Not Quite Greased Lightning: GO Transit to Electrify, Eventually

Today, Metrolinx released its long-awaited study of GO Transit electrification.  I will comment on this in more detail over the next day or so, but here are preliminary observations while the news is fresh.

Updated 4:30 pm: The study appendices are now available online.  I have not incorporated any information from them in the article below.

The study finds that electrification is a worthwhile venture on selected, well-used corridors, and that it is an important foundation for the growth of GO Transit into its regional role proposed in Metrolinx’ Big Move.

The proposed staging of the electrification project (all times are estimates) is:

  • Preliminary design and Environmental Assessments (3-4 yrs)
  • Union to Pearson Airport, and Union to Mimico (Willowbrook Shops) (4-5 years)
  • Pearson Airport spur to Brampton (Mt. Pleasant) (2 years)
  • Union to Oshawa (including access to a new eastern maintenance shops) (4 years)
  • Mimico to Oakville (2 years)
  • Oakville to Hamilton (James Street Station) (2 years)
  • Oshawa to Bowmanville (2 years)
  • Brampton to Kitchener (2-3 years)

Other corridors were studied, but the best benefit-cost ratio was found to be the combination of Georgetown and Lake Shore.  Events over the next decades may prove this to be short-sighted, but that’s today’s plan.

The implementation is rather leisurely, and if all of its phases take place sequentially, it will be the early 2030s before this scheme is completed.  The Environmental Assessments will use the expedited process most recently seen on the Transit City projects.  This will avoid the need for “alternatives analysis” on projects where the alignment and technology selections are a foregone conclusion, and the “terms of reference” will be much simpler than a full EA.

No individual benefit is cited for electrification, but rather the combined effect of contributions to travel time savings, operating costs, reliability, environmental concerns and long-term capacity of the GO system.

On the environmental front, the study finds that the benefits of electrification relative to Tier 4 diesel technology (which GO will be using in the 2015 timeframe) are small, especially when this is considered in a regional context.  Local effects are within the World Health Organization standards.  (The study appendices with details of these claims are not yet online as I write this.)

Metrolinx proposes that the initial implementation be with electric locomotives pulling the existing bilevel coaches in 10-car consists.  This approach minimizes the spending, short term, on new equipment.

The phased rollout will create a few obvious operational and planning issues for GO Transit:

  • Lines that now operate as a single service will have to be split (notably the Lake Shore corridor) unless electrification waits until the last kilometre of track is under wire.  This would defeat the purpose of phased construction.
  • The advantages of electrification will not reach the full network for an extended period, likely well beyond the point where demand and service design would benefit from the changeover.
  • By the time parts of the network are completed, the existing fleet will be closer to retirement, or could be absorbed in service improvements on lines that will remain as diesel.  The cost justification for locomotive/coach consists may not exist if equipment has to be purchased new, especially as this would lock in the comparative inefficiency relative to electric MU (EMU) coaches for several decades.

Indeed, other than as a means to stretch out the capital spending, it is hard to believe that it would take over 20 years to build a 235km electrification.

In the medium term, with locomotives hauling bilevel coaches, the time savings for riders would be modest with the greatest saving for the longest trips.  However, those would not actually be electrified until the late 2020s or worse.  The real benefit comes with a move to EMUs with much better acceleration and deceleration, and much higher travel time savings even on comparatively short trips.

The estimated cost of electrification, including rolling stock (locomotives)  lies in a range from $1.6-1.8-billion.

An important premise of the study is the “reference case” including those service and infrastructure improvements that would occur even without electrification.  These are listed on the last page of the Board Report to be discussed on January 26, and they total about $2.52b.  Some of this work already has committed funding, but not all of it.

These costs need to be put in context:  the total for service improvements, new infrastructure and electrification is in the $4-4.5b range, and this compares favourably with various transit projects in Toronto.

Particularly striking here is the about-face in Metrolinx’ position regarding electrification.  Quite recently, we were told that this was simply not a financially viable option.

But even if the study currently underway to assess the cost of electrifying the GO system — which could come in anywhere from $4 to $7 billion — recommends the move, it won’t happen immediately, [Robert Prichard] said.  [Toronto Star website, May 21, 2010, scroll down to “Clean Train Coalition”]

The air-rail corridor is being built in such a way that it could be converted to electric trains in the future, something that could cost up to $1 billion, said Prichard.  [Toronto Star, July 31, 2010 quoting the Chair of Metrolinx]

The full network option’s cost is now estimated at about $4b, but this scope of work has never been seriously considered.  Seven billion, however, was convenient large enough to frighten politicians and limit the credibility of electrification advocates.

The cost for the Air Rail Corridor, including a link to the maintenance yard at Willowbrook,  is now estimated at $457m including the design, EA, and construction.  The full “Option 3” of Georgetown, ARL and Lake Shore is under $2b for the most heavily-used parts of the network.

Now, Metrolinx has discovered not only that electrification is cheaper than previously claimed, but that it is essential to the future expansion of service and capacity.  Whether Metrolinx (and more importantly GO) has actually embraced this concept, or will mutter disparagingly to anyone who will listen, remains to be seen.  I cannot help noticing an analogy to the TTC where, for a time, LRT was embraced as a viable technology, only to be eclipsed when its political sponsor left office.  Will electrification suffer a similar fate if the Liberals are defeated in fall 2011?

All of this is moot if there is no funding.  Metrolinx will not deliver its “Investment Strategy” until sometime in 2013, or maybe late 2012.  Where will we get the revenue (and the political will to levy needed taxes, tolls or fees) to underwrite this and other major regional transit projects?

The release of the Metrolinx electrification study is an important step forward in transportation planning for the GTA.  Now there is a consistent, credible source of information about the options for and benefits of electrification rather than a mixed bag of old studies and off-the-cuff estimates.  Metrolinx has produced an integrated piece of planning, a network-wide view that, even though we may disagree on details, at least studies and proposes options for their system effects, not for the short-term political benefit of one riding or politician.

I will return to the details of this study in a future article.

56 thoughts on “Not Quite Greased Lightning: GO Transit to Electrify, Eventually

  1. EMU’s are preferable for fast acceleration and ease of equipment utilization.

    Here is an alternative suggestion. Forget about FRA collision for cab cars. Use a straight electric locomotive on one and a normal diesel-electric on the other end. No need for a cab car. Electric loco powers train under wires and then beyond the diesel does the work. Better utilization. The idea of changing from electric to diesel and back again every time a train gets to the Union is stupid. On the steep climb from Union to Danforth both locomotives can work to keep speed up. Same elsewhere.


  2. “I get the impression from several of your comments that you are not all that familiar with central Toronto.”

    It’s true that I don’t have a good overview of which trackage is owned by GO, and where freight still operates.

    Anyhoo, my proposal would look something like this. It shows the population and work place density, overlaid with the existing subway system, steertcar system (red) and GO network (black). Existing stations are shown in white, proposed stations in blue.

    It seems that current problems in Toronto are capacity issues at Union station and the Yonge line, especially the downtown and Eastern section. So with Electrification, we can add more stations that try to disperse passenger flow through downtown, mostly onto the streetcar network (by creating new nodes between GO and streetcar). And just like with Yonge, the new passenger flow on the streetcar network would be counterflow to the usual rush hour direction.

    The other stations I added are along the major crosstown corridors – st Claire, Eglinton etc. Presumably Eglinton LRT will still be built, which might increase flow onto Yonge, possibly worsening capacity issues. Having GO stations along these corridors, for example on the Barri line could take some of the load of Yonge, while at the same time decreasing travel times for many people.

    Notice how the density along the proposed stations is not as low as you indicated on the one hand, on the other there are some areas well served by rapid transit today where densities are lower then where I proposed stations. Overall, though, it looks like density follows rapid transit expansions, even on the recent additions.

    You might call this a surface subway, but it’s not – Firstly, a subway doesn’t generally consist of branch lines + corridors, where only along the trunk lines frequencies are very high. Secondly, a subway tends to have an even distribution of stations – here the density of stations follows the density of people (approximately), and the density of lines that go on a given corridor.

    And the overall issue relating back to the electrification study is that you can’t add all those stations without using EMUs, if you don’t want abysmal travel times. Only they can offer the acceleration that would keep the impact of every new station fairly low.


  3. Actually you can have more than 1 train on the same section of track in OCS as well. Its called a ‘work clearance’, vs a ‘process clearance’ where only one train is allowed into a defined length of track. They use ‘work clearances’ on a daily basis on the Newmarket & Uxbridge sub’s. One train is allowed to enter the limits of another train provided they have communicated with the other train.

    In any case it HAS happened before where people have made errors and exceed the limits provided for in their clearance and entered the limits of another train.

    So no, I don’t think they would allow for non-FRA-compliant equipment on OCS.


  4. The Don branch’s bridge over Bayview/Don is essentially condemned. It will need to be completely reconstructed which will be a costly undertaking. There’s also the problem of using CPR’s Belleville sub. We all know just how adverse CPR is to any expanded GO service i.e. Milton line. That section of the Belleville sub is quite busy since it leads to the marshaling yard. I can imagine they’d be quite averse to having regular GO trains enter around Wynford and then cross over which will be necessary to enter the Don branch. If they actually do allow for it I can imagine that it’ll be pretty rare for a GO train to not be delayed on a daily basis there. That is unless GO does the smart thing and builds a fly-over there. Of course, that’s providing GO is even considering using the Don branch for Richmond Hill service. They do have interest in using it for the Seaton line. Seems to me though it’ll be a long time before we see any action on those fronts. Probably a decade or two since ARL, Kitchener and Lakeshore line expansion are the priorities.


  5. I believe that they had strengthened centre sills or side beams that allowed them to withstand the buff loading. It is now at least 1,000,000 lb but I don’t know what it was then. Remember that this is not a test of how well the car will survive a crash, derailment then being slammed into a stationary hard surface, it is a test of its ability withstand a compression load of 1,000,000 lb applied to the ends of the car. It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to meet FRA (TC) standards.


  6. You would be hauling around an extra 288,000 lbs of mass for the extra diesel locomotive. That is slightly more than the mass of 4 extra bilevels for the electric locomotive to haul. The electric locomotive would be lighter so it would probably be like 3 extra cars for the diesel locomotive. If you think that the service is slow now wait until you ride one of these babies.

    Dual mode locomotives are more than twice as expensive as a diesel and can only haul 8 coaches (no room to put in large enough diesel prime movers.)

    The use of two locomotives at the same time would probably give GO trains performance approaching that of emu’s, especially if they had ac traction motors. GO, however, does not want the extra capital cost of an extra 50 or so locomotives so we are stuck with only marginal improvement in operating times. I still would like to see the consultant’s figure on emu versus electric locomotive hauled coaches. I cannot believe the veracity of their figures. I want to see if they have reduced the number of train sets required to reflect the vastly superior running times. I would also like to see what their little model shows would happen to ridership with those greatly reduced travel times.


  7. In reply to drew (Jan 22 @3.36), the Don Branch forms part for Dean Del Mastro’s grand plan for service from Peterborough. We can therefore hope that federal money will remediate this bridge given that the PMO and Flaherty have inexplicably opted to keep him promising FRA Class 4 rail to the Highway 115 citizenry.

    (Incidentally, it seems the Orangeville Citizen (January 20) now wants to know when their town’s track, in better shape than the decrepit line to Peterborough, is getting service.)


  8. This electrification study of the Union-Airport line has now hijacked the traveller again with still no service in sight for years. Freight trains used the line for years and still are.

    Start running the new low emission Loco’s on the line NOW, then leave the electrification study to fight over. At least more cars will be off the road to offset the emissions of one Loco.

    Better watch out! The Island Airport may take over more land and build another runway to run a shuttle service, and also allow more planes from other cities to land there, bypassing Pearson.

    I sound silly writing this, but just as silly is this forever and ever No GO on this rail line.


  9. I have been working in metric for so long that I forgot that while 1 tonne = 1000 kg 1 ton = 2000 lb and not 1000lb. The weight of a diesel locomotive is slightly more than that of 2 bilevels while the electric locomotive is probably around 1.5.


  10. I wonder whether it is possible to tunnel part of the new Richmond Hill GO service if the trains are electric; and whether it is worth doing so.

    Something like this. Use the existing Bala Sub corridor from Union to the first Don Mills Rd underpass (near Seton Park), but add the second track. Then branch off the existing corridor, and head north along the east side of Don Mills Rd. About 100 m south of Overlea Blvd, descend into a tunnel. Run in the tunnel under Don Mills Rd, with underground stops at Science Centre, Eglinton, and Lawrence. Continue the tunnel for about 700 m north of Lawrence till the other Bala Sub underpass, then emerge and re-join the existing corridor.

    That completely bypasses the CPR Belleville sub, and the three underground stops should be pretty well used.

    However, is it worth the cost of the 4-km tunnel?

    Steve: Considering that the entire electrification plan is priced at under $2-billion, I doubt that this single project would rank very highly.


  11. Any construction work on the Don Branch required is not complex, although it isn’t necessarily cheap either, because it is not currently in use by any rail service (the switch that connects it Belleville is currently removed, has been for a couple of years). While work on the bridge over the Brick Works would not be cheap, it is still peanuts compared to what a Yonge extension would run up in the budget.

    CP sets strict conditions, there’s no doubt about that, but they are not against the idea of having passenger trains in their rights of way. It is a source of revenue to them, and they want it, but they won’t accept interference with their freight operation either. This does mean that the Belleville line would have to be at least triple-tracked, possibly quad-tracked depending on what kind of frequencies are sought on Richmond Hill service, between Millwood and the DVP, which is about 4km or so, not a huge distance, although there are some larger bridges along this stretch. It is currently double-tracked along most of this stretch, although there’s potentially more in the immediate Thorncliffe area. Excluding bridgework, such quad-tracking should cost in the ballpark of $40M. Yes, I agree a fly-under should be part of the package, which is why I said “similar, not identical” in reference to the 2005 designs on a new rail-rail connection around Wynford.

    In any event, these are hardly insurmountable challenges, nor are they unreasonable in cost compared to the alternatives. What Metrolinx actually envisions for the RH corridor currently is a great question because they aren’t saying anything about it. It, along with the Yonge extension, and the DRL for that matter, have been bundled together as an interrelated package for study, but nobody knows where that study ultimately led to (it’s probably something the Liberals don’t want to share until after the election).


  12. Karl Junkin says:
    January 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    “Any construction work on the Don Branch required is not complex, although it isn’t necessarily cheap either, because it is not currently in use by any rail service (the switch that connects it Belleville is currently removed, has been for a couple of years). While work on the bridge over the Brick Works would not be cheap, it is still peanuts compared to what a Yonge extension would run up in the budget.”

    Are you planning to put back in the spur line that connected the Bala Sub to the Belleville Sub? I don’t think the good burgers of Don Mills would be happy with that idea as it would go through many backyards where there is now only a walking trail. There would also have to be a grade separation put in at Lawrence which because of its proximity to Leslie (less than 100 m) would be expensive. I don’t think that the Idea of using the Richmond Hill line as a relief for Yonge is a starter.

    Steve: To save Karl the effort of answering, no that is not his proposal. GO looked at a connection between the two lines north of Eglinton near Wynford in a study some years ago.


  13. drew said, “So no, I don’t think they would allow for non-FRA-compliant equipment on OCS.”

    Of course not. My comment was that it was more likely under OCS than under CTC, in the context of suggestions that somehow it might be allowed only under CTC.

    That said, I strongly suspect that any change to the regulations that would allow this would likely involve a rule change that would prohibit the use of work clearances where non-FRA-compliant equipment were in use.


  14. 1) If it is going to take a while to electrify the Georgetown line then why not wait until then to start up the line to the airport?

    Yes, the Pan-Am games are going to be held in 2015 but so what? It’s the Pan-Am Games not the Olympics. There are no venues on the line. The Sorbara/Spadina subway won’t be completed and there are competition venues at York U.

    2) It seems the schedule is driven by capital market/financing considerations rather that operational concerns.


  15. Everyone keeps on mentioning the restrictions set by the FRA as a hindrance. FRA rules are not perfect like anything else in this world, but are there for good reason based on results of accidents over many years. It’s not just about a 10,000 ton freight train hitting a GO train head on, it is also about a 100 mph (160 km/h) VIA train head on, other track machinery and public level crossings with increase in truck sizes. TTC subway can be exempt because there are absolutely no public level crossings.

    Also the reason they need that 1,000,000 lb buff strength does make sense, it is because when a train hits something it is funneled straight at it due to its fixed guideway, the train tracks, so the impact is concentrated.

    But having said this, free thinking (even crazy ideas) is still important.

    The excuse that big heavy “FRA trains” doesn’t even realy need to be so nessesary, the old single decker GO trains where light weight trains and are still used in Montreal. In fact even in Toronto as the Northlander. Don’t use the FRA as an excuse for Toronto’s failure in rail transit.


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