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

What Shall We Do With Don Mills (2)?

When I talk about taking a Downtown Relief Line north to Eglinton, some people, including some at the TTC, look at me as if I had at least two heads.  That’s a shame, considering that the TTC itself did a preliminary design for this 35 years ago.

I offer these tidbits from my archives not to reignite a discussion we have had here extensively before, but to put to rest any claims that this line was only ever intended to stop at the Danforth.

DRLAlignment19740112cBack in October 1974, the TTC was considering various proposals for new rapid transit lines, one of which was the Queen Street subway. This line would have run from Roncesvalles and Queen east to somewhere beyond Broadview, then turned north past Greenwood yard and continued via Donlands to O’Connor. At that point, the line would cross the Don River to serve Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Parks winding up at the CPR crossing north of Eglinton. The map linked here is a bit fuzzy in places because the original is not clear, but it shows the alignment (including an alternative via the CNR corridor) quite clearly.


DRLBrochureCovercTen years later, the TTC was working on the Downtown Rapid Transit Study, and the route had morphed into an ICTS line to Union Station. 




DRLBrochure1cA brochure advertised this study and explained the growing problem of central area subway congestion complete with a suggestion that passengers transfer at St. George rather than Bloor-Yonge.




DRLBrochure2cThe DRL was never built because politics of the day favoured suburban projects, and instead we got the Sheppard Subway.

Trolley Coaches for Toronto?

One side effect of retirement is that I am finally dealing with years of accumulated files.  Yes, I admit it, I have more paper than I need (especially now that so much is available in electronic format), and some of those old reports about obscure parts of the system really are not high points of my bedroom reading.

In the course of sorting through things, one always bumps into items that are misfiled, that faded from memory.  One of these was an envelope I had kept because of the postmark dated May 4, 1972.


So much has changed.  Postage is a lot more than eight cents, and the postal code of “Toronto 7” is positively quaint.  The slogan “Ride With Us No Traffic Fuss!” is classic, but the real gem is the trolley coach as the symbol of progressive transit.

Back in 1972, the trolley coaches had a future.  Vehicles soon to be displaced from the 97 Yonge route by the opening of the Yonge Subway to York Mills were destined to replace streetcars on St. Clair (even though there were nowhere near enough of them to actually do that).  The TTC was still committed to electric operation, and the equipment in these coaches would be recycled into new bus bodies from Flyer.  Nobody had heard of Natural Gas Buses.

Today, the TTC resists calls to re-examine trolley coaches on the grounds that pure electric buses without wires are just around the corner.  I remain unconvinced, and look forward to a day when a modern trolley coach will appear in TTC literature.

Metrolinx Reviews the Richmond Hill Subway Extension

On August 7, Metrolinx released the Executive Summary of an Interim Benefits Case Analysis for the Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge Subway.  The most important text appears on the introductory page:

This interim BCA appraisal of the project raised a number of key network related considerations.  Considering this, Metrolinx, in close collaboration with the City of Toronto, TTC and York Region, will undertake additional analysis to more comprehensively understand these matters and how they impact the network and project scope. The analysis will include:

  • Possible adjustments in project scope, timing or phasing;
  • Consideration of the extent to which improved service levels on the parallel GO Richmond Hill rail corridor to off-load some of the demand on Yonge Subway corridor (existing and proposed extension); and
  • The cost impacts of the various options on the subway yards strategy, Yonge-Bloor subway station improvements; and a future Downtown Relief Line to bypass the Yonge-Bloor congestion pinchpoint.

The BCA process for this project has identified a range of development and congestion pressures along the Yonge Subway corridor. In partnership with York Region, TTC and the City of Toronto, Metrolinx will be carrying out the work above and report back to the Metrolinx Board on the resolution of key project issues in late 2009.

This statement is the first official recognition outside of Toronto Council that the Richmond Hill subway must be reviewed in the larger context of network performance and the stress that additional loads will put on the system.  When Toronto gave guarded approval to the subway extension, but with a long list of pre- and co-requisites, many complained that this was just Toronto being obstructionist, the sort of behaviour that led to politicians being kicked off of the Metrolinx board.  Things have changed.

The Benefits Case Analysis clearly had its origin in simpler times when Metrolinx projects were considered in isolation.  Page 1 of the BCA lists only three alternatives for consideration:  two subway versions (differing only in the number of stations) and a BRT scheme.  There is no mention of alternatives such as GO improvements or LRT, but at least the potential for overloading the existing subway system is acknowledged.  Later, the report acknowledges that it is part of a larger collection of studies (as noted in the introductory text above), but this is not reflected in the options that were evaluated.

In a bit of accounting sleight-of-hand, only part of the cost of Bloor-Yonge Station improvements are charged to the extension project on the ground that other factors will increase demand and the cost should not all be charged to the extension.  This misses the basic point that the extension would be the trigger, and indeed has already been used to justify upgrading capacity on the existing subway system.

The options shown on page 2 show that demand in the corridor between Finch and Richmond Hill would place roughly 9,000 peak hour passengers on the subway, about 3/4 of the total travel in this corridor.  Most of the rest would be on an infrequent GO service (every 30 minutes) in this scheme, even though Metrolinx’ own plans call for substantial improvement in service to Richmond Hill.

BRT is rejected as an option because its capacity is only 3,000 per hour, and the demand is well above this level.

Footnote 2 of this table states the obvious, that demand peaks before implementation of Richmond Hill Express Rail service currently planned for the 2021-2031 timeframe.  Why would we spend a fortune on expanding capacity of the existing subway system if the demand will be siphoned off by another future project?

Page 3 tells us that the benefit-cost ratio for the subway options is 0.7.  We have to take this with a grain of salt given the underlying methodology.  The lion’s share of the benefit comes from reduced auto commuting (“Transportation User Benefits” on page 4), but this would also occur with improved GO service.  The benefit of those redirected trips would no longer be available as an offset to the cost of the subway extension, and the benefit-cost ratio for the subway proposals would be much lower.  This is masked by the absence of an option which includes significantly improved GO service to which much of the “user benefits” would be assigned.

One major flaw in the Metrolinx BCA methodology is the inclusion of “economic impacts during construction”, in other words, the job creation of building the line.  This “benefit” can only be assigned to a specific project if the money would not otherwise be spent elsewhere.

However, in any evaluation of network alternatives, we can reasonably assume that we have “X” billion dollars to spend on something, and the real question is where we get the best return for the investment.  Claiming an economic benefit from construction skews the evaluation of projects to those that cost the most and therefore provide the greatest short-term job stimulus.  One could argue in the extreme that not spending billions on public transit would be beneficial because the money would be available for other uses such as reduction of provincial debt or tax relief.

This “analysis” is a farce.  Clearly, Metrolinx sees that an isolated review of the Yonge Subway extension misses the bigger picture.  Oddly enough, they didn’t bother to publish the full analysis, only the summary.  I suspect that the complete report would be far too embarrassing given the superficial work visible here.

We must now await the outcome of several other studies, notably those for improved GO service and for the subway options into downtown.  This work should have been underway long ago, but at least, finally, it is started.  Is the era of “I want a subway” planning finally over?

Union Station Project Approved by Toronto Council

The Union Station Revitalization Project was approved yesterday (August 5) by Toronto Council with only one vote in opposition, the predictable gadfly Councillor Ford.  Media reports claim that a few others might have voted against as well, but they were caught napping in their offices watching the debate via closed circuit TV, and didn’t make it back in time to vote.

Media reports, thanks to the emphasis in the Mayor’s press conference, focus on the new retail space to be created at Union Station, and this was a target for critics who say we shouldn’t be turning the station into a mall.  They haven’t been paying attention.  (For more details about what we are getting, please see my previous article on this subject.)

Of the total project cost, $640-million, the City is on the hook for about $300-million, some of which has already been spent on necessary building repairs.  The City share will be partly covered through payments by the Head Lessee for the commercial space via three payment streams:  an up front one-time charge, an annual base rent, and percentage of sales from the retail space.  We won’t know the exact details until all of the agreements are in place later this year, and at that time we will also learn the identity of the successful bidder for the Head Lease.

Some opponents of City participation in this scheme argue that this should be a GO Transit project and the City has no business being in the railway station business, let alone creating a new shopping mall.  I disagree, strongly, with this position.

First, GO Transit (and its new parent, Metrolinx) has shown repeatedly that it cares only about its own operations as a commuter railway, not about local development.  GO would probably give us a tolerably decent railway station, but little more, and would plead poverty to any requests that it enhance the building.  We know exactly what GO’s idea of “good design” is every time we walk through their existing station, a bargain basement of fast food and the uninspiring underbelly of a former Post Office.

From the City’s point of view, this is both a major interchange with the TTC (still owned by the City) as well as a gateway to new developments south of the rail corridor.  Union Station is the link between the old and new “downtowns”, and is far more than just a train station.

Although I have discussed details of this project before, there are a few diagrams in the Council presentation that warrant comments. Continue reading

An Electrifying Opportunity

Friday’s Globe and Mail included an advertisement (page B15, upper right) for the position of “Project Director — Electrification Study” at Metrolinx.  The text of the ad is currently available on the Metrolinx website.

The ad intrigues (no, I am not applying) for its clear acknowledgement that this will be a highly visible, politically charged role requiring active engagement of all parties and mediation between competing views of what should be recommended.

The acid test will be whether the Project Director will be free to question existing assumptions and public stances taken by Metrolinx, GO and their political masters.

I wrote at some length earlier with advice to the Community Advisory Committee, and I commend that post not just to the new Project Director, but to applicants who might incorporate questions for the interview team.

If there is any disappointment in the ad, it is that “while transportation expertise is an important asset, it is not a condition of the position”.  This can be a double-edged sword in that the old boys’ club of transportation project managers includes many who will avoid rocking the boat, but a new face (at least to transportation) needs to know the difference between solid technical and political advice and self-serving hogwash.

The position commences in September 2009, and I will be fascinated to see who is selected.  That choice will tell us much about how seriously Metrolinx and Queen’s Park take the electrification study.

What Shall We Do With Don Mills?

Recent planning and political activity focussed on the Weston rail corridor studies and the potential effect of substantially increased train service there.  Meanwhile, work is about to start on reviewing one aspect of an eastern corridor, a the so-called “Downtown Relief Line”.

The eastern leg of the DRL has a long history, but in the modern (post WW2) era this began as a Queen Subway proposal.  Before the Bloor-Danforth subway, Queen was regarded as the next logical part of a subway network after the Yonge line, but this status was quickly overtaken by the northward shift of population in the growing suburbs.

One early version of the Queen line would have gone north to Don Mills and Eglinton.  When the Network 2011 Plan was published in 1985, its priority list was

  • the Sheppard Subway from Yonge to Victoria Park (to be completed by 1994)
  • the Downtown Rapid Transit line (using ICTS) from Pape to Spadina (to be completed by 1999)
  • the Eglinton West line from Scarlett Road to Eglinton West Station (to be completed by 2004)

Although the Netwok 2011 background studies showed a DRL would have substantial effects on peak point demands on the existing subway network, this wasn’t enough to save the scheme from a strong political bias against building more subways into downtown.  We all know that the actual priorities became Sheppard and Eglinton West.

In December 2002, the Don Valley Corridor Transportation Master Plan was launched to consider ways of improving travel in the entire corridor from Steeles to the lake, and roughly from Leslie to Victoria Park (swinging further west in the southern section to follow the river’s alignment).  That study arose from a scheme to increase capacity on the Don Valley Parkway, but the study was to consider transit as well as road options.

The study reported in 2005 with a recommendation for BRT on the DVP and various ways to route such a service either to downtown or to the BD subway at Pape, Broadview or Castle Frank.  (The scheme for BRT to Castle Frank prompted an alternative proposal using Swan Boats early in the life of this blog.) 

By 2007, the Transit City scheme had shifted planning focus to Don Mills Road itself and to LRT away from BRT.  However, old studies die hard, and the LRT study persisted in reviewing that same trio of southern destinations for the LRT line.  Major problems include how to thread an “LRT” service through an established neighbourhood on a four-lane street.  We have seen one possible approach with the redesign of Roncesvalles Avenue, but the Don Mills route is quite another matter.

Projected peak demand on the Don Mills LRT is 3,000 per hour, about 35% higher than the current design capacity of the King Streetcar.  Moreover, the 504’s peak point is not on Roncesvalles, and future increases in capacity through Liberty Village will likely be achieved with service entering the line at Sunnyside and possibly by diversion of demand to a Waterfront West line (depending on the path it takes east of Dufferin Street).  There will never be a requirement to operate more frequent service than today on Roncesvalles Avenue.

The total of all bus services to Broadview and Pape Stations from the north is 62 vehicles/hour or a combined design capacity of 3,100 passengers.  Many, but not all, of these would use a Don Mills LRT especially if they had no choice to transfer because of new route structures.  (Broadview — 2, Flemingdon Park — 15, Mortimer — 4, Cosburn — 11, Don Mills — 17, Thorncliffe Park — 13).  However, any existing demand diverted to the LRT plus any new riding would now be placed on one rather than two subway interchanges.  Neither Broadview nor Pape has room for substantially increased traffic and a proper junction would almost certainly have to be underground.  (The 1985 DRL design included an underground interchange at Pape Station.)

All of this is a perfect example of a project with a narrow scope, one that considers only a single problem, not the larger context of the transit network. Continue reading