SmartTrack: Now You See It, Now You Don’t!

Oliver Moore in the Globe and Mail reports that there have been major changes to the SmartTrack plan, to wit:

  • The western branch of the service to the Airport district will be provided by the western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT as originally proposed.
  • “SmartTrack” per se will operate as a heavy rail service overlaid on GO Transit with the initial phase running from Mount Dennis to Kennedy Stations.
  • The northern extension of “SmartTrack” to Markham will be a separate phase of the project.

The map from the Globe & Mail is reproduced below.


According to Moore, the cost of adding SmartTrack to GO under this configuration would be much, much less than the originally quoted figure for the entire line. In turn, this would free up substantial capital spending headroom in City plans for other projects.

SmartTrack service at 15 minutes (the level proposed in Tory’s campaign) is far too infrequent to attract much riding, and especially to make a dent in demand on the existing subway interchange at Bloor-Yonge. We saw this in the June 2015 Metrolinx demand projections that were far more favourable to a Relief Line operating north to Sheppard and Don Mills. However, getting SmartTrack service down to as close a headway as every 5 minutes will be challenging for Metrolinx and for the corridors through which this would operate. There are no details yet on how this would be achieved.

The Eglinton West LRT has always been the superior way of serving this corridor compared to the heavy rail SmartTrack scheme. ST foundered on major problems with constructibility and neighbourhood effects, issues that were dismissed in a stunning display of cavalier “expert” knowledge during the campaign. Planning by Google Maps from an office in the UK has its limitations, but Tory’s campaign relied on this “expertise”. One shameless professor even rated ST with an “A+” in the CBC Metro Morning interview.

Keeping the first phase of ST confined south of Eglinton on both branches limits the operating costs the City must bear if this to be truly a “Toronto” project with “Toronto” fares, and it avoids the complexities of building into the 905.

Indeed, SmartTrack began as a real estate development scheme to make commercial property near the Airport and in Markham more accessible from downtown in a series of studies that actually claimed the market for downtown office space was static and falling. Yet another expert should be eating crow pie from his perch on the Metrolinx board. It was never clear why Toronto should shell out billions to improve property values in the 905, and this task now falls clearly to Metrolinx where it belongs.

The eastern leg of SmartTrack, north from Kennedy, obviously competes with the Scarborough Subway Extension, and there is no need for two routes serving the same demand, especially when GO already plans substantially improved service in the rail corridor. The long-standing issue of SSE demand may be clarified by the absence of SmartTrack as a competing service.

It is no secret that my own position would be to revert to the LRT plan in Scarborough, but that train has probably left the station, especially if the City can “save” a small fortune by scaling back on SmartTrack.

These changes could also foreshadow a revised schedule for the LRT projects at a time when “shovel ready” projects are in demand to soak up new federal spending. Eglinton West’s LRT extension is relatively easy to build, and it could be started soon enough to complete concurrently with the main Crosstown route. There is also the matter of the Sheppard East LRT including its proposed service linking to UofT Scarborough campus.

Coming weeks may bring many sputtering denials, or possibly, much improved clarity and acceptance of an – at last – realistic plan.



55 thoughts on “SmartTrack: Now You See It, Now You Don’t!

  1. @Moaz,

    I’m sure Metrolinx would be happy to offer K-U-E service at TTC prices, if the City is willing to cover the cost subsidy. That would be the full price of MetroPass users plus $28.70 to $40.10 or $1.36 to $1.64 per ride above the full TTC fare. That seems like a double fare might be enough to cover operating costs, but it raises the question of “fare integration” and if all subways should be double fares as well…

    Bloor to Union = $4.77 x 35 + $0.65 x 5 = $170.20
    Kennedy to Union = $5.09 x 35 + $0.69 x 5 = $181.60

    Steve: That’s not a fair calculation of GO’s costs. Metrolinx has stated when asked about the higher fares for short trips that the train has to come all the way from Kitchener to Union even if the riders get on at Bloor. Leaving aside that this argument can apply to any transit line, a Kennedy-Union-Eglinton service would use trains captive to that segment without all of the extra mileage. Also, GO fares are not 100% cost recovery. There really are two questions here: what would GO’s marginal cost be to operate the service, and should this be covered 100% by fares plus a Toronto subsidy.

    @J Cam,

    That station arose from a Smart Track permutation, so it’s more of an inclusion to disprove item.


    Stouffville and Lakeshore East run together west/south of St. Clair. Or do you consider Eglinton, Guildwood, and Rouge Hill as part of the inner part of the line?

    On Lakeshore West, they have 15 minute headways from 6AM to 8AM (arrive at Union at 7:11 to 9:15) and 30 min otherwise. With whatever Union Station Relief gets built, they will run more Lakeshore West trains, so it’ll see comparable headways, the only difference being that they aren’t at TTC prices.

    @Gary McIntosh,

    There is a strong case for Woodbine and it was on the Metrolinx “short list”. It’s basically assumed that it’ll be built eventually, just needs funding and political grip. It along with Breslau are “quick wins” plus the Bathurst-Spadina station for Union Station relief. The real study is what makes the cut of in-fill stations between Queen, Dundas, and/or St. Clair.


  2. @Steve,

    Yes, I was sloppy in using cost/revenue. I’d assumed that Metrolinx/Queen’s Park would be willing to extend the current level of operational subsidy to the expanded “SmartTrack service”, which would be similar to plans under RER. Thus, there is a hit to collected fare revenue if it’s at $2.90 vs. current fare levels. If the City/TTC were to cover the difference, Metrolinx would agree. Otherwise, it’d be negotiations of exactly what’s being paid for.

    It’d be interesting to see if GO actually makes a “profit” on the short-haul fares to underwrite the longer ones…

    Marginal costs are very subjective, especially if you assume that a larger rail fleet and storage/maintenance is required. However, how can the “Express Bus” routes be justified, if you can get a ST train that’s just as fast, but ‘normal’ price?

    Steve: The premium fare express bus routes exist only because they are in wards that were politically influential when they were introduced. TTC never publishes revenue/cost data or explains how many buses are tied up doing express long haul runs (e.g. capital stranded on these services).

    I think when Toronto sees what it will cost to subsidize ST, Council will be astounded, but with UofT still cranking out huge ridership numbers that require extremely frequent service of which the line is almost certainly not capable, we still have the fiction that opex isn’t an issue.


  3. Mapleson, there is no 15 minute headway on Lakeshore West for stations within Toronto. From any of these (hmm, looks like Exhibition is no longer being bypassed by any “local” trains), you can arrive at Union at 7:11, 7:45, 8:06, 8:33, 9:07. It’s a ragged half-hour service.

    I would figure any further increase in frequency would be split between express and local trains. Long Branch et al would be lucky to approach 15 minute service.


  4. OK, so the idea has come up about merging the UP into ST. Sort of an express service version of the ST, but only the western half.

    Biggest problem I see with this right away are the platforms at Union station. The UP Express has its own platform, separate from the other ones. So if someone tries to catch the :00 ST going west from Union to Mount Dennis, and misses it, but the UP Express is departing at :05, then he’s got a long walk from the ST platform to the UP one. We’d have to build a direct pathway between the ST platform and the UP one to allow for easy transferring.

    Also, we’d likely have to make some alterations to the UP cars to allow for more standees, to carry more people to Bloor and Mount Dennis. Which makes me wonder what happens to Weston.

    Steve: It is not physically possible to merge the services due to platform constraints (height) and especially platform length at YYZ.


  5. Steve said:

    “I think when Toronto sees what it will cost to subsidize ST, Council will be astounded”

    I would think by now, you would have noticed that the average voter and Council operates under the logic that “there are no operating costs with heavy rail” whenever it comes to justifying the construction of transit projects.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’ll be interesting to see how Metrolinx and Toronto agree on any cost-sharing. The best/simplest method for Metrolinx is a track-usage fee. Thus, if ST doesn’t have the ridership it purports, Metrolinx still gets paid. It also lets the City cut service levels to reduce the payout.

    From the U of T study of the ‘original build’ SmartTrack (Unionville to Mount Dennis to MACC, 23 stations, HRT on Eglinton), there is little difference in usage rates between 5 minute and 10 minute headways (5 minute trains are 2.2% fuller).

    Using their top estimate of 315K per day at 5-min headways, it seems like they’re assuming EMU sized vehicles (approximately 1,640 passengers – 2 x 8 hour peak-direction-peak-hour equalivant). This study is basically useless as all the assumptions differ from what will be implemented.

    Interestingly, if you use my ball-park starting-point revenue difference ($1.50), Metrolinx might be asking the City for something in the order of $142M per year for SmartTrack, which is about 50% of the original capital costs per year (over 30 years).

    The other interesting fact is that SmartTrack doesn’t affect the need for a DRL: between 1.3K and 6.7K reduced demand on Yonge (1.7% to 2.1% of ridership is diverted from Yonge at TTC fares).


    You dropped off the second of the two closest trains (9:07 and 9:15). This gives something between 20 and 26 minute headways for the Toronto-specific stations. However, my point was that total service is already at 15 minutes, and trains are by-passing the Toronto stations as they are sufficiently full. Lakeshore West will continue to run the most trains in proportion to total USRC capacity. To move beyond current levels needs to cannibalize other platform slots (express or other routes) and/or build more platforms (Bathurst-Spadina)

    Long Branch -> Mimico -> Exhibition -> Union


  7. inspiared said:

    “I remember reading somewhere that the UPX rolling stock is completely different from anything else used in the GTA, requiring that passenger platforms be built at a different height than they are for GO/RER transit. Is this still the case? Apart from the three-car platform design, what technical challenges exist if they were to merge the two services?”

    Steve replied:

    “That is correct. They are high platform cars in a network that uses low platforms. The three-car limit is a physical one at the airport where a longer platform is not possible, and the curves on the Airport spur are very tight even for the cars they are using. Regular GO equipment? Forget it.”

    What UPX has in common with another mode of rail public transit in Toronto is that it and the SRT are both high platform.

    Steve, you know that I am a staunch advocate for the SRT.

    It has been suggested from time-to-time by others that UPX and SRT could some day be merged.

    When asked, all we were told was “no, not feasible”, but no specifics. Sure, there is a question of the rail gauge, UPX is standard gauge, SRT is TTC gauge. That can be changed. What about rail car dimensions. They look like they are approximately the same. Maybe UPX is 50 cm wider than SRT. Train length is similar.

    Let’s consider the costs. To completely replace the SRT with either the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) or SmartTrack will cost many $billions. Converting to LRT, my favoured choice, is much less, but still maybe $500 million, but paid entirely by the Ontario government as per signed agreements, no cost to Toronto. This option has the advantage of being expandable to being part of a public rapid transit network in Scarborough and North York.

    But, let us consider, if it is Ontario paying for it, Ontario owns UPX, Ontario has agreed to upgrade SRT, Ontario owns the track between the two lines, it is entirely an Ontario project and does not need TTC or Toronto council funding.

    Then, what is the passenger demand? Is this feasible in that regard? SRT is heavily used. UPX is virtually empty. But the fares are miles apart. The combined route would follow SmartTrack’s U-shape through downtown and Union Station. At TTC fares, this would be very popular and heavily used.

    Are these two trains so ridiculously unalike that the idea of a merged UPX and SRT is impossible?

    Steve: Well for starters, the SRT is standard gauge, not TTC gauge. Next, your “extension” to link the two routes is a huge expansion project. The UPX cars would not fit on the SRT because the cars are larger — this affects existing stations as well as the tunnel at Ellesmere which would have to be rebuilt. Finally, the SRT operates at headways much, much lower than UPX. This proposal does not make sense at all.

    Some folks want the SRT replaced with a branch off of the GO line. I don’t agree with this scheme, but it makes more sense than creating a cross-Toronto service that uses special trains.


  8. Peter Stradzins said

    “What UPX has in common with another mode of rail public transit in Toronto is that it and the SRT are both high platform.”

    True, but the heights of the platforms are not the same.

    “When asked, all we were told was “no, not feasible”, but no specifics. Sure, there is a question of the rail gauge, UPX is standard gauge, SRT is TTC gauge. That can be changed. What about rail car dimensions. They look like they are approximately the same. Maybe UPX is 50 cm wider than SRT. Train length is similar.”

    The UPX cars are more than twice as long as the SRT, 85′ vs 40′ and much wider, 10’+ vs 8′. This is not anywhere near “approximately the same”. It would be like trying to park a semi in your garage. Then there is the problem that UPX will not take the tighter curves of the SRT or fit through any of its stations so it would need to be re-built but then it will for anything else anyways.

    The SRT is standard gauge, not TTC gauge.

    The UPX CANNOT be converted to anything reasonably useful because of the design of the Pearson Station.

    “Are these two trains so ridiculously unalike that the idea of a merged UPX and SRT is impossible?”



  9. Now that the Crosstown West addition from Black Creek has been confirmed, my question is, will this run below ground, at grade, both? I’d lobby to have the initial portion from Black Creek station run above ground similar to the way the SRT was built.

    Steve: At grade. The SRT is above grade only from Midland Station east to Ellesmere. This happened because the UTDC couldn’t have grade crossings on their precious new technology. Scarborough Council was sold a bunch of hokum about how at grade LRT would prevent motorists from getting to developments south of the line such as the Bell building east of STC. This triggered a change of the LRT plan to an elevated which Scarborough only reluctantly accepted. This neat dodge severed the political fight for the el from the technology change.


  10. Steve and Robert, thank you so much for your replies!

    While you both say that merging UPX and SRT is not feasible, neither of you gave a solid reason why it cannot be done.

    After all, we are not talking about using streetcars as a ferry service to the Toronto Islands. Last time I heard that idea, it was then-mayor Rob Ford saying that all the streetcars ought to be dumped into the lake.

    Steve: That argument has absolutely nothing to do with what we are talking about, and we have given solid reasons. You just don’t want to hear them.

    Of course, the rail gauge should be standard gauge for the entire route. Didn’t I say so? That ought to be little problem. It might involve simply moving one rail over a little bit in some locations. (A few years ago I saw a video about a train in Europe that runs on two different rail gauges.)

    If the UPX rail cars are too wide, sell them off and buy new cars that fit the roadway. That is a whole lot cheaper than building an all new railroad. And, instead of ripping down and rebuilding platforms, would it not be easier to raise or lower the track level?

    Steve: But you forget that the line UPX runs on now is built for wider cars. Running SRT-sized trains on the same alignment wouldn’t work.

    Actually, the biggest concern would be headways, which Steve mentioned. That is also part of the SmartTrack debate. I am sure that a compromise solution can be found, such as not running all trains the whole route.

    Steve: This is a classic case of someone who has a pet project (in your case a unified SRT to UPX service) and won’t let counterarguments get in the way. At some point, the number of “changes” make this a net new project at substantial cost. It’s worth noting that the original LRT plan for Scarborough would have used the SRT corridor for an LRT line as part of a wider network, exactly the sort of integration you are talking about, but without preserving the “orphan” status of the SRT and UPX.

    Please note that this conversation is closed.


  11. Hi Steve. I’m not expecting you to publish this, but go ahead if you like. I’m a bit disappointed that you are cutting off discussion. This is your blog, it is your prerogative. I run a couple of blogs, too, on different topics.

    But, I once told you in person, we basically see eye-to-eye on transit. Of course, you are very much the expert, I am just a guy interested and frustrated by what is going on.

    But, it is like you & others do not read my posts, but select certain lines. I get that all the time. I said that my favoured option is to replace the SRT with LRT, the agreements were signed, Ontario pays for it, can expand transit in Scarborough. Isn’t that what you say, too? You are busy, I forgive you.

    So, this was not a pet project, but possibly a viable alternative. I’m a bit of a devil’s advocate, intrigued by alternative ideas. If you want to kill discussion about it, that is your right. The politicians have their pet projects, and I bet that what is written here has little influence on them. Just because you and I think a certain plan is #1 does not mean that the politicians agree, and all we can do is hope that plan #2 is not quite as bad as other ideas. I am very happy that mayor Tory has dropped the Eglinton West heavy rail idea, the story evolves daily.

    Keep up the good work, Steve!

    Steve: I called a halt because I could not see an end to a tit-for-tat exchange, and we’ve had enough of those. You have your position, even as a straw argument, and I have mine. End.

    And thanks.


  12. @Peter Strazdins,

    The question is if it’s a constructive discussion that builds understanding on the issue or a polemic argument that just recirculates the past.

    The first principle of a transit project is passing a cost-benefit analysis smell-test. No one here has worked out the specific costs of interlining the UPX and SRT, but each has their own issues that would make it a multi-billion dollar project without providing much beyond what’s already on the table.

    As bad as SmartTrack or the SSE are, this idea is more fundamentally flawed.

    Replacing the SRT with LRT has been studied and costed. Replacing it with UPX technology has not and is an order of magnitude more expensive from the get go due to the technical reasons given by Robert and Steve. It’s equalivant to saying that the SSE isn’t a new project, just a slight change from having LRT on the SRT by changing the alignment and stations.

    An interesting idea is elevated to pet project status when it continues to surface in the face of fundamental problems that make it less desirable than more realistic solutions.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I read something in the NY Times that I thought might be of interest here.

    Rob Ford, his fans, and some other people too, have all repeated the assertion that Toronto needs “subways, subways, subways” — like New York City. New York City doesn’t have any pesky streetcars, like Toronto — NYC should be Toronto’s model..

    But, this week, the NYTimes published several articles and editorials about a proposal to build a new streetcar, connecting Queens and Brooklyn.
    Mayor de Blasio to Propose Streetcar Line Linking Brooklyn and Queens

    A Streetcar Ride to New York’s Future

    Elation and Skepticism Over Proposal for Streetcars in Brooklyn and Queens

    A Waterfront Route to Serve the Poor, Not Just the Wealthy

    A Trolley Enthusiast on de Blasio’s Streetcar Plan: Bring Me Aboard

    The route would be 16 (twisty) miles long, projected to cost $2.5 billion USD, and would average about 12 mph.


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