Call it a problem of thinking aloud…
Last Wednesday Denis Coderre was musing about public transit expansion and improvement when he let slip that he thought it might be possible for the Blue Line’s projected expansion to be moved outdoors.
His argument was simple – the average cost of at-grade light rail is roughly a quarter of what it would cost to extend the Métro underground.
And this is true, to a point.
However, there are several reasons why the Métro cannot be expanded outdoors, which I’ve listed here:
1. Our Métro trains aren’t designed to be used outside. This is true of the existing Métro trains as well as the new Azur trains (production of which has been delayed six months because the automated control software doesn’t work – the trainsets were ordered in 2010); ergo, if the Blue Line were extended above ground, the line would require an entirely new set of trains designed with outdoor operations in mind.
2. It’s because the system is ‘sealed off’ from the elements that we’ve been able to get so much service out of our Métro trains. The oldest trains have been in service since 1966. They would not have lasted nearly as long had they had to contend with snow, slush, corrosive road salt etc. (not to mention the wear and tear on the exposed tracks and the problems inherent with using an electrified third rail at ground level). We want the Azurs to be inservice even longer than the MR-63s and MR-73s – exposing them to the elements they weren’t designed to encounter will likely result in a shorter operational lifespan.
3. Alternatively, it is possible that an entirely new train be created to operate both inside tunnels and above ground, and this hypothetical train could operate exclusively on the Blue Line. This would be expensive. It would also prevent any future ‘interlining’ initiatives (wherein trains could hypothetically switch lines while in operation, offering more potential routes) and eliminate an efficient aspect of the Métro’s original design. If the whole reason behind considering the above ground extension option is cost effectiveness and efficiency, this is the wrong way to go about it.
4. Subterranean mass transit systems are subterranean for a reason. Usually, the presence of buildings above ground is the chief motivating factor for burrowing underneath. This is pretty elementary. It’s also why subway systems are typically found in the most densely populated parts of the city. So we need to ask ourselves – where is this above ground extension supposed to go? The AMT’s plan has been to follow Jean Talon Boulevard east from Saint-Michel station towards a likely terminus at the junction of highways 40 and 25 at the Galleries d’Anjou. If it’s too expensive to tunnel underground, how expensive will it be to expropriate the land necessary for a new above ground rail line?
5. Alternatively, if the above ground extension were to be simply a tram line running on Jean Talon Boulevard, why go to the trouble of integrating it into the Métro system? Call it a tram and have people transfer onto the Métro at Saint-Michel. Again, if keeping costs down is the ultimate goal, creating a Métro line that requires its own trains and operates both as a subway and a tram is not the way to go about it. It would require a substantial investment in new technology and infrastructure, and the Blue Line simply doesn’t generate enough traffic to merit it. The Blue Line is underused – it is the only Métro line to use six car trains rather than the standard nine car trains.
6. Trams are fundamentally different from the Métro and have different service expectations. Our Métro trains don’t have to contend with traffic, their routing and speed is centrally controlled by a computer. Unless the tram line is grade separated or otherwise runs on an express right of way, it would have to deal with traffic congestion on the street it runs on. Automated controls wouldn’t work with half the line having to deal with street traffic. Again, this would be an expensive alternative to what’s already assumed to be too expensive.
7. The mayor is right to be thinking with an eye to efficiency. Yes, tunnels are expensive and yes, light rail systems offer an efficient alternative. There’s considerable interest in developing a mass transit system based on standard gauge railways – which Montreal has in excess – and, based on the most recent news, will be building more of. Light rail’s main advantage is that it uses the same tracks used by heavy rail – freight, passenger and commuter – but can also be integrated into the existing roadway network. The other advantage is that a hypothetical light rail system would likely be electrically powered by overhead wires, the same method currently favoured by the AMT for its commuter rail lines. But integrating light rail with our existing Métro system would likely be a step too far, presenting a multitude of new costs. For this reason we should be prioritizing tram development over the Blue Line extension generally speaking.
8. But this doesn’t mean we should rule out the Métro altogether. If the province has earmarked $1 billion to be spent on the Métro, spend it on system improvement first. Before expanding, we need to assess what we have and bring it up to the highest possible standard. If there are deficiencies in the current system design, fix those defects first. Consider how few of our Métro stations are universally accessible. Or the complete and total lack of public washrooms. And let’s face it – some of our stations are downright ugly and most are aesthetically dated. Renovating and improving what we have could help encourage greater use and fundamentally, this ought to be our primary concern. Moreover, is the Blue Line the most deserving and requiring of expansion? Wouldn’t it be more effective and useful to close the Orange Line loop instead? Or to improve the tracks so as to permit line-switching, in turn allowing for express Métro trains?
9. And if the money is to be spent specifically on the Blue Line, wouldn’t it be wiser to increase the line’s usefulness? One of the reasons I suspect is responsible for the generally lower usage rate and smaller trains on the Blue Line is that it doesn’t connect directly to the downtown core, but rather serves to move people to either side of the Orange Line. Originally, the Blue Line was supposed to be connected to the Mount Royal Tunnel at Edouard-Montpetit station, permitting Métro users to transfer onto commuter trains underground for the five minute trip to Gare Centrale. If there was ever an improvement to make, this is it. It would give the Blue Line an entirely new raison-d’etre, cut down on passenger congestion on the Orange Line and Parc and Cote-des-Neiges bus corridors. Most importantly, it would provide an excellent impetus to Blue Line expansion in both directions, given that the Métro primarily serves to move citizens between the urban first ring residential neighbourhoods and the Central Business District.
Now, all that said, a few things to consider. The Blue Line extension project was a PQ initiative and so far all it is is a feasibility study whose results are due later on this year. The AMT is not actively planning a new Métro Line, just doing a study on an extension project that dates back to the mid-1980s. I’m not sure what it is they’re studying for the umpteenth time. The current Liberal government is not actively pursuing the Blue Line project – the official line is ‘wait for the feasibility study’.
Light rail seems to have a bright future in our city – based on the recent ‘agreement in principle’ with the Caisse de Dépot et Placement concerning infrastructure project financing, rail systems will be prioritized in the near term (such as the Train de l’Ouest) and light rail will hopefully be integrated into the new Champlain Bridge and airport express projects. Light rail is an attractive and generally uncomplicated option.
So let’s not re-invent the wheel trying to integrate outdoor rail systems with a very unique subway.
I don’t think we can handle any more feasibility studies.