rem de l'est montreal transit

The REM de l’Est: Blood on the tracks, or parasitic zombie?

The plan for a subterranean REM de l’est has been scrapped, but what remains of the Montreal transit extension is a mess.

The latest news in our city’s never-ending saga to stay ahead of the curve and transition to a more ecologically sustainable transit and transport network is that the Quebec government is scrapping the idea of a completely subterranean eastward REM extension because its estimated $36-billion cost is too high. Asked to find a “financially responsible proposal,” the Regional Metropolitan Transport Authority (ARTM) plans to deliver studies by the end of October on the possibility of a rapid bus service (SRB — BRT in English), a tram or a light rail transport (SLR — LRT in English) system.

What Quebec thinks the difference is between the REM and an LRT is anyone’s guess at this point, since the REM is an LRT, and a subterranean REM — the government’s former proposal — might be aptly called a metro.

It is surprising that the government suddenly got cold feet on the idea of extending the REM eastwards, given that, despite the fact the REM is 45% above budget (recent reports indicate an increase of only 26% from the $6.3-billion announced in 2018 when the project started, though it was in fact initially estimated to cost $5.5-billion when first announced, but I digress), years behind schedule and still not completely open, it seems to be functioning more or less well, despite the initial kinks.

Those matters aside, the $36-billion estimate makes me wonder if the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain’s (ARTM) report wasn’t intended from the outset as a way for Quebec Premier François Legault to portray himself as a responsible steward of provincial finances. Torpedoing another transit project—and a Montreal one to boot — as an expensive pipe dream may do more for the premier’s popularity than actually getting anything built. 

As expected, Legault condemned the project as unrealistic and further claimed the experts were wrong in their determination that the project should be entirely underground. 

The issue isn’t whether we can afford it, but whether this is a good use of $36-billion. I’d say it isn’t, but it has nothing to do with whether the REM should be above or below ground. Nor does it have anything to do with the route or the technology used.

The question we should be asking ourselves is: How many cars can we permanently remove from our streets and how many more daily passengers can we add to our public transit system for the least possible amount of money (so that more money can be used to expand and improve public transit)?

This should be the primary question guiding all transit projects, especially in the era of the climate emergency where resources are already scarce and need to be optimally used. This summer, Quebec experienced its worst forest fires of all time, and those fires are as much a consequence of climate change as they are exacerbating it.

Don’t get me wrong — spending $36-billion on transit would be amazing, but not if it only increases daily transit use by 29,000 new passengers. It’s far too little return on the investment, and frankly it doesn’t seem like those responsible for transit development in Montreal are taking either their responsibilities — or the gravity of the climate emergency — very seriously.

Paris, and what the French do right

For comparison’s sake, Paris’s major new transit project — the Grand Paris Express — is projected to increase transit use by two million passengers per day. The project, one of the most expensive and ambitious in European history, will add 68 new transit stations, over 200 kilometers of new track, and will effectively double the size of the city’s metro system. 

And how much are the Parisians paying for this monster transit mega-project? 

$53-billion in Canadian dollars, about 35.6-billion Euros, just $17-billion more than what’s been proposed, and then rejected, to modestly improve transit access in Montreal’s East End.

For $53-billion, Paris gets to double the size of their metro system (much of which will serve the city’s suburbs) and get two million people each day to abandon their cars for public transit. About 80% of the new system will be underground.

But for $36-billion, the people of Montreal were only going to get 21 new stations on 34 kilometers of new track, serving just 29,000 more people per day.

Interestingly, the Parisians also thought that their project was far too expensive — by about 12-billion Euros. But they pressed ahead and built it anyways, while the REM de l’Est now seems to have been sent back to the drawing board. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — we’re evidently not getting much bang for our transit dollar — but what’s discouraging is that we’ll likely wind up being forced to accept less while seemingly everyone else is pushing ahead to accomplish more. The government’s suggestion of bus rapid transit or a different kind of light rail seems to confirm this.

Screwing over Mascouche

This is the story of East-End Montreal transit development for the better part of the last 40 years: over-promise, under-deliver and always let politics get in the way of sensible urban planning.

How we got here is worth considering. In a word, blame the REM. In a turn of phrase, blame path dependency: poor decisions of the past placing constraints on future options.

About 10 years ago, the Mascouche commuter rail line was opened at a cost of $670-million, more than double the original estimate. It included 13 kilometers of new railway track, the construction of 10 new stations, and, most importantly, provided access directly to Gare Centrale. The Mascouche line provided a direct link to the city centre for eastern off-island suburbs as much as the densely populated and somewhat underserved on-island suburbs of Montréal-Nord, Saint-Michel, Anjou and Saint-Leonard.

Less than six years later, in 2020, the Mascouche line was re-routed because of the construction of the REM. Severed from accessing Gare Centrale through the Mount Royal Tunnel, the Mascouche line had to take the long way around much of the West End to eventually reach Windsor Station. As of next year, however, the Mascouche line will end at the planned Côte-de-Liesse REM station, forcing passengers to disembark and take the REM downtown. 

I’m predicting now that this will be unpopular with commuters, and potentially spell the end of the Mascouche line, as passengers will not only have to disembark to reach their destination, but will then have to contend with REM trains heading downtown from three different origin points (Deux-Montagnes, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue and the airport). Those trains will probably be completely full by the time they make it to the Côte-de-Liesse REM station, and increased frequency might not make up for the REM’s lower passenger volume per train.

The Mascouche line was never a particularly busy train line, though I’d argue it was never given much of a chance either, having only been in service for about seven years before the REM got in the way. Greater cooperation between the AMT (now Exo), ARTM and the STM might have funneled more city buses towards the Mascouche line, taking advantage of its direct connection to the city centre. Had they done so, the Mascouche line might have become something of an East End equivalent to the Deux-Montagnes line, which, before the REM eliminated it, was the AMT/Exo’s most used commuter train.

The CDPQ argued that cutting these train lines off from accessing Gare Centrale was unavoidable, as the Mount Royal Tunnel would be dedicated to running the REM. But it didn’t have to be this way. At the REM’s early planning stages, it was pitched as a train that could be adapted to Montreal’s existing railway infrastructure, one of the reasons it was claimed that the REM would be so comparatively inexpensive. Over time, this gradually changed to a complete reconstruction of the entire railway network, meaning that the REM — and only the REM — would use the Mount Royal Tunnel and other formerly public rail infrastructure handed over to the CDPQ for its exclusive use. This might have been anticipated, as transit development in Montreal — like just about everywhere else in North America — isn’t about limiting costs, but of spreading public investment around as much as possible.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CDPQ rebuilt practically the entire length of the Deux-Montagnes line to fit the REM, rather than buy a train that could use the existing infrastructure. Increasing the cost of the project was always going to be the cost of doing business. Had anyone in government pushed back on this, we might have been able to run both the existing fleet of commuter trains and the REM on the same tracks, using higher capacity commuter trains at rush hour and the REM the rest of the time. Why the government okayed such an important change that would ultimately result in the de facto privatization of public infrastructure (not to mention make that infrastructure less useful) is anyone’s guess, but it may have something to do with the CDPQ seeking to profit off the REM.

Think Pink

This situation was bad enough, but was then made worse when Valérie Plante drew a Pink line on a metro map and defeated Baseball Boss Tweed (Denis Coderre) to become mayor of Montreal. That was six years ago and, you guessed it, there’s still no Pink metro line.

The idea of building a metro line through some of the most densely populated parts of the city isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but Plante quickly demonstrated her inexperience when she indicated that the Pink line would be tunneled, and that its western section would be outdoors. One of the reasons why the metro we have was so inexpensive is that it was mostly built using the ‘cut and cover’ technique (i.e. excavating a trench, usually under a street, building a tunnel and then covering it over). ‘Cut and cover’ can be considerably less expensive than tunnel boring. An additional factor that has kept costs low over the course of the metro’s 60+ years of operation is that trains never go outside: by not being exposed to snow and salt, metro trains don’t corrode or break down as quickly as they might otherwise, which is chiefly why we have trains with a 50-year shelf life. As ambitious as Plante’s Pink line was, it had two crucial flaws that would have made it unnecessarily more expensive.

Whether Plante’s estimate that the Pink line could be completed for $6-billion in six years was overly optimistic is an issue worth considering, but bear in mind the idea that the northeast corner of the island needs better transit access is at least in part a consequence of the development of the REM in the first place. Had the Mascouche line not been cut off from Gare Centrale, it may have been optimized with better connections to other transit modes (something that, incidentally, is going to happen anyway, with the Pie-IX SRB connecting the line to the Green line and, eventually, the Blue line extension as well). 

Connect none

Three years after Plante’s Pink line proposal got her elected, the province came around with yet another plan to improve transit in the eastern districts of the city: the REM de l’Est. 32 kilometres of track, 23 new stations, at a cost of $10-billion. Construction was supposed to have begun this year. The project now seems to be completely abandoned, though announcements to that effect occurred in 2022 as well, so who knows. The REM de l’Est had a number of problems, namely that it, too, was going to run both underground and above ground — on ugly concrete pillars, no less — and wouldn’t be connected to the rest of the REM network (and if you’re starting to notice a pattern here, you’re not wrong).

If there’s an unfortunate common denominator about the REM, it is incompatibility and a lack of integration with other transit systems. The REM cut the Mascouche line off from Gare Centrale and cut off Exo’s commuter trains from the Mount Royal Tunnel. People taking the REM from the South Shore won’t be able to ride it to the airport, Deux-Montagnes or the West Island without switching trains between the Gare Centrale and McGill stations. The REM de l’Est trains were going to make it about as far as Place Bonaventure without being connected to the railway network used by the REM that lies underneath. The REM has been extended as far as the airport but won’t be connected to the Dorval train station, less than a kilometre away. On and on it goes. It’s almost like they’re deliberately trying to make public transit as inconvenient as possible. One wonders whether the presence of all those downtown shopping malls, located in buildings conveniently owned by the CDPQ, didn’t motivate the decision to force passengers to disembark and walk through them to then get back on another train to make it to their destination.

The new plan, that which Mon’onc Frank Lego torpedoed for being too expensive, wasn’t even going to make it downtown — remember what I said about paying more and settling for less? The rebranded REM de l’Est, now called the Projet structurant de l’Est, was to funnel passengers onto the Green line and cover parts of the northeast and off-island suburbs that are already covered by the Mascouche line. It’s remarkable, actually, just how close the REM de l’Est is to the underused railway line, and to other transit projects, such as the Blue line extension and the Pie-IX SRB, in some cases just a couple streets away from existing or soon to be completed mass transit systems. While there’s a good reason to have operational redundancy in mass transit (e.g. having bus lines follow metro lines), in this case a high-frequency rail system will parallel a commuter train, and intersect with a bus rapid transit line and a metro line extension, and none of them will go downtown!

Despite the premier saying it’s not going to happen, who declared herself particularly enthusiastic at the transit report’s conclusion? None other than Mayor Plante, who is now in favour of an entirely underground REM that costs six times as much as her Pink line proposal did six years ago and provides no access to downtown Montreal, something Plante once said was a must.

But wait — there’s more!

Just a week after the ARTM’s report was released in July, Christian Savard, executive director of Vivre en Ville and formerly one of the experts working on the ARTM report, indicated his belief that the better idea would be a “REM rose.” In this case it would be an entirely underground train line, presumably using REM technology, running from downtown Montreal all the way up to Montréal-Nord. 

Cost: $17- to $24-billion, which is apparently what the Pink line’s revised cost was estimated at in 2020. 

I’m surprised this isn’t Mayor Plante’s preferred solution, though I think by this point it’s abundantly clear that no one has the slightest clue what to do. The “REM rose” is better than the revamped REM de l’Est plan was in that it will actually connect to the city centre and work its way through some of the city’s most densely populated neighbourhoods (and therefore won’t simply follow the paths of extant transit lines), but using REM trains in what will essentially be a metro tunnel doesn’t make any sense. The REM has a lower passenger volume than either commuter or metro trains, but these are high-population density areas, and the whole point of the Pink line was to help decongest these neighbourhoods and provide their residents with the benefits of metro-level access to the city centre. Putting REM trains in a tunnel running through a densely populated area of the city is a waste of a tunnel as much as the trains purchased to run in it, as they won’t be able to meet the likely passenger demand for high-speed, high-volume transport to the city centre, and wouldn’t be compatible with the rest of the metro system. And as we’ve already seen with the REM’s commandeering of the Mount Royal Tunnel, the REM’s not designed with inter-operability in mind. If the city has as its goal the desire to reduce car use and get as many people onto public transit, they shouldn’t cut themselves off at the knees by then building a tunnel designed to use low-volume trains. 

In much the same way that the REM made the Mascouche line far less useful than it might have been, it then also created an artificial need to improve transit access and service in the very area the Mascouche line served. Not even 10 years later, we’re struggling to come up with solutions to problems exacerbated by the REM, and the best those in power can come up with is more REM, and built in such a way that it then creates even more problems later on.

Which brings us back to why the French can double the size of the Paris metro in 10 years at a cost of $53-billion to put two million more people on public transit and we couldn’t even begin to imagine doing anything even half as well. It’s not because the French are any better at their jobs or because their politicians are any less corrupt, but entirely because of the fact that they plan transit infrastructure projects with clearly articulated environmental and traffic goals in mind, while our politicians use infrastructure projects for primarily political ends. North America is unique in this respect: only here is infrastructure nearly prohibitively expensive, and it isn’t because we’re taking better care to build things better than elsewhere. It’s all about spreading public money around amongst the minority of citizens involved directly in the construction of the project, and not ensuring that the public purse benefits the population at large. Eventually we might realize something has gone seriously off the rails, but considering how long this has normalized here, I fear even if that realization were to occur, it may be too late. Worse, once the public loses its faith in government’s ability to accomplish anything worthwhile, they’ll simply stop funding useful things and move over to funding sports stadiums again.

True to form, the ARTM released a new, updated transit map that shows as yet incomplete transit lines and projections, which will have to be completely replaced in about a year’s time.

This is why we can’t have nice things.■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.