Opinion: Transit Tunnel is no Turkey

Editor’s note: the following article originally appeared in the author’s own blog, West Side Action, on December 28. Comments and updates are viewable at that location.

The usual suspects are carping about the transit tunnel, again. Did the province provide funding? Apparently no good news is good enough — they didn’t provide 15-25% more than was asked for … so it’s disaster time. Ring-a-ling. Ding-a-ling. It’s disaster time in the city …

So what might happen if the tunnel portion was cancelled? Critics are quick to attach huge price tags to the tunnel portion. But these won’t disappear if the tunnel is cancelled. After all the tunnel includes tracks (won’t these be needed for the surface rail?); it includes stations and platforms (which will be needed at the surface too, and may have to be located on what is now private property that may have to be acquired by the city); signalling (which will be way more complex and expensive on the surface as it will have to accomodate private cars, trucks, and bus movements too), etc.

Surface rail brings its own unique costs too – streets will have to be dug up for years beforehand to relocate all access hatches (wo/manholes) outside of the track right of way, etc. Anyone visiting Toronto knows how slow the streetcars are and what chaos results in repairs to utilities crossing streetcar tracks or repairing the tracks themselves.

The last numbers I saw showed that cancelling the tunnel in favour of surface rail would result in a construction saving of about $300 million.

However, the system would suffer severe traffic flow impairment when it snows, or the streets are congested, or some bozo from upper lower Pointe Gatineau decides to block the track in order to squeeze through the intersection on his yellow light ….

And this doesn’t even count the delays caused every day by north-south streets having a regular green light (which means the surface rail track is closed to train movements 60% of the time so the north-south route enjoys its green-yellow cycle). Let’s throw in some Tamils or other protestors … or striking civil servants who every few years close down the transitway by picketing at Place de Ville and a few other key spots that “accidentally” block the transitway.

What surface rail gets us in the downtown is a vulnerable transit system. Reliable it won’t be. It will be a very expensive rapid transit emulation system, aka a streetcar pretending to be a rapid transit system,

Transit committee received estimates that going for a surface rail option will, on a daily basis, result in sufficient impairment of service that a number of additional trainsets and operators will be required. How many? Well I saw estimates/calculations of about $100 million dollars per year of capital and operating cost for the additional equipment. Yup, you read that right. The “savings” in not building a tunnel would be eaten up in just 3 years by increased costs of surface rail in the core.

We can spend the money to build a tunnel that gives us a fast, reliable service in all weathers. Or we can spend the money operating a congested, grid-locked surface streetcar system. I know which one I choose.

-image from Dave McLelland’s The Ottawa Project website


  1. I’ve living away from Ottawa for a little over 10 years now, so forgive me if this is one of the options that’s been considered, considered again and considered once more, but has the possibility of elevating the downtown portion of the system been in the mix? What would that cost versus the other two options currently on the table? Would it just be undoable, logistically?

  2. A similar saving also *may* be realized by shortening the first stage (at least) of the LRT line to end at Hurdman. Omitting the Hurdman-Blair portion may save *at*least* $300 million, as part of the extra expense (announced in late September) was a realignment of the route at the Train Transitway station.

    That said, I am skeptical that elimination of the tunnel would save just $300 million, as I have heard estimates of *twice* that amount for the cost of the tunnel just by itself. Does your estimate assume an LRT-only tunnel, does it allow for trolleybuses, or could it support diesel buses? [My own understanding is that a tunnel that allows buses would cost up to $1 billion to dig, due to the necessary addition of large exhaust (ventilation) towers at the surface for safety reasons. Restricting access to electric-only vehicles reduces the cost of ventilation considerably (though I doubt that would cut the overall cost of the tunnel in half).]

  3. Hi Duncan – thanks for the reply. (I already do subscribe to your blog!)
    I guess I can see how an elevated train wouldn’t work and would probably cause some problems in an already usually-desolate downtown core at night especially. And I find the point about disruptions of a surface-level system blocks away from Parliament very compelling. From what I’ve read in the Citizen and a few select Ottawa blogs (which is the main way I keep in touch with goings-on in my hometown), those concerns haven’t gotten the airing they deserve.

  4. That picture definitely looks like it has a guideway if not an outright track.

  5. BRT does not solve the gridlock problem at all. It actually contributes to it. BRT is more flexible than rail, but once a city reaches a certain size, the flexibility become a cause of congestion. A bus stop that has 20 or more routes stopping at it introduces incredible delays at peak times as buses queue to reach the station.

    The solution is to get rid of the multiplicity of routes, which eliminates the benefit of a small city BRT (transfer-less express service from many points to many points), leaving one with the simple math of lower initial cost, higher operating cost, and reduced reliability in comparison to LRT.

    Ottawa has reached the point where LRT is now required. This means a redesign of our transit system to embrace a high capacity core network and transfer stations that serve outlying bus routes. It will require transfers by riders, but we’ve already reached the point where that’s required for future growth in the BRT anyway. And users are more tolerant of bus-train transfers than bus-bus transfers.

  6. …it includes stations and platforms (which will be needed at the surface too, and may have to be located on what is now private property that may have to be acquired by the city); signalling (which will be way more complex and expensive on the surface as it will have to accomodate private cars, trucks, and bus movements too), etc.

    On-surface, streetcar-style operations wouldn’t require stations and platforms any more elaborate than the ones that currently exist for the buses, and the signalling would be traffic lights.

    That you characterize digging up the street as a “unique cost” of surface rail as compared to subways puzzles me.

  7. Bus Rapid Transit does not require track, just its own express lanes as we currently have. No transfer from one mode to another, no digging up streets, no tunneling and much cheaper to maintain.
    Bus Rapid Transit reduces gridlock by getting people out of their cars and having dedicated lanes for buses only.
    Bus Rapid Transit is the model of the future for budget conscious cities.
    Bus Rapid Transit will employ hundreds in Ontario to manufacture at home.
    Bus Rapid Transit will use Hybrid technology to reduce air pollution.
    Bus rapid transit, just as sexy for half the price, ongoing savings and wont break the bank.

  8. John, Ottawa’s system is BRT: OC Transpo has low-floor, articulated buses, and they operate them extensively through the downtown Transitway. They also operate diesel-electric hybrids. Is a tacky, fibreglass body kit really what we need?

    Rationalizing the bus routes by terminating all of Ottawa’s zillions of special express buses outside of downtown and having their riders transfer to frequent Transitway service to complete their journeys would probably clear up some of the downtown congestion without any technological changes. Better signaling at cross streets and closing Albert and Slater to other traffic would probably improve the capacity a bit, too. That said, there’s clearly sufficient demand to justify light rail.

  9. Current BRT is not the model. Articulated BRT unlike what we have seen and more like an LRT is the model. Main arguments for LRT are comfort, low emission, ease of entry and evacuation of passengers and larger numbers.

    At about $1Million dollars the cost of a BRT carrying up to 150 passengers is not only significantly lower than a train, but more closely matches passenger numbers. Design is low entry, like a train. Multiple access points with platform ticketing allow for rapid loading and unloading. Large windows for views, similar style seating for comfort. And with ultra capacitor recharging zero emission (with battery assist for storage) and no need for overhead wires or refueling depots. This technology is currently in use in Shanghai and Oregon

    The main line for East-West, basically the current Transitway that already has platforms and stations in places is efficient so no need for a tunnel. This will create a savings of close to realistic estimates of $1Billion dollars.

    Traffic along Slater is reduced by these higher volume buses with train style low floor access.

    Garages are already set up and with electric engines not only are fuel costs incredibly reduced but service on them is minimal.

    BRT is yet to be analyzed with this approach.

  10. Very nicely said. This city needs some solid long-term planning – the long-term consequences of surface rail would far exceed the short-term costs of a tunnel. Hopefully those in charge manage to remove their heads from their asses long enough to realize this.

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