Sunday, August 6, 2017

Not a boondoggle: Ottawa's new light rail with tunnel

Coming from Baltimore one can only be in awe if one visits a city that didn't cancel its underground light rail line, didn't call it a "boondoggle", builds on time and within budget and celebrates its new downtown underground stations with a light, laser and sound show that allows 4,000 people daily to tour them 70' underground all while the line is still under construction. Welcome to Ottawa's new Confederation Line, one of Canada's grand projects on occasion of its 150 anniversary and Ontario's.largest ever public works project since the construction of the Rideau Canal, today a World Heritage Site.

The artistic laser show is called Kontinuum (video) and isn't meant to appeal to rail geeks who want to know all the details about their new Lyon Station deep underground their feet but to folks who like holograms, laser, lights, deafening music and smoke from dry ice. A show that comes with a good amount of vodoo and science fiction as becomes clear from this description of the show dubbed Kontinuum.
The excavation of a 2.5 kilometre tunnel (1.55 miles) has revealed layers of the city’s foundation, exposing sediment dating 150 years back to Confederation. The exposure of these layers has released a flow of electromagnetic energy in the tunnel that was buried for centuries. Until now. It all began with a mysterious appearance at the Lyon station: a glimmering wall of light that can only be described as a glitch in the fabric of reality. The Loop is a fracture of time and space caused by an unprecedented release of electromagnetic energy. Since its appearance, construction workers have begun to witness inexplicable phenomena in and around the tunnel.
Construction site disco
Access to the show is free but requires tickets and the online booking site shows all time slots sold out for days. Kontinuum is part of a series of celebrations on occasion of the Dominion's 150th anniversary this year. 

In a spectacle that would make US liability lawyers grouse, the visitor is guided down many flights of raw concrete steps in a dizzying thunderstorm of flashes interspersed with darkness that can make even a healthy young person loose steady footing, let alone those with whatever conditions that can be triggered by rhythmic light and sound. To top it off puffs of "smoke" are wafting through the space, projections come and go and the holograms of visitors created with the OCR code on a paper ticket can appear and disintegrate when stylized virtual trains come rushing through. The show isn't exactly informative, but that doesn't seem to be the point. Rather it is novel, a lot of razzle dazzle and conjures positive associations which reconcile people with some of the messy conditions which are inevitable during construction. In short, the idea is really cool.

Underground Station bathed in laser lights
The OLRT project is a 12.5km  (7.7 miles), 13 station conversion of the existing Bus Transitway to Light Rail  Transit  technology.  Its  principal  feature  is  a  3  station,  2.5km  tunnel  running  underneath  the  downtown core that will move the transit system onto its own right of way. Construction on this project is scheduled to commence in 2013 and the system will be open to  the  public  by  2018.  Once  opened,  trains  will  run  approximately  every  3  minutes  during  rush  hour, transporting passengers from Blair Road to Tunney’s Pasture in 24 minutes. The project’s C$2.1 billion budget makes it the largest project in Ottawa’s history and one of the  first conversions of a successful Bus Rapid Transit system to Light Rail Transit technology in  North America. This alignment is the first piece of a larger LRT network that will span over 40 km (24.8 miles) across the City. (website)

Cost hasn't been always kept at the budgeted levels as CBC Ottawa reports but the established C$100 million contingency appears to be sufficient to pick up the overruns. The line is being designed, procured, built and maintained in a public-private-partnership also called a Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM) model the same approach that is used for the Purple Line and had been envisioned for all sections of the Red Line except the tunnel portion. The line is on schedule to open in the spring of 2018 which is also the year when construction on the C$ 3 billion 17 miles extension will begin. The new system will have 17 double  Alstom Citadis Spirit  trains with a seating capacity of 240 (total rider capacity 600 riders per train). The tunneling under downtown digs through bedrock and employs a different method than had been anticipated for Baltimore. It uses a mechanical cutting process, not a tunnel boring machine. All three stations are being mined, not built in cut and cover as was proposed for the Red Line.
Rendering of one of the three underground stations in downtown

The Busway on Albert street consists of a reserved bus lane along the curb with permitted right turns on it or crossing it just like on Lombard and Pratt streets in Baltimore. Some 15 bus lines operate on Albert Street, service of the Ottawa transit agency (OC Transpo) and the Gatineau bus company STO that has some lines come across the Ottawa River which represents the border between Ontario and Quebec. OC Transpo operates 900 buses and six trains on a single 4.8 mile diesel LRT line (The Trillium O-train) operating on 15 min. headways. The overall system carries 340,000 daily riders. Fares are currently C$ 3.40 for a single trip with reduced fares for students, seniors, day-passes, monthly passes and preloaded Presto fare cards.
Rapid transit service Ottowa

Ottowa has a rapidly growing population of about 934,000 in a 1.3 million metro region which includes Gatineau. Ottawa is the capital of the State which celebrates its 150 year anniversary this year with a slew of grand projects. It is also the capital of Canada with a number of federal projects underway.
Trillium Line train already in service

It is nice for Ottowa to get a high capacity transit rail system. It would be even nicer if Baltimore's Red Line tunnels would be under construction as well. Or if Baltimore's buses would finally run like clockwerk. Or if Baltimore would celebrate transit in the same upbeat manner in which the Kontinuum show does it.
With the right political will, it could happen one day.

Virtual Kontinuum train
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tunnel construction: The full scoop

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