Updated October 7 at 8:00 am:
Toronto Councillor Michael Thompson, who could not possibly be labelled part of Council’s left wing or a Miller loyalist, has written to George Smitherman, Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, urging that he pursue electrification immediately. Many of the arguments in this letter echo those of critics of the Minister of the Environment’s approval of diesel operations in the Weston Corridor.
This places Smitherman, a possible mayoral candidate in Toronto, in an intriguing position. Does he take a Queen’s Park view and parrot the standard line “clean diesels now, but electric maybe, someday”, or look to the election campaign and move to support Toronto Council’s view of the issue? Thompson himself could be a mayoral candidate.
Updated October 6 at 10:35 am:
Updated October 6 at 10:10 am:
John Gerretsen, the Minister of the Environment, seems unable to stay “on message” when discussing electrification with the media. On CBC and in the Globe, the Minister is quoted as saying that electrification is “too expensive”, and yet in a letter to Keith Brooks of the Clean Train Coalition, the Minister states:
“Many requests were made to require Metrolinx to electrify the Georgetown South Corridor. Metrolinx has committed to conducting a study to look at the best technology for the entire GO Transit rail network of the future, which is required before electrification of the corridor can be considered. I have reminded Metrolinx of its commitment to further study the possibility of electrification for the entire GO Transit rail line, which includes the Georgetown South Corridor. If the study results in information or recommendations that could have positive impacts on the environment, I expect Metrolinx to implement the recommendations as expeditiously as possible.”
Either electrification is too expensive, and should not be considered now, or it will magically become acceptable following the study.
If the Minister is making soothing statements to community groups, why doesn’t he make the same statements to the media? Possibly because the “too expensive” excuse wouldn’t wash if there’s a study whose outcome may show that electrification is cheaper and better?
Updated October 6 at 6:55 am:
Brodie Fenlon at The Globe covers this story including comments from several of the community and government folks involved in this issue.
Tess Kalinowski at The Star has a short piece, and The CBC reports on the issue. CBC radio coverage notes that John gerretsen, the Minister of the Environment says the approval will allow the diesel connection to the airport to open by 2015. This is clearly in aid of the Pan Am Games bid, and an unanswered question is “what happens if we don’t get the bid”. Has this project approval been railroaded [sorry about that] to sustain Toronto’s bid credibility?
The Minister is also quoted by the Star and CBC as saying that electrification is too expensive. Does this prejudge the outcome of the very electrification study Metrolinx is about to undertake? Why study a technology we have already rejected? Are we seeing the real face of Queen’s Park’s “public consultation” here?
This evening, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment announced that the Georgetown South GO project has been approved, but with conditions required to ensure that it meets claims for environmental improvements and mitigation, if needed, for any harmful effects.
In brief, the Minister requires that GO Transit and the Union-Pearson Rail Link abide by several conditions. It is noteworthy that the UPRL is explicitly included because through much of the discussions, it has been treated as an off-limits deal between the federal and/or provincial governments and a private company, SNC-Lavalin, who would implement and operate the service.
The major points in the decision are:
- Metrolinx shall follow its own Environmental Plan, and shall ensure that any other party involved in the implementation shall do so. This places the onus on Metrolinx regardless of who actually performs any part of the work.
- There is no mention of alignment issues, specifically with respect to the question of grade crossings or underpasses. By implication, the Metrolinx proposal is approved as is.
- All GO and UPRL service in the corridor shall be Tier 4 compliant when service begins or when Tier 4 diesel technology becomes commercially available. Rules in the United States require Tier 4 locomotives to be available by 2015.
- Metrolinx shall continue to investigate commercially available alternate technologies.
- Several conditions apply to ongoing monitoring of emissions in the corridor including the scenario that would apply before Tier 4 locomotives are in use.
- Metrolinx shall propose a mitigation plan to deal with emissions. Notably, the conditions do not explicitly mention noise, but this could be presumed under “human health risks”. Metrolinx and the Ministry should confirm that they include noise and vibration within that category, not just diesel emissions.
- The study and mitigation plan must be completed before commencement of operations on the Georgetown South Corridor and the UPRL. This is tricky considering that service already runs here. It is unclear whether the effect is to prevent any additional service in the immediate future.
- Metrolinx is required to set up an air monitoring plan for selected sites in the corridor. Again, noise is not mentioned and this is a significant oversight because base line data for current operations are needed along with future readings and possible mitigation.
- There is a requirement for ongoing involvement by the public and by relevant agencies such as Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health. Metrolinx would do well to embrace this as an opportunity rather than doing the least possible to meet the Minister’s terms.
On balance, I would say that Metrolinx more or less got what it wanted, at least in the short term. The project will continue unimpeded in the hope that technology will catch up with requirements for the corridor. The Minister did not rule on the specifics of whether diesels are “good”, only that Metrolinx needs to do more work in that regard, aim for the best, and be prepared to conduct further monitoring and planning to minimize the effects. By assumption, Tier 4 diesel is considered an acceptable implementation once it is available.
The Minister is silent on electrification (for which a system-wide study will begin early in 2010), but speaks of alternative technologies that “become commercially available”. This could include trains run on hydrogen, but only if they are “commercially available”. This is a fascinating statement because it implies that there is no other commercially available technology today. I cannot help remembering back decades to an era when the Government of Ontario steadfastly denied that LRT existed even while Alberta was building lines in its two principal cities.
Metrolinx must not be allowed to claim that electrification is not “commercially available”. “We don’t want to do it” and “we can’t afford it” have nothing to do with whether it’s available for purchase, but are common excuses to avoid the question. The Electrification Study will determine what can and should be done, and Metrolinx should not prejudge the outcome with biased claims against electrification.
Although the detailed conditions are technical in nature, the press release itself shows the spin Ontario is putting on the approval.
When planned transit improvements to the current GO system are complete and the system is operating at a maximum level, we expect decreases in emissions that are equivalent to removing tens of millions of car trips a year from our roads. For example, greenhouse gas emissions (in the form of carbon dioxide [CO2]) could be reduced by over 100 kilotonnes annually.
The calculations underlying this statement are deeply flawed on two counts:
- Trains are assumed to be full of passengers in both directions on all trips. Clearly, the average load on counter-peak and off-peak trips will be much below actual train capacity, and the number of passenger trips will be corresponding smaller. Assuming that each GO train will carry 1,900 passengers bothways at 11 pm is ridiculous.
- Any travel removed from expressways will backfill with latent demand. Some of this will be travel now made on congested local roads, and some will be net new trips made because roads are thought to be less congested than before. While GO service may produce more capacity in the overall transportation network, it’s a big jump to expect that pollution will go down. All that is avoided is future growth that would occur without the new GO services.
Also, current riders have already been diverted from autos to rail travel, and GO cannot count them as net new customers for pollution savings.
The obvious shortcomings of the Minister of the Environment’s order (no mention of electrification as an available technology; no discussion of noise and vibration; no acknowledgement of existing operations) show that the Minister does not fully comprehend, or chooses to ignore, significant matters raised in objections to the Metrolinx proposals.
This decision will do little to placate the many groups who have been active in the Weston Corridor debate. There’s a lot of wiggle room in the conditions Metrolinx must meet, and Metrolinx has a sorry reputation of responding to criticism with inaccurate and misleading statements. Indeed, a recent household flyer distributed in the Weston Corridor continues to misrepresent the Medical Officer of Health’s stated position on the diesel vs electric debate.
To put it graciously, bias is unseemly in a public agency, and it undermines confidence in Metrolinx and transit proposals overall. The statements may play within the government, but they don’t play on the street.
Metrolinx can regain the high ground easily by making up for the Minister’s shortcomings and announcing that it will go the extra distance to do what was not explicitly asked. Electrification is the easy one — the study is already at the Terms of Reference stage, and Metrolinx already has a Benefits Case Analysis for the Lakeshore Corridor.
At a minimum, an interim report should be available early enough for a go/nogo decision on electrification before the planned service start on UPRL and significant additions to GO.
Noise and vibration are an obvious “oversight”, and Metrolinx should simply include them in their work plan.
Metrolinx and GO have spent years fighting the community on these issues. Activists were dismissed as NIMBYs when they had valid concerns, and this poisoned the dialogue. A new attitude from Metrolinx may not convince everyone, but co-operation and honesty would be refreshing.