Ambitious light rail project for Montreal proposed by Caisse de dépôt

Quebec's pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, is proposing to fund an ambitious new commuter rail line that would change the face of public transit in Montreal.

$5.5B project funded by province's pension fund would span West Island, South Shore

One of the new commuter rail stations envisioned by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. (Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec)

Quebec's pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, is proposing to fund an ambitious new commuter rail line that would change the face of public transit in Montreal.

The electric, fully automated 67-kilometre rail line would connect 24 stations stretching from the South Shore to Montreal's Trudeau airport and beyond, to both the West Island and Laval.

Under the proposal, trains would operate seven days a week from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.

The system would use a combination of existing and newly built stations — and would fulfil two long-standing demands of commuters, the Train de l'Ouest and light rail on the new Champlain Bridge.

The Caisse says it's willing to invest $3 billion in the $5.5-billion project. The province and the federal government would have to make up the rest.

The plan is to have the train running by 2020.

A map of the proposed rail line that would connect Montreal's West Island, South Shore and Laval. (Caisse de dépôt et Placement)

'Priority number one'

The head of the Caisse, Michael Sabia, made the announcement at a news conference Friday morning — and rejected any suggestion the project would be subject to delays and cost overruns.

"I don't think about failure. I think about success. Putting the puck in the net. That's what we do at the Caisse," Sabia said.

"We are taking the risk here. This is unusual. Usually it's governments that take the risk."

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who was at the announcement, backed the proposal and called on the federal and Quebec governments to offer their support.

"It's probably one of the greatest projects we've seen in [public transit] in the last 50 years," Coderre said. 

"We will all work together to make sure its priority number one for the sake of our cities, our economy and, most importantly, our people."

Following the news conference, Quebec Transport Minister Jacques Daoust told CBC News the project was a "great announcement."

The next step, he said, is to come to an agreement with the Caisse and Ottawa on funding.

"We expect the federal government to match us," he said. "We will do our fair share on this, don't worry."

Transport Canada did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

Caisse calls project an 'investment'

Montreal mayor Denis Coderre listens to Caisse president Michael Sabia during a news conference announcing a $5.5-billion electric train project for the Montreal area. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The agreement with the province represents a major policy shift for the pension fund.

Its current mandate is to maximize returns for retirees in the province while helping to grow Quebec's economy.

The Caisse created a subsidiary, CDPQ Infra, that will plan, finance, develop and operate the rail project.

Sabia said the new transit system "will also deliver long-term, stable investment returns very well aligned with the needs of our [investors], the people of Québec."

Largest project since Metro system

If completed as planned, the Caisse says it would be the third largest automated transportation system in the world, after Dubai and Vancouver.

The project represents the largest public transportation infrastructure project in Montreal since the construction of the Metro system, inaugurated in 1966, the Caisse said.

Last year, the Caisse announced a partnership with the province to take on the financing of public infrastructure projects, beginning with public transit.

The Caisse is one of Canada's largest investment managers with assets estimated at $214 billion.

West Islanders welcome plan

Residents on the West Island, who have been pushing for a new rail line, expressed excitement about the proposal.

Clifford Lincoln, a spokesman for the Train de l'Ouest Coalition, said the service is needed.

"We need to get cars off the road," he said. 

"It has taken years, but sometimes it's worth the wait when you get the best possible answer in the end."

He said the fact that it will be a new dedicated electric rail for the West Island portion will make a huge difference.

Maria Tutino, the mayor of Baie d'Urfe, called it "great news."

"The people from the West Island can finally get out of their cars and use the public transportation like others," she said.

Timeline of the proposed project

The Caisse aims to have the new line running within four years. Here is a timeline of the next steps involved.

  • Spring 2016 – Consultations.
  • End of summer 2016 – Environmental impact public hearings (BAPE).
  • Fall 2016 – Call for proposals with qualified consortiums.
  • End of 2016/beginning of winter 2017 – Final decision required from governments.
  • Winter 2017 –  Environmental decree.
  • Spring 2017 – Financial closing.
  • Spring 2017 – Start of implementation.
  • 2020 – Operation of first trains.

with files from Ainslie Maclellan