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Where do Montreal’s commuter trains go?

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MONTREAL – The upcoming arrival of the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) is shaking up public transit in Greater Montreal. However, the new light rail network was designed without considering the region’s commuter trains, which will see many of their riders switch to the new trains. This is particularly true for the Mascouche line, faced with an uncertain future.

The “ghost” train

Empty platform and empty parking lot: it’s a ghost station in Mascouche, Que. La Presse travelled from the suburb to Montreal Central Station to witness the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and REM work on the commuter train line.

“Before, you had to fight to get a parking spot near the station,” said Sylvie Dupuis, pointing to the few cars scattered around Mascouche station’s parking lot. The 50-year-old, who works in the Saint-Léonard district of Montreal, has lived in Mascouche for nine years. It was the imminent arrival of the train that convinced her to move with her husband from Pointe-aux-Trembles to a condo a few minutes’ walk from the station. A way to avoid buying a second car without losing independence.

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The Mascouche train line opened in December 2014, after a total investment of more than $730 million by the Government of Quebec. Less than seven years later, its route was cut off by REM construction work on the West Island and compromised by the REM de l’Est, whose parallel route could be harmful to its future.

Since construction work began on the Mount Royal tunnel in May 2020, the train must make a 30-minute detour. It now takes up to one hour and 45 minutes to get from Mascouche to Central Station.

It is also the commuter train whose ridership has declined the most since the pandemic. In February 2020, nearly 133,000 passengers travelled on the Mascouche line each month, according to data provided by Exo, the commuter train authority for Greater Montreal.

In April 2021, it was down to 5,078 passengers, or roughly 230 people per day – just 3.82 per cent of the train’s capacity.

In comparison, the train departing from Vaudreuil-Hudson was at 15 per cent capacity in April 2021, Saint-Jérôme was at 14 per cent, Mont-Saint-Hilaire was at six per cent and Candiac was at 19 per cent.

“The arrival of the REM de l’Ouest has cut the direct link to the city centre altogether,” said François Pepin, president of Trajectoire Québec, an organization that defends public transit rights. “And with (the effects) of the REM de l’Est, it could get even worse,” he added.

“The goal with the arrival of the REM is to better serve customers and offer them a much larger public transit network,” said Sarah Bensadoun, spokesperson for Quebec’s ministry of transportation.

The Mascouche train will no longer have direct access to downtown Montreal but will join the REM at the Côte-de-Liesse station in West Montreal, from where it is possible to reach Central Station in 10 minutes, according to REM forecasts. The route is expected to open in 2022, and “there is no question of the service stopping,” Bensadoun added.

The Mount Royal detour

7:30 a.m., Monday morning. A toddler could count the number of passengers waiting at the Mascouche station: four. Two passengers are returning from a family visit, another is heading to the city centre to look at computer equipment. Only one passenger, Laura-Lee Klein, 20, takes the train every day, to her summer internship at a hospital.

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Another handful of passengers board the train in Terrebonne and in Repentigny. Greenery, daisies and empty park-and-ride lots flash by outside the window. The train soon crosses the Des Prairies river. From here, the train’s route is parallel to the planned route of the REM de l’Est for a few stations.

At Sauvé station in Ahuntsic, most passengers disembark to take the metro downtown. The train takes another 50 minutes to bypass Mount Royal and arrive at Central Station, a journey that took 20 minutes before REM construction work began. On Monday, the train from Mascouche arrived downtown at 9:06 a.m., one hour and 36 minutes after its departure.

“For those who take it (the train), we have VIP treatment: we have the train car to ourselves,” said Carmelo Morabito, a lawyer whose office is next to the Central Station. He is one of the few people who stayed on the train until the end, happy to be able to work there in peace.

For Dupuis, who used to take the train every day, it was neither teleworking nor construction work on the Mount Royal tunnel that influenced her choice to stop taking the train, but rather its unreliability.

“I don’t take it anymore because at night it’s always late,” she said.

Morabito also said he noticed a decrease in consistency, and trains are sometimes stopped. According to Exo, the line’s punctuality rate in 2021 has been 90.5 per cent, compared to 93 per cent in 2019.

Will the commuter train survive the REM?

Everybody wants a Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light rail line.

As soon as its first phase was announced in 2015, Mirabel and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu asked why they had not been considered and included, and they’re still asking. Once the Île-aux-Tourtes bridge in West Montreal is rebuilt, Vaudreuil-Dorion would like the REM to cross it as an extension of the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue line. Laval wants a line along Highway 15.

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), which owns the REM, is looking at options. Other studies are underway to assess the possibility of a REM line along Taschereau Boulevard, or even further, from Boucherville to La Prairie.

The Legault government asked the CDPQ to study the possibility of extending the REM to Chambly (they declined, as it is not profitable). The same mayors who were loudly calling for the construction of a commuter train in Mascouche, Terrebonne and Repentigny now want, after only seven years of service, that the “train de l’Est” be transformed into something “compatible with the REM.“

In an open letter published by La Presse on Tuesday, Sylvain Yelle, Exo’s executive director, said that “in an optimal planning of transit, each mode has its characteristics that allow it to serve citizens in a given area.”

Each mode of transportation has its place

The light rail network currently being built by CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, is designed to offer “a high-frequency service connecting urban and peri-urban areas,” while commuter trains are effective in “serving more remote areas, such as suburban towns in the southern and northern regions,” Yelle said.

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The commuter train would be the most appropriate mode of transportation to serve almost all the municipalities that want access to the REM, he added. For Yelle, hearing everyone ask for the REM is disheartening.

“Everyone, including municipalities, have to understand that commuter trains can be a very structuring mode of transport, and that they can meet the needs of users,” Yelle said in an interview. “By publishing this letter, I wanted to be sure that we do not forget their usefulness and that we continue to invest in trains,” he added.

All train lines in the Exo network have significant potential for growth, to transport more people more quickly, provided some major infrastructure work is completed that would transform their services.

All train lines? Maybe not…

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The sacrificed train

Yelle frowned when talking about the Mascouche commuter train, whose direct access to Montreal’s city centre was cut by Phase 1 of the REM, forcing users to take a long detour of 20 to 30 minutes to get to Montreal’s Central Station. In Phase 2, the REM de l’Est, CDPQ Infra now plans to build three stations that will serve the same customer base as the Mascouche train stations located on the east end of the island.

After this double torpedo hit, Yelle wrote in his letter, “it is urgent to think about (the line’s) future.”

“The closure of the Mount Royal tunnel curbed a lot of the attraction to the Mascouche line. Before the closure, its ridership was increasing,” he said.

“The moment the tunnel was closed, it became a lot less interesting,” Yelle said. “We have to assess the impact it will have on the line, because in the current state, it’s not clear what we’re going to be able to do with it.”

“Our infrastructures are recent, in good working order, but using a heavy mode of transportation such as a commuter train to feed into the REM? We have questions about that,” he said.

Duplication without added value

Yelle said he believes that the fate of the Mascouche train line should serve as an example for establishing more effective consultation between public transit players, to avoid a “duplication (of infrastructure) without improving service” in the suburbs.

“Today, we are also looking at how we could better integrate the Mascouche train into other public transport networks, but that is work that should have been done earlier, and in a more coordinated manner,” Yelle said. “On the lack of consultation: we learned about the route of the REM de l’Est the day before its announcement.”

“I understand that under the REM’s financial model, the Caisse must seek profitability, and that by investing such large sums, it is taking a very significant risk,” he added. “But this cannot be done entirely apart from the rest of the public transit ecosystem. We can’t afford to do that.”

The future… one line at a time

Mascouche: what to do?

The construction of the Mascouche commuter train took more than eight years and cost more than $730 million in public funds. The line has only been in service for seven years and yet is nearly on death row. With the construction of Phase 1 of the REM, it lost direct access to the city centre. Phase 2, the REM de l’Est, will partially duplicate its route and three of the REM’s stations will be right in its customer base – with direct access to the city centre, something the Mascouche train will never have again.

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Saint-Jérôme: the new flagship

The current Saint-Jérôme line is efficient, punctual and constantly growing (before the pandemic, at least). And it is undoubtedly the line with the best development potential. Exo already owns the railway line from Saint-Jérôme to Blainville and wants Quebec to consider the purchase of the section from Blainville to Parc Station in Montreal. The entire section could then be reserved exclusively for trains. A complete switch to electric trains on the line would be possible, and the frequency of trains could be increased. The Saint-Jérôme line would then take over the flagship position of the network, vacant after the closure of the Deux-Montagnes train line.

Candiac: modernisation in sight

Commissioned 20 years ago, the Candiac line operates almost entirely on temporary equipment. The buildings and parking lots at Sainte-Catherine, Delson, LaSalle and du Canal stations will be redeveloped for permanent use. The most important changes, including the possible addition of more departure times, will come in the medium term with major works at the Montréal-Ouest station. The addition of a temporary platform on the north side of the railway line in 2019 has made the station more accessible. An entrance on Sherbrooke Street, a pedestrian tunnel to the north and permanent access to the temporary platform will ensure safe and user-friendly access to trains.

Vaudreuil-Hudson: increasing speed

The fate of Montreal’s oldest commuter train (in operation since 1889) is also linked to the major works at Montréal-Ouest, a long-time bottleneck in the network. When arriving at and leaving the station, more than 100 trains on the Vaudreuil, Candiac and Saint-Jérôme lines must cut through rush hour traffic at two street crossings every day, where road traffic is just as intense. Very expensive staging could increase the frequency of the three trains. For now, however, Exo is focusing on the cruising speed of the Vaudreuil-Hudson train, which travels slowly because its infrastructure is old and often stops because it has a lot of stations. Maybe too many stations.

Mont-Saint-Hilaire: new tracks

The Mont-Saint-Hilaire train line is not at all affected by the REM, but its development will always be limited by freight trains on the tracks. The Exo network is evaluating the feasibility of building new tracks along the train’s route, to have space to stop in the event of a traffic jam on the tracks or to add more trains. These investments have not yet been included in Exo budgets or regional transit authority (ARTM) forecasts.

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