Thursday, April 24, 2014

The O-Train Model: Affordable Rail Transit for North America

Source: JVL Photography (

We’ve become accustomed in recent years to the idea that even modest rail transit projects cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. But there’s a model right here in Ontario that shows that high quality rail transit can be developed for a small fraction of that cost. Ottawa’s O-Train uses off-the-shelf German railcars to provide fast and reliable trains every 15 minutes. It’s 8km long, has five stations, and is grade-separated so that it never has to wait for turning cars or red lights. And all of it was built for $21 million dollars, the cost of less than a kilometre of Toronto on-street LRT.

How did Ottawa manage to develop a high quality rail transit service for so little money? It starts with using an existing lightly used freight rail corridor that provided a useful north-south route across the city through Carleton University. Another key was defining it as a “pilot project”, so it was exempted from out-dated regulations and didn’t require years of multi-million dollar studies before construction could begin. Rather than buying custom-made trains like most projects in North America, no matter how small, they bought off-the-shelf Talent trains that had been proven in widespread use in Germany. Finally, rather than building elaborate multi-million dollar stations, they either adapted existing Transitway stations or built a simple asphalt platform with an ordinary bus shelter. This focus on simplicity, ease of construction, and off-the-shelf equipment allowed the project to be built in a fraction of the time and at a tiny fraction of the cost of normal North American rail transit projects.

The possibilities opened up by the order-of-magnitude lower price per kilometre of an O-Train-style project are immense. Smaller cities and even rural areas can enjoy quality rail rapid transit if they have an existing rail corridor that provides a useful route. For example, Cambridge—currently excluded from the Waterloo Region LRT project—could be included with a route from Fairview Mall through Preston to Galt along the existing freight spur for a cost that would be a rounding error on the overall LRT project. With modest track work, Windsor could have a line from Devonshire Mall or Walkerville through the University of Windsor to Lasalle. These are just a few examples of small and mid-size cities that could easily afford rail transit if it comes at the price of a bus lane.

The O-Train model is also relevant for major cities on peripheral or suburban routes. In New York, this approach could be used to activate the Rockaway Beach branch for a fraction of the projected cost, or even (with some additional challenges) to build the TriboroRx. It can then be upgraded over time, as demand growth requires. The O-Train should be a model that is emulated throughout North America.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

CityRail: Getting Toronto Moving

CityRail: Getting Toronto Moving was published in Urban Toronto on January 28, reintroducing the CityRail concept. It has generated considerable interest and feedback. Best of all, it has inspired people to build on the concept with maps and presentations. Designer Iain M. Campbell created an extraordinary graphical presentation that effectively explains what CityRail is and why we need it. There is also an excellent new map of the concept.

CityRail now enjoys a permanent home on its new Facebook group. Only a week old, it already has over 70 members and is growing quickly. There is also a CityRail Twitter account for immediate notification of all updates: @CityRailToronto.

I hope that the momentum of the CityRail concept and the campaign for rapid transit on our existing rail corridors will continue to build. There will be many articles to come going into greater detail and explaining the benefits that CityRail will bring.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Neptis Report Response

This post is in response to Michael Schabas, who very kindly responded to my review of his report on Metrolinx's "Big Move" prepared for the Neptis Foundation.

I greatly appreciate you taking the time to respond to my review. I found your study of Metrolinx’s plans to be very informative and well thought-out. I also felt that your inclusion of real regional rail in the study was an excellent choice.

I definitely agree that loco-hauled trains have a purpose, but I think they’re best used on longer distance, limited stop trips where their acceleration time penalty is less important. That’s generally how they are used in Germany: Dostos operate many RegioBahn and RegioExpress services, while S-Bahns in major cities are all-EMU. I’m definitely a supporter of two distinct levels of service, like in Germany, with CityRail providing rapid transit-style service roughly out to the inner edge of the Greenbelt, and a Regional Express service, perhaps locomotive-hauled, out to places like Barrie, Kitchener, and Niagara Falls. It could make limited stops within the GTA and operate less frequently, perhaps hourly or twice-hourly. Bilevels would be less of an issue on those trains as the bilevel loading and unloading time penalty would be less problematic than on the high-frequency CityRail services. They would be a good place to use the existing GO rolling stock for the rest of its service life.

While I am obviously a big supporter of real regional rail, I think that the DRL is a very important project precisely because the corridor can’t be very well served by regional rail. Connections from surface routes, including the Eglinton Crosstown, to the Richmond Hill line, which is the closest parallel to the DRL, would be extremely awkward given its deep valley location. Its winding route makes it slower than other regional rail routes and the risk of flooding also poses problems in an era of concerns about “resiliency.” I agree that connections at Main Street could be designed to be as painless as possible, but it is still not an ideal setup and would impose a time penalty. The DRL is a case where, unlike the other regional rail corridors, the existing corridor isn’t adequate to meet the area’s needs. A new corridor is needed.

The DRL is also incredibly useful because it would be able to provide a very fine-grained service to some of the fastest-developing parts of the city. It’s hard to argue that stations in Leslieville, Liberty Village, Cityplace, the East Bayfront, or the West Don Lands would not be very well used. While I agree that some of the DRL’s future riders are currently be using the east-west streetcar routes, those lines provide a pretty poor service over long distances, which is why their ridership has been dropping steadily for two decades. Better service could attract back many people who have given up on the 501. As it extends up Don Mills, which wouldn’t be possible for a regional rail route, it would serve the heavily developed area along that street as well as effectively connect to a number of very busy bus routes. This would also dramatically improve service for many existing riders and could attract people to transit who currently find the car more attractive than a long bus ride to the Yonge subway. I am not certain how well the TTC’s ridership modelling for the project accounts for all of these potential new sources of ridership. Even if it would not necessarily add as many new riders as other routes, as your report suggests, I think that the dramatic improvement in service quality for thousands of existing transit riders makes the project very worthwhile.

It makes perfect sense that Bombardier would be much more receptive to a contract cancellation if they got a comparably large contract as a replacement. That would be a very good way to reduce the cost of cancellation, though this decision would need to be made almost immediately.