Archive for the ‘REM’ Category

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.

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”.

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.

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 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.

The Long Story of Montreal’s Airport Train

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

The story of Montreal’s airport train is one of competing proposals by different organizations, bad planning, and letting private entities dictate our transit policy.

Montrealers have been waiting for years, decades, for a proper transit connection to the airport. Most large cities have one, and Montreal has been lagging behind. The Caisse’s REM may be just the answer to our prayers, yet it isn’t the first proposal that has been put forward in the last few years.

So what happened to the previous proposals?

The AMT vs Aéroports de Montréal

Back in 2010, the Quebec government allocated $200 million for the construction of a direct rail link to the airport. This prompted the public Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) and the private Aéroports de Montréal (ADM) to come up with a common transit project. They couldn’t agree on a proposal, so both organizations made separate proposals trying to secure that funding.

Three airport train proposals.

Three airport train proposals.

The AMT proposal

The AMT proposed the “Train de l’Ouest” to connect the Airport to Downtown via the Vaudreuil-Hudson commuter rail line. At the same time, the Vaudreuil-Hudson line would have been upgraded with dedicated tracks from Lucien-L’Allier to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, to remove conflicts when sharing tracks with CP freight trains.

The AMT’s plan was to use the funding dedicated for the airport connection to not only build that airport connection, but also to improve the existing diesel rail line to the West-Island to benefit everyday commuters. Projected cost: $789 million.

Despite the projected improvements, the frequency of the line was still counted in trains per day. There was no ambition displayed to have all-day frequency service, no mention of electrification and no new urban stations in NDG, where too many transit-starved residents have to cram onto buses to get to work. Overall, the project was rather underwhelming.

However, it was relatively good value for the money, and did try to combine different goals (airport, West Island), using as much existing infrastructure as possible.

The ADM proposal

Aéroports de Montréal, on the other hand, insisted on an express train that would reach Gare Centrale. ADM assumed most users will be business travelers going directly downtown, and claimed that a terminus at Gare Centrale would bring in 22 to 30% more riders, despite its worse connection to the Montreal Metro. Some have theorized that the ADM got this number by surveying passengers, asking them where they’d rather take a train.

The ADM considered the AMT’s proposal inadequate largely because the train was to “only” end at Lucien-L’Allier, even though it’s only an 8-minute walk from Gare Centrale.

The airport intended to connect to Gare Centrale by routing along the CN corridor, a set of tracks currently used by VIA passenger trains and CN freight trains. This option was more expensive and projected to cost around $1.1 billion.

This stubborn focus on Gare Centrale seems arbitrary, especially if you consider the distribution of hotels around downtown:

Hotels relative to Transit.

Hotels relative to Transit. Source.

Given how strongly the ADM insisted on Gare Centrale, we would expect a clustering of hotels around that station. However, looking at the map, we really can’t see anything special with that station. In fact, hotels are pretty evenly distributed within walking distance of downtown metro stations. Which means what really matters is a good connection to the metro, and maybe a taxi stand. A good connection to the metro would also benefit Montrealers in general, who come from the airport and want to go home, not downtown, The connection to the Metro is actually better via the AMT proposal, which has two transfers to the Metro, at Vendome and Lucien L’Allier. Both of these transfers are better than Gare Centrale.

The ADM hoped to operate their proposed line at a profit, despite only connecting downtown, by charging high fares, even though this being a bad idea for ridership. Generally, ridership of airport connectors is low, so running the line profitably often turns out to be optimistic at best.

In the end, the AMT and ADM were unable to come to an agreement, and in October 2010, Aéroports de Montréal decided to simply go ahead with their own project, with no consideration for commuters in the West-Island and little consideration for non-downtown airport travelers.

And, for a while, it seemed their proposal had won.

The ADM Project is Slowly Transforming

There was close to no news on the AMT project for years. Meanwhile, the ADM’s project got a boost with the rebuilding of the Turcot interchange, which made made special accommodations for the proposed airport train, at an estimated cost of $136 million.

Since the REM now proposes a different route, this money would be completely wasted due to lack of foresight and proper planning.

And speaking of lack of foresight and proper planning, it eventually turned out that working with the CN would be difficult, if not impossible. There is actually not enough space along the CN corridor to add dedicated tracks for the airport train, and the CN would not allow tracks dedicated to the airport train on their right of way. So over time the ADM turned their original heavy rail project into an elevated light metro à la Vancouver’s skytrain.

In 2012, the ADM proposed an actual skytrain, moved the routing partially away from the CN corridor, and added extensions into the West Island. Two years after shutting down the AMT proposal, it seems they came to realize it would be easier to secure funding if the train had more purpose.

The ADM’s new plan included intermediate stations between the airport and downtown, although they still wanted the airport train to be an express somehow. At that point, it was unclear where the downtown terminus would be; maybe Gare Centrale wasn’t so important after all.

‘Route Example’ of proposed airport train of 2012. Note the terribly placed intermediate stations, away from actual populations, including a connection to the 2nd least used Metro Station, Georges-Vanier

‘Route Example’ of proposed airport train of 2012. Note the terribly placed intermediate stations, away from actual populations, including a connection to the 2nd least used Metro Station, Georges-Vanier

The plan used the rail corridor that is being built as part of the Turcot project, and it even included a station there, labelled “NDG”. Except a station there is not very useful, being sandwiched between a river, the highway and a cliff. Up on that cliff is where the actual populations are, where the existing AMT lines run along the CP line, but where there is no station.

At this point, this project fell into somewhat of a limbo.

Meanwhile in Toronto…

In Toronto, there was a similar proposal to create a airport express to Pearson Airport, put forward by a private consortium, claiming the line would pay for itself. The proposal was put forward in 2003, but the private investors withdrew several years later when profitability became questionable. So Metrolink, the region’s transit planning and commuter rail agency, took over the project, and built it for nearly half a billion dollars, as an express train making two stops along the way. The project costs were kept relatively low because they used their existing commuter rail infrastructure.

Union Pearson Express

The line started operation in summer 2015, with fares that were originally extremely high, around 27$. Ridership was extremely low. It’s doubtful the line will ever pay its operating expenses. The fare was recently reduced to 12$, and the ridership increased a lot, partly because it is now attractive for some commuters. By now the ridership has surpassed 5,000 riders a day.

Even though Pearson airport has twice the passengers as the Montreal airport, its airport express only receives half the ridership that the ADM projected for Montreal.

The Caisse’s REM project

In January 2015, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec took over Montreal’s airport train project. The liberal government gave them the mandate to build an airport rail link, a connection to the West Island, and a rail connection to Brossard via the new Champlain bridge.

In late 2015 the Caisse realized that the Turcot rail corridor would not be available until 2022 or so, so they looked for an alternative path to get downtown. They came up with the idea to built a 5km connection from the airport towards the north, to reach the existing Deux-Montagnes line, rather than connecting just a couple of hundred meters South.

Looking at the REM project as a whole makes it appear much more sensible than the previous ADM proposal. Rather than connecting 10,000 people, we’d get a regional network that would get 150,000 riders per day, at a much more “reasonable” cost of $46,000 per added rider.

Proposer Line Cost Distance
to airport
Downton station Total Ridership (vs today) Cost / New Rider
AMT (2010) Train de l’Ouest 786M 16.7km Lucien L’Allier 50K (14K) 22K $
ADM (2010) Aerotrain 1,100M 19.6km Gare Centrale 10K 110K $
CDPQ (2016) REM 5,500M ~23.5km Gare Centrale 150K (30K) 46K $

But just because the project looks okay as a whole does not mean every section makes sense. In fact, just the airport spur may end up being as expensive as the previous ADM proposal. The problem is the long connection to the to the existing rail right of way, which consists of several kilometers of tunnels and elevated tracks. The image below shows 3 options the Caisse is currently considering to reach the airport.


There is already a station shell under the airport, built by the ADM back in 2009 for 25$ Million. Unfortunately this station points south, because it was always assumed that any rail connection would connect to one of the rail corridors to the South. The Caisse may end up not using the station, because looping around the airport to reach the station may end up being more expensive than building a new one – meaning more millions may get wasted due to improper planning.

If trying to use the existing station, REM would have to build through an active terminal, or loop around the airport . That detour is about as long as the originally planned connection to the South.

If trying to use the existing station, REM would have to build through an active terminal, or loop around the airport . That detour is about as long as the originally planned connection to the South.

How much just the airport spur will cost is unclear, as the Caisse didn’t give any detailed construction costs. In a previous post, I tried to estimate the construction costs for all the different segments of the REM projects. The estimate for the airport branch came out to about a billion dollars, although it could also be a bit cheaper (update: new numbers by the CDPQ show it could cost around half a billion dollars). Nevertheless, it appears just the airport spur will cost an amount similar to the original 768M$ Train de l’Ouest proposal by the AMT. Yet that project also included new tracks along the entire Vaudreuil-Hudson line all the way up to St-Anne de Bellevue.

Basically, we’re giving up building a line used by 50K riders per day so that the Caisse can have an airport connection that will hopefully bring in 10K riders instead (update: new numbers by the CDPQ show ridership to be 2,700 with future potential for 4,200).

Some Questions to the Caisse

When I asked the Caisse’s people how their project relates to the original AMT project of use the existing CP corridor and only building a couple of kilometers of new track to the airport, I got the distinct impression that they never considered it. They kept going back to saying that the construction on the Turcot project means the corridor won’t be available until 2022, when that is only true for the CN corridor.

They also talked about grade crossings – when in fact there are only two grade crossings between the airport and downtown, whereas there are 14 along the Deux-Montagnes line, which will all have to be removed due to the choice of using an automated light rail technology.

Finally they said they want the lines to form one connected network, and better combine operations.

This part I don’t really understand. Why can’t the airport connection just be combined with the AMT network’s operations? What matters is that all the different transit lines of Montreal form an overall network, not who exactly operates which lines. What matters is the connection to the metro, which is actually best along the CP line, at Vendome.

The dismantling of the AMT

Just days before the REM project was proposed to the public, the government announced that the AMT would be split up into two organizations, one doing regional planning and the other engaging in operation of suburban lines. The new planning organization will be governed by a committee mostly made of Montreal region mayors.

Given the timing with the REM project, and the history of not listening to the AMT, one has to wonder how all these events relate to one another.


The airport project has been a mess. While Toronto simply went ahead and built their airport using their commuter rail infrastructure, we’ve been shuffling around competing projects.

The whole transit planning process has become way too politicized on the one hand, but way too influenced by private interests on the other — Rather than letting the public agency that is tasked with regional planning do the actual transit planning, we let private entities that have no business planning transit do that job instead. And it seems that these private entities, the Aeroports de Montreal and now the Caisse, have more power than the AMT.

The AMT meanwhile is getting quietly dismantled. Then again, while the AMT still had ‘power’ of sorts, it was engaged mostly in suburban-centric park-n-ride-centric commuter rail planning, that’s what got us the ineffective Mascouche line.

In effect, the shift of transit planning towards private entities is effectively removing planning from democratic control.

We really need better, integrated, regional transit planning; done by the public. We need to stop the hodge-podge of competing proposals, or proposals that undo hundreds of millions of previous investements. We also need to prioritize projects based on cost-benefit, but still always work towards a long-term vision of building a large network. We should consolidate the number of technologies, to achieve good expertise and economies of scale. Finally, we should try to leverage existing infrastructure and investments as much as possible.

Catbus en Francais:
Pourquoi le SLR de la Caisse pourrait crouler sous son propre poids ?

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Article de blog du 18 mai par Ant6n, traduit par Jérémie Dunn. English Version

Update: This analysis includes a couple of simplifying assumptions based on the little information provided by the Caisse at the time. For those interested in a more deep analysis included the information that was made available at the BAPE, refer to my memoire, section 4 (for capacity of the Deux-Montagnes line), and section 6.2.1. (Impact on existing Mascouche line). Note the ridership study revealed the St-Anne branch will have the same ridership as the existing Vaudreuil-Hudson line. The St-Jerome line connection may have been dropped from the plans.

Un second regard plus objectif sur le « REM » de la Caisse qui propose de remplacer la ligne de train Deux-Montagnes par un SLR: Comment la Caisse est en train de rater l’exécution d’une bonne idée en surchargeant ses wagons dès l’inauguration de son réseau?

Le projet de REM de la Caisse semble susciter principalement deux catégories de réactions: ceux qui sont excités que Montréal aille de l’avant avec un nouvel outil de transport collectif moderne et tout neuf, et les sceptiques qui sentent que la Caisse nous mène en bateau. À ma première réaction, j’étais plutôt dans le premier camp, néanmoins un regard plus posé me fait douter de l’idée que le SLR soit la meilleure façon de faire.

Premièrement : qu’est-ce qu’un train léger?

Même si le terme semble précis, l’expression « train léger » fait référence, en réalité, à une catégorie très large d’équipements allant des trolleys aux trams, en passant par des technologies très proches des métros. On le décrit léger en comparaison avec le rail « lourd » ou conventionnel que l’American Public Transportation Association définit comme un chemin de fer électrique avec la capacité de transporter un lourd volume de trafic.

Le détail le plus important ici c’est que les adjectifs « léger » ou « lourd » réfèrent à la capacité du système et non à son poids.

À ce propos, si on compare les poids de chaque wagon, certains métros légers similaires au REM ont des véhicules qui sont en fait plus lourds que ceux du métro de Montréal. Certains même sont aussi lourds que les wagons vieillissants de la ligne Deux-Montagnes :


Bien sûr, puisqu’elle comporte moins de wagons, le poids total d’une rame du REM est évidemment moindre que celui de ses cousins. Cependant, la rame de REM n’ira pas plus vite ! Le REM, qui sera un système électrique comme l’indique son nom, utilisera la  technologie EMU (« electric-multiple-unit ») qu’on peut observer dans le métro de Montréal ou sur la ligne Deux-Montagnes. Les systèmes EMU n’ont pas besoin de locomotive frontale pour tirer tout le train. Les moteurs sont plutôt distribués de façon uniforme à travers tous les wagons qui peuvent ainsi se propulser eux-mêmes.

Un demi-train possède deux fois moins de moteurs qu’un train normal, donc la moitié de la puissance pour tirer la moitié du poids. Mathématiquement, on se retrouve avec la même vitesse.

C’est donc bel et bien en terme de capacités que le REM est plus « léger ». La Caisse envisage 4 wagons pendant l’heure de pointe (et seulement 2 hors pointe), cela  correspond, en termes de capacité, à la moitié de la longueur d’une rame standard de notre métro et au tiers d’un train de la ligne Deux-Montagnes. train-length-comparisons

Quelle sera la capacité du REM ?

La capacité d’un système de transport en commun est calculée en multipliant la capacité de chaque train (ou bus, tram, métro etc.) par le nombre de passages à chaque heure. Cette méthode nous donne le nombre de « passagers à l’heure par direction » (PHPD).

Une rame du REM pourra transporter 600 passagers, avec une fréquence maximale de 3 à 6 minutes dans le segment central (10 à 20 trains/heure), ce qui correspond à une capacité maximale de 6000 à 12 000 PHPD.

En comparaison, la ligne Deux-Montagnes a 4 passages/heure pendant l’heure de pointe, avec 2000 personnes dans chaque train. La capacité est de 8000 PHPD.

De ce point de vue, le REM a fière allure. On passe de 8000 à 12 000, c’est une bonification du service de 50% !

Mais pas si vite…

Nous venons de faire une rapide comparaison avec une seule des lignes existantes. La vraie question qui demeure c’est : de quelle capacité avons-nous vraiment besoin, maintenant et dans le futur ?

Si on analyse le réseau existant, le REM veut cumuler la capacité de quatre lignes de train actuelles de l’AMT durant les heures de pointe.

Connections between REM and the existing transit network.

Connections propose par le REM.

À ce titre, le REM devra :

  • Remplacer la ligne Deux-Montagnes, qui est d’une des principales raisons d’être du REM;
  • Remplacer la ligne de Mascouche pour la section du tunnel du Mont Royal. Puisque les trains de la ligne Mascouche ne pourront plus traverser le tunnel (la nouvelle technologie du REM est incompatible avec les trains de cette ligne). Les utilisateurs de la ligne Mascouche devront débarquer à la gare affublée du nom original de « Gare A-40 » pour emprunter une correspondance avec le REM afin d’accéder au Centre-Ville.
  • Remplacer la majeure partie de la ligne Vaudreuil-Hudson qui dessert l’Ouest de l’Île jusqu’à Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue et au-delà. Les gens de l’ouest demandent depuis longtemps une amélioration du service de cette ligne ou son remplacement par une meilleure alternative. C’est ce que leur offre le REM avec sa banche Ouest de l’Île.
  • Les usagers de la ligne Saint-Jérôme vont devoir prendre une correspondance à la nouvelle gare Canora, qui aura alors un nouveau quai sur cette ligne, pour arriver au Centre-Ville 20 minutes plus vite.

Mais quelle est la capacité actuelle de ces 4 lignes ?

Le graphique ci-dessous compare la capacité quotidienne du REM, de ces quatre lignes existantes de l’AMT et de la ligne Orange du métro :  

On constate que les quatre lignes actuelles atteignent une capacité combinée d’environ 25 000 PHPD à l’heure de pointe et que cette pointe est… très pointue. En effet, le réseau doit assurer le transport d’un nombre énorme de personnes aux alentours de 8h00. Le reste de la journée, les trains de banlieue offrent un service anémique; ils n’offrent pas de services de transport en continu. De son côté, le REM, lui, offrira un service continu durant la journée, mais d’une capacité insuffisante à l’heure de pointe. La ligne Orange, quant à elle, assure un service continu toute la journée et parvient à fournir une capacité trois fois supérieure à ce qu’offrira le REM durant l’heure de pointe matinale, ce qui est beaucoup plus que tous les trains de banlieue montréalais réunis.

Les documents de marketing du REM revendiquent une amélioration de 50% de la capacité quotidienne, mais cette amélioration est toutefois inutile pour ceux qui ont besoin d’utiliser le service entre 7h30 et 8h30 le matin. C’est pourtant à ce moment que la majorité des gens ont besoin de se rendre au travail, et les horaires de travail ne vont pas changer pour s’adapter à l’incapacité du REM à absorber son trafic.

Et il ne s’agit ici que de la situation actuelle et que des lignes de banlieue existantes. On ne considère même pas la demande supplémentaire que provoquera l’entrée en service du REM, qui devrait encourager les gens troquer leurs automobiles ou leurs lignes de bus plus lentes pour un système REM plus efficace et attrayant. Il y a aussi les usagers de la ligne Bleue qui pourront y voir un moyen plus facile d’accéder au cœur du Centre-Ville.

Quels sont les effets concrets du REM ?

  1. Sur-achalandage des voitures de train.

C’est l’heure de pointe. Entre 8h00 et 9h00, sur la ligne Deux-Montagnes, plus de 7000 usagers doivent se rendre au travail ou à l’école. La branche Deux-Montagnes du REM aura une fréquence de près de 6 minutes qui procurera une capacité de 6000 PHPD. C’est déjà 1000 en dessous des besoins actuellement comblés par les trains actuellement en service. Les trains seront très rapidement pleins à craquer et les usagers devront s’entasser pour attendre sur leurs quais.

En passant : pensiez-vous que le fameux « 3 minutes à l’heure de pointe » était pour tout le réseau? Détrompez-vous, c’est seulement pour le petit tronçon entre le Centre-ville et Ville Mont-Royal, là où toutes les branches se rejoignent. La vraie fréquence sera bien inférieure à cela pour la majorité des usagers.

La branche de l’Ouest de l’Île atteindra probablement sa capacité maximale d’environ 6000 PHPD, puisqu’il représentera pour beaucoup une alternative plus intéressante à la ligne Vaudreuil-Hudson (dont la capacité est de 7500 PHPD).

Sur le chemin vers le Centre-ville, les rames du REM auront aussi à embarquer les usagers de la nouvelle ligne Mascouche (présentement 3000 PHPD) avant de s’engager vers le tunnel. En effet, la ligne Mascouche qui amène présentement ses usagers directement au Centre-ville par le tunnel du Mont Royal sera raccourcie pour avoir son nouveau terminus à la rencontre du REM, quelque part dans Saint-Laurent, puisque ses trains sont incompatibles avec la  technologie du REM.

Le REM aura aussi à faire de la place pour les usagers qui débarqueront de la ligne Saint-Jérôme à la nouvelle gare intermodale Canora et qui économiseront 20 minutes de trajet en évitant, par le REM, le détour que leur ligne prend via Côte-Saint-Luc avant d’atteindre le Centre-ville.

Dans tous les cas le REM a besoin de doubler sa capacité actuelle simplement pour assurer le transport des usagers des lignes actuelles.

Tout ça me permet de passer à mon deuxième point :

  1. Des quais sur-achalandés  

À la gare intermodale « A-40 », chaque train de la ligne Mascouche y déversera jusqu’à 2000 passagers. Ces usagers devront attendre en ligne pour s’entasser dans des wagons de fin de ligne déjà pleins du REM. Considérant que les plateformes auront une longueur maximale de seulement 80 mètres (moins de 30% de la longueur totale d’un train de banlieue) et qu’elles sont faites pour des trains de seulement 600 passagers on peut se demander où et combien de temps les usagers devront attendre.

Un peu plus loin, à la gare Canora, les usagers de la ligne Saint-Jérôme arriveront aussi par tranche de 2000 pour attendre encore plus longtemps des rames de REM encore plus surchargées. Considérant l’achalandage actuel déjà considérable, on peut comprendre que certains usagers préfèreront rester fidèles à leur ligne de train actuelle.

Certains peuvent penser être l’un des chanceux à vivre assez en périphérie pour embarquer en premier et avoir même droit au confort d’un siège tout le long du trajet. Ces gens devront faire face au retour du balancier qu’est l’heure de pointe de fin de journée. En effet, ils devront s’entasser sur les quais, avec la foule des usagers des trois autres branches du REM. Et puisqu’au Centre-ville il n’y a que deux gares, avec des zones d’embarquement de chacune 80 mètres de long, l’entassement des usagers leur offrira quotidiennement des scènes dignes d’un concert d’une star pop… dans les premières rangées.

  1. Le surplus d’usagers déversé dans le métro

Le plan du REM propose une nouvelle option intermodale à Canora qui permettra aux usagers de la ligne Saint-Jérôme de se rendre au Centre-ville via le REM. Dans le contexte actuel, il est communément admis qu’il est crucial de soulager la ligne Orange. Présentement, déjà plusieurs usagers de la ligne Saint-Jérôme empruntent la ligne Orange à partir de la station intermodale De la Concorde. Malheureusement, à cause de la faible capacité projetée du REM, ces usagers continueront probablement d’utiliser ce transfert vers la ligne la plus sollicitée du métro.

Pire encore, le plan de la Caisse comprend une « intermodalité améliorée » à la station Sauvé qui permettra à plus d’usagers de la ligne Mascouche de s’ajouter à la ligne Orange. Ceci serait peut-être la solution de la Caisse pour diminuer la pression sur leur propre réseau.

Sauve Transfer

Ce n’est pas une connexion à REM du tout.

Compte tenu de tout cela, il est raisonnable de croire que le REM n’aura pas la capacité suffisante pour prendre les usagers de la ligne Bleue qui voudraient se rendre au Centre-ville en utilisant la gare intermodale prévue sous la station Édouard-Montpetit. Puisqu’il ne s’agit que d’une gare « projetée », il y a des chances qu’elle ne voit jamais le jour. Dans ce cas, les usagers de la ligne Bleue vont continuer à s’entasser sur la ligne Orange à partir de Jean-Talon au lieu de soulager cette ligne en prenant le REM comme des optimistes pourraient l’espérer.

En effet, au lieu de soulager le segment le plus sur-achalandé de la ligne la plus sur-achalandée du métro de Montréal, le REM y déposera encore plus d’usagers.

« Faites-le passer aux 60 secondes! »

Les estimations qu’on vient de faire tiennent compte de la fréquence maximum proposée dans les documents de la Caisse (3 minutes sur le tronçon principal). C’est improbable qu’on ajoute plus de trains sur ce réseau puisque 3 minutes semble très proche de la capacité maximale théorique du système.

La Caisse prévoyant construire les gares de 80 mètres de long, les rames ne pourront jamais excéder cette longueur. Dans ce cas, la seule façon de générer une capacité suffisante pour absorber ne serait-ce que les lignes de banlieue actuelles, sans considérer les transferts depuis la ligne Bleue et la demande additionnelle crée par le REM lui-même, serait d’assurer un service à toutes les 90 secondes.

Cela veut dire de doubler la fréquence maximale proposée (et je le répète : seulement pour absorber l’achalandage actuel !), et pose des problèmes à plusieurs autres niveaux.

Le projet comprend une commande initiale de 200 wagons (chaque départ à l’heure de pointe aura 2 wagons). Même en utilisant tous ces wagons en même temps, nous ne pourrions pas dépasser une fréquence de 135 secondes, même avec un temps de trajet toujours optimal (basé sur des temps de trajets minimum sur toutes les branches, un temps d’aiguillage pour le demi-tour des REMs, divisé par 100 rames à deux voitures et un coussin de 10%).

Même s’ils commandaient plus de voitures, ce serait extrêmement difficile d’arriver à une fréquence effective de 90 secondes.

Au Canada, la fréquence de service la plus élevée atteinte sur rails est sur les lignes Expo et Millenium : 108 secondes. Une fois qu’on a atteint ce maximum, chaque seconde supplémentaire devient plus dure à sauver car l’intervalle entre chaque train doit être plus longue que ce que prend le train pour arriver à son arrêt, s’y arrêter et repartir ; tout cela sans compter les périodes tampon pour la sécurité et le respect de l’horaire.

Puisqu’il y aura peu de gares REM au Centre-Ville et que les trains seront pleins à craquer, il y aura beaucoup d’usagers en attente à chaque arrêt. Les rames auront donc à s’arrêter plus longtemps pour embarquer-débarquer les usagers, notamment en considérant la petite taille des quais qui auront de la difficulté à canaliser les foules.

De plus, une fréquence de 90 secondes est extrêmement difficiles à maintenir sur de longues périodes de temps et imposera au système une discipline de fer. Chaque délai aura un effet domino sur le système car la distance entre chaque rame est trop petite pour s’ajuster ou rattraper un délai.

Mais la crainte principale vient du tunnel du Mont-Royal. Si des trains s’y engagent à toutes les 90 secondes, il y aura jusqu’à 3 trains engagés en même temps. Si une urgence devait survenir, le train pris au milieu n’aura pas d’issue et les passagers n’auront pas de sortie d’urgence à leur disposition.



Afin de fonctionner en toute sécurité à travers le tunnel, seule une fréquence maximale de 120 secondes permet de s’assurer que pas plus de 2 REM s’y engagent en même temps dans une direction donnée et offre un coussin suffisant pour éviter qu’un effet domino affecte tout le réseau en cas de retard.

Néanmoins, étant donné la longueur réduite des REM, même une fréquence de 120 secondes résulterait en un manque à combler de 6000 usagers à l’heure en heure de pointe, seulement pour absorber le trafic ferroviaire actuel de Montréal.

Fondamentalement, même en étirant les capacités du REM au-delà des limites prévues, le plan ne permettra pas d’ajouter d’utilisateurs supplémentaires au transport collectif du Grand Montréal.

Pour certains, le REM, c’est le retour à la voiture

Malgré tous les points positifs que j’ai soulignés dans mon dernier billet, il semble que malheureusement le REM échoue sur l’aspect le plus important d’un projet de transport urbain : amener les gens du point A au point B.

Pour les usagers quotidiens, ceux qui seront les plus grands utilisateurs, le REM est une déception. Au lieu d’être un moyen de transport moderne, rapide et efficient, il offrira une expérience étouffante dans des wagons sur-achalandés. La capacité assise peut être légèrement plus élevée que celle du métro mais sera certainement moins importante que celle des trains de banlieue qui roulent en ce moment ; plus de la moitié des usagers n’auront d’autre choix de se tenir debout du début à la fin du trajet.  

Le matériel promotionnel de la CDPQ annonce « un nouveau moyen de transport » et « un nouveau mode de vie », pour remplacer un « système de transport saturé et limité ». Et comment la Caisse pense résoudre nos problèmes de transport ? Avec du Wi-Fi, de jolies portes-palières et de l’air climatisé pour inciter les automobilistes à faire le saut vers le transport en commun.

La Caisse devrait sérieusement se demander comment elle compte s’attendre à ce que les automobilistes adhèrent à un nouveau réseau alors qu’il aurait à peine la capacité suffisante pour répondre aux besoins des usagers actuels du transport en commun. En fait, même les usagers actuels risquent de laisser tomber leur moyen de transport.

Je ne crois pas qu’il soit aventureux de croire que la Caisse soit tentée d’imposer des frais plus élevés pour l’utilisation de son REM afin de limiter le nombre d’usagers et évider d’excéder la capacité de ses infrastructures.  Après tout, la CDPQ est un fond de retraite et elle cherche une part des gains d’opération de ces services. Des frais supérieurs aideraient à atteindre cet objectif – La Caisse peut très bien construire le réseau avec une capacité inférieure à la demande et ensuite augmenter le coût du passage jusqu’à ce que les usagers qui refusent de payer le prix fort renoncent au REM. La Caisse s’en sortirait avec plus d’argent, un système opérant avec un taux d’efficience élevé et la population se retrouvera avec moins de transport collectif que ce qui leur a été vendu (le coût de construction étant séparé entre le gouvernement et la Caisse).

Pourquoi la Caisse aime tant son SLR (et que nous ne le devrions pas)  ?

Alors pourquoi la Caisse veut mettre fin à tout un système de transport collectif électrifié et le reconstruire en utilisant des trains qui ont moins du tiers de sa longueur originale?  La réponse se trouve dans les projets similaires déjà réalisés par la Caisse. Il semble que la CDPQ veut tout simplement copier-coller le succès qu’elle a connu à Vancouver avec le service Canada Line, sans égards pour ses flagrants problèmes de capacité.

La Canada Line est une ligne de métro léger automatisée qui rejoint le centre de Vancouver, la banlieue de Richmond et l’aéroport via un embranchement en Y et un tunnel. Elle utilise un système sur rail très « léger » composé  de seulement deux wagons (40 mètres). Le réseau repose sur l’automatisation et une fréquence élevée pour compenser la dimension modeste de ses rames, exactement comme le REM. Dans l’ensemble, ça fonctionne très bien et offre une capacité suffisante mais la petite taille de ses stations provoque un problème de surcharge des quais, même si les usagers sont répartis sur plusieurs stations où embarquer et débarquer.

Vancouver's Canada Line.

La Canada Line de Vancouver, le modèle inspirant le REM à la Caisse. Photo par Stephen Rees. source.

Alors que la Canada Line fonctionne assez bien en tant que ligne unique dans le réseau vancouvérois, le principe est clairement inadéquat pour Montréal, où le REM prétend remplacer un réseau complet.

Étant donné l’échelle du projet et la quantité d’argent à y investir, il est beaucoup plus prudent et sensé de construire un réseau à l’épreuve de nos besoins futurs et qui pourrait éventuellement être agrandi et amélioré pour atteindre une capacité supérieure, au lieu de construire un réseau qui sera déjà incapable de fournir dès le jour un.

J’espère que la Caisse retournera à la planche à dessin et reconsidèrera son choix du SLR au profit d’une technologie offrant des capacités plus élevées, qui peut s’intégrer aux lignes existantes et qu’on pourra étendre plus loin dans l’avenir.

Et nous, le public, qui avons toujours à payer directement pour la moitié du projet pour ensuite s’embourber dans le REM, devrons tenir tête à la Caisse et à son choix.
Publié en version anglaise le mercredi 18 mai 2016 à 5h53.

Thanks to JC for her help in writing the article. Et merci a Jérémie Dunn pour le traduction.

REM: A Look at Ridership and Costs

Monday, June 6th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefit: Weekday Ridership

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

11K, for 16 km of new track?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost: Construction Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cost Assumptions

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

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

Resulting Costs

In million dollars:

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost/Benefit

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

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

Compare this to other transit projects:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some more thoughts on the Deux-Montagnes line

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


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


Thanks to JC for her help in writing the article.

A Townhall Meeting for the REM

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

In order to inform the public about the REM project, the Caisse is holding six town hall events in different boroughs. I went to the first of those events on Wednesday, June 1st, and managed to talk to several politicians and CDPQInfra people. Or better, I talked to a bunch of people, all of whom were happy to talk to me, and they all turned out to be some big shots:

I was expecting a big presentation, town-hall style with people sitting down and some asking questions in front of everybody, but instead it was more like a poster session. I guess this way it doesn’t give a podium to critics, and you can show up a bit late no problem.


Virginie Cousineau: The Media Person

When I got there, they asked me whether I’m with the media. With uncertainty I said that sometimes write about transit, so I was put in front of Virginie Cousineau, who I later found it is the directrice affaires publiques. I wonder whether they’d done the same if I had said that I write a blog; although they were all very open and friendly. I had so many questions I didn’t know where to start. So I tried something simple, I asked Ms Cousineau about the Deux-Montagnes line, whether any stations will be removed if they are not considered profitable. She assures me all the stations will remain, and they will remain in the same location. That’s a relief, I guess, especially for those living along those barely used stations.

I ask her whether the Deux-Montagnes line will shut down during the complete overhaul. She says it won’t, or at most it will shut down for “one or two weekends”. That seems strangely optimistic, given they have to build an automated line with a completely new signalling system, build a whole new set of stations, probably reconfigure gare centrale, remove 15 or so grade separations, hook up to the new branches, etc.

On the topic of grade separations, I ask her how that’s going to work, replacing them all while operating the line, isn’t that expensive? She says the CDPQInfra is consulting with the municipalities along the line to figure out these issues. I also ask whether there’s any details about how they arrived at the 5.5 billion construction cost figure, she says nothing public.

At this point we get interrupted by a concerned/angry citizen, who engages in a long rant rather than asking questions, I think he wants to vent. I move on.

Sylvain Ouellet: Projet Montreal Councillor for

I come across Sylvain Ouellet, whom I had previously met. He has a large set of concerns with the project that echo mine, about capacity, hurting transit in the rest of the island, fare integration, financing, and safety. He was the one who raised the fire hazard issue when the AMT start running diesel/electric dual mode trains through the tunnel. Undoubtedly he’s also concerned that the REM project is shifting government priorities away from the Blue Line extension, which is now stalled.

Mr Ouellet shared some of the concerns I had about capacity, and found the CDPQInfra people had unsatisfactory answers to his capacity questions. We discussed the existing commuter rail system, and he mentions there’s a danger that the other commuter rail lines will shut down. He thinks the Candiac line will be toast because people will prefer driving to the Dix30 terminus, rather than stick with their four rush hour trains. Then the Vaudreuil-Hudson line will get all this competition from the West Island branch of the REM, so that may get shut down. After all, that line is expensive to operate. Once those two lines are gone, the St-Jerome line will be the only train going to Lucien L’Allier, which may not be worth it, and it may get cut to terminate at some other station.

Will the Candiac Line (dotted grey), Vaudreuil-Hudson Line (dotted pink) shut down, and the St-Jerome Line (dotted green) get shortened?

Will the Candiac Line (dotted grey), Vaudreuil-Hudson Line (dotted pink) shut down, and the St-Jerome Line (dotted green) get shortened?

The CDPQInfra has some laptops set up, with a scrollable map of the REM proposal, where we were finally able to see the exact location of the Bridge/Wellington ‘potential’ stop. Their original marketing material seemed to indicate that the stop was actually several hundred meters away from that intersection, in the direction of nowhere, joining the adjacent stop of Du Havre in being nowhere.

Turns out, the stations really are in the middle of nowhere.

Two stations trying to be far away from people, and far from where their names suggest they’d be

Two stations trying to be far away from people, and far from where their names suggest they’d be

The Green Space Coalition

One group of people I recognize as related to the Greenspace Coalition, Sierra Club of Quebec, les Amis de Meadowbrook and coalition Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme — groups that want to protected Montreal’s very sparse green spaces. They’re very concerned that the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue station is far from existing populations, so it require parking spaces, which will destroy nearby green space and it will give more ammunition to developers and the central city to destroy l’Anse-à-l’Orme, a conservation zone in Pierrefonds, just a few kilometers North.

Justine McIntyre: Chef of Vrai changement pour Montréal and
Counsellor of Bois-de-Liesse

While I’m poring over the REM maps, a woman sits down next to me at another laptop, studying the map with interest. I ask her what she thinks about the project. She turns out to be the chef of the Vrai Changement party (remember Mélanie Joly?). Justine McIntyre is also the Counsellor of Bois-de-Liesse, that’s the part of Roxboro that includes the Roxboro and Sunnybrook station along the Deux Montagnes line that the REM will replace. She takes the train every day.

She seems largely concerned about the A-13 highway station, wondering why they’d put a stop near a green space that she’d like to see protected. I surmise it’s because they want to put a parking lot there, to bring in people from Laval along the highway; this station has been on AMT maps for a while. She’s really not so happy about that, would prefer if people didn’t drive into her district to park’n’ride. I mention I personally don’t like the park’n’ride either, I’d much prefer if a station connects to people and bus corridors, like it would be possible on Boulevard Toupin, a couple of kilometers to the East. She thinks that’s a great idea, and she’d prefer that as well.


One of my concerns is that the whole project is way too highway centric, and all the confirmed new stations will be on or along highways, except for the airport stop.

Given that I’m talking to somebody who works for Roxboro, I figure I’d ask her what she thinks about my crazy idea to run the transit line two kilometers north, along the Hydro Quebec overhead line corridor.

Eastward view of the Hydro-Quebec corridor, 2km North of the highway and proposed REM, which are on the far right of the image.

Eastward view of the Hydro-Quebec corridor, 2km North of the highway and proposed REM, which are on the far right of the image.

Running a train there would bring it much closer to people in the north of the Island, many people would be within walking distance of the stations, and the North-South boulevards on the West Island would be much better connected, allowing densification there.

I expect her to dismiss the idea outright, but she actually thinks it could maybe work. She currently works on a project to densify the northern portion of St-Jean Boulevard, hoping to creating a more urban density node where people could live and work, and walk, and understands the importance of trying to densify certain areas in the suburbs.

She has to catch her Deux-Montagnes train home soon. It runs only every hour. I suggest that even without rebuilding the whole line, it would be possible to run the train every 15 minutes with only relatively minor upgrades. For example, at 15 minute frequencies, one may not have to remove all the grade separations. On that note, I ask her whether the CDPQInfra has consulted with her about the grade crossings, like they claimed. Ms McIntyre hasn’t been consulted on anything. She doesn’t quite believe me when I mention that there are fifteen grade crossings on the line, so we end up going through the line on Google Maps, one by one, and count 13 crossings. Every crossing may cost tens of millions to remove, so that’s quite an expensive project.

Alan De Sousa: Borough Mayor of Saint-Laurent
For Équipe Denis Coderre pour Montréal

After Justine McIntyre left Alan De Sousa sits down next to me on the other side. He’s actually the only person I recognize here without having met him before. Alan De Sousa is a friendly guy, and he’s really excited about the REM project. He has the aura of a winner around him.

Ville Saint-Laurent is along the trunk of the line, so his district will get direct connections to the airport, the West Island and Brossard, and very frequent service to boot. He claims he actually proposed the routing to the Aéroports de Montreal people himself, to try to get them to access the airport 5km from the north, rather than connecting via existing lines a few hundred meters south of the airport.

He doesn’t really seem to mind that the only new stations in his area are in a suburban office park (Technopark St-Laurent), at a parking lot to a highway (A-13) and at another highway (A-40), for riders to transfer from the Mascouche line that will be cut. Instead, he points out all the great stations we’re going to get, which are basically the ones that already exist today. He goes through them one by one, pointing out connections to the other transit lines, and what’s nearby.

At du Ruisseau he points to the highway north of the station, and how it will be a great connection for people driving in from Laval. I disapprove, great, more parking. Undeterred, he insists that the du Ruisseau station parking lot is not full; he’s certain about it, it’s his district. ‘Go look it up,’ he urges. (I looked it up, the parking utilization is “only” 84%).

What about consultations between the Caisse and the city? He indicates there hasn’t really been any yet.

On capacity issues, he says ‘well just extend the orange line to Bois Francs, and that’ll empty the trains there’. I ask him who will get off, given that people want to go downtown. He says that there are 400,000 workers downtown, but there are 350,000 workers in Saint Laurent, and they’d use the REM.

I try to explain that the capacity issues are due to existing riders who go downtown, they won’t be emptying the trains at Bois Franc, because they want to go downtown. I am not successful, I think that argument is a bit too complicated for this setting. Maybe he also hopes that the capacity issues will force the Orange Line extension to Bois-Franc, which would be another great project for his district.

He suggests I talk to the CDPQInfra people about these of issues.

Still poking, I mention that the project seems really expensive, 5.5 billion for 150K riders, of which 30K are using the Deux-Montagnes train today. What about the Blue Line Extension, which would bring in 80K people for 3 billion?

He laughs.

The Blue Line! He says it keeps getting more expensive, now it’s at 3.9 billion (I couldn’t find that figure). He says originally it was supposed to be around 2 billion (or something along those lines), then 3 now 3.9, tomorrow it’s gonna be 4.5, then 10. He’s basically saying the cost will keep rising and it will never get built.

Ok, so de Sousa doesn’t like the Blue Line extension, fair enough. But what about fares? Are they going to charge STM fares, is it going to be integrated? He says they just passed a law, all the fares in the AMT are going to be integrated now. So does that mean we’ll pay the STM fares when travelling within the city. He doesn’t know what the fares will be, but they will be integrated. I point out that right now you could get a AMT zone 2 ticket and ride the STM and AMT trains. He repeats but now there’s a law, and the fares will be integrated. So does that mean that it will cost the same amount of money to take the bus as the train when travelling from the same location? He doesn’t know.

I give up. I figure that maybe there are some people from the Caisse here who are the experts and can answer some questions.

Louis Trudel: The Real Estate Guy

Looking for some experts, I come across Lious Trudel, who turns out to be the directeur immobilier for the CDPQInfra. He used to work for CN, just like Michael Sabia, the President of the Caisse.

Trudel is standing standing next to the guy who’s responsible for the environmental concerns, so I’m jokingly asking who’s getting more flak these days. So far it’s still the other guy, those green space people are really on top of their stuff.

The first thing I ask Mr Trudel is about the Historical Buildings, there was a threat to the New City Gas and the Rodier Building. He says, oh, they found a way to not touch New City Gas, so it will be protected. I ask about the Rodier building, he says that building may yet have to come down. I guess they know which building has the loudest people behind it.

Next I ask about the odd placement of all these stations in the middle of nowhere, beyond populations. I say it kind of looks like they’re built just for development opportunities.

Mr Trudel explains that the CDPQInfra is not about development. They’re not building the line for development. I ask that surely there must be some benefit. He says, they will only sell development rights, and will get any additional real estate taxes from those developments. Oh, like Tax-Increment-Financing? He’s apparently never heard the term, and is concerned that the term may imply that taxes go up. He’s careful to point out that it doesn’t mean taxes go up, just that they will collect additional tax revenue due to developments near the line.

Apparently they’re very careful to not appear like they will raise taxes. But apparently it’s been no concern to anybody he spoke to that the Caisse will basically collect real estate taxes as their profit, so these new developments won’t add to the city’s tax base. But the city still has to provide a bunch of other infrastructure besides just the transit connection. In effect it will shift money away from the city; and with it will shift power away from the city.

He talks about several of the developments, mentions one near Fairview, another by Devimco right next to the dix30 station in Brossard. On that Note, I ask about the terminus, on the far side of the 30. As I understand it that area was supposed to be undevelopable, supposed to be agricultural, to prevent sprawl.

Terminus in Brossard, just outside of the 30 highway

Terminus in Brossard, just outside of the 30 highway

He says they’re getting the area re-zoned, but they won’t develop there, they’ll use it for the parking of the trains. And to build a bus station, and to move the Chevrier parking lot there from Brossard. Apparently the city wants the parking to be moved away from the city. He’s not very categorical about it, so I’m not entirely convinced.

What about using maintenance center that the AMT is building in Pointe-Sainte-Charles, can they use that? He says they’re looking into it. On that note I ask him why they are not using the existing rail line further south, but instead are building a ramp in downtown and tunnel under canal Lachine. He mentions they’ve been talking to the CN, the formerly public now private freight railroad company that owns the tracks and gare centrale. The CN offered them the use of the corridor, but apparently the Caisse could not make the connection work. Although the explanation doesn’t seem very satisfactory, because it seems they insist on building a tunnel in the area.

Trudel says that CN even offered to sell that corridor to the Caisse, because it’s only used by passenger trains anyway. I’m incredulous, because I was under the impression that the public has been wanting to get it’s hand on this infrastructure for years, because the CN, the formerly public railroad, is charging the passenger railroads like the AMT lots of rent every year, and now they want to sell it to another private entity instead?! Trudel makes it clear that the Caisse is also public; but I’m not convinced. They’re not really under direct control of the government.

The CN-corridor, which actually passes by Bridge/Wellington, will not be used for the REM, despite being available.

The CN-corridor, which actually passes by Bridge/Wellington, will not be used for the REM, despite being available

I talk about how the privatization of the CN in the nineties was basically throwing away infrastructure, and the loss of control is still hurting the public — especially when wanting to run passenger rail. I’m concerned the same thing will happen again, now with the Caisse, where we’d loose control for example over the Mont-Royal tunnel and the Deux-Montagnes line, which the AMT finally acquired from CN just two years ago. Usually for a Public-Private Partnership, there will be a concession for some number of decades, and eventually the ownership will revert to the public. In case of the REM, the Caisse will keep owning the infrastructure.

Being a former CN employee, Trudel has a different view, that the share-holders bought and paid for the CN fair and square (which isn’t really relevant, it was government’s mistake). He also says that there will be an option for the government to buy back the line at some point. I haven’t seen anything in any of the documentation about that, but I make a mental note check whether that’s true.

Denis Andlauer: Finally the Technical Guy

I finally meet the guy who has a lot of technical knowledge. I looked him up later, he’s the director of operations of the CDPQInfra. He used to work for the Quebec City transit agency (RTC), and worked several years in Lyon, France for Keolis. He’s very French. Andlauer talks very precise and annunciates carefully. My questions center around the apparent lack of capacity, how the light metro doesn’t seem to be the right choice.

He tells me about the choice to go for the LRT. He talks about automated metros in Lyon and Lille in France, how they reach 85 second headways, how this is the future and everybody is building automated systems. His choice for the system seems to be very much colored by this experience, like often I’m getting the impression that Quebec is too much looking to France and not realizing how things are done elsewhere. The systems he mentions for Lyon and Lille run in cities that are smaller than Montreal, and they don’t have any branches, and don’t rely on having a single station downtown where everybody will get off.

When I worry that the capacity won’t be enough, he says he’s got a ridership study that tells him the REM will have 150K riders per day. But the Caisse won’t publish this study yet, maybe in fall, or early next year (maybe only after they secure the government funding). But it does seem that his study mostly pertains to the ridership coming from the branches of the line, and the transferees from the Mascouche line and St-Jerome line and the Blue line weren’t considered. I ask about all the other possible other extensions, he says the government gave them the mandate for three things: the airport, the West Island, and Brossard.

Continuing on capacity, he points to Paris, where the metro is running at 90 second frequencies now. When I point out that this is a last resort, that running at these crazy frequencies is what you do when your physical infrastructure can’t keep up, and that you should have larger stations, he says that it is a waste to build large stations now, and that in twenty years, when we need the extract capacity, we should extend the platforms. I argue that this seems backwards, because extending platforms of a running system once it is in place will be very expensive. He says ‘no, this is exactly wrong’. He explains that it will be more cost efficient to extend platforms later, rather than waste money on over-dimensioned stations. He keeps going back to saying that the existing heavy rail stations are 300 meters long, and that’s ridiculous, and large stations like that are very expensive. But surely, there must be a compromise between the 80m toy train and the 300m monster?

Speaking about the tunnel station at Edouard-Montpetit, he says the station ‘has to be built’. It is a very complicated station, he said it would be 80m underground. CDPQInfra would have included it in their proposal, but the studies weren’t done. They wanted to go public with their proposal now, so they included the line without those stations. The 5.5 billion cost does not include the potential stations, funding for those will be found later. It later occurred to me that maybe they wanted to get the proposal out before the public funding went to the Blue Line.

I ask Andlauer whether they will shut down the whole line once they get funding for the Edouard-Montpetit station. He says that most likely they will put accommodations in the tunnel to be able to more easily add the stations later, like putting platforms. I ask him whether that means they’ll add a second tunnel for the length of the station. “Tunnel, what tunnel? There will be no second Tunnel.” I explain him the plan the AMT had, to build a second tunnel along the first one for the length of the station, and use each for a platform and a track. He is genuinely surprised, never heard of this plan and it sounds crazy to him.

Previous plans for the Edouard-Montpetit tunnel stations

Previous plans for the Edouard-Montpetit tunnel stations

I ask him about safety in the Mont-Royal tunnel. It is 5km long, and has no emergency exit. Right now the AMT only allows one train per direction, so two trains in the tunnel. In case of emergency, no matter where along the tunnel there is an issue relative to the train, that means people will always have access to an exit without having to pass another train.

Andlauer explains that AMT trains can have 2000 people each, so two trains would have 4000. He says that with the REM, they will allow six trains in the tunnel at once. Given that the REM trains will have a capacity of 600, this will result in 3600 people in the tunnel at once – less than today. I argue that sounds like a simplistic calculation, given that trains will block each other, and that egress will be difficult and emergency vehicles won’t have access. He counters that nowadays, you don’t use egress, you use containment. He says there will be caverns in regular intervals, in case of emergency people will go there and be safe for an hour, until the emergency is resolved. And then they can get rescued.

There’s also the alternative idea of building a wall in the tunnel between the two tracks, which would basically create two tunnels – so there would always be one for egress. In any case, the Caisse will issue a tender to provide security in the tunnel, and it will be performance based. So the Caisse will basically just say ‘make the tunnel secure’, and it will be up to the creativity of the market to provide.

I have many more questions, but at this point we’ve run out of time.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I don’t know how to feel. Initially I was excited about this project, then as I delved deeper it didn’t add up. I got more and more suspicious as I realized the capacities seemed too low, the tunnel safety issue seemed completely ignored, and virtually all the confirmed new stations are along highways, some of them at locations where there are no people, and there will never be people. Then the issues with never letting the Mascouche line or the St-Jerome line into the tunnel, it all just seemed not to make any sense.

Now that I have talked to some of the group, I’m more ambiguous again. They don’t seem to be nefarious, they seem genuinely excited. But so many questions remain.

I sort of want to believe we have a great project. But there just so many issues. The lack of regional planning. Screwing over the people in Laval and Montreal East, who live along the St-Jerome line and the Mascouche line, which both should become branches to a new line going through the Mount-Royal tunnel. The REM is essentially taking one of the crown jewels of infrastructure from public control and kicking out all other lines, and trying to dump those extra riders on the full Orange Line.

Then there’s the question mark around all the other commuter rail lines, and to what extend that very flawed, but existing network will shut down, rather than be improved.

Then there are the weird locations of stations downtown, placing them nowhere, essentially depriving people who live or work in the old port, Pointe-Sainte-Charles and Griffintown, to get better access to transit. There’s the anti-urbanism with stations along highways, almost all of them. The uncertainty around the very important McGill and Edouard-Montpetit stations.

And more potential issues: the claim that the Deux-Montagnes line won’t have to be shut down to build the automated line, rebuild all the stations, build all the 13 grade separations, to make preparations for the tunnel stations, and also to build security measures in the tunnel (shutdowns ‘maybe a weekend or two’).

The cost of the airport spur relative to ridership (maybe 800M$? Vs 10K riders).

The cost of the West Island spur relative to ridership (16km, half elevated vs 11K riders).

The optimism around the ridership to the airport, contrasting the lack of considering riders coming in from the proposed transfer stations. Then when it comes to capacity on the line. The planning of crazy frequencies first, 90s frequencies on a heavily branched line. The uncertainty around safety in the tunnel.

The strange financing model, involving the Caisse taking in incremental real estate taxes, direct public funding, and fares. And those fares are unknown, and the share of revenues between bus/metro operators and the Caisse is unknown.

And unlike other public/private partnerships, with this one the private partner will actually own the infrastructure indefinitely. Yet again we’re giving away the control of infrastructure to a private entity, which turned out to be a huge mistake when selling the infrastructure of the CN in the 90ies.

The real estate development questions. Building stations so far out beyond developed areas, which looks like an invitation to build sprawl. The contradiction in the Caisse’s assurance that they don’t do this for development, but the incentives with selling development rights and collecting tax-increment-financing pointing the other way. It appear their assurance just means they won’t actually develop suburban mega-developments themselves, they’ll just collect profit and taxes from it.

The rushed process, where between announcement to the public and tenders and funding and start of construction there will be months; having worked in secret so long, apparently without much consultation of the involved stake-holders, in particular the city of Montreal (although with the current governance, who knows whether that would actually help).

And overall, the lack of a regional plan. The line would maybe work well if the whole of Montreal only had a transit checklist of three items (airport, Brossard, West Island) and those 150K riders they represent. But we have millions of trips across the region, and hundreds of thousands of underserved people, and hundreds of thousands more who drive today and may want to take transit. Is this the best way?

Airport Trains Suck. Will REM Too?

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

The Caisse’s REM proposal has given Montrealers hope to finally have a rail connection to the airport.

The problem with rail connectors to airports, however, is that they are generally not a very good use of money: they are often expensive and have low ridership. Airport connectors underperform.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of taking a metro home from the airport. I think most people would love that too, which is why everyone is so excited about it. But even if everyone will use it at some point or another, most only go to the airport once or twice a year. Thus, on any given day, not many people will use it. And that means low ridership.

Comparison with airport connectors in other cities

How many people would use the new proposed airport connector? In their marketing material, the Caisse claims 10,000 people will use it every day. But they have refused to provide their ridership study to back up that claim.

Given that the airport express bus is currently used by about 3,000 people per day, is this increase in transit ridership credible? Or are they being overly optimistic?

Since the Caisse is not releasing their numbers, I made my own “study”. Using a simple model, I have compared the ridership of North American airports with rail connections, to see what ridership could be like in Montreal. The assumption is that the proportion of people taking transit vs cabs or cars is similar across different airports. So if Montreal Trudeau is three times smaller than New York’s JFK, then the ridership of its transit line should be three times smaller as well.

To make results comparable to Montreal, the model includes airports with the following characteristics:

  • they must be in North America, to have a similar relative use of cars and transit
  • the rail connection must be the only major transit connection to the airport
  • the rail connection must be frequent (every 15 minutes or better)
  • the rail connection must provide a reasonable connection into town

The scatterplot below shows daily ridership of the rail connector vs annual number of passengers through the airport (data). Airports in the upper left have a lot of transit ridership relative to their size, and airports in the bottom right are doing really badly. Note that large hub airports airports will be under-represented using this heuristic, because more passengers transfer to other flights at the airport.


We see, first of all, that some airport connectors really do suck. In a whole day, they could barely fill a couple of trains. Most airport other connectors do ok, and bring in about 3K to 5K riders for every 15M airport passengers per year (i.e. the size of Montreal’s airport).

One airport does exceptionally well, and that’s Vancouver’s Canada Line. But it really is an outlier. It seems that the Caisse wants to create another such outlier with the REM, way beyond the 90% percentile. The ridership relative the total number of airport passengers for those two lines would be really far away from all other North American Airport connectors:

histogram of airport passengers vs rail connector ridership

On the whole, their 10K estimate is not entirely outrageous, but leans on the optimistic side. Maybe a more conservative estimate (but still assuming we can do better than the average because transit use is generally higher in Montreal), would be 5,000 to 6,000 riders per day. Definitely one should be concerned that the Caisse is using too optimistic projections.

Lessons From Toronto

One airport-connector project that turned out to have overly optimistic projections is the Union Pearson Express in Toronto.

The Express was initially sold to the public with a projected ridership of 8,000/day during the opening year. After construction started, the number was revised down to 5,000 after the first year and only reaching 7,500/day by 2025!

And once it was built, the ridership was actually declining after a lethargic start, down to about 2,200 raiders per day, as most people were put off by the $27.50 fare. At that point the fare was slashed to $12 and ridership quickly increased to be in line with projections (~5000/day).

The Pearson Express was built at a cost of 456 million dollars. In absolute terms, this is pretty cheap for a transit line, and was made possible by running most of the Pearson Express on existing commuter rail tracks. However, considering that only 5000 people use it every day, that’s a cost of $91,200 per daily rider. In terms of cost/benefit, that turns out to be very expensive compared to other transit lines:

construction cost
(adjusted to 2013$)
weekday ridership
O-Train (lrt) 27M$ 14K 1901$
C-Train (lrt) 582M$ 187K 3110$
Edmonton lrt 404M$ 70K 5774$
Pie-IX Busway (brt) 316M$ 70K 4514$
Laval Extension (metro) 829M$ 60K 13825$
Canada Line (light metro) 2100M$ 135K 15441$
Spadina Extension (metro) 2400M$ 100K 24000$
Pearson Express (heavy rail) 456M$ 5K 91200$

Transit lines can have hundreds of thousands of users per day. In general, a line that can only accumulate 5000 to 10,000 thousand people per day is not really worth building as rapid transit. In fact, if such a line weren’t an airport connection, most would consider that it only deserves a frequent bus line, or maybe a streetcar.

Comparing to the Metro

To put this in perspective, at 10K riders per day, the REM airport station would be equivalent to the 57th busiest station of the Montreal Metro, out of 68 stations in total. At 5K riders, it would be on par with Georges-Vanier as the second least used station of the system.

Of course, when you build a Metro line, it makes sense to add stations along the way even if their ridership won’t be that great. But would it make sense to build several kilometers of metro just to reach Georges-Vanier? I think not.

Conclusion & Questions

What we see from all this is that airport connectors, even successful ones, may only attract very few riders per day relative to their cost. We shouldn’t spend a billion dollars to help 5000 people, because on another project, those billion dollars could help 50,000 people.

If we do build an airport connector, it should be as part of a transit project whose main utility is not based on the airport connection. Basically, transit lines should be useful to as many people as possible, and an airport connection can be added if the marginal cost increase is relatively small.

The REM appears, at first glance, to do exactly that. But I still wonder, if I start to dig deeper, will the connection that is made to the airport make sense? Will it be cheap enough to justify building a rapid transit line to a terminus promising such low ridership? Is the airport connection that’s included in the REM project an efficient use of money? Is there a way to be more cost-effective? Is it a good use of public money?

How the Caisse’s Light Rail System will Crumble under its own Weight

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

A second, more sobering look at the Caisse’s “REM” proposal to replace the Deux-Montagnes Commuter Rail line with an extended light rail line: how the Caisse had good ideas but is executing it badly, which will cause trains to be overcrowded from day 1.
Version française

Update (2016-10-09): This analysis includes a couple of simplifying assumptions based on the little information provided by the Caisse at the time. For those interested in a more deep analysis included the information that was made available at the BAPE, refer to my memoire, section 4 (for capacity of the Deux-Montagnes line), and section 6.2.1. (Impact on existing Mascouche line). Note the ridership study revealed the St-Anne branch will have the same ridership as the existing Vaudreuil-Hudson line. The St-Jerome line connection may have been dropped from the plans.

The Caisse’s REM-line light rail proposal seems to have elicited two main types of responses: those who are excited Montreal will have great new, modern, efficient transit system, and the skeptics who feel the Caisse is taking us for a ride. My initial reaction put me in the first camp, a deeper look makes me doubtful that light rail is the right way to go.

What is Light Rail, Anyway?

Despite its apparent specificity, “light rail” refers to a range of technologies, from streetcars and trams to systems closer to a metro. This is in contrast to “heavy rail”, which is defined by the American Public Transportation Association as an electric railway with the capacity to handle a heavy volume of traffic.

The critical detail here is that “light” or “heavy” refers to capacity, not weight.

Weight-wise, if we look at the weight per car, some existing light metro systems similar to the REM have vehicles that are actually heavier than the Montreal Metro. Some are as heavy as the Deux-Montagnes commuter train cars:


Of course, since there are fewer cars, the overall weight for the whole train is naturally lower. However, the train will not run faster! The REM will be electric and will use electric-multiple-unit (EMU) trains like the Montreal metro or the Deux-Montagnes trains. EMUs have no locomotive in the front to pull the whole train. Instead, the motors are evenly distributed throughout the train and every section pulls itself.

A half-length train has half the motors: half the power to move half the weight. Mathematically, you end up with the same speed.

In any case, the REM is definitely “lighter” in terms of capacity. The Caisse envisions 4 car trains during rush hour (2 cars outside of rush-hour), which is half the length of a regular Montreal Metro and a third of the trains on the Deux-Montagnes line.


How much Capacity does the REM Have?

A transit system’s capacity is calculated by multiplying the capacity of each train by the number of trains per hour. This gives us the the number of “passengers per hour per direction” (PPHD).

The REM can carry 600 people per train, and will have a peak frequency of 3 to 6 minutes in the trunk segment (10 to 20 trains per hour), which gives a planned peak capacity of 6000 to 12,000 PPHD.

Compare that with the capacity of the Deux-Montagnes line: about 4 trains per hour during rush hour, with 2000 people per train. Capacity: 8000 PPHD.

From this angle, the REM looks pretty good. Going from 8000 to 12,000, that’s a 50% increase of capacity!

Not so Fast!

We just made a rough comparison with only one of the existing lines. But how much capacity do we actually need?

If we look at the network, the REM will need to provide the capacity of four (!) existing commuter rail lines during peak hours.

Connections between REM and the existing transit network.

Connections to the transit network of the proposed REM.

As such, it will:

  • Replace the Deux-Montagnes line, which it was designed to do;
  • Replace the Mascouche line for the Mount Royal tunnel stretch, as the Mascouche trains will no longer go through the tunnel (new technology for the REM in the tunnel is incompatible with the Mascouche trains). The Mascouche line will therefore terminate at the creatively named “A40 station”, where riders will transfer to the REM.
  • Replace most of the Vaudreuil-Hudson line, which serves the West Island up to St-Anne-de-Bellevue, and a bit beyond that. West Islanders have been asking for improved service on that line for many lines, or some sort of replacement with better service. This is what the REM provides via its West Island branch.
  • Transport passengers from the Saint-Jérôme line who will transfer to the REM at the newly-built Canora station to reach downtown 20 minutes earlier.

So how much capacity do these four commuter lines have today?

The graph below shows the capacity of the REM versus the four commuter rail lines and the Orange Line throughout the day.

We see that the current commuter lines have a combined morning peak capacity of around 25,000 PPHD, and that the peak is, well… very peaky: the network needs to move a huge number of people during the morning rush hour around 8:00. During the rest of the day, the commuter rail lines provide little service, because they are not all day frequent transit. REM on the other hand will provide all-day frequent service, but not enough capacity during the peak. Compare this to the Orange Metro line, which has all day frequent service, but can yank up the capacity during rush hour to almost three times what the REM line will offer, much more than all of Montreal’s commuter rail lines combined.

The REM marketing material boasts a 50% daily capacity increase, but that’s pretty useless for those who need to use it during the hour between 7:30 and 8:30. That’s when most people need to get to work, and they’re not going to change their work schedule just because the REM can’t handle the traffic.

And this is just the current situation, and just the existing commuter rail lines. We are not considering the added demand that will be generated by the REM as more people ditch their cars or slower bus lines for the more convenient rail system. Or the people along the Blue Line who will have a much more convenient route downtown.

What does that Mean in Practice?

1. Train overcrowding

It’s rush hour. On the Deux-Montagnes line, between 8:00 and 9:00, more than 7000 people need to get to work. The Deux-Montagnes branch of the REM will have a frequency of at most 6 minutes, which provides a capacity of 6000 PPHD. That’s already 1000 below what’s needed. Trains will be super full, people will have to wait.

Quick aside: you didn’t think 3 minutes at peak was for the entire network, did you? Nope, that’s only for the trunk stretch, where the trains from the different branches merge together.

The West-Island branch will probably run at, or close to, its max capacity of 6000 PPHD, since it provides a much more convenient alternative to the Vaudreuil-Hudson line for many West Islanders (current capacity: 7500 PPHD).

As the trains go through the downtown stations, they will have to take on all the commuters transferring from the Mascouche line (3000 PPHD). Indeed, the line, which currently goes directly downtown through the Mount-Royal Tunnel, will terminate at the REM because it won’t be compatible with the new rail system they’ll put in the Tunnel for the REM.

The REM will also have to take on the people who will choose to transfer from the St-Jérôme line at the new Canora transfer station, since this will allow them to reach downtown 20 minutes faster.

At any rate, the REM needs double its planned capacity just to transport the current commuter line riders.

Which brings us to our next point:

2. Platform overcrowding

At the “A40” transfer station, each train coming from Mascouche can offload up to 2000 people. These commuters will have to wait in line to squeeze onto the already-full REM. Given that the platforms in the REM stations will be 80m long (less than 30% of the length of the commuter train) and built for trains that carry 600 passengers, it’s not clear where and how long these people will have to wait.

Further along, the riders from the St-Jérôme line will also arrive in batches of 2000 people per train, who will wait even longer to squeeze into even fuller trains. Considering how crowded the trains are, they may choose to stay on their train and continue on their existing commutes.

You might think you’re one of the lucky ones who live far enough to be the first on the train and maybe even get a seat. But the after-work commute is the great equalizer, and you’ll be stuck waiting on the platform with all 3 branches’ riders going home. And since there are only two stations in downtown, each only 80m long, it will be like pushing towards the stage at a pop concert.

3. Passengers overflowing into the Metro

The REM proposal will have a new transfer at Canora that allows commuters on the St-Jérôme line to go downtown via the REM. This would be great to relieve the Orange Line, as many riders transfer today at De la Concorde. Unfortunately, due to the low capacity, commuters will probably keep using the crowded Orange Line.

Worse yet, the Caisse’s plan includes an ‘improved connection’ at Sauvé, which will allow more passengers from the Mascouche line to transfer to the Orange Line. This may be part of the Caisse’s plan to relieve some of the pressure on their own system, as Mascouche riders may prefer to transfer at Sauvé instead of the crowded “A40” REM station.

Sauve Transfer

Sneaked into the connections map, this transfer does not connect to REM at all.

Given all the above, there also won’t be enough capacity on the REM for people to transfer at the proposed Édouard-Montpetit station from the Blue Line for a direct connection downtown. Since the station is labelled only as a ‘potential station’, chances are it will not be built at all. So instead of transferring onto the REM line, Blue line riders will continue using the Orange Line to get downtown.

In effect, instead of relieving the most overcrowded section of the most overcrowded line in Montreal, the REM line will instead be dumping more passengers onto it.

“Just run it every 60 Seconds!”

The capacities we just calculated already use the maximum frequencies quoted in the proposal (every 3 minutes on the trunk line). It is unlikely that we could run significantly more trains on the network as it is structured, since the 3-minute frequency is so close to the maximum theoretical capacity of the system.

The Caisse plans to build 80-metre-long stations, so trains can only be that long. Therefore, the only way to provide enough capacity to absorb just the existing commuter rail lines, without even considering the transfers from the Blue Line or any added demand, is to run the trains at 90 second frequencies.

This is double the proposed maximum frequency (and I repeat: just to absorb the existing traffic!), and poses problems on many levels:

The proposal includes an initial order of only 200 train cars (every peak-hour train will be composed of two of these). Even operating all of them would only allow 135 second frequencies, assuming the most optimistic travel times on the whole line (this is based on adding the total the minimum travel times of all the branches, adding a bit of turn-around time, and dividing by having 100 2-car trains, assuming 10% spares).

Even if they were to order more trains, it would be extremely difficult to have 90 second frequencies.

The highest frequency line in Canada is the trunk line of the Expo and Millennium lines, 108 seconds. Once you reach that level, every extra second gets harder, as the time between trains has to be longer than the time the train takes to enter the station, stop at the station and leave the station, plus padding for safety, plus padding to allow maintaining the schedule.

Since there will be very few REM stations downtown and the trains will be very full, there will be a lot of people getting off at each station. The trains will have to wait longer for people to get in and out, especially since the small stations won’t be able to deal well with all that crowding.

Moreover, 90 second frequencies are extremely hard to sustain for long periods of time, as the system needs to run like clockwork. Any delay will cascade through the system, because the distance between the trains will be too small to adjust or catch up to their schedule.

But the really scary constraint is the Mount Royal tunnel. If we run trains every 90 seconds, there will be up to 3 trains in the tunnel at the same time. If something goes wrong, the middle train will be stuck in the tunnel. That’s a bad idea, because there are no emergency exits in-between stations.


In order to safely run trains through the Mount-Royal tunnel, a frequency of 120 seconds will make sure no more than 2 trains are in the tunnel at any time in a given direction and will allow enough padding to sustain a regular schedule without cascading delays.

However, given the short trains, 120 second frequencies mean we will still have a peak capacity shortage of 6000 passengers per hour, or 50%, just to absorb the existing commuter rail traffic!

Basically, even stretching the system beyond its planned limits will not give us enough capacity to add a single new passenger!

For Some, the new Train means Going back to the Car

For all the good points outlined in my previous post, it seems that, unfortunately, the REM falls short on the most important aspect: actually getting everyone from point A to point B.

For commuters, who will be the biggest users, the REM is disappointing. Instead of getting a fast, efficient and modern system, we are looking at stuffy commutes on overcrowded trains. Seating capacity may be slightly better than the Metro, but it certainly will be worse than today’s commuter trains and will mean standing room only for more than half the people on each train.

In the marketing material of the REM project the Caisse announces “a new mode of transportation” and a “a new way of life”, to fix the “saturated and limited system”. And how does the Caisse plan to solve our transit problems? With wifi, platform screen doors and air-conditioning everywhere, to entice drivers to switch to public transit!

The Caisse needs to seriously ask itself how it can expect drivers to actually switch to their new system, when there’s barely enough capacity to carry the current passenger load. In fact, current train riders might ditch transit altogether!

I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that the Caisse may be tempted to institute higher fares, higher than the normal Metro fare you’d expect, in order to discourage ridership and bring it in line with the built capacities. After all, the Caisse is a retirement fund and wants to make money operating this line. Higher fares would be great for that – the Caisse can build the line with lower capacity than needed, then charge higher fares until those who are not willing to pay find other ways to get to work. The Caisse will end up with more money, a system running at an efficient capacity, and the public will have received less transit than what they were sold (construction cost will be shared between the Caisse and the public).

Why the Caisse is in Love with Light Rail
And you Shouldn’t be

So why would the Caisse want to tear down a whole electrified transit line and rebuild it entirely, using trains that have less than a third of today’s length? The answer can be found if you look at their previous projects. It seems the Caisse wants to simply replicate the success it had in Vancouver with the Canada Line, ignoring glaring issues like the capacity problems.

The Canada Line is a fully automated light metro line that runs from downtown Vancouver, through a tunnel, then splits into two branches: one going to the suburb of Richmond, and the other going to the airport. It uses very ‘light’ rail: the trains are only 2 cars (40m) long. The line relies on automation and high frequency to compensate for the small train length, just like the REM. Overall it works well and has sufficient train capacity, but the very short stations are already causing platform crowding issues, even though passengers are spread across many stations where they can start and end their journey.

Vancouver's Canada Line.

Vancouver’s Canada Line, the Caisse’s role model for the REM. Photo by Stephen Rees, source.

While the Canada Line works well enough for one single line in Vancouver, it is grossly inadequate for Montreal, where it’s supposed to replace an entire network.

Given the scale of the project and the amount of money that will be invested in it, it would make more sense to build a system that is future-proof and could be eventually scaled up to much higher capacities, rather than a system that will already be beyond capacity from day one.

I hope the Caisse will rethink their choice to build a light metro, and, instead, opt for a technology with higher capacity, that can integrate with the existing lines, and that we can expand later.

And we the public, who still have to pay for half the project, and who will be stuck riding it afterwards, should hold them to that.

Thanks to JC for her help in writing the article.

The REM Proposal is the Best Transit Project Montreal has seen in 30 Years

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Last Friday, the Caisse de Dépôt presented their project to build the ‘REM’, short for ‘réseau électrique métropolitain’. It’s an electrified rapid transit line connecting Montreal with its suburbs in the West Island and Brossard, which includes a branch to the Trudeau international airport.

Rendering of a REM line station

Rendering of a REM line station

The proposal is exciting: 67 kilometres and 24 stations, replacing the existing Deux-Montagnes line (30 km) and the bus corridor to Brossard with one large line.

There’s a lot to like about this project:

Electrified, Frequent, All-Day, Rapid Transit

Why it’s good:

Electrified: electric trains accelerate faster, which allows for more frequent stops while maintaining high overall speed. Moreover, electric trains are much cheaper to operate than diesel ones, so transit agencies can afford to run them all day.
Frequent: Frequency is freedom. Taking a train that comes every 30 minutes requires planning ahead: show up too early or too late, and you risk waiting half an hour for the next train. Frequent service means travelers can just show up at the station, knowing there will be a train within a reasonable time.
All-day: Commuter rail provides a very specific service: shuttling office workers between their homes in the suburbs and their 9-to-5 jobs downtown. All-day transit allows anyone to take any trip along the line at any time of the day. Frequent all-day service increases flexibility and reliability. If you can take transit for any trip you need to make during the day, rather than just the commuting trip, you can rely on it more, so you don’t have to rely on owning a car.

Previous proposals to improve transit only focused on 1 or 2 of these criteria. For example:

  • Previous proposals to improve transit to the West Island included adding tracks to the existing diesel commuter rail line, allowing more trains during rush hour without providing frequent, all-day transit.
  • Before the Caisse’s REM project, the most recent proposals for the new Champlain bridge did not include a rapid transit line, but would instead have replaced the existing bus corridor with just another bus corridor.
  • The Mascouche line, the only transit project completed in almost ten years, is served by only 10 trains a day per direction, and looks more like an exercise in drawing lines on a map than providing a transit line that can move around a significant number of people

Integrated Regional Network Using Through-Routing

Through-routing is where a single line goes from one end of a region, through downtown, to the other end. Such regional lines facilitate trips other than between downtown and its suburbs. By making these trips faster and more convenient, more people are encouraged to take transit. In many places in the world, this is how transit systems are designed.

In Quebec, however, such regional interconnected systems have never been a priority, as the practice was to solve each problem with its own technology, its own line, without much concern for designing a network. Need more capacity on the Deux-Montagnes line? Improve the Deux-Montagnes line. Need an airport connection? Build an express airport line. Need to improve transit to the West Island? Add more tracks to the existing diesel commuter rail line. What about the South Shore? Light rail on the Champlain bridge!

The Caisse’s project is the first one that shows a much more integrated vision for regional transit, folding all these projects into a single line. Now you could take transit from suburb to suburb, or from one suburb to places not quite downtown. Imagine going directly from Brossard to UdeM!

Repurposing Existing Infrastructure

Reusing existing infrastructure makes projects more capital efficient, which means more transit for our money.

The REM network is to be built on the Deux-Montagnes line, which is already electrified and connects the West Island to downtown through the Mount-Royal tunnel. Using the tunnel makes sense: it provides a direct connection from the north of Montreal through the mountain to Gare Centrale in just 6 minutes, basically like a subway. Given how costly the Blue line extension is supposed to be, it’s a good thing we have the tunnel already built.

Connections with Existing Lines

A good transit network requires good transfers between lines, to allow users to reach more destinations quicker. That’s because people want to travel between all sorts of places, which are not necessarily on the same line. Consequently, good connections will allow making these trips quicker and with fewer transfers.

Connections between REM-line and existing lines.

Connections between REM-line and existing transit lines.

For example, the station at Edouard-Montpetit will allow riders on the Blue line to directly connect downtown, without having to transfer twice (to the Orange line and then the Green line).

Also, consider that currently, the Saint-Jérôme line crosses the Deux-Montagnes line at Canora, but there is no stop or transfer possible. Instead, St-Jérôme line travelers are stuck on their train for another 25 minutes while Deux-Montagnes trains will be downtown in 6 minutes. The transfer station at Canora will help reduce their travel times a lot.

Planning for good transfer stations to existing lines for new transit lines seems obvious, but it’s not something that’s usually being considered much in Montreal. Consider the following examples:

  • The Mascouche line has one inconvenient connection at Sauvé, with a long walk outside through a cemetery.
  • The line was built without transfer to the St-Jérôme line, even though their stations are 200m apart near Marché Central, because both lines were independently designed to only shuttle commuters to and from work.
  • The proposal by Aeroport de Montréal for the airport train envisioned an express that would’ve gone straight downtown, with no connection to any other line, even though adding a single connection at Vendôme would have increased the convenience for many users.

It is therefore refreshing to see the Caisse’s REM proposal give consideration to how their system will connect to the lines crossing it.

Overall, I’m excited that the Caisse wants to get this line operational in only four years, a line that is truly regional, a line that will benefit more people than just the typical commuters. In the last 30 years, the only rapid transit we’ve built is the 4 Km Laval extension of the Metro line, that means a bit more than a kilometre per decade. Now we’re building almost seventy kilometres all at once, built by an organization that has proven it can get a transit line built. Montreal is dreaming transit again.

Thanks to JC for her help in writing the article.