The Metrolinx Board received a presentation today from their Chief Planning Officer, Leslie Woo, about the Yonge Relief Network Study. One item in this report raised eyebrows – the projection that GO RER and SmartTrack services would divert only 4,200 passengers during the peak AM hour from the Yonge corridor.
In the discussion, it was clear that service in the SmartTrack corridor would be every 15 minutes. Four trains per hour is hardly an inducement to change routes although at least if SmartTrack operates with TTC fares, it could still be atttractive.
However, I wondered just what that 15 minute headway meant, and so I wrote to Leslie Woo for clarification:
When you talk about 15 minute headways, does this mean an RER train every 15′ and an ST train every 15′ for a combined 7’30” headway, or is this 15′ for the combined service with a wider (e.g. 30′) headway on each one?
15 mins – combined.
Keep in mind that where Kitchener/Milton/and Barrie corridors converge we are already at less than 15 min headway in the peak.
This is a fascinating statement. SmartTrack is, among other things, intended to add stations along the GO corridors so that a more finely-grain service can be provided in Scarborough and at some locations along the Weston corridor such as Liberty Village. However, if the combined express GO and local ST services will only run every 15′, this implies a wider headway on ST, possibly every over train or 30′. With only a pair of tracks on the Stouffville corridor, and likely only a pair dedicated to GO+ST on the Kitchener corridor, it is impossible for express GO trains to pass local ST trains, and this limits how many trains per hour, in total, can possibly operate there.
During the press scrum, Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig was asked about the equipment to be used, and he said that both GO and ST services would run with GO trains. It would appear that the only difference will be where they stop. Of course we already have this type of arrangement on the Lake Shore corridor, and didn’t need an election campaign to get it.
When candidate John Tory pitched SmartTrack, it was to be a “surface subway” using, mainly, existing GO rights-of-way but operating with quasi-subway service level, speed and station spacing. There were claims made for 200k/day in ridership, and the whole project was pitched as if it was the one line to solve every problem. Ask about the weather? SmartTrack will fix it. Out of a job? SmartTrack will speed you more quickly to job locations you never dreamed of. Why don’t we have more buses? Buses are a waste of money and what you really need is a shiny new fast train.
The problem with these claims is that they depended on SmartTrack actually being “like a subway” with frequent service, something it is quite clear that it will not be, at least not as Metrolinx sees things. The challenge here is that unless there is a very substantial investment in infrastructure by Metrolinx beyond what is planned for GO/RER, the network cannot handle the very frequent service contemplated for SmartTrack and this limits the effect it will have region-wide.
Even if SmartTrack did operate more frequently (a situation that was modelled by Metrolinx), it doesn’t attract much more ridership away from the critical Yonge corridor. The basic fact is that the west end of SmartTrack (wherever it might actually go) is so far from Yonge Street that it addresses a completely different market. Even the eastern branch on the Stouffville corridor is a fair distance from Yonge and, if anything, would bleed demand from the Scarborough Subway rather than the Yonge line.
A vital but missing piece of information in the presentation is the count of likely riders on various routes in the modelled networks. This report tells us how many riders are diverted from Yonge, but not how many riders would be on the other corridors and, therefore, the value of and need for more service in them. This information should come out in a technical background paper expected in July 2015.
Although the Metrolinx discussion did not get into SmartTrack costs, there are fundamental questions to be answered:
- What are the comparative costs and benefits of serving the Eglinton West corridor with the proposed SmartTrack tunnel or with the planned westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT? (This should be answered later in the SmartTrack study of that corridor.)
- Will SmartTrack share GO’s corridor through Union Station, or will it split off into its own tunnel downtown? Would the more frequent service a tunnel implies actually be able to co-exist with GO operations when the line rejoined the GO corridors?
- What is the actual, likely cost of SmartTrack? For election purposes, this was estimated simply by taking the average costs of a few European “surface subways” or “overground” lines as London calls them, and scaling this to the length of the SmartTrack route. Originally, it was claimed that there would be no tunnels, but the campaign quickly learned that their research was faulty on that score. The cost is important because Toronto has volunteered to pay 1/3 of the total, whatever that might be.
- Why should Toronto taxes be used to pay for a service which had among its objectives improvement of access to commercial properties in Markham and Mississauga?
- Can a local service that operates considerably less frequently than a subway route be expected to generate much development as associated tax revenue?
As things now stand, SmartTrack has all the appearance of a line on the map that fades gradually under the harsh light of actual planning, operational constraints, and the degree to which Ontario is prepared to build infrastructure to enable it.