“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. »
I remember very well my meeting in the summer of 2018 with Michael Sabia, the former big boss of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, in his large glass offices. From his premonitory sentence, above all.
Work on the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) was then just beginning to get underway. There was a bit of discontent, but it was also the time of all possibilities for this 67-kilometer automated light rail megaproject.
The Caisse was preparing to export its almost miraculous business model, that of building, financing and operating a transportation network. There was a partnership in the air in New Zealand. Of the interest of several American cities. Even a presentation made at the White House, in front of members of Barack Obama’s administration1.
Many people today wonder if the announced miracle of the REM was not in fact a mirage.
What if the eggs used in the omelette weren’t rotten after all.
For those who may have slept under a rock over the past week, CDPQ Infra, the Caisse subsidiary responsible for REM, is going through a perfect storm.
There were four outages in as many days between Montreal Central station and Brossard, on the South Shore. Hundreds of riders were caught off guard, on several occasions, without any alternate buses to get them to their destination.
Some users are so frustrated by the unreliability of the network that they have bought a car to get around, revealed The duty.
Then, on Monday, another tile: we learned that CDPQ Infra would abandon its project to extend the REM between Brossard and Longueuil, after harsh criticism from mayors Doreen Assaad and Catherine Fournier2.
You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, as the adage goes, and unfortunately for REM, the one that has emerged so far is very negative.
I have followed the REM with great interest since its genesis, in 2015.
Credit must be given to the Caisse for having proposed an unprecedented project to the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard. The REM’s turnkey solution was seen as a blessing, or close to it, while Quebec was mired in austerity and no public transportation project had seen the light of day for decades.
The Fund made a bold offer, in exchange for which it received a series of extraordinary powers. Among other things: that of diverting a good portion of buses from the South Shore to REM stations, to ensure traffic – and profitability – for its network.
Many of the problems we observe today seem to arise from the very outsourcing model developed for the REM.
To put it simply: Quebec subcontracted a transport megaproject to CDPQ Infra, which itself subcontracted several key elements of its construction and operation to a consortium formed by AtkinsRéalis and Alstom.
It is this group which manages the daily operation of the trains, from a control center. And who should ensure that alternative solutions worthy of the name are in place during breakdowns, by virtue of its contractual agreement with the Caisse.
The big boss of CDPQ Infra, Jean-Marc Arbaud, attributes several of the recent problems to these suppliers, while recognizing that the situation as a whole is unacceptable. He promised fixes in the “next few weeks,” which we can only hope for.
There have been 46 outages of more than 20 minutes since the launch of the REM last summer, totaling 43 hours of outage out of a total operating time of 3,592 hours. This equates to an “overall reliability rate” of 98.8% since launch last summer, which looks respectable on paper.
But poor communication with users and poor workarounds during outages have undermined trust in the network. Trust which will be essential to encourage people to abandon their cars in favor of public transport – exactly the opposite of what is happening at the moment.
The link will take a long time to rebuild, if and only if the quality of service improves.
The Legault government finds itself today in a perilous, almost bipolar position.
He says one thing and its opposite.
Tuesday, the Minister of Transport and Sustainable Mobility, Geneviève Guilbault, reacted to the abandonment of the REM extension project on the South Shore by saying that CDPQ Infra “cannot do everything at the same time”3.
She also said this: “It doesn’t make sense to be dependent on external organizations over which we have no direct control to deliver our public transportation projects. »
But strangely, just two months ago, this same minister asked CDPQ Infra to design an entire mobility plan for the Quebec region. A gigantic mandate, which will include an alternative solution to the defunct tram project and a new “third link” to the South Shore of the capital.
The way out, hopes Geneviève Guilbault, will go through the creation of a government agency which will be responsible for all major public transport projects. The minister will shortly table a bill which could lead to the creation of this entity by next fall.
This is far from being a done deal, and we still need to be able to recruit famous “top guns” to occupy key positions within this agency. It will be long.
Until then, a period of uncertainty is expected in the governance of major projects. And suspense tinged with anxiety will hover over the opening of the next REM branches, which should take place in 2024… if the quality tests are satisfactory.