Houston Light Rail Ottawa

Ottawa, Closer than Ever to Replacing Bus Rapid Transit with Light Rail

» Could the Ottawa model of instituting bus rapid transit, then converting to light rail, inspire other cities?

There was a time, a few years back, when talk of building bus rapid transit as a cheap precursor to train service was common. The theory was that cities could invest in new rights-of-way for rapid transit and design guideways specifically for future light rail implementation, but only fork up enough dough to pay for the buses.

After its voters agreed in 2003 to fund a series of new rail lines, Houston’s elected officials realized by 2007 that they wouldn’t be able to do so without a federal commitment — but they weren’t able to get help because of obstacles put in the way by Congressional Republicans representing the city’s suburbs. And so the city turned to buses, deciding to install BRT along its most promising corridors.

Though it was a second-choice solution, Houston — like many other American cities — may have looked to Ottawa as a model for BRT implementation. Canada’s capital has become a gold standard for bus advocates, who point to the region’s 240,000 daily bus riders and 23% transit share as proof that buses can work just as well as rail in encouraging people to choose public transportation to get to and from work. Ottawa’s several busways transport passengers quickly and relatively comfortably. Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, this city’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses.

But now Ottawa is planning to give up its primary transitway. Houston eventually got its act together on the federal level and has turned back to light rail, forgetting the bus plans entirely. Is the Ottawa model — raise ridership with buses, and then think about more expensive rail options — falling flat? What went wrong?

The quick answer is that Ottawa was too successful, encouraging the city’s citizens to take an average of 125 trips by public transportation a year, more than any equivalently-sized North American city. The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.

Thus for several years, the city has been considering light rail as a replacement; a 2006 plan fell apart because it would have done nothing to increase capacity and decrease commute times as it would have relied on street-running downtown. So Mayor Larry O’Brien and his staff have concocted what is now a C$2.1 billion project to run light rail in a three-kilometer tunnel under downtown. The remainder of the 12.5-kilometer corridor would run from Tunney’s Pasture to Blair Station along the existing transitway, completely displacing the bus service that’s currently there. The 13-station system will be designed for very high capacity, up to 25,000 riders per direction during the peak hour (up from 10,000 today), thanks to platforms long enough to handle six-car trains and even platform screen doors in the underground stations.

The general plan for a downtown tunnel was approved last May by the city’s council, and light rail was signed off as the technology in November. It has received a C$600 million promise from Ontario province and is likely to receive a similar guarantee from the federal government later this year. The project could begin construction in 2013 and open by 2018 — as long as opponents of the rail line don’t take the mayoral seat in this fall’s election.

Though the existing bus transitway is already in place, light rail construction will be expensive, notably because of the tunnel, which will cost C$735 million by itself. Even if bus service had been chosen as the preferred technology, this expense would have been required. But the C$540 million cost to convert the remaining ten kilometers of right-of-way is more surprising; much of that will go towards the big new stations along the line, with the rest to pay for tracks and electrification. Vehicles and a new maintenance facility will cost C$515 million.

With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?

In terms of operations costs, it almost certainly did. Even with a nine percent increase in ridership in the first year alone, light rail is expected to allow the city to save up to C$100 million annually on bus drivers’ salaries, gas consumption, and right-of-way maintenance. By dramatically increasing the average number of passengers per vehicle thanks to long trains and by switching to clean and cheap electricity from diesel fuel, the city will find notable economies in rail. It will also produce far fewer greenhouse gases — saving 38,000 tons by 2031.

For passengers, though, the conversion to light rail means mixed outcomes. The downtown tunnel will decrease trip times by fifteen minutes, principally by avoiding the congestion currently resulting from bus bunching. But the direct service now offered to many parts of the city will be lost, as many passengers coming from areas not immediately adjacent to the rail stations will be shuttled via bus to the stops, where they will have to transfer to get downtown. This will result in roughly 40% of Ottawa’s transit trips using the rail line.

During rail line construction, bus service will be seriously affected.

Had buses been retained on the transitway and been sent through the tunnel, it would have required a far more extensive tunnel because of ventilation concerns — or it would have necessitated the electrification of the bus fleet, not necessarily a cheap choice either. So Ottawa had basically no choice but to switch to rail.

If the city gets its way, and finds the money, direct service will be extended; light rail will replace the 10,000 daily-rider DMU O-Train as well as a number of the other current transitway routes. A light rail loop across the river into Gatineau, Québec is also being discussed. With the downtown tunnel built, capacity won’t be a problem.

But the underlying question about whether the city should have invested in BRT in the first place twenty-seven years ago returns. Though Ottawa was much smaller then, it was larger than Edmonton, which had installed a modern light rail line in 1978 — including a downtown tunnel. If Ottawa’s politicians had known then that they would have to spend billions converting to rail just to keep up with capacity needs, would they have selected bus service?

For other cities considering investing in reserved-bus corridors before light rail, Ottawa’s may be a cautionary tale. Savings in the short term may ultimately result in far greater expenses — especially when factoring in the high cost of bus operations.

Image above: Route map, from Ottawa Light Rail

Light Rail Ottawa

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

China New York Ottawa

Chinese Rail Expansion; Ottawa Prioritizes Transit

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in a few days – for unclear reasons, I ended up in Stuttgart and have been having trouble finding internet other than at the local Starbucks, which is charging 8 Euros an hour, completely unacceptable. So I find myself at Coffee Fellows.

Thanks to the Overhead Wire, more information on China’s enormous rail expansion in Business Week. Looks like the overall $546 billion ($190 billion of which for railways) economic stimulus plan will include, as expected, thousands of miles of new railways serving the entire country. China Daily reports that inner city subway lines will also benefit, though costs are increasing tremendously; for example, subways in Beijing now cost 800 million yuan (about $110 million) a km to build, up from only 100 million a few years back. As a result, the government’s stimulus plan couldn’t come at a better time, seeing as how it will enable cities to invest now, rather than later as costs continue to mount.

Overall, this will allow cities in China to ramp up their urban rail mileage from 550 km today to about 3500 km by 2020. Quite an expansion.

The head of New Jersey’s Department of Transportation, Kris Kolluri, sees China’s path towards increased rail funding as excellent news. He argues that $1.2 billion worth of transportation projects in his state alone could be started in 90 days were Congress to approve its expected infrastructure-funding program in the next few weeks. This would, he estimates, create about 10,000 jobs immediately and act effectively to stem the increase in unemployment rolls the United States is currently experiencing as the economic crisis deepens.

Kolluri also announced that the ARC project, which will produce another rail tunnel from New Jersey into East Midtown, will be under construction next year, as the Federal Transit Administration has granted approval to the project’s environmental impact statement and will begin to release funds. A deficit of funds, importantly, still exists, and the federal and state governments will have to find a way to make up the gap.

Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is moving ahead on a large transit plan of its own. Prioritizing transit over roads, the city’s transportation staff has encouraged the city council to create a “compact, transit city” out of what exists there now. The first phase of the project envisions a $1.7 billion light rail line that will traverse the city east-west along the city’s existing bus transit way. This has been a plan for years, and caused considerable opposition. We’ll see if the city’s council agrees. Second and third phases will include a southern link for the same light rail line. Interestingly, the city is considering selling the line to a private operator. Considering that virtually all transit is unprofitable, we’re not sure that will come through…