Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Transport Canada willing to consider task force proposal to share rail lines - Ottawa Business Journal

Transport Canada willing to consider task force proposal to share rail lines
By Roman Zakaluzny, Ottawa Business Journal Staff
Wed, Jul 4, 2007 3:00 PM EST

So far, it's full steam ahead for an idea that could result in millions of dollars in savings if Ottawa proceeds with its light rail project.

The mayor's transportation task force reviewed shared railway operations in jurisdictions other than Ottawa, including San Diego and New Jersey in their research to answer just that, and found them to be practical, cost-efficient and safe.

"Even in Ottawa, diesel freight trains operate on the southern portion of the O-Train line with a minimal but safe time separation from LRT trains," the report read.

"Task force consultations with Transport Canada railway safety officials were fruitful, and indicate that there should be no regulatory impediment to mixing freight and light-rail passenger trains."

So who would be sharing lines with an expanded Capital Railway (or O-Train) network? A mix of private companies and former Crown corporations, it turns out, including Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), Canadian National Railway Company (CN), VIA Rail, and a small local short line operator, the Ottawa Central Railway Inc. (OCR).

Transport Canada, which oversees rail operations from coast to coast, doesn't see a problem with track sharing, said Mike Coghlan, the department's director of engineering at its rail safety branch, as long as safety rules are followed and some differences are ironed out.

"There may be some issue with running light rail equipment with heavy equipment," he said.

"That would have to be evaluated, depending on what the proposal was . . . For example, (in) a collision between a (light) rail car with something that is much, much larger, the damage could be substantial."

Differences would have to be sorted out to Transport Canada's liking, he said, which follows the standards of the Association of American Railroads.

Mr. Coghlan said Transport Canada requires two-man crews for every train, one for backup in case something were to happen to the principal operator. Light rail O-Trains, however, use one-person crews, combined with a system of signalling switches, to bring a train to a stop should something happen to the operator.

One of the longest proposed train arteries in the plan is the proposed east-west "cross-city corridor," from Arnprior (and Carleton Place) to Cumberland, running past a number of hub stations in Ottawa for downtown connections.

To be built in stages over a few decades, it will necessitate ligh-rail travel on rails owned by at least three different firms.

Besides OCR, which said it is in favour of sharing track, the separate parts of the corridor are owned by CN and VIA.

CN communications director Mark Hallman said he could not speculate on track sharing arrangements before Capital Railway issued a formal request.

"We don't have a firm proposal that has been endorsed or produced or sanctioned by council," he said. "If we were to get one . . . we would certainly take a look at it."

Besides the east-west corridor, the majority of track in Ottawa is jointly owned by CN and CP, he said. "That extends from a junction in the east end at Hawthorne (Road), running through the VIA station, all the way to a point just west of (Fallowfield). However, CN manages and dispatches the trackage in this area on behalf of the partnership."

But while those two big companies own most of it, only two firms actually run trains through town: OCR and VIA.

VIA trains arrive from Montreal and Toronto five times daily, and depart for both cities five times daily.

Catherine Kaloutsky, senior officer of media and corporate communications for VIA, said that while the tracks through town belong to CN, the tracks going on to Cumberland are its own, and that it would study a sharing option if one were proposed.

"VIA Rail is open to looking at requests regarding regional rail service," she said in an e-mail. "Naturally we would have to ensure that VIA's intercity passenger rail services were protected."
As the name suggests, light rail vehicles are much lighter than regular railway equipment. The safety concerns are genuine, but I do believe that the success of the O-Train has proved that mainline railway trains and light rail vehicles can co-exist. If the federal government does nothing else for transit, at least let cities save money by using existing railway corridors for fast and frequent transit services.

Special thanks to Stephen Rees for this story. A review of Ottawa's transit system is coming soon.

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