The Scarborough RT, LRT Plans and a Star Editorial

Today’s Toronto Star contains an editorial endorsing the use of LRT as the technology to replace the existing RT.  Here is the full text [I am posting it here as it will disappear from the paper’s website in a week or so].

“Trains” of streetcars best for Scarborough

Fed up with years of being poorly served by public transit, many Scarborough residents want subway service expanded in their part of the city. They make a strong case, but should expect disappointment.

With no streetcar routes and only three subway stops in all of Scarborough, there is no denying that commuters there have limited transit options compared to most Torontonians.

Making the situation worse is the looming loss of an existing service. Scarborough’s elevated light rail line, ill-advisedly built 20 years ago mainly to promote a Crown-owned corporation, is worn out and overcrowded.

It has only about nine remaining years of serviceable life.

Scarborough Centre Councillor Michael Thompson, among others, is calling for that line to be replaced with a subway. He is right in saying this part of the city has “played second fiddle” to the rest of Toronto in the realm of public transit.

Indeed, a few months ago, replacing Scarborough’s obsolete light rail line with subway service appeared to be an option that made the most sense.

That was before the provincial government, in its March 23 budget, set aside $670 million to push the Spadina subway line to York University and beyond to the Vaughan Corporate Centre at Highway 7 and Jane Street.

While Scarborough pleads for more subway stops, all the momentum has gone to York and to expansion of the Spadina line. There are even some indications that the new Conservative government in Ottawa might provide some federal funding for the Spadina subway in its first budget on Tuesday.

An obvious solution would be to proceed with both of Toronto’s much-needed subway expansions — eastward into Scarborough and north to Vaughan.

Realistically though, given the $1.2 billion cost of even one line, the city cannot afford to look beyond expansion of the Spadina line for the next few years.

The future of mass transit in Scarborough is likely to be found in a report released last week outlining three options for replacing the area’s decaying light rail system.

Consultant Richard Soberman dismissed a suggestion that the elevated Scarborough Rapid Transit line be replaced with buses running on their own separate roadway. Instead, he offered three alternatives:

  • Replacing the line’s antiquated light rail cars with newer, bigger models. This would cost about $350 million and could be done quickly, over about a year. But it would only boost the system’s capacity by about 10 per cent.
  • Switching from light rail cars to new streetcars that could be linked into “trains” on the existing rapid transit route. This would take three years to deliver and cost about $490 million, since some tunnels would have to be heightened. But it would more than double the capacity of the existing system.
  • Building a $1.2 billion subway; a project taking about nine years. It would move the most people, more than seven times the number carried today.

Of these options, the middle one based on new streetcars linked into trains appears to make the most sense.

In practical terms, now is simply not the time for Scarborough subway expansion. That train has left the station, and it is headed full speed toward York.

Buying new light rail cars to replace the old specimens now in use would be the cheapest and fastest option. But it would be a poor answer to Scarborough’s growing transit needs.

Relying on streetcars, linked into trains, would by contrast increase ridership while costing far less than a subway. And it could be in service long before the existing light rail system rusts into oblivion.

At this point, it seems the better way.

There are a few quibbles about this editorial as we will see in reader comments below.

6 thoughts on “The Scarborough RT, LRT Plans and a Star Editorial

  1. The larger papers have done a poor job of getting facts right.

    “Replacing the line’s antiquated light rail cars with newer, bigger models. But it would only boost the system’s capacity by about 10 per cent.”

    ***Wrong! The existing capacity is about 4500 pphpd, and replacing the cars would increase this to 15,000 pphpd, more than triple the current capacity with too few cars.

    Switching from light rail cars to new streetcars that could be linked into “trains” on the existing rapid transit route. This would take three years to deliver and cost about $490 million, since some tunnels would have to be heightened. But it would more than double the capacity of the existing system.

    **** Yes more than double the capacity, almost quadruple it from 4500 pphpd to 16500 pphpd.

    The Star would be wise to note that subway capacity (and expense) would be overkill for this line and would leave Scarborough without decent LRT/RT to other potential locations.

    Steve:  All three modes are capable of handling the projected future demand on the RT corridor especially if the long-haul trips to downtown are picked up by improved GO rail services to Agincourt.  The decision should be based on the ease with which an LRT line can be extended, a point that is missed by the Star editorial partly, I expect, because the Soberman report underplays this issue so badly.


  2. I think your point about leveraging GO service to pick up some of the long haul service to downtown is valid — although there are limitations to this:

    1. GO is not as attractive for those headed to office locations beyond walking distance from Union Station – due to:

    a. the time to transfer
    b. extra fare

    2. For Scarborough residents who use TTC for the commute AND for local on-work travel, using GO for the commute is not as attractive because the GO pass and the Metropass are separate.

    Perhaps the GTTA/fare integration might help.  I notice that you haven’t yet commented on the GTTA announcement (yes, you do have a regular job!)

    Steve:  Yes, my assumption is that by the time any of this will be in place, we will have some sort of fare integration.  Moreover, the artificial distinction between GO as a 905 provider and TTC as a 416 should disappear, at least for the outer 416. 

    It is not practical to get everyone downtown from the corners of the 416 via TTC.  A big problem with our subway planning is that we keep looking at further extensions to carry people downtown and forget that the subway has a substantial and growing load from the inner suburbs and the old city.

    As for the GTTA, I have some thoughts in general on Queen’s Park’s role in Toronto’s transit woes.  Someday soon, I will get around to it.


  3. The Scarborough LRT (or a bigger RT replacement) is a nice alternative to bus or regular streetcar. But it can never provide the service of a subway system.

    Buses and trolley cars are fine for travelling short distances. But if they don’t take passengers to the transit highway (read subway) they really won’t be going anywhere.

    Steve: I am confused by this statement. All of the proposed lines for LRT that have been discussed here go to the subway network including an RT replacement, Sheppard East, Eglinton/Kingston Rd., and even a network radiating from Downsview Station as an alternative to the Spadina/Vaughan subway. The whole point is that LRT can be both a feeder service to a subway, without subway costs, while providing higher capacity service than is practical with buses and allowing for reasonable stop spacings and construction costs.

    The Star reported recently quoted TTC chair Giambrone on the relative costs per km of transit; they were $150M for subway, $30-35M for rail transit, $20-25M for bus. Wouldn’t it be enlightening to look at total costs of each alternative on the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill. How many busses or RT trains does it take to move the same number of people as one subway train? What is the added cost on road reconstruction from putting more buses amongst the cars? What is the cost to the economy from lost productivity when riders spend more time on congested roads getting to/from work? What is the additional cost to our health system to treat respiratory and other ailments caused by more diesel emissions? Is there any truth to global warming? Who’s looking at the big picture?

    Steve: First off, the cost cited by Giambrone for subway costs is at the low end of the range. The actual estimate for the Spadina/Vaughan extension is about $300M/km. You cannot make a direct comparison with subways and surface modes in corridors where the demand is relatively low. For example, the entire peak hour demand of the Scarborough RT could be carried by 5 subway trains with room left over. Replacing the RT with a subway line would cost about $1.5-billion. This is not a cost-effective way to move people.

    At the other end of the scale, there’s an upper limit to the number of people you can carry with buses, especially if you actually expect them to stop now and then to pick up passengers. This number has been cited as high as 8,000 per hour, but it depends on a lot of assumptions and ignores the fact that the stations will take up a lot of space so that buses can pass each other, something that the inability to run trains makes necessary. Things get even worse if your fare collection system doesn’t use proof-of-payment and all-door loading, and a demand of 3,000 per hour would seriously strain a bus route. That’s better than one bus per minute, and you would have problems due to interference between traffic lights at cross streets and buses coming every 30 seconds in one direction or the other.

    To be fair to buses, the “diesel” slur is out of date with new hybrid diesel-electric buses, and of course all-electric vehicles like LRTs/streetcars don’t have any emissions on the roadway at all.

    Toronto needs to demonstrate a leadership role in the area of transit if it wants to be viewed as a world class city. If funding is such a concern, consider putting transit at the top of the list at budget time. Commit to one subway station per year. Sure, something else will then fall to the bottom of the budget list. If Toronto can’t do something that simple, it is saying that transit is the least important thing on its agenda. Keep putting transit at the bottom of the list and all other levels of government will take note of your priorities and ignore your whining for transit funds. I tip my hat to Mel Lastman for his vision and action in getting subways built when the entire Toronto political machine persisted in achieving nada. I feel for those who have no choice but to commute by TTC.

    Steve: Mel Lastman spent $1-billion building a subway that carries about the same ridership as the Scarborough RT when he could have build two-to-three times as much if we had been looking at an LRT network. But according to Mel, “real cities don’t use streetcars”. I guess he has never been to Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Vienna and a host of other cities. By the way, I am not being Eurocentric, but assume that his Melship’s familiarity with anything more exotic is limited to pots full of boiling water and assorted veggies. [With apologies to those of you too recent to Toronto to get the reference.]

    If we want to demonstrate real leadership, let’s start spending on money on transit we need, and stop wasting it on big-ticket projects with 10-year delivery times.


  4. One day someone will have to explain to me why world-class city = subway. Am I the only one who sees that Bombardier commercial with the tram (“that’s my train!”) and thinks “my god that thing is sexy”?

    Even many proponents of an LRT network (rather than an expensive subway extension) are guilty of presenting LRT as a second-best solution in lieu of unlimited cash. I tend to think that even with unlimited cash, LRTs are better in many (most?) cases.

    Steve: When the TTC spends decades telling you that streetcars are old-fashioned, that they get stuck in traffic, that they are not part of any reasonable plan for a modern city, it’s hard to turn public attitudes around. The TTC may have “got religion” on LRT (at least a few of the folks at TTC anyhow), but they are responsible for decades of misleading Toronto on what it could do with LRT. Billions have been wasted on subways, but far worse, the opportunity to build an LRT network while the city was not yet fully built out, while the 905 was still a collection of small towns, has been lost forever.


  5. Here are my opinions:

    As an East Scarborough resident, the TTC still means take the car. Although I would love to take the subway, it’s simply too inconvenient. I am not alone in this view. The bus is so slow and overcrowded. In fact, to do the right thing it adds 45 minutes each way to my commute. We have been under serviced for years but with an old city of Toronto-centric council, we’ll never get what we need. In a city the size of Toronto, subways should be the only debate. Streetcars are a great above ground method of transport but they simply can’t move the volume of people required, quickly. I can’t image the traffic chaos caused by a street LRT, like Calgary’s in Toronto.

    The city of Los Angeles spent 300 million a mile. So how can we manage to spend 300 million a kilometer in relative stable ground? They had to design, plan, test and build for earth quakes. The SRT should be converted to be part of the subway and extended to the Zoo.

    We need to commit ourselves to building more subways until the every Toronto resident has access quick decent transit like London.

    As for the Sheppard subway, it would be packed if it was extended to go somewhere like Morningside or the Zoo. It would also be a success if it ran to Keele giving riders the ability to transfer through the Spandina line.

    We need to plan for the future, not for today. Subways are interesting phenomenon, build it and they will come.


  6. As a streetcar enthusoast, with good streetcars memories from before elementary school, I would make this comment. Streetcars cannot replace subways. The subway’s capacity to move large numbers of people quickly has to this date has not been surpassed. Indeed subways when built on major corridors have been the most successful public transit in Toronto’s history. Financing is a smokescreen. When political determination exists very large projects are completed.

    When [the] Yonge Subway first opened (1954), San Francisco had no form of subway at all. Now it has two subway systems, heavy rail with 5 lines (BART) as well as light rail lines which run in tunnels in downtown (right above the subway on Market St.). LRV’s running on streets even with ‘reserved lanes’ do no better than current streetcars, perhaps not as good. Those lrvs at which TTC seems to be looking, are extended articulated lrvs (5 links or more) which i call ‘street-trains’. They are notoriously unreliable, can block traffic at cross-streets and are unwieldy to move to shops for repairs.

    Among the seven lrv projects proposed, is each one going to have their own shops for maintenance and repair? There appears to be no consideration of this problem for these far flung lines. Will there be seven sets of shops, where highly paid workers will only have part-time work (hopefully they will not have full-time work, for if so the system will not move at all.)

    Lrvs may have their place in Toronto but not on trunk corridors.

    I would suggest that ttc build only one line and run it for five years, before committing itself for seven projects. In the meantime, use subway construction to relieve unemployment and economic downturn, and build Scarborough Extension to Bloor-Danforth right away. There seems to be no reason why the extension could not be completed in 2-3 years as Canada’s first subway (yonge with 12 stations) was I think completed in 5 years. Costs can be budgetted over any time period – 20, 50 , even 100 years to ‘balance the theoretical account books’. Long before then Scarborough residents will appreciate a better way to work and other places on the extended dependable Bloor-Danforth Subway.

    Steve: You don’t spend money just for the sake of it. You spend money on what we need. The SRT will never have the level of demand that requires a subway, and this only occurs in models where expansion of GO service to the northeast is omitted and the model has nowhere else to assign the trips. When LRVs run on private right-of-way, the demand level of the SRT can be handled easily. The advantage is that the line can be extended with some service going beyond the totally segregated portion at much lower cost.

    FYI Queen’s Park is planning to amortize the capital cost of MoveOntario over the supposed life of the new routes for accounting purposes.

    The cars the TTC is looking at are 2-section artics approximately 30m long. The last time a five-section car was discussed was over a decade ago when TTC staff did a good job of convincing almost everyone into thinking LRT would be too expensive.

    There has already been a report on carhouses, and there will be two — one in the east and one in the west. The western one may be shared with Mississauga for its proposed LRT network. You have jumped from several totally inaccurate premises, through a swipe at unionized staff, do a conclusion that we should not have LRT in Toronto. Get your facts straight, and your argument might be more credible.


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