Updated August 2, 2013 at 6:00am:
André Sorensen has written a commentary in today’s Star expanding on his proposed use of the rail corridor for express airport service and a quasi Downtown Relief line. I’m with him on a more intelligent use of the rail corridor, especially to the northwest of downtown, but not with the premise that this could replace the proposed subway from Don Mills & Eglinton to the core.
Updated July 27, 2013 at 7:00am:
I have received correspondence from Professor André Sorensen, the original author of this proposal, that puts it in a somewhat different light.
This information has been added at the end of this article.
Original article from July 25, 2013:
Another proposed “relief line” surfaced recently with a scheme supported by Councillors Ana Bailão and Karen Stintz (who also is TTC Chair).
At the July 24 TTC Board meeting, Chair Stintz moved:
“That TTC CEO Andy Byford initiate discussions with appropriate Metrolinx staff to determine the feasibility of using the Georgetown and Lakeshore East Transit GO Transit corridors for the Downtown Relief Line, as part of the Downtown Relief Line environmental assessment.”
Regular readers of this blog as well as other other venues where the DRL is discussed and dissected will know that fantasy maps of new lines can consume a vast amount of web browsing time and debates verging on pitched battles develop between advocates of various schemes.
Toronto Council, a body which effectively ceded responsibility for major transit planning decisions to Queen’s Park in response to capital subsidies ranging up to 100%, has shifted to “let’s make a deal” mode. We have already seen a debate nominally about revenue tools be highjacked into series of “subway in every ward” motions. The Scarborough Subway proposal was only one of those on the table, and Council, unconstrained by the need to actually pay for anything, was more than happy to endorse whatever its members put forward.
Remember, this is not a government by latte-sipping pinko Commies, but a supposedly business-minded bunch of tax-fighting conservatives.
Into this environment comes a new proposal marrying some of the existing GO corridors with a local transit scheme. The idea, in brief, is to build a U-shaped route from northern Etobicoke southeast along the Weston rail corridor, through Union Station, out the Lake Shore East corridor to Scarborough Junction, and then north to Kennedy Station. Although it was not part of her motion, Stintz talked about using the rail corridors for an LRT route since Metrolinx was planning to electrify anyhow.
The scheme is superficially attractive, but it needs to be taken apart to see what works, what should be kept, and what needs rethinking.
What Will Fit in the Rail Corridors?
If a new line is to be built on dedicated tracks, there must be some place to put it. The Weston corridor is already full side-to-side thanks to the extra tracks Metrolinx has added for expanded services and for the UPX to Pearson Airport.
Through Union Station, any new service, especially one with a distinct technology, would have to find new space for its tracks, or permanently displace some existing operation.
To the east, Metrolinx already plans or has built more capacity in the corridor, and room for a separate line may be hard to come by.
Any new service on Metrolinx corridors should be provided with mainline compatible equipment such as electric multiple unit cars (EMUs). These are technically the equivalent of a subway car, streetcar or LRV, but built to mainline railway standards. This eliminates issues with locations where, necessarily, the new, local service must cross over existing regional and freight operations (yes, there is still the occasional freight train even though Metrolinx owns the corridors now). It also eliminates issues with cars built to city transit standards (operating voltage, collision strength, platform height, etc.) having to co-exist on a rail corridor.
We could have a long debate about whether Canadian regulations about this are reasonable, but don’t expect them to change anytime soon given the overriding concern with rail safety. Where such operations do exist, there is temporal separation so that a mainline train and LRV never occupy tracks where they could conflict. This is clearly impossible in an already-busy commuter rail corridor.
The UPX is something of an embarrassment, a line dating from the dark ages of a previous federal government, handed off to a PPP (SNC Lavalin) and finally taken over by the McGuinty government at Queen’s Park as a Pan Am Games project. At least two chances to revisit its design as a premium fare express service have been lost thanks to the project’s charmed state, but it will be difficult if not impossible to create a local Etobicoke-Weston-Downtown service in this corridor without taking over the tracks now designated for the UPX.
East of Union, indeed even through Union Station, the situation is more complex. The UPX is on the west/south side of the Weston corridor, but a through service must pass through Union, avoid conflict with tracks turning north at the Don Valley (the Richmond Hill corridor, itself slated for considerably improved service), and then arrive at Scarborough Junction on the north side of the rail corridor to turn north to Kennedy without blocking service on the Lake Shore itself.
This is an example of the problems caused by linking an east and west “DRL” especially if a non-standard technology like LRT were going to be used in the rail corridor.
Metrolinx/GO Electrification Plans
Although Metrolinx believes in electrification in principle, seeing it in practice is quite another matter. Transportation Minister Glen Murray has spoken of having the UPX electrified “by 2017”, but more recently this has softened to merely having the conversion “started in 2017”. That will get electric territory from the west end of the rail shed at Union to the Airport, but will not deal with the train shed itself, nor with electric service on the Lake Shore to a proposed maintenance facility in Oshawa.
The UPX will have a small yard for its small fleet in Rexdale, but any higher-capacity urban line will need more storage and maintenance facilities somewhere, and this pushes the scope of a first stage electrification beyond what is planned for the UPX.
A strong argument can be made that Metrolinx should electrify sooner rather than later, but any scheme for local service on GO trackage should work with the likely rollout first in the Weston corridor to the Airport.
The Function of a “Downtown Relief Line”
There are three major issues about a “DRL” that tend to get in the way of any discussion:
- Wherever it goes, this line will cost a lot of money and be difficult to build.
- The term “Downtown Relief” implies in some political circles that nobody north of Bloor Street will benefit, a problem worsened by the TTC’s insistence on showing only the segment nominally from Pape to Union in their plans.
- Demand for travel to downtown originates in many places, and one line will not solve everyone’s problems. However, only one line is ever drawn on the map assuming that we cannot possibly afford more.
A line diagonally to the northwest would serve a travel demand that does not now have a direct route to downtown except for a few peak period, peak direction GO trains. As it heads northwest, the Weston rail corridor goes through a widening swath of Toronto that is remote from the subway network. Rapid transit, whatever its form, would be an addition to this part of the city.
An important design issue, however, is that most of the proposed stations are not at major employment or residential nodes and this is unlikely to change in the medium term, possibly longer. Railway corridors have their limitations partly because of historic industrial areas and because more attractive development sites exist elsewhere.
Good feeder bus services and interchanges will be essential, and by implication, the line should be part of the TTC fare grid. By the time anything like this is built, the long-standing and highly artificial separation of GO and TTC as two separate fare structures must end as this is a barrier to GO’s role in supplementing/relieving subway capacity.
The eastern leg is more of a problem. With a subway interchange at Kennedy (to the presumed, by then, extended Danforth subway), the eastern service could bleed off some subway traffic provided that the interchange were reasonably convenient and service frequent. We have already seen how the supposed problems of a much-simplified LRT-to-subway transfer at Kennedy rank with The Apocalypse for Scarborough riders, and they will need a big incentive to change trains at Kennedy.
The line has stations closer to downtown, but the feeder bus network goes to the subway and is unlikely to be reorganized to feed into the proposed station locations further south on that eastern leg.
Both halves of this line look to divert riders from the Bloor-Danforth subway, but they do almost nothing to reduce the north-south flow on the Yonge line north of Bloor Station. That has always been the challenge for “downtown relief” — shifting north-south travel away from Yonge Street.
Metrolinx recently launched a study of travel in, broadly speaking, the Yonge corridor. This will include not only the existing YUS subway, its northern extensions and the DRL, but also the potential role of the GO corridors.
“Relief” can come in more than one form. At its simplest, if some of the commuter demand can be shifted from the present or future subway to the GO corridors, this reduces the peak demand on the subway. A more complex goal would be to not only shift demand, but to make the new corridor a catalyst for redevelopment and an all-day link between sites with substantial demand. This is more of a challenge that simply running trains on existing tracks. Indeed, a line intended to lure development needs more stops in good locations, more nodes to stimulate, than a line whose function is to whisk passengers from the 905 to Front & Bay as quickly as possible.
Improved service on all of the GO corridors, not just from Woodbine racetrack to Kennedy Station, is essential in the medium term. We cannot wait decades for Metrolinx and Queen’s Park to fiddle around with small scale service improvements and implementation schedules stretching beyond the retirement of most Torontonians.
Over the past month, I have heard comments about the DRL suggesting that the line really isn’t necessary if only we can find some lower-cost alternatives. Even this Weston-Downtown-Kennedy line seems to be couched in the same terms — build this and you can avoid the cost of an underground DRL.
In the wake of the Scarborough Subway debate (whatever one may think of the outcome), it is clear that the DRL and its budget are huge targets for those with vanity projects, the chicken-in-every-pot subway plans. If we go down this road we will return to an era of pure transit fantasy, with lines built for ego and to court votes, and we will continue to defer a long overdue route in Toronto.
The TTC did the city no good by its long insistence that whatever might happen, more riders could be stuffed onto the Yonge subway through:
- diversion of riders to the Spadina line once it is extended to Vaughan
- trains with higher capacity (the Toronto Rockets or “TRs”)
- new signalling that would allow trains to run closer together
The TTC gave only passing thought to:
- constraints on station capacity (except at Bloor-Yonge where a very expensive expansion scheme is proposed akin to what is now happening at Union),
- the limitations of terminals (where the physics of train movements and the speed of operator responses set a lower bound on train departures), and
- fleet size (there is no budget provision for the extra trains a more frequent service would require, nor for their storage and maintenance).
This is a classic case of “just one more project” to attain the goal we have been promised, and the likelihood that we will never quite get there while demand and congestion continue to grow. When the full cost and complexity of fitting everyone onto the existing subway is lowballed, the “high cost” of a DRL can look daunting, and the TTC constantly downplayed it as an option. Going north of Danforth to Eglinton and beyond was rarely mentioned.
To his credit, TTC CEO Andy Byford sees the situation differently:
Mr. Byford stressed that, even if the idea is deemed feasible, at some point the TTC will have to go underground.
“I still think, if we talk about the east, there will ultimately, definitely need to be a separate corridor. A separate subway going from somewhere like the Danforth, or maybe even further north than Eglinton, down along King or Queen, and then up to Dundas West,” he said. [National Post]
Not One, But Many
The heart of the Metrolinx Big Move plan, for all its limitations, is to look at transit service as a network, not as individual projects. Many debates about the DRL have turned on single-line implementations and each of these is coloured by the objectives advocates for each proposal might favour. It is impossible to serve all of these goals with one line — there are too many “dots on the map” as potential areas deserving service, and too many demand corridors for one spaghetti-shaped line to serve all of them.
Metrolinx, the TTC, Toronto Council and the public need to understand the limitations of each scheme, the benefits each will confer (or not), and how each component will fit into a larger plan. Regional service and fare integration will be essential to making this work so that riders ignore the colour of the vehicle when making their route selection. We seem to be prepared to spend billions on subway lines so that riders can have cheap “TTC” fares to downtown rather than looking at what can be achieved for less total cost with improvements to the rail corridors.
Possibly, if Metrolinx churns out its study fairly quickly, we will get some of this info. Meanwhile, “debate” will be driven by each Councillor’s new map, and that is no way to plan a network.
Updated July 27:
The origin of this proposal is in work done by Prof. André Sorensen from the University of Toronto. He wrote to me about it on July 26:
Just read your blog on my DRL Pearson idea, that Karen Stinz moved to be examined further. I would be happy to send you a fuller explanation, if you like. You got part of the idea wrong. The proposal is to use the UPX tracks. But the main point is that for regional transit it is time to look at electric express/local services along the rail corridors. Not sure where you got the map you published, but it is just a draft to measure the population along the route. I would be happy to send you a more final version.
[The map was taken from Councillor Ana Bailão’s Facebook post.]
In a further note, he said:
The point is that this would use the UPX tracks that are currently in place, and could start as an express service, later being modified to allow the local service. It would certainly have to be done to mainline rail standards, for the reasons you indicate.
I am currently working on an analysis of the development potential of the nodes along the corridor from Union Stn. to the Airport. I think that this corridor has much more development potential than along the Bloor Danforth line, partly because it lies between downtown and the Airport, and partly because of a lot of vacant and lightly used land along the corridor. Bloor did not have those conditions. The corridor is between the two largest employment nodes in the region, the Airport and Downtown. That will drive a lot of potential development.
I agree that local services would have to be reorganized to feed to those new stations.
For more information, please read Sorensen’s paper The Logic of Express-Local Rail Service to Pearson Airport and the associated map.