In yet another change of course for the REM de l'Est rail project, Quebec announced its decision Monday to abandon the elevated tracks envisioned for Montreal's Mercier-Est neighbourhood — a plan long criticized by east end residents.
"We have officially abandoned or excluded the aerial section for the more delicate portion for Mercier-Est. So this is good news for the citizens concerned," said Transportation Minster Geneviève Guilbault at a news conference about Montreal's Metro system.
However, the tracks will still be above street level along Sherbrooke Street, toward Pointe-aux-Trembles, Guilbault said.
The scrapping of the aerial structure for the small section of route through the city's Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough is just one recommendation made in a preliminary report obtained by Radio-Canada and compiled by the project's working group.
The group — composed of the regional transit planning agency for the greater Montreal area (ARTM), the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), the City of Montreal and the province's Transport Ministry — was created in May 2022 after the Quebec government assumed control of the project.
The original developer, CDPQ Infra, backed out after butting heads with the province about a plan to install elevated tracks in Montreal's downtown core — which has also since been abandoned.
In its report, the group says it's evaluating various extensions of the network and is recommending creating more links with the existing transportation system.
It says "despite certain adjustments and changes made to the REM de l'Est by CDPQ Infra in 2021 and 2022, several elements of the project remain a source of contention and criticism by various experts."
These include the overhead model, the barriers created by the transition zones between the tunnels and the elevated structures, as well as a possible undermining of the Montreal Metro's Green line. The report specifically said it will not consider branching the REM de l'Est to the city centre, in order to "prioritize the Green line to ensure travel to downtown."
The report is currently studying two possible routes, totalling 23 kilometres of track: one to the north, mainly along Lacordaire Boulevard, which connects to Marie-Victorin CEGEP, and the other to the east of the island, in the Pointe-aux-Trembles sector.
The northern section would connect to the Metro's expanded Blue line, planned for 2029, and to the L'Assomption station of the Green line.
The preliminary report is expected to be made public this week, and Guilbault said more public consultations must be done before a final report is released in June.
Options on the table for Mercier neighbourhood
According to the report, a section of approximately 8 kilometres, between L'Assomption station and the Faubourg Contrecoeur sector, gave the team the most trouble.
Given the major issues of urban integration and social acceptability, the working group ultimately decided to rule out the possibility of an aerial structure in that area, recommending the construction of a tunnel instead.
The report presents two main scenarios for the tunnel. From L'Assomption station, the first route would cross the Green line a second time at Honoré-Beaugrand station, and then follow Sherbrooke Street route to become an elevated track at the future Contrecoeur station.
The second route would follow Hochelaga Street before branching off toward Contrecoeur and then switching to an elevated track.
Both options have issues: both technical issues of underground connection to the stations on the Green line as well as urban planning issues, given the need to build a physical barrier as the tunnel transitions into an elevated track.
A third, more unexpected scenario is also on the table: no connection between the northern and eastern routes of the REM, with an underground connection to the Green line at Honoré-Beaugrand station instead.
The group estimates this new version of the REM de l'Est will attract 18,800 passengers a day during peak periods, with notable differences depending on the route.
It also anticipates that the rate of people who would leave their cars in favour of the REM would be about 19 per cent. Users would also save an average of nine minutes with the new and improved REM compared to the current plans, the group says.
The group is also considering studying possible extensions of the network, first on the island of Montreal, toward Rivière-des-Prairies, and then toward the neighbouring regions of Laval and Lanaudière.
However, the Rivière-des-Prairies extension is the only one considered promising, adding 4,000 users, or 20 per cent of ridership, to the initial project.
Meanwhile, 18 kilometres of network would need to be built for Laval and Lanaudière, only adding 1,000 and and 2,500 additional users, respectively.
The new budget for the project, which had an initial price tag of $10 billion, is not included in the preliminary report.
The group is still hoping that the REM de l'Est's first passengers will board the light rail system trains in 2029.