GO Transit announced its plan for the next decade’s worth of expansion of (mainly) commuter rail service in the Greater Toronto Area on December 12. The full text is an immense PDF (66MB) on GO’s site that you can download should you desire. The Service Plan, however, fit in a lot less space, and I have reformatted this as a 115K PDF.
Although the text talks about how GO2020 fits in with the Metrolinx Regional Plan, there are a few noteworthy differences especially regarding very frequent service in some corridors. Metrolinx has the electrification of some lines in its short term plans, but it remains to be seen whether this is tehnically viable at a cost that will fit within Metrolinx’ budget. Moreover, there are serious questions about the ability of Union Station to accommodate all of the traffic (trains and people) that Metrolinx forecasts for this hub.
GO’s plans have the advantage of looking out little more than a decade, a timeframe in which the plan is actually credible. Metrolinx has much at the 15-25 year horizon, and while this will keep planners gainfully employed, it does little to address current problems.
GO has six objectives for the next decade.
1. High Quality Interregional Service
By fleshing out the rail network and improving service levels, GO will become a carrier not just of peak-period, peak-direction commuters, but an all-day transit provider throughout the region.
GO hopes to have a seat for every passenger on 95% of train and bus trips, and to achieve a 92% on time rate (with an exception for winter and bad weather when the target drops to 87%). These targets need to be refined because as off-peak service is added, there will be many trips to dilute on-time statistics. What is really needed (and on the TTC as well) is a metric that weights on time performance by teh level of demand. In brief, if twice as many people are on a train that is late, this should count twice as much as a late, but lightly loaded trip.
GO will acquire rail corridors as and when the railways want to sell them, and also hopes to take control of train dispatching to ensure priority for their own passenger services. This sounds like a nice idea, but I suspect that the very places where bottlenecks are the worst will also be locations that the railways won’t part with.
2. A Leader in Customer Service
GO hopes that more than 85% of its customers will state that they would recommend GO to a friend. This would be achieved through a combination of “excellent customer service” and “effective communications”.
Also lumped into this category is accessibility, and GO plans to have all services and rail stations accessible by 2016. The placement has the feeling of an afterthought, and more details on how this will be achieved would have been worthwhile.
3. Enhancing Quality Through Organizational Excellence
The next time you are wondering where your train is, take heart, there is an org chart and an accountability protocol.
As someone who also works in the public sector, it is sad to read that exployee satisfaction is a goal, and that GO staff will “receive the same respect, caring and commitment that we expect them to deliver to customers”. If GO employees are not well-treated already, then GO has a big problem because unhappy staff make for poor customer relations — the “friendly” smile through gritted teeth.
4. A Leader in Sustainability and Green Development
This topic embraces both an improvement in GO facilities and vehicle technologies, and a pledge to increase access to stations that does not involve parking or which emphasises pooled car use. GO will investigate charging separately for parking at some locations to encourage non-car access.
In practice, GO is running out of space to store cars on its major lines, and some of that property will eventually be far more valuable for development than for parking lots.
5. Strong Partnerships with Stakeholders
GO will embrace multi-agency provision of transit services and hopes that local services will form part of regular user trips. GO will also advocate for better transit use, priority schemes and connectivity to communities including the development of transit hubs.
As a cynic, I might observe that GO spent too many years building parking lots in outlying suburbs while letting the communities fend for themselves. This new attitude will be welcome if GO can actually develop stations as community centres and support the growth of local transit services.
GO “partners” with local systems by subsidising trips to its stations, but this only occurs in the 905. As GO’s service frequencies and coverage expand, there must be a recognition that GO has a role in the outer parts of the 416 as well.
6. Economically Sustainable Operations
GO will “maintain a sustainable cost-recovery ratio of 75%”. Considering that they now achieve over 90% according to their own comparative chart, far above the next nearest rival (MTA North in New York at just over 60%), GO’s aim to drop to a 75% ratio is long overdue.
I tire of both GO and the TTC telling everyone how efficient a system they are for getting so much farebox revenue. No. That’s not the point. They get such a high proportion because they skimp on service improvements. Some services will never operate at a high recovery rate. That’s how transit works. We will never see frequent all-day service with an attitude that there’s still room for one more passenger.
The concept of “sustainable cost-recovery” is rather odd. Usually this means that the dollar level fits within someone’s budget, not that this level of subsidy will provide adequate service.
GO makes the case that both capital and operating funding must be provided on a reliable basis, and that support for the local systems feeding GO is also essential.
Fare integration ridership has been stable for a number of years because local transit service to GO facilities has not increased and does not adequately meet the needs of potential customers. Unless local transit is expanded significantly, auto access to GO services will continue to be the preferred choice. (Page 24)
GO, unlike Metrolinx, has the good sense to recognize the role of local transit and the fact that local service levels are not sufficient to bring riders to its trains and buses.
The Service Plan
The vision and objectives (listed above) may sound in place like a lot of management doubletalk, but the real question riders have is “when will my train come”. This brings us to the Service Plan.
GO hopes to capture 80 to 85 percent of the market for regional travel to the Union Station area. This will be a challenge considering that the TTC is poised to cream off travel from York Region, and that there is still no move to properly integrate GO and TTC fares so that work locations beyond walking distance of Union Station will not impose a fare penalty on would-be riders.
GO’s service design will include express trains where the total demand requires more than four trains per hour. This approach has a subtle side-effect on electrification proposals. Express trains may, for long haul riders, achieve comparable time savings to the faster station service times of local, electrified service without the infrastructure cost. The trade off is between running all trains somewhat faster and running some trains, those that serve the riders who benefit the most from a fast local service, as expresses.
Headways under 10 minutes from Lakeshore east and west as well as from Milton, and every 15 minutes or better on other corridors will transform the way people think of GO trains. All day service on trunk routes and counter-peak service on other branches will greatly broaden GO’s market, but this must be accompanied by a change in how GO views its purpose. A continued focus on peak travel to the core can be dangerous as we have seen with the TTC. Off-peak and counter-peak trips will be highly dependent on local transit, and GO’s success will depend on local transit systems becoming more than peak hour extensions of the commuter rail network.
GO’s plans are similar but not identical to those of Metrolinx, and service improvements tend to come sooner in GO’s version of the network. GO’s service details, especially for the off-peak and counter-peak demands, are more detailed. All of this is set out in a table at the end of the Service Plan linked above.
Overall I believe that GO has a good plan and in many ways a stronger one than Metrolinx because it considers the more detailed operational aspects of the commuter rail network. The 2020 target is credible and means that we will see real changes in construction and operation, not just in media briefings and photo ops.