The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, and politicians have even proposed extending it over hundreds of kilometres to provide inter-city service. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.

Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do with already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. Under the specific conditions set with which to integrate the REM into Montreal's overal mass transit scheme, other types of transit have either been replaced by the REM or will have their routes and schedules modified to better serve it. The REM removes operational redundancy between different systems in an effort to be more efficient, but this will likely have the effect of forcing many Montreal transit users to use a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't suit anyone's needs

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.