Thursday, June 7, 2007

Take the O-Train home

A few months after the city council in the nation's capital scuttled the old idea for light rail transit in Ottawa, a blue ribbon panel led by David Collenette has come up with a much more ambitious plan. The old blueprint called for a rather experimental train line to be built at surface through downtown on a route that would have been actually slower than the already successful existing bus Transitway and the "temporary" O-Train that is really an express train for Carleton University (with no connection to the airport, bizarre as that sounds). It would have also suspended the O-Train service for two years with no logical explanation for it.

The new proposal is much more ambitious and long term with expansions planned out over the next thirty years. The key to this one is using existing freight train lines which is the model in many cities in Europe -- some portions of the London Underground, for instance, are run on the British Rail network with somewhat more frequent service than suburban commuter rail. In fact, the present O-Train does use this model with freight trains running overnight when the transit system shuts down for the day. By having several rail lines and not just one, bus routes could be shortened and theoretically commuting times reduced since the "spines" would handle the express routes. In other words, it would be a "hub and spoke" approach.

The potential snag is building a tunnel through downtown Ottawa, about three kilometres long. While this is certainly more aesthetic than a surface rail line that would have had to compete with traffic -- traffic which is getting as bad as in Toronto or Hamilton -- experience in Canada shows tunnel lines tend to have huge cost overruns. The expansion of the Montréal Métro into Laval ran more than three times the original estimate (contrary to what the Collenette report claims), just as an example. Not to mention the huge inconvenience during the construction of such a tunnel even if the tunnel is bored rather than built by "cut and cover."

The trains would be diesel-electric in that they would run on diesel on surface lines while switching to electricity underground. Eventually, the whole system would run on electricity. Presuming the power comes from green sources (e.g. such as Calgary's C-Train which is run on wind power off of turbines in the Bow Valley) this could be a real win for the environment.

So what are the issues?

Well, the plan is quite bold and unlike the old transit plan takes into account that it has to fully integrate Gatineau into the picture. After all the National Capital Region extends on both sides of the provincial border and people on the Québec side of the river. However, it's hard to see the Québec government chipping into a project that will, even by 2017, mostly benefit the Ontario side -- they'll probably sit out until the later stages.

And while a strong argument can be made that the NCR should really be its own province, both Ontario and Québec see their borders as inviolable -- and the separation question isn't going away anytime soon.

Another issue is the talk for private-public partnerships to built it -- P3. We in Hamilton had a lot of fun when several contractors ran our water supply including Enron (yes, Enron!). If private business can't be trusted to maintain the sewers why would they be trusted to build public transit of this scale on time and under budget unless severe and binding penalties were imposed at the time of the contract?

Another potential problem is that it would eventually replace the Transitway lines. That's not necessarily a good thing. Bus rapid transit (BRT) can be a very cost-effective way of moving people around. It's worked extremely well in Ottawa, has been very successful in York Region in just the first couple years of its operation there and is coming in the next year or two to Mississauga and Brampton. It's also the preferred solution for Hamilton's transit woes (I'll get to that shortly). There's no point spending hundreds of millions building new rights-of-way or even rail on top of an existing roadbed, even if it is a dedicated bus road to reduce service frequency to ten or fifteen minutes when buses running at five minutes or less are more practical.

It's true the Transitway can get overcrowded at times but I'm not sure people in Carp or Stittsville would like huge trains, or even squat trains at ground level, running all day and disturbing their still quite rural way of life in the big city. The reason why Ottawa's BRT is a bottleneck right now is because there is no bus tunnel as was in the original plan in the 1980s. Nor do buses get priority signalling (the vertical white line that is seen on some bus routes in Toronto and Montréal) which forces them to compete with the automobile. Otherwise, there would be no need for this "think big" plan. If I was in Ottawa I'd rather have the trains for downtown and built-up suburban areas but have BRT for rural areas.

So ... what lessons does it have for Toronto and Hamilton? Well, Toronto is already seeing both BRT and LRT as the wave of the future; and Hamilton's considering BRT as well. Basic points:

The routes chosen must be well travelled or have the potential to be. Service frequency must make it worth leaving the car at home. Fares have to be reasonable (obviously). In case P3 is chosen, the contractors (not the taxpayers) should be held liable for failure to perform up to standards. Where possible, dedicated routes should be built or at least lanes assigned -- with signalling priority at all intersections, not just the "major" ones. And the stations and/or interchanges should actually be inviting and act as a "soft welcome" to the system; not built by committee like the Bloor-Danforth Line in Toronto was.

Could the Ottawa plan work? It has some defects. But it's certainly more practical than the subways to nowhere approach we've come to expect from many city governments. It should seriously be considered. I hope Harper and McGuinty do so as well.

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