O-Train fast track

After years of ignoring the O-Train (as Chiarelli’s baby it was “thrown out” with the Mayor who drew the bath water); it is finally back on Council’s agenda.

Council is looking at some significant service improvements: 8 minute frequency (starting in 2014) rather than 15-minute headway now. This comes with a significant cost: buying six new train sets and selling off the existing Talent train sets in 2014 that would be nearly half-way through their lifespan.

The City can make a business case for doing the upgrade, based on several factors: the  current O-train is at- or over-capacity and apparently cannot be made to run faster; they cannot buy more of the talent trains, as they are older equipment, no longer made, and unlikely to come on the used-train market. Our old trains, though, are in high demand.

Starting in 2014, conversion of the transitway to LRT will be underway, disrupting bus service. The O-train corridor is finally being recognized as an alternative to the SE Transitway (that runs south from Hurdman). Indeed, not only is it an attractive alternative, it is faster and cheaper to operate! Just compare the SE transitway route on the map below to the downtown compared to the O-Train.

Separate from the proposal to speed up service is another study to examine extending the O-Train service further south to Leitrum. This would require more train sets. If the City is not careful, they might end up with the North-South LRT plan Chiarelli originally favoured, but with diesel service instead of electrified.

The map below illustrates where the more frequent service would require new passing tracks (in addition to keeping the one at Carleton U).


The location of the new passing zones bothers me. The current one at Carleton is OK. It has a slightly longer dwell time for southbound trains built into it so that the opposite northbound train can enter the passing track. This is barely noticeable to users, because it simply appears we are at the station, and there are buildings and people and activity to look at.

But for the new passing zones, neither is at a station. Indeed, the near-Gladstone one is in the rock cut with all the exciting scenery currently enjoyed at the Carling Station. So the train will pull to a halt between stations, and wait for about a minute while the other train pulls into its track, then the service will resume. This delay for each passing partly accounts for the one minute longer trip time. But since the new trains accelerate and travel faster, the dead time in the passing zone will probably be about a minute for each passing track.

I think this is a bad deal for passengers. It is hardly encouraging for users to sit for two one-minute intervals going nowhere (I am assuming the wait at Carleton continues to be acceptable). It is reminiscent of the old 77 bus route that used to trundle through Carleton for seven minutes before coming out at exactly the same point it went into Campus. Boring, frustrating … these are not characteristics we want for our train service.

The most obvious improvement is to install at station at Gladstone — the Little Italy Station — and co-locate the passing track there. The wait time is then put to good use, for passengers can use the station, and the wait is somewhat disguised for the through-traffic. The proposed station may not be the perfect mid-point (judging from the map), but I would be interested in finding out if it could be squeezed in operationally.

The City proposes starting the new train service in 2014, just after they finish rebuilding the bridge over the Rideau River at Carleton University. To rebuild the bridge, they propose a 16 week “interruption” of service. That’s four months! I truly suspect that they could speed up that ‘downtime’ if they applied more people to the construction site. If MTO can replace a six-lane Queensway bridge overnight then the rail bridge shouldn’t be an entire construction season.

I do wonder about the wisdom of selling off the Talent train sets. With signs of some fresh thinking at OC Transpo, maybe we could find another use for them. Like an east-west service across the south side of the City, or even a GO-Train type of service to the new suburbs of Kemptville or Arnprior. Remember all the predictions that the current O-Train was from no-where to no-where, and wouldn’t be used, or would be of use only to students (as if they don’t count as humans using transit). Go ahead City, experiment a little. Try something new.


For keeners, here is the City’s report:


A note on the U-Pass: the U-pass is being credited for some of the upswing in transit usage in Ottawa, both bus and O-Train. Then more spending on upgrading the transitways and O-train is based on the increased use generated by the U-pass users. Next, continuing the U-pass program will be justified because the transit service is being upgraded to acomodate it. To critics, this is a vicious circle. For smart growth advocates, it is an example of a virtuous circle.

15 thoughts on “O-Train fast track

  1. I’m not sure about this “Talents unlikely to come onto the used market” claim. Deutsche Bahn has hundreds of them in service; as DB starts to replace them there would be Talents coming available. Failing that, just ask DB if they would be willing to sell us some.

    As to the passing track locations, I agree – having them not at stations is far from ideal unless the passing sidings are quite long*. Gladstone is a fairly obvious place for a station on the northern half, but Brookfield far less so. A station at Walkley with passing siding might well work but you would probably want to extend the line south to South Keys to get a better balance in terms of distribution of sidings along the line.

    “Separate from the proposal to speed up service is another study to examine extending the O-Train service further south to Leitrum. This would require more train sets. If the City is not careful, they might end up with the North-South LRT plan Chiarelli originally favoured, but with diesel service instead of electrified.”

    What’s wrong with that? If Chiarelli had had some sense, he would have done exactly this for about a tenth the cost of the N-S LRT plan. The savings could have been applied to implementing an east-west LRT service through downtown Ottawa, i.e. like the OLRT plan but without the tunnel.

    *It’s worth noting that there is a spectrum between single track and double track – from single track with short sidings to single track with long sidings through double track with occasional sections of single track (e.g. especially bridges and tunnels) and right up to full double track. If the passing sidings are long enough, there may well be no need to stop at all.

  2. I agree with you about the awkwardness of the passing track between Gladstone and Somerset and the need to have the passing track do double duty. But I’d wonder why they couldn’t push it closer to Bayview Station, and possibly build a S. bound platform on the West side of the tracks along the Tom Brown City property or even better at the dead end of Wellington St West at Breezehill N. That would provide a very convenient boarding point for Southbound Hintonburg passengers – particularly students – and when they eventually build the pedestrian bridge across the old Wellington alignment (ahem), you’d have access from both sides.

    1. Unfortunately there are some planning realities when it comes to siding/passing track placement. With a single siding, it should be placed close to the centre of the system. With three sidings, in addition to the centre location, the other two should be placed at roughly the 1/4 and 3/4 points. That would tend to place the northern siding somewhere south of Gladstone, basically as far along the widened cut towards the Queensway as possible – in other words, in the opposite direction of pushing it closer to Bayview.

      The simplest option to better serve people in the Bayview area is frankly to cut the fence near the Tom Brown Arena and provide a means to either cross the tracks at that location and head to Bayview or circle round north of Bayview. Given that it would also make sense to extend the O-Train north to Hull, the best solution probably is to provide a designated crossing point between Bayview and the Somerset bridge and then tie into the path that supposed to be built along the east side of the tracks.

  3. David: you are of course correct on the passing track length. But since OC doesn’t refer to short or medium lengths of double tracking, but did refer to passing tracks, and show a short red line for the location, I assume they are planning a passing track like at Carleton.
    I now realize they could do some of each: a smedium passing track for the Gladstone station, where a second road bed is already laid, a longer one for Walkley, but avoiding a second + crossing of the VIA line.
    There is nothing wrong with the O-Train incrementally achieving Chiarelli’s original N/S LRT. I like it. I meant the comment with irony.

  4. The optimizing engineer in me likes the Gladstone Station idea, but I wonder about the long-term implications. Don’t they eventually intend to twin the track? And if they do, would the station still be a net positive in that location?

    I would love to see the city experiment with some commuter train service along some of the well-situated rail lines.

  5. To me, it would be logical if the O-train would be expanded two more stops (CE Centre/Airport) and (Letrim).
    Some new rail would need to be laid between the CE Centre area and the Airport (for the Talent trains) and between Alert Road and Letrim where the rail lines used to exist. Build a short commuter line between the airport terminal and the CE Centre, and re-use the Talent trains there.
    By getting folks from the south end (Letrim area) to Bayview in about twenty minutes, it’ll undoubtably get a lot more traffic off of the Bronson/Riverside/Bank north/south roads during rush hour.

  6. I think the dwell times make an excellent case for why we should revisit Gladstone Station. I’ve already written to my Councillor (Hobbs) to indicate tis makes sense operationally, and that it would play a beneficial role in planning for intensification in this area as well as offset some of the proposed changes to bus service in the area at a very minimal cost.

    I kind of wonder if it’s short-sighted to get rid of the Talents. I’m not convinced that there’s a lot of other places to send them, given that most of the rail corridors in Ottawa that are still in existence are either through areas that have reasonabkle bus service already (Barrhaven), or don’t really have much to serve (CN Walkley). I wonder if we might save a few million for other service improvements on the line by keeping them. After all, the timeline for the N-S electrification is sometime in the 2020s, and if not, the trains can easily have their lifespan extended beyond 30 years.

    1. Erinn: Replacing Barrhaven buses with trains make sesne both enviromentally and economically.

      Ottawa also needs to consider zone pricing for transit fares – Bells Corners / Barrhaven would pay more, and Kanata, Stittsville and Orleans would pay an even bigger premium. Couple that with congestion pricing downtown and increased city fees for parking (whether on city or private land) and we can start to charge the suburbanites the true cost of their desire to live “Somewhere That’s Green” – instead of having the urban core subsidize them.

      1. David, I would have to see the numbers to be convinced that Barrhaven warrants a train. Either way, having invested in an extensive Transitway extension through there, it would probably be redundant. The best option would be to try and convince VIA that they should allow Barrhaven to Ottawa commutes at peak hours, to see if people would actually travel that segment at something approximating a market price.

        On the subject of pricing, I wholeheartedly agree that we need zone fares in Ottawa. It strikes me as silly that someone who has made the choice to live in the far reaches of suburbia pays what they do, even if they buy an express pass. The fare should probably be closer to $150-$175, if one were to use GO Transit fares as a comparator. Rural areas would have to pay even more.

        I would probably modestly increase daily parking rates to about $20 a day in the core, and go after the scads of free parking outside the core, which would level the playing field a bit. I think congestion pricing in the core might be a bit much, given that we don’t need to limit people’s access to the core after hours, given it’s kind of lame state. In addition, I suspect you would find in Ottawa and other major North American cities, the core is not where the worst congestion is.

  7. When the O-Train was being planned (pre 2001) the design for a 7.5 mnute service was looked at with passing tracks at this location. This plan is simply dusting off those ideas. The areas where the new passing tracks are to be located are also places where CP Rail had removed double track sections just mere months before the O-train program began. Operating with passing tracks and short shcedules has been mainstay in Canadian Railroading for over 130 years. A Radial or Interurban streetcar service ran from the Glen Echo streetcar loop in Toronto (Yonge North of Lawrence-the city boundary then) to Sutton near Lake Simcoe on a single track with mulitple passing tracks on 10 minute summer time schedule. All with little or no signalling. That car would reach up to 70+ miles/ hour on certain down hill sections. (Yes, miles not kilometres). No accidents and schdules always were met.

    Fraser Pollock

  8. WJM, I’d use GO Transit as a comparator because it is a service model that was built to address long-distance suburb-to-core commuting. Given the similar distances travelled and the similarity of express bus service, this would more accurately address the costs of commuting from outside the Greenbelt to the core.

    1. Are the distances – and especially the populations, pop. densities, origin/destination figures – really anything like the GO system? I’d love to see the existing rail lines (and recently abandoned corridors) used for rail transit, too…. but I’m not sure that GO is the model to work from.

      1. As I mentioned, the distances outside the Greenbelt are fairly similar to some of the commutes on GO, ranging from about 15 km from a place like Fallowfield Station to downtown, roughly 25 km from Terry Fox Station to Mackenzie King Station, and further from all the ex-urban destinations, such as Osgoode, etc. This is pretty comparable to trips such as Mississauga. In the case of places like Osgoode, it would compare more to trip distances like Oakville. I’m not convinced that any place outside of the greenbelt has much in the way of the densities necessary to support a rail service, but a premium bus service could recoup more, so that would still be in line with the GO model, which does include a hefty amount of bus service.

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