West Island commuters worried they may not see REM service until 2023

First we were told 2020, then 2021, and now, perhaps, 2023?  That's the fear of some West Island commuters anxious to start taking rapid transit to work and school in downtown Montreal.

An advocacy group representing West Island commuters is voicing concerns their section of the upcoming automated light-rail network being built by the Caisse de Dépôt may be the last to go into service.

It comes after  an event last week, where officials announced that construction of the Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) will begin in April of this year.  However, they also announced that the new network will open in phases, which came as a nasty surprise to the Train de l'Ouest Coalition.

CDPQ Infra, the Caisse subsidiary responsible for the REM, says they expect "30 to 40%" of the train's network to be in service in the summer of 2021.  So far, only one branch of the line has been confirmed to be a part of that initial service area.  That's the line's southernmost branch, which begins on the south shore, runs over the Champlain Bridge and then stops on Nun's Island and in Griffintown before reaching Gare Centrale downtown.  CDPQ Infra has suggested other sections of the REM could also open in the summer of 2021; that will be confirmed once the construction plan is finalized early this spring.

West Islanders, meanwhile, have effectively been told their section of the line could open anytime between the initial opening in 2021 and two years later, in 2023.  

That stings for many residents, who face arduous commutes in a region that has both historically been poorly served by public transit and recently faced mounting difficulties in getting downtown via car, as well, thanks to ongoing construction headaches on the Turcot Interchange.

Clifford Lincoln, a former MP and a current spokesperson for Train de l'Ouest, says the potential new timeline is worrying. "We never heard about 2023, and suddenly we hear about it through a communique," he said in an interview with CTV Montreal.  "We are questioning what'll happen."

One cause for Lincoln's pessimism is due to the logistics involved with each phase's construction.  The section reaching to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue is arguably the most complicated of the four branches being built.  Relatively little existing infrastructure can be used for the REM's western-most section: no train tracks exist in its planned corridor, nor do any existing railway stations, bridges or tunnels.

By contrast, much of the infrastructure for the other three branches either already exists or is already being built as a part of other public projects. The line stretching to Laval and the North Shore, for example, will be using tracks that already exist and are used daily by the Deux-Montagnes RTM line; much of the construction work for that segment of the REM will involve converting the commuter-rail line to rapid-transit standards.  Though rails have not been laid for the spur to Trudeau International Airport, the underground shell of a train station has existed beneath the airport's terminal for over a decade and will need only to be filled-in.  The South-Shore segment, meanwhile, will make use of the new Champlain Bridge, which has been under construction for well over a year.