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
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
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
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
2. the potential for Metro Transit staff to operate the proposed
3. the feasibility of safe running in downtown street rights-of-way.
These questions would require study by a qualified consultant and