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Light Rail in Canada: Investments picking up [free access]

January 1, 2010

Light-rail is not a widespread mode of urban mass-transit in Canada. This is partially because of the lack of government funding which necessitates that transport operators recover their heavy investments from operating revenues, a formidable task. However, with rising rates of public transit use (the rate of public transit use is estimated to be two to three times higher in Canadian cities than in US cities), the popularity of light-rail systems has increased, especially in cities such as Toronto and Ottawa.   


Global Mass Transit takes stock of the current status of light-rail projects in Canada.




Light-rail systems in Toronto initially took the form of streetcars. Though this is still a widely used means of transport in downtown Toronto, the provincial government has started focusing on implementing metro-based light-rail transit (LRT) systems.  


In March 2007, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) announced its Toronto Transit City Light Rail Plan, which involved the implementation of a 120 km light rapid-transit web throughout the city. According to the Commission, the project is aimed at creating updated and improved versions of streetcars.  The project will be implemented over 15 years and is forecast to have 175 million users by 2021.


The plan proposes construction of the following lines: the Don Mills Road LRT, Etobicoke-Finch West LRT, Eglinton Crosstown LRT, Jane LRT, Scarborough-Malvern LRT and its proposed extension, Sheppard Avenue East (LRT), Waterfront West LRT and the Union Station to Exhibition Place Class EA LRT.


In December 2009, transport authorities started construction work on the Sheppard East light-rail line in north Toronto. The federal and provincial governments had formed a partnership earlier in the year to help fund the project. Under the partnership, the federal government is contributing one-third of the total cost to a maximum of CAD333 million, while the provincial government is financing two-thirds or more than CAD633 million.


The 14 km light-rail line will be built on Sheppard Avenue East running from the Don Mills Subway Station to Meadowvale Road.


Moreover, in November 2009, the TTC also approved the 33 km Eglinton Crosstown light-rail transit (LRT) draft plan. Construction of the line is expected to begin in 2010 and be completed in 2016.  The Ontario government will provide funding for construction of the line, which is the longest and most expensive proposed Transit City LRT line, at an estimated cost of USD4.6 billion. The line will stretch from Pearson Airport to Kennedy Station and comprise both overground and underground stretches. 


Meanwhile, Metrolinx, formerly the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, and TTC are discussing bringing in private players to design, build and finance the new Finch Avenue light-rail line and overhaul the Scarborough rapid-transit line.


However, going forward, Toronto’s light-rail transit industry is likely to face funding problems. Recently, the government announced that over 40 of TTC’s capital investment projects, valued at CAD548 million and scheduled to start in 2012 or later, will be postponed. The government has demanded a contraction in TTC’s spending plans outlined in its recently approved ten-year capital budget by CAD848 million. However, construction of the Spadina subway expansion to Vaughn and the first three lines of the Transit City light-rail network as well as the purchase of 204 trams from Bombardier will not be affected because funding totalling CAD10 billion has already been committed by the provincial and federal governments for these projects.




Calgary’s Alberta C-Train light-rail system, introduced in 1981, is one of the most successful and busiest light-rail systems in North America. However, in 2007, the system started facing troubled times. Passenger ridership increased rapidly and officials were unable to keep pace with buying new vehicles and hiring drivers to meet the additional demands. The system also faced funding woes.    


Hence, in November 2007, the City Council approved construction of the new west leg of Calgary's LRT, comprising the system's fourth leg. In the first few months of 2010, construction will begin on the new west leg of the LRT, which is being funded by the Council. This is the city's first new C-Train line in over two decades.




In the 1970s and 1980s Ottawa opted for grade-separated busways over light-rail as the former was expected to be cheaper. However, this was proven wrong when capital costs for busways escalated from the original estimate of CAD97 million to a final value of CAD440 million, which is nearly as much as Calgary's C-Train system that had a higher passenger carrying capacity.   


In 2001, to supplement its BRT system, Ottawa initiated a diesel light-rail pilot project, the O-Train. However, in mid-December 2006, the new Ottawa City Council cancelled the LRT system, a move which resulted in lawsuits worth CAD280 million against the city. 


The provincial government of Ontario has now renewed its plans to implement several light-rail projects in the region. It is planning to contribute CAD2.1 billion to Ottawa’s rail plan, which includes light-rail projects starting with a 13-station 12.5 km route linking Tunney’s Pasture and Blair Road. Construction is expected to begin in 2012.


The federal government, which has already put in CAD200 million, is planning to award another substantial grant for the project. Local officials are hoping the federal government invests a further CAD600 million.




Skytrains have been the dominant mode of transportation in Vancouver, British Columbia, since they were launched in 1986. Not a conventional light-rail system, skytrains are often considered to be advanced light rapid-transit or a light-metro system. The system comprises fully automated trains running mostly on elevated track. The city has 68.7 km of skytrain track, making it one of the longest automated rapid-transit systems in the world.


Additional extensions of skytrains, mostly underground, are planned for the Millennium Line from under Central Broadway to the University of British Columbia.


The government is now looking at supplementing its skytrain system with metro systems. In August 2009, the 19 km Canada Line of the Vancouver metro opened three months ahead of schedule within a budget of just over CAD2 billion. The line witnessed 30,000 passengers during the first three hours of its commencement. The fully automated driverless metro has been built by a public-private partnership between the Canadian government and the private consortium InTransitBC. The consortium, which has designed and built the line, will also operate and maintain it and run the fleet of 20 Rotem two-car train sets.




Edmonton is known as the first city in North America with a population of less than a million to build a modern light-rail system. The Edmonton Transit System is mostly underground. At present, the LRT extension from downtown Edmonton to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology is being constructed. Technology and management support services provider, AECOM Technology Corporation, was recently awarded a USD20 million contract for programme management services for Phase 1 of the 3.22 km extension that will branch off the existing underground LRT with approximately 2,300 feet of tunnel section, and the remaining 2.4 km above ground. The project’s total construction cost is approximately USD708 million.