Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa have each launched a major light rail project since 2009. But the three projects have met very different fates, which can be explained by technological choices, financial agreements or political pressures.
In Toronto, endless delays on the Eglinton Crosstown light rail line continue to make headlines.
More than three years late, billions of dollars in cost overruns, stations to repair before even opening. Not even the start-up date, initially scheduled for 2020, has been confirmed yet.
Since the vote and the start of work on the Eglinton Crosstown line, Ottawa and Montreal have not only designed, but also put into service parts of their respective light rail trains.
The Metrolinx agency, responsible for the project, limits itself to saying that the line, 98% complete, will be inaugurated
in the near future.
Ottawa and Montreal: opened later, opened earlier
But Toronto is not alone: light rail projects appear to be turning into a nightmare in Ontario.
The O-Train, designed and approved after the Eglinton Line project, has operated in Ottawa since 2019.
In Ottawa, the Confederation line was put into service in 2019. Despite a better construction schedule, this light rail has accumulated numerous breakdowns and accidents: three derailments, delays of more than 30 minutes and another month of stoppage this summer.
Along with these Ontario setbacks, Montreal’s brand new Réseau express métropolitain (REM) seems to be a good student. Approved in 2018, the REM opened on July 31 without major breakdowns, despite cost increases and delays during construction.
It still has to go through its first Canadian winter to really prove its reliability.
Toronto: a more complex project, mainly underground
The three cities have the same objective: transport thousands of passengers every day on light trains. But the projects have different characteristics.
A little more than half of the Elginton Crosstown light rail route is underground, making the project more complex. (File photo)
More than half of the Eglinton Crosstown route is underground (13 stations of 25 and 10 kilometers of 19), which makes the project more complex, explains Pierre Filion, professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Waterloo. Especially since you have to successfully connect with line 1 of metro 1.
The Eglinton Crosstown line has been under construction since 2011.
This is a notable difference from Ottawa and its primarily land route on former bus lanes. Only a small portion of the line runs underground under Rideau Avenue.
For the Montreal REM,
We are in an air system like the Vancouver Skytrain, more technologically advanced and fully automated. describes the academic.
Paradoxically, building higher is easier. Another advantage is that the operation of the skytrain is also easier for on-board computer systems, since there is no need to manage the interaction with car traffic or pedestrians.
The Metropolitan Express Network is mainly an aerial system disconnected from the road and built on high voltage towers. (File photo)
An APP, the wrong solution in case of a problem
In theory, public-private partnerships (PPPs) help divide responsibilities between government and business. Contracts state precisely what everyone must pay and do. This is the choice of Toronto and then Ottawa.
However, when business gets tough, no one wants to incur additional costs. Therefore, the public administration does not want to make taxpayers pay more. For their part, private builders are reluctant to cut their profits.
Conflicts are then resolved after mediation sessions or even trials; that can stop the work or the tests.
This is the case of Toronto, where in May 2023 Metrolinx accused manufacturers of accumulating 260 failures. The private consortium Crosslinx counterattacked, accusing the public company of being behind non-contractual modifications.
At first glance, the Elginton Crosstown project north of Toronto is almost complete. But there are still aspects to be finalized that prevent commissioning. (File photo)
In Ottawa, the PPP caused a cascade of complaints among contractors, but they occurred after the project was completed. The project’s subcontractors sued the Groupe de transport Rideau (GTR) consortium, which built the infrastructure. The municipality also filed a complaint against the GTR and its own insurer.
To which the GTR responded with its own complaint.
Ottawa’s new O’train has derailed several times, including once due to lack of equipment maintenance. (File photo)
At stake: several hundred million dollars and determination of responsibilities.
The GTR and Ottawa City Council finally reached an amicable agreement regarding the failures during commissioning, but not on the construction side.
The companies that built the Ottawa line are also part of the Toronto consortium, worries Shelagh Pizey-Allen, director of the user advocacy organization TTC Riders. However, the report of the public inquiry commission
indicated that the problems come from the lack of transparency and controls for the PPP contract she supports.
One of the derailments in Ottawa was due to lack of maintenance.
TTC Riders’ Shelagh Pizey-Allen believes the City of Toronto and then the province made a bad decision with the PPP (file photo).
In Montreal, the province
was based on the Caisse de dépôt et place du Québec (CDPQ), a semi-public company, which was organized so that it could manage profits on its funds once the service was operational, which was an incentive for opening analyzes Pierre Filion.
In retrospect, he believes this deal was more efficient compared to the promises of efficiency in Ottawa and Toronto.
The elections surrounding the REM have also been the subject of criticism, particularly from the Trainsparence collective.
Among them, David Eaves, a resident of Deux-Montagnes, a Montreal suburb whose train line is currently closed to be replaced by the REM at the end of 2024, criticizes
a private project led by a public company. He regrets that the REM is not integrated into the Société des transports de Montréal, the equivalent of the CTT.
The REM financial package was the subject of protests. Here at the Deux-Montagnes station on the outskirts of Montreal. (File photo)
Criticizes the profitability objective of 8%, achieved thanks to a 72% subsidy per passenger and kilometers paid by the federal government
that will use funds for other transportation projects. Finally, David Eaves questions the aerial choice that
allows the CDPQ to acquire land and develop real estate projects, which would not have been possible underground.
Difference in approach and political strategy
Both cities united by PPP, the cities of Toronto and Ottawa have two opposite attitudes towards builders.
Ottawa’s incredible story can be explained by political pressure to open as soon as possible.
The inauguration took place with
only 1 year and 3 months late. Moved to Toronto, such a delay would mean the Eglinton-Crosstown line would be operational from late 2021.
But during the provincial public inquiry into the Confederation line, former mayor Jim Watson finally admitted that
The system we purchased did not live up to our expectations..
taking full responsibility and apologizing for
The gaps The former elected official regretted that he had campaigned in 2010 on the amount of 2.1 billion dollars for labor, which he did not have enough support and to which he clung.
Former Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson regretted setting a weak maximum amount and pushing for openness while still adhering to it. (File photo)
On the Toronto side, back in 2020, former Mayor John Tory and Metrolinx told Radio-Canada they wanted to learn lessons from Ottawa to ensure they had a reliable system when opening.
This summer, then-provincial Associate Minister of Transportation Stan Cho repeated
We don’t want to rush the opening. We saw what happens with the example of Ottawa and the light rail derailment there.
Will the Eglinton Crosstown LRT be defect-free when opened? More than 14 years after Toronto City Council voted to approve the project, billions in cost overruns and years of startup delays, the municipality and the province have every interest in it.
The problem is not just the delays stronghold of Shelagh Pizey-Allen,
Then there is the 30-year contract.. An opaque mechanism that is not trusted after the Ottawa experience.
He also notes that this summer, new Mayor Olivia Chow was able to reverse cuts to CTT service thanks to the budget planned to operate the Eglinton line. Her making him fear further damage to the network once the opening is complete.