Sunday, June 21, 2009

LRT Technical Session

The City hosted a technical session on Saturday, June 20th for all those people who delight in spending a summer Saturday listening to streetcar vendors. About 100 of the public showed up, and at least 30 staff and consultants and vendors. The stated purpose of the meeting was to examine technical issues such as low floor vs high floor LRTs, dedicated vs shared rights of way, driverless vs on-board staff, etc. But I think the unstated purpose of the meeting was to educate the bloggers and transit hobbyists and community activists, so as to raise the tone of the debate when real decisions on technology are being made in September. If this was the covert objective, it succedded admirably. A number of participants prefaced statements with " I used to think ... but now ..."

The meeting started with spiels from Mayor Bellemare (sorry, I dont have a TV so I didn't recognize him - he was startingly young looking ...), Alain Mercier (OC Transpo) and Mona the head of the Transportation Master Plan project (TMP). I am not sure which speaker actually said it, but I did catch the comment that the LRT system will function with bus service as feeders to the line-haul LRT service. I didn't notice Marianne Wilkinson around to hear that one. But when the vendors spoke, two of the three emphasized that it was illogical to continue to run any bus rapid transitway - BRT - service to the core once the LRT was up and running. I have long suspected the LRT planners are saying YES to continued direct bus express service from Kanata and Barrhaven only until later in the process when the idea can be proved to be infeasible.

Three transit system vendors had display tables, brochures, free pens, models, and each gave a forty minute presentation. Alstom displayed their range of product to fit every market niche, and surprisingly to me he gently chided Ottawa for looking at LRT: in his mind, the City volumes along the transitway were enought to justify going straight to a metro-capacity train. He emphasized, as did all the speakers, that new LRT and metro systems always generate more traffic than transportation models predict. Since the system must be put in place to last 50 years (the life expectancy of a LRT or subway car) it is shortsighted fiscally and adminstratively to install a system that meets today's needs but which will be undercapacity in a few years. Why did I think he was directing his comments to certain shortsighted and tightfisted City councillors? Surely his remarks weren't directed to Alex Cullen who was in the audience, or the other councillors' staff members in attendance?

Dan Braund (an Ottawa boy, and old colleague from our days in the urban transit directorate at Transport Canada) spoke on behalf of Bombardier. Both he and the Alstom man claimed to represent the biggest LRT/metro vendors. The third speaker, Rainer, was from Shinkinsaro, an admittedly small firm that has a number of significant installs in North America. Most uniquely, his firm has no North Amercian assembly plant to put the vehicles together and then ship them to Ottaws via conventional heavy rail (the DOTT consultants have insisted the LRT maintenance yards be located adjacent a freight line to bring in the LRTs from eleswhere). Instead, Shinkinsaro uses the City's new LRT maintenance facility and its staff to assemble the cars here in Ottawa, which adds local value and thoroughly teaches the maintenance staff how the cars go together and work. This proceedure impressed me a lot. I will be going to the DOTT maintenance yard meeting this week.

Notably absent was Siemens, which won the previous round for Ottawa's LRT trainsets. I asked, and yes they were invited, they declined to attend. I suspect I hear a lawyer in the background at Siemens saying that if the show up to bid for this LRT project they are acknowleding that they somehow lost the previous bid. Nonetheless, I hope the City staff and consultants are busy reviewing their specs: after all, if they were deemed the best vehicle two years ago then presumably they must at least be a contender now.

The presentations and speaches were followed by a series of round-table discussions, with all points raised being written down by a scribe (each table had its own moderator/facilitator and another person to act as scribe - that's two staff to each 5 or 6 attendees. Can't say they weren't listening).

Amongst the comments at my table, I heard (or made myself...) the following:

1. greater respect for the idea that the LRTs along the transitway should be 'line haul" offering fast service with fewer stations rather than 'local" service with frequent stops.

2. a consequence of this was greater support for using the Ottawa River Parkway from Dominion to Lincoln Fields, with maybe one walkin stop along the route

3. there was less support for the Byron right of way, as its main virtue would be frequent stops for walk ins, at the price of slower express service and a very expensive precedent of perhaps burying the LRT where NIMBYs are loudest. Is McKeller Park the new Glebe?

4. while Carling is of interest, it is not likely to offer as fast a line-haul service as converting the transitway

5. there were mixed opinions on how to run the service on the ORP. I favour removing the southside lanes and making the northside lanes two directions of car traffic, and using the freed-up space for the LRT. Others favour running the LRT down the middle of the two road surfaces.

6. everyone agreed that we almost have enough transitway infrastructure that we could have a totally grade-separated and segregated system with no mixed-traffic. All the three vendors lauded the perfect conditions for Ottawa to convert the transitway and felt we are in an extremely lucky position due to the foresight of the builders of the transitway in the 1980s

7. but if we go for segregated system, there must be frequent grade-separated underpasses, for pedestrians and cylists, say every 500', to compensate for the 'barrier effect' of having a segregated right of way. Specifically mentioned were current at-grade crossings at Preston (install it from day one, not in the future), Dominion, along the ORP, Lincoln Fields, Iris, south of Iris, etc. Such a committment might make selling a segregated system easier.

8. LRTs can be dual mode. If diesel-electric, then it is not necessary to electrify all the track, for eg along the ORP there could be no overhead wires, and even more exciting, it would be much cheaper to extend the LRT beyond the greenbelt if electric catenary is not required. Thus the LRT service could be extended to Orleans, Barrhaven, Kanata years or decades sooner than currently envisioned using dual track overhead electric power.

9. Another version of dual mode would be electric-battery, whereby the LRT vehicle uses battery power in selected short distances, such as along the ORP.

10 Several attendees wanted on-board transpo staff, if not as a driver then as a guard. Totally automated trains made people uncomfortable. A chorus of voices was raised that the on-board staff need not be premium-paid "drivers" since running the almost-automated LRT is simpler and less-responsible than driving a bus. I heard the word "conductor" used for the on-board position. This will be unpleasant news to the OC TRanspo union which got a hefty premium from taxpayers for the "drivers" of the O-Train.

In conclusion, it was certainly refreshing and interesting to hear "outsiders" comment on our planning process, the opportunities available to us, and to speak some plain truths (yes, yes I know they are vendors) about what we should be doing.

I was left wondering about the meetings on Friday June 19th, which were not public meetings as far as I know, with operators of LRT systems in a number of US and Cdn cities. Presumably they also gave blunt advice about what to do or not to do. I wonder if any councillors were present? I would definately like to see made public a transcript of those advisory sessions.


  1. You write: "I have long suspected the LRT planners are saying YES to continued direct bus express service from Kanata and Barrhaven only until later in the process when the idea can be proved to be infeasible."

    Uhm, I think it's just the opposite.
    The city is wasting $45M for a new "BRT" bridge across the Rideau River so that buses can continue downtown. This "temporary" bridge will be used for 20+ years for transit, and then will be "recycled" into the Alta Vista Cooridoor HIGHWAY.

    The city's consultants and planners have gotten numerous things wrong. Over and over and over again. From the $20M station at Baseline that now costs $250M+ and will effectively PREVENT LRT from reaching Barrhaven, to the vastly inflated price ($45M) for extending to the dLRT O-Train to Leitrim (instead we have the inefficient #98 and #99), to their nonsense with the double decker buses.

    Oh, and Roman Avenue. $25M of expropriations, so that they can waste more money on busways, instead of providing Bayshore with LRT. That community ALREADY approved a different route, and would be thrilled if it was (e)LRT.

  2. You write about your growing enthusiasm for the Ottawa River Parkway, and making the LRT "long-haul". Thanks for supporting the sprawl and the bus-transit thinkers.

    Here is the reality about the Ottawa River Parkway: the curves required are very tight, and many of them are S-curves. Between parts of the S curve, you need an entire train length of straigtaway if you want to super-elevate (bank) the rails, as the elevation is in opposite directions for an S curve.

    There isn't space for that.
    So there can not be super-elevation. So this "long haul" train train will be slow. The express buses will be faster. Nice design from the bus-transit promoters, isn't it? Not only does it prove that busways are better than LRT, but by pushing us into "metro"-style, with long hauls (and no reverse commute), it also makes sure that busways are cheaper by far.

  3. Let's destroy greenspace to put in a train and let this incompetent city council make all the decisions. That's a great idea.

  4. Re: #3

    Lincoln Fields to Dominion is about 3.5 km via Byron (more via the ORP due to the reversing curves). That's a long distance to go without a stop. If 2 stops are added, that's ~1.1 km average between those 2 and Lincoln Fields and Dominion. That compares to 750 m from Dominion to Westboro, 1.6 km from Westboro to Tunney's Pasture, ~1.2 km from Tunney's Pasture to Bayview and less than 1 km from Bayview to LeBreton. On the East Transitway, Lees is 1 km from Campus and Hurdman about 700 m further. Train is 1.1 km from Hurdman, St. Laurent is another 1.1 km, Cyrville 800 m and Blair 1.8 km.

    In other words adding 1 or even 2 stations in the Byron corridor would be in line with what we already have elsewhere, so the claim of it turning into a corridor of frequent stops for walk-ins is demonstrably false. It's the ORP section that is the anomaly and there is precious little in time savings from the ORP alignment anyway due to the extra distance and the extra curves.

    Re #6:
    Foresight had little to do with making the Transitway grade-separated - it had to be that way for the buses. With as many as 400 bus movements per hour (both directions) at random intervals, it's just not practical to have too many traffic lights. Had we gone with LRT from the outset the trenches could have been avoided since there would be fewer than 50 scheduled train movements per hour, requiring only select intersections to be grade-separated. Simply put, BRT has a lower passenger volume threshold for requiring grade separation than does LRT. The savings from not trenching, not building bridges and not building multilevel brutalist stations would have allowed us to have rail to Lincoln Fields and Baseline and right now we'd be debating which outer suburb to extend LRT to and we'd be figuring out how to use stimulus funds to extend our rail system. Foresight the Transitway wasn't... it has held us back for over two decades.

  5. Let's destroy greenspace to put in a train and let this incompetent city council make all the decisions. That's a great idea.

    Yes. Let's.

    "Greenspace" that only serves to prevent the construction of a modern transit system isn't green. It's brown.