For the coming three evenings, October 10-12, the City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC will host open houses to present and discuss plans for six new SmartTrack and two new GO Transit stations. Although material for all stations will be part of each event, stations “local” to each site will receive more emphasis than others.
Each meeting will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a presentation at 7 p.m.
- Tuesday, October 10, Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Dr.
- Wednesday, October 11, Riverdale Collegiate Institute, 1094 Gerrard St. E.
- Thursday, October 12, New Horizons Tower, 1140 Bloor St. W. (new location)
Note: The location of the Oct. 12 meeting has been changed and it is now across the street from the originally announced site (which was Bloor Collegiate).
Updated October 11 at 10:30 pm: There continues to be confusion about just what “SmartTrack” service will look like, and this is not helped by the City’s presentation. Details can be found in the June 2016 Metrolinx report. For further info, see the update at the end of this article.
Updated October 13 at noon: Metrolinx has confirmed that the Barrie corridor trains will operate through to Union Station, not terminate at Spadina/Bathurst Station as I had originally thought. However, the operational details have not yet been worked out. For further discussion, scroll down to the section on the Spadina/Bathurst Station.
I attended a media briefing that covered the materials to be presented and the following article is based on that briefing which was conducted by City of Toronto staff. Illustrations here are taken from the deck for the media briefing which is available on the City of Toronto’s site. Resolution of some images is constrained by the quality of data in the deck.
[In the interest of full disclosure: A “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” (or SAC) has already been meeting on this, and I was invited to participate, but declined given my concern with a potential conflict between “advisory” and “journalist/commentator” roles. It is no secret that I believe SmartTrack is a deeply flawed concept. Its implementation is compromised by fitting a poorly-conceived election promise into a workable, operational scheme for the commuter rail network. Any “debate” is skewed by the need to pretend that this is anything beyond campaign literature.]
The intent of these three meetings is to conduct the first detailed conversation about these stations with the general public. Early designs appeared in the “Initial Business Case” for the stations, but these have been revised both for technical and for philosophical reasons. Specifically:
- The City does not want to build traditional GO stations dominated by parking.
- The interface between the new stations and the transit network (both rapid transit and surface routes) should be optimized.
- Strong pedestrian and cycling connections are required.
- Stations should be close to main streets.
- Stations should support other City objectives such as the West Toronto Railpath and parallel projects such as the St. Clair/Weston study now in progress.
- Transit-oriented development should be possible at stations.
This is a list that to a typical GO Transit proposal in the 905 would be unrecognizable. GO Transit’s plan ever since its creation has been to serve auto-based commuting first and foremost with ever larger parking structures that poison the land around stations. Local transit was something GO, and later Metrolinx, simply “didn’t do”, and the idea that Queen’s Park might fund strong local transit as a feeder to GO services has been limited to co-fare arrangements.
The situation within Toronto is very different, and there are connecting routes on the TTC that individually carry a substantial proportion of the daily ridership of the entire GO network. Moreover, if GO (or SmartTrack, whatever it is called) will be a real benefit to TTC riders, then the process of getting people to and from stations must not depend on parking lots that are full before the morning peak is even completed.
The new stations will go into existing built-up areas, not into fields with sites determined primarily by which well-connected developer owns nearby property. Residents will be consulted about how these stations will fit their neighbourhoods, how they will be accessed, and what might eventually become of the community and future development.
A big problem facing those who would present “SmartTrack” to the public beyond City Hall insiders and neighbourhood activists is that almost nobody knows what SmartTrack actually is. This is a direct result of Mayor Tory running on a design that could not be achieved, and which has evolved a great deal since he announced it in May 2014. In brief, it is three GO corridors (Stouffville, Lake Shore East and Kitchener) plus an Eglinton West LRT extension, but this differs greatly from what was promised in the election.
Service levels for SmartTrack are described as every 6-10 minutes peak, with off-peak trains every 15, but this does not necessarily match Metrolinx’ announced service plans for their GO RER network onto which SmartTrack is overlaid. The idea that there would be extra SmartTrack trains added to the GO service was killed off in 2016 in the evaluation of possible operating modes for the corridor.
Fares on “SmartTrack” are supposed to be “TTC fares”, but this is a moving target. Voters understood the term to mean free transfer onto and off of SmartTrack trains as part of their TTC fare, but with all the talk of regional fare integration, it is far from clear just what a “TTC fare” will be by the time SmartTrack is operating.
Even that date appears to be a moving target. City Staff referred to 2025 when GO RER would be fully up and running as the target date for “integration”, but Mayor Tory still speaks of being able to ride SmartTrack by 2021 while he is presumably still in office to cut the ribbon.
At the briefing, many questions arose from the media, and the answer to almost all of them was “we don’t know yet”. It is clear that the Mayor’s plan has not proceeded beyond the half-baked stage, and many important details remain to be sorted out.
- What is the status of Lawrence East Station and how does it fit with the recently announced review of this (and Kirby) stations by the Auditor General?
- How will an expanded GO/ST presence at Lawrence East co-exist with the SRT which will operate until at least 2025, if not beyond to whenever the Scarborough Subway opens?
- What are the arrangements for City/Province cost sharing on the stations, especially since Lawrence East was originally to be a GO station, but its future as such is unknown?
- What will be the cost of the new stations once design reaches a level where the numbers are credible? The range of $700 million to $1.1 billion has not been updated since the matter was before Council.
- Will all stations on the SmartTrack corridor honour ST fare arrangements regardless of whether this is a city-built station under the ST banner?
- Why should GO riders who are not on the SmartTrack corridor pay regular GO fares, while those using the ST route have a “TTC fare” for their journey? The most obvious contrast in this case is between the existing Exhibition Station on the Lake Shore corridor and the proposed Liberty Village Station on the ST/Kitchener corridor, but there are many others.
- What service levels will be provided, and how will they affect projected demand at the stations? Were previously published estimates based on more ST service than Metrolinx actually plans to operate? How will constraints at Union affect the ability to through-route service between the Stouffville to the Weston/Kitchener corridors?
- If the City wants more service than Metrolinx plans (assuming it would even fit on the available trackage), how much would Toronto have to pay Metrolinx to operate it?
- Where are the residents and jobs that are expected to generate ST demand, and how convenient will access to the service actually be considering walking time, station geometry (stairs, tunnels, bridges, etc) and service frequency?
The stations under consideration are shown on the map below. A common question for all of these locations will be that of available capacity on the GO trains that will originate further out in the corridor. Without knowing the planned service design for “GO” trains and “SmartTrack” trains, it is unclear how often, if at all, there will be short-haul ST trains originating within Toronto as opposed to longer-haul GO trains from the 905. The availability of space on trains could affect the perceived service frequency if people cannot board at stations near Union (just as long-suffering riders of the King car complain about full streetcars).
Updated October 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm
After I posted this article, I realized that there was an important part missing, a commentary on the “consultation” process itself.
A big problem with many attempts to seek public input is that the wrong question is posed, and factors are taken as given when they should be challenged. In the case of SmartTrack, the basic question is “why do we have SmartTrack at all”.
The original scheme was essentially a real estate ploy to make property in Markham and south of the Airport more valuable by linking both areas with a frequent rail service to downtown. Reverse commuters were a big potential market for this service. In the course of becoming part of the Tory election campaign, the focus turned inward, and SmartTrack became the line that would solve every transit problem. The claims about service frequency, fares and integration with other local and regional service were complete fantasies, but they gave the impression that Tory “had a plan” as distinct from the bumbling proposals of his opponent, Doug Ford, and the lackluster efforts of Olivia Chow. Tory even got professionals to declare his scheme a great idea, one giving it an “A+” on CBC’s Metro Morning, but this was for a version of SmartTrack that was unbuildable.
Now, over three years later, we are still faced with the myth that SmartTrack is a real plan, that it is anything more than what GO Transit would have done in the fullness of time. We are, in effect, being asked about the colour of tiles in stations when we should be asking whether the stations should even be built at all. There is no guarantee that service can be overlaid on GO’s existing plans to provide anywhere near what was promised in the campaign – a “surface subway”. Metrolinx has been quite firm on the subject, and going to the frequencies assumed by ST advocates would be well beyond the infrastructure we are likely to see on GO corridors.
The City will conduct its consultations, but the hard question – Why SmartTrack? – will never be asked.
For the October 11 update, please scroll to the end of the article.
St. Clair/Keele/Weston Station
The intersection of St. Clair Avenue, Keele Street and Weston Road was once the centre of much industrial activity, but it is now a built-up collection of new housing and big box stores. Just east of the intersection, St. Clair dives under the GO Weston/Kitchener corridor through a narrow underpass that is only four lanes wide. This area is the subject of a separate study to reconfigure and improve local streets and transit.
The illustrations below show the original proposal for this station, the revised version and the circulation plans. The revised version is based in part on work now underway for the area study, and importantly it recognizes the need for multiple paths through what were once impenetrable areas.
A challenge for this site is the grade separation close to the intersection. This makes a direct link between transit service on the major nearby routes almost impossible (512 St. Clair, 89 Weston and 41 Keele).
Liberty Village Station
Liberty Village Station is something of a misnomer being located north of King Street when the actual area giving its name is south of King to the Lake Shore West rail corridor. An important consideration for this location will be the access times from various points within the dense residential developments north and south of King to this station, as compared to the streetcar service including possible improvements on both the King and Queen routes in reliability and capacity.
Access to the proposed platform is from below with a concourse linked to entrances both at King itself, and north of the rail corridor at the intersection of Dovercourt and Sudbury.
Lake Shore East Corridor
Gerrard Station has been considerably revised and shifted to the northeast. This better fits with the proposed location of a corresponding Relief Line station (where the route will jog west from Pape to Carlaw) as well as to potential development on lands north of the rail corridor.
An intriguing question for construction planners will be whether to prebuild some parts of the RL station so that the site does not have to be disturbed again when and if that project gets underway.
Worth noting in the revised design is that the TTC bus and streetcar terminal (which included provision for an extended 505 Dundas route) has been removed. Frankly, it did not make much sense.
East Harbour Station
East Harbour will be a complex node in the transit network serving a major development at the former Unilever site with GO and ST services on the rail corridor, a north-south Broadview streetcar extension (running south to the line on Commissioners Street), and with a Relief Line station just to the north at Broadview and Eastern Avenue.
Details of how all this will fit together are incomplete because the stations will be integrated with planned development. Although this is nominally a “SmartTrack” station, it is clear that this will also be a major stop for GO if the employment development expected in the eastern waterfront materializes.
Geometrically the station is challenging because it must also fit among the Gardiner Expressway ramps to the DVP and existing GO Transit facilities on the west side of the Don River. The rail corridor itself is also part of the flood protection system for the east side of the river.
Finch East Station
The original plan for Finch East Station included a parking lot and a bus terminal with bays far more numerous than the routes that pass here. Also, there was no grade separation with Finch Avenue even though Metrolinx had announced support for this plan.
The new station includes the grade separation, with buses stopping in the underpass, and the station is shifted south because it can now straddle Finch.
Lawrence East Station
Lawrence East Station is a truly appalling design when one considers that its intent is to replace the existing bus/SRT transfer point with a bus/GO/ST transfer.
Today, buses loop into the RT station and serve a platform on its west (southbound) side with an at-grade RT-to-bus link. The northbound platform is reached through an underpass.
The proposed station eliminates the bus loop and places the bus transfer on top of the Lawrence Avenue overpass. Stops there would be linked to the station below by elevators and stairs, if the diagrams are to be believed. There is no evaluation of the need for shelters for stops that would now be very exposed at the top of the bridge, nor for the capacity of transfer movements between the trains and buses.
This ludicrous arrangement is the end result of reconciling the Scarborough Subway (which has lost its Lawrence East stop) and SmartTrack (which in theory provides a replacement for the RT connection).
Still to be determine is the fate of the RT station and service which cannot possibly co-exist with the SmartTrack design, but which Council has committed to keeping in service until the Scarborough subway extension opens (supposedly in the 2025 timeframe).
The station at Bloor/Lansdowne was added by Metrolinx to placate the neighbourhood in its fight against the “Davenport Diamond” project that will create a grade separation at Dupont where the Barrie corridor passes over the CPR North Toronto Subdivision. The battle cry, in brief, was that if they had to put up with the rail overpass, they wanted a station too.
Alas, it is unclear just how convenient this station will be. Physically it must lie south of Bloor Street to provide room for the rail corridor to rise above the height of the CPR by the time it reaches Dupont. The Barrie line is some distance from Lansdowne Station, and that station box lies to the east, not to the west, of Lansdowne. By the time the BD subway reaches the rail corridor, it is in deep bore tunnel, and is not in striking distance of an easy extension west from the existing station.
This is not a “SmartTrack” station or even corridor, and it is unclear what fare arrangements would exist for riders using this line as part of their commute to downtown. One might argue that with a direct subway-to-GO link pending at Dundas West Station, subway riders would be much more likely to make the transfer to a GO service at that location if they were bound for downtown.
The station at Spadina and Front would be located the yard now used by GO for midday storage of trains.
The service concept is that Barrie line trains would terminate here and passengers would then, somehow, find their way into downtown. This would work for people on the corridor who worked west of the core, but otherwise, they would face a hike east from Spadina.
When this was first proposed, there was a scheme to bring the Relief Line to the same location as a downtown distributor, but with that line’s shift north to Queen, such a connection would be difficult if not impossible.
Update October 13, 2017: Metrolinx confirms that Barrie line trains will in fact operate through to Union Station.
This presents operational problems because of conflicts with track occupancy and platform usage. In the diagram below, it is clear that there will be one track east of Spadina Station leading east to Union. Current plans for the Barrie corridor call for a 15 minute peak service with the result that the link to Union would see a train every 7.5 minutes on average. That is easy to achieve on single track, and indeed the UPX now operates to its terminal in the same manner on a 15 minute headway.
However, the tracks at Spadina Station are on the north side of the corridor, north of the UPX approach to Union. If the Barrie trains do not shift to Track 1 (displacing UPX), then the two services must cross each other’s paths with a total of 16 movements per hour. This is doable for urban transit operations (subway terminals have more conflicting movements), but far from ideal and it would create a barrier to service upgrades on either line. It is hard to believe that in 10 years the electrified Barrie corridor will be constrained to four trains/hour.
As for UPX, this is bound up in the more complex set of plans for the Kitchener corridor that could eventually host UPX, RER trains and a high speed service to London. If, by then, the “UPX” service becomes a shuttle operation between the Kitchener corridor and the airport, the need for a “premium” station on Track 1 at Union will disappear (although High Speed boosters will no doubt want this space for their showcase service.
Metrolinx has recently spoken of plans to reduce the number of tracks at Union and widen some platforms to improve circulation space for riders. This would happen concurrently with through-routing of services east and west of the station so that platform occupancy, now an extended period for reversing trains thanks to mandated railway practices, would be substantially reduced. An integral part of such changes will be the elimination of routing conflicts through the approaches to the station so that the “fan” of services radiating from Union (Lake Shore West, Milton, UPX, Kitchener, Barrie, Richmond Hill, Stouffville, Lake Shore East) do not conflict with each other. [End of update]
The revised version of the station includes provision for access from the proposed Rail Deck Park. Such access would have the advantage that the station would not depend on the relatively narrow sidewalk space now available on Front Street, but this still leaves the problem of circulation east to the core.
Following these meetings, there will be a further set of refinements to the designs and evaluation of environmental issues for the sites. The next round of public meetings will be in early 2018, and the whole matter, including updated cost estimates, will go to Council later in the spring with the intent that Metrolinx could issue an RFP for construction in the fall.
Totally outside of the official study are the political considerations at both the City and Provincial levels. At the City, there will be a strong push to keep the idea of SmartTrack as a real addition to local transit alive despite service designs from Metrolinx that suggest ST will not be as good as its advocates claim. How much added station cost the City is prepared to bear to keep ST alive remains to be seen. The two Barrie line stations are to be funded by Metrolinx, but the six ST stations are on the City’s tab.
Then there is the small matter of who will be in charge at Queen’s Park by fall 2018, and how warmly they feel about Metrolinx and its many projects.
With respect to the Eglinton West LRT, nominally part of SmartTrack but not part of this round of meetings, the City expects to have an update for this project out for consultation in November 2017.
Updated October 11, 2017 at 10:30 pm:
One of the questions nobody in the political realm seems to be able to answer is “just what is SmartTrack service”.
This question was answered in the June 2016 Metrolinx report which examined four options and explicitly discarded two that would have involved extra “SmartTrack” service overlaid on the planned GO-RER operations.
The service designs were explained in more detail in the following table:
Options C and D have the same service levels, but these vary along the route. Different long-haul service levels are mixed in with a service of “short turn” trains every 20 minutes. For example, the Stouffville corridor has four trains running through to Lincolnville plus three trains that would turn back at Unionville. On Lake Shore East, the combined service is more frequent because four of the Lake Shore trains make local stops each hour on top of the seven originating from the Stouffville line.
The combined service levels shown here may change due to improvements in the planned through services (notably on the Kitchener corridor), but limits remain on the amount of service Metrolinx will agree to operate for the investment they are prepared to make in infrastructure.