August 17, 2016

Upcoming federal funding bonanza key to STM expansion

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Montreal is set to profit from the Canadian federal government’s plans to invest heavily in public infrastructure projects, including rail, over the next five years. Kevin Smith assesses what this could mean for metro operator Montreal Transport’s (STM) long-held ambitions for expansion.

CANADA’s public transport landscape is changing. The announcement by prime minister Mr Justin Trudeau and the premier of Quebec, Mr Philippe Couillard, on July 5 of a $C 2.5bn ($US 1.91bn) investment in the province’s infrastructure was the latest commitment by the federal government to improve access to public transport in one of the country’s major urban centres.
It probably won’t be the last.

The Canada-Quebec Agreement on the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund follows a similar $C 900m state-federal agreement for British Columbia and Vancouver announced on June 16. Both allocations were included in the 2016 federal budget, which aims to meet 50% of future transit project costs, and also appropriated $C 1.5bn to Ontario and $C 347m to Alberta.

STMTrudeau’s Liberal Party was elected on the back of a promise to run three consecutive budget deficits of up to $C 10bn to support investments in the country’s infrastructure, and the young and dynamic prime minister is keen to present his vision for how these projects will enhance Canadians’ everyday lives.

“We are making investments that will improve the quality of life for our middle class now, while building a strong foundation for the sustainable economy of the future,” Trudeau says. “These investments will help provide the people of Quebec with clean and reliable water sources, and with shorter commute times so they can spend more of their valuable time with their families.”

But what specifically could this mean for transport in the Montreal region?
In the first phase the government will invest $C 1.2bn in the infrastructure and municipal waste fund, with $C 924m set to go towards improving public transit in Quebec, $C 650m of which is earmarked for Montreal.

While no plans have been confirmed yet, Mr Marvin Rotrand, Montreal Transport (STM) vice president and a Montreal city council member, says that it is looking very likely that the city will finally get its first extension to the entirely underground rubber-tyred metro network since a 5.2km addition to the east end of the Orange Line opened in 2007.

“Montreal’s passengers think that it’s about time that the metro reaches new areas of the city and they would like to see an extension of service,” Rotrand says. “The number one priority for the city of Montreal is an extension of the Blue Line from Saint-Michel 1km east to Pie-XI. It’s in the north east of the city and home to 250,000 people who are generally heavy users of public transport yet they have waited decades for an extension of the metro. The government of Quebec is open to that, but there is not yet any confirmation.”

Ultimately the $C 3bn Blue Line extension project could reach 5.5km and add 80,000 passengers to the network daily serving stations at Viau, Lacodaire, Langelier and Anjou. However, the provincial government will ultimately decide when to proceed with the project, and while a decision was expected in June, Quebec transport minister Mr Jacques Daoust said in April that an announcement will be made “within a year.”

With uncertainty continuing to cloud the Blue Line project, another group is lobbying hard for an extension to the Orange Line. This proposes extending the line from Côte-Vertu to Bois-Franc to interchange with Montreal Metropolitan Agency’s (AMT) Bois-Franc station on the Deux-Montagnes line, and serve a growing residential and commercial area, which is expected to become home to over 40,000 people in the next 10 years.

The development of a new automated light metro for Montreal appears to have increased the momentum for this project, particularly given the lack of integration with the metro network in its current development plan. Indeed, a future additional connection with the proposed Orange Line extension at Bois-Franc is a major part of St-Laurent borough mayor Mr Alan DeSouza’s pitch for this project. He wrote a letter to Quebec transport minister Mr Jacques Daoust in April requesting that the state move ahead with the extension in 2020.

Rotrand says that while he is hopeful that the federal government’s commitments will give both these proposals the support they require to proceed, past experience of prolonged delays and unfulfilled promises indicate that it is best not to accept anything until it is finalised. “We have been hopeful for this for a long time, but until it is a done deal, it is not a done deal,” he says.

The 2007 project was the first expansion of the metro network since 1986, and took the total length to 69.2km and 68 stations across four lines: the 22.1km Green Line, which has 27 stations, the 30km Orange Line with 31 stations, the 9.7km Blue Line which has 12 stations, and the 4.25km Yellow Line which has three stations. The network is Canada’s busiest metro with 416 million passengers in 2015, and overall public transport use is 331 rides per inhabitant, second only to New York City in North America. It also has some of North America’s lowest fares, with a monthly unlimited ride pass costing just $C 82, and a reduced fare for senior citizens priced at $C 49.25.

Backlog

Inevitably much of the initial attention on the federal and provincial government’s renewed financial commitments has focused on new projects and expansions of the network, particularly with the population of Montreal expected to grow to 4.4 million by 2030 compared with 4 million today. However, these funds are also set to finally help clear a huge backlog of maintenance projects worth an eye-watering $C 4.3bn.

While Mr Francois Chamberland, STM’s executive director of engineering, infrastructure and major projects, says that the metro and its assets, which have a replacement value of $C 26bn, are in a general good state of repair, the operator has delayed renewing key infrastructure due to a lack of funds. This includes the third rail electrification, track, ventilation systems, station and tunnel infrastructure as well as upgrades to its current fleet of 759 metro cars. STM now spends $C 480m on maintenance every year and Chamberland estimates that it at least needs to double this annual spend in order to bring the backlog to below $C 1bn.

“The money is there from the federal government, the province of Quebec, and the City of Montreal,” Chamberland says. “It was tough but they now understand that we need this funding. The challenge now is to double the output of our projects. It is not like New York where lines share infrastructure and they can divert services to carry out work. For us it means closing lines and stations, which will force people to find alternative means of transport and then we may face the challenge of bringing them back.”

Another difficulty is recruiting the engineers to carry out the expanded scope of work, both for the maintenance projects and proposed extensions. Chamberland says structural changes at STM must account for this in both recruitment and the knowledge of the employees that will be carrying out the work. “The challenge is inside the company to organise that effectively so we have the capacity to deliver these projects,” he says.

One area where capacity is being addressed is the gradual introduction of 52 new nine-car Azur metro trains to the network.

STM placed a $C 1.2bn order with a consortium of Bombardier and Alstom for the trains in October 2010. Bombardier is leading the project and is responsible for design, engineering, production and final assembly at its La Poctière plant in Quebec, while Alstom is supplying the bogies for the 468 cars as well as automatic train control, communications, passenger information, and video surveillance. The first train was delivered on November 25 2013 and entered service on February 7 this year to coincide with the metro’s 50th anniversary. Three of the trains are now in operation on the Orange Line with testing on a fourth virtually complete.

The trains offer an 8% increase in capacity and wider inter-car gangways compared with the 336 MR-63 cars, which they will gradually replace and date from the opening of the network in 1966. They will eventually be maintained at a new $C 400m underground depot in St-Laurent. So far Chamberland says it has been a slow deployment process, but from September this will increase to one train per month, and if it goes well, all 52 trains will be in service by September 2018.

“It is a big-step in technology,” Chamberland says. “We are replacing rolling stock procured in the 1960s which used technology from the 1950s. We have been careful to avoid any technology issues and human issues as well because it is a big change for our drivers.”

For example, instead of using mirrors to monitor people boarding and alighting from the train, the driver now observes a monitor in the cab. In addition, any obstructions in a single door will result in just that door opening, rather than every door on the train. The trains are also using a new radio system delivered by Thales which comprises 250 wayside radios, onboard radios, network security devices and CCTV cameras for monitoring passenger flow at stations, all of which Chamberland takes staff time to adjust to using. “We cannot afford to put the service in jeopardy by moving too fast,” he says.

Non-fare revenue

With the city of Montreal looking to keep its metro fares low in order to stimulate ridership, STM faces a shortfall in revenues. Passenger fares cover only 40.6% of its budget, with the city, and the Quebec provincial government generally meeting the remainder of its costs.

In a period of pressure on public finances, this became a pertinent issue and lead STM to establish Trangesco in 2003 as a subsidiary to partner with the private sector to generate non-fare revenue. And it has had some success.

The company expects to contribute $C 31m to STM in 2016, and is active in selling advertising and media space at stations and bus shelters, in a free newspaper distributed from the metro, and on information screens.

The company has also completed several more noteworthy projects, including partnering with a private company which paid to update 2642 bus shelters between 2012 and 2032 in exchange for providing advertising space as well as maintenance of the shelters some of which provide dynamic passenger information. The project provides a minimum income of $C 120m for STM, including an $C 18m advance payment. In addition, Transgescos is allowing private companies to rollout 3G, 4G and 4G LTE mobile phone and Wi-Fi coverage at metro stations following a $C 50m investment. This is in place at 15 stations at present and there are plans to roll this out across the network.

While Transgesco’s income is a drop in the ocean for STM at 2.75% of its 2016 operating budget, Rotrand recognises the company’s potential to continue to grow this figure. In particular, he says property development offers a significant future opportunity, although proposed changes in the governance model may impact the future role of the company, and STM, if it transitions to become a company solely focused on operations. It could also lead to an increase in fares.

“We are waiting for clarification on the changes in the governance model and which company will be responsible for different tasks, which is expected in 2017,” Rotrand says.

STM, and Montreal’s approach to metro transit, as well as the new projects taking shape across Canada, are set to take centre stage at the UITP Global Public Transport Summit on May 15-17 2017. STM is hosting the event, which also coincides with the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations.

Rotrand says that he is optimistic that the 2017 edition will receive the largest registration of any previous global summit, and that it will provide further impetus for the city and the province of Quebec to realise the transit opportunities now seemingly on offer. In a political climate backing the shift from private car to public transport, STM and others are ready to pass on the benefits to its current and future passengers.

“As we begin to move in Canada on public transit, it is an appropriate time for the Global Summit to be heading here,” Rotrand says. “Often hosting the summit provides a real boost to public transport in that particular city, and we hope it will be the same in Montreal.”

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