What other cities are doing: Ottawa

This article first appeared at TraNZport blog and is republished with permission.

This is what I hope will be the first in a series of posts that cover what is happening in other cities around the world, and how they are relevant for thinking about transport in New Zealand’s largest cities. Previously, I have touched on developments in Canberra and Newcastle (Australia), and I intend on revisiting those cities in more detail as part of this series. This post, however, will focus on the Canadian Federal Capital city of Ottawa.


Ottawa skyline

Ottawa is a medium sized city that is characterised by being largely flat and spread out. In many ways, it is the atypical North American city. The city itself has a population a touch over a million people, and its metropolitan area contains over 1.3 million. In the early 1980s, Ottawa built a bus rapid transit (BRT) system called the “Transitway”, which provided grade separated bus corridors across the city. This was in contrast to other similar size Canadian cities like Edmonton and Calgary which built light rail systems about the same time. Ottawa was a bus city.

I say was because, now, Ottawa is undergoing a significant transport transformation. Literally just days ago, Ottawa saw the opening of a new, high quality, light rail line running east to west across the city, including a three station underground section in the central business district, known as the Confederation Line. This was built using light rail technology, the type that can easily run in street, but in Ottawa it was laid in a pre-existing BRT right-of-way and had the underground section built. In a sense, it’s probably close to being “light metro”, and Toronto are taking a similar approach to building Line 5 of its Subway network.

There are a number of things I find really interesting about Ottawa’s approach to rapid transit. First, it began unashamedly as a bus-only approach. Second, this was built on and at some point the decision made to upgrade to light rail. Third, the path towards light rail began with a pilot commuter rail line in 2001, which is undergoing its own expansion and upgrade. Let’s begin at the end and take a closer look at the commuter rail pilot, because it is quite interesting.

The Trillium Line


The pilot (then known as the O-Train, but now individually identified as the Trillium Line) began in 2001 using second hand diesel electric multiple units from Europe, and running on a an 8km section of single-tracked freight railway, with a total of five stations. In total, it cost just $21 million Canadian. At its northern end, the line terminated at a BRT station on the Transitway, some 2km to the west of Downtown Ottawa, necessitating passengers transfer to buses to get to the city’s main commercial centre (as of just a few days ago, the transfer is now to light rail). Originally, peak services were every 15 minutes, but this has now been upgraded to every 8-10 minutes through use of three passing loops. Patronage in 2017 was approximately 4.2 million rides. To put that in perspective, that is comparable to New Zealand’s busiest commuter rail lines. That might seem as though it doesn’t mean much, but consider some of the (supposed) limitations outlined above; single tracked, no CBD terminus, need for a transfer to bus, etc.

The pilot project is now permanent and extensions and upgrades are underway to the Trillium Line, which will see about 11km of new track, including a branch to the airport, and 8 new stations among further upgrades, including an additional passing loop and 7 brand new four-car DEMU trains. Interestingly, while part of the extension is to be double tracked, the existing line is not being double-tracked.

The Confederation Line


At the northern end of the Trillium Line, it connects to the new Confederation Line. The Confederation Line contrasts with the Trillium Line in that it is an electrified light rail line with all the bells and whistles (it’s fully grade separated, twin-tracked throughout, and has the aforementioned underground section through the downtown core). All up it cost $2.1 billion Canadian dollars, which isn’t chump change.

What I find interesting about this project is that it replaces the Transitway’s central sections. At its western and eastern ends it connects with the remaining Transitway sections which continue beyond. It demonstrates how rapid transit can be upgraded over time, that settling on going with one mode isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all, and that incremental improvements are possible. Almost immediately, a second stage is due to begin this year which will extend the Confederation Line further west and east. Other light rail lines are also planned in future.

What’s relevant to New Zealand?

There are some interesting points related to the developments in Ottawa that are pertinent to discussions in New Zealand. First, let’s look at the Trillium Line. It demonstrates how a cheap, threadbare commuter rail service can be introduced with success for a relatively small amount of money. Think recent discussions on introducing commuter rail between Christchurch and Rangiora (and check out this post on Talking Transport).

It also shows how this can be upgraded incrementally over time, and thus relatively cheaply. What began as a pretty simple system is developing into a relatively modern one with new rolling stock due to arrive in the near future to coincide with expansions to the service. Perhaps more pertinent is the way the line has linked with buses to provide access to the downtown area (and now how it links to the new Confederate Line). Rather than focusing on the line in isolation, looking at it as part of a network has seen it become quite a success. Or to put it another way, lack of direct access to the downtown core did not stop it going ahead or succeeding. This is quite an important lesson for Christchurch, where the Main North Line now effectively ends in Addington, and also has some relevance to the rapid transit discussion in Wellington where commuter rail and BRT or light rail could better integrate. Similarly, the single track of the line hasn’t been an insurmountable barrier. We aren’t talking the tube here, but passing loops allow the job to get done adequately (8 minute frequencies are pretty good, actually). Imagine, if you will, in Christchurch a rail service from Rangiora to Riccarton Road, where passengers can transfer to BRT or light rail to take them to the CBD? It worked in Ottawa, could it work there?

There are also important lessons from the way it has moved from BRT to light rail creating the Confederation Line. It shows that costs can be cut in the interim, if need be, by going BRT, but that doesn’t rule out upgrades in future. This might be a lesson Wellington has to take on board, especially given that there have been questions raised about meeting the costs of light rail and a push for some sort of BRT instead. Rather than one or the other, perhaps one could be implemented as a first phase? It also demonstrates the possibilities in Auckland, especially setting a precedent for future conversion of the Northern Busway. Additionally while light rail there might not involve as intensively grade separated sections, there is clearly means of doing this if desired in future. There have been strange rumblings from the Auckland light rail project, which suggest that there are effectively two proposals being developed in parallel; one involving something along the lines of what was planned (i.e. light rail running on street in dedicated right-of-way) and another PPP-based proposal from the Superannuation Fund that will have light rail put in tunnels along some of its length. However, where cost is an issue, there is no reason the first can’t be done now, with the tunneled options still being on the table for later. It doesn’t always have to be one or the other.

However, I have to reiterate that I see Christchurch’s situation as being most applicable to that in Ottawa. This is a high level look, the devil is always in the detail (I do understand the Trillium Line isn’t perfect), but it does illustrate that some of the show stoppers brought up about commuter rail between Christchurch and Rangiora – the lack of CBD access, the single tracking, etc – are not insurmountable and do not prevent a basic, good quality, useful commuter line being introduced. Undoubtedly, I will explore this in more detail in the future, but in the meantime check out my previous musings here and here.

As a side note…

A couple of years ago I was in Ottawa and had the full intention of travelling on the Trillium Line, like any good transport geek would. Unfortunately, like a bad transport geek, I got caught up with other things and forgot to set aside some time to do it. I did, however, grab a photo of the then under construction Confederation Line (below), but not getting on the Trillium Line is something I was a little miffed about. I love Canada, though, so there will certainly be a next time.

Confederation Line 2017

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