Bee line to Hamilton’s B Line

Written by John Thompson, Canadian Contributing Editor
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The municipally owned Hamilton Street Railway, the bus transit operator in Hamilton, Ontario, is returning to rail operation.

On May 26, 2015, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced at a media conference at the city’s McMaster University that the province would provide full funding for a 7-mile LRT project. Construction will begin in 2019, with completion slated for 2024.

KingStWF 1The announcement ended several years of uncertainty as to whether the province, through its transit agency Metrolinx, would furnish full LRT funding, as requested by the city. In Canada, the bulk of rapid transit financing originates from provincial and municipal sources, rather than the federal government. The estimated cost of the Hamilton LRT is more than C$800 million. Tender calls for the LRT should begin within about two years. In the meantime, Hamilton’s City Council must vote on an agreement with Metrolinx covering details such as municipal costs (utilities relocation, etc.), construction phasing, and system operation.

There will, of course, be considerable disruption during the construction program, including preliminary work such as underground utilities relocation and replacement. The city is establishing an LRT office for ongoing communications with the community during the entire process. Community members include local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, educational institutions, and community groups. Printed information material will be distributed, community presentations held, and staff available to answer questions and listen to concerns. The Chamber has offered to assist with the communications program.

A Truncated Route

Hamilton B Line LRT EN 850x545Hamilton is situated at the western end of Lake Ontario, about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo; the metropolitan population as of 2011 was about 520,000. For many years, the city depended on a major industrial economy, with companies such as International Harvester, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Otis Elevator, and Studebaker Automotive, as well as two major steel companies and a railcar builder, National Steel Car. The steel companies and NSC remain, but the others, and many similar companies, are long gone.

The city in recent decades has been transitioning toward a post-industrial economy based on higher education and medical research. LRT is regarded locally as being a stimulus to high-density commercial and residential development, increasing the local tax base significantly. It is also seen as attracting new transit riders in a city where public transit does not have a particularly favorable middle class image, even though the buses are relatively new and well maintained, and service is generally reliable.

The LRT, designated the B Line, will extend in an east-west alignment across the city, from McMaster University in the west, through the central business district, to a temporary terminus at a property being redeveloped by the city. It will be entirely above ground, on city streets, on a raised reserved-track alignment. A short section of four blocks on King will be in mixed traffic due to the narrowness of the street at this point, west of Wellington Street.

The route, as financed by Metrolinx, is not entirely what the city had originally requested. That plan would have seen it extending eastward from McMaster, through the downtown area and on through older, medium- and higher-density residential areas as well as traditional storefront and strip mall development to Eastgate Square, a large, older shopping mall with redevelopment potential. Eastgate is already the site of a major Hamilton Street Railway bus terminal and transfer point, and about a mile from the Toronto-Buffalo QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) highway.

Instead, the eastern terminus for the time being will be Queenston Circle, about 2 miles short of Eastgate. This is merely a vacant lot at present, owned by the city, and not close to any significant cross streets. The cutback was decreed by Metrolinx in order to provide funding for the mile-long LRT spur extending north on James Street from King Street to the new West Harbour GO Transit rail station. Metrolinx maintains that the spur is needed to feed LRT riders onto the GO trains, and vice versa. The spur, though, will likely be a slow, mixed-traffic operation, as James Street is only four lanes wide at this point. A representative told Railway Age that the city would accept the shortened routing.

The main LRT proceeds eastward on Main from McMaster through a residential and commercial area before arriving at Chedoke Valley. This is crossed via a new LRT bridge that takes the tracks over to King Street, which parallels Main a short distance to the north. King, an older commercial-residential thoroughfare, is followed to the vicinity of Gage Avenue, in the east end, where the alignment rejoins Main Street for the remainder of the route. King was chosen for much of the alignment, even though Main is wider, to better serve local neighborhoods. The new Tim Hortons football stadium, a major sports venue, is also in this area.

The LRT will follow the general routing of the existing B Line bus service, the system’s busiest and most profitable route. The city is laid out in a longitudinal manner, with the newer, generally postwar area being atop the Niagara Escarpment. The older city does not have any form of limited access crosstown east-west roadway, although both King and Main have been one-way streets for decades. The LRT is expected to relieve pressure on Hamilton’s busiest bus routes, where vehicles are frequently packed to the doors.

About 30% of the preliminary design work has already been completed by Hamilton Public Works staff and consultants. The bridge and maintenance shops, will be the only significant civil works.

Several sites are under consideration for the yard and shops complex. One contender is the Wentworth Street Garage, opened circa 1990 but closed about six years later in favor of consolidation at one large garage at a remote location to the south. Since then, the facility has been used by paratransit and GO Transit buses. Extensive and costly renovations would be needed to modify it for LRV use, as well as construction of several blocks of connecting track. However, it offers the operational advantage of being close to the center of the line. City-owned property in the West Harbor area, originally purchased several years ago for the football stadium, might also be considered.

Fourteen LRVs will be required for the operation. They may come as an add-on to the existing order that Metrolinx has placed with Bombardier for Flexity LRVs for the Toronto Crosstown, Finch West and Waterloo Region LRT systems.

Hamilton’s LRT will be designed and built as a Metrolinx project; however, it may be turned over to the Hamilton Street Railway for operation. For the transit agency, whose name dates back to 1873, it will represent a return to the rail operation inherent in its name. The last streetcars passed into history on April 6, 1951; the new LRVs will be rolling smoothly and silently down many of the same streets.

Rail transit has been under serious consideration in Hamilton for about eight years, and was thoroughly studied by the city. One of its most steadfast supporters has been Mayor Fred Eisenberger, a native of Amsterdam, Holland, who has had firsthand exposure to that city’s excellent LRT operations. Eisenberger told Railway Age, “Premier Kathleen Wynne and Minster of Transportation Steve Del Duca have made a very dramatic step in terms of what transit will now mean for the City of Hamilton. This is the kind of visionary transit recommendation needed in order to move forward. Perhaps the most significant of long-term development interest in the transportation sector revolves around the subject of LRT. By now, most constituents, regardless of ward, have heard of or have been actively participating in the future of our people moving system. I believe LRT to be a proven source of economic uplift revenue potential and driver of new business. To become the city we aspire to be for future generations, LRT will be essential.This is the biggest deal that Hamilton has seen in the past 100 years.”

“In terms of investment and the ability to transform our city not only from a people moving perspective but an economic uplift perspective, this investment is huge,” Eisenberger added.