Getting Value for Money – Diesel Light Rail Transit and LRT in Ottawa

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An interesting comment about the successful Diesel LRT operation in Ottawa. ‘Rail for The Valley’ must support Diesel LRT to start passenger service in the Fraser Valley as it negates the need for expensive electrical overhead or catenary. Certainly if ‘demand’ increases to the point of 15 minute or 10 minute operation, then electric LRT can be considered for some or all of the route. I think a 90 minute service to start is an achievable goal and is the kind of schedules what many European light railways operate on similar type lines.

In October 2001, Ottawa started service on its Light Rail Pilot Project named the O-Train. This project uses modern diesel light rail equipment on an existing north-south freight rail line on the west side of downtown Ottawa. This five-station route connects to Ottawa’s existing east-west bus Transitway system with simple stations at its north and south ends. Because it uses an existing rail line, it cost only about $4 million per kilometer to set up this 8km line, including the cost of track upgrades, signaling, simple stations, and three Bombardier Talent diesel light rail vehicles.

The north end station, Bayview, is at the west end of Lebreton Flats, a large brownfields area that had sat fallow for 40 years, though now being redeveloped. The Canadian War Museum is situated there. The south end station, Greenboro, is at the South Keys Shopping Centre, a huge big-box mall, surrounded on its east and south sides by multi-unit residential areas. Greenboro is the terminus for many south-end bus routes, and has a 620 space Park & Ride lot for the bus Transitway, which was only half utilized when the O-Train was being planned. By the time the O-Train started running, Park & Ride bus patrons filled the lot. The O-Train is in the unique situation of effectively having no park and ride capacity for its users, yet the O-Train has exceeded its original projected ridership by a wide margin.

The three other stations are at Carling Avenue, Carleton University, and Confederation Heights. Carling is one block from the Italian restaurant district on Preston Street, and two blocks from Dow’s Lake (Winterlude, Tulip Festival), and major government and private sector office buildings, and has four bus routes nearby. Carleton University station is the major attraction on the line, and sees all-day ridership with peaks in the morning, mid-morning, afternoon, and evening. Confederation Heights station has 8,000 office workers, mostly government with some private sector, has Brookfield High school nearby, and is served by six bus routes.

When the line opened, a huge influx of students started shopping at South Keys, because Carleton U is isolated on a peninsula between the Rideau River and Canal, was hard to access by bus or on foot, and had no stores nearby.

When the line opened, Mayor Bob Chiarelli announced that we would quickly expand Diesel Light Rail Transit on existing under-utilized rail lines that cross Ottawa east and west. He marvelled at the low cost of DLRT on existing rail lines, compared to the cost for bus Transitways which average $15 million/km.

Then, something happened. Mayor Chiarelli allowed planning for east-west rail to get bogged down in Environmental Assessment studies where City Staff tried to avoid re-use of existing rail corridors, and instead aimed for what would essentially be electrified LRT that becomes a circuitous slow streetcar line on busy streets in far-flung suburban areas rather than rapid transit.

The mayor announced that a $600 million project, using one-third funding from the federal and provincial governments each, and would replace the wildly successful O-Train (now carrying double its projected ridership of 5,000 – 6,000 per day). The proposed LRT would extend deep to the south beyond the Ottawa airport, and then abruptly turn west into a yet mostly unbuilt dormitory community of Riverside South, then across a new Strandherd Bridge over the Rideau River into the southeast corner of Barrhaven, another example of suburban sprawl.

In May of 2004, the City sent the O-Train out to VIA’s Fallowfield Station for the big funding announcement. I was sent as T2000’s representative. While standing on the platform beside the O-Train, I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t one of these reporters ask me the question, ‘If the O-Train can get to Barrhaven now, on existing VIA track, why do we need to build a $600 million line into Barrhaven through Riverside South?’ ” No one asked. Except, when I was at Central Station in Montreal ten months later, a VIA executive, without any prodding by me, said, “You know Tim, when you had your O-Train out at our Fallowfield Station last year, why didn’t someone ask the question, …?”

The City’s plan would be a fully double-tracked electric light rail line which would extend east from the Bayview station into downtown Ottawa, but would end awkwardly in the middle of the Mackenzie King Bridge at the Rideau Centre downtown shopping complex. The proposed end-point was then moved a little further east to end, still awkwardly, at the northern tip of Ottawa University, with no proper provision for transfers to buses.

The rock cut that the O-Train uses south of Bayview to the Dow’s Lake tunnel would be widened slightly, and a second tunnel built beside the original. Rather than build a second span beside the existing one, the single-track bridge at Carleton U over the Rideau River would be completely replaced with a double-track bridge. City staff had the consultants design the reconstruction in such a way that the line would have to be shut down for three years, rather than the three or four month summer shutdowns that council had mandated.

City staff wanted to alter the existing tunnel at Dow’s Lake to permanently prevent the passage of freight trains from Walkley yard to Gatineau over the Prince of Wales bridge. The O-Train line allowed for freight movement after O-Train operations shut down for the night. With world oil supplies about to peak, it seems to be a foolish thing to lose the last remaining link between the freight rail lines in Ontario and Quebec west of Montreal in the Ottawa Valley.

In order to fit the LRT onto Albert and Slater Streets downtown, 12% of Slater Street, and 29% of Albert Street buses would have to be removed. The way they were going to do this would be sure to depress bus ridership by at least as much as any gain in ridership on the LRT. When the LRT future ridership study was finally revealed reluctantly by City staff, it showed that only a little over 400 people per peak hour would ride from all three Barrhaven stations combined. The circuitous route that the train would take through Riverside South to get to Barrhaven ensured that the existing express buses from Barrhaven to downtown would be 10 to 15 minutes faster than the train. Thus, there would be no one riding the train, and no justification for reducing and redeploying, those buses. LRT would be very ineffi- cient and expensive compared to buses.

Total ridership projected for the LRT was a just over 40,000 per day, most of that coming from the section of the line that was already served by the existing O-Train, with ridership over 10,000 per day, and climbing at about 15% per year. In addition, City staff had decided that rather than re-use the existing DLRT vehicles on other rail lines around Ottawa, they were to be sold off, losing about $10 million in equity that the City had in them.

The cost of the mega-project was now approaching $1 billion, or 30 times what the original O-Train had cost, for only about four times the ridership. Plus, it did nothing for east-west transportation where there was real demand and serious road congestion.

As an important aside, it needs to be said that, when the bus Transitway was built, the promise was made to convert it to LRT when there was sufficient ridership. That point has long passed. Even with the Transitway, Ottawa continued to run express and local buses that duplicated each other’s routes and bring huge volumes of buses on Albert and Slater streets during rush hours. Ottawa transit officials have claimed that it would lose riders if people had to transfer, in spite of the fact that transit agencies everywhere structure themselves in terms of feeder and trunk routes and seem not to lose ridership by doing this. (Almost three-quarters of the O-Train users transfer from buses.)

Seeing that the LRT expansion was “going off the tracks” by becoming a hugely costly mega-project that missed the real transit needs of the city, a group of residents formed “Friends of the O-Train” in June of 2006, and presented a more practical plan for LRT expansion on Oct 30, 2006, just before the City election. Among its recommendations was keeping DLRT as part of Ottawa’s transit mix, with expansions on several existing but underutilized rail lines, and putting electrified LRT where it was really desperately needed on the downtown east-west Transitway corridor. This proposal caused quite a stir, and galvanized opposition among voters against the City’s flawed LRT plan.

A fair interpretation of Ottawa’s election result is that the public had major doubts about the mega-project LRT. Enough people saw fit to vote in a new Mayor, Larry O’Brien, who promised, and has set up, a Task Force to re-evaluate how transportation should evolve in Ottawa. A close council vote in December, 2006 defeated the proposed LRT expansion project, and we now await the outcome of the Task Force, due to report in June. Meanwhile, some city councillors are trying to get more busways started, spend money on double-decker buses, and a new garage to house them, in an attempt to show that they are not going to let the Mayor’s Task Force decide how transit should evolve in Ottawa.

By Tim Lane
7 February 2007

[From Transport 2000 Ontario Report, January/February 2007]

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