Light at end of the track
Published: March 1, 2008
Source: HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette

The idea of a shuttle train between downtown and Trudeau International Airport is one of the most sensible ideas around for Montreal. It could whisk travellers to the airport about every 20 minutes. Plus, if extended all the way to Ste. Anne de Bellevue, it could provide the West Island with a commuter line running far more frequently than the present version.

But the idea has languished - until now, that is. You can blame much of the delay on the fact that only two scenarios have been considered, and each has severe problems.

One of those scenarios called for using CP's right of way on the Rigaud line between Lucien L'Allier station and Dorval, where the airport is located. Existing passenger service now uses this route but because CP makes more money carrying freight than people it can make room for only a dozen commuter trains daily in each direction. Under that scenario, new tracks would be built for the exclusive use of passenger trains. At Dorval, the tracks would swing north to reach the airport, then return to the existing right of way.

One the CP route's great advantages is that it stops at the Vendôme métro, which is handy for transfers. That station is also at the doorstep of a future major destination, the McGill University Health Centre.

But this route's problem has been that the terminus is Lucien L'Allier. The airport's overseer, Aéroports de Montréal, is an ardent proponent of a rail link but insists this terminus is unacceptable. Lucien l'Allier is hard to access from many hotels.

The second scenario, which uses CN's right of way, has always been less attractive. True, its Central Station terminus is closer to many hotels. But the cost of exclusive tracks for passengers would be, according to one estimate, about $800 million. That's several times the cost of equivalent alteration of the CP line (only a small stretch of which now handles freight). The CN line would also bypass the Vendôme station that is so useful for commuters.

Suddenly, however, an imaginative solution of the CP route's problem has emerged. The train would not have to end at Lucien L'Allier but could proceed 700 metres west to Central Station, according to a confidential document by the Agence métropolitaine de transport, the Quebec government's overseer of local public transit.

The train's elevated path would loop south of the Bell Centre and pass in front of the soon-to-be-abandoned Planetarium. Parking lots occupy most of the route. Only one building would need to be expropriated. The cost: $40 million.

Drawback? Several condo highrises would be within earshot of the frequent trains.

An alternate scenario is also under consideration. It calls for a shuttle train leaving Central Station on the Deux-Montagnes rail line, then veering off and reaching the airport from the north.

Drawback: This line would require a 1.5-kilometre tunnel under the runways. The cost of métro tunnels is $150-million per kilometre, and the cost here would likely be about the same.

Advantage: A tram or a tram-train (a tram that can run on street tracks as well as normal railroad tracks) could use the Doney Spur and link up with this line. The Doney Spur runs a few metres south of Highway 40. The spur now exists only east of St. Jean Blvd., but I'm told that a way exists to extend it to the tip of the West Island.

What are the chances of politicians ending years of fruitless talk about a shuttle and approving either one of these schemes?

Better than ever. Both Quebec and Ottawa are now backing a shuttle in principle. Indeed, the Harper government's budget this week earmarked about $100 million for some kind of shuttle. Both governments are awaiting a report by a team of consultants from Quebec, Ontario and New York as to which of the scenarios makes the most sense. That report is due in the fall.

The federal Conservatives hold no seats on Montreal Island. In last week's CROP-La Presse poll, however, they had 22 per cent support on the island - not that far behind the federal Liberals at 30 per cent. Pollster Claude Gauthier says that, if the Liberals remain low and the Tories can find high-profile candidates, they just might win a seat or two on the island's western (federalist) half. A green light for this project would help.

Unlike many election goodies, this vastly improved idea would be of solid value. Better airport access would boost the city as a business centre. And commuting would be easier than ever.

Henry Aubin is The Gazette's regional-affairs columnist. haubin@thegazette.canwest.com 

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008