Not Quite Greased Lightning: GO Transit to Electrify, Eventually

Today, Metrolinx released its long-awaited study of GO Transit electrification.  I will comment on this in more detail over the next day or so, but here are preliminary observations while the news is fresh.

Updated 4:30 pm: The study appendices are now available online.  I have not incorporated any information from them in the article below.

The study finds that electrification is a worthwhile venture on selected, well-used corridors, and that it is an important foundation for the growth of GO Transit into its regional role proposed in Metrolinx’ Big Move.

The proposed staging of the electrification project (all times are estimates) is:

  • Preliminary design and Environmental Assessments (3-4 yrs)
  • Union to Pearson Airport, and Union to Mimico (Willowbrook Shops) (4-5 years)
  • Pearson Airport spur to Brampton (Mt. Pleasant) (2 years)
  • Union to Oshawa (including access to a new eastern maintenance shops) (4 years)
  • Mimico to Oakville (2 years)
  • Oakville to Hamilton (James Street Station) (2 years)
  • Oshawa to Bowmanville (2 years)
  • Brampton to Kitchener (2-3 years)

Other corridors were studied, but the best benefit-cost ratio was found to be the combination of Georgetown and Lake Shore.  Events over the next decades may prove this to be short-sighted, but that’s today’s plan.

The implementation is rather leisurely, and if all of its phases take place sequentially, it will be the early 2030s before this scheme is completed.  The Environmental Assessments will use the expedited process most recently seen on the Transit City projects.  This will avoid the need for “alternatives analysis” on projects where the alignment and technology selections are a foregone conclusion, and the “terms of reference” will be much simpler than a full EA.

No individual benefit is cited for electrification, but rather the combined effect of contributions to travel time savings, operating costs, reliability, environmental concerns and long-term capacity of the GO system.

On the environmental front, the study finds that the benefits of electrification relative to Tier 4 diesel technology (which GO will be using in the 2015 timeframe) are small, especially when this is considered in a regional context.  Local effects are within the World Health Organization standards.  (The study appendices with details of these claims are not yet online as I write this.)

Metrolinx proposes that the initial implementation be with electric locomotives pulling the existing bilevel coaches in 10-car consists.  This approach minimizes the spending, short term, on new equipment.

The phased rollout will create a few obvious operational and planning issues for GO Transit:

  • Lines that now operate as a single service will have to be split (notably the Lake Shore corridor) unless electrification waits until the last kilometre of track is under wire.  This would defeat the purpose of phased construction.
  • The advantages of electrification will not reach the full network for an extended period, likely well beyond the point where demand and service design would benefit from the changeover.
  • By the time parts of the network are completed, the existing fleet will be closer to retirement, or could be absorbed in service improvements on lines that will remain as diesel.  The cost justification for locomotive/coach consists may not exist if equipment has to be purchased new, especially as this would lock in the comparative inefficiency relative to electric MU (EMU) coaches for several decades.

Indeed, other than as a means to stretch out the capital spending, it is hard to believe that it would take over 20 years to build a 235km electrification.

In the medium term, with locomotives hauling bilevel coaches, the time savings for riders would be modest with the greatest saving for the longest trips.  However, those would not actually be electrified until the late 2020s or worse.  The real benefit comes with a move to EMUs with much better acceleration and deceleration, and much higher travel time savings even on comparatively short trips.

The estimated cost of electrification, including rolling stock (locomotives)  lies in a range from $1.6-1.8-billion.

An important premise of the study is the “reference case” including those service and infrastructure improvements that would occur even without electrification.  These are listed on the last page of the Board Report to be discussed on January 26, and they total about $2.52b.  Some of this work already has committed funding, but not all of it.

These costs need to be put in context:  the total for service improvements, new infrastructure and electrification is in the $4-4.5b range, and this compares favourably with various transit projects in Toronto.

Particularly striking here is the about-face in Metrolinx’ position regarding electrification.  Quite recently, we were told that this was simply not a financially viable option.

But even if the study currently underway to assess the cost of electrifying the GO system — which could come in anywhere from $4 to $7 billion — recommends the move, it won’t happen immediately, [Robert Prichard] said.  [Toronto Star website, May 21, 2010, scroll down to "Clean Train Coalition"]

The air-rail corridor is being built in such a way that it could be converted to electric trains in the future, something that could cost up to $1 billion, said Prichard.  [Toronto Star, July 31, 2010 quoting the Chair of Metrolinx]

The full network option’s cost is now estimated at about $4b, but this scope of work has never been seriously considered.  Seven billion, however, was convenient large enough to frighten politicians and limit the credibility of electrification advocates.

The cost for the Air Rail Corridor, including a link to the maintenance yard at Willowbrook,  is now estimated at $457m including the design, EA, and construction.  The full “Option 3″ of Georgetown, ARL and Lake Shore is under $2b for the most heavily-used parts of the network.

Now, Metrolinx has discovered not only that electrification is cheaper than previously claimed, but that it is essential to the future expansion of service and capacity.  Whether Metrolinx (and more importantly GO) has actually embraced this concept, or will mutter disparagingly to anyone who will listen, remains to be seen.  I cannot help noticing an analogy to the TTC where, for a time, LRT was embraced as a viable technology, only to be eclipsed when its political sponsor left office.  Will electrification suffer a similar fate if the Liberals are defeated in fall 2011?

All of this is moot if there is no funding.  Metrolinx will not deliver its “Investment Strategy” until sometime in 2013, or maybe late 2012.  Where will we get the revenue (and the political will to levy needed taxes, tolls or fees) to underwrite this and other major regional transit projects?

The release of the Metrolinx electrification study is an important step forward in transportation planning for the GTA.  Now there is a consistent, credible source of information about the options for and benefits of electrification rather than a mixed bag of old studies and off-the-cuff estimates.  Metrolinx has produced an integrated piece of planning, a network-wide view that, even though we may disagree on details, at least studies and proposes options for their system effects, not for the short-term political benefit of one riding or politician.

I will return to the details of this study in a future article.

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56 Responses to Not Quite Greased Lightning: GO Transit to Electrify, Eventually

  1. Michael Forest says:

    I wonder whether it is possible to tunnel part of the new Richmond Hill GO service if the trains are electric; and whether it is worth doing so.

    Something like this. Use the existing Bala Sub corridor from Union to the first Don Mills Rd underpass (near Seton Park), but add the second track. Then branch off the existing corridor, and head north along the east side of Don Mills Rd. About 100 m south of Overlea Blvd, descend into a tunnel. Run in the tunnel under Don Mills Rd, with underground stops at Science Centre, Eglinton, and Lawrence. Continue the tunnel for about 700 m north of Lawrence till the other Bala Sub underpass, then emerge and re-join the existing corridor.

    That completely bypasses the CPR Belleville sub, and the three underground stops should be pretty well used.

    However, is it worth the cost of the 4-km tunnel?

    Steve: Considering that the entire electrification plan is priced at under $2-billion, I doubt that this single project would rank very highly.

  2. Karl Junkin says:

    Any construction work on the Don Branch required is not complex, although it isn’t necessarily cheap either, because it is not currently in use by any rail service (the switch that connects it Belleville is currently removed, has been for a couple of years). While work on the bridge over the Brick Works would not be cheap, it is still peanuts compared to what a Yonge extension would run up in the budget.

    CP sets strict conditions, there’s no doubt about that, but they are not against the idea of having passenger trains in their rights of way. It is a source of revenue to them, and they want it, but they won’t accept interference with their freight operation either. This does mean that the Belleville line would have to be at least triple-tracked, possibly quad-tracked depending on what kind of frequencies are sought on Richmond Hill service, between Millwood and the DVP, which is about 4km or so, not a huge distance, although there are some larger bridges along this stretch. It is currently double-tracked along most of this stretch, although there’s potentially more in the immediate Thorncliffe area. Excluding bridgework, such quad-tracking should cost in the ballpark of $40M. Yes, I agree a fly-under should be part of the package, which is why I said “similar, not identical” in reference to the 2005 designs on a new rail-rail connection around Wynford.

    In any event, these are hardly insurmountable challenges, nor are they unreasonable in cost compared to the alternatives. What Metrolinx actually envisions for the RH corridor currently is a great question because they aren’t saying anything about it. It, along with the Yonge extension, and the DRL for that matter, have been bundled together as an interrelated package for study, but nobody knows where that study ultimately led to (it’s probably something the Liberals don’t want to share until after the election).

  3. Robert Wightman says:

    Karl Junkin says:
    January 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    “Any construction work on the Don Branch required is not complex, although it isn’t necessarily cheap either, because it is not currently in use by any rail service (the switch that connects it Belleville is currently removed, has been for a couple of years). While work on the bridge over the Brick Works would not be cheap, it is still peanuts compared to what a Yonge extension would run up in the budget.”

    Are you planning to put back in the spur line that connected the Bala Sub to the Belleville Sub? I don’t think the good burgers of Don Mills would be happy with that idea as it would go through many backyards where there is now only a walking trail. There would also have to be a grade separation put in at Lawrence which because of its proximity to Leslie (less than 100 m) would be expensive. I don’t think that the Idea of using the Richmond Hill line as a relief for Yonge is a starter.

    Steve: To save Karl the effort of answering, no that is not his proposal. GO looked at a connection between the two lines north of Eglinton near Wynford in a study some years ago.

  4. drew said, “So no, I don’t think they would allow for non-FRA-compliant equipment on OCS.”

    Of course not. My comment was that it was more likely under OCS than under CTC, in the context of suggestions that somehow it might be allowed only under CTC.

    That said, I strongly suspect that any change to the regulations that would allow this would likely involve a rule change that would prohibit the use of work clearances where non-FRA-compliant equipment were in use.

  5. Kevin Reidy says:

    1) If it is going to take a while to electrify the Georgetown line then why not wait until then to start up the line to the airport?

    Yes, the Pan-Am games are going to be held in 2015 but so what? It’s the Pan-Am Games not the Olympics. There are no venues on the line. The Sorbara/Spadina subway won’t be completed and there are competition venues at York U.

    2) It seems the schedule is driven by capital market/financing considerations rather that operational concerns.

  6. 383onthetree says:

    Everyone keeps on mentioning the restrictions set by the FRA as a hindrance. FRA rules are not perfect like anything else in this world, but are there for good reason based on results of accidents over many years. It’s not just about a 10,000 ton freight train hitting a GO train head on, it is also about a 100 mph (160 km/h) VIA train head on, other track machinery and public level crossings with increase in truck sizes. TTC subway can be exempt because there are absolutely no public level crossings.

    Also the reason they need that 1,000,000 lb buff strength does make sense, it is because when a train hits something it is funneled straight at it due to its fixed guideway, the train tracks, so the impact is concentrated.

    But having said this, free thinking (even crazy ideas) is still important.

    The excuse that big heavy “FRA trains” doesn’t even realy need to be so nessesary, the old single decker GO trains where light weight trains and are still used in Montreal. In fact even in Toronto as the Northlander. Don’t use the FRA as an excuse for Toronto’s failure in rail transit.

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