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.
The study reviews service and infrastructure options for the Oshawa-Hamilton corridor. Two options are proposed:
- Diesel operation with upgrades as needed until 2015.
- 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.
While GO and Metrolinx were hard at work fighting off challenges to their Weston Corridor proposal, they were actually looking in detail at the Lakeshore corridor.
To better understand the potential benefits and technical feasibility of an electrified corridor, in 2008, GO Transit and Metrolinx undertook a technical assessment of the Lakeshore Corridor to examine potential electric operations. This review of technology options for the Lakeshore Corridor – diesel and electric – enabled a comparative assessment. [Page 7]
As I have written elsewhere, the Union Station Revitalization Project has been underway for several years, with GO as one of the major participants. The overall project is run by the City of Toronto, but GO is responsible for the rail and platform infrastructure. (GO/Metrolinx has a bad habit of omitting reference to the City when talking about this project, a leftover, no doubt, of the City-Metrolinx divide that plagued much of the past two years.)
In addition to GO TRIP [Rail Improvement Program], GO Transit has also initiated the Union Station renewal program to double the station capacity by 2014 to more than 80 million passengers per year, improve train operations and reliability and reduce train operating costs. [Page 9]
However, we learn that projected volumes at Union are even higher than GO’s estimates. This was obvious to anyone who read Metrolinx’ backgrounder on demand for the RTP network, but nobody has ever challenged these estimates publicly. I understand that the City’s estimates for demand into the core area don’t line up with the Metrolinx ones, and this raises difficult questions about just what targets we should aim for in designing future infrastructure.
The 2031 ridership forecasts developed for the RTP projected a significant increase in demand along the Lakeshore Corridor to 86.6 million passengers per year on the Lakeshore West section (Hamilton – Union Station) and 56.4 million passengers per year on the Lakeshore East section (Oshawa – Union Station). This represents a substantial increase from the 2007 annual ridership figures of 14.1 million and 11.4 million passengers on the Lakeshore West and Lakeshore East lines, respectively.
Footnote 6: These annual ridership estimates are based on an operating scenario that assumes 5 minutes headways with operating speeds of 80 kilometres per hour. [Page 10]
Again, we learn of pending problems at Union Station:
Significant upgrades will be required at Union Station, beyond those currently underway, to accommodate projected 2031 ridership volumes. [Page 13]
Yes, a substantial increase indeed considering that GO was targeting 80-million passengers a year for all services, less than Metrolinx’ estimate for Lakeshore West alone! Somebody’s model is seriously out of whack, and we need to know what the “real” figures should be as this affects design work for the entire GO system, indeed for the entire Regional Transportation Plan.
The detailed list of proposed phase 1 improvements (by 2015) includes:
- Upgrading the current signalling system to handle more frequent train operations;
- Fleet expansion from the current 17 train sets to 24 trains sets in the Lakeshore Corridor to allow expanded peak period and off-peak services;
- New and expanded maintenance and storage facilities; and
- Expansion of the Hunter Street Tunnel to allow more frequent service to Hamilton.
In addition to these upgrades, electrification by 2015 would further enhance service on the Lakeshore Corridor. The superior acceleration capabilities of an electrically powered train as compared to a diesel train would permit faster travel times along the Corridor. In addition to the infrastructure improvements described above, which apply to both the diesel and electric scenario, electrifying the Lakeshore Corridor would provide a means of further increasing capacity and meeting broader environmental objectives such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
In addition to the upgrades listed above, the 2015 electrification scenario would also require the following infrastructure improvements:
- Installation of an overhead catenary system along the entire length of the Corridor;
- New electrified maintenance and storage facilities;
- Modifications to a number of the existing underpasses and overpasses along the Corridor to accommodate the larger operating envelop of the electric train and overhead catenary system; and
- Replacement of the current diesel locomotives with new electric locomotives in the Corridor (with diesel locomotives redeployed to other GO Transit corridors). [Pages 11-12]
I must emphasize that this is quoted directly from the BCA and is not the ravings of a wild-eyed transit enthusiast. Why, with such a sensible implementation description, has Metrolinx been so dismissive of other proposals to the point of misrepresenting their requirements?
The real payoff comes a few paragraphs later:
However, an equivalent diesel-powered Phase 2 option would likely require significantly more track capacity, primarily due to slower train acceleration rates relative to electric operations. This would likely entail substantial property acquisition requirements to expand the existing right-of-way, with potentially prohibitive costs given the physical constraints along the Corridor. As a result, the use of a diesel alternative to meet 2031 service requirements was deemed to be infeasible, and only an electrified option has been carried forward for assessment in Phase 2. [Page 12]
Much has been written in comments here regarding electric locomotives versus self-propelled electric multiple unit (EMU) trains.
… as illustrated in Appendix B, the use of Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) could potentially offer greater travel time savings and operational benefits compared with the electric locomotive-hauled train configuration considered in this assessment. [Page 14]
Appendix B goes into more details and I will leave this to the interested reader. My point is that this option has already been examined by a Metrolinx study and is not exactly unknown.
For planning purposes, one bi-level car has a capacity of 154 riders [Page 16] giving a 10-car train at 1,540 assuming that the space will be fully utilized over the length. If 12-car trains are used, this brings us to 1,848, again assuming full use of the longer trains. Ten trains per hour (6-minute headway on average) gives a capacity of 15,400. If this converges on Union Station in both directions, the inbound capacity would be 30,800 per hour, just over 500 per minute.
Phase 1 includes expansion of the Hunter Street Tunnel in Hamilton, but I really have to wonder if operation of such frequent service in this corridor is practical. Moreover, if GO begins regular operations east of Hamilton, those trains will go via the James Street Station (CN). Although Hunter Street’s TH&B station is beautiful, I am not sure of its long-term role in the GO network.
Off peak service would operate every 30 minutes [Page 17], and a new maintenance facility would be built on the eastern part of the Lakeshore line. Again, this is a cost that may have to be borne by any scenario, not just an electrified one, and Metrolinx needs to isolate such costs in hte comparative analyses. Indeed, since more service can be provided with electric trains (because round trips are shorter), a shops with a capacity of “n” cars represents more service on the road for an electric fleet than a diesel-hauled one.
Phase 2 requires further upgrades in the corridor, notably signalling for cab signalling and train control:
- Grade separation of all at-grade road/rail crossings along the entire Corridor;
- Track capacity expansion along the entire Corridor;
- Train Control and Signalling upgrades to provide Positive Train Control (CAB Signalling) to minimize required train headways; and
- 20 additional electric locomotives and 200 bi-level coaches. [Pages 19-20]
The projected cost of phase 2 is much higher than phase 1, and we really need to understand what contributes to this. How much is a function of frequent service and how much is actually triggered by electrification. The two may go hand-in-glove, but these costs cannot be cited as an inherent result of electrification. We would electrify in order to provide much improved service, and that’s what drives the costs.
The service design brings headways down to 4 minutes with 15 trains/hour at peak, and every 15 minutes off-peak for the 2031 scenario. That scenario has other implications:
For the purposes of modelling, all options were treated as Regional Rail services in 2015. The transition of GO Lakeshore service from Regional Rail to the Express Rail vision described in The Big Move is expected to require the implementation of Phase 2 (in addition to other improvements, such as integration of the GO rail system with regional and local transit services). Consequently, only Option 2 Phase 2 was modelled as an Express Rail service in 2031. [Page 24]
The phrase about integration of GO with regional and local services is particularly important. If the Lakeshore corridor is running a capacity in the same league as some Toronto subway lines, the continued provision of parking will be impossible at stations. Moreover, with demand between major nodes expanding across the route, riders will arrive at 905-region stations needing to travel locally to their destinations. Current bus services feeding into GO stations are woefully inadequate to this type of demand.
A major part of the “benefit” side of the analysis rests on “Transportation User Benefits” [page 24]. Some of this relates to time savings, some to the avoided costs of auto travel. One major hole in the Metrolinx methodology in all BCAs (except the original VIVA report) is the use of fully allocated costs for auto operation. However, this is only a “benefit” if the GO service is so good that the average number of cars per household drops and people avoid the high fixed costs of car ownership. Otherwise, only the marginal cost of car operation (as used in the VIVA BCA) can be counted. This tends to overstate the value of diverted auto trips.
A few pages later, we learn that better service generates more fare revenue, with a higher value for the electrified option because the travel times are shorter. Whether we entirely believe the model or not, this is an example of the compounding effect of a major change.
Uplifted land values may also come from better service:
Due to lack of existing research/evidence on the difference in impacts attributable to technologies, it is not possible to attribute a difference in land value to the change from diesel to electric technology. However, it is very likely that some benefit would result from the reduction in noise and emissions, and potentially, from the reduced travel times associated with electrification. As such, the method used may underestimate the land value benefit associated with Option 2 Phase 1. [Footnote 20, Page 33]
Electrifying the corridor will result in faster travel times and higher ridership. Given that these travel time savings are a clear benefit to passengers, it is likely that the relative time difference between the diesel and electric options would increase the attractiveness of GO travel and therefore could translate into increased property values particularly near the end stations where the travel time improvements are most significant. [Page 34]
It is also possible that the cleaner electric options could be more attractive to residents adjacent to the Corridor and result in higher land values, as studies have found that externalities such as air and noise pollution and the stigma associated with being close to heavy rail lines lowers property values. However, despite the fact that GO Transit operations along the Corridor represent a significant proportion of train activity, GO Transit will continue to share the Corridor with other non-electric trains. Both options will also result in an increased number of trains in the corridor on a daily basis. Given this, it is difficult to gauge whether the improvements to the GO Transit operations will be enough to positively influence property prices based on air quality improvements and/or noise reductions associated with electrification. [Page 35]
… the electric trains themselves will reduce the emissions attributable to GO Transit operations which could improve the health benefits for those immediately adjacent to the Corridor. [Page 37]
The statements above are fascinating because they are qualitative, subjective measures of the attractiveness of a rail corridor, not quantitative projections based on calculated emissions. In the Weston corridor, much analysis focuses on whether emissions and noise violate standards, whereas this report says, in effect, that people may not want more noise and smoke whether it’s “scientifically” bad for them or not.
Land values tend to benefit the private sector both through increased value of new housing or commercial development, as well as owners of existing buildings. The public sector can benefit through increased tax revenue although this will be offset to some extent by the need to provide improved roads and transit to the new, frequent transit service in the corridor.
Redevelopment around parking lots and structures is always an option, but the fundamental issue is that most riders won’t be able to park at stations, and the land is more valuable for development than for parking anyhow. This will require a fundamental shift in how regional governments and agencies think about commuter rail services. (Imagine what TTC subway stations would look like if most subway riders had to drive to a parking lot.)
As in other BCA’s the value of the jobs created by the actual construction is included as a benefit. This approach, as I have written before, tends to overvalue expensive projects, an avoids the question of whether the same funds could have been spent differently to greater benefit. The problem is the scope of evaluation is limited to a few proposals for one project, not to the broader issue of competing calls on scarce capital.
This entire document makes interesting reading, and it shows a very different view of GO’s options than we have seen in the Weston corridor. Both are strongly influenced by projected ridership growth, and GO/Metrolinx is now in a rather delicate position.
If we believe the estimates, then we need a lot of infrastructure beyond what had been planned until quite recently, and electrification is unavoidable.
If we don’t believe the estimates, then some of the “problems” go away, but so does the entire foundation of the Regional Plan along with justficati0n for some of the “Big Move” projects.
I would love to believe the numbers, but if we do, we can’t pick and choose which ones are “right” and which are “subject to refinement” depending on how we want to argue for or against network options. If electrification is coming to Lakeshore within a decade, then the decision for other major corridors in the RTP (Milton, Brampton and Richmond Hill) must be made in that context. If the BCA’s conclusions about service levels and electrification are wrong, then why is this document appearing?
All the time and effort spent to counter complaints about the Weston corridor options and design might better have been spent by Metrolinx staff in their own library. All the foot-dragging, then the big show of creating an electrification study and a advisory panel, now has a very different context. We see only a huge waste of time and needless alienation of communities and transit supports who could otherwise be allies of Metrolinx and GO.
Sadly, that has been the way of these “public” agencies for too many years. They owe everyone an apology.