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.


  1. How do we make public transport projects less grandiose?

  2. Transit projects should be grandiose when they need to be grandiose, while they should be more modest when that's what's required. What's great about the O-Train is that it delivers all the benefits of grade-separated rail transit, which is usually a pretty grandiose project, with the cost of painting a bus lane.