GO Transit RER/Electrification Plans Announced

The details of GO Transit’s service improvements and electrification leading to the rollout of the “RER” (Regional Express Rail) network were announced today by Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca.

The plans will please some and disappoint others, but there is little to surprise anyone familiar with the details of GO Transit’s network and the constraints of the rail lines around the GTHA.

RER rollout by line

RER rollout details

If there are “winners and losers” in this announcement, the benefits clearly fall (a) on lines that are completely under Metrolinx ownership and control and (b) on lines that do not already have full service, that is to say, there is room for growth.

Electrification is planned for most corridors by 2022-2024 starting with the Kitchener and Stouffville routes in 2022-23, followed by Barrie and the Lakeshore in 2023-24. The announcement is silent on the UPX service on the Kitchener line and whether the inner portion of the corridor will be electrified as a first step for UPX before 2022. (I have a query out to Metrolinx on this topic.) These dates have implications for rolling stock plans including purchase of whatever new technology — electric locomotives or EMUs — will be used for electric services, and, by implication the eventual fate of the existing fleet.

The scope of electrification will be:

  • Kitchener line: Bramalea to Union
  • Stouffville line: Unionville to Union
  • Lakeshore East: Full corridor
  • Lakeshore West: Burlington to Union
  • Barrie: Full corridor

There are no plans to electrify either the Milton or Richmond Hill lines, nor to substantially improve service on them. In Milton’s case, this is a direct result of the line’s status as the CPR mainline. On Richmond Hill, significant flood protection works are needed in the Don Valley as well as a grade separation at Doncaster. Plans could change in coming years, but Queen’s Park has clearly decided where to concentrate its spending for the next decade – on the lines where improved service and electrification are comparatively easy to implement.

The limits of electrification correspond, for the most part, to the territory where all-day 15-minute service will be provided. This will be the core of the “RER” network with less frequent, diesel-hauled trains providing service running through to the non-electrified portions.

One important aspect of the line-by-line chart of service improvements is that there will be substantially more trips (most in the offpeak) before electrification is completed. This allows GO to “show the flag” as an all-day provider and build into a role as a regional rapid transit service, not just a collection of peak period commuter lines. This will also give local transit a chance to build up to improved GO service over time rather than a “big bang” with all of the changes awaiting electrification.

Over the five years 2015-2020, the Kitchener corridor will see the greatest increase in number of trains, although many of these will not actually run through all the way to Kitchener. The service build-up will finish in 2017.

The Barrie line will receive weekend service in 2016-17 with weekday off-peak service following in 2017-18. The Stouffville line also gets weekday service in 2017-18, while weekend service follows in 2018-19.

Minor off-peak improvements are planned for both Lakeshore corridors in 2018-19.

Peak service improvements relative to today vary depending on the corridor:

  • Lakeshore East: 4 more trains by 2018-19 on a base of 45 (9%)
  • Lakeshore West: 6 more trains by 2019-20 on a base of 47 (13%)
  • Stouffville: 4 more trains by 2018-19 on a base of 12 (33%)
  • Kitchener: 6 more trains by 2019-20 on a base of 15 (40%)
  • Milton: 6 more trains by 2019-20 on a base of 18 (33%)
  • Barrie: 2 more trains in 2019-20 on a base of 14 (14%)
  • Richmond Hill: 4 more trains by 2018-19 on a base of 8 (50%)
  • Total: 32 more trains by 2019-20 on a base of 159 (20%)

Other than making trains longer (where this has not already occurred), that’s the limitation of peak period growth for the next five years on GO Transit. This has important implications for projections of greater transit commuting along the GO corridors, and especially for the shoulder areas within Toronto itself that lie along GO routes, but also face capacity and travel time issues with the local transit system. Unlocking gridlock may be the goal, but the rate of service growth could not be described as “aggressive” especially against the background growth in population and jobs.

This will, or at least should, lead to renewed discussion both of rapid transit capacity within Toronto, and on how GO Transit will address growth beyond 2020. Where should new capacity be provided? What are the realistic upper bounds for various options? How will Toronto deal with demand for expanded suburban subway service to handle growth in the 905?

It is quite clear from the electrification dates that an electric SmartTrack is not going to start running soon, and with frequent all-day service to Bramalea, Aurora and Unionville using diesel-hauled trains operating well before electrification is completed, one might wonder just where SmartTrack as a separate “local” service will fit in.

Beyond these questions lie the more complex issues of travel that is not bound for Toronto’s core. “Gridlock” is commonly cited as the rational for transit spending, and yet this spending does little to improve travel anywhere beyond existing corridors to central Toronto. Demand in the GTHA is not conveniently focused on a few points, not even on Pearson Airport which is a major centre, and single-route improvements do not address the diverse travel patterns of GTHA commuters.

Ontario will spend billions on transit in the coming decade, and sticker-shock has already set in with the huge amount of infrastructure needed. Even this is only a start and the work to truly address travel requirements of the coming decades is only just starting.