The REM milestone

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Montreal transit and the trouble with trams

“We’re getting hosed. At $13-billion, the Tram de l’Est is an inexcusable waste of money: it costs far too much, will provide far too little and serve far too few.”

Eastern Montreal is not getting a REM — the elevated light-rail system that could conceivably run underground or at ground level. Instead, it will maybe get a ground-level tram, which is also a light-rail system. Perhaps it will be something like a cross between a metro and a tram — that’s what they thought parts of the REM de l’Est might have been like anyway. Who knows? The important thing is that every few months, politicians are heard talking about public transit development in Eastern Montreal, and isn’t that the most important thing?

Read two different articles about the same transit development proposal and you can come to two different conclusions. CBC Montreal seems to think the door is still open on a variety of different systems that could make up the new “Projet structurant de l’Est (PSE).” La Presse seems confident that Legault will build a new tram, at more than half the cost of the former REM de l’Est proposal (which had been estimated to cost an absolutely incomprehensible $36-billion).

Let’s assume we’re getting a tram — but don’t hold your breath. The Blue Line extension to Anjou was proposed in the 1970s and, due to the most recent delay, won’t be operational until 2030. According to La Presse, the plan is a 31-kilometre tram system with 28 stations, spaced about 1.1 km apart. The CBC reports the tram could travel at about 30 kms per hour. By contrast, the metro’s top speed is about 75 kms per hour. The REM has a top speed of 100 kms per hour. The Mascouche EXO line can travel up to 120 kms per hour.

So it will be a slow ride downtown from the East End. The new proposal isn’t going to provide a new direct route — unlike earlier proposals for the REM de l’Est — which proposed an entirely new link right into the heart of the city. While this might seem like a steal at the corruption-unadjusted cost of $13-billion, consider that Paris is adding 200 kms of new metro (four new lines, two line extensions and 68 new stations) for about $62-billion. The Grand Paris Express will serve an estimated two million more passengers per day. 

And how many new trips will the Tram de l’Est provide? Between 23,000 and 27,000 per day.

We’re getting hosed. Even at $13-billion, the Tram de l’Est is an inexcusable waste of money: it costs far too much, will provide far too little and serve far too few.

While the government argues that this is more affordable, transit experts have already come up with a far less expensive and more comprehensive tram proposal for the eastern part of the island. In August, UQAM urban planning professor Jean-François Lefebvre proposed a 40-kilometre, 50-station tram network that would include connections to both Laval and the eastern off-island suburbs, at only $4-billion.

How did we get here?

A tram in Montreal circa 1895

There are a few problems here, namely that Quebec government estimates for new transit development are exceedingly high, and that in an effort to make it seem like they’re getting a better deal, are coming up with cheaper proposals that provide far too little return for one investment.

These are interrelated problems, as we’re dealing with finite financial resources and are simultaneously racing against the clock. What ought to be the overriding concern is how quickly we can get the most people out of their cars and into public transit for the express purposes of reducing vehicle emissions and traffic congestion. There’s a considerable economic angle to this as well: climate change is already wreaking havoc on the global economy, but pollution and congestion affects our local economy more directly and on a daily basis (pollution-related illnesses are a drag on the healthcare system; traffic congestion was estimated to cost the Canadian economy $6-billion annually over a decade ago, a figure that’s likely increased significantly since).

Not every dollar spent on transit necessarily improves the situation. The REM was excessively expensive, sapping financial resources that might have been used more effectively elsewhere. But more significantly, the REM actually cost Montreal transit infrastructure assets: The Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line was sacrificed for the REM, and the tens of thousands of daily riders didn’t transition to the limited options provided as an alternative. 

If transit in the Montreal region were planned uniquely from a condition of “what will get Montrealers to stop driving and take public transit instead,” the money spent on the REM would have been dedicated to increasing bus and metro service across the system first and foremost, and there would have been plenty left over to run more trains, more frequently, on the rest of the commuter rail network.

The Tram de l’Est proposal is the marriage of a local-use vehicle to an almost regional level travel distance. Worse still, this is the wrong vehicle and the wrong speed/pace for what is primarily suburb-to-city commuting.

Long distances at slow speeds isn’t going to encourage anyone to take public transit.

Trams more effective elsewhere

San Francisco tram
San Francisco tram, 2020s

When Richard Bergeron founded Projet Montréal 20 years ago, his big idea was to build a tram network in downtown Montreal. It’s still the best transit idea anyone’s had in this city since the construction of the metro.

The reason is simple. In a densely populated area, a tram provides higher passenger volume than a bus, and with priority signaling and/or a dedicated lane, can travel faster and more efficiently than average city traffic. 

It’s also far less expensive than building a subway, and essentially uses the same basic infrastructure as the existing bus network (i.e. bus stops, bus shelters). It’s obviously much easier to embed rails in the roadway and run electric wires overhead than it is tunneling underground. So a tram in the city centre would carry more passengers, faster, than the bus network, and use fewer vehicles to do so. Bergeron had sketched out potential routes based on the busiest STM lines. Not surprisingly, his plan involved trams on Cote-des-Neiges, René-Lévesque, Mont Royal and St-Denis, among others.

There are two other important advantages to consider. First, trams don’t replace buses as much as they would displace them: the buses no longer needed downtown could be sent to the suburbs to boost service there. Second, running a tram along any commercial thoroughfare is a lot like a moving carpet running through a shopping mall — the whole street is connected and easily accessible. This means fewer cars congesting busy retail streets, and that’s good for both the economy and the environment.

So trams are still a good idea, just not for long-distance, commuter-focused routes out to the suburbs. It would make much more sense to revisit building a downtown Montreal tram and repurposing surplus buses for East End service. Those buses could funnel commuters towards the underused Mascouche line as an alternative to the metro.

Old Port of Montreal tram proposal circa 2013
Old Port of Montreal tram proposal circa 2013

On a final note, it continues to boggle my mind that Montreal hasn’t revisited trolleybuses in recent years. We had an expansive tram and trolley network throughout the first half of the 20th century, and trolleys may actually be more cost effective, environmentally friendly and energy efficient than hybrid or even battery-electric buses.

Both trolleys and trams get their power — in our case, renewable hydroelectricity — from overhead wires, but trolleys have the advantage of being able to move around on a street — such as from a middle lane to the curb (trams have to stay on their rails). 

From what I’ve read, it seems trolleys would be less expensive than a new fleet of battery-electric buses, namely because it’s well-established and widely used technology with comparatively low overhead costs. The interoperability of trams and trolleys (they draw power from the same overhead wires) could also be exploited. 

Moving in this direction would go a long way to freeing downtown from car traffic, making it more livable and encouraging pedestrianization.

Making the city more accommodating to new housing development by eliminating the least enjoyable part of city living would likely prove a more effective strategy to help Montreal get back on its feet than building a long, slow, tram to Repentigny. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.