Archive for the ‘trains’ Category

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.

The Lac-Megantic Incident, It’s All About The Brakes

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

The Lac-Megantic incident was caused by an apparently unmanned train of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) loaded with crude blasting into a small town at high speed. The train consisted of 72 “DOT-111” tanker cars, which have been criticized in the past to “have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents” (NTSB report report, page 75).


There’s a sharp curve in downtown, and that’s where an explosion and subsequent fire destroyed a large number of buildings, and killed at least 13 people. This happened during Friday night, bad timing because there were some festivities in a bar that was engulfed in the fire (video).

A Timeline

The investigation is still ongoing, so explaining causes is basically just speculation. But we have some information, let’s look at a timeline leading up to the explosion:

  • 23:25 The engineer parked the train with 72 crude-carrying tanker cars at a siding near Nantes, QC. This is about 10~11km away from downtown Lac-Megantic. The engineer shut down four of the five engines and left the lead engine (#5017) running to supply the air brakes.
  • 23:30 A resident called 911 to report a locomotive engine on fire at the Nantes siding.
  • 23:42 Firefighters arrive on the scene. As part of their operations, They shut down the lead engine. The Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert told Reuters that the crew had switched off the locomotive a “good-sized” blaze in the motor, possibly caused by a fuel or oil leak in the engine. “We shut down the engine before fighting the fire.” “Our protocol calls for us to shut down an engine because it is the only way to stop the fuel from circulating into the fire.”
  • 0:12 The fire is extinguished
  • 0:13-12:15 Two emplyes of the (MMA) show up at the scene
  • 1:30 The train derails at high speed at Lac-Megantics Rue Frontenac crossing.

According to MMA’s chairman Ed Burkhardt, the brakes will not work if a train is switched off: “If the operating locomotive is shut down, there’s nothing left to keep the brakes charged up, and the brake pressure will drop finally to the point where they can’t be held in place any longer”.

How many brakes in a train?

A train relies on air brakes to keep the cars from moving. There’s a high pressure air line running through the whole train, supplying power to the brakes and activating the brakes. The brakes are fail-safe, that is they release at high pressure, lower pressure means ‘stop’. If the air pressure fails, it will go into emergency brake mode and stop. The energy for that braking action is supplied by an air pressure reservoir on each car. However, these reservoirs can deplete after a while and will release the brakes. That’s why the lead engine of the runaway train was kept on, so that the onboard air-compressor could maintain the air brake pressure.

Since the air brakes can stop working, every car also has hand brakes, operated by a large steering wheel. The Canadian Rail Operating Rules (CROR) specifies the following:

(a) When equipment is left at any point a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to prevent it from moving. Special instructions will indicate the minimum hand brake requirements for all locations where equipment is left. (…)

Equipment here is defined as “One or more engines and/or cars which can be handled on their own wheels in a movement.” The rules also specify that sufficient application of handbrakes has to be tested:

(b) Before relying on the retarding force of the hand brake(s), whether leaving equipment or riding equipment to rest, the effectiveness of the hand brake(s) must be tested by fully applying the hand brake(s) and moving the cut of cars slightly to ensure sufficient retarding force is present to prevent the equipment from moving. When leaving a cut of cars secured, and after completion of this test, the cut should be observed while pulling away to ensure slack action has settled and that the cars remain in place.

So the air brakes may have been made ineffective related to the fire on the lead engine and the fire department operations. But the hand-brakes should have still prevented the trains from moving, if properly applied according to the operating rules. There may not have been enough hand brake force. The MMA claimed that hand brakes were engaged on all five engines, but it is unclear on how many cars, and whether the brake test was performed.

Even if the magnitude of the incident at Lac-Megantic is unusual, air brakes failing and insufficient hand brake force resulting in run-away equipment and a subsequent collision is not. This is exactly what happened in a January 2012 collision near Hanlon, Alberta.

One detail that is unusual is that there was only a single engineer. Usually, freight trains are staffed by an engineer (as the ‘driver’) and a conductor, who among other things has the responsibility to operate the hand brakes. One could speculate that without the conductor, it is too much work to walk along the train and operate a set of hand brakes, then get back into the engine to perform the brake tests. It turns out that in 2012 Transport Canada actually allowed the MMA to operate with reduced staffing levels.

A Runaway Train Rolling Down the Hill

In the title image one can see the path from the Nantes siding to the point where the train derailed, a distance of a bit more than 10km. From the geoprofile one can see that path is basically all on a downward slope, for a total elevation difference of about a 100m. That elevation difference in 10km is a gradient of only about 1%. But steel rail on steel track has extremely low rolling resistance, and air resistance will only come into play at higher speeds.

It doesn’t matter very much whether whether there’s a 1% grade, a 10% grade or a roller-coaster falling down 100m, most of the potential energy will be transferred into the kinetic energy of the train moving forward. A simple calculation (E = mgh = mv²/2 => v = √2gh) shows that this energy can speed the train up to 160km/h, assuming no rolling and air resistance. Even half that is enough to derail the train at the downtown Lac-Megantic curve, and cause the disaster.

The train was travelling from from New Town, North Dakota, over 3000km to it’s destination at the Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick; it also passed through Toronto.

The investigation will most likely center around all the brake failures. But I hope we will re-visit the safety of leaving trains full of dangerous substances unattended, on inclined sidings with grades targeting populated areas, or the purpose in general of moving crude oil over thousands of miles, whether it be by train or by pipeline.

Montreal Tram Study – Going About it the Wrong Way?

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

A Montreal tram report studies the viability of a starter line. However, the proposed line includes a downtown loop, a section with questionable utility. Also, the proposed construction costs are too high. If we want a sensible network of trams that improves rides for as many people as possible, we need to focus on utility, and we need to aggressively contain costs.

tram route

Last week the city of Montreal finally released their tram study, which the city received 18 months ago. The 1095-page study details the feasibility of a starter line. Here are the highlights:

  • line length: 13.2km
  • number of stations: 32
  • average distance between stations: 425m
  • average speed 18.1km/h
  • projected ridership: 26.6 M/year (70K a day)
  • trams: 26 trains, 30-35m length, 2.65m width
  • cost: 850million, without tax and contingencies (about a billion with)

As you can see from the above map, the line consists of a corridor along Côte-des-Neiges and a loop around the Old Port. The line is on separated lanes on its entire length. The base service frequency is intended to be around 8 minutes. During rush hour, the Côte-des-Neiges corridor would see the frequency double to every 4 minutes. During the “peak downtown period”, the pattern would reverse, with the downtown loop now having its frequency doubled to every 4 minutes.

It is great that this study was finally released. It would be nice if the AMT did this too. Its also good news that the basic viability of trams in Montreal is shown. But looking over the documents, there are some issues that I would like to raise.

The Downtown Loop

The first thing to notice is the loop around Old Montreal, a section that seems to be a rather bad piece of planning. Actually it’s not a complete loop with trains travelling in a complete circle, because it’s disconnected at the north-west corner, where trams terminate and turn around. The construction of this loop seems to be mostly driven by political interest, and from developers. In general, downtown circulators are a bad idea, they underperform. They are not useful for enough people. They don’t let you travel the shortest distance to where you need to go. Many travels along small loops are faster by walking directly, rather than waiting for a train and taking an indirect route to a nearby location.

In 2008, The STM established the 515 bus (now 715) as a precursor for the planned tram (except that it actually runs in a complete circle). Already by Decemeber the failure of that line was obvious, with only 1200 daily boardings rather than the projected 6000. According to ridership data from 2011 that I extracted from Opus card data, there were less than 800 daily boardings on that bus. That is not nearly enough for a tram. and given that there are many bus corridors with fifty times the daily boardings like Pie-IX, Sauvé, Saint-Michel or Henri-Bourassa, focusing on this section is misguided at best.

Naturally, a tram may attract more potential riders, and more development, which should bring more riders. The study considers this induced demand, and gives us this graph of what the STM projected hourly ridership during the peak period would be like:


We see that according to the projections the Côte-des-Neiges section shows much more potential than the downtown loop, which simply cannot attract riders. And those numbers may be optimistic, just like the projections for the 515 bus. Many riders may also only be seasonal, and that’s not just tourists. And the Côte-des-Neiges and downtown loop section appear to have non-connected ridership. Trams are nearly empty somewhere along the middle of the line. There are few potential trips that cross those points.

Overall, the downtown loop is simply a waste of money considering the transportation needs of the greater Montreal region. The only section along the the loop that has some potential is the Peel corridor along the West of the loop. That portion overlaps with the another transit plan along the Champlain bridge light rail. This is a transit project to connect the Shore suburb of Brossard to downtown, via the replacement Champlain through Nun’s island and Griffintown. That project is very worthwhile and would make the less than 2km track along Peel redundant.

The study also compares two possible corridors for the non-downtown-loop portion, Côte-des-Neiges and Ave due Parc:

Côte-des-Neiges vs Parc Ave

The above table shows that the the Côte-des-Neiges corridor is a better than the one along Parc, which appears reasonable. But why were the two corridors compared for their potential, but the downtown loop was included in both cases seemingly without question?

The two compared corridors have similar ridership, so it appears natural to just connect them into one line which will have fairly balanced ridership. This would almost exactly follow the successful rush-hour-only 435 bus. It would be possible to “unroll” the downtown loop, and instead build it along the Parc corridor. The length of that line would be about the same as the one proposed by the study, ~13km. This line would replace the 80, 165 and 435 buses, which together have about 60K daily boardings (in 2011) – when one considers the possibility of induced demand, it should be obvious that this is a much more worthwhile starting segment than including the proposed loop with only one of the useful corridors.

Another, if smaller, issue is that the downtown loop includes the steepest grade along the whole line – the ruling gradient:


Because of only the small section of 12%, all the trains have to be able to climb that grade. If excluded, the ruling grade is 10%, which is generally considered the maximum for trams. This may result in less technical complexity, more bidders on the rolling stock, and less cost for vehicle acquisition.


The cost is currently budgeted at 850$ million for 13.2km, without taxes and contingencies, a billion with those included. That means about 65$ million/km without taxes and contingencies, and 75$ million/km with. This appears pretty high. For example, the French city of Besancon is building its initial 14.5km line for 22 million$/km. This is of course only one data point. the Montreal tram study compares to five different French data points to show that the cost are not too high.

To get a more thorough comparison, I compiled a list of about a hundred French tram construction projects. It covers projects from the beginning of the tram renaissance at the end of the eighties, to projects being planned now. The numbers are all without taxes, adjusted for inflation relative to 2010 (to compare to the Montreal study) and converted to dollars using the average rate of that year (1.37$/€). According to these numbers, the construction costs in France for a kilometer of tram are about 35$ million/km on average. In comparison, the Montreal costs are estimated 85% higher than that. (I will publish the data and more details in another blog post soon).

French tram projects aren’t actually considered cheap. They tend to include a lot of urban improvement and renovation of the streetscape, and are built to a high visual standard. They are used as drivers for development not just via transportation, but also urban beautification. The tram systems tend to be a little over-designed. Some of the systems include short tunneling sections. The French also like to avoid overhead wiring in their historic city centers, using a system called l’alimentation par le sol (APS), a ground level power supply, which adds to the cost.

Compare to Germany, where trams are used as a form of transit to bridge the gap between buses and subway, rather than a chance to beautify the city. There, tram construction costs are generally considered to be at around 10 million €/km (14 million$/km) and 15million € when built in downtown (21 million $/km). A more utilitarian approach is also what allowed Besancon to keep its tram construction low.

There are some budget items in the Montreal project that are inherently more expensive than elsewhere, for example the maintenance center and garage. It has to be completely indoors, due the climate. But overall, the construciton costs should be lower, because the project is comparably simple. The tram can be completely contained inside the existing streetscape. There are no heavy works required like rebuilding bridges. It shouldn’t need any of the features that drive up cost, for example tunnels or ground level power supply. And while nice, it doesn’t need urban beautification along its entire length.

Pine Tunnel option.

The study includes a 100$M option for a 500m tunnel under Pine, providing better access to the Montreal General Hospital via an underground station. This is probably not a worthwhile investment. But note how over-designed this tunnel station is: wider than some metro stations, three elevators, 12m deep, and a tunnel height of 6.2m. It could be designed with a 6~8m island platform, directly under the street, with a single elevator and stairs, no mezzanine, and tunnels that are barely higher than the trains themselves.

What is the Role of a Tram?

All trams are not created equal. There are different paradigms of how trams are built and what exact purpose they have in terms of transportation and urban development.

In France, the tram systems built over the last twenty years have been urban development and renewal projects as much as they are transportation projects. There has been great care to integrate those trams into historic centers with its pedestrian areas, and a lot of money spent on beautification and new technology that avoids overhead wires in certain sections. At the same time, they are the major mode of transport in some medium size cities (i.e. around and less than a million). Some of those metropolitan areas are pretty compact, so these systems have high ridership.

In the US, the development potential of trams has been recognized. Now there are a few new projects underway to build streetcars. Many of these projects have little transportation value, using single, short lines, sharing space with cars. Some are only single track for portions and have very low frequency. These projects appear to be built solely for their development potential.

In Germany, trams tend have more utilitarian transport character. They are built generally as pure transportation projects, in corridors where ridership is expected to be between about 4K and 30K~40k per day, above which rapid transit is favored. Towards the high end, they tend to build subway-tram hybrid systems (Stadtbahn), which attempt to combine advantages of subway (high capacity/speed downtown) with trams (cheaper construction or possibility of re-using existing systems to get good coverage).

So what Role Should Trams Have in Montreal?

The released study appears to orient itself very closely to the French model of tram building. That’s evident not just in the use of pictures and comparisons for cost and rolling stock, but also how the development of the line is envisioned, the complete re-configuring of streets. The loop around the old port may also be an attempt to replicate the image of the French tram through a historic city center.

Given the high cost of the project relative to its transportation value, especially in comparison to other tram systems, I’m concerned that we may end up with a project that is largely a development stimulus one. The chosen paradigm may not lead to transportation improvements throughout the city, simply because building a large network at this cost is not economically viable. This is problematic for our transportation starved city.

Montreal is currently a major bus city, with many people spending large amounts of time in crowded buses feeding into metros. Some of our bus corridors have more ridership than the 40K/day that Germans consider good enough for rapid transit, many more have lower ridership which can still be more economical to operate as trams. For many of these riders that live further away form the metro, trams could improve the quality of their commute, and thus the quality of life. A large network could spread the development and gentrification pressure, and allow less affluent people better access to jobs, again rising quality of live for everybody.

Trams in Montreal should primarily be used to improve existing bus commutes. Tram projects should be about transportation, not helping development interests downtown.

Costs Need to be Contained

If we want to build as many tram lines as possible, we have to focus more on keeping the costs down. Construction should be simplified. For example, we don’t need to reconfigure entire streets. For the tram line in the study, we could do that just for the René-Lévesque Levesque corridor, and only few parts of Côte-des-Neiges.

Beautifully rebuilt portion of Côte-des-Neiges where nobody lives and development potential is low.

Beautifully rebuilt portion of Côte-des-Neiges where nobody lives and development potential is low.

The downtown loop, with its relatively small transportation value, should be scrapped. Instead, the Parc Ave corridor should be preferred. If we aim for good cost/benefit in terms of ridership and improved commutes, one could also pick a completely different initial segment. why not start the tram outside of downtown, for example along the Pie-IX or Gouin/Henri-Bourassa corridors?

Pie-ix currently has a expensive BRT project, at 20$M/km. It suffers high cost (for a BRT project) due to a similar issue as the proposed tram: rebuilding the street. The project includes widening its right of way from 30.5 to 33.5m. With a tram, the transit right of way could be narrowed from the planned 8.40m (for two bus lanes) to as little as 6.35m (using 2.4m wide trams). Steal some more space from wide car lanes, and it will be unnecessary to buy land and cut down trees, and the higher cost of the track could be partly offset by reducing the street-widening costs. The maintenance center and garage may be cheaper further away from downtown. And the potential to improve people’s commutes is greater along that corridor, that sees long, crowded bus commutes.

Other ways to keep construction costs down for any tram project may be to partner up with other Quebec cities that envision building trams, like Quebec City, (or the AMT for the Champlain bridge corridor), or cities that think about building trolleybuses, like Laval. The rolling stock and related expertise could be pooled and large orders be made, which result in lower per-unit prices. The development expertise and management may be shared and done in-house, potentially reducing costs (right now budgeted at 100$M before tax, nearly as much as the rolling stock).

I really want trams to come to Montreal. But if we cannot keep the costs down, and the city has to plunk down a cool billion for 13 km, and the possibilities of building an actual network are slim, then this will just become another project in the region that envisions one short line and yet another technology. In that case, maybe it makes more sense to invest in much cheaper improvements to our bus corridors.

Thanks to Kamal Marhubi and Julia Evans for reading drafts.

The New Yorker: Income Inequality Visualized along New York’s Subway

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

The New Yorker just released this nifty visualization, showing the median household income near New York Subway stations. It’s interactive, letting you click through the system’s lines, showing the the numbers for every stop. The accompanying article explains it as a way to show how the United States, and in particular New York City, has a problem with income inequality:

(…) if the borough of Manhattan were a country, the income gap between the richest twenty per cent and the poorest twenty per cent would be on par with countries like Sierra Leone, Namibia, and Lesotho.

Looking at it from more of a transit angle, for Benjamin Kabak at the 2nd Avenue Sagas the infographic presents a visual case against zone fares. New York’s very large subway system is under a single fare zone, from end to end you can travel more than 50km on a single ride ticket. That would seem unusual from a European point of view, where transit is viewed as something that ideally pays for itself, and distance-based fares are used to bring fares closer in line with the actual cost.

But in New York, as we can see from the interactive infographic, the median household income drops off rapidly as we go away from the center. So distance based fares would disproportionally affect less affluent people, who travel long distances to get to work in the city center, while more affluent people live nearby and only have short rides. The single fare zone is thus seen as a tool in helping the reduce or at least alleviate the income gap problem.

Looking at it from a more urban development perspective, I find the apparent concentration of income brackets problematic. Both concentrating poverty and concentrating wealth are bad for the city, its health, economic activity and liveliness. The city may not be able to improve the wealth distribution of its citizens by much (upper levels of government are generally more effective for that), but maybe it can find more ways to better integrate people of different income levels, give less affluent people access to more neighborhoods and promote mixed-income neighborhoods.

Either way, I was interested to get a better overview of all the data, instead of having to click through the lines one by one. So I went into the code that generates the infographic, and hacked at it a bit to get all of the lines shown on a single graph. All lines are aligned in the center with their wealthiest stop, which also approximately aligns them at the center of the city. The graph goes left to right, generally from Brooklyn/Queens via Manhattan to Bronx/Queens. By showing all the data on a single graph, the problematic distribution of wealth can be seen in a single view:


Ottawa’s O-train (Part II): A Cost-Effective Project

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

In the first part of this series, I introduced the O-train and how it works as a transit line. The second part is how it got running, and how cost effective the project was.

O-Train over Rideau River

O-Train over Rideau River (in public domain, via wiki commons)

The O-Train was built as an evaluation project for light right technologies, to test whether it would make sense to build it all over the city. The project was realized pretty quickly and cheaply: After a yearlong study the pilot project was approved in September 1999, and public service started on October 15, 2001. The initial budget of 16$ Million had grown to about 21$ Million by the time the train started running. It is a very cost-effective project, both in cost/rider and cost/km. Compare to a couple of other transit projects (not necessarily light rail):

rider/km cost/km
O-Train (lrt) 8 27 14 1750 3.3 1901
C-Train (lrt) 29.3 582 187 6382 19.8 3110
Edmonton lrt 12.2 404 70 5738 33.1 5774
Pie-IX Busway (brt) 15 316 70 4667 21.1 4514
Laval Extension (metro) 5.2 829 60 11538 159.5 13825
Spadina Extension (metro) 8.6 2400 100 11628 279.1 24000
Train de l’Ouest (commuter) 33 1000 41 1231 30.3 24608
Train de l’Est (commuter) 44 671 11 250 15.2 61000

Naturally, these projects are not directly comparable, but generally one should expect cheaper projects to get less riders, so that the ratios work out to be at least in the same order of magnitude. But the O-train is a bit of an out-lier, even compared to the initial segments of the Calgary C-Train, which is considered one of the most cost effective transit projects in North America (by attracting a lot of riders to the relatively low cost rail lines).

The low cost of the O-train is due to the construction on an existing freight line, the use of a single track except for a passing point at the center station, the relatively high ridership for the short line thanks to it’s main anchor, Carleton University – the smart transit planning introduced in the previous part of this series. But even then, the capital costs are surprisingly low for what was built. The following shows the capital budget, taken from a report of the O-train, with items listed in thousand dollars:

Expenditure Budget Actual Cost
Corridor Lease $ 515 $ 535
Track Rehabilitation $ 1,525 $ 1,925
Tunnel/Bridge Rehabilitation $ 1,275 $ 1,532
Station Construction $ 4,675 $ 5,700
Fencing Installation $ 405 $ 566
Train Control $ 590 $ 1,088
Operator Training $ 300 $ 718
Vehicle Acquisition $ 4,875 $ 5,369
Vehicle Modifications $ 675 $ 614
Vehicle Maintenance Facility $ 755 $ 1,160
Project Management $ 190 $ 770
Start-up Marketing $ 50
Monitoring Equipment $ 165 $ 299
Other Items $ 17
Noise Fencing $ 447
Total $   15,995 $   20,740

The Stations

Several of the items appear pretty cheap, compared to other projects throughout North America – for example the reconstruction of one commuter rail station near Montreal cost 20$ million by itself. Consider the cost of the stations: less than 6$ million for 6 platforms, that’s less than a million per platform. It certainly helps that the platforms are only 35m long, and built very simply with identical design, with an asphalt or concrete surface and bus-style shelters. Also, no parking.

The stations are pretty spartan

The stations are pretty spartan.

The Trains

The vehicle acquisition is another item on the budget that appears pretty low – around 5$ Million for three trains. Each of them is equivalent to a bit less than two 85 ft passenger cars as they are used in North America on mainlines. That’s equivalent to about 1$ Million per car. Consider other rolling stock purchases for similar non-compliant DMUs, which are all small orders from North American transit agencies:

train Location/Service order year units unit cost capacity
Talent Ottawa O-Train 1999 3 1.8 M$ 280
Desiro NCTD Sprinter 2004 12 4.2 M$ 230
GTW 2/6 Austin Capital MetroRail 2005 6 5.4 M$ 220
GTW 2/6 Denton County A-Train 2009 11 6.7 M$ 220
Lint 41 Ottawa O-train 2011 6 5.7 M$ 260

These numbers are approximations. There’s been inflation over the years, the capacities may not be exactly comparable (i.e. by removing seats, capacity can be increased, and standing capacity can be counted in different ways), just like the trains themselves (e.g. some trains are more powerful than others). Also, the cost of the vehicle depends on the size and kind of the acquisition contract.

Nevertheless, it is obvious, given the tiny order, that the Talents were an amazing deal. They should’ve cost three times as much. And while the budget lists the vehicle acquisition as 5 million, a closer look reveals that they did in fact cost three times as much. Take this quote from the report:

The approach to vehicle acquisition was to buy the three trains for $17.1 million with a guaranteed buy-back of $13,537,500 after the two-year pilot phase for a net cost of $3.563 million.

Basically the trains were a lease for the two year pilot project, and had to be paid off when the project continued. This makes sense, given that the O-train started as a 2-year evaluation project, and it could’ve been discontinued after that. But it results in an unfair comparisons with other projects that use the full capital cost of the vehicles involved, and so that fact should be kept in mind.

It is still a pretty decent deal considering how small the order was, and how quickly the trains were delivered. Apparently they came so quick and affordable because they were surplus/option trains from a larger “BR 643”-order made for Deutsche Bahn (unfortunately I couldn’t find a source for that original order, or what exactly the option/add-on deal looked like). Presumably this explains the similarity with the DB trains, and some of the German signs that exist on the train.

DB actually preferred a more powerful version of the train, the “BR 644”, which uses a diesel-electric rather than a diesel-mechanical drive, which allows faster acceleration and mixes better with electric trains. Ironically, the diesel-electric version would be more appropriate for the O-train with its short interstation distances, Ottawa probably uses the diesel-mechanic Talents in its most rapid transit-like application.

The Corridor

The infrastructure was leased, just like the trains. The contract was with CP (Canadian Pacific Railway), who owned the infrastructure, as a public private partnership. CP provided the corridor, upgraded the infrastructure, built the stations, and provided the maintenance facility. The partnership also included Bombardier for trains, their maintenance and the signalling system. The lease included the provision to purchase the corridor for around 11$million at the end of the contract. There was also an option to extend the lease for two years – which the city exercised, and finally purchased the corridor in 2005 (at which point the city also paid half a million in deferred costs from the original design/build).

CP actually considered the corridor lease too low, so there was a clause in the contract for ‘incentive payments’: for every passenger above 5100 per day, CP was supposed to be paid 70 cents per passenger. By the end of 2005, 380K$ of those incentive payments had accumulated (it seems that CP waived about 200$K of those when the city purchased the line in 2005). This seems like another way in which the capital budget was kept a bit lower, possibly at the expense of future capital costs (or operating costs, depending on how the accounting is done). On the other hand, this may have also provided an actual incentive for CP to make the line attractive for users.

It is clear that the O-train was a cost effective project in terms of capital costs. But it may not be quite as cheap when deferred capital costs are considered. Once the total cost for the vehicles and and corridor are included in the capital cost estimation, the total cost is around 40$million, double the initial capital budget, but still pretty low.

Operating Costs

It should be expected that the operating cost of the O-train are not very favorable compared to buses. There is a lot of infrastructure and vehicles that need to be maintained. The fact that this is such a short line, with relatively few riders per km compared to actual rapid transit lines, and a tiny vehicle fleet doesn’t help, in terms of economies of scale. Plus, with three trains, two of which are always operating, at most two thirds of the fleet is operating. Such a high spare ratio should result in higher operating costs. Additionally, the project seems to have been designed with the desire to keep capital costs low, so costs may have shifted to the operations side.

It certainly helps that the ridership is pretty high given the scope and line length of the project. Nevertheless, the operating cost per passenger was higher than for buses during the initial years: during the first years, only about 30% of the cost was covered by ticket fares, compared to about 55% for the OC Transpo system as a whole.

Nevertheless there are cost-effectiveness measures on the operations side that are interesting and unique. For one, the O-train was the first federally regulated railway using single man operation (i.e. no conductors). Additionally, the drivers where actually taken out of the pool of OC Transpo bus drivers, instead of hired locomotive engineers. When the system started, 28 bus drivers completed the training to operate the O-train. This large reserve pool means that there is never a shortage of drivers, contributing to the service reliability of more than 99% (compared to 70% for the overall system). And when the drivers are not operating the O-train, they are still operating buses. This is an interesting approach not only to reduce the costs of reliably providing vehicle operators, it also addressed the concerns of the labor union, which saw the rail line as a threat to their members’ livelihoods.

Overall it should be obvious that the O-train was a very low-cost project. For a rail project, especially one of this small scale, it seems to have been very cost-effective. However, the costs may not be quite as low as they appear at first sight – one has to be careful to not count the start-up costs for the evaluation project as the capital costs of the transit line. Other projects attempting to emulate the success of the O-train should be mindful of that.

A Bike Rack on the Stuttgart Rack Railway

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Stuttgart Rack Railway

The above image that I came across on this tumblr, got me intruiged. The image comes with this short text:

Intermodal transportation involves using two or more forms of transportation in a journey. Bicycles can often increase ridership of public transit. However, limited storage space onboard hinders the promotion of intermodal commutes. This innovative solution from Stuttgart, Germany adds desperately needed bicycle accommodation on this light rail line.

Sure this is looks like an interesting solution, a bike rack on the move. Bicycles can help bridge the last mile (or two), between the transit stop and the home, and make commutes much more pleasant that way. But it immediately raises some questions. If people can get on and off with their bicycles, doesn’t that increase the dwell time and slow down the train a lot? If the vehicle operators observes the bike rack in front of them, what happens when the train goes the other way? This appears to be a terminus, and there’s no loop in sight. Also, doesn’t the rack appear a bit small, how useful could it be?

To answer these questions, one has to look at the actual transit line in question. The line in the picture is actually the “Zahnradbahn Stuttgart” (Stuttgart Rack Railway, the German Wikipedia article is much more informative). A rack railway, or cog railway, is a railway that uses a toothed rail, which can be seen in the picture running between the rails, to be able to climb steep grades. Normal rails can only be operated at grades up to 7~10% for trams, and up to around 4% for electrified main lines. This line has a maximum grade of 17.8%.

The Stuttgart Rack Railway is one of only four cog railways still operating in Germany, and the only one that is integrated into a transit system (i.e. not a tourist line). It started operating in 1884, and it’s really short. Along its 2.2km length there are 9 stations, it’s single track except for a passing station in the center, service is provided every 15 minutes. In its operation it is remarkably similar to the Ottawa O-train, a short single track line with a passing station in the center, and two trains shuttling back and forth every 15 minutes – except it has about the quarter of the length.

Given the short length of the line, it would seem like a line with not a lot of utility. Why wait fifteen minutes, if you can just walk the whole length of the line in that time? And it could be biked even faster! But the key to its utility is that it is a cog railway — along its short length, it climbs 200m in altitude. That’s quite a schlepp, and if you add a bicycle to the mix, the utility of the bike rack reveals itself – the bike rack is only used in the uphill direction, and only from terminus to terminus. This way there are no delays due to bikes when the train is running, and the driver can always observe all the bikes, and make sure none are falling off etc.

The Stuttgart Cog Railway is thus not a system that solve the last mile problem – it’s barely more than a mile long. Instead, it is more like an urban elevator and solves the problem that walking and riding in hilly areas can be a pain.

xkcd: Subways of North America

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Subways of North America

The webcomic xkcd put all real the subway systems of North America on one map, joined by imagined lines connecting the systems far away from another. Helpfully the author defines for us what he means by “subway”, for “the pedantic rail enthusiasts”:

a network containing high capacity grade-separated passenger rail transit lines which run frequently, serve an urban core, and are underground or elevated for at least part of their downtown route.

Sounds good enough to me.

Did you know that cities like Baltimore, Santo Domingo and San Juan have subway systems? That one in three subway stops are in NYC? That Springfield is located somewhere between Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco? Well, now you know.

Walksheds Visualized
Showing Populations near Montreal Rail Stations

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

walksheds are the area around a particular point of interest from where people are willing to walk to said point of interest. This point of interest is often a transit station, and the walkshed gives an idea how many people will reach the station on foot. While the walkshed depends on how walkable the area is, whether there are barriers like freeways, the geometry of the street grid, and how attractive the transit station is (people are willing to walk further to metros compared to bus stops), The area is often simplified as a circle around the transit station.


Montreal rail station walksheds – population within 800m of stations. The sizes of the circles and the numbers inside them correspond to the population in 1000 people

How much population lives within the walkshed gives an indication on the ridership of the transit line, the more people live in it – the more ridership can be expected. The corollary is that you want as much population within walksheds as possible.

If there are more people near the transit station, it reduces the reliance on feeder buses and park’n’rides (a reduction in park’n’rides also means more land within the walksheds is available for development). This will reduce both the cost of transportation services that have to be offered, and will increases the chances that people use transit – which will reduce the cost of required infrastructure like roads and parking spots, but will also decrease the burden on the environment.

The above visualization shows the population within 800m (1/2mile) of Montreal transit stations. This is considered a reasonable distance that people are willing to walk to a rail station. Picking this distance for all stations makes the comparison between stations easier, even if the actual walksheds may be different depending on how walkable the areas are. Also, a circle with 800m radius has about 2 square km of area, so by dividing the number by two, we get the population density (in people per square km).

In the image, we can see that many metro stations have more than 20 thousand people living near them, corresponding to more than 10 thousend people per square km. Compare that to the a density of 3.7K people/km² for the whole island of Montreal, 7.7 people/km² for the borough of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâcee, and 12.3K people/km² for the Plateau. The highest population is near station Cote-Ste-Catherine, the 2nd most populous is Mont-Royal, then Guy-Concordia (which also includes the most densest spot in Montreal).

We see that the commuter rail stations generally don’t have many people living near them, especially off the island. Some stations are directly next to highways, others are surrounded by a sea of parking, others are in the middle of nowhere. There is quite a deficit in Transit Oriented Development near many of the commuter rail stations, a missed opportunity. In many places, development would be a better use of station-adjacent land, compared to parking lots, or very low density development.

The most populous commuter rail stations outside of the inner city are on the Deux-Montagnes line, at least up to Roxboro – the Deux Montagnes line is the the only electrified line, has the most trains, and by far the most ridership. Some of the stations rival metro stations in terms of population density. Other populous stations are on the Blainville line, at least up to de la Concorde – it would seem that this stretch could also be a candidate for electrification, possibly more infill stations and much more frequent service (incidentally that would also help relieve congestion on the orange line).

What is interesting is that some metro stations have surprisingly little population near them. The missed development opportunities may not just exist near the commuter rail stations, but near the metro network itself. While some of those metro stations are also directly next to highways (like de la Savane) and have limited development opportunities, others are in very suburban looking areas that could probably be densified (like Assomption).

The data was created using the Canadian census data (from 2011), the gtfs for the STM and AMT was used to find the station locations. And a disclaimer: the stations are considered completely independently; so population of very close stations may be “counted” more than once.

Ottawa’s O‑Train (Part I):
a Little German Train in Canada

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Passengers at Carleton Station.

One a recent(ish) visit to Ottawa I got to visit one of it’s major attractions – the Ottawa O-Train! I had read about it before, a small project that transformed a short stretch of a freight railway into a transit line, using “Talent” Diesel Multiple Unit trains built by Bombardier. Using these trains is unusual in North America, because they do not fulfil the requirements of main line trains with respect to buff strength (basically they are too light). Although these trains are considered main line trains in Europe, in North America they are called “light rail”. The three Talents that OC Transpo uses for the O-Train were acquired out of an order by DB (Deutsche Bahn), which uses these trains on un-electrified regional rail lines.

The interior of the O-Train should look familiar to people who have taken DB Regio trains

The interior of the O-Train should look familiar to people who have taken DB Regio trains. Note how the luggage racks were blocked off.

The arriving train came in a familiar color – the color scheme of DB and OC Transpo are so similar that the trains weren’t even repainted. The interior of the train felt strangely familiar as well, because it is all just the DB design. Having ridden many trains in Germany, I felt like I was sitting in piece of Europe in Canada. The ride is also unusally smooth by North American standards (I haven’t encountered too many rail vehicles with air suspension here).

Even the "Bitte druecken"-Button is original

Even the door opening button is still labelled “Bitte drücken” (please press).

If you like rail and transit, it’s easy to be a fan of the O-Train. But the real innovation of the O-Train is not the specific train that is used, but the transit planning of the line. It is easy to focus on a particular transit technology (in this case the DMUs), and overlook the transit line that is built with it. And some of of that planning was imported from Europe just like the trains themselves.

Overview of the O-train line. The blue lines are OC Transpo busways.

Overview of the O-train line. The blue lines are OC Transpo busways.

The O-Train is a short line established on a segment of an existing, infrequently used freight line corridor. Along it’s 7.8km length there are 5 stations. At both terminals passengers can transfer to busways. The station at the center, Carleton, provides access to the University, which is otherwise awkward to reach. The line is single tracked, except for the Carleton station, which has two tracks and two platforms. This allows two trains to run simultaneously, passing each other there. The trains take about 12 minutes to traverse the length of the line, and with a short turn-around time, this allows service with a headway of exactly 15 minutes.

The O-train is entirely single tracked.

The O-train line is entirely single tracked.

One train every fifteen minutes doesn’t sound very often by rapid transit standards, but one has to consider that the schedule is completely regular, the same every hour. The train leaves at :00, :15, :30, :45 and arrives twelve minutes later. This fixed interval schedule (or “Takftfahrplan” in the original German) allows people to easily remember the complete schedule, making the service more convenient even for less than regular riders.

Trains pass each other at Carleton Station, so two trains can run on the line at the same time

Trains pass each other at Carleton Station, so two trains can run on the line at the same time.

Another way in which the O-Train is more part of the transit network rather than a railroad in the traditional sense is the ticketing. Unlike many commuter railroads, the tickets are integrated with the surrounding rapid transit system, monthly passes are accepted, as well as day passes and transfers from buses. The line is viewed as part of the overall transit network, not some premium service. There are also no conductors aboard, and no turn-stiles either – the tickets are checked randomly, and there’s a fine for traveling without a valid ticket. This system, called Proof-of-Purchase (POP) is heavily used in Europe. It allows operation of the train with the vehicle operator only, no conductors required.

The 35m long platforms at the stations are level with the train entries. There are no steps into the train, and the doors are wide. Not only does this mean the train is easily accessible, it reduces the boarding and alighting time. Together with the reasonably fast acceleration of the DMUs (for example compared to diesel locomotive hauled trains), the resulting short dwell time allows the quick running time which again results in the relatively frequent schedule using only two trains.

Wide doors, Level Boarding

Wide doors, Level Boarding. Note the POP-sticker – that’ll remind ya 😉

The O-train started service in October 2001 as a pilot project to evaluate the Light Rail technologies for Ottawa. Although the specific technology was not chosen for other rail lines in Ottawa (the Confederation line will use electrified low floor LRTs), the line itself has earned its keep. After the first year, the ridership reached around 6200 passengers per day, 9500 by Fall 2004 and close to 14000 by September 2011. A 2005 report, updated in 2008 (pdf, also includes some of the ridership numbers) noted that in 2007, discontinuing the O-train would have required the purchase of 16 extra buses at more than 7$ million.

Note, however, that the cost to revenue ratio for the O-train is worse than for buses: about 26% in 2002, and 36% by 2007, compared to about 55% for the system as a whole. So while the O-train provides a smoother and more comfortable ride, the ticket revenues of the train cover less of the operating expenses than for buses. It shows that rail, even a system as cost-effective as the O-train, needs good ridership and a decent size before it makes economical sense over buses.

There is now a project underway to increase service on the O-train, which is partly done to mitigate the disruption of the transitways while the Confederation Line is under construction. This summer, OC Transpo will shut down the O-train for 18 weeks to allow the construction of two extra sidings (and some other general maintenance). The purchase of 6 Alstom Lint trains back in 2001 2011 will then allow doubling the frequency of trains to every 8 minutes starting in 2014.

Continue on to part II: Ottawa’s O-train – a cost-effective project.

Could Commuter Rail Equipment be Used for Affordable Intercity Travel?

Monday, February 25th, 2013
Commuter rail equipment waiting for the evening rush source

Toronto Commuter rail equipment waiting for the evening rush. source

The rail operator in France just started marketing a truly low cost high speed rail option. SNCF will soon start a new rail service under the name OuiGo (yes go! we go!), offering travel as cheap as 10 Euros for travels as far as 500 miles. This may be the cheapest HSR tickets anywhere in the world, and offer quite the competition to low cost air carriers or driving. Just like with the cheap airlines, users may have to deal with some inconveniences: passengers have to pay to bring more bags and to use electrical outlets, there are no cafe cars. And the travel doesn’t start in central Paris, but rather 20km east in Marne La Vallée, to avoid the higher track fees of downtown Paris. That’s similar to how low-cost air carriers offer travel from cheaper outlying airports. Unlike those airlines, though, SNCF is still offering uncompressed seating. 1,268 passengers can fit into the duplex-TGVs by ditching the cafe car and using an all economy layout.

This service got me thinking whether in North America we could have at least cheap medium speed rail options. Both VIA in the Quebec-Windsor corridor and Amtrak in the North-East Corridor offer reasonably fast service, but at prices and with service that appears to attempt competing with air travel. Both Amtrak and VIA neither have the capacity, nor speed to compete with low cost airlines. But they may be able to compete with cars and affordable bus travel offered by Chinatown buses or Megabus.

VIA and Amtrak may not have the equipment to offer afforable high-capacity service. But there’s plenty of rail equipment laying around most of the day that could be used for exactly that — commuter trains. The standard North American commmuter rail paradigm offers service mostly (if not only) during peak hours, dumping large numbers of trains in downtown yards, waiting to rush back to the ‘burbs during the late afternoon. I would prefer they would be used for all day frequent service, but there will always be unused trains during the off-peak. Could they be used to offer affordable intercity service instead of clogging up space downtown?

Let’s check the schedules of two commuter rail lines in Montreal to see when all the trains are really needed. The services use fewer trains than departures, because the earlier trains return back to the origin and do another run. For the Mont St Hilare line, the train arriving at 7:50 in downtown can’t make it back to the end of the line soon enough to be part of the morning rush – it becomes dead weight downtown. Only one train is needed for the midday service. For the evening rush, all trains are used starting with the 16:50 departure. For the Candiac line, there’s one train unused between 8:40 and 16:15. Overall, there are time slots of 7-8 hours during mid-day, and up to 6 hours after 6-7pm, when trains could be used for other duties.

Mont St Hilaire line (55 minutes per run):
arrive downtown: 06:30, 07:25, 07:50, 08:20, 08:50, 14:30, 19:25
depart downtown: 12:30, 15:50, 16:30, 16:50, 17:20, 18:00, 19:45

Candiac Line (40minutes per run):
arrive downtown: 06:40, 07:15, 07:40, 08:17, 08:40, 09:05, 09:30, 11:10, 14:00
depart downtown: 09:35, 12:20, 15:40, 15:55, 16:15, 16:45, 17:15, 17:55, 18:20

Commuter rolling stock may be a good match for high affordable high capacity intercity rail that doesn’t threaten the existing ‘premium’ rail market. It offers less space per passenger, but still much more than cars, buses or aircrafts. There’s also less space for baggage, meaning that it may have to be restricted in some way, just as for the OuiGo service in France. Commuter rail rolling stock offers a large amount of capacity, so even with cheap tickets the service may still be economically feasible. There are few amenities: no cafe cars (although one could install snack vending machines), no outlets (that’s a bummer for laptop carrying students), no wifi.

The cars tend to have lower maximum speed (100mph vs 125mph, or 80mph vs 100mph), so travel times may be slightly longer. This could be offset by having fewer stops, only at larger stations. Not stopping at small towns also matches trying to tap into large travel markets, and not competing too much with existing rail options for smaller markets. With fewer stops, fewer conductors are feasible because there is more time to check tickets between stops.

Travel between 9am and 5pm cut into regular work hours and is thus inconvenient for work-related travel. Travel after 6-7pm, i.e. twoards the end of the evening rush, with arrivals around midnight, may again be somewhat inconvenient for business traveless who may prefer taking intercity trains towards the beginning of the evening rush, in order to arrive during more reasonable times.

Schedule possibilities
A 7-8hour mid-day time slot allows for travel back and forth in the 2.5 to 3.5 hour range. Along the Quebec Windsor Corridor, this could match city paris like Montreal-Quebec, Montreal-Ottawa, Montreal-Kingston, Toronto-Kingston, Toronto-London. In the US, Philadelphia-New York, Philadelphia-DC and New York-Albany are easily doable, other city pairs will take longer than 4 hours.

In order to connect better city pairs that are more than 4 hours apart like New York-Dc, Montreal-Toronto, and Boston-New York, all of which have compatible commuter rail operations, one could send a train from each city to the other during the mid-day. The two trains could be used in the evening rush service at the destination city, for a sort of away game. The trains could then return either after the rush hour for a late night return, or during the next day. Equipment should be available during the whole weekend, allowing even more departures.

A note about non-main station departures: Gare Centrale in Montreal uses high-level platforms, which Toronto’s bilevel commuter cars can’t access. But the existing commuter rail stations of Vendome and Lucien L’Allier in Montreal are low platform, not far from downtown, and connected via the metro. In New York, there may be capacity issues going through the Hudson tunnels that connect Manhattan and New Jersey. If it’s impossible to add train departures even during mid-day, it may still be possible to have the trains depart from a New Jersey location that is accessible by rapid transit (i.e. Hoboken or Newark).

Everybody’s Talking about the Weather…

Friday, February 8th, 2013

With the snow storm hitting the North-East, and thousands of flights cancelled, I’m reminded of this ad from 1966. It’s for the Deutsche Bahn, the rail operator in (West) Germany at the time. It says “Everybody is talking about the Weather … not us”, and at the bottom, “just rather take the train, DB”.

Yes, the train does not rely on airports or cleared highways to run, and is at least in theory not disturbed by snow, low lying clowds, or vulcanic ash clouds. Often stranded due to weather, I have wished for a rail connection to where I wanted to go, not having to rely on airlines.

Of course this above ad seems optimistic nowadays, with the now semi-privatized ‘Die Bahn’ not being prepared for the winter as much as it used to, or when several Eurostar trains got stuck in the Channel Tunnel in 2009 due to “the wrong type of snow“. On the other hand, on that particular day, I was actually flying to Europe via London, had flights cancelled, and ended up stranded overnight on the Amsterdam airport – so I did not do much better than the people stuck in those trains.