A fully automated metro system over 65 kilometres long is under staged construction in a major city and is expected to be fully open by the early 2020s. Using technology supplied by European rail company Alstom and trains manufactured in India, the stand-alone system will link suburbs with the heart of the city – but it represents also a controversial break with the past.
Sounds a lot like the Sydney Metro – but it’s also an equally accurate description of the Réseau express métropolitain (REM – Metropolitan Express Network) currently under construction in Montreal, Canada. As well as being nearly identical in length, technologies and construction timeframes, both systems are also a contentious departure from existing heavy rail practices in their host cities. Not only are they technologically incompatible with existing rail networks, they also involve the takeover and conversion of established and functional suburban rail infrastructure.
In previous posts I have compared Sydney Metro with broadly similar projects currently under construction in Australia and New Zealand, as well as with London’s Crossrail. However, the similarities between REM and the Sydney Metro are much more striking. In this post I’ll compare these projects and in part two I’ll discuss the controversies in both cities around the parallel decisions to construct stand-alone transit systems.
Montreal and Sydney are both major cities but with quite different urban structures. Sydney is the larger of the two with a population of around 5.2 million in a metropolitan area of 12,367 sq km, compared to the more densely populated Montreal (4.1 million and 4,604 sq km).
Both cities have large bus networks which replaced extensive tramway systems – though only Sydney has revived light rail. When it comes to rail networks, however, the cities diverge significantly. This divergence is due to the differences in the cities’ urban form and structure, as well as in broader historical approaches to transit.
In summary, Montreal has a “classic” Canadian/American transit structure – a metro system servicing a relatively dense suburban core and a predominantly-diesel outer-suburban rail network with limited reach and services. Meanwhile Sydney, like other Australian mainland state capitals, has an extensive suburban rail network but until recently no metro.
With four lines and 68 stations the Montreal Metro is one of the busiest in north America, carrying around 383 million passengers annually. Exo, Montreal’s suburban rail service, adds five diesel and one electrified line with a total of 62 stations, and carries 20 million passengers.
Sydney Trains, Sydney’s suburban system is much more extensive than Montreal’s with 176 stations and nine lines, all of which are electrified. These lines converge to provide metro-like frequencies on a small underground section in the city centre. Despite its extent the system carries fewer passengers than Montreal’s metro, at 359 million annually.
However, Sydney is also serviced by NSW TrainLink. While this mostly electrified five-line intercity network connects cities and towns up to 200km away, the majority of its 45 million passengers are commuters from Sydney’s outer suburbs. Therefore, despite their very different structures, Sydney and Montreal’s rail networks carry roughly the same total number of passengers annually.
For more information go to the comparison table at the end of this article, or click here to download.
Sydney Metro: I’ve written about the Sydney Metro in previous posts, but especially for any Canadian readers I’ll provide a brief summary here. Sydney Metro will run through the city from the northwest to the southwest. The first stage, the 36-kilometre section from Tallawong in the northwest to Chatswood, opened in 2019. The second stage opening in 2024 will continue from Chatswood under Sydney Harbour and through the CBD to Bankstown in the southwest.
When completed the line will be 66 kilometres long, with over 30 kilometres of new tunnels and 13 kilometres of upgraded tunnels. Construction also features a section of viaduct. There will be 31 stations, all accessible, 15 new and the rest upgraded. Of these, six will provide interchange with existing rail services, and two with light rail. Fourteen will be underground and two elevated.
The project also involves the conversion and integration of 26 kilometres of two existing lines – the Bankstown line and the Epping to Chatswood rail link, which opened only 11 years ago. The system uses six-car automated driverless trains, based on the Alstom Metropolis model, which can be expanded to eight cars. Total cost of the project is estimated to be around AU$20 billion (CA$18 billion).
Currently Sydney Metro has a peak hour capacity of 16,500 passengers per hour with four-minute frequencies, but when fully open will be able to move around 40,000 passengers per hour (potentially up to 46,000 per hour). Trains will then run every two minutes in peak hour at an average speed of around 50km/h and the line will increase the capacity of the city’s rail network through the CBD by 60%.
Réseau express métropolitain (REM): Remarkably REM, at 67 kilometres, is only one kilometre longer than the Sydney Metro – but is arranged quite differently with four branches, one to the east and three to the west, including a link to the airport. Like the Sydney Metro, REM will open in stages. The south eastern segment from Central Station to Rive-Sud will open in 2021, the central section from Central Station to Du Ruisseau in 2022 and the remaining segments in 2023.
A significant proportion of REM will be on viaduct, though there will be 3.5 kilometres of new tunnel and a five-kilometre upgrade of an existing one. There are to be 26 accessible stations, 12 of which are new. Five will be underground and five elevated. Like the Sydney Metro the system will involve the conversion and integration of existing track; the 30-kilometre Deux-Montagnes line, including the Mont Albert tunnel, which was substantially upgraded in the 1990s.
Again, like the Sydney Metro, REM will use driverless trains based on the Alstom Metropolis with very similar features – plus additional protection against Montreal’s harsh winters. However, the trains will be configured as two-car coupled sets which will be run in pairs in peak hour. The total REM project cost is estimated to be much less than the Sydney Metro – CA$6.5 billion (AU$7.2 billion).
REM will initially have a capacity of around 18,700 passengers per hour in the peak with 2.5-minute headways, though this could be increased to over 31,000. The average train speed will be a little faster than in Sydney, at 56km/h.
REM and the Sydney Metro – how similar are they really?
Construction: Both systems involve a mix of construction techniques, including tunnels, viaducts and bridges, though the proportions vary greatly. Sydney Metro for example has nearly 30km or nearly nine times the length of new tunnelling needed for REM; Sydney’s tunnels also include a challenging Harbour crossing. Clearly the difference in tunnelling requirements contributes to the disparity in costs, with the Sydney Metro costing nearly three times as much as REM.
Conversion of existing track: Both projects involve conversion of major sections of existing track, making them incompatible with the existing networks. These are comparable in length (Sydney 26km and REM 30km) much of this track was either recently built or upgraded. Furthermore, the conversions affect operation of the existing networks by wholly or partially isolating some lines and forcing passengers to change modes. Not surprisingly these changes have caused considerable controversy, which I’ll look at in the next post.
Train models and technologies: Apart from the almost identical route length, the most striking similarity between the two systems is the trains themselves. Both systems will use fully automated variants of Alstom’s Metropolis train.
I have not been able to source detailed specifications or diagrams for Sydney Metro carriages, but they appear to be nearly identical in shape and layout to the REM cars, though the latter seem to have fewer seats. Carriages in both systems also share many features such as full accessibility and dedicated spaces for wheelchairs, prams, bikes and luggage, as well as real time information displays. .
There are however two distinct points of difference. First, the Montreal system will comprise two-car trains, which will be coupled together to form four-car trains in peak hour. The Sydney Metro uses six-car trains which can be added to form eight-car trains in future. Second, as noted earlier, due to Montreal’s harsh winters the REM cars will be fitted with additional heating as well as extensive protection against icing of couplers and pantographs.
Operation: Both systems feature comparatively high operating speeds due in part to the wide spacing between stations, at least in newer sections. Currently the Sydney Metro averages 60km/h between Chatswood and Tallawong. However, the average speed will be 50km/h when the 66km system is completed to Bankstown, with a travel time of 79 minutes. This is due largely to the closely-spaced stations and alignment of the older Bankstown line, where even after conversion average speed will be only 40km/h. In comparison REM is projected to maintain a consistent average speed of 56km/h, giving a travel time of 49 minutes over the 46km from Deux-Montagnes to Rive-Sud.
Both systems will also rely on high-frequency “turn-up-and-go” services, especially during peak hour. The Sydney Metro currently operates at frequencies between six and fifteen trains an hour along the whole of the stage one corridor, with the potential to double this to thirty trains an hour. REM will have a more complex service structure, with different frequencies on each branch and in the core of the system. These will vary from four to 24 trains an hour.
While REM will use four-car trains in peak hour and Sydney six, the former’s higher frequency will initially give it more capacity in the central section of 18,720 passengers per hour, compared to 16,500 in Sydney. However, even at the theoretical maximum frequency of 40 trains an hour REM’s 31,200 passengers per hour would be exceeded by Sydney Metro’s capacity of over 46,000 if the latter system moves to 30 eight-car trains per hour.
Promotion: One of the intriguing differences between the two systems is how they are promoted. The new system in Sydney was originally called Sydney Rapid Transit, before the term Sydney Metro was adopted. “Metro” as a name distinguishes the system from light rail (which in Sydney is used to describe the city’s tram-based system) and “heavy rail”, generally regarded describing the whole existing rail network.
In Montreal, however, the situation is more complex. Both because of the previously existing Metro, and also due to the way the system will operate, it can’t be described as a metro, even colloquially. The network was originally going to be called Réseau électrique métropolitain, or Metropolitan Electric Network, but this was changed to Réseau express métropolitain (REM – Metropolitan Express Network). Clearly it will be generally known as REM, but it has also been described as a “fully automated, electric light rail system”, perhaps reflecting the fact that trains will predominantly consist of two-car sets, perceived as being smaller and lighter than the city’s metro trains.
While some aspects seem coincidental (for example, the near-identical route length), the similarities between REM and the Sydney Metro stem to a large degree from the initial decisions taken in both cities to invest in new stand-alone automated rail systems.
Increasingly the capacity to provide new turnkey systems has moved out of the public sector to a comparatively small number of large multinational companies with the ability to deliver projects at this scale, including Alstom. These companies offer a range of off-the-shelf products like the Metropolis which can be modified to meet local conditions and political priorities.
The choice of the same product by both cities is therefore not so surprising, and Sydney and Montreal are not the only cities to adopt this approach. However, as I noted earlier the decisions to construct systems which are completely incompatible with existing rail networks and in doing so to convert key sections of existing rail lines to the new standards has generated considerable debate in both cities. In my next post I’ll look at why Sydney and Montreal took such similar paths – and how these decisions have resulted in similar controversies.