Primary and Secondary confusion about Ottawa LRT

2013-10-16: Found this in my drafts folder from 2012-06-29.  Published.

There are many elements of confusion about the Ottawa LRT project.  There has been poor communication and poor choice of language.  There are also legacy elements from the 2008 Transportation Master Plan.

First, the purpose of the system.  They are not just building “east-west rail”.  They are building a commuter rail system that will get you from Kanata (Terry Fox Station) to Trim Station (and/or Millennium Station).

That’s roughly 40km end-to-end.  That is a long stretch.  If you’re going to run commuter rail to get someone 40km every morning and evening, it must be

  • reliable service (always arrives when scheduled)
  • regular service (service departs frequently, ideally every few minutes at peak times)
  • fast service (the journey must take an hour or less, generally speaking, for commuters to tolerate it)

The service should also be high enough capacity to handle the current and anticipated load over its operating lifetime.  And it should be affordable.

There are various engineering ways to ensure you can achieve those goals.  In a modern commuter rail system, you ensure this type of service by

  • having continuous grade separation – this is a fancy way of saying “cars, pedestrians and cyclists never cross the tracks” – this means at all intersections the other traffic must either tunnel under or skyway over the transit corridor
  • having infrequent, widely-separated stops – the transit needs to have a high average speed, which means it needs to stop (with all the slowdown, boarding time, and startup from zero again that involves) as few times as possible
  • long buses or long train cars – this not only means high capacity for each transit unit but it importantly it also means many fewer passengers per driver (salaries are expensive)

Part of the problem is that, while the O’Brien east-west plan with a tunnel (to provide grade separation) downtown implies this service, it is a different service from what we have now, and while staff clearly understands this is what council has directed them to specify and procure, it appears that the councillors themselves and the vast majority of citizens don’t realise this is what we all agreed we’re building.  (The old north-south proposal was a mixed system that was only partially commuter rail.)

To make things worse council and staff use very confusing language to refer to this type of system.  Rather than calling it commuter rail or rapid commuter rail, they call it either LRT (“light rapid transit” or “light rail transit”) or PRIMARY.

As you can imagine, this causes confusion because people think primary means “the main route”.  So when staff says “route X should be the primary corridor” people think they mean “the main transit corridor”, they don’t realise it means “the commuter rail corridor”.

Now, there is a completely different goal that you can set.  You could set the goal of moving people within the city, and generating economic development continuously along the route.  If you want to do that, again there is a set of requirements:

  • convenient – it can’t be too far to a stop
  • integrated – the transit should be part of the streetscape, easily reachable from the sidewalk
  • moderate speed – the transit should be going at a speed that is safe and pleasant when experienced both by bystanders and those potentially crossing its route

This is the classic “clang, clang, clang went the trolley” type of street-level service most people are somewhat familiar with.  To meet these goals you:

  • run the transit on the street, with perhaps priority over other types of traffic but nevertheless sometimes intersecting with other kinds of traffic, including e.g. rails that people can just walk across
  • have stops close together, sometimes just a few blocks apart
  • (on the street and stops close together pretty much constrains the maximum speed)

This kind of service is what the city staff calls SECONDARY or SUPPLEMENTARY.  They should call it local service, or name it by a particular instance of the service (call it a tram).  Unfortunately the use of “secondary” makes people think it is less important, or lower priority, even though it is the service that people living in the downtown core would use the most.  They really just mean “slower local service that isn’t commuter service”.

(It’s not actually this simple as e.g. the Western LRT investigation calls it Primary and Supplementary, referring within Primary to LRT and BRT, and within Supplementary to “intensive bus” and “intensive rail” transit.)

To make things extra confusing, in Ottawa we have both these types of service, but we mix them together under the general heading of “bus” or “OC Transpo”.  And we mix the two types of service together in a single route (which you should never do, because as shown above, they have completely different requirements).

The closest to commuter service we have is the Transitway, our pseudo-BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system.  (Pseudo because we don’t do pay-before-boarding, which slows the system down considerably.)  The dedicated parts of the Transitway are classic commuter design: grade separated, widely-spaced stops.

OC Transpo provides a map that is a representation of our current Transitway system.

The big problem is that as soon as the Transitway hits downtown, it turns into a local service with sidewalk-accessible frequent stops.  This completely screws up the end-to-end transit as you’ve inserted a slow, disruption-prone segement into the middle of a fast disruption-free route.  And that’s why as long as you’re building commuter rail, you have to do a tunnel.

We also have a local service in the non-Transitway buses.  People tend to mix them together as it is never clearly stated that there is a local system and a commuter system, both systems use the same buses and they interconnect.

The Parkway

The Parkway would be terrible for a secondary (local, tram) service.  There’s no one there.  There’s no shops by a sidewalk that people are going to go to.  There’s no existing corridor that will be uplifted by having frequent local transit.

The Parkway is ideal for a primary (commuter) service.  First of all, the commuter service ALREADY runs on the Parkway (the Transitway buses).  Replacing those buses with rail would mean less pollution, less noise, a lower number of transit “containers” and a predictable service (both in terms of it being fixed to rails and in terms of it keeping to its schedule).  A predictable service means you can cross the path safely (unlike the current life-in-your-hands situation now where it’s basically a highway).  A rail service means people can look out the big windows and actually see the river and the green.

The idea that single occupancy vehicles (eyes on the road!) and commuter buses is a better combination for highlighting and enjoying the Parkway than packed train cars gliding along is just bizarre.  The idea that a predictable train on fixed rails driven by a professional driver is more dangerous than thousands of amateur drivers careening around in cars is ridiculous (which is to say, if we don’t require a fence to protect us from the cars that kill people ALL THE TIME then we shouldn’t need a fence to protect us from the train that kills people approximately never).

That being said, the city has to completely change how the NCC thinks about the Parkway (it appears to imagine it is some 1950s Sunday drive scenic leisure route).  They need to understand how it is actually used (as a busy and dangerous car commuter highway) and appreciate how it could be better used (as a modern rail corridor).  Both data and storytelling will be required.  A Horizon 2067 that imagines the Parkway is best used in 55 years by cars and buses would be just bizarre.

The Parkwark (ORP) will never be used for the LRT.  NCC is completely opposed to it.


The Carling story is the inverse of the Parkway.  Carling would be terrible for primary (commuter, rapid rail) transit.  Either you do as you’re supposed to and grade separate the rail you put on Carling (at enormous expense) or you intersect the train with traffic, which introduces a fatal unreliability, unpredictability, and great danger into the middle of your route (not to mention which a wall of trains that will completely block your north-south traffic flow).

Carling is fantastic for secondary (local, tram) service.  You can have lots of stops.  People can start using the sidewalk and shopping along the whole length of the street.  Housing and shopping will be attracted to the route.  The economic development that Holmes wants is a strong possibility with a local route on Carling.

What about Route X?

If there is an existing local neighbourhood, running commuter rail through it is going to suck.  You can’t make it unsuck.  You can maybe make it less visible (e.g. using cut and cover) but you can’t make it fit well within an existing urban fabric.  By design it must be fast and separate.  If you put in stops that will just slow it down for everyone, end-to-end.  There is no way that you are going to be able to do this without making some local residents unhappy.  That’s the political reality.  That’s a job for the politicians to sort out.  What you must not do is try to turn it into a local transit segment, then you’re just reinventing the problems of our current Transitway (which slows almost to a standstill in peak hours when it hits the downtown core) in a new location.

Transportation in General

I already walked this out in a previous post.  First, it’s important to understand that TRANSIT is about moving people.  Not stuff.  People.  People are small.  The issue with cars is they make sense if you are moving a lot of stuff (which people almost always aren’t) but are nonsensical if you are moving a single person (which they almost always are).  Cars and small trucks are fine if you need to move stuff.  They make no sense for moving people in a dense environment.

In a dense environment within a city you:

  • walk if it’s a short distance
  • cycle if it’s a medium distance
  • tram (or bus) if it’s a long distance
  • subway if it’s a long distance and there are a lot of people to move

That’s it.  There are no other solutions for moving people around a city.

If you need to get from the city to a nearby village (or more usually in from the village to the city to work) you take commuter rail.

If you need to get from city to city you take high-speed rail.

That’s how you move people around.  The only time you need cars is if you need to move around places that aren’t served by rail.  In the North America we used to have (and in the Europe that still exists) all villages are served by rail.  The only places you need to use a car are to get around in rural areas.

High Speed Rail

The Government of Canada’s own study (or I should say, the latest of many studies) says that the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor can be done for $9 billion dollars and that the economic benefits mean the corridor would pay for itself.

There is however zero chance of a conservative government building high-speed rail.

Union Station

In a perfect world, Union Station would be used for the passenger rail service (and that service would be high-speed to Montreal and Toronto).

This is never going to happen.

In a reasonable world, Union Station would at least be used as a commuter rail station, since the commuter rail goes right under it.  This would connect with our history, and open our miniature version of Penn Station up for tourism.

Union Station will never be a train station again.  (It is bizarre beyond belief that the debate was about whether the commuter rail station should be to the east or the west of an actual existing station, but that’s Ottawa for you.)

In fact, given that Union Station needs millions in repairs, the most likely situation is that it will have to be demolished (after a decade or two more of total neglect).

Barry Padolsky’s firm has completed a heritage conservation plan for the building, but I don’t know where or if you can find it online.


There is zero funding for local (street-level, slower, many stops) rail in Ottawa.  We are building a commuter rail system that will do the centre (Tunney’s Pasture Station to Blair Station), then west (Lincoln Fields to Tunney’s Pasture Station) then east (Lincoln Fields Station to Trim Station and/or Millenium Station) then south.  That will cost a hijillion dollars and at Ottawa’s pace will take another three to five decades.

If we were France we would be building local trams in addition to commuter rail.  In fact we could just copy our 1948 street car system (which to a large extent created many Ottawa neighbourhoods including the Glebe with the B line and Westboro with the S line).  If you want trams you will have to do a ton of work to get the city to budget and plan for them.  This is currently not on the budget radar at all.  The Transportation Master Plan consultation and the Horizon 2067 plan are both key places you would insert tram planning and funding, if that’s what you want to have.