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.