Canadian Consulting Engineer

Ottawa’s O-Train rides the freight line

February 10, 2003
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

As Canadian cities struggle to find affordable ways to expand their public transit systems and ease the pressure on...

As Canadian cities struggle to find affordable ways to expand their public transit systems and ease the pressure on road congestion, they might look to an award-winning project in Ottawa for the answer.

Ottawa’s O-Train system has won the Project of the Year Award in the transportation category from the American Public Works Association. The award went to consulting engineers Morrison Hershfield, in partnership with the City of Ottawa and Canadian Pacific Railway.

Built on a “shoestring” budget, the O-Train opened in October 2001 and was a major innovation for urban transit. It is the first full implementation of light rail transit on an existing rail freight line.

The eight kilometre long line is the first stage in Ottawa’s light rail system, and runs north south through five stations, from Greenboro, through Carleton University at its mid-point, ending at Bayview close to the LeBreton Flats. The system is integrated with the existing rapid busway system. Ottawa’s transit system currently carries 6,000 passengers a day.

Urban planners in recent years have been advocating the use of existing freight train lines for urban transit, as many of these lines are underused, and yet their corridors run through the centre of the older, built-up districts of Canadian cities. Using these existing corridors would save the need for tunnelling and appropriating property to make way for new rail lines.

The total cost of the Ottawa O-Train, including a two-year lease on the trains, was $21 million — a far cry from Toronto’s newly opened 6.4 kilometre underground subway transit line along Sheppard Avenue East which cost $934 million.

In Ottawa, the passenger train shares the line with the freight trains. The Bombardier Talent Diesel Light Rail vehicles are much narrow than the freight trains, so Morrison Hershfield (John Douglas was in charge of the project) designed the platforms with metal sections which extend about 16″ to allow passengers to board their trains. The extension flip down when the freight trains are passing through. The trains are operated by a single person.

The project was a unique partnership in which Morrison Hershfield was retained by Canadian Pacific Railway (the design/build contractor for OC Transpo, the Transit Authority, and the former Region of Ottawa-Carleton) to undertake project management, detailed design and construction administration.

The consulting engineers developed five new light rail stations and one new Transitway Station. The project required upgrading existing infrastructure including a 2,000-foot long tunnel that runs under the Rideau Canal adjacent to Dow’s Lake, and two at-grade rail crossings. Other engineering work included electrical, communications and signals, and liaison with various stakeholder groups. Three of Morrison Hershfield’s divisions — transportation, building engineering and utilities — were involved.

In a few weeks, Ottawa City Transportation will present the recommendations of a major study into its rapid transit plans to the year 2020.

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