On June 21, 2019, Ontario’s first modern light rail transit (LRT) system opened to the public. The launch of ION in Kitchener-Waterloo represents an important milestone for both the region and for the province as a whole: additional light rail systems in Ottawa and Toronto will open in the next few years, while other systems are planned for Hamilton and Mississauga-Brampton.
There are several things that make ION particularly remarkable.
Kitchener-Waterloo’s population is much smaller than other cities that have adopted rail transit in Canada and the United States. In 2016, the combined population of the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo was less than 350,000, making Kitchener-Waterloo the smallest urban area in North America to boast such a system (Waterloo Region, which also includes the City of Cambridge and three rural townships, has a population of nearly 550,000). Kitchener and Waterloo were connected by streetcar until 1946, then by a trolley bus until 1973. Kitchener Transit, then Grand River Transit (GRT) continued to serve the two cities.
Despite the small population, LRT makes sense here, as many of the region’s trip generators line up along a single corridor, including Downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo, the University of Waterloo, several high schools, and the main hospital. It is also within walking distance of Wilfrid Laurier University. ION is also fully integrated with the connecting bus system, which was re-organized in conjunction with the opening of the new LRT to provide more direct routing and better connect with the rail service.
By operating on dedicated corridors and alongside regular traffic, the ION route also demonstrates the flexibility unique to light rail systems. Where it runs on private rights of way, crossings are protected by railway-style lights, bells, and gates. Where it operates in reserved lanes at street level, there are dedicated signals and transit priority at most intersections. This isn’t just a streetcar.
ION LRT route map, from the GRT website
Torontonians may be forgiven for confusing LRT with traditional streetcars; ION uses Bombardier-built light rail vehicles similar to Toronto’s new low-floor streetcars, and the TTC has marketed streetcars on Spadina Avenue, Queen’s Quay, and St. Clair Avenue as “streetcar rapid transit” before. The difference, though, is that ION LRT stops are spaced further apart than local streetcar stops in Toronto, they take advantage of signal priority, and they partially run off-street.
LRT, of course, fills a wide spectrum. At its slowest and simplest is the typical streetcar, such as Toronto’s legacy street railway, or some of the new streetcars being built in the United States, such as Detroit’s QLine or the Atlanta Streetcar. Streetcars in private right-of-ways, such as on Spadina or St. Clair Avenues in Toronto, provide additional reliability and speed. On the other end are metro-style LRT systems completely separated from traffic, often featuring tunnels or elevated structures. Ottawa’s Confederation Line, once it finally opens, will be an example of LRT built to the highest standards. The Ctrain in Calgary comes close to this standard as well, though trains are forced to crawl through downtown on a congested Seventh Avenue transit mall.
I had the opportunity to ride ION twice in the opening week: the first time, on Monday June 24 (on the way home from a weekend in Stratford) and again with a few friends on Saturday June 29. Trains were consistently packed; GRT reported that over 73,000 passengers rode the LRT during opening weekend.
ION train at Charles and Benson Streets, wrapping around Oktoberfest headquarters
Operations were not yet perfected. On Saturday June 29, there were noticeable gaps in service, with workers doing switch repairs at the northern terminal at Conestoga Mall. This caused long waits at the northern end of the line. The automatic train control system was disabled, reducing speeds along sections of track where operators had to operate by line-of-sight.
The schedules could also be a little faster, with reduced station dwell times. Trains must also crawl through tight corners in Downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo, and at Haywood Avenue. But it was nice to see transit priority working: trains ran through many intersections without having to stop, and speeds were impressive (up to 70 kilometres per hour) on the off-road sections of track.
ION train on Duke Street in Downtown Kitchener
Along the entire corridor, travel times have improved only slightly over the old express bus, the Route 200 iXpress. Between Conestoga and Fairview Park terminals, the scheduled bus time ranged from 45 to 59 minutes, depending on the time of day. The LRT has a consistent 43-minute scheduled travel time between the two terminals. But it still promises to be more reliable.
The greatest improvements in travel time are between University of Waterloo and Conestoga Mall, Uptown Waterloo, and Downtown Kitchener, where travel times have been reduced by 5-7 minutes.
A promised second phase will extend ION LRT south to Cambridge. For now, an express bus serves the planned corridor.
There is certainly room for improvement, though these at least can be made slowly and incrementally. Hopefully, as passengers and drivers get more used to LRT operations, travel times can be tightened up a bit. But the system will be successful if it attracts more riders (without turning away existing passengers with overcrowding or longer travel times due to transfers from buses), and encourages higher-density, transit-oriented development along the route.
I will return to Kitchener-Waterloo later this summer once ION is “broken in” and the novelty wears out. Offering free fares during the opening week was a nice way to encourage residents to check out the new service, but overcrowding and inexperience were problems.
I am hopeful that ION helps to change local attitudes towards light rail and encourages other mid-sized cities and suburban municipalities to follow Waterloo Region’s example.
ION train approaching Fairway Terminal. The speed limit on this section of track is 70 km/h.