Updated Sept. 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm: NOW Magazine has published an article by Rob Salerno detailing the problems with the right-of-way on Eglinton West that John Tory’s SmartTrack plan assumes is available, as well as questions about the need for both a frequent service on the Stouffville GO corridor and the Scarborough Subway.
Toronto is beset by a love of drawing lines on maps. We have stacks of rapid transit studies going back to the horsecar era. We have competing views of regional and local transit. We have the pandering “I have a solution for YOU” approach tailored to whichever ballot box needs stuffing. Almost none of this gets built.
Fantasy maps abound. The difference between the scribblings of amateur transit geeks and professional/political proposals can be hard to find.
Common to both is the sense that “my plan” is not just better, it is the only plan any right-thinking person would embrace. Egos, both personal and governmental, are literally on the line. Once pen meets paper ideas acquire a permanence and commitment that are almost indelible.
If transit networks were cheap to build and operate relative to the resources we choose to spend on them, transit would be everywhere and blogs like this would be reduced to debating the colour scheme for this week’s newly-opened station. Transit is not cheap, and the debates turn on far more complex issues than which shade of red or green is appropriate for our two major networks.
Another election with competing views of what is best for Toronto brings a crop of proposals. I hesitate to say “a fresh crop” as some schemes are long past their sell-by dates. Candidates may strive to bring something new to the discussion, but these attempts can discard good ideas simply to appear innovative. Perish the thought that we might embrace something already on the table when we can wave a magic wand and – Presto! – the solution to every problem appears in a puff of smoke, a well-timed entrance and an overblown YouTube video.
Moving people with transit is not simply one problem with one solution. Nobody pretends that a single expressway could cure all the ails of Toronto and the region beyond. A single highway – say, a “401” in a Toronto that had only recently paved Sheppard Avenue – would be recognized for its limitations. But once a plan is committed to paper – even the dreaded coffee-stained napkin, let alone election literature – resistance is futile. At least until the next election.
This article reviews several dreams for new and upgraded transit, and tries to make sense out of what all these lines might achieve.
As I was reading through all of this, I felt that some of my critique will sound rather harsh, and inevitably I would be challenged with “so what would you do”. If you want to see my answer, jump to the end of the article, remembering that my scheme is not a definitive one.
Although some of my comments touch on proposals of various Mayoral candidates, I will leave a detailed review of those for a separate article. A good regional plan is more important than any one campaign, and the debate on what we should build should not be dictated by this week’s pet project, whatever it might be.
Regional Express Rail (RER)
Metrolinx and GO Transit (one organization with two very different public faces) now embraces the concept that a truly “regional” network means more than funneling peak hour commuters to and from Union Station. “Embraced” may be a stretch here, given that it took a pre-election promise by their Queen’s Park masters to shift attention to this long-overdue change in GO’s mandate. A new train or two, here and there, now and then, simply could not address the magnitude of demand for travel and the pressure on all transportation services as the GTHA population grows.
But Metrolinx has definitely shifted gears, as their status report on RER shows.
RER includes several facets.
Frequent, electrified service, possibly as good as 4 trains/hour, would be provided on all GO corridors, all day long, 7 days/week. Well, maybe not. Premier Wynne’s statement at the Board of Trade includes important qualifications:
“… our target will be two-way, all-day GO express rail on all lines. … Over ten years, we aim to phase in electric train service every fifteen minutes on all GO lines that we own.” [April 14, 2014]
The RER report does not give specifics of service designs, but a clear pattern emerges for major corridors with an express service to the outer ends, and a local service between nodes closer to downtown. On Lake Shore, these are at Oakville and Pickering (ironically the original termini of GO’s service); on the Kitchener line, at Mt. Pleasant. It does not require a big leap to foresee electrification to the bounds of local service with diesel trains continuing beyond, at least as an initial implementation.
GO does not own all of its routes, nor is it likely to acquire all of them for the simple reason that they are mainline freight trackage. What could happen is a co-existence of GO with parallel operations such as on Lake Shore East. Each corridor has its own challenges and potential solutions.
The shift in philosophy about GO as a regional surface subway, not merely a commuter railway, will fundamentally change GO’s role and the role of public transit in the GTHA. Strong integration with local operators will make the RER accessible via transit at both ends of an RER journey, and can be the impetus for better local transit service and demand.
The speed with which these changes will be implemented depends on a combination of long-term government commitment, overcoming hurdles to acceptance by private railways that GO will make greater use of their lines, acceleration of changes needed for electrification, and a truly integrated fare and service structure with local agencies.
Ongoing capital and operating budget support is essential. Too often, governments get cold feet when they don’t have a ribbon to cut every few months, or when economic crises make spending a project for “next year”. The problems don’t go away, and as we have seen in past decades, they just get worse.
RER is probably the best idea Queen’s Park has had in its long history of bungled transit files. For once, we have a proposal whose primary goal is to improve service, not to underwrite some hare-brained economic development strategy or pump money into a specific manufacturer’s product.
Alas, this could all be undone if an over-eager, influential cabinet minister starts gerrymandering plans and priorities to suit an election campaign. That could be a greater disaster than recent provincial meddling in Toronto’s rapid transit plans.
The regional context is particularly important because this is not just a few nodes – Union Station, Hamilton, Brampton, Barrie, Oshawa – but the many in between stops on the network itself, and in the many blank spaces between the green lines on the map.
That region includes Toronto, all of it, not just Union Station. GO’s long-standing antipathy for inside-416 ridership must end. This does not mean that trains would stop at every crossing, but fares and service patterns discriminating against local riding simply waste the capacity of the network. One can hardly blame folks from the outer 416 for wanting subways to downtown if GO’s presence is little more than trains that don’t stop, or high fares for limited capacity if they do.
A major challenge for RER will be to design not just for a 15-minute headway out at, say, Oakville, but to have enough capacity so that Port Credit, Long Branch and Mimico don’t become the equivalent of Eglinton on the overloaded Yonge subway.
The status report talks about two types of service on various corridors with an express serving the outer portion (say, Oakville to Hamilton on Lake Shore West) and a separate local service for the inner portion. This is important not just to divorce the long-haul demand from the locals, but also to allow improvements for very frequent service to stay within the portions of each corridor that GO controls.
Positive Train Control is included as a necessary part of the network’s upgrade because this will allow operation of more frequent service than conventional railway signalling and practices now in use. There is a limit to how many tracks will fit in each corridor, and moving more trains per hour will be vital to the RER network. PTC will also improve safety with a direct link between train operations and the signal system.
Electrification and very frequent service all the way to Kitchener is a real stretch and poses challenges for interoperation with the freight railways, not to mention being a dubious use of resources. Metrolinx talks of the local service going out to Mt. Pleasant Station, a much more attainable goal with funding concentrated on the busiest part of the corridor.
Will we get seven completed corridors in ten years? Not likely, but it is good to see that Metrolinx does not (for now) attempt to spin their project with the unreasonable promises made by politicians on the hustings.
Union Station is an area of special concern both for its complexity in an electrification changeover and its capacity. Constraints must be address through rationalization of platform use, better operating procedures that will permit shorter headways and, possibly, satellite stations. Shared approaches to Union are a special challenge because multiple frequent services will converge well before they reach the station.
At long last Toronto sees a network-based approach to its commuter rail system that goes all the way from the big-picture infrastructure all the way down to the essential improvement of fare and service integration with local transit operations.
This project must not be derailed by short-sighted political interference.
Union Pearson (Express)
An air-rail link to Pearson Airport has been in the works for a very long time with initial studies in the 1990s and the first request for proposals by Ottawa in 2001. Although the government hoped that this scheme could be a for-profit private sector operation, that was never really viable. Queen’s Park inherited the program in 2008, but with the continued need for public subsidy, the 3P deal fell apart. By 2010, it was a fully public sector Metrolinx project, albeit one with its own Division and President, a situation almost as laughable as if the TTC had a separate President for the Spadina streetcar.
The line’s development is littered with poorly executed public participation and a sense that the new service would bully its way from Union to Pearson over any objections. People can be coaxed into supporting a public work for the greater good, especially if this includes stops in their neighbourhoods and fares they can afford for daily travel.
Far too much government ego is invested in this line at both the political and bureaucratic level. Recent over-the-top publicity was pulled from YouTube, but not before it became the object of ridicule and exposed the self-congratulatory Metrolinx mindset for all to see. The sense that Toronto cannot be a world-class city without this service, that we would be ridiculed by visitors to the Pan-Am Games in 2015, have pushed what should be a basic local transit improvement into realms of hyperbole better suited to carnival hucksters.
We hear about all the trips by limo from downtown that will be replaced by brisk UP journeys saving on pollution and congestion. No reference to when these trips might occur, nor to the fact that a trip to the airport by transit – whether it be a harried member of the business elite or a worker on the daily commute – is a trip removed from the road.
The Provincial Auditor did not think highly of this scheme, and a credible “business case” for the UP Express has never been published.
After all of the criticism, Metrolinx is backing away from initial plans. They talk of protecting for additional stops and of a fare regime that might attract weekday workers, not just the business elite. A proposed tariff may appear on the December 2014 Board meeting agenda.
The sad part in all of this is that the UPX could have been so much more right from the outset if only GO’s view of its purpose had advanced to an “RER” context years earlier. The Weston corridor is an obvious and oft-proposed way to link northwest Toronto and the Malton/Bramalea/Brampton area to downtown. Instead, all of the effort went to serving a small potential market, the only one where a profit from transit might be possible. That is no way to plan a network.
Service to the airport must be more than something for a handful of business-class riders, and it must serve far more than downtown Toronto. As a major destination it should be served from multiple directions (in effect, a mini “downtown”) including busways from the west and LRT from the east both on Eglinton and from Finch. The study of transit needs for the airport district must look to the widest possible catchment area for trips, and should not be cooked to artificially inflate the role of the UP Express line.
The UP Express will open to much fanfare, but it will be a “success” only to the degree that cut-rate fares will attract riders. How much subsidy it will require to operate remains to be seen, and this may simply be buried within the Metrolinx accounts. That embarrassment need not happen, and Metrolinx needs to rescue the line by rethinking its purpose, its role as part of both RER and the local network.
(Downtown) Relief Line
A “relief” line for overcrowding on the subway is a project many discuss, but nobody wants to pay for. The idea is hardly new, and as Ed Levy so beautifully documented, a rapid transit line from east of the Don River to downtown has been on maps for over a century.
Its last incarnation as a true subway plan was a line running east on Queen and then north to Don Mills and Eglinton. Later, as part of the stillborn scheme to extend use of the Scarborough RT technology throughout Toronto, the east-west leg would have run via Eastern Avenue, the rail corridor and Front Street to a terminal at Union Station.
Notwithstanding Gordon Chong’s recent ill-informed comments in the National Post, a Queen subway or any variant was not the victim of the “hippies” who convinced Toronto to keep its streetcars in 1972, but of a Metro Council more in love with suburban growth than downtown intensification. Presented with a choice between the Sheppard and Queen subway projects, the Council picked Sheppard, and did so over a decade after the pro-streetcar decision.
Meanwhile, the TTC continued to claim that the existing Yonge line could handle any foreseeable growth in ridership through conversion to fully automatic operation and expansion of major stations, notably Bloor-Yonge, to handle the resulting passenger flows. This claim was also in aid of a Richmond Hill extension, a project with strong support in TTC ranks, but one that could only be advanced if capacity would be available for new riders.
Like so much of TTC planning in the late 20th century, the idea that GO Transit could play a role in sharing peak demand from the 905 or outer 416 suburbs into Toronto was completely absent from the discussion.
The downtown capacity crisis hit its peak in the late 1980s, but with the recession of the 1990s, ridership dropped steeply. Twenty percent of the system’s daily riders just vanished along with any pressure to improve subway capacity.
Now the crunch is on again, but political attention is still fixed well beyond the core area.
One big problem the “DRL” has is that word “Downtown”, an area reviled by many politicians who argue that the coddled folk south of Bloor get far too big a share of the transit pie already. That would be fine if the subway were only used by people living, say, south of Eglinton, but as regular commuters know, the subway is packed with riders from both Toronto’s outer suburbs and from the 905 thanks to an extensive network of feeder buses.
In effect, Toronto needs a new “downtown” subway to handle demand in the central part of the city, to provide a relief valve for congestion on the Yonge-University line, and to diversify possible routes for travel. If we think of a new line simply as a way to siphon riders off of the Danforth subway to downtown, the proposal is guaranteed to fail.
It could be so much more.
As with so many plans, there are competing objectives, and lines fall onto maps as if strands of spaghetti landed randomly on the breeze. These objectives and possible service goals include:
- Serving downtown with an east-west line through the core at a location that lies roughly in the centre of potential demand. That centre has shifted south since Queen Street was thought to be the future east-west main street, a shift that was already underway with developments on Bloor decades ago.
- Serving new developments around the Don River and the eastern waterfront. That waterfront is a huge place stretching from Queen Street down to the lake. The distance is slightly over 1km at Sherbourne Street, but double this east of the Don when future growth in the Port Lands is considered.
- Serving new developments west of downtown. This includes the established Liberty Village district, but also its growing northern extension to Queen, many developments between the rail corridor and Queen west of downtown, and development between the rail corridor and Lake Ontario.
- Development at or near the Exhibition grounds and Ontario Place.
- West Queen West (the lands beyond the Weston rail corridor) and a link to Dundas West Station.
No one line can possibly serve all of these areas. Terabytes of space on various blogs is consumed with sundry maps and discussions of a “Relief Line” alignment, and I am not going to rehash all of that here.
A joint study between Toronto City Planning, the TTC and Metrolinx is reviewing options for “relief” on the subway network, and is now at the stage of winnowing many proposed schemes (the long list includes just about every fantasy map ever published) down to a manageable set of credible alternatives. What is still missing, however, is a sense of just what a “relief” line is supposed to achieve beyond diverting riders from the existing subway.
What neighbourhoods will it serve? What major existing or potential development sites lie along the various corridors? What will happen to the places left out of the DRL’s service territory? Which potential demands can be better served by other routes ranging all the way from the RER system down to the local street transit network?
That context is essential for moving debate on a “DRL” beyond mere “relief” to something that will contribute to the growth of the city. As relief, the investment would be quite dear, but to unlock the value of land now poorly served by transit, the payback would be quite different.
Unless the debate is refocused on that broader scope, the DRL, regardless of its name, will have weak support, be treated as a project for “someone else”, and will remain an unbuilt line on a map.
Waterfront (West/East) LRT
Transit to the waterfront – broadly speaking the lands south of the rail corridor – has always suffered because, like the DRL, it is something “downtown”, not part of the supposedly burgeoning suburbs, and because for so much of the waterfront, nothing is really “there”. Even as plans started to firm up, especially for the land east from Yonge to the Don, and the TTC claimed it should take a “transit first” approach, major investments in transit simply did not appear in the priority lists.
The Waterfront West LRT was announced as part of the 1990 transit plan that was supposed to re-elect David Peterson’s Liberals, but instead brought Bob Rae’s majority NDP government. Rae inherited the plans just as the economy dove into recession, and he tried to keep the overall scheme alive as much for job creation as for transit in its own right. (The other routes proposed included the Eglinton West, Bloor West, Sheppard East and Spadina/Steeles/Yonge loop subways.)
By 1993, there was an Environmental Assessment proposing a line from Union Station following what is now the 509 Harbourfront car’s alignment to the east side of the CNE, then south along Lake Shore to serve Ontario Place, north up Dufferin either to King or to a route along the rail corridor, and finally west via The Queensway and Lake Shore to Legion Road. A future enhancement might have been a more direct line via Bremner and the rail corridor covering the segment from Union to Dufferin.
Over the years, various alternatives emerged, but one important change was that the streetcars found themselves buried against the north edge of Exhibition Place far from anything that might happen on Lake Shore. Further west, a scheme to take the line beyond Sunnyside on a reworked Lake Shore Boulevard to a Queensway connection at Colbourne Lodge Road emerged during the Miller years as part of Transit City.
The WWLRT shares with the DRL the problem that it cannot serve all of the existing and potential developments along its path. For example, a line on the Lake Shore makes sense if it has something to serve, but this would leave Exhibition Loop (and a walking connection over the rail corridor to Liberty Village) high and dry. There is also a problem with the route’s length out into southern Etobicoke and whether it could really compete with frequent, attractively priced service on the GO corridor.
To the east, lands of comparable scale to the existing downtown lie almost empty. These are former industrial lands where development has been constrained by a lack of access and utilities, not to mention difficult of building near the lake on fill, and by flood protection requirement that conversion to residential/commercial property entail. There is also the small matter of the future of the Gardiner and particularly the geometry of its connection to the Don Valley Parkway.
The Waterfront East LRT in its fully developed form would include a line splitting off from the existing Bay Street tunnel at Queens Quay running east to Cherry Street which would be shifted west from its present location. Here there would be a connection north via Cherry to King (the track is now in place to a loop just north of the rail corridor) and south via New Cherry to the Ship Channel (not to be confused with Keating Channel which is just south of Lake Shore). The line could be extended east via Lake Shore to hook up with an extended Broadview Avenue, or via Commissioners Street to Leslie at the new Leslie Barns.
The political problem is that much of this land is now vacant, and even the recent developments are well known only to those who visit the area, not to the wider city. We might have seen pressure under the Miller regime to build sooner, but with Rob Ford in charge, any new streetcar lines were out of the question and the waterfront development risked being restyled as an amusement park.
The Challenge of the Core
Work now underway at Union to improve capacity and modernize its appearance is long overdue. However, the RER plan accelerates the consumption of that capacity, and Toronto cannot sit back thinking “well, that job’s finished”.
Part of the problem is operational – the way GO and VIA share space and manage their trains could be improved to reduce conflicting movements and reduce or eliminate turnaround times.
Another issue is simply the movement of passengers to and from platforms, not to mention congestion. This is a common problem with some subway stations where running more trains will overwhelm existing capacity.
Metrolinx has included these as part of their review in the RER study. One option is the creation of one or two satellite termini to the east at the Don River, or to the west between Bathurst and Spadina. That can reduce the number of trains arriving at Union, but the “last mile” problem remains for the passengers. (It would be like ending southbound Yonge subway service at Summerhill.)
The DRL has been proposed, but this forces its alignment to match the location of any new GO terminal, and definitely requires fare integration with the TTC as a distribution mechanism.
The core area is much larger than in decades past with expansion both east-west (mainly residential growth) and north-south especially across the rail corridor (residential and commercial growth). Where “King & Bay” was once the target of a large proportion of trips, demand is much more spread out, and it is impractical to serve the whole area with subway lines.
Residential growth occurs mainly in shoulder core (roughly a 4km radius from Union) , but is spilling beyond anywhere there is better transit with infill and redevelopment of previously low rise neighbourhoods. The streetcar system is already under stress from this growth, but will only slowly gain capacity as the fleet of new low-floor cars arrives.
Academic institutions also contribute to the growth, and they have a different demand pattern from office towers. The growing campuses of Ryerson University (near Dundas Station) and George Brown College (both in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood and on Queens Quay East) bring large, transit dependent populations into the core area.
Transit’s share of trips to the core is good, but certainly not 100%, and “active transportation” (walking, cycling) can only address part of the capacity shortfall.
Express buses appear on wish lists as “solutions”, but these are expensive to operate and can only serve riders with an origin-destination pattern that lies along what little spare road capacity might be found. Even where a route into the core exists, road space for a shared downtown loop and stops is limited and this will constrain the capacity of express services.
Finally, the core and a goodly portion of the “old” city suffer from congestion that has become an all-day problem. This is partly a “good news” story with the rejuvenation of the central city, new residents and commercial activity. However, the failure to improve surface transit routes and to manage road space leaves would-be transit riders steaming about capacity and service quality.
So, Smarty, What Would Your Plan Look Like?
None of this will be new to regular readers. I hate to draw my own map because this will launch an immense comment thread about the minutia of each reader’s preferences. The issue here is to view transit as a network, not as something that can be cherry-picked or a problem that can be solved with a single, magically “free” project.
- GO’s RER plan should be implemented as quickly as possible, and the benefits it will bring to demand for long-haul trips must be factored into plans for the subway network.
- RER cannot be a “local” service on the granularity of the TTC and it should not try. However, more stations are needed along with a service and fare structure that will make GO useful and attractive not just in the 905 but in the outer 416.
- A “Relief Line” is required separate from service on the GO corridors because it would serve a different type of demand. To the east, it should run from downtown via Wellington and Front with an alignment at the Don suitable for developments planned in the area. Further east and north the line should not end at Danforth, but should continue through East York to serve Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon Park and the Don Mills/Eglinton intersection (with potential for further northward extension).
- West of downtown, a DRL alignment (if any) depends on whether there will be a satellite GO station at Bathurst North and on whatever plans might evolve for Exhibition Place.
- The Weston rail corridor should be the route of whatever western “relief” line might be built, and this should incorporate the airport service from downtown. A convenient link at Dundas West with direct access between the Bloor subway and the rail corridor is essential.
- The Queen Subway, especially the West Queen West and Roncesvalles components, is an inappropriate response to existing and probable development patterns, and it should not be pursued.
- A detailed study and understanding of evolving demand in the shoulder areas around downtown is urgently required together with a review of improvements to streetcar service both by fleet expansion and by better traffic priority.
- Service to the waterfront, broadly speaking to the areas south of the rail corridor, must be seen as a requirement in its own right, not as something that can be handled by a passing GO or subway line. The nature and timing of developments both to the east and west of the core need to be much better understood so that the needs and priorities of these areas can be debated intelligently as part of the regional plan. This includes a clear plan for the use of lands at Exhibition Place and transit’s role there either with improved streetcar service on the Bathurst and Harbourfront routes, and/or as a western terminus of the DRL.
- The SmartTrack scheme to access the airport via Eglinton West is impractical both because of the difficulty of getting from the rail corridor to Eglinton at Jane, and because the land proposed for SmartTrack is no longer available as a continuous corridor. We already have built a line to the airport – use it – and leave Eglinton free for extension of the Crosstown LRT.
- The Finch LRT line should be built including protection for eventual extension to the airport.
- In Scarborough, the function of an RER service on the Stouffville GO corridor, together with a subway or LRT route, should be clarified. They should not both be trying to provide local service as well as funneling riders south from Markham into Toronto. My preference for the LRT scheme is well-known, but if the subway plan survives, its potential loss of riders to the RER should be well-understood.
- The Sheppard East LRT line including its proposed UTSC extension should be built.
Last, but certainly not least, service quality and frequency must improve across the surface route network. Buses and streetcars are too often ignored while grandiose schemes for future rapid transit get all the attention. Recently, I wrote about The Crisis in TTC Service Capacity. The abdication of responsibility for transit by the current administration is among the blackest of many appalling acts for which Rob Ford and his cronies will be remembered.
The standard line these days is to say “we can’t fix anything until 2019” because of lead times on various projects. This, flatly, is not acceptable. The problem is not time, it is money, or rather the continued unwillingness to spend it on anything that won’t buy votes in the election of the day.
We hear lots about “respect for taxpayers”, but rarely about “respect for the city”. I cannot help thinking of shareholders in now-dead corporations whose only concern was to maximize dividends while stripping assets as quickly as possible. That is what we risk doing to Toronto – disinvesting to the point where the city stops working – and our transit system is one big example of that folly.
All of the bright hopes for regional transit, all those multicoloured maps, are worthless if they will be hamstrung by the “no new taxes” brigades, by the short-sighted politicians who can’t bear fighting for spending unless it is in their ward, their riding, their campaign literature.
Toronto and Queen’s Park lost any claim to fiscal responsibility or “business case analysis” with the Scarborough Subway project and the decision to fund its cost through a new transit tax. If we have money for Scarborough, there is a long line of projects and services that have equal if not better claim for new money. Investment in Toronto’s future means more than building a few subway lines.