Some thoughts on that airport link for the OTrain

So, the Airport folks are now on-board with the notion that rapid transit to the airport is a good thing.

As an occasional airport user, and appreciating the importance that good transportation links make for a better local economy, I’m on board too.

But there are numerous pitfalls along the way, and sure footing is required to get a system to work. I sure don’t have the answers, but I do have some questions.

Note on the City’s TMP map below, the link to the airport is the short red horizontal line somewhere south of Hunt Club Road. It shows an intermediate stop too, for the Ernst Young Centre and nearby employment nodes that just might grow in the coming decades.


OTrain to airport


Making it a spur line, or bus shuttle, isn’t a fatal flaw. Some airports have main line trains right to the terminal. Others stop nearby, and shuttles are required. Even the trains that deliver the customer to the terminal may then require the user to shuttle to another terminal.

Nonetheless, a no-transfer routing is highly desirable. It makes marketing the city to visitors very easy. Terminal: train. That simple.

Of course, at the downtown end, air travellers will still have to transfer at Bayview, but then I don’t know how many are actually going to and from the downtown compared to from other areas of the city.

The transfer required at the downtown end will deter some convention traffic. At least until the OTrain is extended to Gatineau, specifically the Casino de Gatineau, and their convention centre and hotels. At that point, conventions to Hull will take off dramatically. Will Gatineau taxpayers be grateful for the free ride?

Ottawa is a pretty safe city, but travellers may well be anxious about their personal safety when arriving. The subway to JFK in NYC, or the L to OHare in Chicago, employ separate transit cars for air travellers, in an effort to keep travellers and their luggage united, and not lost in rush hour crowds.

How would a train to the terminal affect the rest of us, using the OTrain for daily use? If air passengers are mixed in with general transit users, then we have the No. 97 * bus route problem all over again, where the vehicles are crowded at rush hour, which makes taking them to the airport awkward; and the vehicles have no luggage racks. Daily transit users would find the airport-bound users a pain. And airport travellers wouldn’t like the on-board congestion.

Definitely not a recipe for a sure-fire success.

But to run a separate rail car to the airport would be wasteful for most daily transit runs, as it would be underutilized. Perhaps one car in each OTrain set could have a luggage rack? Or every half hour a special train would travel to the airport instead of Leitrim? (that of course, buggers up the frequency schedule of the regular OTrain train service).

If we assume that usage of the OTrain increases with proximity to the more built-up urban areas …  and that there are fewer passengers at the farthest suburban ends of the route … then it is possible to postulate an OTrain route that has two destinations: some trains go to Leitrim or whatever the farthest suburban end is, and some go the airport.

The frequency of service beyond the airport split is of course now cut in half: so five minute frequency from Bayview to the split; and 10 minute frequency (ie, every second train) to the airport or Leitrim, depending on which train goes beyond the airport turn off.

I suspect the airport simply couldn’t attract enough users to justify half the trains using the airport as their destination. There are two work arounds to this: one is to ensure that the bus routes already required to distribute OTrain passengers to low-density suburbs beyond the airport have a second hub at the stop near the airport turnoff (probably at South Keys). So if someone bound for a neighbourhood in Riverside South found herself on an airport train, simply catch your local bus at South keys instead of Leitrim.

The other work around for the lower-ridership airport terminal OTrain leg, is to find a way to increase ridership on that leg. Over time, improved transit service may encourage more airport employees to use the train. New airport areas industries may also find the service of value in attracting employees.

More dramatically, the airport terminal end of the OTrain could be extended further west: from the airport terminal, a shallow tunnel under the main runway would bring the train to the Rideau River. A transit-only bridge ** would cross to the new RCMP HQ and the industrial areas there. Behind them, is Barrhaven and the main Fallowfield transit station.  Possibly this additional traffic would ‘balance’ the two branches of the OTrain to the south of the city.

A link across the River to the new RCMP HQ might cut out a lot of car traffic that will otherwise be going to that building complex. And possibly spur the intensification of land uses in an area now dominated by parking lots and corn fields.

Do you feel you would take the train to the airport, with luggage, if you had to share the train with rush hour commuters? Would a shuttle at the airport end be a fatal flaw?



*The No 97, I see from the daily paper, is undercapacity and there’s lots of room for people to use it to go to the airport. I have no doubt it is lightly loaded at the airport end of its route. That would be an ideal bus – 3/4 empty, lots of room for my luggage – provided I lived south of Greenboro. But once the main line portion is reached, the bus is fuller, oftener. And unfortunately, if I go to the airport at rush hours (who would want to go there at such popular times? that;s when all the flights are !) I have my dragalong bag on the bus, as does my wife, or kids … going through the downtown,, through Ottawa U where every passenger has a backpack …  hey, it’s crowded.


**  For decades we have lived with an auto-centric TMP. Transit was expected to share expensive infrastructure like bridges. And bridges could not be built just for transit, but also had to have multiple car lanes, so we simultaneously encouraged car traffic while building transit infrastructure. Just like building the east-west LRT route today somehow requires expanding Queensway capacity for car commuters by 35-50%. A transit only bridge over the Rideau would, like cycling-only bridges in Ottawa and elsewhere, be game changers that favour transit and active transportation.

The tunnel under a runway would give conspiracy enthusiasts a focus for their terrorism worries. But I am confident that since runways all over the world have underpasses and sometimes overpasses, this could be resolved enough to satisfy the most paranoid security detail.




21 thoughts on “Some thoughts on that airport link for the OTrain

  1. I think that the primary beneficiaries of the Airport stop would be people flying in for a day or two on business downtown. People who live here will probably know someone who can give them a lift and visitors with a lot of luggage or not heading downtown will probably find a taxi or car rental more convenient.

  2. Note that there haven’t been dedicated carriages for JFK- bound passengers in New York in over 20 years. The JFK Express stopped running in 1990. Although all three NYC airports can be reached by transit none are particularly well served. JFK and EWR both have monorail shuttles connecting to subway and/or train services, and LGA has only bus service.

  3. A few random and disconnected points.

    1) The LRT expansion wasn’t contingent on the 417 expansion as you state. The 417 project was accelerated so as to have transit lanes along the highway when the Transitway closes for conversion. If it hadn’t been for transit needs this project would have still been years off in the future.

    2) That new bridge over the Rideau you speak of would line up to Fallowfield, and there is already a proposed bridge there, giving added weight (and removing a significant dollar amount) to the extension you propose.

    3) The luggage issue you speak of actually has a way of working itself out. Most of the people rushing to those rush hour flights (and actually arriving during that same rush hour) are business travellers, and they don’t have much with them (hence being able to go to the airport and catch a flight with little or no headway). Most tourist travellers with luggage have to get to the airport significantly earlier than their departures, which naturally pushes them to times outside of rush hour. Not saying luggage on a crowded train doesn’t happen – just that it does have a natural way of making itself less of an operational problem. (FYI – the previous poster is correct – there hasn’t been dedicated airport trains in NYC in decades, and I don’t believe Chicago runs them anymore either).

    4) O-Train to the casino is not an option on the books, nor is it on any of the plans or proposals. To be blunt, it will never happen. Why would Ottawa taxpayers pick up the cost for Quebec’s transit? A better connection to Gatineau’s Rapibus is the closest you will see to that.

  4. I would put a “dot” where the current spur line hits the “main line” and call that stop “Airport”. To that dot would be a shuttle that stops at the EandY Centre and the terminal. The level of service on the shuttle can be more appropriate tuned to the rise and fall of YOWs specific traffic patterns.

    Firstly, YOW is not a hub airport, nor does it appear in the cards for it to become one. I have a hard time imagining sub-10 minute frequency (or better) ever being necessary for YOW. And if it isn’t, than that’s a lot of money to spend on bringing rapid transit (albeit the urban-commuter hybrid we’re building) right to the terminal.

    Secondly, the shuttle doesn’t have to be a re-purposed school bus. Build a people-mover type shuttle, maybe even elevated (monorail!!). When traveling to major airports, one generally has to take a shuttle of this type at the airport, either to move between terminals, get to a transportation hub, etc. This is totally reasonable.

    Lastly, as for transfers between lines: when I travel to a new city, what I want is clarity in the transit system, i.e. a simple map, reliable service (this is why I generally avoid buses unfamiliar cities: hard to be sure where they’re going) The fact I may have to transfer once or twice doesn’t even enter into my mind as a “thing” if the relevant maps and level of service are clear. Ottawa and transfers: good grief. Express bus service to every suburban neighborhood has made us delusional…

    1. I agree with Evensteven’s comments about the the expected level of passenger traffic in and out of the airport and I personally think a special shuttle bus, not a O.C. Transpo standard #97 but, a upgraded coach bus or a seperate O-Train like shuttle from Greenboro or South Keys is more than enough to handle demand for now and well into the future. But what we really need is an Ottawa version of Toronto’s Union Station. Not just a railway station but a multi-modal (Railways, LRT and Bus) station downtown. That is the real advantage of the train (Union-Pearson Express) that will connect Pearson Airport to Union Station in downtown Toronto, set to open 2015. Although it is not perfect, it really fills a tremendous void in their system. The multi-modal aspect of Union Station and a quick connection to the country’s busiest airport greatly expands the real connectivity of their overall transport system. Just connecting our airport to the local rapid transit system is in MHO only half the answer. We need a downtown location that can become a real transportation hub and function as a real focus for people (commuters and visitors) in this city.

        1. In fact its not as of now its a conference centre but next summer will be turned into a new office for the senate.

          1. If it can be turned into something other than a train station, it can be turned into a train station, too….

  5. I believe that an airport connection that, even if it doesn’t fill the trains, is a very important element of a transit system and it makes the whole network more valuable since it essentially a connection with the rest of the world.

    However, that doesn’t mean that it has to be an underused stub – I think that having the trains pass under the airport to serve Riverside South and is an ideal and desirable solution since it fills the trains and maintains the frequency as well as connecting an important piece of transportation and economic infrastructure to the city.

  6. I do not think the o train should serve the airport directly. A small airport like Ottawa does not have enough traffic to justify the link.

    A spur line would lead to unbalanced loads between the two branches, which would reduce service quality for locals. And a mainline stop at the terminal would make it impossible to cover Finally Creek in the park n ride cachement area, increasing traffic up bank and conroy.

    If we are going to build an ersatz commuter rail system, lets do it right.

    1. I would not really call Ottawa a small airport as for the link it does makes some sense as it is a fair size airport and with the massive expanson coming in the next 5-10 years this has to be looked at.

  7. I don’ understand the argument that because YOW isn’t a major hub, it doesn’t warrant a local rapid transit connection. Where the planes fly to is irrelevant. What matters is how many people would use the link to get to and from the rest of the city. I would be interested to see numbers about the current use of the 97 beyond south keys. Whenever I have been on it, I have been somewhat suprised at how well used it is, by airport workers as well as air travellers. A rail link would attract significantly more use.

    1. I would think the trade centre would be a major stop on the airport link for many events were talking about thousands of people.

  8. I think most people (here at least) agree YOW should be connected to local rapid transit — and some would argue it already is. The question is how to connect it to an extended O-train. I think having a quick efficient shuttle from the terminal to a station on the mainline still qualifies as being connected to the rapid transit system.

    The city’s proposed route has the additional advantage of allowing for more transit oriented development south of the airport. Now, if I actually BELIEVED the city would the city would take advantage of that fact, I might tout that a little more…

  9. According to Transport Canada and Stats Canada the Ottawa airport handled a total of about 4.7 million passengers in 2012. That does not even put it in the top 100 busiest airports world wide. For comparison Pearson’s 34.8 Million in 2012 (By far Canada’s busiest) puts it at 35th busiest airport in the world in 2012. The last time I saw Pearson was 11th in North America and that was a few years ago. The point is that as a International Airport, our little airport is not that busy. According to the Federal Transit Administration in the U.S. the airport with the largest component of passengers arriving by transit was 9.5% for Mexico City’s Airport and 8.4% for Kennedy Airport in New York City in 2009.

    Consider that Ottawa’s Airport handles between 15-16000 passengers/staff per business day and that getting 10% of them to arrive by any kind of transit would be fantastic. That means that a transit connection would be moving a whopping 1500-1600 a day(both ways). Or 750 to 800 inbound to the airport and 750-800 outbound from the airport per day. Why should we spend millions of dollars for a rail connection for numbers that can easily be handled by nice air conditioned coach buses and a modern bus handling facility.

    1. If people feel the current octranspo bus is too slow, another option is a dedicated bus from the airport to downtown with few or no intetmediate stops. Paris CD ha a bus if this type (plush seats, etc), and I found it easy, quick, and convenient. And cheaper than building a dedicated rail lune.

      1. For a rail link your looking at around $120 million while a new transit way and lets say 10 buses your looking at around $80 million.

    2. We should not just look at now we have to look at the future as well its very possible the airport could have a massive expanson in the next 5-10 years which now that 1500-1600 a day could be double or triple in the very near future we just base light rail on todays stats were asking for trouble down the road.

      Now as for Ottawa has a little airport the fact is its one of the top ranked mid size airport in North America now as for Pearson i think were going to see it slip big time over the next few years more and more are going to Buffalo.

  10. Guys keep in mind that 1500-1600 passengers arriving and leaving by transit assumes we have 10% of all passengers arriving by transit where the actual level according to the airport is around 3%. Even if Ottawa doubled it’s total passengers in the next decade (impossible with are average growth rate of 1-2% a year) the resulting number of 3000-3200 per day would still really be too small for a rail connection that costs over $100 million to build. We are the 6th busiest airport in Canada. If we were in the US we would be in 59th place between Anchorage Alaska and Ontario California we currently have 500 000 fewer passengers than Buffalo’s 5.2 million passengers a year, we are in the smallest passenger category of International Airports of the ACI (Airport Coucil Internantional based in Montreal) database. We just do not have a busy airport, a nice new passenger terminal yes but, just not that busy. Anything more than an upgraded Bus Terminal Station at the airport is wasted money.

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