Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Tale Of Transit In Two Cities

January 1, 2010
By Nordahl Flakstad

In various ways, Edmonton and Calgary have steered down different tracks when it comes to light rail transit (LRT). Edmonton left the station first when in 1978 the city was host to the Commonwealth G...

In various ways, Edmonton and Calgary have steered down different tracks when it comes to light rail transit (LRT). Edmonton left the station first when in 1978 the city was host to the Commonwealth Games and opened its LRT system. In fact, the Alberta capital lays claim to being the first North American city to develop a modern LRT line.

Other cities following suit included San Diego and Sacramento, as well as Calgary, which opened its LRT system in 1981. In Calgary, the LRT opening happened before another major sporting event — the 1988 Winter Olympics were on the horizon.

In this race, Calgary in many ways has been the tortoise: slower in getting going but in many respects steadier in its advance than its rival 300 kilometres to the north.

It is suggested that Calgary learned from what some consider miscues by its northern neighbour. Notably, Edmonton built tunnels for downtown portions of its LRT. The result was that for more than a dozen years Edmonton’s LRT figuratively spun in its tracks and consisted of a relatively short line with a southern terminus close to the Alberta Legislature. From there, the route ran north and east past four other underground stations, before surfacing and heading above ground past stations at Commonwealth Stadium and Rexall Place (home of the Edmonton Oilers). It ended at Clareview in the city’s northeast.

The completion in 1991 of Western Canada’s first concrete segmental box girder bridge (the Dudley B. Menzies) drove the LRT south across the North Saskatchewan River to a station tunnelled under the University of Alberta. The U of A station remained the southern terminus until 2005, when the LRT pushed to the surface and ran a short distance to the Health Sciences Station.

Meanwhile, Calgary’s so-called CTrain system kept spreading outward. Importantly, Calgary chose to construct virtually all of its LRT on the surface, including portions running on dedicated tracks along 7th Avenue in the downtown core. That

strategy not only saved money that otherwise might have been sunk into tunnels, it also provided funding that let the CTrain routes thrust outward in a Y-shape to the northwest and northeast, as well as due south.

The CTrain system now encompasses 44 kilometres of track and 38 stations. Contrast that with its Edmonton counterpart, which until quite recently extended 12.4 kilometres and had just 11 stations.

Significantly, Calgary’s more far-reaching system has translated into an LRT ridership exceeding 280,000 per weekday. The system has more than doubled its passenger load between 1995 and 2005, and it added a further 60,000 passengers per day in the last four years.

According to Ron Collins, spokesman for Calgary Transit, it is “the fastest- growing light rail transit system in North America in terms of the num- ber of people we carry.”

Meanwhile, Edmonton — with approximately the same population as Calgary, though far more spread out — anticipates that recent and soon-to-open expansions will double its weekday LRT ridership to just 100,000.

Employment patterns and local government configurations in the two metropolitan areas also help explain ridership differences. More Calgarians work near the downtown LRT hub and most Calgary-area residents live within the city limits. Fewer Edmontonians work downtown and only recently has there been increased regional transit cooperation involving Edmonton and adjacent sizeable centres such as St. Albert and Sherwood Park.

Edmonton sees the light

Not only has the Edmonton Transit System broken to the surface on the city’s south side, it appears city politicians and transit planners have seen the light when it comes to current and future extensions. The city is building and planning extensions to the system in almost all directions, and it is planning to operate most sections along surface routes.

By April, for example, the LRT will extend from the Health Science Station 7.8 kilometres south to a new station at Century Park, an expanding residential cluster. The new portion of the LRT line alternates running alongside and in the middle of broad rights-of-way that also carry cars and other vehicles.

While these LRT extensions under construction and those soon opening mainly run on the surface, they embody the original design concept of high-floor LRT vehicles. That means most of the mechanical equipment is located underneath the train and passengers board the cars from raised platforms, requiring a special infrastructure such as access ramps.

However, high-floor LRT technology does not seem to be the future direction. As proposed, the southeast and west LRT extensions (including recently approved new lines to the Mill Woods area and beyond the West Edmonton Mall) will largely run along existing traffic routes and will use low-floor vehicles with street-level access to the cars. Such an “urban” LRT system, in contrast to the existing “suburban system,” will permit more frequent spacing of stations, thereby positioning them within easi- er walking distance for commuters.

Downtown, passengers will be able to switch easily between the various lines, but, since the existing and new routes will employ incompatible rolling stock, the old and new lines won’t physically interconnect.

Within an even longer timeframe, the planners envision a six-spoke system that would include building a northwest and an eastern line reaching into the adjacent municipalities of St. Albert and Strathcona County.

Calgary goes west

Calgary also anticipates adding new at-grade stations. It extended the CTrain network northwest to Crowfoot Station this past summer, and continues extending the northeast line. New stations at Martindale and Saddle Ridge are scheduled for the next few years.

However, the most immediate CTrain priority is the West LRT project linking downtown to six new stations. In late October 2009, the West- LRT design-build contract was awarded to SNC-Lavalin, which leads a joint-venture team that includes Graham Infrastructure, Cana Construction and Enmax Power Services.

Calgary’s West LRT expansion is scheduled for completion by the end of 2012 and has a price tag of $700 million, though officials involved expect that the eventual cost may exceed that figure.

Calgary and Edmonton share overlapping visions of expanded LRT systems serving as more than just ways of moving additional people. Both see LRT extensions also spurring transit-oriented development in the form of higher-density residential, office, institutional and retail growth clustered around current and planned LRT stations.

For Edmonton’s general manager of transportation, Bob Boutilier: “The LRT is not just about moving people. It’s about building a city.”

Nordahl Flakstad Is A Freelance Writer Based In Edmonton.


Transit Systems Expand Across Canada

Across Canada, cities are in the throes of expanding their public transit systems. This huge injection of capital into transportation infrastructure provides a great deal of work for consulting engineering firms.

Halifax –The new Ragged Lake Transit Centre on a 16-acre site on the Dartmouth side of Halifax harbour is due to open this year. There are also plans for a fast ferry service across the harbour.

Quebec City –Last year the regional transit agency, RTC, opened an 18,000-m2 Centre Metrobus for articulated buses in Armand-Viau industrial park.

Montreal –A $12-million study is under way by the Agence mtropolitaine de transport (ATM) to extend three of the four lines of Canada’s oldest urban transit system. The studies are investigating station locations, technologies and costs to extend the yellow line into Longueuil, the blue line into the east end of Montreal, and the orange line farther into Laval in the northwest. The orange line first reached Laval in 2007. That $748-million project was led by SNC-Lavalin and involved
tunnelling under Rivire des Prairies ( January-February 2008).

Ottawa –In January after much debate, the city council approved “functional plans” for a new downtown light rail transit system running east-west through the downtown core and beyond. As well, the O-Train is a diesel-powered light rail that runs 8 kilometres south towards the airport. Last September, the city paid $37 million in settlement to Siemens and St. Lawrence Cement for a cancelled north-south light rail transit system.

Toronto –Under the auspices of Metrolinx, Canada’s largest city and surrounding municipalities including Hamilton have plans for a 1,200-kilometre rapid transit system — the largest transit expansion in half a century. Construction is pegged at $2 billion annually over the next 25 years.

Immediate priorities are the “Big 5” projects. Two of these are under construction. In Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission is adding a light rail system to extend the Sheppard East subway. In York Region to the north, a dedicated rapid bus lane is being built along Highway 7 from Markham to Richmond Hill.

The other three priorities in the works are the Finch LRT in Toronto’s northwest; extensions and upgrades to the existing Scarborough LRT in the east; and — perhaps most needed — the Eglinton Crosstown LRT which will take riders east-west across the centre of the city, linking to a line to Pearson International Airport.

Winnipeg –The Prairie city has embarked on the first phase of a rapid transit system with the construction of the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor due for completion in 2011. The $138-million grade-separated busway uses existing rail rights-of-way and also travels alongside roads. It will connect downtown with the University of Manitoba and the southwest. Dillon Consulting is prime consultant.

Calgary & Edmonton –See main article.

Vancouver –After the Canada Line opened in August 2009 connecting downtown to Richmond and the Vancouver International Airport, Translink has no immediate plans for more light rail construction. However, the transit agency is studying a new 12-kilometre line west to the University of British Columbia, and an expansion of the Expo Line southeast into Surrey.–BP


Definition of Light Rail: An electric railway with a ‘light volume’ traffic capacity compared to ‘heavy rail.’ Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading, and multi-car trains or single cars. Also known as “Streetcar,” “Trolley car,” and Tramway.” — American Public Transportation Association (APTA).


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories