Commuters hold protest demanding better alternatives during REM construction

The Deux-Montagnes commuter line shares a rail corridor with the $6-billion Réseau express métropolitain project, and the worst is yet to come.

Deux-Montagnes line has reduced service, section to be cancelled permanently starting in 2020

Protesters marched to the headquarters of Montreal's regional transit authority Wednesday to demand better service while the REM electric train network is constructed. (Matt D'Amours/CBC Montreal)

Dozens of frustrated commuters demonstrated outside the headquarters of Montreal's regional transit authority today to voice their anger over service disruptions due to the construction of the multi-billion-dollar light-rail train network.

Especially impacted is the Deux-Montagnes commuter line, which shares a rail corridor with the $6-billion Réseau express métropolitain (REM) project.

Service on the line has been reduced to a single track, which has cut the number of rush-hour trains. Weekend service has been eliminated entirely.

"The morning rush-hour trains are completely packed," said commuter Stefan Bracher. He rides the train daily from Deux-Montagnes to get to work by Montpellier Station.

It's so busy on the train that he says it's difficult to get off at his destination. 

Stefan Bracher says taking local transit would mean a two-hour commute. (Matt D'Amours/CBC Montreal)

He wants to see the province provide more funding for alternative transit options, suggesting that buses should get a reserved lane on highways.

The REM launched an information campaign earlier this year aimed at changing the transit habits of commuters on the line, including avoiding taking the train during peak hours and informing riders of local transit routes to use instead of the commuter line.

The price of monthly rail passes has also been reduced by as much as 30 per cent, depending on where you live.

Those options are little comfort to Bracher, who says his commute would take nearly two hours in each direction if he were to take local buses. He's even considering renting an apartment close to his work until the construction is complete. 

"That's kind of the last backup plan," he said.

Letter delivered to Exo

"So far we haven't seen any concrete measures for the commuters," said Yves Racine, who organized the protest. He said they decided to demonstrate during the Quebec election campaign to get candidates talking about the issue.

He says he's also concerned that the groups involved — the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which is managing the REM project; Exo, the regional transit authority; the City of Montreal and Quebec's Transportation Ministry — are not working together to mitigate the impact on commuters.

"I don't think they have in mind the users' perspective," said Racine.

The group brought a letter to the Exo headquarters, asking for better train service, good alternatives during the REM construction and for an impact analysis to be done on the construction work on all Exo commuter lines.

Exo spokesperson Simon Charbonneau was outside to receive the letter from protesters.

"We're here to listen to what they are proposing, and we assure them we are going to carry their demands to all the partners," Charbonneau told CBC News.

"They're going to be answered."

Commuters will see further disruptions in 2020. Service from du Ruisseau Station to downtown Montreal's Central Station will be completely cancelled in early 2020 for two years.

Expo spokesperson Simon Charbonneau, fourth from left, listens as a group of commuters deliver a letter demanding better train service while the REM is being constructed. (Matt D'Amours/CBC Montreal)

Charbonneau said that alternate transit options during this period will be announced before winter holidays this year.

Expected to be completed in 2024, the REM will connect downtown Montreal, the South Shore, Trudeau International Airport, the West Island and the North Shore. 

According to their 2017 annual report, more commuters use the Deux-Montagnes line than any other line. Ridership on the line made up nearly 40 per cent, or nearly 8 million rides, of Exo's total ridership last year.

Exo says ridership is down nearly 7 per cent since work began on the REM. 

With files from CBC reporter Matt D'Amours and Radio-Canada