What’s wrong with the REM? A feature report on Quebec’s mass transit con

“Just like the construction of the Olympic Stadium, Montrealers can do little but watch billions in public money wasted on a glamour project of dubious necessity.”

Every time there’s an announcement about the Réseau express métropolitain (REM), the pundits, politicians and PR hacks frame it like a late-night infomercial advertising some product you never knew existed but was now available to solve your and all the world’s problems. Finally, they exclaim, Montreal is getting the REM.

Ever since the government of Quebec awarded a no-bid, sole-sourced contract to the provincial pension fund (the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, or CDPQ) to build a new mass transit system, I’ve been concerned this might not be the best idea. I support public transit because I believe it’s the best way to control carbon-dioxide emissions and to make cities far more liveable. Congestion, pollution and emissions all work together in depreciating our quality of life, and I often find myself wondering how we might use our public spaces differently if we only had to contend with a quarter, third or half as many cars.

That aside, the REM is behind schedule, over-budget and bits and pieces of it are being scaled back. It will open later than originally stated, have fewer stations and may not go to all the places we were told it would. Perhaps more disturbingly, both the CDPQ and the political class are now talking about extending it all over the metropolitan region, as though more of this overhyped panacea to all our transit and traffic woes will distract us from the fact that it hasn’t even gotten off the ground yet.

Much like a runaway freight train, there’s little hope of stopping the REM. Indeed, our future REM trains are supposed to be fully automated — no need for pesky unionized transit employees dipping into the profit margin — and so likely won’t have anyone aboard to hit the brakes in case of an emergency. The REM — and this cannot be forgotten — was a decision of the Quebec government in collaboration with the provincial institutional investor, the CDPQ. Neither Denis Coderre nor Valérie Plante had anything to do with it, despite what they may tell you. This was never Montreal’s decision to make, as our transit agency was never initially consulted.

The main reason why the REM won’t be stopped, no matter how many problems it produces, is because there will be incredible financial penalties to pay. Moreover, the work that’s already been done has been so expensive that no government would risk pumping the brakes to re-evaluate just what exactly it is we’re doing, or ask the question whether this is really worth it.

All we can do at this point is complete the project and try to wrestle back some control into the hands of the people who need and use public transit, rather than those who seek to profit off it.

So with all this mind, let’s consider some of the most recent developments.

Anyone who’s not too stoned to recall 2015-16 (when the REM was first announced) will doubtless remember the centrality of the airport connection. Finally — we were told so many times — Montreal would have a quick and efficient connection to the airport. Now it seems that Aeroports de Montréal is unable to come up with the estimated $600-million to build the connection. It’s a neat idea to have direct public transit connections between airports and city centres, but in Montreal’s case the passenger estimate for the new airport stop isn’t terribly impressive. One estimate prepared for the CDPQ back in 2016-2017, and based on data from 2015, put the daily average number of airport REM station boardings between 4,600 in 2021 (what was supposed to be the first year of operation) and 5,600 in 2031 (after a decade-long “ramp-up” in use). This would put the airport REM station in the same range as some of the lesser used metro stations. Some of the more optimistic pre-pandemic projections indicated 10,000 passengers will use the station per day. While it’s true the number of passengers using Trudeau airport has been steadily increasing over the years, it was still just 20 million passengers per annum, and that was before the pandemic. It may not be until the end of this decade that we get back to that level of passengers, and of course, the major reductions in flights also means major reductions in airport workers too, further sapping the number of people who may use a new REM airport station.

The airport station reveals other shortcomings of the REM. The way the system was designed, the only trains that will run directly to the airport are those leaving the McGill/Central Station nexus downtown. If your starting point is on the South Shore, in Deux Montagnes or in the West Island, you’ll have to switch trains, as none of those branches will run trains going directly to the airport.

While the estimated travel time between downtown Montreal and the airport will probably clock-in at 20-25 minutes, passengers coming from other areas can expect much longer commutes. For the majority of West Islanders, Lavalois and people living on the western side of the off-island suburbs, taking a cab or driving will unfortunately still be the most efficient way to get to the airport. And at 20-25 minutes, the REM isn’t that much more competitive on the downtown-airport run than the existing bus service.

Worse, it’s not like Montreal can take the $600-million earmarked for the airport station and use it somewhere else — like buying 600 brand-new electric buses from a local bus manufacturer (NovaBus’s fanciest, fully electric buses cost $1-million apiece). For comparison’s sake, 600 new buses, each carrying 80 passengers, just increased Montreal’s public transit capacity by 48,000 people per minute. This would be a considerable improvement over the few thousand additional passengers handled by the airport stop, but more significantly, the buses, unlike the REM, can go anywhere.

Why are we so caught up with the idea of riding the REM to the airport? It probably stems from the same minds that think a REM monorail over René-Lévesque is also a good idea. In sum, Montreal’s getting transit solutions to problems that don’t really exist, dreamt up by people who may not live here and likely haven’t used public transit in decades.

The people who are calling the shots consistently pitch the REM as a solution both to congestion as well as something that will encourage people to abandon their cars and hop on board the sustainability train. They pitch the REM as something “cool” that people will look forward to trying, and I can’t help but wonder how many of these people marvelled at the various new fangled transit technologies demoed at Expo 67, like hovercrafts (no longer will your boat be confined to water!) or gondolas (they’re not just for Switzerland anymore!).

Yes, people do need to be encouraged to take public transit, but this won’t happen if you spend several years ripping up the existing transit infrastructure. The STM’s ridership numbers were increasing steadily year over year until the Coderre administration made serious service cutbacks in 2014. Consequently, use declined, something REM construction exacerbated.

When it was originally proposed, the REM was supposed to use existing infrastructure. The public was assured that the construction of the REM would have a minimal impact on extant infrastructure. But rather than buying trains to fit extant infrastructure, the CDPQ instead decided to build everything anew, from the trains to the track to the power systems. In so doing, the most-used commuter train line in Greater Montreal was shut down, and the excessively expensive Mascouche Line was cut off from downtown Montreal, rendering it essentially useless. New double-decker trains bought less than a decade ago are no longer needed. It goes on and on like this. Just like the construction of the Olympic Stadium, Montrealers can do little but watch a white elephant get built, billions in public money wasted on glamour projects of dubious necessity.

There’s a common denominator to this mess: Montreal’s transit isn’t planned by Montreal. The REM was always a Quebec government and CDPQ project, and it’s worth pointing out that the CDPQ had no prior experience in the construction or management of mass transit systems, let alone public transit.

Montreal is actually legally prohibited from developing its own public transit systems (see item #151 here). That is to say, if Montreal had $10-billion lying around, it would still not be allowed to expand the metro.

We have no choice but to involve middlemen in our own transit planning decisions. With regards to the REM, the Quebec government handed incredible power over to the CDPQ. They were given exclusive rights to public infrastructure (like the new Champlain Bridge and the Mount Royal Tunnel) and further granted non-compete agreements with other modes and services of public transit. Looping back to the issue of the airport station, the CDPQ actually managed to get the government to agree to force the STM to cancel the 747 airport shuttle to give the REM exclusive airport access (see pp. 10-11 here).

No public transit planner would ever plan transit like this.

Once the REM becomes operational, all other transit modes and systems will be reoriented to serve it. Eliminating duplication may seem like a good idea to the number crunchers, but users and planners understand that operational redundancy is vital. A healthy transit system offers multiple ways to get between points A and B — not only does this offer users choice, it helps spread people out and offers alternatives in case of service disruptions.

What concerns me most of all about the REM — aside from the fact that we’re essentially subsidizing the CDPQ’s real-estate development plans and being used as guinea-pigs for their infrastructure development business — is that we’ve been forced to hand over control of public transit to a for-profit organization. The CDPQ included a clause stating their annual return on investment would be set at 10% irrespective of the REM’s actual revenues. If the REM doesn’t produce this return, taxpayers foot the difference.

There’s nothing really novel about the REM. It’s just another imposition on the city of Montreal by people who claim to have our best interests at heart, but are truly only interested in sucking as much money out of the public purse as they possibly can. The REM is shiny and new, and may or may not reach the airport, but it isn’t the boring old solutions that would likely have the best overall impact. There are experts, but they weren’t consulted. There were consultations, but the people were ignored. There was an environmental assessment that was highly critical of the project, and then-Premier Couillard decided it had exceeded its mandate. We were given the bare minimum opportunity to speak, but no one was really listening.

So what do we do now?

It’s an election year, there’s a good chance Coderre will run, and he’ll likely position himself as the REM king. Mayor Plante, not wanting to be upstaged, will likely match or exceed whatever Coderre’s position is on transit development. Expect a lot of talk about a Blue Line extension to Anjou (finally!), more talk about a Train de l’Est and/or some kind of Pink Line/ Train de l’Est amalgam (finally!!) and monorails over René-Lévesque (finally!!!). They’ll likely each have a position on the airport connection as well, and here Montrealers may have a chance at regaining a degree of control over public transit. We can say no, we can demand the REM be subsumed into the STM and we can insist the citizens and government of Montreal be given the control they deserve over their own transit systems.

We have no need for more white elephants. ■

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