Clifford Lincoln’s Billion Dollar Little-Train-That-Shouldn’t

Conceptual rendering of a Bombardier dual-power locomotive, to be purchased by the AMT

So the West Island Gazette is reporting Clifford Lincoln and a host of West Island mayors and other lobbyists are pushing the idea of an entirely new train to serve the southern half of the West Island. They are asking for one billion dollars (now that’s billion with a ‘b’ in case you weren’t paying attention) to build a new electric train that would speed West Island commuters from Downtown Montreal to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue in thirty minutes. They also want to increase the level of service from 26 trains per week to 86. Right now the coalition pushing the idea has only gotten as far as an AMT-financed report (clocking in at $22 million and change) which will be ready next year to be brought before the government for approval. When asked about the hefty price tag, Lincoln was very quick to point out that the Province has crumbling infrastructure and thus needs to invest in it anyways, and further pointed out that the province seems to be able to afford such things as a new hockey rink for the Québec City area.

I’m not impressed with Mr. Lincoln’s lack of subtlety, but if it works with West island voters who can blame him for defining this issue as a typically provincial ‘us vs. them’ kind of affair. He may think he’s doing right by his people, but I sincerely doubt this card will play in Québec City. It’s not about hockey rinks (which would be paid off on a shorter time-span and provide countless indirect jobs as most venues do); the issue is graft – and this project smells to high-hell of it.

This map details the current AMT routes and proposed routes for future development. As you may well know, the AMT and the Aeroports de Montréal(ADM) have been arguing incessantly with the provincial government about how Trudeau Airport is to be connected to the Central Business District. The Train de l’Ouest plan mentions a stop in Dorval, though not necessarily at the airport. And while it is conceivable that the train would be able to offer this key service, there’s nothing indicating that Lincoln’s lobby-group has been in discussion with the ADM about using the new train station built into Trudeau Airport.

If this wasn’t problematic enough, the speed (30 minutes from downtown to Ste-Anne’s) seems highly improbable unless the train is to be built on a segregated track, at which point it could travel at exceptionally fast speeds and not get jammed up by freight trains sharing the line, though I wonder if this 30 minutes includes stopping at any of the stations. This means building a segregated rail line next to the existing rail lines used by CN, CP, VIA and the AMT along the Highway 20 corridor. Is there enough space to do so? And would constructing this new line disrupt service on the existing lines? And remember that bit about crumbling infrastructure? The last time I checked CN and CP own the track, and not the province. Nice try Cliff.

Map of Proposed Train de l'Ouest Route

Mr. Lincoln also wants electric locomotives as a means to cut costs long-term in addition to providing an ecologically sustainable alternative to diesel-powered trains currently used on that line. While this is a wise choice for the environment, it also means the AMT will have to build new storage and maintenance facilities for the locomotives and cars. As service disruptions on the Deux-Montagnes line over the last few winters have demonstrated, while electric trains are less polluting, they require a greater degree of maintenance and have proven prone to failure if left outside in exceptionally cold weather (which is what the AMT has been doing for years – this may have shortened the lifespan of the train sets used on that line).

All of this to say that while I applaud Mr. Lincoln’s efforts to get the Province to spend money helping the citizens of the West Island, a billion dollars is just about the right amount to get the program axed entirely. What’s more, the latest AMT expansion project, the Train de l’Est, is going to cost less than half of the proposed cost of its western counter-part. You can find those details here.

I might add, the distance East is more than the distance West, and involves building new stations entirely. The Train de l’Est will use the Bombardier dual-power locomotive (ergo diesel-electric) allowing it access to Central Station as well as the newly-built double-decker passenger cars. Using the dual-power locomotives is more practical than using electric locomotives, as they can use all rail lines in the city.

So then, with that in mind consider this – what if instead of building an entirely new electric-only rail-line for a billion dollars, we invested in rehabilitating all the old branch lines and procured/developed a state-of-the-art traffic direction system? This way we use all rail lines more efficiently instead of building a segregated line for express service (effectively because express trains could be switched onto lesser travelled branches). Take a trip to google maps and try to follow the different rail lines criss-crossing the island. You’ll soon discover that there are many rail lines not presently being used, such as the one which runs from Central Station to just East of St-John’s near Hymus. If dual-power locomotives were considered for this plan, this currently unused branch line could be very cheaply converted. A small extension further West from where it currently terminates would allow this line to reach the hotel and office complex just across from the Fairview shopping centre. Developments of a pedestrian tunnel running under the highway would in turn mean West Island residents would have access to the downtown via a train station located in the middle of two of the biggest parking lots in the West Island. Dual-Power locomotives operating on this seldom-used branch line could run between the centre of the West Island and Gare Centrale and would cost a fraction of what the proposed Train de l’Ouest.

So why aren’t cheaper alternatives being considered?

In sum, it seems as though this fundamentally boils down to a “let’s get what we’re owed” mentality that wins votes in West Island ridings. It’s too bad too, because a less expensive project may actually yield a green light. It stinks of opportunism and seems so outlandish and inappropriate that one is only left to assume the corruption and collusion in the construction and infrastructure redevelopment industries is about as bad as we all dared dream it was. That, or perhaps people in positions of power, lobbyists etc, are simply trying to make a buck, ultimately off the people’s backs.

Ask yourself – who does that billion dollars ultimately belong to? If you don’t ultimately think this is your money, then you can’t complain for skyrocketing costs and epidemic graft.