Keeping the Tramway Project from Derailing
The proposed tramway for western Gatineau has become a major regional issue for both the current federal and municipal campaigns. Done right, the tramway could be a boon for the region. However, if we fail to learn lessons from elsewhere we could waste substantial amounts of taxpayer money, and significantly set back public transit for years to come.
The city proposes to run the tramway along Aylmer Road, an artery that already has among the best public transit services in the city. We need to understand the tramway’s impact on traffic, where it would both reduce the number of cars on the road as more people take the tramway, as well as the number of lanes available for private vehicles. Because there will be both positive and negative effects for motorists its overall repercussions are hard to predict. We also need to have an idea of the impacts of the construction phase, which will impact Aylmer Road for several years.
Unlike buses, when a single tramway train breaks down it paralyzes the entire network. Just last month an axle issue on a single train caused a derailment that paralyzed the entire O-Train system for a week. We hear far too often about service interruptions with Ottawa’s LRT caused by broken doors or cracked wheels - even though the trains are still quite new. Gatineau must avoid ending up with the same problems. Most importantly, the tramway cars must be built to perform in our harsh winters. Shockingly, The O-Train cars were not designed for extremely cold temperatures and large amounts of snow according to reports from Ottawa’s rail operations.
Additionally, the implementation of the O-Train in fact increased commute times for many residents of Ottawa, as people who had previously taken buses directly from their neighbourhoods to downtown needed to instead transfer from a bus to the O-Train. The design of the Gatineau tramway network should be such that those whose buses come directly downtown don’t need additional transfers, thereby causing their daily trips to take longer than before.
Most importantly of all, plans need to be in place to make the tramway economically viable. On the one hand, if we see a substantial decrease in the number of people commuting to downtown due to telework, will the project be able to break even? And will the city have a plan to cover any short-falls? On the other hand, if ridership instead jumps substantially in the years ahead, will a tramway network be able to handle an increase in capacity? It’s easy to imagine frustrated commuters whose buses require them to transfer to a tramway a few kilometres from downtown, but where every tramway that comes by is full to capacity, forcing them to wait for long periods in the dead of the winter.
Predicting much of anything is nearly impossible given the turmoil of the pandemic, but a variety of contingency plans should be in place to make sure that the tramway project becomes all that it should be.