Metrolinx Contemplates LRT vs Subway (Updated)

Updated February 8, 2012 at 7:40am:  I have often described a suspicion that there is a fifth column within Metrolinx working against the TTC and LRT plans.  Royson James in the Star gives us a view into that organization in which we clearly see how it suits some at Metrolinx to misrepresent what the Toronto of David Miller and the TTC were doing.  This problem goes back years, and was evident during preparation of “The Big Move”, but the Metrolinx love for secrecy, for holding all of the substantive discussions behind closed doors, kept this out of sight.  Now Metrolinx may be faced with a vote at City Council that could run directly opposite to the scheme some at Metrolinx secretly have supported for years.  Will Metrolinx and Queen’s Park listen?

Original post from February 7 below:

On Monday February 6, Metrolinx held a press conference to outline its position on the current subway vs LRT controversy.  This article is a summary of the presentation (which is now available online) and a commentary on it.

I have taken a breather from the Chong report because of its size, the fact that it is now available online, and my desire to review Metrolinx position first.  That agency has somewhat more credibility than and “Toronto Transit Infrastructure Limited”.


The presentation is intended to “provide information” on the Eglinton line as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mayor Ford, and to restate the principles embraced by Queen’s Park and Metrolinx.


  1. Sound Regional Transit Planning.  Any projects must “achieve sound transportation objectives for the City and the region” and be in tune with the regional plan, The Big Move.
  2. Budget and Cost.  The maximum budget available from Queen’s Park remains $8.4-billion (2010$).  Any plan must remain within the overall total as well as projected yearly cash flows.  Additional costs must be paid by the City or some other partner.
  3. Penalties.  Queen’s Park will not pay any penalties resulting from changes sought by the City, and the penalty costs and losses from the MOU (the Ford document) remain the City’s responsibility.
  4. Cost of Delay.  Further delay is unacceptable to Metrolinx, and any costs this triggers must be paid by the City.
  5. Traffic.  “Any plan should minimize adverse impacts on traffic to the extent reasonably possible.”

Point 3 begs an obvious question of how the Province can hold Toronto responsible for costs incurred because they were foolish enough to proceed on Mayor Ford’s say-so without ensuring Council’s approval.  As we know from the recent legal opinion, the Mayor cannot bind the City to a contract without Council’s consent.

Point 5 is unclear about whether this refers to traffic problems during construction or after a line has opened.  During construction is of interest because this affects both cost and elapsed times for big projects like Eglinton.  The TTC’s construction schedule for an all-underground version is extended out to 2022 because they don’t want to dig up every station location at the same time.  If this were allowed, say as part of a sweetened deal with a private partner, the cost would come down.


The west/central portion of the Eglinton project is common to both versions of the plan, and it is “making good progress”.  Metrolinx and the TTC are working to allow an alternative procurement strategy (putting more responsibility in the hands of a private partner), but certainty is needed on what exactly will be built in the eastern portion.

Current Plan

This is shown as a map with the following components and costs:

  • Metrolinx Crosstown Project:  $8.18-billion
  • Sheppard East Subway Project:  $2.75b
  • Sheppard West Subway Project:  $1.48b
  • Sheppard Subway Yard:  $0.5b

It is worth noting that the total here for Sheppard is $4.73-billion.  This is the “TTC” estimate for Sheppard, not the lower so-called “Metrolinx” estimate cited in the Chong report.  Is there something about the cost of Sheppard Metrolinx knows that they did not share with Gordon Chong and KPMG (who wrote the section of Chong’s paper where this appears)?

Benefits of the Current Crosstown Plan

Just the title of this section is intriguing because, of course, Council has never approved this plan and strictly speaking, it’s not “current”.

Metrolinx claims that there will be a reduction of travel times from Kennedy to Black Creek by 25% as the line will operate at 30-32km/h overall.  Of course, the subway-surfrace variant would operate at this speed too, and the only question is the speed over the section from Leaside to Kennedy.  Part of this section will be grade separated (around Don Mills Station) although the extent is not yet confirmed.  The total distance from Brentcliffe to Kennedy is about 8km.  From Black Creek to Brentcliffe is a bit over 10km.  In other words, the section where any improvement in time can possibly occur is 8/18 or about 45% of the line.

To achieve a 25% increase overall, the speed improvement east of Brentcliffe would have to be 55%.  We know that the speed used for underground operation is 30-32, and this means that the presumed speed for surface operation would be only about 20km/h.  This is lower than the figure actually used by the TTC in the Eglinton line’s published description (22-25km/h) and it also ignores the change in access time to the more widely-spaced stations on an underground alignment.  The difference is between a 15 minute trip (at 32km/h) and a 24 minute trip (at 20km/h).  If the higher TTC speed (25km/h)  is used, the surface trip falls to 19 minutes.  Much will depend on the degree of surface transit priority afforded to the LRT.

Metrolinx cites reliability because an underground line would be completely separated from traffic.  Conversely, a surface line would have to interact with traffic and pedestrians at intersections, and there would be some effect on left turns and signal cycle times.

They also cite “convenience” because the Eglinton and SRT routes are linked.  Note that this arrangement is not peculiar to the underground proposal, and nothing prevents the TTC from doing this for a subway-surface version of the line.  The TTC’s concern is that demand north of Kennedy is higher than on Eglinton, and they don’t want to operate a very frequent “SRT” service with short turns at Kennedy to accommodate a smaller demand west on Eglinton.  This is an issue of operational convenience rather than necessity.

Metrolinx cites higher ridership, especially in the peak, on an underground Crosstown line as compared to the subway-surface route.  This is a direct effect of their demand model which is very sensitive to running times, and which redirects a considerable amount of traffic from the Danforth subway to the Eglinton line.  Whether this is desirable is quite another matter given concerns about the capacity at Eglinton/Yonge station.  A related question is the potential benefit of a Downtown Relief Line intercepting demand on Eglinton at Don Mills.

Overall, Metrolinx states that a fully grade-separated line doubles the capacity of the project.  This is true in the sense that more and longer trains can be operated if the line is all grade-separated, but it also begs the question of the effect on overall cost of providing a fleet and yard sufficient for that capacity and whether LRVs are appropriate for a route that never runs on the surface.  The presentation returns to this issue later.

Light Rail Vehicles

About $76m of $770m of the contract for 182 Bombardier LRVs has been spent to date.  The “current plan” reduced this number to 135 by the elimination of the Finch and Sheppard routes, but these vehicles are suitable for “other LRT applications around the region and province”.  The strongest endorsement of LRT comes here:

“Metrolinx remains confident that LRVs are a good choice given their flexibility to operate at surface, in tunnels and on elevated guideways, with a low floor and high capacity”

Metrolinx notes that the LRVs were intended to operate partly in tunnels in the original plan.  They cite other examples of Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.  Closer to home, one can look at Edmonton, Philadelphia and Boston (where streetcars have run underground for over a century).  The important point about all of these is that the LRVs do not stay underground when there is no reason for them to do so.

LRVs are low floor vehicles which, in the Metrolinx implementation, will load level with the platform (unlike the surface streetcars which must use a ramp because they operate in mixed traffic).  The low floor aspect of the cars is a “small component” of the overall vehicle cost and project.

Metrolinx notes that:

“Having a low floor provides flexibility for the vehicle to be used in a surface application, when the line is extended west towards Pearson airport or north and east further into Scarborough”

Vehicle Capacity

Metrolinx cites capacities for three-car trainsets ranging from just under 10k/hour at a 3 minute headway (20 trains/hour) to just under 20k/hour at a 1.5 minute headway.  This can accommodate projected ridership beyond 2051.  Surface operations in a median are limited to 8-9k/hour because frequent trains and high pedestrian volumes would interfere too much with road traffic.


What was once a $6.5b project is now an $8.2b project and limited funds are available for other routes.  There will be fewer stations because of their higher cost underground.  Metrolinx states that although this version costs more, it “delivers greater benefits”.  Whether this calculation is offset by the benefits lost through not building other routes is unclear.

Going Forward

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park seek a single position from the City.  They “remain committed” to partnering with Toronto, but “clarity is required”.  Any City position will be evaluated against the principles stated earlier.

I cannot help pointing out that there already is an accepted Memorandum of Agreement dating from 2009 between all of the parties and especially City Council.  It would be difficult for Metrolinx to claim now that the network the MOA contemplates (the 5-in-10 Metrolinx plan for Eglinton, SRT, Sheppard and Finch) would now fail this test.  Tinkering with the plan by Council could re-open the question of what is an “acceptable” request.

The next installment in this drama lies with Council, and political concerns will dominate although this will be disguised by concerns for technical matters.  We may learn again why Canadian winters are too cold for surface operation and other tidbits from Ford’s fountain of transit knowledge.

45 thoughts on “Metrolinx Contemplates LRT vs Subway (Updated)

  1. Michael said

    “80% of the TTC’s ridership can walk off transit tomorrow and into a car if they want.”

    Are you implying that if you improve it but not sufficiently, these people will stop using TTC?


  2. Jim Hoffman says:

    February 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Michael said

    “80% of the TTC’s ridership can walk off transit tomorrow and into a car if they want.”

    Are you implying that if you improve it but not sufficiently, these people will stop using TTC?

    I think that is says much of the TTC ridership is discretionary and if we wish to keep them we should provide better service. The road and parking infrastructure could not easily handle such an increase in traffic but a lot could still change modes before it got to total, instead of, partial gridlock.

    A lot of the ridership increase is also off peak which has a low incremental cost to provide as the equipment and infrastructure already exists and does not need to be purchased. Off peak increases also make it easier to provide crews as you no longer have to worry about too many split shifts that are longer than allowable work periods. This results in paying for for time that is not worked.


  3. Steve: Putting Eglinton on an elevated will mean that considerable space will be consumed underneath the structure especially at stations. It will be cheaper than a tunnel, but the visual effect will be substantial. Vancouver gets away with this sort of thing by building along rights-of-way that don’t run over streets, or by placing elevated sections in locations where the surrounding neighbourhood won’t be affected.

    Except, it’s worth mentioning, along the Richmond section of the Canada Line, where they’ve gone and put the elevated track and stations right along a major thoroughfare (No. 3 Road). That section is a dramatic departure from the rest of rapid transit development in the Lower Mainland. It seems to work, however, given that stretch was already pretty developed (well, as “developed” as Richmond gets) when they put it in (and had previously had middle-of-the-road dedicated bus rapid transit lanes for the 98 B-Line). I’m sure it’s something locals complain about, however, and I can’t say I’ve walked along the section under the track to see what conditions are like.

    It’s not really a surprise that the option to put elevated track down a major street, which I think it’s fair to say is generally considered undesirable in terms of the visual impact on a community, was chosen on a P3 project that also completely disregarded community concerns when it did a last-minute switch to cut-and-cover tunnelling along the Cambie St. corridor. Of course, Richmond being entirely on a river delta might well mean tunnelling was simply not a viable option. I don’t recall ever seeing a good discussion of this aspect of the Canada Line.


  4. The ongoing issue over the Sheppard Subway Extension illustrates a basic “complex” in the Toronto psyche which should interest research psychologists. The majority of Torontonians love streetcars but feel guilty about their feelings. Older people, born after World War 11 grew up in the streetcar deconstruction era. Streetcars were considered to be ‘relics of the past’ which must be banished to legitimize the city’s claim to ‘modernity’. At the same time many of these people used streetcars regularly and found them efficient and comfortable which, at least secretly, pleased them. Consequently they tried reconcile these feelings by chopping pieces off some streetcar routes to indicate that we were well on our way to ‘modernity’ (elimination of streetcars) but just needed time to get there.

    Then the world began to change in a very unexpected way. People became exasperated with endless traffic congestion and the pollution that it produced. Wasn’t there a better form of public transit? What about streetcars? Since streetcars were ‘relics of the past’ they could not be brought back at not least by name. Enter Light Rail Transit (LRT). These vehicles worked much like streetcars, but remember they were ‘non-streetcars’ so they could be legitimately endorsed.

    Then however this new perspective began to lose focus. Light Rapid Transit was considered neo-modern so it could do wonderful things even substitute for subways. Such lines could be built far and wide at a somewhat lower cost than subways. After all, didn’t streetcars carry subway loads of people before subways began?

    What they miss however is population growth. When the first subway opened (Yonge, 1954) the metropolitan population of Toronto stood about 1.3 million. According to Census Canada 2011 it now stands at 5.6 million. Surface streetcars/LRT cannot carry efficiently that many people. If you put LRT in a tunnel efficiency improves, but why accept smaller capacity vehicles when you have built the infrastructure for a full subway. Furthermore subway vehicles whether they run on Sheppard line or Yonge line can be stored and serviced together at the same yard avoiding need to have separate facilities for a fifth different kind of vehicle.

    Consequently, the best approach may be shelve LRT projects on Sheppard and Eglinton, divert tunnel-boring machines from Eglinton to Don Mills and Sheppard and begin building the Sheppard subway extension to Victoria Park North station at full speed. If mayor Ford is determined this extension of 1-2 stations can be opened in later 2014. If Ford is not sincere, then his cover will be blown and he will not be re-elected.

    Make no mistake, streetcars, or if you prefer LRT, have a very important and probably expanded role in Toronto’s transit future. Acting as a stand-in for subways is not part of this role.

    Steve: All this is very quaint, but ignores the basic issue of eventual demand and network design. If a corridor is not going to have subway-level demand in the next three to four decades, then building a subway now is a waste of money. You cannot equate Yonge and Sheppard. It’s worth noting that Yonge had several parallel routes serving the core area, and doing so mainly from the “old” city. The growth in the burbs had not happened and is immaterial to the discussion. I agree that we should not build an all-underground line and run LRVs in it. Don’t forget Eglinton was proposed as an Airport to Kennedy line with only 1/3 underground, and it would be part of a network including the Scarborough-Malvern line, eventually the converted and extended SRT and other future lines. That’s hardly an isolated orphan mode like the RT which would disappear leaving us with the same number of modes as before.


  5. It may not ever happen, but I honestly believe that Metrolinx should take over the operation of the subway and major LRT (like Eglinton) network. The province is the only authority that is capable of long-term management of the heavy rail network. Having the subway under Metrolinx would also ensure that planning took place with GO in mind. For example, the debate on Sheppard has been about extending to Scarborough Town Centre. Why not consider extending till Agincourt to create a nice GO-TTC hub? Or why not entertain more GO expansion as an alternative to the DRL? Who likes spending an hour on the subway to get downtown anyway? Wouldn’t more frequent GO rail service throughout Toronto be better? Imagine how true service integration would change things. Buses feeding GO stations would dramatically alter the transport picture in Toronto. We might actually end up with transit service that can compete with the car. And nobody would have to ride a bus for half an hour to access a subway station for another half hour subway to the core when a nearby GO rail line could get them there in half the time.

    It would also be easier to move to a fare by distance system if the subway network and GO rail network were under one roof. And some sort of transfer scheme could be created to accomodate the bus riders in Toronto.

    Most importantly, it would firmly make the province responsible for transportation beyond your local bus. We don’t expect municipalities to build 400 series highways. Why would we expect the City of Toronto to pay for, manage and operate a rail network that carries as many people as the 400 series highways do, through the city? Give up the subway and LRT networks and Toronto’s transit responsibilities would pretty much be on par with any of the 905 municipalities.

    Steve: In fact, the biggest problem we have is that Metrolinx cannot think of itself as a local service provider even with their existing rail network, never mind the addition of the subway/LRT system. People seem to think that somehow the province is this magical entity that does everything right when, in fact, they’re running a rather small operation that is chronically starved for money and focuses all its efforts on peak period commuters. Toronto’s transit on a par with the 905? I think not. Where in the 905 are there routes that carry over 40k riders per day in mixed traffic and have headways under 5 minutes on weekends?


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