line bring in the most ridership, the numbers are in line with what we’ve seen before. There are few surprises.

One thing I did find interesting is that the South Shore branch has a relatively large percentage of ridership coming from the terminus of the line. In my mind this was basically just a giant parking lot and bus terminus at the edge of the developed area of Montreal, surely it shouldn’t bring in much ridership. But it brings in about half the ridership of Panama, the major station on the A-10 corridor. I expected to see three quarters of the ridership at Panama.


The terminus station will also see some of the largest growth of any station. That’s a concern; ridership growing at the end of the line probably means sprawl in action.

3. The Mascouche Line is Assumed to stay Crippled

The Mascouche line is apparently assumed to stay abysmal, if we go by the ridership numbers by station. Only 2,440 riders during the morning peak means that there will be at most 4,880 trips per day that are transfers from the Mascouche line. Given that 95% of the Mascouche line riders goes downtown, and that the Orange line connection is assumed to be much less convenient in the study, this would actually mean a reduction of the ridership on that line, which was 6,400 per day in 2015 (see page 9 of the AMT annual report).

The Mascouche line was supposed to reach 11,000 users eventually, on the line as it exists today. I’m not sure whether the study just ignores future growth, or whether the forced transfer the REM will create will reduce ridership.

If we build the REM relying on these ridership numbers, we cannot add stations and increase service on the Mascouche line which passes by hundreds of thousands of transit-underserved people in Montreal-North and Montreal-Est. An upgraded Mascouche line, besides having the forced transfer rather than direct connection downtown that we have today, would have the problem that the REM simply won’t have enough capacity to get people downtown.

4. The study Ignores All other Transfers

Besides the Mascouche line, the ridership study clearly ignores most network effects within Montreal. The study ignores transferees from the St-Jerome line, and doesn’t include the Edouard-Montpetit station, so ignores transferees from the Blue line as well. The Blue line has more riders per day than is projected for the whole REM network (about 250K vs 150K), and many would probably transfer to the REM if given the chance to get more quickly downtown. So Blue line transfers could overload the under-designed light-metro.

If we design now a regional network with line-capacities built around the conclusions of this study, we may end up having severe capacity issues, an issue I’ve raised back in May.

5. The West Island Branch is Suburban, Car-Centric, Peaky & Low-Ridersip

The ridership on the West Island Branch is actually more than originally shown – instead of 11,000 trips per day, the branch will generate 16,800 trips. Instead of a third of the ridership of the most busy bus lines in Montreal, it will receive half their ridership.

What’s interesting is how this ridership compares to the parking along the stations of that Branch (Autorute 13, des Sources – St-Anne-de-Bellevue):


The five stations will have a combined capacity of 5,300 parking spaces. Since every parking space can generate two transit trips, this means 10,600 trips per day may come from car drivers, assuming full parking utilization and one single occupant per car.

This means that depending parking utilization and how many people travel together in a car, 63% of the ridership will come via car.

The REM people have promised that they will design the stations for bus connections first. But in reality, this whole branch is designed for cars.

Also, if we compare the daily ridership on that line with the peak morning ridership, we get that the 5 stations on the West Island branch have 8,240 trips during the morning peak — that’s almost exactly half of the presumed daily ridership (which would be 8,400 trips).

This means outside of rush hour, the trains will be empty. But the system is built to run frequently all day long.

If ridership on the St-Anne-de-Bellevue branch mostly comes by car, mostly during the Peak time, then what is the point of building this all-day high-frequency light metro? This driving, peak-only clientele can be perfectly adequately served via the existing Vaudreuil-Hudson line, assuming some improved service, which also has the virtue of continuing to towns a bit further out and actually connects more centrally to communities.

There may still be a case for a transit line in the North of the West Island, but maybe only as far West as Fairview. The line should also be closer to actual population, and built with better & more direct connections to buses.

6. The Airport has Abysmal Ridership

The airport branch appears more and more abysmal. I’ve written about how airport connectors suck, worrying that the 10,000 ridership numbers for the airport spur seem optimistic. Now it seems the line won’t have more than 3,000 or 4,000 riders – slightly less than the 747 bus line.

The recent decision by the REM people to build an expensive 4km deep-bore tunnel, to avoid impacting the wetlands North of the airport, means the cost-benefit of this branch is more and more in question. A short spur from the Vaudreuil-Hudson line would be much cheaper, and a much more reasonable investment given the low potential ridership.


The ridership study reinforces the conclusion I had when trying to analyse the cost/benefit of the REM: The project will mix good transit lines with bad ones, and the public doesn’t get to pick what actually gets built.

The Deux-Montagnes line and A-10 corridor have good ridership and some sort of rapid transit is justified; the West Island spur is very questionable. The airport spur looks like only a political decision.

The West Island corridor is suburban and car-centric, the claim that this line is designed for bus feeders first is specious at best.

The Caisse’s Debunking Debunked

Monday, August 29th, 2016


Last Friday, the CDPQInfra released an article entitled “Claims and Realities regarding the REM project”. It appears they want to address some of the criticisms that many have raised.

Unfortunately, their article of supposed “claims” vs supposed “reality” includes many big inaccuracies, so I’m feeling compelled to provide counterpoints to their “reality”. I know at the end of the day their article is just a PR exercise, but It’s a bit puzzling that they would resort to writing articles that come so dangerously close to being misinformation.

In short, I’m aiming to debunk the caisse’s debunking of concerns.

In the following it shows the claim the CDPQInfra presents, then their response, then my response to that.

CLAIM #1: Buses, streetcars or tram-trains are technological options that offer the same service and the same performance as automatic light metro, but are much less costly.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
CDPQ Infra has chosen the solution that combines the most advantages to efficiently meet identified transportation needs. The automated light metro option (part of the LRT family) offers a dedicated corridor, ensuring fast, reliable service. It also guarantees greater safety and lower operating costs than most other systems. Finally, the capacity and flexibility of the automated light metro meets current and future demand, with the REM having the potential to achieve a frequency of 90 seconds. Throughout the world, there are approximately 800 km of automated light rail networks today, four times more than what existed 15 years ago.

(actual) REALITY:
The CDPQ claimed they studied various alternatives, but they didn’t make this study public. They claim their automatic light metro is the best solution, but they provide no numbers or facts to back up that claim.

I would argue that our trunk line, the Mont-Royal tunnel, should be a high capacity line, continued as a heavy rail line (that is, for high capacity) that can serve several times the ridership that the Caisse is proposing.

Some people complain that right now, people get a direct connection downtown from Brossard, a single seat ride on a bus. In the future people will be forced to transfer at Panama, and this transfer may increase the perceived ‘cost’ of travelling to make it uncompetitive. Also, buses do have more flexibility for line routing than a fixed rail system. Their claim is that the future BRT on the Champlain bridge would provide sufficient capacity. After all, this has been the plan for years until the Caisse proposed a different one in April.

Others lament that we are spending billions building a metro serving the edge of the metropolitan area, with large parking lots that will induce sprawl. They would rather see the billions of dollars spent in more urban areas, where more people live, where they are more likely to take transit and where the billions could create more ridership — and they claim that could be better done with trams, which integrate well with the urban fabric and make cities stronger.

Basically both the supposed claim and the response from the Caisse are very vague here, there are many arguments that could be made to support many related ideas. In no way is the Caisse’s claim a strong argument for or against their project. If they have studies proving precise versions of their claims, they should make them public so we can analyze them.

CLAIM #2: The REM will have a negative impact on existing infrastructure and public transportation networks.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
The REM will significantly improve public transportation in the Greater Montréal area. This complementary service will be seamlessly and effectively integrated into existing networks, metro, bus and commuter trains. Working groups are in place with transit authorities to align the REM with other networks in the metropolitan region, to speed up travel time and intermodal transfers. Operation of the REM will modify certain services, such as buses running along the reserved lane on the Champlain Bridge . But mobility in the Greater Montréal area will be significantly improved.

(actual) REALITY:
The main issue is the monopolization of the Mont-Royal tunnel and conversion from a potential high capacity trunk line serving many areas to a medium capacity light metro serving fewer areas. Yes those areas (West Island, Brossard) will receive improved service in some sense, but we do that at the expense of serving other areas (North, Est). Expansions to those other areas will be blocked in the future as well, due to the use of incompatible technology and lack of capacity in the tunnel.

In particular this pertains to the Mascouche line, which has the potential to serve more people than the West Island branch of the REM. Right now it doesn’t, due to lack of stations and lack of service, but those could be added. The REM will cut the line and force a transfer, and not provide enough capacity for future upgrades — this means the people in Montreal-Est will never receive a direct connection downtown via an updated Mascouche line.

The issue also pertains to the St-Jerome line, which has the potential to be a rapid transit line serving the North of Montreal and Laval.

It also pertains to VIA rail, which needs to access the tunnel for the most efficient routing between Quebec City and Toronto.

A second issue is that the connections with the existing bus and metro network. In particular the bus connections will be long and awkward, the stations are placed at bad locations far away from the bus corridors. For example, the Fairview stations is 1.3km from Boulevard St-Jean, a major bus boulevard, meaning a 5-10minute detour to reach the station.

At Panama, the transfer from bus to LRT will also involve long walks, meaning the overall time for a bus+LRT trip in the future may not be compatible with buses today, which go directly downtown. So even if the LRT is faster, the long transfer may undo most of the benefit.

A third issue is that of financing. Right now the more profitable metro is used to cross-subsidize feeder buses. If the REM project is more profitable due to the feeders bringing in passengers, but those profits are all kept by the Caisse, it may increase the burden on the public to provide those feeder buses.

CLAIM #3: The REM stations serve low-density areas.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
The REM will serve public transit corridors that are currently saturated. This is the case with the bus system on the Champlain Bridge and the Deux-Montagnes train line, whose capacity will be enhanced by the REM. Furthermore, by following existing railway lines or roads, the REM will considerably reduce environmental impacts, while reaching areas that are densely populated. Integration of the REM with other metropolitan transportation networks will allow stations to effectively serve a larger territory and maximize ridership. The REM will ensure faster service over long distances, while buses will facilitate home-to-station access.

(actual) REALITY:
Note how the issue isn’t addressed: the concern is the placement of new stations in low density areas, the response relates to the capacity of the existing corridors. Then it goes on to claim that the suburbs are densely populated, without backing up that claim or even claiming that the stations will serve those populations directly.

I have actually provided some data showing the density near stations in this post, and the density near REM stations is pretty low indeed:


There are several branches for the REM, and some of the corridors do have decent ridership (the Deux-Montagnes line claimed as ‘saturated’ has about the same ridership as the most busy bus lines in Montreal). The issue is that the stations are placed so that few will live within walking distance of them. This means people will have to get to the stations either by taking bus feeders (which are not well designed), or by driving to the stations (encouraging driving).

The main issue is that most new stations of the REM will be built along highways, where people don’t live today and don’t want to live in the future. Instead of building transit that will strengthen urban areas, they will weaken them.

At the same time, stations will be far away from downtown both in the West Island and in the South shore. The termini are in unpopulated areas serving only parking lots that will encourage people to live even further away because they can drive’n’ride quickly downtown. In effect, this will encourage sprawl.

The low-density issue has a strange twist in Brossard — 80,000 people live in Brossard, and there will be three stations:

  • one serving a parking lot at the end of the line (where nobody lives): Rive-Sud
  • one serving real estate developments near the Dix30 (where few people live): Du Quartier
  • one station for everybody else: Panama.

Basically the whole city is bypassed, providing only a single station to maybe 80% of the ridership, forcing everybody to pass through that station — while providing two more stations for few people in the middle of nowhere.

CLAIM #4: CDPQ Infra will acquire high-value public infrastructure without compensation.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
CDPQ Infra will pay fair market value for the the Deux-Montagnes line, including the Mont-Royal access tunnel, and will preserve public ownership of this infrastructure. The Deux-Montagnes line is currently saturated. The REM will triple the capacity of this line and will quadruple that of the Mont-Royal tunnel. The passage running under Mont-Royal will be provided through a completely electric service. Acquisition and transformation of this line by CDPQ Infra will make transportation in the metropolitan region more efficient, benefiting a much higher number of users.

(actual) REALITY:
There are several claims in this response, which are somewhat unrelated to the supposed claim.

First off, nobody claimed there will be ‘no compensation’. The Caisse has always maintained they will pay ‘fair market value’ for the infrastructure. The problem is that there is no market for subway tunnels in Montreal. So right now there is a market of only one buyer – the Caisse. So ‘fair market value’ will be whatever they deem to be fair.

The public has invested hundreds if not billions into the infrastructure to slowly build a regional rail network centered around the tunnel. It’s an incredibly important piece of infrastructure, the only direct access downtown — it’s replacement value would be billions today. Note the difference here: “market value” (which cannot be determined) and “replacement value” (which can be determined). The caisse will not pay the replacement value for our infrastructure.

Since the Caisse will kick out all but their own lines from the tunnel, the public may be eventually forced to build another tunnel to bring all the extra lines downtown after all — and that will be a giant waste of money (billions), because we have a tunnel today that could have enough capacity to get all our rail lines downtown.

The caisse is not interested in sharing this infrastructure, they want to monopolize it. They intend to rebuild our infrastructure with not enough capacity to build this regional network we need.


This brings us to the capacity claim. Note the caisse they said they will “quadruple” the capacity, without saying what it is today and what it will be in the future.

Right now, the actual scheduled minimum headway in the tunnel is one train every 7 minutes. Each train can hold up to 2000 people. This gives a theoretical maximum capacity of 17,000 PPHD for the tunnel itself, without any upgrades. The system is not used at this frequency continuously, because the AMT doesn’t have enough trains, and the Deux-Montagnes line is missing double-track sections, reducing the maximum possible headway. These issues are unrelated to the tunnel itself, and could be fixed using tens or hundreds of millions instead of billions.

The REM on the other hand proposes to have one train of 600 passengers as frequent as every 90 seconds, although it is unclear whether such frequency can be reliably sustained for such a heavily branched line with few downtown stations. Assuming this will work, it would provide a maximum theoretical capacity of 24,000 PPHD. So the capacity increase is not 300%, it’s 40% — after spending several billions of dollars.

The 2007 study to put stations at Edouard-Montpetit and McGill envisioned one 2300 people train every 5 minutes (see page 6 of the study). Achieving this frequency could probably be done with very minor signalling upgrades, if they are necessary at all, and would provide a capacity of 27,600 PPHD. That’s 15% more than the REM proposal, at a fraction of the cost.

If we upgraded the existing rail system aggressively, the minimum headway could be reduced from every 7 minutes today down to as often as every 2 minutes, as many cities have done with their heavy rail tunnel (like the RER in Paris). We could get a line with a capacity of 40,000 PPHD or maybe even 60,000 PPHD, which could serve the whole region.

But once we sell the tunnel to the Caisse, this cannot happen, because the contract between the Caisse and the government disallows the public to take any control, and the Caisse intends to convert the infrastructure to an incompatible technology that can not be applied along existing rail corridors that also serve freight.

It is a legal fiction that the assets of the Caisse are owned by the public — they are being managed by the caisse for its depositors. And most of those depositors (62%) are the employee pension funds of government and university workers. Effectively our infrastructure will be mostly owned by these private individuals via the employee pensions, with the aim of generating profit.


And even if the infrastructure were wholly owned by the Quebec Pension Plan (which is actually only 23% of the caisse today), we still have the problem that the interests of public pensions and transit users do not align. Pensions need profits to grow, and good transit is not always good for profit. The Caisse has essentially a legal obligation to sacrifice good transit for good profit.

I took a closer look at all the issues relating to privatization in my post “How the Caisse’s “public-public-partnership” is privatization in disguise”.

CLAIM #5: CDPQ Infra has not adequately consulted with stakeholders and has not discussed the concerns of citizens and its partners.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
Since the REM route was announced on April 22, CDPQ Infra has met with more than 120 representatives from different municipalities and organizations interested in the REM project, including mayors, environmental groups and heritage specialists. We have organized six open house evenings, at which more than 1,500 citizens were met. An online survey enabled more than 1,000 respondents to share their concerns and propose solutions. Following these consultations, CDPQ Infra refined its project to minimize its impacts. Furthermore, CDPQ Infra requested public hearings on the REM project, led by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE).

(actual) REALITY:
The solution by the CDPQ was largely presented as is, presented in April has a near final solution without discussion with any stakeholders. Since then the CDPQ supposedly has talked to many people, but there have mostly been only small cosmetic changes. So far, big issues have not been addressed.

Since the project is privately planned, and the AMT is currently being dismantled, it’s unclear whether any public expertise in transit has had any meaningful influence on the project.

At the same time, many important documents, like the ridership studies, evaluation of route options, evaluation of technology choice, financing scheme, the purchasing agreement, and even the original mandate that the government gave to the Caisse have not been published.

CLAIM #6: The Québec government no longer has any control over this project.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
Under the CDPQ Infra model, the government will continue to be responsible for identifying needs and priority projects, and for setting the main project parameters. The government can however entrust CDPQ Infra with the responsibility of proposing technical and financial solutions, and taking over execution and operation of infrastructure projects.

For the REM, committees and working groups involving different ministries are in place and construction of the project is conditional upon the government’s green light. Calls for tenders will comply with international best practices in terms of transparency and competition, and the integrity of the process will be validated by an independent expert. Bidders will be required to obtain a certificate from the Autorité des marchés financiers.

(actual) REALITY:
The “claim” is misrepresented. The issue is that the government will have no control over the project once the agreement is finalized as early as next year. From then on we will have privatized transit built for the purpose of generating profit mostly for private individuals. It says it right in the agreement between the Caisse and the Quebec government:

“… the Government:

  • must not exercise control over the assets of the project;
  • must not assume any risks and derive any benefit inherent to the ownership of such assets;  must not automatically become the owner of the project or benefit from an option to purchase at a preferential price;
  • must not pay for the majority of the assets through its contributions;
  • must never have the authority to direct the financial and administrative policies of Caisse.”

Right now the government could control the project, but since the whole scheme was concocted between the Liberal government and the Caisse, it seems they are really keen on getting this built, without worrying too much about details. It is quite possible that the Caisse is meeting with the MTQ, but that ministry has fairly little expertise in transit. The project was basically presented as is, and the Caisse has shown that they are only willing to make cosmetic changes, while being unwilling to address major flaws.

CLAIM #7: To ensure that the REM is profitable, CDPQ Infra will have to set higher rates for users.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
The fares paid by users will not be set by CDPQ Infra but rather by the future Autorité régionale de Transport métropolitain (ARTM), in consultation with CDQP Infra. The ARTM will be responsible for managing and planning transportation in the Greater Montréal area. Its mandate will be to integrate and simplify the hundreds of different fares (over 700) currently used in the metropolitan region. CDPQ Infra expects that REM users will use a single transportation ticket and will pay a rate, to be integrated and comparable with rates currently in effect. The REM’s profitability will instead come from high ridership, very competitive bids and a rigorous control over operating costs.

(actual) REALITY:
This is all good and well, but these are just promises. Promises like great integration with the existing metro and buses; or the promise by Finance minister Leitao that no existing lines will be privatized (we’re now privatizing the Deux-Montagnes line).

People have done calculations that appear to show this scheme cannot be profitable without substantially increasing fares. All we got from CDPQInfra as a response is promises like the one above, but they didn’t give us their business plan, or an exact idea of how the costs will flow and what the ticket prices will be.

The CDPQInfra’s mandate is to make profit from the line, so pointing to the ARTM as the organization that will set fares is just bizarre. The public needs to know how much we will pay for every single rider, and how this financing will work, because we have to pay the fares and we have to finance the line using billions of taxpayer money and more billions worth of public assets.

CLAIM #8: CDPQ Infra is working hastily and its compressed timetable does not allow it to properly carry out this major project.

(The Caisse’s) REALITY:
CDPQ Infra is committed to efficiently carry out the public transit projects under its responsibility. This efficiency implies no decline in rigour. For this purpose, CDPQ Infra has proposed an ongoing optimization process and a request for proposals that allows bidding companies to propose creative and more competitive solutions. Several projects around the world have been successfully carried out with schedules comparable to those proposed by CDPQ Infra.

The public has only been aware of this project in its current form since April 2016. The CDPQ seeks to have their contracts and financing set in stone early in 2017. For a project this big, that will affect transit for the next hundred years, that will cost billions of dollars, will affect development for decades, we have less than one year to study and evaluate the project, then it will be set in stone.

Most transit at this scale is built from regional transit plans that go decades into the future to identify needs and corridors to build transit. Having a project at this scale from the first time we hear about it to the time it’s set in stone of less than one year is simply insane.

Transit plans should be made decades into the future, and this is actually one of the major weak spots of the REM. After this project, what follows is again unknown – especially due to the use of technology that’s incompatible with other lines, and the low capacity in the trunk line. I’m concerned about how future lines will connect to it, in particular VIA and the transit corridors that are currently the Mascouche and the St-Jerome line, which have the potential to serve as urban rapid transit.

We need a proper regional rail plan that will cover not just this one project, but the ones that follows and the ones after; and the REM should be built to integrate with that.

How the Caisse’s “Public-Public-Partnership”
is Privatization in Disguise

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

I’ve been staring at the documents of the REM projects for months now. The more I look at them, the more I feel we’re about to make a big mistake.

I’ve been having this sinking feeling in my stomach, the feeling you have as you watch a trainwreck unfold in slow motion and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The feeling of the guy in the Titanic’s bird’s nest, as the iceberg approaches, doing the math on distances, speed and momentum and coming to the inevitable conclusion: it’s too late.

Because that’s what the Caisse is: the iceberg to our transit.

And we are running out of time: the BAPE process started two weeks ago, this is one of the last steps before it becomes unfixable. If we do not wake up soon, we may be making a mistake that will haunt us for years to come


In 2015, the Government of Quebec passed a Bill to allow the creation of CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) that engages in transit-related projects. An agreement between Quebec and the Caisse subsequently laid out the groundwork of the collaboration between the two entities.

This newfound model was proudly touted as a new form of PPP, a “public-public partnership”. But for the government, this whole thing comes down to an accounting sleight-of-hand: the government refuses to invest enough money in transit infrastructure, so if the Caisse takes responsibility for its construction, then these projects get taken off the government’s books. Any debt or deficit incurred belongs to the Caisse, not the government. Or, as the government puts it: “ce projet-là se ferait à l’extérieur de notre périmètre comptable”.

If that sounds like a good idea, here’s what it means, according to the agreement between the Caisse and Québec:

This agreement also aims to minimize the impact on the Government’s debt and deficit in compliance with Canadian accounting rules. Thus, in order for the main objectives of this agreement to be reached, the portion of assets or of investments financed by Caisse in connection with any project must comply with the following criteria and, as such, the Government:

  • must not exercise control over the assets of the project;
  • must not assume any risks and derive any benefit inherent to the ownership of such assets;
  • must not automatically become the owner of the project or benefit from an option to purchase at a preferential price;
  • must not pay for the majority of the assets through its contributions;
  • must never have the authority to direct the financial and administrative policies of Caisse.

“Who cares?” you might think. If the Caisse builds infrastructure, shouldn’t they own it and manage it outside of the Government’s purview?

Maybe, if they built a whole line from scratch, using their own money. Maybe even with the public paying for half the construction costs (i.e. billions), we could perhaps, after much consideration and some public planning, allow the Caisse to own the infrastructure.

But that’s not what they’re doing.

In their REM proposal, the Caisse lays claim to the existing Deux-Montagnes line (the most profitable line in the AMT network) AND the Mount-Royal tunnel, the backbone of Montreal’s commuter rail network. It’s our only direct access downtown, and one of the most important pieces of transit real estate we have. Both assets belong to the AMT, an organization that is currently being slowly dismantled and whose people can offer little resistance if they want to get hired at the newly formed organizations next year.

Taking over this transit line is a bold move, one that the government itself may not have seen coming. After all, Mr. Leitao, the Minister of Finance, who is responsible for the government side of the deal (and not the Minister of Transport, as one would assume) and whose West-Island riding will benefit from the REM, repeatedly assured that the Caisse would only own new lines, not existing ones:

“(…) c’est un partenariat avec une entité publique qui va devenir… qui va non seulement construire mais devenir propriétaire et va exploiter cette nouvelle ligne de transport, ça ne s’applique pas aux existants.” (May 12, 2015)

“Donc, c’est très précis, c’est dans le transport collectif, une nouvelle… Et donc c’est doublement clair, parce que c’est une nouvelle infrastructure, donc ce n’est pas une infrastructure existante, on ne va pas prendre une ligne de métro existante, c’est une nouvelle infrastructure de transport collectif.” (May 27, 2015)

Now, the Caisse wants to take our most valuable public transit asset and privatize it.

The Caisse will have us believe that they are the public, and no doubt they believe it too. And sure, in theory, their assets belong to the State. But a legal fiction is not the same as policy on the ground.

For all practical purposes, privatization is what this is: the elected government loses control of the asset to some independent entity. It says so black on white:
the Government:

  • must not exercise control over the assets of the project;
  • must not assume any risks and derive any benefit inherent to the ownership of such assets;
  • must not automatically become the owner of the project or benefit from an option to purchase at a preferential price;

Privatization is the proper word here. And we’re doing it without any competitive bidding process, we’re simply handing over public assets in return for some amount of money we don’t even know.

The Caisse is a crown corporation, a legal entity in its own right. Its mission, by law, is to

“receive moneys on deposit as provided by law and manage them with a view to achieving optimal return on capital within the framework of depositors’ investment policies while at the same time contributing to Québec’s economic development.”

Don’t be fooled by the fancy words. The Caisse is nothing more than a holding company whose primary purpose is to generate profits for its clients (or “depositors”). As such, it has fiduciary duties first and foremost towards its depositors, not us, the public.

Many, including the Minister of Finance, want to believe that the public is the depositor:

“le rendement que la caisse obtiendrait, c’est un rendement qui va bénéficier à tous les Québécois, tous les déposants dans la caisse.”

But the devil is in the details.

Exactly who are those depositors?

Common knowledge says the CDPQ manages Quebecers’ retirement fund, and it’s known as “le bas de laine des québécois”. In reality, the CDPQ manages the assets of 32 depositors, consisting of mostly pension funds and some public insurance funds.


The Caisse’s numbers show that the actual “bas de laine”, the Quebec Pension Plan, only accounts for 23% of the total assets managed by the CDPQ. The bulk (61,7%) is actually composed of pension funds belonging to government employees, which are essentially private pensions.

So who is going to benefit from the bulk of the CDPQ’s activities? The private pensions.

And those depositors are not happy either.

The Caisse and transparency

Mr Donald Tremblay, president of the “association québécoise des retraité(e)s du secteur public et parapublic” (AQRP), already expressed concern over the Caisse’s handling of the question. Back in May 2015, during the parliamentary hearings on Bill 38, the Bill that allowed the Caisse to create CDPQ Infra and carry out infrastructure projects, Mr Tremblay complained that:

“[D]ans ce cas-là, une entente aussi importante, pas un déposant n’a entendu parler de ça avant le 13 janvier, et c’était le matin assis devant notre téléviseur. Il y a anguille sous roche ou c’est complètement à l’inverse de ce que croit M. Sabia par rapport à la transparence, la consultation, la qualité des investissements.”

If the Caisse’s own depositors, whose money the Caisse is managing, question its transparency, how can we the public, the broad, non-depositor public, have any hope of any kind of accountability? If one of the Caisse’s biggest clients only get to hear about major critical actions on the news, how are we expected to be aware of anything the Caisse does?

The same happened when they announced the REM project this year. Everybody I talked to was taken by surprise: municipal politicians, groups pushing for transit to the West Island, people working at the MTQ. Based on how mayor Coderre and Prime Minister Couillard spoke about the project just before it was announced in April, it seems even they were unaware of the plan:

En entrevue à La Presse, Philippe Couillard a toutefois spécifié que ce lien n’irait pas au-delà de l’aéroport puisque « la fréquentation au-delà de l’aéroport soulève des questions de rentabilité ».

Many knew that the Caisse was supposed invest and implement the South shore light rail, the airport and the West Island train, but nobody expected them to take over and privatize the Deux-Montagnes line to do it.

The Caisse’s behaviour after they announced the REM project is also not very reassuring. They held no real public consultations. The only thing we got was PR poster sessions (the “town hall meetings”), and only in boroughs that would benefit from the REM, not the ones that are going to get screwed over.

Moreover, they are still refusing to provide very important documentation:

  • Ridership study
  • Cost estimates
  • Evaluation of route Options (they just claim “this is the best trajectory”)
  • Evaluation of technology (they just claim they studied diferent technologies and this is the best)
  • Any documents describing the overall economics, and how this scheme will work with respect to real estate development
  • More information about the tax-increment financing scheme
  • Information about fares

On top of that, we don’t even have access to the actual mandate they received from the government (according to 3.1.2 & 3.2.1 of the agreement). All we have is a Press release where they announce they’re going to build light rail to the South Shore, West Island and airport.

The Caisse promises that some of this information will be available in the future at some point. But maybe only after the BAPE hearings, which they tried to have expedited supposedly in order to maintain their unnecessarily tight schedule. (Why are we in such a hurry to build transit all of a sudden?) That’s not good enough. How can they claim that we can have a meaningful environmental review process if the public doesn’t have access to basic information?!

The Caisse has so far played its cards masterfully. It got a legal mandate to engage in infrastructure projects. It offered the government a sweet, sweet deal: take transit off the Public’s books, build more transit, and make money in the process, a win, win, win! Armed with a government mandate (we take their word for it), they dazzled us with a daring, ambitious network we couldn’t even dream of and were probably hoping to surf on a wave of public approval to get its papers rubber-stamped before people started asking too many questions.

What does a privatized tunnel mean for transit?

What the Caisse plans to do with the tunnel is painfully clear from their REM plans: they are planning to “upgrade” the tracks, and consciously chose a new technology that will be incompatible with any other rail line, which means that the REM will be the only trains able to go through the tunnel.

At that point, since the tunnel will be privately held, the public will not be able to prevent the Caisse kicking out all the rail lines out of the tunnel that need to go downtown. Why not? Because “the Government must not exercise control over the assets of the project”! Once the government agrees to this scheme in a couple of months, there will be no turning back. The line will be privatized, and we won’t be able to undo this decision for decades.

Furthermore, the Caisse’s depositors, who need to protect their own assets, are demanding guarantees that the government shall not interfere with the Caisse’s management of its assets!

Let me reiterate how bad this is: the Mount Royal tunnel is the backbone of regional transit in the Greater Montreal. The public has spent billions to build a regional rail network around it.

It is the gate to downtown, and we are giving the Caisse the key.


The Caisse has no interest in shared regional transit planning beyond their own mandate to connect the West Island, the airport and Brossard. They only have to consider riders from those parts of town, which means they don’t need to deal with the regional impact of their actions. They don’t need to care about the forced transfers they create and how it will cripple the affected lines. Actually, forced transfers are good business: the REM will make more money for everyone coming from the St-Jérôme and Mascouche lines or VIA who has to transfer to the REM.

By privatizing the tunnel, we will have effectively given a profit-driven corporation the ability to block any further transit development that involves the Tunnel.

Yes to transit, no to privatization!

Of course the REM is an important project and we want the lines to be built. The connections to the South Shore and the West Island are important. But we should not let our excitement get the better of ourselves. The fancy technology and pretty pictures are distractions and the Caisse is trying to pull a fast one. And the most discouraging part is that Montrealers are so transit-starved that they are bending over backwards to give the Caisse whatever they’re asking for.


Development should not be made at the expense (now and in the future) of Montreal North and East, Anjou, Laval, Longueuil, and Via Rail. The REM branches have to be part of a larger regional network. They have to use compatible technology. The capacity of the tunnel should be increased rather than decreased. And privatization of our existing infrastructure is out of the question. We have to continue working towards a regional network and hold the liberal government to their promise that no existing lines will be privatized.

The BAPE process started last week, and everybody can participate. This is basically the last time that the public has any direct influence on the project, so everybody who can should get involved.

Walksheds Visualized:
Showing Population and Places of Work
within Walking distance of Montreal Rail Stations

Friday, July 22nd, 2016


A while back I published a map of Montreal showing the populations living within walking distance of rail stations in the region. At the time, many asked me to add places of work as well, and proposed new stations. Today I’m publishing a map that includes these, and I’ve made it look prettier as well.

The area that is reachable within walking distance of a station is called its walk-shed. The actual walking distance depends on the geometry of the street, and also on the person. Some are more willing to walk a longer distance than others. I picked the commonly used 800m or half a mile distance (as the bird flies) as a reasonable approximation.

The population data comes from the same census as the previous map (which is the most recent one we have), the work places are extracted from a census map as described here.

Note that in places where the stations are closer together, the walk-sheds will overlap. This is intentional, as I want to show the density just as much as an absolute number.

Every residence and every work place within walking distance of a train station is the potential beginning or end of a transit trip that does not require parking or a feeder bus. Both can be very expensive, and also make using transit less desirable. The system is most effective and most financially sustainable when as many people as possible live within walking distance of stations.

I tried to estimate the cost to provide feeder buses and parking in this previous post.


Here are some observations:

Downtown is insane

One thing I noticed when adding workplaces to the map is just how many people work downtown, and how important they are. When considering just population, Cote-Sainte-Catherine was the station with the most density around it, 28,000 people. Once you add in work places, the combined total reaches 160,000 for McGill and Gare Centrale. Those stations are incredible trip generators!

so many

Downtown Montreal. So many workplaces you can’t even visualize it.

According to the STM’s data, McGill and Berri-UQAM are actually the busiest stations. I believe that the census data did not consider the universities as ‘places of work’ for students. So McGill, Concordia, Berri-UQAM and Udem possibly each have another several tens of thousand students nearby who are not accounted for in the census data.

Badly paced outlying stations

Another thing I realized is how bad some of the outlying stations are. One in particular is the Anjou station on the Mascouche line. I know there is a lot of population near that line in Montreal North and East, about as many as in the whole West Island (about 200,000 people). So why is the Anjou station doing so badly?

The answer can be found if you just look at it from above:


The stations is sandwiched between a highway, a large boulevard and a low-density industrial area. Basically the only thing within walking distance is a parking lot. The station was basically only designed for drivers coming in via the highway and using the park’n’ride. So its ridership can only ever be as large as the parking lot — that’s an ineffective use of space, money and transit; and focusing only on drivers is inequitable as well.

What about proposed stations?

I’m a little bit concerned that the transit projects that we have in the pipeline right now don’t consider walkability enough. The Blue Line extension appears to do okay, about as well or maybe a bit better as the Eastern Branch of the Green line.


The REM stations on the other hand, being almost exclusively along highways, really don’t connect to much within walking distance. We hear how important the Technoparc Saint-Laurent is, with 7,000 workers — but if we compare that to the metro stations, it’s obvious that it’s really a small number.


Even stations in predominantly residential areas will have that many places of work, even though most of their surrounding area is for housing. And really, the Technoparc just a suburban office park, of supposedly ‘cleantech’ firms, but the area mostly consists of parking. In fact, if you work in one of those places, your car gets more space than you do:

Technoparc Saint-Laurent: worthy of a rapid transit stop?

Technoparc Saint-Laurent: worthy of a rapid transit stop?

The REM proposal also includes stations that are absolutely abysmal, like the Technopark Pointe-Sainte-Charles (2,000 workers). Moreover, the proposed station near Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue is the only station with zero population and work places within walking distance in the whole Montreal region. At this point, it will mostly serve to induce sprawl.

There are proposals for some Transit Oriented Development, but since the corresponding are stations near highways, it will be difficult to build walkable neighborhoods from scratch. I really wish the 5.5 billion dollars in transit investment would result in better connections to existing neighborhoods.

Looking at all the data, it really makes me wish we would focus more on connecting to people within walking distance and making transit as effective as possible.

The High Cost of Free Incentive Parking

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

I have a confession to make: I think park’n’rides, or incentive parking as we call them in Montreal, are a bad idea.

Everybody seems to be asking for more and more incentive parking these days, and anyone questioning the driving component of our transit cocktail model may incur the anger of drivers and get painted as some sort of tofu-loving anti-car zealot. Well, I don’t like tofu, but I don’t like free park’n’rides either. Besides being bad for the city, they just don’t make economic sense.

Most people assume providing parking basically costs nothing for a transit agency. Plop a parking lot next to a train station, and you never have to think about it again. Just drive to the station and take the train.

Except, it turns out that parking is surprisingly expensive.

First, there is the one-time expense to buy the land and then to build the parking lot. Then, the parking lot requires a variety of operating expenses for things like maintenance (snow clearing, salting, cleaning, raod work…), security (lighting, cameras), and taxes, to name a few.

It’s not so easy to figure out what the exact cost is to provide free parking, broken down per user and per day. One good source is this 2016 study analyzing the total cost of providing parking, that is, land, construction and maintenance costs, in the US. The following graph shows the annualized costs for different types of parking spaces (note: land and construction costs are amortized over 20 years):


According to the study, surface parking lots typically costs around $1000 in the suburbs and $2000 in the city per year to provide. Those numbers were for 2007 and in US Dollars, so after adjusting for inflation (9 years, 15% total) and converting to CAD, that’s about 1500$-3000$ per year. Every year. For one single parking spot.

Another source, Calgary Transit estimated its 2011 parking costs to ~700$-1642$ per year (assuming 20 year amortization for a lot, and 40 year amortization for a parking structure).

Another survey of parking of American Transit agencies found the average operating cost for a total of 288,000 parking spots to be 1,100 USD per year, or about 1,425 CAD (see this spreadsheet). What’s interesting is that even though the transit agencies charge around 4.50$ per day on average for parking, on average they only recover 34% of the parking costs.

Now, consider that every commuter parking spot can pretty much be used by only one car every day. One person, who drives to the train in the morning and picks up the car after work in the evening. If we’re lucky, we may get up to 1.3 people per vehicle, which is the average occupancy rate of a car.

Moreover, in Montreal, the commuter rail parking lots of the AMT have an occupancy rate of 80%, but the unused 20% still has to be paid for.

Overall, your typical free parking costs around $7.20 to $14.40 per weekday to provide, subsidized by the transit agency or the city.

$ 1500 / 260 work days = $5.77 per day
 $ 5.77 / 0.80 occupancy = $7.21 per day
$ 3000 / 260 work days = $11.54
 $ 11.54 / 0.80 occupancy = $14.42

In terms of economic efficiency, this is quite a waste of money. Instead of having drivers go downtown and have them pay for their own parking, everybody has to pay for the drivers who park near a transit station, on top of having to subsidize the transit itself as well. If this is an ‘incentive’ that society provides to encourage transit use, we’re getting a pretty bad return on investment. Because the advantage of a few drivers being able to park near transit does not outweigh the money that we collectively spend to provide that parking.

If we look at cost per user, it is much more efficient to provide bicycle-parking in those same lots. It is possible to fit 15-20 bicycles in the space required for one parking spot in a parking lot. That’s because the lot is actually twice as big as the actual space required by a car: you need one car-area to put the car, and the equivalent of another car-area for the car to drive to the parking spot.

Park’n’Ride at Terminus Chevrier, only about half the space is used by the parking spots

Park’n’Ride at Terminus Chevrier, only about half the space is used by the parking spots

And walking to the station is even more economically efficient – it’s free.

Comparing with Feeder Buses

Of course it’s not realistic for everybody to just cycle to transit stations, and many don’t live within walking distance. So how else can we bring people to the trains?

The most popular alternative is to provide feeder buses, which collect passengers and bring them to the bus station. And despite requiring drivers and equipment, a feeder bus may actually be cheaper than parking!

Unfortunately, transit agencies don’t generally provide enough information that allows estimating how much it costs to provider feeder buses per person, so we can only infer from available numbers.

In 2014, Translink, Vancouver’s Transit Agency, published a report which contains a table of costs for operating transit per passenger-kilometer.


The chart shows blended operating costs, which is the overall operating cost for bus, metro, and rail combined, for several Canadian cities. We see from the graph that operating cost is lower in Calgary and higher in Ottawa and Edmonton. The difference is consistent with the transit model in every city: Calgary has an efficient light rail system, which is cheaper to operate than buses, because the vehicles are much larger, and most of their buses feed into the light rail. On the other hand, Edmonton and Ottawa have much smaller rail systems, and have to rely on the more expensive-to-operate buses.

According to this chart, Montreal’s transit operating cost was a little over $0.30 per passenger kilometre in 2013. Since this number does not take into account capital costs, we can adjust it up by about 20% (capital costs for buses is about 20% of operating costs) and round it up to $0.40 to account for the blending of different modes.

This means that bringing a person to a train station 2km away by bus costs about $1.60 per day (2 trips). Even if the person lives 6km away, this would only cost $4.80, which is still much less than providing parking, which costs $7 or more!

Note on distance: on the island of Montreal, only few people are farther than 6km away from a rail station, Commuter rail included (which is where most of the parking is). Even in the South Shore (Brossard and Longueuil), most are within 4km of the major transit terminals (Terminus Longueuil, Terminus Panama, Terminus Chevrier) and the commuter rail stations.

Overall we get the following cost estimates:


Alternative Use of the Space used for Parking

If you get more people to take buses from their homes, walk, or maybe even take a bicycle, you free up the land right next to the station. So instead of wasting valuable transit-adjacent land on parking the land can now be developed, to build apartment, commercial or office buildings and generate property taxes for the city, which in turn can be used to improve feeder buses. (The cities already pay most of the subsidies to operate transit).

People will want to live there, because they can quickly get downtown and businesses would want to locate there, because many people pass through the area. Transit stations would become the centers of little transit towns.

But also, you suddenly have people who don’t need to rely on either parking or feeder buses to get to the transit station – because they’re already right next to the station. Anybody who doesn’t need a bus or a parking spot to get to transit will be less expensive for the transit system as a whole.

Transit systems are based on cross-subsidies: some people pay more, so that others pay less. Short trip commuters subsidize those who go from one end of the line to the other. Metro users subsidize bus-&-metro users. The person who takes one ride pays the same as the person who uses a transfer.

And free incentive parking users should realize that they are benefitting from a premium service provided below cost – and provided to those who are more likely to be better off. In effect, those walking, cycling and even those taking buses are subsidizing the car owners who receive free parking.

When people complain about the lack incentive parking, remember that free parking is uneconomical. Money was invested in parking, when it could have been invested in service.

Space was allocated to parking, when it could have been developed to bring in tax revenue.

And maybe we should realize that parking at rail stations should not be free.

Appendix: What does a Developed Train Station look like?

The following shows the comparison of two suburban transit stations, inside suburban towns of similar sizes that are in turn in metropolitan areas of similar size. One stop is immediately surrounded by parking, the other by a walkable town.

Above: Sainte-Therese (population 26K), 25km from downtown Montreal (pop 3.9M). 
Below: Königs-Wusterhausen (pop 34K), 28km from downtown Berlin (pop 4.3M).


In Sainte-Therese, the rail station is close to the middle of town. But the parking is plenty and right next to the station, displacing the chance for a town centre. There are some condo-buildings around, but most of the area surrounding the station consists of low-density commercial buildings, most with more parking. There’s also a large bus terminus with 11 bays using up a lot of space as well. The terminus services thirteen lines.

By comparison, the Train Station in Königs-Wusterhausen is the center of a small town, with a pedestrian plaza, a mixed-use town-centre, plenty of bicycle parking, and bus stops served by a total of fifteen bus lines. Parking is still provided, because of increasing motorization levels, sprawl, and the resulting pressure to provide parking, but it’s pushed further away from the station, mostly to the far right.

The primary bus stop in Königs-Wusterhausen is small in area, because its primary purpose is to pick up and drop off passengers, not to store buses in the middle of a town. Image source.

The Caisse is Rushing ahead with REM,
Ignoring concerns

Monday, July 4th, 2016
Mascouche transfer station.

One of the issues of REM: the Mascouche line would require a transfer rather than routing directly downtown, despite hundreds of millions of investments to achieve that. How this transfer would work operationally is unclear.

Back in April the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec announced their REM project to build a large transit line in Montreal, and the initial excitement has worn off as the public has realized many issues with the proposal.

Some of the issues are due to the mandate the government gave the Caisse, and they are not really considering the regional impact. Some issues are due to focussing too strongly on the automated light metro technology, which is incompatible with existing plans and investments. Some are due to planning a project with profitability as the major concern rather than the public interest.

Concerns center on

These are serious concerns that have been raised from many sides, and should be addressed before pushing ahead.

I’ve personally spoken with representatives of the Caisse. They’ve generally told me not to worry and assured me that the project is still in the planning phase, and that many decisions aren’t set in stone.

However, last week the Caisse has published their “Requests for Qualification” for the REM. The document sets out technical requirements for the construction and operation of the line. This means that the companies that want to build the line and the trains are already starting to work on it, based on this list of requirements. And these requirements ignore all of the raised concerns.

Here’s what we learn:

1. Missing The Tunnel Stations

When I talked to CDPQInfra representatives in person, they kept insisting on the importance of the Tunnel stations at Edouard-Montpetit and McGill. However, there are close to no mentions of the stations in the request for qualification, it only says “It (the REM network) may also offer connections with the Montreal metro green and blue lines and with the Saint-Jérôme commuter line.”

In effect, the Caisse is pushing ahead without those stations.

2. Little Integration With Existing Lines

At the townhalls, the Caisse floated the idea having several special trains wait for transferees from the Mascouche line, to provide extra capacity for those riders. However the document, only mentions the requirement for schedule integration, i.e. trains should arrive at the same time, but does not appear to require providing extra capacity.

Moreover, the St-Jerome line, which also won’t be able to access the Mont-Royal tunnel and will therefore require a transfer onto the REM, is merely mentioned as potentially having a connection.

3. The Schedule And Resulting Low Capacity

The document specifies peak service as follows:


This implies a maximum capacity of 6,000 PPHD (people per hour per direction) on the Deux-Montagnes line based on 600 passengers per train. Right now the maximum capacity is up to 8,000 PPHD in bursts during peak hours (one train every 15 minutes holding up to 2000 passengers).

Total capacity is 12,000 PPHD. A previous Mont-Royal tunnel station study assumed 27,000 PPHD.

The Maximum possible frequency of the system is specified to be up to every 90 seconds, for a maximum theoretical capacity of 24,000 PPHD (vs over 40,000 for the Montreal Metro, and 60,000 for the Paris RER).

Note that the document does not specify required maximum capacities on each branch, but instead sets the train size and the frequency, instead of letting vendors decide what the most efficient way is to achieve desired capacities.

4. Fixing on Incompatible Technology

Despite explaining at the town halls that the technology will be selected based on need, we’re set on an automated unattended light rail technology, with a specified low capacity, required electrification of 1.5KV, and platform screen doors and 80m trains. The capacity concerns are not addressed. Using this technology will prevent the other heavy rail lines from ever using the tunnels as planned.

The public has spent hundreds of millions towards a regional system around the Mont-Royal tunnel, these investments will be discarded as we’re moving to a less regional system. This system will also not have the capacity to absorb future passengers from the St-Jerome line, the Mascouche line, and the Blue line in order to relieve the overburdened Orange Line.

Choosing a slightly ‘heavier’ technology would allow maintaining compatibility and build towards a regional system, and it would provide more capacity. But this is not what the bidding process specifies.

5. Expensive Rebuilding of the Deux-Montagnes Line

The documents include the expensive conversion of the whole Deux-Montagnes line, removing 15 grade crossings, at maybe tens of millions apiece. It includes complete double-tracking of the line, including building several bridges over rivers. This would be unnecessary if we kept using longer trains with lower frequency in the 10-15 minute range, instead of every 6 minutes and very short trains.

The Deux-Montagnes line was actually re-electrified in the 90es for hundreds of millions of dollars to 25KV, because it is more efficient especially for longer heavy rail lines, any new electrification of heavy rail lines in North America will most likely use 25Kv. Now it will be expensively converted back to 1.5KV, with substations built every 4km, when right now the whole line is powered by one substation.

Back when the work was done in the 90s, the line shut down for several summers to do the conversion. Now the Caisse is claiming the much more substantial work will be possible without shutting down service except for “one or two weekends”.

We Have to Improve the Project

It’s fine for the Caisse to propose a transit project that’s not perfect, but it’s not right to ignore all the concerns raised. These have to be worked out before we push ahead with the project. Even though the Caisse people have previously assured that a lot of the decisions have not been made and that they’re still working on the proposal, the “Request for qualification” basically sets many decisions in stone.

We may end up in a situation where the public will ask for changes, and the Caisse will tell us that it’s too late to change the project, that we’ve had all the suppliers work really hard on this, and if we change everything now they’re not going to be interested in reworking it again, or at least prices will go up.

The REM could be a great transit project for the whole region, but may end up being compromised if the public is presented with a half-baked proposal that doesn’t address our concerns, and our only input is to decide whether we pay for it.