Waterloo Region Rapid Transit: Innovation through Coexistence

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The Waterloo Region LRT project is the first new-start light rail project in over 30 years in Canada and will include rail track-sharing between freight trains and light rail vehicles. This article discusses where this track-sharing model was first seen and how it has been adapted to suit the projected growth of Waterloo Region.


ION: a powerful name for an innovative rapid transit system that will move people into the future. Greek for ‘going’, ION is poised on the idea of being in constant motion, much like its home, the Region of Waterloo in Ontario. The Region of Waterloo includes the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge as well as surrounding rural municipalities. Waterloo Region is the fourth largest community in Ontario with a current population of just over half a million (see Figure 1).  It is projected to grow by 200,000 residents over the next 20 years.
Figure 1 – The Region of Waterloo includes the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge

Much of the mandate for this rapid transit project revolves around integrating the ION system into existing infrastructure and encouraging densification in existing urban areas. One of the fundamental future objectives of the ION system is to not only create a seamless network that connects Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, but also a network that connects these communities to the wider Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). When it begins service, ION will connect with Grand River Transit (GRT), GO Transit, and VIA Rail, allowing transit options to become flexible and inclusive as the population grows.

The implementation of light rail transit (LRT) was approved in 2011, after evaluating numerous other transit expansion options. Waterloo Region rapid transit will run on a dedicated rapidway, meaning that the electric LRT trains will run along tracks that are separate from regular traffic, except at intersections and road crossings of the tracks. It is staged in two portions. Stage 1 will consist of 19 kilometres of LRT and 17 kilometres of bus rapid transit (BRT).  BRT vehicles travel in city traffic rather than in dedicated bus lanes, however, they have signal priority and can bypass traffic via a bus shoulder.  In Stage 2, the ION BRT service will be converted to LRT, creating a seamless LRT service across Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Role

We are responsible for overall project management of the assembled WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff/LEA Group team in Stage 1 of the rapid transit project. The team led the development of the design and output specifications for the program management, systems, civil, systems integration, and is currently providing construction oversight services. As the general engineering consultant (GEC), Parsons Brinckerhoff (now part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff) prepared output specifications and performance requirements for a private consortium that will design, build, finance, operate and maintain the LRT. We also assisted the Region by completing the final design of the BRT system, utility relocation, construction management, and the implementation of a public participation program.

Innovative Thinking

Construction began in the summer of 2014 and WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff transitioned to the construction management and environmental assessment role for Stage 2 of the LRT system which will extend the initial system into the city of Cambridge. To accelerate early construction and meet the aggressive project schedule for Stage 1, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff suggested an innovative track-sharing solution – the first of its kind in Canada – to allow the new light rail fleet to run safely and efficiently by sharing the same track as the existing heavy and commuter rail fleet in some areas. The author first learned of and saw mixed-use rail corridors while visiting Germany in the 1990s.

This type of track-sharing solution was initially developed and implemented in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany in 1992 by the local transit authority, Karlsruher Verkehrsverbund (KVV). The Karlsruhe model is a tram-train system which consists of tram/light rail trains and commuter/regional rail trains running on the same set of tracks, generally between or outside of urban areas.

Challenges & Alternatives

Although this model has led to the creation of similar systems in other locations, there had been no application of this type of interoperability in Canada. It was essential that the WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff team work closely with the Canadian National Railway (CN) and the freight railway shippers to ensure the success and safety of the system.

There are three main challenges with track sharing to be considered:

  • Safe separation of light rail vehicles (LRV) from freight railroad trains;
  • Achieving compatibility with wayside equipment; and
  • Platform clearances and wheel configuration issues.

Safe Separation of Light Rail Vehicles from Freight Railroad Trains
Since the structural crashworthiness of a light rail vehicle is not the same as a freight railroad car or a commuter rail car, safety is the paramount concern.   The preferred approach is to only run freight trains on LRT tracks when LRT trains are not operating. Although considerable effort was spent on accommodating service for freight industries during a time frame when LRT trains were not operating, the freight operating time that was needed to serve the chemical industries in the region was greater than the time period when LRT service was not running.  The Region of Waterloo, CN, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the shippers developed a workable consensus to restrict freight railroad service to the hours between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. This is the time frame when the LRT service is operating its late night off-peak service with longer 30 minute headways. In general, the time needed for the freight railroad movement is about 15 minutes, which allows the freight railroad service to operate without impacting the LRT service even when their operations coexist.

To achieve a safe separation, the system in Waterloo reserved an exclusive route for freight railroads that cannot be violated by the LRT trains.  An automatic train protection (ATP) system was installed that will prevent the LRT trains from entering the route reserved for the freight railroad. To prevent a freight railroad from violating a route reserved for LRT trains, derails are provided as an additional means to prevent a freight train from entering a track reserved for LRV service. Derails are controlled at the Central Control Facility (CCF) and the freight railroad cannot pass the derails until the route is safely reserved for their movement.

Achieving Compatibility with Wayside Equipment
To achieve safe clearances along the shared route, all wayside equipment along the route used by the freight railroad was set for railroad clearances. Fundamentally, the reason for this is that freight cars are wider than the light rail vehicles.  For instance, the track centres are set at 17 feet along the shared route which is wider than typically provided for a light rail system.

There is also a restriction on the height and width for the freight railroad rolling stock. Plate markings indicate a car’s extreme outside dimension with ‘Plate E’ being the widest freight rail car that can be allowed on the LRV tracks. Referred to as ‘Plate E’ clearance, this restriction is enforced by height and width detectors so that oversized freight cars cannot enter the LRT tracks.

Platform Clearances and Wheel Configuration
At station platforms, gauntlet tracks will be used. A gauntlet track is an arrangement in which railway tracks run parallel on a single track bed and are interlaced (overlapped) such that only one pair of rails may be used at a time.  The gauntlet track shifts the track used by the freight railroad 1.5 feet further away from the platform so that a freight railroad car will not encroach on the LRT platform zone (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 – The gauntlet track shifts the track used by the freight railroad 1.5 feet from the platform.

Although both rail cars use standard track gauge, the wheel configuration of the freight railroad is not the same as the LRV cars. This is only a problem at turnouts where a guard rail is typically installed to protect trains when traversing the frog area (the crossing point of two rails) of a turnout. The protection provided by the guard rail is dependent upon all rail cars having specific wheel configurations. To avoid that issue, moveable point frogs (or swingnose crossings) are used. These are devices used at a railway turnout to eliminate the gap at the common crossing (or frog) which can cause damage and noise (see Figure 3). They do not need a guard rail for safe train movement.
Figure 3 – Moveable point frogs move a small portion of rail to eliminate the gap in the rail that normally occurs at the common crossing (or frog).

This track-sharing approach is preferred to the much more expensive option of building a third track for freight.  It also allows the freight railroad service to continue serving the chemical industries with lower transportation cost than trucking.


It’s important to consider what the concept of innovation encompasses. For this project, the true innovation was the realization that safe operation can be achieved with alternatives to the common time separation approach that is widely accepted in the US.

We began with an innovation that was derived from the German experience and used special conditions that made this approach work to Waterloo Region’s advantage. The freight trains were infrequent (one train up and back per day), operated at 15 mph, and were not very long (about 11 tanks cars plus locomotives). The Region of Waterloo owns the entire freight railroad spur as opposed to just the shared track (also known as the joint use track). Ownership of the tracks allowed the Region to use solutions such as gauntlet tracks and moveable point frogs that may have been an issue if the trackage was owned and controlled by the railroad. In addition to the track-sharing solution, this system is the first system in North America that uses 100 percent low-floor cars, providing easier access for customers.

The key success factor for Waterloo Region has been the attention to the detail and the approach to issues in a holistic manner. The track alignment, which must accommodate LRV trains (see Figure 4) and the lower speed freight trains, required attention to curve radius and superelevation (difference in elevation of the two rails) applied to the track; and establishing grade crossing warning systems at the road crossings that were compliant with the design criteria requirements for both freight and LRT. The concern surrounding the continuing freight service impacting LRT service was resolved by identifying a time frame that worked in the off-peak hours. Waterloo Region, the CN, and the rail freight shipping companies worked together to compromise on many ends and find a solution for all stakeholders that met their respective needs.

Figure 4 – LRV in Production

Related Websites
For an in-depth look at the Region of Waterloo LRT project, please take a look at the recent microsite, a part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s ‘World of Possibilities’ campaign, as well as this article relating to the innovative Karlsruhe model.
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