Light rail in Canada

Light rail in Canada

In general, Canadian cities have rates of public transit use which are two to three times as high as comparably sized U.S. cities. Census data for 2006 show that 11.0% of Canadians use public transit to commute to work, compared to 4.8% of Americans. [cite web
title = Commuting Patterns and Places of Work of Canadians, 2006 Census
publisher = Statistics Canada
date = 2008
url =
accessdate = 2008-07-14
] cite web
title = American Community Survey 2006, Table S0802
publisher = U.S. Census
date = 2008
url =
accessdate = 2008-07-14
] This means that transportation planners must allow for higher passenger volumes on Canadian transit systems than American ones.

As a result of lower government funding, Canadian cities have to recover a much higher share of their costs out of operating revenues. This lack of funding may explain why there is resistance to the high capital costs of rail systems and there are only a few light rail systems in Canada.

Light rail systems by city


Despite the fact that Calgary, Alberta has a lower population density than sprawling Denver, Colorado, the Calgary C-Train system has developed into the most successful and busiest light rail system in North America, cite conference
last = Hubbel
first = John
coauthors = Colquhoun, Dave
title = Light Rail Transit in Calgary: The First 25 Years
publisher = Calgary Transit
date = 2006-05-08
booktitle = Joint International Light Rail Conference
location = St. Louis, Missouri
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-22
] with an average of 271,100 boardings per weekday in the fourth quarter of 2007, compared to 258,100 for Toronto, Ontario,cite web
title = Public Transportation Ridership Report - Canada
publisher = American Public Transportation Association
date = Fourth Quarter, 2007
url =
accessdate = 2008-07-11
] and 257,500 for Boston, Massachusetts, cite web
title = Public Transportation Ridership Statistics - 4th quarter, 2007
publisher = American Public Transportation Association
date = 2008
url =
accessdate = 2008-07-14
] both of which are much bigger and more densely populated cities. However, it should be noted that both Toronto and Boston also have extensive heavy rail transit systems.

The Calgary system was started in 1981 as the result of decisions to avoid building either downtown freeways or a heavy rail system. At that time, Calgary had less than half a million people and was considered too small for rail transit, but when it first opened the C-Train carried about 40,000 passengers per day. By 2007, Calgary was twice as big with 1 million people, but the C-Train system was over three times as long and carried over six times as many passengers.

As of 2007 45% of the people working in downtown Calgary took transit to work, and the city's objective was to increase that to 60%.cite news
last = Kom
first = Joel
title = Residents forced to cope with growing traffic crunch - City confident it can handle growth
publisher = Calgary Herald
date = 2008-01-02
url =
accessdate = 2008-02-14
] The reason is that Calgary's downtown core covers only convert|1.4|sqmi|km2, is isolated from the rest of the city by two rivers and a railway line, and was built with relatively narrow streets by North American standards. In the 1960s planners proposed a comprehensive freeway system to improve access, but this was rejected due to intense public opposition. However, subsequent growth exceeded expectations and by 2006, Calgary had become the second largest head office center in Canada, with convert|32000000|sqft|m2 of office space and 120,000 people working in the downtown core. The downtown street system is at maximum capacity and has no room for traffic growth, but the city is confident it can add another 60,000 downtown workers in the next 20 years without making space for more cars. Peak hour travel by LRT is equivalent to the capacity of about 16 free flow traffic lanes and allows the city to have fewer than 0.4 downtown parking places available per worker. cite conference
last = McKendrick
first = Neil
coauthors = et al.
title = Calgary’s CTrain – Effective Capital Utilization
publisher = Calgary Transit
date = 2006-05-08
booktitle = Joint International Light Rail Conference
location = St. Louis, Missouri
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-22

Despite the downtown rush, 25% of the riders during rush hour are counterflow commuters - going out of downtown during the morning and into it during the afternoon. Many of these are students going to educational institutions, who receive deep discounts because they are filling seats that otherwise would be empty, and workers doing crosstown commutes to avoid the lack of freeways. However, as of 2007, the C-Train is suffering growing pains. Because population growth has exceeded expectations and LRT ridership has outpaced population growth, Calgary has had trouble buying enough new LRT vehicles and hiring enough new drivers to meet the demand. As a result, many passengers experience lengthy train waits due to overcrowding.cite news
last = Guttormson
first = Kim
title = Transit hit by 10% rise in riders - City struggles to provide service amid staff crunch
publisher = Calgary Herald
date = 2007-01-20
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-22

Despite funding problems resulting from lack of support from the provincial and federal governments, there are two extensions under construction. In November 2007, Calgary City Council approved another two further extensions on the two lines, to be completed by 2012. [ Minutes of Calgary City Council special meeting 06 November 2007]

In addition, on November 20, 2007, Council gave final approval for the new West Leg of Calgary's LRT, which would be the system's fourth leg. Construction for the West leg will begin in 2009, with completion expected in 2012. When the new light rail vehicles ordered for the extension are finally delivered, the city will have a total of 223 LRVs.

Besides the ongoing program of extending all station platforms to 100 m to accommodate four-car trains, transportation planners have identified two additional lines to be constructed within the next 25 years. They are to the North-Central and South-East districts of the city. BRT service is in place along the future North-Central route, and is expected to begin on the South-East route within a year. Calgary will also one day have to place a tunnel in their downtown to accommodate one of these new lines, or a combination of lines, much like Edmonton has already done.


Edmonton was the first city in North America with a population of less than one million to build a modern light rail system. The route first started construction in 1974, and opened its first segment on April 22, 1978, in time for the 1978 Commonwealth Games. While groundbreaking at the time, in contrast with Calgary the Edmonton Transit System built much of its light rail system underground, which meant that it could not afford to lay as much track to the suburbs. In addition, Edmonton's central business district has less office space and the single line which was built did not reach areas which housed many commuters to downtown. The system is successful by North American Standards, but not nearly as successful as Calgary's: it has attracted only a sixth of the ridership. Edmonton is building new extensions at grade that will extend to the TOD Century Park.

According to John Bakker, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and one of the original designers of the system, going underground was a serious mistake. "Going into tunnels is about 10 times as expensive as going on the surface because you have to relocate utilities", said Mr Bakker. "Edmonton went into tunnels first, and it really bogged down everything thereafter, because they didn't have money". Edmonton's system is only 12 km long, while Calgary's light-rail system covered 42.1 km for about the same cost. [cite news
last = Ward
first = Bruce
coauthors = Angela Pereira
title = Stay out of the tunnel, transit expert warns
publisher = The Ottawa Citizen
date= December 07, 2006
url =
accessdate = 2006-12-07
] As a result, by 2006 Edmonton's LRT ridership was relatively static at 42,000 per day, while Calgary's was over 250,000 and growing rapidly. However, a 10 km South LRT expansion is underway, almost all of it at surface, and is expected to be completed by 2009.


In the 1970s and 1980s Ottawa, Ontario opted for grade-separated busways (the Ottawa Transitway) over light rail on the theory that buses were cheaper. In practice, the capital costs escalated from the original estimate of C$97 million to a final value of C$440 million, a cost overrun of about 450%. [cite web
last = Gow
first = Harry
title = Ottawa's BRT "Transitway": Modern Miracle or Mega-Mirage?
publisher = Transport 2000 Canada
date= 2001
url =
accessdate = 2006-12-06
] This is nearly as high as Calgary's C-Train system, which had a capital cost of C$548 million, is about the same length, and carries more passengers. [cite web
last = CTS
title = LRT Technical Data
work = About CT
publisher = Calgary Transit
date= 2006
url =
accessdate = 2006-12-06
] Unfortunately, the Ottawa Transitway has reached capacity, with over 175 buses per hour on the downtown section, and has no cost-effective way to increase the volume. [ cite news
last = Nixon
first = Geoff
title = Downtown can't take more buses: Friends of O-Train
publisher = Ottawa Citizen
date = 2007-11-27
url =
accessdate = 2007-11-28

In 2001, to supplement its BRT system, Ottawa opened a diesel light rail pilot project, (the O-Train), which was relatively inexpensive to construct (C$21 million), due to its single-track route along a neglected freight-rail right of way and use of diesel multiple units (DMUs) to avoid the cost of building overhead lines along the tracks. O-Train has had some success in attracting new ridership to the system (a few thousand more riders), due to its connection of a south end big box shopping mall (South Keys), through Carleton University to the east-west busway (Ottawa Transitway) near the downtown core of the city.

Ottawa produced plans to expand both the Transitway and to open additional rail routes. The intention of the light rail project was to add to the system, not to replace the existing Transitway. However, in mid-December 2006, the new Ottawa city council voted to cancel the LRT system despite the fact that funding was already in place and contracts were already signed. As of 2008, lawsuits against the city of Ottawa over its canceled light rail system totaled over $280 million. [ cite news
last = Drake
first = Laura
title = City girds for massive fight over cancelled light-rail plan
publisher = The Ottawa Citizen
date = 2008-01-28
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-29
] Examinations for discovery are expected to start in the fall, with the trial beginning in 2009. The trial is expected to be lengthy. [ cite news
last = Sherring
first = Susan
title = City fighting to move LRT trial to capital
publisher = The Ottawa Sun
date = 2008-01-28
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-29


LRT in Toronto is somewhat difficult to classify, since the city employs several forms of transit that may or may not be considered "light rail". The legacy streetcar system is still largely in place in the downtown area and is extensive in terms of routes and service intervals. Some lines even tie into integrated subway stations without the need for a transfer, and many traffic signals give priority to streetcars. However, the system as a whole is not normally considered true light rail because the mixed running with surface traffic slows travel considerably. Because of the differences in technology and speed, Canadian transportation planners do not usually classify historic streetcar systems as LRT, although they may technically qualify as such. [cite web
last = Andrey
first = Jean
title = Urban Transit in Canada
publisher = Hofstra University
date= 2007
url =
accessdate = 2007-03-21
] Two streetcar lines (Spadina/Harbourfront and St. Clair) have been recently rebuilt and come closer to meeting light rail standards as they run in dedicated rights-of-way. However, the largest vehicles used are articulated double streetcars which are much smaller than most LRT trains and these use trolley wheels rather than pantographs to collect electricity. Streetcar fares must also be paid upon boarding as with a local bus. Finally, the Scarborough RT was a demonstration project for elevated light rail that served as a prototype for Vancouver's SkyTrain and JFK's AirTrain). However, it does not meet the common definition of light rail either since it supplies electricity to the trains using two extra power rails (one at +300 VDC and the other at -300 VDC), uses linear induction motors acting on a metal plate between the tracks for propulsion, requires a fully grade-separated right-of-way, and has large stations that have much more in common with a heavy-rail metro. In Toronto it is usually mapped as part of the subway system.

All of the above is now under reconsideration as vehicles near the end of their lifespan and the future size and type of vehicle and trackway is contemplated. On March 16 2007, the Toronto Transit Commission announced a 120 Kilometre Light Rapid transit web throughout the city. This will be a 15 year project predicted to have 175 million-users by 2021. Funding has been announced at the municipal and provincial level, though not the federal. The plan has been released and can also be viewed at []


In 1986, Vancouver, British Columbia built the Expo Line of the SkyTrain. It is the longest automated light rapid transit system in the world. [ cite web
last = Translink
title = Skytrain
publisher = Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority
date= 2006
url =
accessdate = 2006-10-31
] In addition to using driverless trains, it uses two energized power rails (one at +300 VDC and the other at -300 VDC) rather than overhead wires to supply electricity, making it unsafe to operate in the street or use level crossings. Since it is not conventional light rail it is often called an advanced light rapid transit or light metro system. The network, including the newer Millennium Line and extension, carries about 66 million passengers annually. Vancouver's two new lines under construction, the Canada Line and Evergreen Line, are planned to be grade-separated automated light transit. Additional extensions are planned for the Millennium Line mostly underground under Central Broadway to University of British Columbia. There is preliminary talk about extending the Expo Line (although its routing has not yet been determined).

ee also

* Public transportation in Canada
** Calgary C-Train
** Edmonton Light Rail Transit
** Ottawa Rapid Transit
** Scarborough (Toronto) Rapid Transit
** Toronto streetcar system
** Vancouver SkyTrain

External links

* [ List of Canadian urban rail systems]
* Table of [ Light Rail Transit Agencies in the United States]
* [ Commuter Rail, Light Rail & Rail Transit News]
* [ Light Rail Central photos & news]
* [ American Public Transit Association]
* [ Light Rail & Transit News] Current news concerning light rail development and issues
* [ Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the U.S. National Research Council]


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