Metrolinx Muses About Elevated Railways

A strange twist of journalistic coincidence saw two articles with almost identical content in The Star and in The National Post about technology alternatives for Transit City.

Toronto Star:  Elevated transit among Metrolinx alternatives

Toronto Star:  Beauty in the eye of the rider

National Post:  Elevated trains:  Metrolinx offers subway alternative

When this sort of thing happens, and especially when some of the reference material is supplied by a public agency, I can’t help thinking someone wants to get “a message” out.  Whether it’s the appropriate message, or one that has been approved by the Board of the agency pushing the story, is another matter.

I can’t help thinking of the shell game perpetrated by the TTC and Queen’s Park to get an elevated through Scarborough Town Centre.  The politicians didn’t want it, but the decision for an el was forced on them before the technology change to Skytrain.  “Streetcars” would isolate land south of the Town Centre and an el was the only solution.  Scarborough Council held its nose and agreed.  With this decision out of the way, an elevated Skytrain line was a much easier sell.

We now see lovely photos of Vancouver’s Skytrain, some courtesy of the head of Metrolinx, in local media.  Do we see the view from underneath the structures?  Do we see neighbourhoods where buildings are close to the road, or suburban lines with roads surrounded by parking?  Does anyone talk about the road space occupied by support structures and stations?  Does anyone acknowledge how much of Vancouver’s Skytrain does not run down the middle of arterial roads, but underground or along old rail corridors?  Dishonest presentations of elevated proposals for Toronto go right back to the days of the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation, and little seems to be changing.

Those of us who watched the tug of war over Transit City know that there was a big fight between Metrolinx and Toronto about the technology choice and, as usual, Bombardier had an inside track as a proponent of a turnkey project to build new transit lines.  This scheme was eventually scotched and, for a time, LRT won out with the expectation that David Miller and his successors would keep Transit City alive long enough to ensure it didn’t revert to a Skytrain network.

That was a nice idea, but political events didn’t work out as planned, and we now have a Mayor for whom LRT is a very bad word.  This plays right into the hands of those at Metrolinx who never wanted an LRT system in the first place.  Oddly enough, this seems to be happening without public debate, precisely the concern levelled at Transit City for its choice of technology.

If we are to revisit the technology choice and the network design, then this needs to be an open and fair discussion, not something cooked up in a Metrolinx back room and leaked out through the media.

Meanwhile, transit planning continues its journey into fantasyland.  MPP David Caplan wants to set up a development company to market land around potential subway station sites as a way to pay for construction.  The former Minister responsible for Infrastructure Ontario  touts the success of “alternative financing procurement” used for projects like hospitals and court houses as a sample of what might happen with subways.  Caplan ignores the fact that subways cost vastly more than hospitals, and that the land around stations is generally not in the public sector.

Is Caplan freelancing (not a great comment on the cohesion of McGuinty’s government) or is he floating a trial balloon of possible government policy?  Has he considered the reaction of neighbourhoods to the possibility that they can get a subway, but only at the cost of their established lower densities?

Meanwhile unnamed transit planners say it’s too soon to decide on specifics of a new network, and claim that they trying to respect Mayor Ford’s desire to preserve surface road capacity without necessarily putting everything underground.  This directly contradicts the Mayor’s love for a Sheppard subway — if we don’t have the money, other lines can just wait.  Ford dismisses elevated structures as cavalierly as streetcars.

This is not transit planning, it’s the hubris of a Mayor who won’t discuss anything, who would rather make announcements than involve his Council, his Transit Commission, in a real discussion of what is possible and desirable.  We hear how important a change in the TTC board’s makeup will be, how we need experts and business-minded people running the show rather than politicians.  Why would any true “expert” lend their name to an agency whose only function is to rubber stamp the Mayor’s narrow view of transit’s role?

Metrolinx may try to counter Mayor Ford’s position with selective discussions through the media, but at best this only exposes the Mayor’s intransigence to any consideration of alternative schemes.  At worst, this tactic replaces considered studies and consultation with seat-of-the-pants planning aimed at getting something, anything, approved by Council early in 2011.

45 thoughts on “Metrolinx Muses About Elevated Railways

  1. Steve, now really, please cut the rhetoric and the lame excesses. You should know that Madrid, a city of similar size to Toronto in a healthy democracy with labour that is way more expensive than China, has and is greatly expanding both their subway and LRT system all while Spain building the world’s second largest high speed rail.

    Seems like all Canada and Toronto can do is make excuses why they aren’t building great transit and rail systems while other countries rich and poor, democratic and not so democratic are figuring out how to get it done.

    Steve: Madrid also had a huge infusion of money from the national government and the EU. Now that they don’t have as much “free” money, they are turning to LRT. That said, yes, if governments make building transit a priority, we could have miles and miles of subways. The question remains whether this is the best use of the available funding. Transit here has never had the support we see in Europe, and further must deal with a change in the political environment at least every four years. Proposals for new funding sources like tolls, sales taxes and other schemes are considered political suicide.

    In Madrid, the Mayor ran on a platform of building transit. He was elected. He built. He was re-elected on a platform of more transit, and did it again. Here we had a Mayor who ran on a transit platform and was slammed for his efforts. Simultaneously he was criticized for trying to spend too little (“we need subways”) and for spending too much (“we can’t afford transit”).

    My point about both Beijing and Madrid is that what happened was a product of the local and national political and financial priorities. If we dream of subways but refuse to even properly fund buses, we are doomed to build one short, politically motivated line every decade or so.


  2. “I wonder what would happen to LRT overhead cables during a major ice storm like the one in Montreal in 1997.”

    The same thing that happens whenever there’s freezing rain. The TTC will run streetcars/LRT trains to break the ice until the power lines that feed the overhead get taken out. Of course, if we get an ice storm like the one in Montreal in ’97, the SRT is going to be frozen solid for a while.

    Steve: There will always be extreme weather conditions that bring down any transit technology, and the real question is what happens during “normal” conditions. We know from experience that the SRT has the worst problem of all modes with snow buildup around the power rail and icing on the reaction rail. The control technology is temperamental in cold weather, but this is a function of its age as well as side effects from the constant interruptions of power supply due to icing on the rails.

    Subways bog down in very heavy snow because of ice buildup on the third rail, but it rarely snows enough in Toronto for this to happen (although the open cuts can have problems with icing).

    Streetcars run into problems with parked cars as much as with snow buildup. Ice storms are comparatively rare in Toronto.


  3. Furthermore, in addition to superb transit and trains, Spain has superb freeways, and this in a country which until 35 years ago was seriously hampered by dictatorship. It’s all a question of priorities.

    Steve: And the point I was trying to make earlier was that if there must be general agreement either through an imposed will, or through broad social support, or possibly both, that support for transit financed from the public purse is an essential part of a society. Without that, transit gets the crumbs and is treated more as a social service for captive markets.


  4. Spain has many legal advantages to building infrastructure quickly, and is also open to things like 24/7 construction. In Toronto we have Metrolinx on one hand, and TTC+Toronto agencies on the other, both of whom have managed to alienate the local population into active civic resistance to projects like West Toronto Junction, St. Clair West, Strachan overpass and Roncesvalles.


  5. SkyTrain construction – Evergreen Line (Vancouver) $125 million/km.+
    Metro Construction – Toronto – $250 million/km.
    LRT (classic reserved RoW only) – $20 mil/km. to $35 mil/km
    Rail for the Valley Tram Train – $6 million/km.

    The question is, “How much do Toronto taxpayers want to pay for their transit?”

    Steve: Not quite: The question is how much is the province of Ontario prepared to pay for Toronto’s transit? It’s easy for Toronto to say “build me subways everywhere” when they don’t have to pay for it.


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