Updated October 17, 2014 at 4:15pm: Information from Metrolinx about the revised design for the Air Rail Link spur line from the Weston subdivision to Pearson Airport has been added.
John Tory’s SmartTrack proposal has been roundly criticized by various people, including me, on a number of counts. When one looks at the scheme, it is the technical issues — the degree to which SmartTrack will crowd out the Metrolinx RER scheme (or simply take over its function), the question of capacity at Union Station, the route along Eglinton from the Weston rail corridor to the airport. But the biggest challenge is the link from the rail corridor to Eglinton itself.
Let’s get one issue out of the way up front. Writing in the Star on October 6, Eric Miller states:
And it’s interesting to note that very little criticism deals with the basic merit of the proposal as an addition to Toronto’s transit network. The design logic to address major commuting problems is self-evident; analysis to date indicates high ridership and cost-recovery potential that is expected to be confirmed by more detailed post-election studies; and it is modelled on successful international best practice.
Criticisms have, instead, focused on the line’s “constructability” where it meets Eglinton Avenue W. and on Tory’s proposed financing scheme. As already briefly discussed, however, the constructability issue is truly a tempest in a teapot. And with respect to financing I would suggest that all three mayoral candidates and most of the popular press still have this wrong.
In fact, constructability and the technical issues are precisely what could sink this proposal. Dismissing this as a “tempest in a teapot” is a neat dodge, but it is the academic equivalent of “you’re wrong because I say so”. Many who support Tory’s campaign see criticism of SmartTrack as the work of naysayers who, like so many before us, doom Toronto to inaction.
This is tantamount to saying we cannot criticize the plan because doing so is disloyal to the city’s future. Never mind whether the plan is valid, just don’t criticize it.
Miller’s comments in his op-ed piece (linked above) also don’t line up with statements in the “Four Experts” article of October 9 where he and others talk about what SmartTrack might do. Miller is much less in agreement that SmartTrack could achieve what is claimed for it. Should we dismiss his comments as being irrelevant or counterproductive? Of course not.
This article deals with the challenge of getting from the rail corridor to a point under Eglinton Avenue West at Jane Street, the first stop on the journey west to the airport. To put all of this in context, it is vital to look at the details of both the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (including amendments) and at the Metrolinx Georgetown South project in the rail corridor.
The Eglinton Crosstown’s Difficult History in Mount Dennis
Documents related to the Crosstown’s original design can be found on the project’s website in a page dedicated to the Environmental Project Report. The file of interest is in Chapter 3, Plates, Part 1 which gives details from the airport east to roughly the Allen Expressway.
The portion of interest here is from plate 27 to plate 34 covering the Humber River east to Black Creek. Illustrations here are reduced from their size and level of detail in the linked reports.
In the original scheme, the LRT line was to stay in the middle of the street all the way from the portal east of Black Creek, under the rail corridor, through the intersection at Weston Road, down the hill to Jane Street and points west. The difference in elevation is substantial with a 4.9% grade down into the valley (see the vertical profile at the bottom of plate 31). This is almost double the maximum gradient for any conventional GO equipment,
although there is a comparable grade on the spur line from the rail corridor into the airport (see discussion of the Georgetown corridor later in the article).
Correction: In the original design of the airport spur, there was a steep grade required to drop the line to a level appropriate for access to a maintenance facility. Because this has been moved to another location, the steep grades on the airport spur were removed, and it now is built to a maximum 2% grade, the standard for GO’s passenger operations.
This defines the type of equipment that must operate on SmartTrack, and it would almost certainly be trains of Electric Multiple Units (EMUs), not full-sized GO trains as has been claimed on occasion. If something less able to handle this grade is intended, then the path from the rail corridor down to Jane Street must take a longer descent, and this affects issues such as station placement and the location of a curve between the rail line and Eglinton itself.
Plate 32 shows the original scheme for Mt. Dennis Station with a centre platform on the street west of Weston Road. This would have included not only the extra width for the platform, but for a storage track west of the station. All of this would not fit in the existing roadway. Houses built to the sidewalk line on the north side of Eglinton would have to be demolished, a scheme that did not endear the original LRT proposal to the Mt. Dennis citizens.
The TTC and Metrolinx were quite adamant through the project’s review that no alternative was possible, although what was really going on was that Queen’s Park refused to up the ante on project funding. Various alternatives were studied (see Appendix K), and of interest in today’s context were the difficulties with underground structures at or near Mt. Dennis Station. (See Appendixes A/B to Appendix K.) A common problem was that the station structure and/or a three-track section for turnbacks affected properties above the line on both the east and west sides of Weston Road, including the houses mentioned above.
The at grade scheme didn’t get very far, and continued political pressure forced Metrolinx to reconsider its options. In an addendum, a completely revised setup for Mt. Dennis Station became the preferred option. For details of the alignment see Plates E-3a to E-3g of the Executive Summary PDF.
This scheme shifts the platform east under the rail corridor and avoids the requirement for a wider structure west of the station. The grade for a future extension westward is less onerous because the line is already underground at Weston Road and does not have to descend as far to reach the level of Jane Street. However, this is still a higher elevation than SmartTrack would use because it would tunnel under Jane and under the Humber River further west.
The design of this station and alignment was a hard-fought battle in Mt. Dennis, and it cannot be wished away by treating objections to construction hurdles as simple problems to be overcome. This is a neighbourhood already sensitized to the tender mercies of planners who don’t care about local effects.
Now let us look at the rail corridor.
The Georgetown South Project
Like the Eglinton line, the Georgetown South project encountered stiff community opposition because of effects along the rail corridor. This has required GO/Metrolinx to completely rethink the section around Weston Station north of Lawrence Avenue West and to provide more grade separation than originally planned.
Further south, there is provision for a future interchange with the Eglinton Crosstown line whose station (see above) is now directly under the rail corridor.
This project produced its own Environmental Report complete with drawings in Appendix I. Plates 16 to 20 cover the section from Eglinton south to St. Clair.
A curve linking the rail corridor to Eglinton has a number of obstacles to deal with. It is self-evident that the SmartTrack station cannot be beside the LRT station which is north of Eglinton and under the rail line. There are three possible locations for a station, each with its problems:
- Under Eglinton Avenue west of Weston Road. This location is the easiest to fit in, but it brings up again the issue of the effect on buildings above the station structure just as the proposed Mt. Dennis Station on the LRT line did.
- On the rail corridor south of Eglinton before the turn west. This location is constrained by the presence of Black Creek drive (not to mention Black Creek itself) not far south of Eglinton. The station would have to be underground so that the turn under the residential community could be executed underneath it as a bored tunnel rather than by cut-and-cover construction. In turn, that would require the SmartTrack line to begin dropping into its tunnel further south somewhere between St. Clair and Black Creek. This location would certainly not be an easy one to build in, and the station would not be close by the LRT (or a future GO Eglinton West station).
- On the curve between the rail corridor and Eglinton. For this to work, the curve would have to be in two segments so that the station itself could occupy a straight section of track. This is essential for alignment between the platform and the car doorways. Whether this is physically possible is dubious, and depends on the minimum curve radius that equipment operating on this line could handle and the maximum length of the trains. The station itself would be under the residential neighbourhood, an obviously unworkable location.
In summary, any tunnel at Mt. Dennis must quickly drop from the rail corridor’s elevation to get under the residential community southeast of Eglinton/Weston, pause in its descent and curvature for a station (whose size is in turn dictated by the type of equipment that might be operated), and then resume dropping both to get under Jane Street and, further west, the Humber River.
The Airport Spur
This material is included here for reference although it is not part of SmartTrack per se. Here are the alignment drawings for the route from the Weston corridor south to the airport.
The points to note here are:
- The curve radius of 125m for the turn from the main rail corridor into the spur.
The grades of almost 4%.
- The length of the station at the airport (less than 100m).
All of these dictate that something other than conventional GO trains serve this spur. The platform size places an upper bound on the capacity of any train serving this location.
Correction: Karl Junkin has pointed out to me that the design actually under construction is not the same as the one shown in the Georgetown South EA, and that there is a video giving an animated tour of the new alignment. The 4% grades originally planned are no longer necessary because a descent to a proposed maintenance yard has been eliminated thanks to relocation of the yard. Notwithstanding this change, the spur could not accommodate regular sized GO equipment.
The RER belongs in the rail corridor at least as far as Brampton if not beyond, and the airport will always be a low-volume spur operation. Taking the RER west along Eglinton is a foolish modification to an otherwise defensible plan.
Updated October 17, 2014
Metrolinx has provided additional information about the revised alignment of the spur line:
In February 2010, at the time of filing of the Statement of Completion of the Environmental Project Report (EPR) for the Georgetown South Service Expansion and Union-Pearson Rail Link, the Union-Pearson Airlink Group was responsible for the design, construction and operation of the Union-Pearson Rail Link Service (now known as UP Express). When the responsibility of the design, construction and operation of the UP Express was assigned to Metrolinx following the EA, a review of the project, including the vertical and horizontal alignment of the Spur Line, was completed to identify improvements to the design. The potential for changes during the detailed design phase of a project, following approval of the EPR, is anticipated during the Transit Project Assessment Project process.
During the detailed design phase, Metrolinx determined that maintenance and other activities contemplated at the Operations Management Centre (OMC), proposed in the EPR at a location along the spur, could be accommodated elsewhere within the Metrolinx – GO Transit rail network. Environmental impacts associated with construction and operation of this facility were then avoided.
In addition, the decision not to design and construct the OMC also provided an opportunity to reassess the vertical profile of the approved project, as the need to return to grade to access the OMC was no longer under consideration. Under the original project, the transition grade from the OMC towards the Terminal Station was projected to be 3.98 percent, significantly steep for rail operations. The re-alignment of the vertical profile of the Spur Line reduced this grade to approximately 2.00 percent, and resulted in two fewer grade transitions along the Spur Line. This grade reduction will significantly improve the operation of the UP Express service with respect to safety and energy efficiency, as well as the level of customer comfort along this portion of the route . The resulting cost savings enabled double-tracking of the spur which also improves safety and reliability. The environmental impacts of this change in vertical alignment were determined to be negligible.
Metrolinx also investigated opportunities for improvement of the Spur Line horizontal alignment. From this assessment, it was determined that the alignment of the Spur Line could be shifted eastwards to be further from existing and future development. This resulted in an alignment in closer proximity to the interchange of Highway 409 and Airport Road, and through the multileveled road and highway network approaching the Airport, and further from more sensitive receptors. Again, the environmental impacts of this change were determined to be negligible. The change in horizontal alignment also reduced the distance that the UP Express Service operates in parallel with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority’s (GTAA) People Mover Service, which is also of benefit. [Email from Anne Marie Aikens at Metrolinx, October 17, 2014]
Here is a drawing comparing the original and revised alignments (the resolution is that provided by Metrolinx).
It is unclear whether SmartTrack is really a “new” service at all or simply a rebranding of something Metrolinx was planning to do all along. As such, SmartTrack cannot make up its mind whether to be a local or a regional service, and attempts to serve two purposes in one facility.
SmartTrack started out as an all-surface proposal, but eventually gained an underground component once the difficulties of the alignment from Mt. Dennis westward became apparent. If the line had stayed in the rail corridor, this would not have been an issue.
Fixing this requires more than a wave of the hand dismissing objections as negative thinking. We already know that Tory’s “experts” depended on out-of-date Google Street View images of Eglinton where recent developments built in the former Richview Expressway lands were not visible. Have they looked at the terrain, or the relationship between various streets and rail corridors as shown in the drawings included here (all easily found in the public domain)? One might wonder.
There is nothing wrong with supporting expansion of regional rail services to provide added capacity into the core area and even to support counter-peak commuting where the rail services actually connect with job centres in the 905, but this has to be done in a realistic manner.
Raising challenges to SmartTrack does not mean that I or anyone else of like mind is opposed to the RER scheme. Indeed, I support it quite strongly and don’t want to see Try distort the rollout plan to suit his own pet project. Even worse, I don’t want the provincial government (which does not have any by-elections requiring voter bribery in the near future) to screw up RER either.
If John Tory becomes mayor, he will need to learn flexibility, to learn that his precious plan can and should be modified, and that it is not the answer to every problem afflicting southern Ontario. That would be the collegial John Tory many hope to see after the election. If only his campaign sounded as if that’s what he’s selling Toronto.