With last week’s rant about the city’s laughable railway rhetoric out of my system, I want to take the time to look at the idea of regional commuter rail in Ottawa. As many locals know and as I shared last week, Clive Doucet, a former city councillor running for mayor, has floated his idea for light rail in the National Capital Region, which takes a page out of the current O-Train plans and also borrows heavily from the Moose playbook.
Of course, our current mayor has dismissed Doucet’s plans out of hand, which is unfortunate. I will agree that Doucet’s plans require much more work, but there is so much about his idea that deserves a harder look. It’s a shame no one on the city’s current council, including the mayor, wants to explore anything other than their own vision for commuter rail in this city.
So, in the absence of any real analysis from the experts, I present to you my own analysis of Mr. Doucet’s railway plan, from my own point of view. I don’t pretend, of course, to have all the answers. But I would hope I can at least inject a little common sense into this farcical debate. Let’s begin.
The plan calls for service to a number of rural communities in the region, connecting Ottawa to many commuters in the east, west, south and north. Many people from outlying areas still drive to work, which is why Highway 417 is jammed every rush hour in both directions.
The plan calls for using existing rails, which is such a simple and cost effective idea, I’m surprised it hasn’t even been explored.
The plan isn’t an all-or-nothing plan. In other words, it’s not just about building new, electrified light rail lines in stages in the city over the next decade or so. There is a real chance to establish heavy rail commuter trains on existing tracks in short order.
The plan calls for a rail link over the Prince of Wales Bridge.
The responsibility for the system would likely be shared among municipalities, not just Ottawa.
There is a potential to get two provincial governments involved in this project (read: more potential money)
There is a potential to get two provincial governments involved in this project. I know I wrote that in the good column as well, but it’s a double-edged sword. With the current government in Ontario not likely to want to be the steward of another GO Transit system in the province, it’s unlikely the regional rail system here would have the same model as the one in the Greater Toronto Area. Also, with a potential change in government looming in Quebec, who knows what the new government will want to do in the Outaouais region? The area is an anomaly in Quebec for many reasons, including its dependency on the federal government and its voting patterns, which sometimes run contrary to the rest of the province.
Critics have estimated that the Prince of Wales Bridge needs $40 million in repairs to prepare it for railway use again.
An interprovincial regional commuter service would come under the jurisdiction of the federal government’s Canadian Transportation Agency (read: complications).
The plan calls for rail links to areas that no longer have rail lines (Fitzroy Harbour, Chelsea, Quebec, Navan, Stittsville, Kanata North).
This plan would require the repurposing or expropriation of recreational trails, which are jealously guarded in this city. This would not be easy.
The plan calls for negotiating running rights with Via Rail Canada, Canadian National, a company in Arnprior and municipalities that own former rail rights-of-way. This is because the proposed system would use the Smiths Falls Subdivision (a very busy Via Rail corridor), the Alexandria Subdivision (also a busy Via corridor), the Nylene Canada-owned Renfrew Spur, the former Maniwaki Subdivision and the parts of the old Lachute Subdivision that are under the control of the City of Gatineau. In other words, there are many, many, many moving parts.
It’s not clear how a heavy rail system would function with the Confederation Line and the Trillium Line.
So, with that stated, let’s take a close look at what might be involved if a regional commuter railway was planned and where the trains might operate.
Carleton Place Subdivision
It’s obvious from the map that Doucet wants to use parts of the old Beachburg Subdivision to reach Bells Corners and then the old Carleton Place Sub to reach Stittsville. Getting to Bells Corners will require the acquisition of running rights from CN, a publicly traded company. I would imagine this might be trickier than some realize. Although this line is used once a week for the Arnprior turn, I can’t imagine CN would want to do any work on the rails to get them ready for commuter trains. The connection from Bells Corners to Stittsville will require repurposing what is now the Rideau Trail and parts of the Trans Canada Trail, all of which were once the old CP right-of-way. This will be tricky and likely opposed by many people in parts of south Kanata and Stittsville. Doucet’s map shows a connection between Stittsville and Kinburn, which makes no sense since Kinburn is on the old Renfrew Spur and would not likely be part of the Stittsville connection.
Another wrench in the works is that the old Bells Junction switch in Bells Corners has been removed and the small spur branching off the Beachburg Sub lifted. That right-of-way has been sold and is slated to make way for a street that will provide access to a new housing development next to a trailer park.
Beachburg Subdivision (north of Nepean Junction)
Using the old Beachburg Subdivision to access Merivale Road is a great idea. This section of the subdivision (past Federal) is basically not used with the exception of Wednesday and this area could really benefit from a commuter rail connection. But after passing through Bells Corners, the old Beachburg Subdivision past Nepean Junction is gone. Rebuilding the roadbed all the way to Fitzroy Harbour will be monumentally expensive and likely not worth the effort, since the communities along this old railway line are not large enough to justify such a large capital project. The real benefit to using this old railway would be if it was used to connect Pembroke and Petawawa to Ottawa. But rebuilding this old piece of the CN Northern Transcon is not going to happen. This was a project that should have been explored years ago, before CN cut and run. A more practical approach would be to rebuild the right-of-way into North Kanata, where it could serve the large technology community and subdivisions there. Anything beyond that area would be a sucker’s bet.
As mentioned above, this rail line is used once a week for the Arnprior turn. I'm not sure it would fit into Doucet's plan, although I suspect it would since Kinburn is listed as a community to be served by his system. The good news is Nylene Canada, which owns the rails, has already stated in the media that it would be open to finding ways to increase the uses for this rail line. And the land that the rails occupy is owned by the city. This land was bought by the old Region of Ottawa-Carleton for future use as a commuter line. If only that trend had continued. The bad news is, this line would not actually reach Arnprior, where it would be most useful. That's a big oversight in the Doucet plan, in my opinion.
Using this line to connect the city to Limoges could work, but there are a lot of Via Rail trains and some CN freight trains that would provide significant scheduling difficulties. There’s also the somewhat odd choice of a connection with Navan in Doucet’s plan. This would require new rails to be built so Navan could be connected with Vars, which is on the Alexandria Sub. It should be pointed out that there is a remnant of an old rail line that could connect Navan, but that link would require a trail be repurposed for rail use again, which is a tall task in a city that is spoiled with an abundance of recreational trails. At first glance, it seems as though someone was just pinning communities on a map without much thought as to what rail line is actually available for use. I think the Navan connection would be highly difficult to achieve. The use of the Alexandria Sub would likely require double tracking parts of this right-of-way and significant negotiations with Via Rail. To be honest, I don’t see any incentive for Via in clearing the way for regional commuter trains on this right-of-way.
Smiths Falls Subdivision
The same can be said for the Smiths Falls Sub. This is a very busy Via Rail line and there would not be much incentive for Via Rail to share this rail line, if it meant any disruption in its service between Ottawa and Toronto. But, on paper, it makes sense to link Barrhaven and Richmond to the downtown on this line. That would get commuter rail to this part of the city much sooner than the current plan to extend the old CP Prescott Subdivision to Riverside South on the existing right-of-way. One potential problem is this rail line doesn’t actually get all that close to the downtown. The closest section would be Pleasant Park, so it would require some creativity to get these commuters into the core.
Once again, the plan to extend commuter rail up the Gatineau River Valley would have been a great idea a few years ago, when the municipally owned line was in a state of flux. This line never recovered from a series of wash-outs years ago, which cost the region its unique Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train. Just last winter, the last-ditch efforts to get a tourist operations back on the rails on this old line essentially fell flat when the towns along the line began lifting the rails. It’s too bad because, with some work, this line would have been perfect for commuter rail as it was essentially inactive for parts of the year.
The one complicating factor to using the old Lachute trackage through Gatineau is that this line is slated to become an important part of that city’s light rail system, which is in the very early planning stages. The tracks have been rebuilt by the city, after they were ripped up to make way for the city’s Rapibus system. So, the line is in good shape. But the questions of clashing plans and interprovincial jurisdiction and funding would likely confuse the process.
I find it strange that Doucet's plan does not include the planned extension of the O-Train Trillium Line to Riverside South. This project, which was finally embraced by the current council after years of dithering, would be an important part of any regional commuter system. Better still, there is a corridor beyond Leitrim Road where the old CP Prescott Sub could be extended to reach communities like Manotick Station and Kemptville. Currently, this right-of-way exists as some sort of recreational trail. I think there's a great deal of potential with this old line.
So that’s my take. It’s too bad that this wasn’t the starting point of commuter rail discussions years ago, when the city was contemplating what to do beyond the currently operating O-Train on the old Ellwood Subdivision. It seems like elements of this plan could really be useful pieces to the city’s mass transit needs in the future.