Waterloo Region Rapid Transit

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.


  • Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


  • Commuter and Suburban Rail
  • Light Rail and Streetcars
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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.

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.


Our Role

We are responsible for overall project management of the assembled WSP/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), WSP 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.


Our Innovative Approach

Construction began in the summer of 2014 and WSP 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 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.

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 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.