Montreal's new $5.5-billion, 67 km train system modeled after Vancouver's SkyTrain

Jun 1 2016, 8:16 am

It took Vancouver more than 30 years to build a 68-kilometre-long, fully-automated SkyTrain light rail system. At a pace that is typically only seen in Chinese cities, Montreal plans to revolutionize its rail rapid transit system by building a similar 67-kilometre-long system in less than four years, with construction beginning as early as spring 2017.

Earlier this spring, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the pension fund for Quebec, announced its plans to build a $5.5 billion driverless commuter train system that will reach the outskirts of Montreal region’s suburban communities and provide a rail transit link to Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. The extensive system, dubbed the Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM), will double the length of the region’s existing Metro subway system, which has 68 stations on 69 kilometres of track on four lines.

By comparison, the REM will be built with 24 stations on three branch routes that converge into a single mainline route, with transfer points to three Metro stations in the downtown Montreal area including Central Station. This will be the third longest fully-automated train system in the world, behind the 80-kilometre-long Dubai Metro and 79-kilometre-long Vancouver SkyTrain (including the 11-kilometre-long Evergreen Line opening in early 2017) but just ahead of the 65-kilometre-long Singapore MRT.

Station map of the proposed REM system.

Image: CDPQ Infra

Image: CDPQ Infra

Stations are spaced relatively far apart in the outskirts given that this train network is designed to be an expansion of commuter rail services in the region, unlike urban or suburban rail services such as the Montreal Metro, Vancouver SkyTrain, and Toronto Subway. Thirteen of the stations will be built with park-and-ride facilities, which are common elements for commuter rail stations, and Agence métropolitaine de transport’s (AMT) existing Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line – including the Mount Royal Tunnel running through downtown and the north side of the island – will be converted into a portion of the REM’s mainline route. It improves the route’s commuter rail service while reducing construction costs in the process. Moreover, bus routes will be integrated to feed transit passengers into the new train system through major bus terminals at nine of the train stations.

Station map of the proposed REM system, with Montreal Metro and commuter rail lines.

Image: CDPQ Infra

Image: CDPQ Infra

Similar to Vancouver’s Canada Line, a system that CPDQ also has a financial stake in, trains will run every three to six minutes along the mainline and every six to 12 minutes on the three branch routes, including the train service from the airport to downtown. In contrast, the Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line is limited to every 2o to 30 minutes during rush hour and every hour outside of rush hour on weekdays.

But these high frequencies are only possible due to the nature of automation, which makes frequent train services significantly more economically feasible to operate. If there is a surge in demand, operators can easily and quickly increase frequency by deploying more trains by switching the controls at the operations centre.

With driverless technology, the operating costs are markedly lower than systems that require drivers and it has the potential to attract more ridership given that frequent services and superior reliability increase the utility of a transit system. Knowing that a train or bus will come soon, a transit service with a high frequency means transit users do not have to worry about service schedules. This reduces waiting times and connection times between transit services.

The system will possess an initial fleet of 200 electric, light metro cars powered by an overhead catenary instead of a track-level third rail. Four-car trains with a capacity for 600 passengers will operate during rush hour while two-car trains with a capacity for 300 passengers will operate during the off-peak hours. These trains will boast a maximum operating speed of 100 km/h, and stations will boast platform doors and an end-to-end platform length of 80 metres – just like Vancouver’s Expo and Millennium lines.

Even with the relatively short trains and platforms, the system will still be capable of reaching high capacity levels largely owing to the automation train systems and control’s capability to reach frequencies as high as every 90 seconds, which can be found on SkyTrain’s Expo Line during peak hours. After all, for instance, it is far more attractive to have a four-car train arrive every three minutes than a 12-car train every nine minutes, and systems with long trains generally cannot run higher frequencies.

Combine the high frequency factor with the low travel time factor, because the train service is fully-grade separated, and this becomes a service that is substantially more competitive against the freedom, flexibility, comfort, and generally low travel times provided by private vehicle. The likelihood that more people will leave their cars in the garage and take transit increases, and this is reflected by CDPQ’s optimistic ridership target of 150,000 daily riders during the first year. This figure represents a growth of 65,000 transit riders along the same corridors the REM train routes will serve.

CDPQ is committed to providing the project with $3 billion in funding and it is pursuing the provincial and federal government to cover the remaining $2.5 billion. Unlike the ongoing public transit debacle in Metro Vancouver, Quebéc’s provincial has been highly receptive to the ambitious transit project and is willing to put up $1.25 billion, with the federal government assuming the last $1.25 billion in senior government funding sought by the pension fund. The agreements for project’s funding could be finalized by late 2016 so that the shovels can start digging early next year.

The federal government’s announcement earlier this spring that it would commit $3.4 billion over three years to public transit, specifically small shovel-ready projects and deferred maintenance, represents the first phase of transit funding. The process for the much larger second phase begins next year and is expected to fulfill the remaining $20 billion committed to public transit projects over 10 years. Funding for new and major transit projects is expected to arrive from this second phase, of which the federal government will fund up to 50%.

If the project proceeds as planned, this will be one of the Quebec pension plan’s largest infrastructure investments, which are attractive assets as it provides scheduled and reliable revenues. A case in point is InTransitBC, the joint venture private company that was contracted by TransLink to design, build, and operate the Canada Line over a 35-year concession agreement. The company is also jointly owned by Quebec-based engineering giant SNC Lavalin and the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, the B.C. equivalent of CDPQ.

Integral to the contract was a $750 million investment by InTransitBC towards the $2.05 billion construction cost of the 19-kilometre-long automated rapid transit rail line linking downtown Vancouver with Vancouver International Airport and the suburban city of Richmond in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The latest numbers indicate the line is running nearly 130,000 passengers per weekday, well above original ridership estimates. CDPQ’s decision to spearhead and largely finance the REM plan could be indicative of the success of its involvement with the Canada Line.

When REM is complete, Montreal’s rail rapid transit system – including the existing Metro subway – will have a total length of 137 kilometres, effectively making it Canada’s longest rail rapid transit system by a huge margin. And to top things off, the REM will be Canada’s only rail rapid transit system with free Wi-Fi connectivity.

The extensive train system is expected to generate $3 billion in economic activity and 7,500 direct and indirect jobs for Quebec during the four-year construction phase. Upon opening, it will create over 1,000 permanent jobs.

CDPQ also notes that the new train system could lead to $5 billion in new residential and commercial developments near REM stations. Similarly, there have been 15 major development projects along the Canada Line since the system opened in 2009.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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