GO Transit Electrification Study Update

Where Did The Study Come From?

GO Transit’s Georgetown corridor, home to many existing and proposed services, has not been a happy place for the Environmental Assessment process, especially on the southern end of the line.  Officially, this project was the Georgetown South Service Expansion (GSSE), now shortened to the Georgetown South Project.  However, the project has a troubled history thanks to:

  • Extreme insensitivity to local concerns about noise and vibration from the West Toronto Diamond grade separation project eventually resulted in a successful appeal to the Canadian Transportation Agency forcing GO to change its construction methods.
  • Proposals to slice through Weston with a widened rail corridor, including closing streets that linked the commercial strip on Weston Road to the residential communities to the east, infuriated local residents.  This was compounded by their discovery that, initially at least, much of the additional traffic on the corridor would be for the premium fare airport shuttle from Union Station.

This established a confrontational relationship between GO and corridor residents.  When Metrolinx published The Big Move, it was obvious that vastly expanded service would be operated along this line including:

  • All-day service at least to Brampton on the Georgetown line
  • All-day service to Milton
  • Peak period service to Bolton (a line that now has no GO operations but shares the corridor to the north end of Weston)
  • All-day service to Barrie (a line that shares the corridor from Dundas Street south to the rail yards at Bathurst)
  • All-day service every 15 minutes on the Air Rail Link from Union to Pearson Airport operating via the Georgetown line and a spur to be built into the airport lands

GO was so preoccupied with opposition in Weston that it failed to take account of the quickly growing population around the rail corridor south of West Toronto Junction.  Aside from the question of daily train movements, GO further alienated residents with a proposal for the Strachan Avenue grade separation that would have created a major barrier within the new King West / Liberty Village community.  This matter was not resolved until intervention by Metrolinx and a compromise solution acceptable to the City of Toronto was adopted.

GO runs popular services, and as a provincial agency it is used to getting more or less what it wants.  Public participation and accommodation have not been GO’s strong suits.

When the Georgetown South project revealed that there would be over 400 train movements per day on the southern end of the corridor, residents were more than a little upset.  Their concerns about noise and pollution were not  helped by GO’s appeal to the greater good with claims that, overall, there would be less pollution thanks to auto trips diverted from highways.  Those highways are not in backyards in Weston, the Junction and Parkdale, and the benefits that might accrue on Highways 400, 401 and 427 were little comfort to those who would see their local rail corridor gain vastly more traffic than it has today.

From this swelling activism came a demand that GO electrify its system to reduce noise and pollution levels in the neighbourhoods through which it travelled.  Electrification had been considered before, but only in the context of the Lake Shore corridor, and only for lower service levels than The Big Move contemplates.  This has always been a “nice to do” that gets shunted aside thanks to budget constraints and a desire to concentrate on building service.  By late 2009, the demand for a detailed study reached a level where Queen’s Park and Metrolinx could not dodge the issue, and GO’s Electrification Study was born.

Although GO had looked at electrifying the Lake Shore corridor, and their studies had been updated a few times over the years, the information in those studies did not speak to a full network view.  Moreover, service plans were based largely on then-existing schedules with modest allowance for growth.  A much more ambitious scope of work was essential, and the Terms of Reference created by an advisory committee laid this out in October 2009.

Stakeholder Workshops

GO Transit engaged a consulting team to conduct the study, and part of this process involves workshops with interested parties from a variety of backgrounds as well as general public meetings.  To date (July 3), there have been two “stakeholder workshops”.  The first dealt with the project overview and structure, and a good deal of time was spent in establishing credibility and trust between the parties.  One outcome of this process was the addition of an extra meeting in the schedule so that the draft version of the study conclusions could be reviewed before its wide release and the inevitable hardening of content that occurs once a document is formally published.

The second meeting was held on June 15, and the overview material at this workshop was substantially the same as that presented to a Georgetown South Open House on May 27th.  Page 10 of this document shows the general outline of the study and an important component in its comparison of options.  There was considerable debate about the assumption that the base case should presume that Tier 4 Diesel technology would be in place before electrification occurs.  In the event that Tier 4 is not available or economically feasible, or that electrification proves more attractive in the short-to-medium term, the base case could well be the existing Tier 2 Diesel operation.

In other words, it is conceivable that at least part of GO’s network could move directly to electrification without going through an intermediate Tier 4 stage.  That’s an optimistic view, but one which electrification advocates advance at least so that the cost of a Tier 4 conversion is not treated as a sunk investment that must somehow be recouped prior to electrification.  Exactly how the study will deal with this situation won’t become evident until the next round of meetings in the fall.

The Rolling Stock Technology and Options Report

The June 15 Stakeholders’ meeting dealt primarily with the draft Rolling Stock Technology and Options report from LTK Engineering Services.  A summary of this report’s findings appears in the overview document linked above starting at page 22.

For those who don’t know them, LTK is a well-established and respected transportation engineering firm who, among other things, were part of the renaissance of Light Rapid Transit (LRT) in the United States.  They are feet-on-the-ground folks who know their way around transit systems and railroads.  This report contains credible information about rail technologies and their application to GO’s network.  LTK is also working on a review of system operations and power supply which is expected this month.  It will deal with important issues such as the level of service planned and possible given network and station capacity, as well as the technical issues related to bringing power to the rail lines.

The scope of the study is the GO rail network including planned extensions to Kitchener-Waterloo, St. Catharines, Barrie/Allandale, Bloomington, Bowmanville and the Air Rail Link.

A long list of technology options was reviewed from the mundane (diesel or electric locos) to the fanciful (maglev or hydrogen fuel cells).  An essential filter on this review was that the technology be proven, commercially viable, compatible with the GO infrastructure and capable of handling projected service levels.

Only a handful of options survived this process:  diesel, electric, or dual-mode locos hauling bi-level passenger cars, or bi-level electric multiple-unit cars (EMU, similar to subway technology).

The scale of investment and the criticality of the GO network is such that this is not the place to toy with whatever untried piece of high technology might have advocates whispering in the government’s ear.  Rail technologies are well-established world-wide, and we can do without yet another Queen’s Park folly in the name of industrial development.

The one exception in the technology list is the Air Rail Link which, due to its much different service requirements from regional GO services, will be operated with single-level cars, either diesel or electric MU.  Indeed, it is unlikely that the structures to be built for the airport spur would be able to support a locomotive-hauled train.

The next step in the study was to identify the appropriate corridors for electrification, at least as an initial subset of the network.  Although the May and June public meetings talked of this as a work-in-progress, comments at the recent Metrolinx Board Meeting showed the self-evident conclusion that the Lakeshore and Georgetown corridors would be the first round.

Some have remarked that we have paid quite a lot of money and taken a lot of time to reach the obvious conclusion.  Sadly, they are correct, but I must challenge the sense that the process is worthless.  GO/Metrolinx is learning a lot about rail technology and the implications of technology choices.  Things that may be “obvious” to advocates sometimes take time to seep into the official world view, and a well-documented study puts to rest many of the diversions and erroneous assumptions that have clouded debates on future GO operations and technologies.

A parallel study now in progress will address capacity issues at Union Station.  Growth in inbound capacity to Union is limited by track layout, signalling, platform dwell time and passenger volumes.  Trains have grown to 12 bi-level cars, and this creates platform and stairway demands, especially if GO, like the TTC subway, starts to carry significant counter-peak loads that will compete with peak-direction travel for platform space (think of Bloor-Yonge Station for a worst-case example).  Train length is also constrained by the ability of locomotives to accelerate and haul fully-loaded trains.

From time to time, I hear rumours that Metrolinx is considering an underground expansion option at Union.  This would be quite an engineering feat given the need to provide a lengthy approach ramp and to build a new station under a busy working operation in land that is below the water table.  Any such scheme necessarily will use electric trains, likely EMUs, to deal with ventillation and gradients.  As an aside, if Metrolinx cannot figure out a reasonable way to expand Union’s capacity, this will seriously compromise plans for frequent, high-capacity service on GO’s major corridors. 

GO is even studying the possibility of offloading demand at subway interchanges so that all trains would not have to run through to Union Station.  How the TTC is supposed to handle such demands on top of existing riding and expected growth is a mystery.  Bad enough that GO does not want anyone in Toronto thinking of the commuter rail network as an optional way to get people downtown.  Now, they want to dump GO passengers onto the TTC subway.  That GO is even considering this option shows how out of touch they are with the larger network context in which they operate.

Chapter 3 of the Rolling Stock Technology report includes a detailed technical description of the characteristics of various types of propulsion.  This shows the tradeoffs and limitations between locomotives and self-propelled cars, as well as diesel vs electric power.  Some things simply do not scale up to bigger and faster trains because of physical limits on engines and the way that power is transferred between wheel and track.

Diesel MU trains, a technology often proposed for GO operations, are practical only for shorter consists.  In theory, one could operate a 12-car train of DMUs, but at a substantial additional cost for equipment, operations and maintenance thanks to the duplication of propulsion gear on every unit in the train.  An alternative would be to use sets of cars with powered and unpowered units, but this drives up the requirements for the powered cars.

Demand on all of the GO corridors is such that full-sized trains are required at peak times, and the smaller trainsets would mainly be for off-peak services.  They could be coupled into longer consists, but the additional cost of making and breaking trains for the period between the peaks would limit their usefulness.

I will leave interested readers to digest all of the details in the report.

Concluding Thoughts

One intriguing point not mentioned in the report, but likely to show up in operational projections, is the question of line capacity and technology.  Metrolinx’ own Benefits Case Analysis of the Lakeshore corridor claimed that diesel technology could not handle the demands foreseen in The Big Move.  However, these demands and future projected service levels have been ramped down, and GO now holds that the service they are likely to provide will not demand electrification.

However, the same BCA calculates that the electrification project (based on the BCA’s methodology) would have a benefit:cost ratio greater than 1 for all scenarios.  This is an amusing example of how the Metrolinx BCA methodology does not always produce the “right” conclusion to fit Metrolinx’ political objectives.  Moreover, the assumptions used in the BCA are considerably different from those in the Rolling Stock report, notably demand levels and train lengths.

Some at Metrolinx have made unfortunate remarks about the viability of electric trains such as a claim that they encounter problems in cold weather.  When one considers the widespread use of this technology, including in countries with climates at least as challenging as that in southern Ontario, one wonders about the “expertise” leading this study.  Thank goodness we have real experts among the consultants who know what electric trains can do.

Over coming months, we will see the first truly thorough examination of the electrification question GO/Metrolinx has produced, and with luck the findings will not be rewritten to suit a political objective.  This won’t prevent them from being ignored, but at least the information will be available, and wild claims that electrification is too expensive or impractical will have to contend with the study.

Metrolinx spent a lot of time drawing lines on maps without considering how it would actually provide the services its plans imply.  Now that we’re into the technical details, Metrolinx is on a steep learning curve.  Of course, one might wonder why this ever-so-expert organization had so much to learn in the first place, and how much time was lost to its biases and ignorance.

Delicious is the irony that this education comes courtesy of citizen activism and political pressure, the very factors that Metrolinx and Queen’s Park so roundly rejected.

46 thoughts on “GO Transit Electrification Study Update

  1. “While the men posting here thus far aren’t too concerned about personal safety, I believe a good number of women would be”

    I really object to this blatant sexism! We all know from years of crime reports that the rates of violence in the street towards men are much higher than the rate of violence towards women. Don’t turn this into something that it’s not!

    What is with all the paranoia?

    Why are we even discussing crime in a city with such a low crime rate? This is so absolutely bizarre.


  2. @nfitz:
    1. You are responding to a statement regarding perception rather than incidence. 2. Violence against men is rarely sexual.

    Very few men grip their car keys as weapons when walking through an empty parking lot. A surprising number of women do do this.

    I do agree that the crime discussion overall is a bit excessive for Toronto. My primary concern with the Main-Danforth transfer would be lack of signage and wayfinding information as well as possible accessibility barriers. I haven’t made the transfer myself.


  3. To chime in on the Main/Danforth crime issue, frankly it isn’t one. No, the area isn’t the most wonderful around, but during the day it is not ever what one could call deserted. Further, the reality of the transfer is that it is only about a the equivalent of a single block, and mostly through and near a busy intersection (inconvenient, but well populated, and visible).

    More anecdotally, I personally have never been uncomfortable walking the area at 2 or 3 am (something I’ve had to do more than like to recall). Frankly, the area around Yonge/Dundas is more concerning at night.


  4. “Second, I think the time and effort in consist breaking apart / putting together is overblown. Recently in Munich, I rode in on the S9 line from the Airport, and they combined two (loaded!) EMU consists at a station on the way into the city. This took about 2-3 minutes to complete. Even if they were not allowed here to do that with passengers on board, it surely could be done quickly and easily without much extra staffing costs.”

    This happens daily without incident on my train. Two wonderfully fast and lightweight 5-car Hitachi E257 series consists are hitched (while loaded) at Kazusa-Ichinomiya Stn., on the JR Sotobo line, 82km east of Tokyo.

    Reading about rail in Toronto, my hometown, makes me want to weep. Come visit Japan if you want to see passenger rail that works.


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