Is Electrification Inevitable For GO Lakeshore Express?

Last Friday, Metrolinx released its Interim Report of the Benefits Case Analysis for the GO Lakeshore Express Rail proposal.  This study is an outgrowth of the “Big Move”, the regional plan which includes very frequent GO service on a number of corridors (Lakeshore East and West, Brampton, Milton and Richmond Hill).

The BCA raises many questions about Metrolinx’ ongoing work, especially its two-year electrification study, as well as their demand projections and the future effect on capacity needs in various corridors and at Union Station.

The introductory letter for the BCA speaks of it as one input to the Electrification Study, but as far as the Lakeshore is concerned, the conclusion is already there.  Diesel operation cannot handle the forecast demand for this corridor, and electrification is the only viable option with electric multiple units (EMUs) being a long-term consideration for the fleet.

What is striking is how much the BCA echoes comments made on this site and others about planning for expansion of GO’s capacity, and how much it undercuts statements made in defence of diesel operation for the Weston corridor.  Indeed, it is clear from the BCA that GO/Metrolinx had already conducted extensive studies of the Lakeshore corridor (recently released as background info for the electrification study) even as they were downplaying the role of electrification for the Weston corridor.

In this post, I will not attempt to cover the entire BCA page by page, but will highlight items of interest and of concern, and leave the full text for review by readers who have the time and inclination.

Executive Summary

The study reviews service and infrastructure options for the Oshawa-Hamilton corridor.  Two options are proposed:

  1. Diesel operation with upgrades as needed until 2015.
  2. Electrified operation in two stages — first to 2015 and then to 2031.

The study drops the diesel option with a simple observation:

It should be noted that meeting the forecast 2031 RTP ridership demands through expanded diesel operations was deemed not to be a feasible option for comparison purposes, and thus only the electrification scenario has been carried forward in Phase 2 of this analysis.  [Page 1]

A summary of the options appears on Page 2.  Note that 10-car trains are assumed, although GO is now operating 12-car trains.  It is unclear whether GO’s plan is to move to more frequent, shorter trains, or if the study is out of step with what GO is already doing. Travel times for electric operation are considerably shorter than for diesel due to better acceleration characteristics of electric trains.

The costs cited for the two phases of the electrification option look rather odd at first glance.  The initial stage would cost $1.89-billion while a further $4.09-billion is needed for the second phase.  Considering that the first phase “eats” the basic cost of electrification and associated changes in infrastructure, the much higher cost of the second phase looks rather odd until one takes into account the complete replacement of the existing fleet that is built into phase 2.

This is not strictly a cost of electrification because either (a) the existing fleet would be worn out and GO would need new cars anyhow or (b) the existing fleet would be redeployed to serve growth elsewhere in the diesel-operated network.  Metrolinx has not published the detailed economic model for the claimed costs.  In a previous note, I commented on flaws in GO’s analysis that did not allow for the large residual capital value of installed plant and trains, and this must be taken into account for proper life-cycle analysis.

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park cite huge cost estimates to downplay the electric option in the Weston corridor, but they have never shown us exactly how their calculations worked.  If the “high costs” include a cycle of equipment replacement that would, to some extent, occur anyhow, then this is not a true cost of electrification.

A press flak for Metrolinx actually replied to the “Stroller Protest” (mothers concerned about pollution from diesel trains) with a comment about the high cost of electrifying Union Station.  Obviously, the Lakeshore BCA, including a strong recommendation to electrify sooner rather than later, was not on this staffer’s required reading list.  If GO electrifies the Lakeshore including at least part of Union Station, then the marginal cost for Weston corridor services would be relatively small.

According to the BCA, the benefit:cost ratio is positive for all options, but this result is highly sensitive to the manner in which benefits are calculated.  This is a fundamental problem with all of the Metrolinx BCAs.  (Details of this issue come later in this article.)  I do not mean to downplay the value of the investments, but it’s annoying to find so suspect and easily critiqued methodology used.  Opponents of public spending would have little challenge in mounting counter-arguments.

One of the most important observations in the analysis is that frequent service will change the Lakeshore corridor into a bidirectional route providing good service between many communities.

Overall, the investment required to electrify the GO Lakeshore corridor will return significant benefits, improving the viability of the GO Transit system as an alternative to the automobile and providing the support and stimulus necessary to improve the connectivity and accessibility between UGCs [Urban Growth Centres] to help manage growth and shape land development patterns.  [Page 6]

Someone should tell the folks at Metrolinx to read their own reports before spending another two years to determine what they already know. Continue reading