Montréal Moves Forward with Tramway, in Line with Hopes for Improved Livability

Montreal Transit Investments Map

» City’s transit network would be reinforced with downtown and Côte des Neiges streetcar line.

Montréal was on a roll in the post-war period, opening its brand-new metro system in 1966, hosting the Universal Exposition in 1967, and providing a home for the Olympic Games in 1976. Charismatic Mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to define the metropolis as one of the most important in the Western hemisphere, building sports stadia and the like to provide physical evidence of the city’s importance. In the late 1970s, during the rise of the Québec sovereignty movement and the creation of French language laws, however, Montréal lost its status as Canada’s largest city to Toronto. Ever since, the town has been struggling with its identity.

But the city’s administration thinks it has a solution. Even as its perennial rival invests in a large network of new light rail lines and subway extensions, Montréal has launched a popular new bike share system and it will soon lay the tracks for a streetcar line. The city has picked livability over monumentality.

For years, the city’s administration has been considering a new tramway in the downtown area to reinforce the metro, which provides underwhelming access to neighborhoods directly north and south of Parc Mont Royal, the defining element of the city’s landscape. Montréal’s Transport Plan, which was first introduced last year, lists a streetcar line first among a number of other projects the city will undertake in the coming years, including two metro line extensions (of the Blue and Orange lines), a new commuter rail line (Train de l’Est), and a direct airport link.

Last week, the city revealed the results of its first serious streetcar study, and it demonstrated a great potential for new corridors to fill in the city’s transit gaps. The overall tramway program, which would be constructed over a period of several decades, would begin with a new line connecting the downtown and Old Port with the Côte des Neiges and Outremont neighborhoods along a new route lounging the south side of Parc Mont Royal. Future extensions would run through the Plateau community along Avenue du Parc, Boulevard Pie-IX, Avenue du Mont-Royal, and Rue Notre Dame, as well as into south Montréal. The areas selected for proposed service are the city’s most densely populated; completing the entire project would likely cost more than a billion Canadian dollars.

The first corridor lacks adequate financing, and even the city government admits that it will not be completed until 2013 at the earliest. Yet Mayor Gérald Tremblay sees the C$500-750 million downtown and Côte des Neiges project, running 12.5 km in total, as a key to the city’s future. Together, the lines would carry between 65,000 and 80,000 daily passengers. A line up Avenue du Parc would add 30,000 riders to that number.

Montréal’s impulse — to construct a streetcar as soon as possible even as it expands its Bixi bike share network — seems likely to guarantee a more livable future for the city’s citizens, who are already treated to one of North America’s most wonderful urban environments. Just as Portland and Seattle have demonstrated the developmental value of tramways over the past decade or so, Montréal will likely attract increasing infill construction in areas along the streetcar routes. The emphasis on biking and walking in those neighborhoods will make the atmosphere even more appealing.

While the Côte des Neiges, Parc, Mont-Royal, and Pie-IX lines seem reasonable, filing the gaps in service currently not provided by the metro and reinforcing the density of existing neighborhoods, the downtown project and the Notre Dame lines seem less well considered. Montréal proposes three north-south spines on its downtown route — two more than it needs. Meanwhile, the circulator pattern proposed for the downtown project will not actually fit the needs of most of the city’s inhabitants — people generally do not want to travel in circles. The Notre Dame line seems largely superfluous, since the metro Green Line already runs a few blocks from there and development on the riverfront is relatively sparse, with few opportunities for improvement since a busy freight rail line sits in the way.

Overall, though, Montréal’s investment in tramways is an exciting step forward for a town that seemed to have lost its footing for a while. A city that spends on improvements that make neighborhoods more walkable and environmentally sensitive is one that will make the life of its citizens more enjoyable.

Finance High-Speed Rail

The Need for High-Speed Rail Full-Funding Grant Agreements

The Federal Railroad Administration should take a page from the FTA’s playbook in establishing payment regimes for new fast rail projects.

The submission of final applications for high-speed rail funding on Monday was an important step in the growth of the U.S. federal government’s involvement in rail investment; the FRA will begin distributing a portion of the $8 billion in reserved stimulus dollars to a number of these proposals in early October. Though these applications were mostly for small investments such as double-tracking existing lines or building new bridges, states will submit more detailed applications for entire corridors in early October, and the FRA will begin awarding funds for those projects later in the fall. That phase demands that Washington think more seriously about how it distributes cash for high-speed rail in the future. It must establish a formal, grant-based procedure by which states or authorities receive funds and rely on those financial commitments throughout the construction process.

The need for such a funding regime is clear in the case of California High-Speed Rail, which will build a 220 mph line between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2020. The full system, including branches south to San Diego and north to Sacramento, will cost $45 billion to build. Currently, the state has around $9 billion in voter-approved bonds ready to go, but no commitment from the federal government or private sources, both from which the rail authority will require contributions. The expected appropriation from Washington alone will be in the range of $20 billion if the state’s legislators are able to make their case effectively.

Including the stimulus, and depending on the outcome of budget negotiations in the Senate, the federal government will pay out between $9 and $12 billion to high-speed rail projects nationwide in fiscal 2010. James Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has indicated he’d like to pay out an average of around $10 billion a year over the next five years to such rail projects, though his transportation bill is stalled as a result of controversy over how to pay for it. Nonetheless, it now seems likely that the government will contribute at least $20 billion to high-speed rail over the next five years alone — meaning that California’s project, the most advanced in the nation, has a good chance of getting its needed share. That is, assuming that Democrats maintain their majorities in Congress.

The problem is that the FRA has no standardized system by which to hand out those funds; as of now, it looks like the Department of Transportation will simply distribute money every few months to the projects it deems most valuable. As a result, California could get a billion here for the Transbay Terminal or a billion there for a line between Bakersfield and Merced, but never receive a guarantee that the feds will fully fund their prescribed share of the entire corridor’s construction costs. This is a huge problem, because a public agency shouldn’t be expending massive amounts of money on sections of a train system it doesn’t know it can finish completely. The private partners California hopes to interest in its program will not be excited about helping out on a train line they aren’t sure will ever open.

This problem, however, has a solution, and the Federal Transit Administration has mastered it with the New Starts process. The FTA invites transit agencies to compete for grants that will go to major new capital projects, and then it selects what it considers the most “cost-effective” projects for funding (the federal proportion is not set project-to-project; this is a major problem). Typically, transit agencies divide their long-term plans into what they term “minimum operable segments” that must be finished for service to begin. The FTA and the proposing agency sign a Full-Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) that bonds the federal government to paying out its share of costs during the construction period. For its part, the transit agency agrees to complete the project on-time and on-budget; any cost increases will be debited to the locality, not Washington.

Once its own high-speed rail fund is guaranteed through inclusion in the next transportation bill, the FRA should institute a similar system.

Small projects, such as double tracking existing lines or the reconstruction of a tunnel or bridge, would be treated under a separate authorization program. But states or authorities that are interested in building a brand new line (or substantial full-line upgrade of an existing corridor) would be invited to follow FRA’s own New Start program, which would accept applications for grants for minimum operable segments. Using a set of objective, standardized criteria, the FRA would choose to fund the most deserving projects at a certain share of overall costs and sign an FFGA with the relevant agency. The FRA’s overall funding limits would be defined by the Congress in the transportation bill. By this point, the state or authority will have pinpointed a source of funds covering the rest of the costs, such as California has already done.

By establishing this New Start system, states like California could move forward with their proposed systems with both speed and confidence. That’s what we’re going to need to implement a renewed rail network in the United States.

Finance High-Speed Rail

Fighting Ourselves Over Funding for Intracity Versus Intercity Transportation

It’s a daunting task, but we’ve got to improve transportation both in and between cities.

When discussing increasing spending on high-speed rail, questions of how funds should be prioritized frequently arise. Is it appropriate to spend tens of billions of dollars on new intercity rail lines when our inner-city transit systems are so deprived? Shouldn’t we focus our funds on the projects that are most likely to benefit the most number of people?

In a recent interview for a Russian business magazine, University of Minnesota Professor David Levinson, who blogs at The Transportationist, was asked about the effectiveness of high-speed rail in combating transportation and ecological problems, focusing on the concern that fast trains solve neither problem particularly well:

“HSR serves intercity travel markets, most transportation problems in the developed world occur within cities, which HSR does not directly address. Resources spent on HSR cannot be spent on local transportation problems.”

“I am not saying people won’t build HSR, just that it is not the best way to spend scarce resources. Electric vehicles, especially hybrids are gaining in popularity, I would bet within 10 years, more than half of all new cars sold in the US will be hybrid electric or electric.”

Mr. Levinson’s points — focusing on travel demand and environmental consequences — are typical of those who argue against the (admittedly huge) financial commitment required to construct new high-speed lines. Most travel is local, and reducing travel time and increasing speeds along those in-town corridors are the primary concern of most transportation analysts. In other words, why spend money on high-speed rail when urban transit will serve more trips more cost-efficiently?

Second, while high-speed rail is more environmentally friendly than airplanes or cars, automobiles are quickly becoming more fuel efficient and will likely soon rely on the electric grid just like trains. The ecological benefits of trains will therefore diminish over time, raising questions about whether it makes sense to invest so much in their development in the pursuit of reducing carbon emissions.

But Mr. Levinson fails to address the fact that investment is needed in both intercity and intracity corridors. Claiming that we should not fund high-speed rail because urban transit is more important is equivalent to saying that federal subsidies to air travel and non-urban highways should simply end, because metropolitan areas need more investment and travel between cities is less important.

The U.S. certainly has “scarce resources” at the moment; the $9 trillion government deficit over the next ten years will likely force budget cuts and require a reevaluation of spending in all executive branches, including the Department of Transportation. But the question here is not whether to invest in urban or long-distance travel systems. The country continues to grow relatively quickly, and both in-city and intercity travel demand will have to be met. Thus, we simply cannot devote all funds currently designated for the latter type of travel to the former; while we certainly should commit more funds to urban transit, we also need to find new and better ways to move between cities, since more and more people will be doing exactly that.

What Mr. Levinson does not answer is how to address the question of long-distance travel. How do we get people from one city to another as quickly and conveniently as possible? How do we do so in the most environmentally-sensitive way? Here’s a chart that addresses these questions directly:

Corridor length Current Cars Future Cars Buses
Airplanes High-Speed Trains
0-200 mi Fast Yes Yes No No On longer corridors
Ecological No Yes Yes No Yes
Convenient Yes Yes To center- city locations No To center-city locations
200-600 mi Fast No No No Yes Yes
Ecological No Yes Yes No Yes
Convenient Yes Yes To center- city locations No To center-city locations
600 mi + Fast No No No Yes No
Ecological No Yes Yes Relatively Yes
Convenient Yes Yes To center- city locations No To center-city locations


Cars have the future potential to be ecologically sensitive and “fast” on short corridors (excluding their land use effects), and airplanes are fast and (relatively) environmentally friendly over very long distance corridors. High-speed rail, however, corners the 200-600 mile travel market, moving people quickly and efficiently between cities. Electrically-powered cars, running on energy generated at power plants running on renewable sources, may be a compelling solution to reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions of transportation systems. But they will always be simply too slow to be a reliable competitor to airplanes on corridors longer than 200 miles.

Airplanes, meanwhile, will continue to be powered by carbon-based fuels for the foreseeable future. As a result, for travel corridors of between 200 and 600 miles, high-speed rail represents an ideal solution, being both fast and environmentally sensitive. Neither new cars nor better air service offers the same advantages.

High-speed rail is convenient to people living or working in center-city locations, not true for air travel. Meanwhile, car travel, while “convenient,” since one can drive directly from one’s driveway, encourages sprawl in a way not true of high-speed rail if stations are positioned only in inner-city cores, as they should be.

Arguing that improving urban transit should be prioritized over high-speed rail is acceptable, but ignoring the needs of long-distance travel is not. The United States has a serious need to invest in both intercity and intracity travel, and for trips of between 200 and 600 miles between large cities, high-speed rail is usually the most appropriate investment. In the pursuit of better transit within a city, we cannot forget that we also need to get between cities.

UPDATE: A fantastic re-working by St. Louis Urban Workshop of the Robert Samuelson anti-rail op-ed in Newsweek.

High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

U.K.’s Network Rail Moves Forward with Route Choice for High-Speed 2

United Kingdom High-Speed 2 Map

» Fast rail link would connect London with Glasgow and Edinburgh in just over two hours.

Over the past few decades, the United Kingdom has fallen behind its European peers, having failed to develop intercity high-speed rail lines even as France, Spain, Germany, and Italy expanded their networks significantly. The completion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2007, however, brought Eurostar trains from Paris and Bruxelles into London at high-speeds for the first time and whetted the country’s taste for faster trains. Since 2008, the Conservative Party has been campaigning actively for a new 200 mph north-south line connecting London with the country’s major regions, and the ruling Labour Party has slowly come on board. Today, the U.K.’s track owner Network Rail released a report proposing the construction of a new £34 billion mainline from London to Scotland. Trains could be in operation in ten years.

Network Rail has spent a year studying possibilities for new corridors, considering projects running north and west from London. Though it has been clear since early this year that the route would prioritize access to the West Midlands, including Birmingham and Manchester, Network Rail also put corridors to the East Midlands (Leicester, Sheffield), Yorkshire (Leeds, York) and the west (Bristol, Cardiff) into consideration. As expected, though, today’s report indicates that the country’s new line will run north from London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow and Edinburgh. The route is not yet finalized, but the map above gives a general indication of its path.

The project would cost £34 billion to construct and include 1,500 miles of track, 34 miles of tunnel, 138 bridges, 8 new stations, and require the purchase of 73 new high-speed trains. Network Rail predicts an eventual ridership of 43.7 million journeys a year.

Though Network Rail will not manage the construction of the line, its study is in-depth enough to merit considerable discussion by the authority created this spring to contract out the new line, High-Speed 2. HS2 is working on its own report on the new high-speed line and will publish it at the end of the year; it is highly likely that the governmental organization will endorse a very similar route as that proposed by the national track owner, since it will connect the U.K.’s first, second, third, and fifth-largest metropolitan areas (London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool) and its most promising new potential rail market (Scotland). This high-speed line’s construction is now virtually certain, as it has acquired the support of politicians on every side of the country’s political spectrum.

The nation’s most important rail line today is the West Coast Main Line, which runs in roughly the same corridor as proposed by Network Rail for the massive new high-speed corridor. That route benefited from a £13 billion upgrade and renovation in recent years, but it will reach capacity by 2020 according to the Network Rail report, so the West Midlands, Northwest, and Scotland will require new investment.

The new line, with dedicated tracks, would be capable of carrying up to 16 trains an hour in each direction (9,100 people) and replace up to 900 flights a day. The authority argues that the construction would allow the West Coast Main Line to be re-dedicated to local services that are currently limited because of the large number of express trains running between London, Birmingham, and Manchester, which would be transferred to HS2.

Today’s report indicates that a line running simply between London and Manchester would not be economically beneficial, but, counter-intuitively, that a longer a more expensive project reaching up into Scotland would pay for itself 1.8 times over a 60-year timetable, including the costs of operations and maintenance. That’s because while rail already commands a majority share of journeys between the capital and locations south of Manchester, airlines control the market to Scotland, which would be within two hours of London with HS2. The construction of the line, which could be completed by 2020 at the earliest, is expected to mostly replace domestic air travel in Great Britain, cutting down on carbon expenditures significantly.

Network Rail has left open the possibility of a connection to Heathrow Airport — but only from the north. Proposals earlier this year suggested that the line be routed through the airport, forcing London-bound travelers to first stop at Heathrow. Those plans, however, have been scuttled as they would increase journey times overall by 15 minutes and significantly reduce benefits. This was a good decision.

Though the London terminal would be near St. Pancras station, where Eurostar trains terminate, a connection to High-Speed 1 and mainland Europe-bound trains has been ruled out for now because of its high cost and perceived limited utility. One wonders how wise that decision is, though, since the project would put Birmingham and Manchester within 3h20 of Paris. But Network Rail claims there is a limited market for Europe-bound travel, and that may be true: there are currently only about 30 daily trips to Paris from the two cities’ airports.

Importantly, the report leaves open the possibility of a future High-Speed 3 project that would connect London to Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds, York, Newcastle, and ultimately Edinburgh from the east. That project’s eventual construction raises questions about whether the track between London and Birmingham should be four-tracked instead of simply double-tracked as planned; that section of HS2 could feed into the new HS3 corridor leading northeast to Leicester and beyond and would obviate the need to build a whole new track section between Leicester and London. The French government has repeatedly argued that it erred in building its TGV Sud-Est line between Paris and Lyon with only two tracks, since capacity has been limited and another corridor reaching into south east France will have to be built at a much a higher cost. Will the U.K. make the same mistake, saving costs today at the expense of future savings?

Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo Tries New Station Seats… for the Obese

New Subway Station Seats in Sao PaoloThe chairs are twice as wide as normal and are designed to encourage the less-than-fit to ride the subway.

The London Telegraph reports that Sao Paulo has begun installing special seats in subway stations designed to encourage the city’s most overweight to use the transit system. Brazil’s largest city has a 40-mile subway system that carries more than 3 million people daily.

Brazil, like most advanced countries, is suffering from an obesity epidemic, and the new seats are part of a government initiative to improve the lives of those who can’t fit comfortably in typical chairs. The seats’ very different shape and identifiable color, however, has been a turn-off for overweight riders, who, according to the Telegraph story, don’t feel comfortable using them.

As far as I know, there is no similar initiative in United States subway or light rail systems. Too bad, though, since our obesity rate — at around a third of the adult population, is far higher than that of Brazil. It’s true that people living in cities, used to walking around, tend to be slimmer than their suburban or rural counterparts, but 20% of New Yorkers are obese.

On the other hand, the subway seats in Gotham’s new trains and most of the benches in stations are flat, without divisions, making sitting possible for people of every weight and size. Perhaps that’s a better solution than the special seats for fat people Sao Paulo has adopted.

Image above: from the Telegraph