Ottawa Weighs BRT-to-LRT Conversion

downtown-alignmentPlan would require the city to construct new downtown tunnel

Ottawa, Canada’s capital, already has one of North America’s largest bus rapid transit networks, with a series of transitways leading into the city center, where buses run in dedicated lanes along city streets. The first sections of the line opened in 1983, and now the system has a high ridership for a bus system in a city of 800,000: 240,000 daily riders. Ottawa also has an 8 km diesel multiple unit light rail system with five stops called the O-Train that has a daily ridership of 10,000, though the service doesn’t reach downtown. The O-Train opened as a demonstration line in 2001. Now the city is actively working to build a downtown light rail tunnel that would eventually be connected to a train network serving the entire region.

The city’s leadership has never been entirely comfortable with the busway system they built so successfully beginning in the 1980s. Rather, over the past decade, there have been a number of proposals to build a light rail system running through the city and, in some places, replacing the bus rapid lines. Building light rail in Ottawa is cheaper than elsewhere because the right-of-way already exists. But that progress has been repeatedly stymied by bad planning – such as an idea in 2006 to run light rail on the existing and overcrowded surface streets – and by lack of political will.

Last fall the city announced its long-term transit plan, whose basic principle is the replacement of the city’s busways with light rail transit lines extending through downtown, and then east, west, and south, with a spur to the airport. The O-Train would be converted to electric operation and integrated into the broader system, allowing direct access downtown for people along that line. New busways would be built connecting the light rail corridors.


Yesterday, the city revealed its preferred alignment for the downtown section of the light rail line (shown in the map at top). The first phase of the new transit system will run 13 km east-west along the existing transit way from Blair to Tunney’s Pasture, with a 3 km diversion into a tunnel through downtown. There will be a connection at Bayview to the O-Train, with preparations made for a future electric conversion of that line. The entire system will be designed for future 6-car trainsets to handle the line’s expected high ridership.

The tunnel itself will significantly improve the state of downtown’s Albert and Slater Streets, which are currently so completely overcrowded with bus traffic that there’s no capacity to increase services on the transitways, which are expected to have to meet twice the passenger demand by 2030. The rail tunnel allows effective separation from traffic, lower pollution counts because of electric operation, and faster speeds because of complete separation from traffic and quicker acceleration.

Some business groups have griped about the route of the tunnel, because it’s slightly different from that taken by buses today and therefore may reduce demand at retail outlets that had been designed and positioned with transit riders in mind. The city, however, claims that its route is designed to maximize ride quality because it doesn’t have the tight curves that bus routes currently take and that rail vehicles aren’t able to handle as easily.

The initial line will cost a total of $830 million, funded by non-yet-committed local, provincial, and federal sources, with the vast majority being spent on the $600 million tunnel. Construction could begin in 2012, with completion in 2016 or ’17.

Though the larger plan, with LRT corridors throughout Ottawa, will function effectively in a city with a high transit mode share, there will be some problems during the initial implementation phases. The first line’s construction will probably require the diversion of bus lines along the transitway and as a result slow down the commutes of hundreds of thousands of riders for several years. In addition, once the light rail line is finished, riders on the O-Train and buses will have to transfer to light rail to get downtown. This will make the Tunney’s Pasture and Blair stations at each end of the line potentially overcrowded, and make the life of those not living on the LRT line more difficult because of their lack of one-seat access that they current have.

If the city is serious about implementing its larger transit proposals, though, these problems will be ephemeral, with the vast majority of the city eventually benefiting from rail service.

Images above: Downtown alignment of planned Ottawa light rail tunnel, from City of Ottawa; Long-range Ottawa Transit Plan, from City of Ottawa

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I’ve always wondered, what would stop this and similar projects from constructing the rails in a way much like streetcar rails where they are embedded in the pavement? If built correctly, they could handle both LRT and BRT, on the rails and pavement, respectively.

  • This is actually a fantastic blog – I only found out about it recently and it covers projects (like this one) in exactly the way I like – all the useful specs, the political backstories, and the broader implications. I grew up in Ottawa and reading your entry was way more enlightening than the local media.

    To John Russell: Maybe it has something to do with the comfort of the ride for bus users? Or congestion? But I’d very much like to know the answer to that question too – seems like a no brainer in this case.

  • Also, perhaps they can get in on the TTC’s big new Streetcar purchase for some bulk discounts?

  • @John: A bus tunnel would have to be considerably wider, as buses are usually human-driven rather than guided or automated. Also, running non-electric buses in a tunnel raises ventilation issues.

    Wider, well ventilated tunnels are of course possible, but they cost more.

    Also, if your system is running near capacity, you only would only want high capacity, performant vehicles in your bottleneck — and that tunnel will be the bottleneck of the system.

  • Oh, and platforms are much easier to build in an accessible way when vehicle floors are all at the same level. This tends to encourage a single technology, if not a single vehicle vendor.

  • Hey Leo – In the case of Ottawa, there would be no need for buses to run through the tunnel. I think John is referring to the sections of the new light rail project that will be running along the old dedicated bus rapid transitway, which could perhaps be shared. Also, as for platform heights – the current platforms are only as high as a normal curb, because the buses are mostly used in mixed traffic anyway. If the LRTs purchased were low-floor, then there would be no platform conflict.

  • John –
    I think you make a good point – we’ve seen other bus tunnels, like Seattle’s, that are able to handle both. But as far as I know all of the buses that run in that tunnel are electric trolley buses, so the ventilation issue isn’t one.
    In terms of sharing other parts of the right-of-way, I think that would be very hard to do and significantly lower speeds, because it would mess up the signaling system (that allows trains to run closely to run another without running into one another). So in all likelihood, this will be a rail-only operation. I also get the impression that the city simply wants people to transfer onto trains if they want to go downtown.

    Denis –
    I believe that the technology is a bit different between the streetcars in Toronto and the light rail in Ottawa; the latter will be designed to run at much quicker speeds, and have higher boarding levels, so I don’t think they could fit on the same contract.

  • Edmund Carlson

    Yonah –
    The technology is exacly the same, only the application is different. Everything from Ottawa indicates low floor platforms (keep in mind that also means existing platforms are usable and curbside loading stays possible) as in Toronto, and while the design speeds are higher in Ottawa the new Toronto vehicles have a maximum speed of about 80km/h.

    In general I agree with Denis and Leo, shared bus tunnels are technically possible, but a lot more expensive and don’t have any real advantage.

  • Don

    The new TTC vehicles (if they are ever going to get funding) are to be built for TTC gauge, not standard rail gauge, for compatibility with TTC’s existing facilities and slightly wider cars, so they wouldn’t fit on the O-Train tracks for instance. Apart from that though, I don’t think changing the top speed would be such a big thing, surely there are ways to swap in different motors and gearboxes, provided the power system is adequately designed.

  • Woody

    Lessee. Much of the system is above-ground but in separated ROW. The downtown core is underground. Sounds like pre-metro to me, and I love it.

    I’m afraid Canada, like the US, will be needing public works to boost employment for a few years yet to come. This will be a wonderful asset to the country. I hope they will fund the project and build it asap.

    I spent more than a week in Ottawa at a convention+vacation a few years back. It’s a beautiful capital and an increasingly cosmopolitan city. It deserves a metro — or at least a pre-metro.

  • Non-electric buses can go through tunnels. I personally saw this happen in the Seattle bus tunnel several times in the early 2000s, though it’s not the regular practice.

    The best practice solution for protecting customers from the ventilation issues in this case is to create a glass wall separating the platform from the bus roadway, with doors in the wall that open only when a bus is there. For more on that see my post on King George Station in Brisbane, here:

  • Vehicle gauge is something that can be changed. For Toronto’s Transit City plan (as opposed to our legacy downtown network, which has tighter curves and steeper grades), TTC will likely be buying standard vehicles and regauging them.

  • Matt Fisher

    As an Ottawan, I still think more busways are not a good idea. Besides, it only aims to convert part of the Transitway, which supposedly is “train like”. It just can’t be. And bus tunnels would not be a very good idea.

  • This will make the Tunney’s Pasture and Blair stations at each end of the line potentially overcrowded, and make the life of those not living on the LRT line more difficult because of their lack of one-seat access that they current have.

    Severing the direct services from outer services won’t necessarily make these commuters’ lives more difficult, not if it’s done properly with increased local frequency compensating for the new forced interchange.

    But it will make them mad for at least a year or so.

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