Montreal’s 67km driverless train system to be third longest in world

Proposed driverless train network cites Vancouver as model in case study

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), an institutional investor responsible for financing major transportation projects in Quebec, has proposed the construction of a driverless rapid transit network, similar to our SkyTrain system, to service Greater Montreal.

The Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM; English: Metropolitan Electric Network) will span 4 proposed corridors and 67km. The system will serve several Greater Montreal cities and be the 3rd longest driver-less system in the world after the Dubai Metro and Vancouver’s SkyTrain.

The proposal will double the length of Montreal’s rail rapid transit network, and addresses the need for rapid transit to service areas in Greater Montreal where most commuters are driving to access the inner city, or are putting up with long bus and commuter train rides. The service will address the previously identified need to bring rail rapid transit across the Champlain Bridge, and bring new rapid transit to many areas of western Montreal that do not have any access to rapid transit currently.

Travel time savings and high service frequency were made key focuses in the CDPQ’s proposal, which outlined what kind of travel time savings would be achievable on each of the 4 proposed corridors:

Part of the project would involve the conversion of the existing Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line to integrate with the proposed rapid transit network. Similar to SkyTrain’s Expo Line, an existing rail tunnel will be repurposed in order to service the new rapid transit line (this tunnel currently carries the Deux-Montagnes line’s existing service). In addition to servicing 3 major suburban areas, the proposal includes a branch to the airport that fulfills an earlier proposal to build a Canada Line-like system connecting to the rest of Greater Montreal.

At a cost of $5.5 billion to build, the new line will represent a major investment in Greater Montreal rapid transit that will be the biggest since the Montreal Metro. However, Caisse, which was awarded the responsibility for financing major transportation projects in Quebec in an infrastructure deal last year, has offered to invest $3 billion – just over 50% of the project’s cost – into the REM project. Additional public investment would then be split between senior-level governments.

The massiveness of the CDPQ’s investment commitment shows that it is confident that the project will succeed. The CDPQ’s case study clearly identified the potential to bring serious benefits for transit riders, and its clearly identified rationale for choosing driverless train technology dignifies its success here in Metro Vancouver and around the world.

Download the case study

Significant improvements in transit service

Map of the new system, showing connection points with existing rail transit in Montreal

The new system is expected to have 150,000 riders on opening year (2021), 65,000 higher than currently exist on those corridors.

To fulfill the expectation that the system will raise this ridership, the CDPQ has designed the project with an intense focus on travel time benefits and rider comfort. Focus was placed on making sure trains were accessible all-day, every day, with the project advertising that service will run 7 days a week for 20 hours, and much more frequently than existing commuter rail service. CDPQ also focused on ensuring the system had quality amenities such as a free wi-fi network along the line for all commuters.

SkyTrain cited as inspiration

Montreal benefits
The REM case study cites SkyTrain as an example for development success.

In addition to the improvements in transit service, over $5 billion in economic development is expected to be attracted along the line, with Vancouver and the Canada Line cited as the primary example. The construction process is expected to contribute $3 billion to the GDP, and the reduction in road congestion is expected to reduce economic losses of $1.4 billion per year and 16,800 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Following the SkyTrain model

Caisse was one of the private investors in the private consortium chosen to build the highly successful Canada Line rapid transit project back in 2009. Caisse’s experience from co-investing in the Canada Line, and then co-experiencing its record ridership numbers well above target while billions in economic growth is spurred along the line, appears to be directly translating into the choices of station spacing, technology and level of investment on the REM.

These choices are remarkably similar to the ones that we have made with transit here in Vancouver – as an example, we also repurposed an existing tunnel for our driverless SkyTrain system – and would suggest that Greater Montreal is on its way to a transit future that is sustainable to maintain and feasible to expand. Here in Vancouver, we’ve managed to expand rail transit faster than every other city in Canada, while our system boasts an exceptional system ridership record that is envied throughout North America by other cities.

Just like our SkyTrain system, the system will make use of shorter trains (2-car trains off-peak, joined to form 4-car trains during peak hours) at a higher frequency, providing the same capacity as longer trains at a lower frequency.

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line
SkyTrain pioneered driverless train technology. Seen here, a 2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line. By sillygwalio, CC-BY

With 24 stations over 67km, the station spacing means that the REM is a cross between suburban/commuter rail and urban rail.

The new proposal in Montreal looks a lot like the Canada Line of our SkyTrain system.

The spacing is wider, resulting in faster service, in outer areas where rapid transit is competing against commuting by car and localized access is not its main purpose. However, it condenses in inner areas where the line can then double its purpose and act an urban rapid transit link. This is similar to what is done by our SkyTrain system here.

To top things off, the system includes an airport branch which is similar to what was done with our very own Canada Line. This approach to integrating airport service with other nearby urban rapid transit service is different from what was done in Toronto with the construction of its dedicated Union-Pearson Express train, which was heavily criticized for its high fares.

Train technology

REM cars

The concept 2-car trains (which are joined to form 4-car trains during rush hour) look similar to the Bombardier ART and Innovia trains being used here in Metro Vancouver. The system will share the same 80m platform lengths used by our Expo and Millennium Lines.

The project mentions that they will be “electric light metro” cars that use overhead catenary power, presumably to capitalize on the existing commuter rail infrastructure on the Deux-Montagnes line and through the Mount Royal Tunnel. While it’s plausible that the trains will be using conventional propulsion technology, the train size and specs suggest that linear motor train technology as used in our Expo and Millennium Line could be adopted.

A 2-car Tokyo Metro 01-series train now in service in Kumamoto. These trains were outfitted with overhead catenaries for Kumamoto’s railway, after using third-rail power for years on Tokyo’s busiest city subway line. By hyolee2, CC-BY-SA

Bombardier currently offers its Innovia Metro trains (used on our SkyTrain system) with third rail propulsion options, but it would not be difficult to modify the design to take overhead power. Existing third rail trains can be easily modified and outfitted with pantographs.

In Japan, which is home to the world’s most well-built railway and transit networks, this is done regularly when used trains are passed on from big city to smaller-scale transit operators.

As an example, last year a number of Tokyo Metro Series 01 train cars, which were used on the city’s busiest Ginza Line, were transferred to a local railway in Kumamoto, which required the installation of an overhead catenary and other modifications (whereas the previous metro line was a third-rail subway).

See also: Montreal may use SkyTrain technology for Champlain Bridge “LRT”

I have previously commented on how Montreal rail rapid transit projects have specified trains that are similar to those used on our SkyTrain system. This proposal, which actually encompasses many of the same corridors, continues that trend, and it is becoming increasingly likely that a full ALRT adoption is going to be used.

The cost rationale for going driverless

Driverless winning
The total length of automated metro lines is expected to triple by 2025.

Greater Vancouver pioneered driverless rapid transit when SkyTrain was introduced more than 30 years ago, utilizing what was then the latest technology developed by Alcatel and UTDC. Since then, other systems have been built in numerous cities around the world. According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), 35 cities around the world operated 52 automated metro lines, spanning over 700km, in 2014. This is expected to increase three-fold to over 2000km by 2021.

Automation brings many operational advantages, in particular, increased safety and flexibility in operation, unrivalled reliability, and more attractive job profiles for the staff on the line. Building on these strengths, metro operating companies can seize on automation as a lever for change at all company levels: operational, maintenance and customer service.
(UITP automation report)

One of the more obvious ways that a driver-less system saves money is with the reduction in staffing (no drivers on each of the many trains), headroom is created to operate much more frequent service during less busy weekends and off-peak hours, without incurring an operating cost penalty.

However, the REM’s design choices also show how driver-less train systems can also create the flexibility to save on the project capital cost while maintaining the highest quality of service.

The western proportion of the REM proposal has 3 separate lines that merge into a single lane heading into Montreal City Centre.
The western proportion of the REM proposal has 3 separate lines, which merge into a single line heading into Montreal City Centre.

With service frequencies as high as every 2 minutes in the central portion of the line through Montreal City Centre (and potentially higher as ridership increases), driver-less technology is what fosters the potential to combine the no less than 3 forking lines to the west, each already operating at a high frequency, into a single line heading into the city core.

Traditional, driver-operated commuter railways do not always benefit from the ability to merge lines, as the lower permitted frequencies and longer train sizes make running at such high frequencies prohibitive and infeasible. As an example, in Osaka, Japan, the 3 ‘Hankyu’ commuter train line branches serving the areas north of the main city enter the city core on a wide 6-track right-of-way, including a 6-track bridge over the Umeda River. Each line gets its own set of tracks and is operated separately from one another.

Osaka, Japan's 'Hankyu' commuter train lines have 3 branches that converge for the final segment into the City Centre. Each line gets its own set its tracks, and crosses the Umeda River into the city core on a 6-track bridge. Montreal's REM proposal is using driverless technology to avoid this setup, with 3 forking lines merging into a single line and using driverless technology to travel into the city core at high frequencies.
The Hankyu bridge into Osaka’s Umeda Station. By GORIMON, CC-BY-NC

Montreal’s REM proposal is using driverless technology to avoid this setup, utilizing driverless technology to have trains from 3 different lines travel into the city core at very high frequencies – without the need for separate tracks, additional tunnels and viaducts, and larger infrastructure, meaning costs and land footprint are significantly reduced.

It is clear why CDPQ is choosing a driverless, automated light metro system – the higher frequencies allow for capacities that are comparable or better despite shorter platforms, and compared to an investment in heavy commuter rail, the REM’s choice for driverless train technology could be saving billions upon billions of dollars.

Opening to public in 2020

Concept image of an REM station

One of the marvellous things about the R.E.M. plan is the speed at which the CDPQ wishes to set it up. With a clear business case and clear benefits presenting the opportunity to quickly approve funding from the provincial and federal governments, construction is expected to start in Spring of 2017, approximately 1 year from now.

The line will then open in 2020, with construction sped up by the well-planned re-use of existing rights-of-way and tunnels, and its integration with other projects such as the new Champlain Bridge.

Despite what could be seen as challenges due to the cost, the REM proposal, and the speed at which it will be ready for service, is a showcase of what happens when all parties can come together with a great plan and a great business case. Moreover, driverless train technology, which was pioneered and made extremely successful here in Vancouver, is the basis of this proposal.

See also: The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits

I think I am most delighted by the indication that driverless train lines are still worth building and make a lot of sense for urbanized cities. Many of Vancouver’s SkyTrain expansion critics seem to think that isn’t the case.

My guess is that once the REM is complete and its success plays out, its success could very well trigger a rapid transit planning revolution and the mass spread of driverless train systems throughout world cities. Canada will not only be the country that pioneered this technology – but also the world leader in implementing it, with two of the world’s longest driverless systems in Montreal and in Vancouver.