After a brief public session at last week’s Metrolinx Board meeting, there was a press scrum with GO Transit’s Gary McNeil. Many questions focussed on GO’s plans to conform with the recent order from the Minister of the Environment that service in the Georgetown Corridor would have to meet Tier 4 diesel standards in 2015. McNeil stated that GO’s goal was to have its entire locomotive fleet at Tier 4 by 2017 thanks to a planned overhaul.
To clarify what was said, I sent followup questions to GO/Metrolinx.
First, I asked about service expansion. Gary McNeil appeared to say that there were no plans to add more trains in the next six years, only more trips with existing equipment. There has been considerable speculation about new services such as a Kitchener-Waterloo extension of the Georgetown service, a Cambridge extension of the Milton line, and service beyond Hamilton into the Niagara region.
There is a distinct difference between new service outside of our current service area and adding to the existing service. GO Transit is constrained by the capacity of our transit hub, Union Station, to add many more peak period trains. As a result, we add shoulder peak period trains where we can. In the meantime, we are consistently working to identify discrete opportunities to add more peak period rail service whenever possible.
For example, March 2, 2009 was the first day of service for GO’s new extended train trip, from Hamilton Station to Union Station. This new extended train trip, the 7:32 a.m. weekday eastbound train from Aldershot GO Station now starts at the Hamilton GO Centre, leaving at
7:17 a.m. This trip now makes all regular stops from Hamilton to Oakville and then operates express to Union Station, arriving at 8:32 a.m. This was the first new rail service Hamilton received since 2000, made possible by the recent completion of the Hamilton layover site.
Previously, trains had to be taken to Hamilton as out-of-service, empty trains because there was no room to store trains in Hamilton. That 7:32 a.m. weekday eastbound train from Aldershot was the most logical trip to extend in terms of equipment cycling, because the train equipment used for this Aldershot trip is its first run of the day and we are now able to store it in Hamilton.
Our service expansion plans, by bus or train, for St. Catharines/Niagara Falls, Brantford, Kitchener/Waterloo/Cambridge, Guelph, and Peterborough were all detailed in GO Transit’s Strategic Plan – GO 2020, a document which contains GO’s vision, goals and objectives, and service strategy to the year 2020.
These potential service expansions will depend on various factors, such as fleet availability, reliable and adequate source of capital and operating funds, and supportive business partnerships with the railways.
During the Oct. 20 meeting, Gary McNeil stated that GO has no plans to add more service on the Georgetown South line until 2015, because the corridor construction will cause severe restrictions on our ability to provide more services.
The Environmental Assessment looking into rail service expansion for the Georgetown corridor from Georgetown to Kitchener-Waterloo is complete, the Environmental Study Report was filed for the public review period, and based on the study’s results, GO Transit is now awaiting the final decision from the Government of Ontario. The go ahead for expansion of GO Train service to Acton, Guelph and Kitchener is subject to funding approval by the Government of Ontario. In the meantime, the new GO Bus service to Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge will begin this Sat. Oct. 31.
At this time, there are no immediate plans for rail expansion to Cambridge. However, according to GO’s Strategic Plan, our vision includes the possible service extension, by bus or train, to serve travel demands throughout the day to Kitchener/Waterloo/Cambridge by the year 2020. Plus, the new GO Bus service to Cambridge will begin this Saturday.
For the Niagara Region, GO Transit launched seasonal weekend and holiday GO Transit train service to Niagara Falls from June 27 to Oct. 12, 2009 as a pilot project. Expanding this service would need to be the subject of a study because year-round service would require infrastructure upgrades on this rail corridor. In the meantime, the new year-round — weekday, weekend and holiday — bus service to and from the Niagara Region began on Sat. Sept 5, 2009.
For other rail corridors, we may expand as required and as possible based upon the various factors, such as fleet availability and funding.
GO receives operating funding on an annual basis so we cannot guarantee when new services will be available. Also, the levels of service for the Georgetown South service were greatly overestimated, instead of underestimating the service levels, which means careful due diligence was used to model the most extreme service levels to determine maximum levels of impact.
The map on page 20 of the Strategic Plan shows GO’s plans for its network in 2020, and if we see this implemented, it will mark a major change in the role of GO within the GTA. However, it is clear that GO (and by implication Queen’s Park) does not intend to embark on major expansion of peak services between now and 2015 due to various constraints, some operational, some fiscal. This leaves much to be done in the five years up to 2020 if the Strategic Plan will be fulfilled.
I also asked GO about their fleet plans for expansion, renewal and replacement. GO responded:
GO Transit has a locomotive fleet strategy that is guiding us through the transition from our F-59 to a core MP40 locomotive fleet. We’re now waiting for recommendations of the Electrification Study, scheduled to be complete in December 2010, before revising our locomotive strategy.
For bi-levels coaches, we are matching supply to anticipated demand looking out 2 to 3 years, subject to funding availability.
Our bi-level maintenance strategy is geared to developing an East GTA maintenance facility and expanding the maintenance capacity at our Willowbrook facility (West GTA).
We will bridge the 3 to 4 year transition period by expanding use of third party rail maintenance facility capacity.
This confirms that GO will wait out the year-long electrification study before making decisions on its locomotive fleet.
Electrification was part of the GO 2020 plans as reflected in this statement:
Introducing electric trains on the Lakeshore corridor, and the Georgetown corridor if appropriate, will offer travel time savings and environmental benefits. [Page 33]
Considering some of the bilge that came out of Metrolinx during the Georgetown electrification discussions, that’s an amazingly succinct, reasonable position leaving only the questions of timing and financing. Indeed, at the press conference, Gary McNeil quite candidly stated that he wished GO had been electrified decades ago, but the benefits of service expansion always took precedence.
While the thought of limited expansion of GO’s peak capacity before 2015 is troubling, GO’s approach to planning is refreshing by contrast to Metrolinx. GO has always operated with limited financial resources, and even their 2020 plan is a huge leap in the rate of system growth.
The GO plan is a fascinating contrast to the Metrolinx “Big Move” in that GO looks at services that might reasonably be operated within the growth opportunities available to it, while Metrolinx took a much more aggressive approach placing very frequent services on a number of corridors. The final paragraph above notes that service levels on Georgetown South were “greatly overestimated” and delicately explains that this was done for worst-case modelling.
That’s a polite way to put it, but what we really are looking at are two quite different views of how transit services will evolve in the GTA. Part of the mandate of Metrolinx was to produce a plan that would substantially divert traffic from autos to transit, reduce pollution and address gridlock problems. Metrolinx claims for the “success” of their plan rests on the same extremely high ridership (and trip diversion) figures that GO now describes as merely “due diligence” for purposes of evaluating the effect of service buildup on Georgetown South.
Those ridership numbers have other implications beyond GO, not least for the debate over the effect of a Richmond Hill subway extension and alternative ways to handle demand in the Don Valley corridor.
Both sets of figures cannot be correct, and this major divergence must be addressed by Metrolinx to bring its regional plan into line with the outlook of its major agency, GO Transit.