Metrolinx has published an update on studies of how the proposed SmartTrack service will be integrated with its own GO/RER (Regional Express Rail) offering. This will be considered at their board meeting on February 10.
This covers several issues, and begins to nail down just what SmartTrack might, or might not, resemble that is beyond the scale of postcard election literature. As we already know, major changes are planned to the western leg where the Crosstown West LRT will take over the function proposed for SmartTrack beyond Mt. Dennis. To the east, SmartTrack remains in the GO Stouffville corridor, but the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) has been scaled back to a one-stop line serving only the Town Centre, and the Crosstown East LRT will provide service to eastern Scarborough.
What is GO RER?
This graphic is amusing for its complete contrast with the way that Metrolinx/GO presented electrification of their services during early days of public consultation. That hit a low point when it was suggested that electric trains might not work in snow.
Note that the official line now is that lots of cities use this type of service, and that electrification is an integral part of the package.
Metrolinx owes us all an apology for their initial foot-dragging and misinformation campaign. Now if only they had been more supportive of LRT during the dark days of Rob Ford.
Options for a Consolidated SmartTrack/RER Service
Lest there be any remaining doubts, it is clear that “SmartTrack” is nothing more than GO Trains that stop a bit more frequently, not a fundamentally different service. How much more frequently depends on the option for service levels, and which incremental costs would be chargeable to SmartTrack capital and operating budgets.
In all scenarios below, the service on the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors is through-routed at Union to avoid delays for turnaround time at that busy location.
Option A provides much more frequent service than the basic RER and adds five stations. Notably it does not include the extra SmartTrack stations in Scarborough whose purpose is to offset the need for stations on the subway extension.
Option B runs a mix of express and local services each on a 10 minute headway. Three stations are added over Option A and these provide the SSE-equivalent stops in Scarborough.
Option C operates added service over the base RER proposal only in the peak period with 5 to 10 minute headways. Most of the stations from Option B remain on the map except that there is only one rather than two stops between Union and Bloor.
Option D has the same service design as Option C, but without the extra Scarborough stations.
Through these options, it is worth noting that none of the options provides a frequent (12 trains/hour) service in the parallel-to-SSE corridor. Options A has frequent trains, but few stops, and the other options get down to at best 7 trains/hour at the “local” or “SmartTrack” stops.
The SmartTrack publicity material touted very high ridership numbers based on a service of 10-12 trains/hour just for SmartTrack, never mind for GO services using the same track. This level of SmartTrack service was a dubious claim during the election, and now has clearly been scaled back. The potential ridership of SmartTrack will not reach the stratospheric levels claimed by the Tory election machine.
In all cases, the suggested new station locations are subject to verification by the new station analysis described later in this article. There is no guarantee that sites such as “Liberty Village” are operationally feasible, and it is worth remembering how often Metrolinx has dismissed this as a potential location.
Closely related to the service designs are the many locations where construction will be needed to provide for grade separations (rail-to-road and rail-to-rail), additional trackage, and additional property. Union Station capacity is a particular concern not just for train movements but for passenger handling. The bill for all of this, and especially for any additional works triggered by the higher SmartTrack service levels, will fall on Toronto Council.
At the same time, there will likely be a move to merge SmartTrack and GO fares, at least over the moderate distance where the services co-exist, along with a push for higher subway fares as proposed in the Fare Integration Strategy. This is hardly the deal voters signed up for in the Tory election with higher fares and capital costs just to keep an election promise alive. The Mayor has a lot of explaining to do.
Meanwhile on Eglinton West
As previously reported, the SmartTrack branch to the Airport Corporate Centre has completely fallen off of the map and been replaced by “Crosstown West”, aka the Eglinton West LRT line resurrected from Transit City. The original version of this (with the station layout at Mt. Dennis adjusted to reflect the final north-of-Eglinton alignment) appears below.
Metrolinx proposes five options for this corridor, two of which involve some degree of grade separation.
Option 5 (all grade separated) has few stops and most closely duplicates the function that the SmartTrack spur was intended to fulfill. However, it provides little local service and exists primarily to serve the airport area. Option 4 is similar in stop spacing, but runs on the surface between arterials. Whether this is actually possible given the need to dive under so many of them is quite another matter.
Options 1-3 have progressively fewer stops ranging down from the original Transit City line (1) to a limited stop operation (3) common with the grade separated variants, but entirely on the surface. It has been no secret that Metrolinx attempted to remove stops from the eastern leg of the Crosstown line, but with limited success. Meanwhile, the City’s demand projections for Crosstown West almost certainly depend on more frequent stations, and the distribution of trip origins would make interesting reading as a check on the Metrolinx station options.
Back in Scarborough
Beyond the SmartTrack service options, there is nothing new in this report on the Crosstown East proposal beyond a general observation regarding updating the design and reviewing stop locations. As on the west side, Metrolinx needs to consider the types of trip Crosstown East will support. If this line simply turns into an express operation from Kennedy Station to University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, then all of the fine words about improving travel within Scarborough from Jennifer Keesmaat’s report will be meaningless.
It is not clear whether Metrolinx and the City are really on the same page, yet, as to the function of the surface sections of the Crosstown route.
In a separate report, Metrolinx receives an update on the evaluation of possible station locations. This report shares with the Fare Integration paper a focus on process without tipping Metrolinx’ hand on actual outcomes. However, we can get some idea of which stations on the SmartTrack corridors are considered reasonable simply from those included in the configurations above.
Preliminary work used a long list of 40 attributes to evaluate suggested locations, but this has been winnowed down to 9. Locations that do not perform well in the evaluation will be set aside from further study.
The nine surviving attributes are described in the table below.
Further discussions will occur in coming consultation rounds and we may finally get to see which stations Metrolinx considers as reasonable additions to their network.
In the corridors shared with SmartTrack, several stations in the long list do not appear in any of the options described above.
The Problem of Station Access
The more important section of the Station Analysis report deals with how riders get to GO stations and services.
The “last mile” problem is the biggest challenge facing GO’s ability to ramp up service for frequent all-day and bidirectional travel. If riders cannot get to GO stations, or if the mode they might use is impractical (parking lot is full, off peak transit service is infrequent or non-existent), then all the service GO might run is of little value.
Pedestrian access is important to any transit station because little infrastructure is needed to support it, and there is no time-of-day or directional dependence. For those who are already in walking distance, GO already has a good slice of the market walking to stations. The problem, however, is that as a proportion of total demand, pedestrians are only 10% of the total.
For cycling, the situation is even worse. Only a small proportion of GO users cycle to stations, and the provision of bike-friendly roads is not a high priority once one is well beyond central Toronto. Moreover, for counter-peak travel, a large pool of shared cycles would be needed at stations for riders arriving outbound to complete their journeys.
Local transit does not support GO well especially during off-peak periods. More than one effect is at work here.
First off, many local services drop back to wider off-peak headways or may disappear completely. Moreover, the GO station might not be a major destination on a local transit system when there are no trains present, or even for a lighter level of off-peak ridership. A GO station might distort local route planning if there is no other reason to access a station site than for the train station. (Similar distortions exist in the local TTC network at certain major terminals.)
Better local bus service will not come about simply because it sounds like a nice idea, but because someone is prepared to fund better service. This should be an integral part of the GO/RER operating budget whether the buses are painted two-tone green or not.
GO Transit has a long history with parking, but their ability to grow with this mode is coming to an end. Parking is expensive and it consumes space that could be used for development at stations. Moreover, parking tends to fill up early in the day and serves only the standard suburb-to-core commuting pattern, not the more complex mix of journeys GO/RER hopes to attract. It is self-evident that parking does not address the last mile problem unless there is a large fleet of rental cars, or some type of local jitney service absent good local transit. As the text below notes: “Continually expanding parking at GO rail stations is not a sustainable strategy and does not align with policies and plans.” This will require a major change in the GO Transit culture and the political model that equates building parking structures with transit expansion.
Finally, there is the question of pick-up and drop-off access whether it be with a friend or colleague, or via some type of taxi service operating, in effect, as a demand-driven local transit service. Whether this is financially viable remains to be seen. Metrolinx also talks of self-driving vehicles as a future “solution”, but this is more wishful thinking than a realistic plan.
“Kiss and ride” travel is well suited to conventional commuting where the car stays “at home” to serve suburban travel while the commuter uses transit to reach a centrally located job. Other trip types, notably off peak and counter peak, are another matter because they may not occur at regular times, and because there is no “car at home” a traveller can meet. About one seventh of GO riders use this mode today, but the scope for expansion may be limited by road capacity and by the presumed availability of a vehicle and driver to perform this service.
Even a move to contracted taxi service or self-driving vehicles (presuming the technology becomes viable) implies a greater participation by GO and provincial funding for what is effectively a local transit service. There could be a private sector market, but it will almost certainly require guaranteed demand levels and revenues to provide service at all operating hours, not just the profitable peak hours and destinations.