Chemin de fer
de banlieue

Il y a eu trois
options de base
en fait de chemin
de fer de banlieue
en Amérique du
Nord: les trains
conventionnels, les
métros et le rail
léger électrique.
Récemment, une
quatrième option
fut mise au point
en Europe: le rail
léger diésel-

Cet article
touche à plusieurs
autres questions:
est-ce que le
chemin de fer de
banlieue ferait
concurrence aux
autobus?; est-ce
qu'il serait
dispendieux à
mettre au point
et à opérer?; 
est-ce qu'il serait
sécuritaire?; quelle
est la relation entre
le chemin de fer
de banlieue et la

Cet article examine
le chemin de fer de
banlieue comme
moyen de transport
efficace et alternatif
qui pourrait être
utilisé dans la
région d'Halifax.
































Metro Subway Montreal, PQ

(photo: Metro)

Commuter Rail

   Marcus Garnet
   Vice President of Transport 2000 Atlantic
   October 2000


hy consider commuter rail?
Until recently there were only three basic options for commuter rail in North America: conventional trains, subway trains and electric light rail.

=======  Diesel Light Rail (DLR)  ======= 

(photo: Regional Municipality of Ottawa)

Conventional train service (e.g., Toronto GoTrain) could be established with relatively little capital investment (especially using second-hand equipment on existing tracks) but was labour intensive and involved high operating costs. Subways (e.g., Montreal Metro) required massive capital investment in tunnels, stations and equipment. Electric light rail (e.g., Calgary) offered low operating costs, with capital costs somewhere between those for conventional rail and metros. Because of the need for overhead wiring and (in most cases) new tracks, however, electric light rail remained beyond the reach of smaller cities, where ridership would not be sufficient to justify the frequent service afforded by electric traction.

In the past decade, a fourth option has been developed in Europe, and has recently been chosen by the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton for a pilot project. Known as diesel light rail (DLR), this option combines the low operating costs and street running capability of electric light rail, with the low capital costs of operating on existing tracks and without overhead electric wiring. This has the potential to reduce operating costs by up to 40 percent compared with conventional trains, due to one-person operation, use of standard bus components, and low fuel consumption. There is also potential for increased revenue as more riders are attracted by schedules which offer shorter travel times and direct service into downtown cores through streetcar-style track extensions. Because of their lightweight construction, however, the vehicles must be separated from conventional trains through dedicated track or strict scheduling.

===  Electric Light Rail (ELR)  === 

(photo: Dart ELR)

It can be argued that the geography of the Halifax area presently favours this new transit option. An existing, underutilized second track - with only two public street crossings - connects the fastest growing communities and high density residential development along the Bedford Basin with five campuses, five commercial centres and a major bus terminal. Furthermore, preliminary analysis suggests that a single street-car style track extension embedded in a dedicated street lane could enable the rail service to continue directly into the downtown Halifax core, with convenient access to the indoor pedway system.

Would commuter rail compete
with the buses?

Bus technology has advantages of lower vehicle cost, flexibility and the opportunity to provide direct service without adding in-street tracks. Halifax staff have examined a number of bus-based alternatives, including the potential for re-configuring one track of the CN rail line as a busway. However, CN is reluctant to allow road vehicles to share a right of way in close proximity to an operational rail line, and for some sections of the right of way, both tracks will continue to be needed for freight trains. Moreover, commuter rail is directed at a somewhat different and complementary market to that for conventional bus service. It is well known for its potential to attract additional riders to transit who would otherwise commute by car. Commuter rail users in other cities typically pay a higher fare in return for faster schedules and other amenities. Existing bus routes could be reconfigured where appropriate to feed into the new service, while the train could take pressure off remaining parallel routes serving intermediate points.

Would commuter rail be expensive to develop and operate?

In Halifax, most of the required trackage is already in place. Unlike electric light rail (LRT), diesel light rail does not require any overhead wiring. The vehicles are more expensive than used conventional equipment, but the cost has declined over the past two years due to favourable European exchange rates.

The capital cost for a diesel light rail service is estimated to be around $20 million, assuming rented track. This would be a major investment in public transit, but would be comparable to typical municipal road expenditures. Preliminary analysis suggests that the operating cost recovery rate would be comparable to that of existing bus routes. A significant portion of this operating cost would be in track rental paid to Canadian National. If the track were acquired outright by the municipality, estimates suggest that the operating revenue/cost ratio could approach the break-even point. Further study would be required to substantiate these preliminary findings.

Would commuter rail be safe?

There are three safety issues which must be addressed before a decision could be made on commuter rail for the Halifax region:

1. the compatibility of light rail vehicles with conventional railway trains;
2. the potential for Metro Transit staff to operate the proposed service;
3. the feasibility of safe running in downtown street rights-of-way.
These questions would require study by a qualified consultant and municipal staff.

======= Mass Transit: Vancouver Skytrain  =======

The Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton has recently decided to install a diesel light rail pilot project using lightweight vehicles on existing tracks which are traversed (albeit infrequently) by conventional trains. Their light rail service is to be operated by OC Transpo unionized staff rather than railway union personnel. Electric light rail vehicles run in street rights of way in several other North American cities, though these vehicles are somewhat smaller than those presently available for diesel light rail. In Halifax, two tracks currently exist, though CN intends to remove up to 75% of one of these tracks which might be usable for diesel light rail, though the other 25% is used by occasional freight trains. HRM is presently discussing the implications of this with CN.

Another important safety issue is the protection of the Canadian National railway tracks from street crossings and trespassing. More frequent and faster trains increase the risk of injuries or fatalities to people attempting to cross the tracks illegally or at grade crossings. Diesel light rail vehicles typically incorporate electro- magnetic track brakes enabling rapid emergency stops. Attention must, however, be given to improved fencing and pedestrian crossings at strategic locations to deter trespassers.

What is the relationship between commuter rail and regional planning?

Commuter rail is most effective when large numbers of people can walk to the stations. The stations provide a natural focal point to existing and new communities, which can evolve from park-and-ride lots into "village centres" offering convenience shopping, daycare, community recreation facilities, townhousing and other compact residential uses within a convenient walking distance. This "transit village" concept can provide a framework for encouraging cost-effective regional growth while recognizing the continued demand for conventional rural estate lots in areas beyond. Transit villages cater to a potentially underserviced sector of the housing market, enabling some residents to choose a lifestyle which does not require multiple car ownership, thus helping to mitigate suburban traffic growth. The availability of more compact development also helps to reduce development pressure on outlying areas with their associated municipal servicing costs. Commuter rail could be seen as a highly visible commitment to ordered regional growth.