High Capacity Light Rail

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Tunney’s Pasture Station. All photos by William C. Vantuono, except where noted.

RAILWAY AGE, DECEMBER 2019 ISSUE: If legendary New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra were to ride Ottawa’s new Confederation Line, he would say—provided he was familiar with the old North Shore’s Electroliners or Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co.’s Liberty Liners—“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Berra’s famous malapropisms aside, OC Transpo may have come to a fork in the road and taken it, in selecting what is best described as hybrid rail transit technology for the Confederation Line. In the traditional sense, it’s not light rail. Nor is it rapid transit. It’s High Capacity Light Rail, or HCLR, to coin a new acronym. But because a portion, in Ottawa’s Central Business District, is underground, some at OC Transpo call it High Capacity Light Subway (HCLS).

Suffice to say, the Confederation Line—with up to 180,000 weekday riders, the busiest single-line LRT in North America—combines characteristics of both:

• Four-section-articulated, 100% low-floor, 49-meter (160.8 feet)-long, 600-person-capacity Alstom Citadis Spirit vehicles, operated in pairs totaling 98 meters (321.6 feet). Eventually, they will be extended to 118 meters (387 feet) by adding a fifth section to one of the cars in each trainset. The vehicles have an on-demand door-opening mode, activated by the driver, for use in extreme cold to assist in maintaining the vehicle’s internal temperature. Passengers can activate the doors when the vehicle is stopped in a station. OC Transpo’s vehicles have been compared to the Electroliners, as they are similar in size and configuration.

• Continuous ATC (Automatic Train Control) and ATO (Automatic Train Operation) with driverless capability through an RF (radio frequency)-based Thales SelTrac™ moving-block CBTC (Communications-Based Train Control) system. RF antennas are located at both ends of the trainset; transponders determine vehicle position. Speed sensors and accelerometers determine fine positioning. Wayside RF antennas are spaced 200 meters (656 feet) apart, with overlap redundancy to ensure continuous signal propagation. It is the latest iteration of SelTrac™.

SelTrac™ transponder.

•  Headways of approximately 4 minutes, 7 seconds with the current 13-trainset fleet. Four additional trainsets, bringing the Citadis Spirit fleet to 17 (34 cars), will reduce headways to approximately 3 minutes, 20 seconds. A full complement of 19 trainsets will offer even tighter headways (the CBTC system is capable of supporting 1 minute, 45 seconds).

• Maximum operating speed of 80 kph (50 mph). No highway-rail grade crossings.

• 8,000 PPHPD (people per hour, per direction) capacity, increasing to 11,000 once all vehicles are in service.

Station information display with receptacles for waste and various types of recyclables—a sustainable standard in Canada. U.S. transit systems should do the same.

The Confederation Line (Line 1) opened to revenue passengers on Sept. 14, 2019. The name reflected the original hope of starting service in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canada becoming a nation. The project cost an estimated C$2.1 billion, making it the largest infrastructure project in Ottawa’s history. The bulk of the cost was for construction, as most of the property needed was publicly owned.

A wetsbound train pulls into underground Rideau Centre Station in Ottawa’s Central Business District.

Ottawa signed a 30-year DBFM (Design-Build-Finance-Maintain) agreement with the Rideau Transit Group (SNC-Lavalin, ACS Infrastructure Canada Inc. and EllisDon). OC Transpo operates the system with its own employees. Ottawa City Council approved the Confederation Line in December 2012, with construction beginning the following year. This followed many years of study and debate, including the awarding, then cancellation, of a contract for a completely different route to south Ottawa.

OC Transpo Operations Control Center Manager Joel Lemieux explains the Confederation Line dispatching display. The Center controls all OC Transpo rail, bus and paratransit services.

The argument frequently arose as to whether or not Ottawa had the population to warrant a rail transit system. However, steady growth—population has doubled, from 500,000 30 years ago to 1 million today—coupled with the lack of a comprehensive urban expressway system, ultimately green-lighted the project.

The Confederation Line’s western half is built in a converted BRT (bus rapid transit) right-of-way. During the 1970s and 1980s, Ottawa had built an extensive BRT system, dubbed the Transitway. The western section of this was built on an abandoned Canadian Pacific line. Clearances, stations and bridges were designed for ultimate conversion to LRT, although after construction began, numerous rebuildings proved necessary. Part of the eastern section of the LRT is in the right-of-way of Highway 417.

View from the cab, looking east, at the Confederation Line’s western terminus at Lincoln Fields.

The original plan was to lay tracks on streets through downtown Ottawa. However, strong objections from local merchants resulted in a 1.5-mile tunnel under Queen Street through this area. There are three underground stations, with 390-foot platforms. Surface stations are 300 feet long, with provision for future extension. The above-ground stations are quite elaborate, somewhat similar to Calgary’s LRT.

The 34-car Citadis Spirit fleet represents Alstom’s first North American LRV order. The carbodies were constructed at Alstom’s Hornell, N.Y., plant; final assembly occurred at OC Transpo’s Belfast Yard shop, in Ottawa. The facility is near the line’s approximate halfway point. The vehicles draw traction power from 1,500 VDC overhead catenary. The low-floor design and overhead power collection permit future on-street alignments.

The Confederation Line interfaces with the existing north-south OC Transpo Trillium Line (Line 2) DMU operation at Bayshore Station. However, the two operations are at different levels. Tremblay Station, just east of downtown, serves VIA Rail intercity trains.

An unusual feature of the Confederation Line is the use of a “guard” at stations, even with ATO. Before the driver pushes the start button to get under way after a station stop, the guard, positioned at the front of the train on the platform, checks to make sure the platform is clear. If the train is good to go, the guard blows a pocket whistle, giving the driver the all-clear. This is useful, because even though the trains are equipped with CCTV and external cameras, they’re very long (more than the length of a football field), and it’s sometimes difficult for the driver to monitor the entire platform. Ottawa transit users, used to short buses, are still adapting to frequent, fast rail service. So, use of a whistle-blowing platform guard is an effective, albeit quaint, safety practice.


It was always intended to extend the Confederation Line eastward and westward after the initial section was open. Ottawa City Council approval has been given, contracts awarded, and work has begun.

An eastward 13-km (8-mile) extension will take service to Trim Road, in Ottawa’s far eastern suburbs. It will be a surface alignment, in the median of Highway 174, and includes five new stations. Opening is scheduled for 2024.

A westward 15.5-km (9.5-mile) extension will add 11 stations. This line will split at Lincoln Fields Station. One branch, terminating at Baseline Road, will serve Algonquin College. The other, terminating at Moodie Drive Station, will serve western Ottawa. The latter will connect with the Southwest and West Transitways. A yard and light maintenance facility is planned near the Moodie terminal. Part of the route will be built in an existing Transitway, while other sections are to be tunneled. Opening is planned for 2025.

Maximum operating speed on the extensions will be 100 kph (62 mph).

The Trillium Line will be also be extended from its current terminus at Greenborough. Just south of there, at South Keys, it will split. One segment will go directly into Ottawa International Airport; the other will terminate at Limebank. Stations will be doubled in length to 80 meters (262 feet) to accommodate on-order Stadler FLIRT DMUs or two existing Alstom Coradia LINT DMUs, which will operate in pairs.

Alstom Coradia LINT DMU on the Trillium Line. Alstom photo.
Stadler FLIRT DMU for the OC Transpo Trillium Line.

An additional 38 Alstom Citadis Spirit LRVs have been ordered for Phase Two. The first 13 are being assembled at the 16-acre Belfast Road shop, with the balance to be finished at Alstom’s new plant in Brampton, Ontario. This will allow Belfast Road to focus on day-to-day maintenance of the operational fleet.


The Electroliners were a pair of streamlined, four-unit-articulated EMU (electric multiple-unit) interurban trainsets operated by the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad between Chicago and Milwaukee. St. Louis Car Company built them in 1941. The Electroliners operated at speeds up to 90 mph. When the North Shore shut down in 1963, Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co., known as the Red Arrow Lines, purchased and renamed them Liberty Liners. The trolley poles and steps were removed, new doors were added in the center coach sections, and third-rail contact shoes were installed for operation on the Philadelphia & Western (today’s Norristown High Speed Line), where they ran until 1978, when SEPTA retired them.

SelTrac™ was originally developed in the 1970s by Standard Elektrik Lorenz of Germany for the Krauss-Maffei Transurban, an automated guideway transit system proposed for the GO-Urban network in Ontario, Canada’s Greater Toronto Area. Although the GO-Urban project was never built, the Transurban technology was acquired by an Ontario consortium led by the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC), and adapted to become its Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS). This technology was first used on the SkyTrain network in Vancouver, B.C., and the Scarborough Rapid Transit in Toronto. SelTrac™ was primarily supplied and developed by Alcatel, through a Toronto-based subsidiary. It is now supplied by Thales, after the company purchased many of Alcatel’s non-telecommunications assets. New versions have been developed for different markets, and today SelTrac™ is used for train control systems around the world. The original SelTrac™ system was based on inductive loops that provided a communications channel as well as positioning information. In the newest, modular version, the control signal is transmitted at 2.4 GHz.

Canadian Contributing Editor John Thompson contributed to this story. 

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