GO/RER Details Emerge in Business Case Analysis

Metrolinx has published a set of documents containing the “Initial Business Case” for the GO Transit Regional Express Rail (GO/RER) network.

  • Summary
  • Full Report
  • Appendices A-J
    • A: Corridor Specifications
    • B: Corridor and System Schematics
    • C: Model Assumptions and Results
    • D: Record of Assumptions – Direct Demand Model
    • E: Financial Performance of RER Systems
    • F: Sensitivity Analysis
    • G: Wider Economic Benefits
    • H: Line Speed Analysis
    • I: Environmental Assessment Program
    • J: Fare Structure Issues and Solutions
  • Appendix K:  Station Access Analysis

[Note that except for the Summary, the documents are large PDFs.]

This article begins a review of these documents and of the various RER proposals examined in the Metrolinx studies.


Work on this review of GO/RER began in April 2014 following the announcement by Queen’s Park of its commitment to the RER concept. Unlike previous reports, this study looks in depth at all of the GO corridors, and reviews the technical issues associated with both increased service and electrification. This is not a final review, and much engineering work remains to be done, but there is a great deal more information now publicly available as the basis for discussions.

These documents were completed sometime in 2015 as is clear from references to future events that will occur later in the year, notably reports from the City of Toronto on SmartTrack. That scheme gets only passing mention, some of it the usual political cover story, because the specifics had yet to be decided. Exactly what the incremental effect of ST will be beyond the proposed GO/RER configuration is not yet known. Preliminary information in City reports implies that ST will amount to considerably less than was foreseen by the Tory election campaign, possibly as little as a few more stations and some sort of TTC/GO fare integration.

Five scenarios were reviewed to compare the effects, benefits, costs and technical issues associated with various possible future networks.

  1. The “Do Minimum” scenario provides only marginal peak period improvements to the existing system in response to projected demand growth, but with no electrification. This is effectively a “business as usual” model for the base case.
  2. The “Two-Way All-Day” scenario expands off peak service, but with diesel operation and no electrification. This is a minimal level of service expansion.
  3. The “10-Year Plan” would provide frequent service on the inner parts of some corridors, but with limited electrification.
  4. The “Full Build” extends beyond the 10-Year Plan to provide frequent service on the inner parts of all corridors, and with full electrification.
  5. The “10-Year Plan Optimized” extends the scope of electrification beyond that contemplated in scenario 3.

This progression implies a certain sequence of events during the study where a full build is impractical and the original 10-year plan was not aggressive enough with electrification, a key component of the announced government direction.

The estimated capital costs rise from $5 billion for scenario 1, through $10b, $12b and $19b for scenarios 2 to 4. The price tag for the latter is well above what Queen’s Park has available, and scenario 5 was developed with a projected cost of $13.5b. All but scenario 4 are said to be achievable by 2024. Given that it is now 2016, and this is a 10 year plan, that date probably requires some adjustment.

Scenario 5 is the 10-Year Plan Optimized, it represents significant progress towards implementing the service levels of Scenario 4. It goes beyond the investments and service included in Scenario 3 (10-Year Plan), with electrification also to Bramalea, Barrie, Stouffville and to Pearson Airport. This scenario and the resulting recommended RER program has been defined to maximize return on investment while mitigating risks. Depending on resolving various challenges, it can be delivered over 10 years for approximately $13.5 billion. It does not preclude, but rather prepares for, services to Milton and Kitchener to be eventually electrified and frequent all-day services introduced when agreement is reached on co-existence of GO and freight on these privately-owned corridors. [p. iv, Full Report]

Annual ridership is expected to go up by a factor of 2.5 over the coming 15 years, but operation costs will not rise at the same rate. The study postulates that an operating profit would be possible, eventually, but that will depend a lot on future fare policies, and on the evolution of trip patterns (length, direction, average fare). The ridership model foresees that “hundreds of thousands” of auto trips would be replaced by GO ridership each weekday comparing scenario 5 to scenario 1. The proportion of trips and its relationship to expected growth is not specified in the Executive Summary. (Possibly in the demand modelling later.)

The rate of demand increase on GO overall is projected at 2.3% which is lower than recent levels, but allows for some leveling off in a more mature service.

One big issue is the problem of getting riders physically to and from the GO trains. Either this will be done with substantially improved local transit services (an option that brings many issues associated with fare integration and cross-system subsidies), or with parking. The cost estimates include $750m for 15,000 new parking spaces, or $50k per space. At that scale, simply paving empty lots is not an option. The study notes the possibility that some of this cost “may not be necessary if service integration and fare integration with local transit services can be improved”. [p. v]

Those 15,000 spaces represent nowhere near the ratio of new parking spaces to existing facilities that the projected ridership growth would entail if everyone arrived by car. Parking charges are listed as a way of raising additional capital for the RER project, and of encouraging a shift to ride sharing and public transit feeder services.

It is amusing to read about the benefits of proven technology, something for which Ontario has not been noted in past endeavours.

Virtually all of the works are within existing rail corridors, so environmental and community impacts are limited mostly to noise and vibration. RER will use proven technology that is working around the world. [p. v]

Descriptions of RER cite similar operations in more than 50 city regions worldwide [page 6], and list a number of factors that simplify implementation [p. 4]. I cannot help thinking of how badly past studies have downplayed the benefits of LRT which bears a family resemblance, but at a local rather than a regional level.

The first electric railway opened in 1883 (the Volks Tourist Railway on the Brighton seafront in the U.K.). Ever since that time, electric traction has increasingly become the default source of power for the world’s more intensively used rail systems. [p. 14]

Finding this statement in a Metrolinx report is quite amusing considering some of the remarks made during community meetings on electrification before Metrolinx and GO “got religion” on the subject. The report skirts that debate by observing that GO is now at the threshold where electrification makes sense:

Until recently, diesel traction has been the appropriate mode of traction for the GO rail operation. However, the service enhancements envisaged in the near future will take GO rail beyond the threshold of service intensity appropriate for electrification. Continued use of diesel traction will become a source of financial and economic inefficiency. [p. 14]

Metrolinx intends to pursue discussions with the railways regarding the upgrades needed on their trackage, and also intends to review “modern, proven technology” with Transport Canada and the railways.

This is an “initial” analysis, and changes are likely depending on the evolution of expectations, changes in provincial funding, and who knows what political meddling that could arise.

A decade is a long time in politics, and the likelihood that the current governing parties or councillors will still be in place at that distant time is minuscule. Moreover, changes could come at any level part way through the project, and only a very strong, unshakeable commitment (i.e. very popular and difficult to derail) is likely to survive. This is not simply a case of showing up for a photo op or two with a gigantic prop cheque, but of supporting the plan for the long haul, including building a constituency that can survive beyond current governments. The arrival of a Ford-equivalent who simply wanted to start over with his own plan would be disastrous.

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