Transit Choices

A study of the possibilities for commuter rail is underway. It looks expensive. That is not the only option that should be considered.

The commuter rail variations being examined go from the south end Via Rail terminal to Cobequid with six stops along the way and possible extensions to Elmsdale or Beaverbank.

A preliminary report has been produced to facilitate public engagement. It notes that the rail to Beaverbank is not currently in use; perhaps the track has deteriorated. The capital cost for extending to Elmsdale ($119 million) is about three times the cost of going to Cobequid because a large amount of additional track would have to be laid.

It would appear that the Cobequid version is easily the most financially viable so it, using the medium traffic scenario, is the basis for this commentary. All the numbers used should be viewed as approximate.

The service from Cobequid would take 32 minutes, the same as the Metrolink fast bus service from Sackville. The bus has the advantage of arriving downtown at the corner of Duke and Barrington streets. Most train passengers arriving at the Via station will be obliged to take a shuttle to get to downtown, adding 10 minutes to their trip time.

The scenario projects 2,700 weekday boardings, which might translate to 700,000 per year. The operating cost is $16 million of which the initial recovery ratio would be 17%, so taxpayer subsidies would amount to $13.3 million. That means that each trip would cost $23, of which passengers would pay $4 and taxpayers the rest. This is in addition to the $39 million capital cost to get the service going. These figures may change in the final report, but so far this is not an appealing picture.

The existing transit services serve 19.5 million revenue-paying bus and ferry passengers per year. It costs $110 million or $5.65 per passenger, of which passengers pay $1.75 and taxpayers the other $3.90. The ferry subsidies are somewhat less than those for the buses.

It is nevertheless true that more transit services are desirable. Even after the condo boom downtown less than one in five Haligonians live on the peninsula. Yet it contains most of the universities and hospitals, major military installations, and many government and business offices. So the entry points clog up in the mornings and evenings, resulting in long commute times.

One successful innovation has been the Metrolink express services from Portland Hills and Sackville which are competitive with personal automobile for trip times and cheaper than parking downtown. They are well used with departures every 10 minutes during peak periods. Halifax Transit estimates that they cost $4.68 per trip with 40% cost recovery from fares.

Buses have certain advantages over trains. It is relatively easy to adjust service levels and destinations. The train is only useful to riders living near the tracks but buses can go anywhere. Trains would require a whole new maintenance capability and infrastructure. The buses can get all the way to downtown.

But they are subject to traffic congestion, although this is partly alleviated where it is possible to give them privileges over other vehicles. That possibility does not exist at the moment for commuters in and around Bedford. Is there another way to speed things up?

Many years ago one of two rail lines from the south end to Fairview Cove was removed. It might be possible to create a paved road for one-way traffic in the space made available. Perhaps it could be extended at least part of the way to Bedford if space from one of the many rail lines along Bedford Basin could be obtained.

The road would be for the exclusive use of buses going in during the morning peak period (6-9), and coming out during the afternoon peak (3-6). Additional access could be provided at the end of the bicentennial highway and beside the Mumford bus terminal.

It would be desirable, and might be necessary, to avoid using the corridor at the same time as trains. At the moment there is about one freight train a day leaving the downtown port area, usually in the afternoon. Via rail has trains leaving at noon on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, having arrived at 5:35 PM on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Therefore the trains provide no conflict with morning usage and may be adjustable to keep outside of the 3-6 PM period.

If such a system can be made to work it would combine the flexibility of buses with the speed that goes with an exclusive use corridor. It is sure to be less expensive to operate than the commuter trains.

The point here is not to insist on a particular answer to the problem of long commutes. Rather it is to change the question. It should not be “Commuter rail-yes or no?” It should be to ask what are the possible ways to reduce commute times, and to compare their costs and effectiveness with each other and with existing services.