The recent publication of updates to the New Stations review together with information at two public SmartTrack station meetings raises several questions about Metrolinx plans and their methodology in evaluation of the worth of new facilities.
In attempting to dig through the contradictions, I asked Metrolinx for the detailed background reports for their updated “business cases” for new stations, and was advised that there are no reports beyond the technical paper that is part of the board’s agenda for their March 8, 2018 meeting.
This is not a credible statement.
The evaluation of new stations depends heavily on the projected demand at each location. This demand depends on several factors:
- The frequency and capacity of service provided at the station
- The travel time to destinations for trips served by the station
- The cost of a trip
- Feeder services for riders including connecting transit routes and parking lots
Land use patterns around the station are also a factor, but they are secondary in two senses. First, demand projections are generally run against a fixed land use model while changing other factors such as service frequency and cost. Second, land use is not under the direct control of a transit agency while service and fare factors are, and they can have a much more immediate effect on demand.
The newly modelled demand for stations follows on from the Initial Business Cases (IBCs) of 2016:
The overall methodology and approach to modelling used in carrying out the business case analysis is consistent with the approach used in undertaking the 2016 IBC’s and has been independently peer-reviewed and validated. In particular, the current business case analysis measures and captures the same key benefits (e.g. new station users benefit from the station) and impacts (e.g. delays to upstream riders due to the station). The current business case analysis for new stations take advantage of updated input information, including GO rail service assumptions, land use, connecting rapid transit infrastructure, and a refined approach to ridership forecasting and modelling.
The economic and financial cases for each new station depend on forecasts of how travellers will respond to the presence of a new station. Stations can support increased system ridership by providing a new access opportunity that may be closer to household locations and employment, school, or other travel destinations. Individuals who use the new station benefit by saving time relative to their previous travel option – travelling farther to another GO station, or using a different transport mode such as subway, bus, or auto. Existing GO passengers that do not use the station, on the other hand, can be delayed if they travel on a train that now stops at the new station. Examining travel time savings, delays, and modal shifts is the focal point of the business case analysis. [p 7]
Metrolinx is all about “transparency”, and in that spirit here are several questions about their models and plans.
When the RER/SmartTrack plan was proposed, it included four options for stations and service levels. This was before the Metrolinx Board in June 2016.
- Option A: Increased frequencies, 5 new stations
- Option B: Express and local service, 8 new stations
- Option C: Committed RER frequencies, 7-8 new stations
- Option D: Committed RER frequencies, 4-5 new stations
Two options, notably one including a mix of local and express service, were dropped from consideration.
Through this analysis, it was determined that Options A and B would each require extensive additional track infrastructure, resulting in the need for corridor widening, property acquisition, consequent community impacts, and other deliverability challenges. In light of these findings, Options A and B were screened out and detailed analysis focused on Options C and D. [p 6]
At that time, the preferred option was a scheme that had a limited number of new stations within Toronto and service design with all trains stopping at all stations. The report explicitly notes that travel times for riders from outlying stations would rise because extra stops would make travel less attractive.
The service options are detailed in the following table.
Service levels on various corridors have been shown on the RER “How Will You Benefit” page based on that report for over a year. Here is the illustration for the Stouffville corridor.
The footnote on Table 3 is quite clear: there would be 7 trains/hour on the corridor. However, at a public meeting at Scarborough City Hall on March 6, 2018, a Metrolinx rep claimed that service would be 11 trains/hour with 4 express trains and 7 local trains that would serve the SmartTrack stations.
Metrolinx now proposes to operate a mix of express and local trains, but without added infrastructure, this will be challenging. The Stouffville corridor is now being expanded to double track, but without provision for trains to pass each other. This means that the most time an “express” can make up is the space between two local trains. If there are to be 7 local trains per hour, the space between them is limited by the signal system which is not designed for short headways.
Confusion about the actual level of service to be operated affects claims for RER and SmartTrack at public meetings as well as the context in which ridership forecasts should be interpreted.
Question 1a: What is the Service Plan for all corridors that was used for the demand modelling for the New Stations report?
Question 1b: Is the Service Plan from 1a the actual service plan now proposed by Metrolinx for its operations, and if not, what is the replacement plan?
Question 1c: What additional infrastructure will be required to operate the proposed Service Plan?
Demand at Stations and on Trains
Each of the stations evaluated by Metrolinx has an associated demand made up of several components in the New Stations report:
- Number of “boardings and alightings” for the AM peak and all day.
- Passengers attracted to the new station from adjacent stations.
- Access mode of passengers to and from the station such as parking, walking, feeder buses.
- Change in travel time for passengers due to the addition of a new station.
The information is incomplete, or is consolidated in a way that complicates understanding of the full network’s behaviour. For example:
- Boardings and alightings are reported as a single number, and this is qualified only by noting cases where a station is more of a destination (more AM peak alightings) such as Liberty Village than an origin of trips (more AM peak boardings).
- Demand at adjacent stations, and in particular the change in demand caused by inserting a new station, is not shown beyond remarks that a new station may attract riders from other locations.
- The method of access by would-be riders to stations is affected by the assumed level of transit service and its catchment area, the quantity of onsite parking at a station, and the nearby land uses from which walk-in trips are feasible.
A further problem relates to the service plan. If the demand model is not capacity constrained, it will assign trips to stations whether or not there will actually be capacity to serve them on trains.
Question 2a: What is are the projected boardings and alightings, as separate numbers, for all stations in the corridors assessed in the New Stations report? For clarity, the purpose of this question is to establish the cumulative demand on trains over the corridor, not just at individual locations.
Question 2b: What is the breakdown of trips arriving and leaving the stations by various modes such as parking, transit, walking, etc.
Question 2c: What is the change in demand at adjacent stations caused by the insertion of new stations into a corridor?
The Metrolinx demand model is very sensitive to projected travel times, and the effect of added stations on trips from outlying areas is routinely cited as a negative factor in the “benefit analysis” for a new stop.
An offsetting factor cited by the RER project is that electrification will result in a noticeable cut in travel time. Indeed, this reduction has been used to show that new stations could be added without having a negative effect on ridership.
With new electric trains that accelerate faster, your journey times will be cut by up to 20 per cent, so you’ll spend less time getting there and more time being there. [Stouffville RER Page]
Finally, there is the question of elasticity of demand. This is the relationship between a change in a variable such as travel time and the projected demand. For example, if a trip becomes x% longer, ridership would be projected to decline by y%.
Elasticities are generally not “linear” in the sense that the effect of small changes will not have much effect on demand because other factors such as overall convenience are a rider’s primary concern. However, at some point, the perceived change in travel is noticed by riders, and this effect can grow when the change is substantial. (This can be compounded if service is unreliable because riders must factor in a buffer to allow for possible delays, a common issue for TTC users.)
Question 3a: What are the travel times used to model demand on the corridors assessed in the New Stations report including the projected differences for express and local trains?
Question 3b: What provision has been included in the model for the benefit of electrification on reducing travel times?
Question 3c: Does the model use a linear relationship for demand elasticity versus travel time, or are there inflection points where the elasticity changes? If so, what are they?
Question 3d: Does the model take into account wait time for service as part of the total travel time?
Demand forecasts for GO/SmartTrack are very sensitive to fare levels. As promised by Mayor Tory, SmartTrack riders would enjoy “TTC” fares with full transfer privileges to and from the trains. Metrolinx and City staff are extremely evasive on this point because it is far from clear just what an “integrated” fare structure will be. However, for the purpose of modelling, specific tariffs would have been used to determine network behaviour under the current scheme and alternatives.
The New Stations technical report is clear about what was modelled:
3.6.1 Service and Fare Integration
Since the 2016 IBCs, progress continues on the work Metrolinx and transit agencies across the GTHA are undertaking toward a consistent and seamless approach to transit fares and service in the region. The PDBC analysis assumes:
- introduction of Presto on all TTC services across the City of Toronto;
- the current discounted double fare agreement between the City of Toronto and Metrolinx – a $1.50 discount is applied when an adult Presto user’s journey includes both a TTC and GO segment;
- the planned TTC 2-hour transfer to make the TTC more aligned with 905 transfer policy, planned for implementation in August 2018; and
- progress by all transit agencies on addressing removal of fare barriers and improved service integration.
As a starting point, the base fare structure as of December 2017 is assumed for the PDBC analysis. A future looking full fare integration scenario was also tested to examine impacts on ridership and the overall economic case for each station where no fare barriers exist … . [p 12]
At no point is the meaning of “no fare barriers” made clear, nor is there any discussion of different tariffs for GO/RER itself and for the overlay of SmartTrack services.
This creates a situation where staff asked questions at a public meeting do not know what the tariff will actually look like, nor how the supposed demand at stations might be affected by underlying assumptions. At the March 6 meeting, answers about fare policies for SmartTrack ranged from “there will be free transfers to and from TTC” to “the matter is still being negotiated”.
Question 4a: What are the tariffs that were used for the New Stations report demand modelling for the scheme described in section 3.6.1 of the report, and for the “no fare barriers” option?
Question 4b: What exactly is the “no fare barrier” option?
With respect to SmartTrack, there are several questions that will affect not just the demand modelling, but the acceptance of this service as an alternative to or part of TTC trips within Toronto.
Question 5a: What pricing was used for SmartTrack services in the modelling?
Question 5b: Will SmartTrack pricing be available at all stations where SmartTrack will stop, or only at the specific SmartTrack locations? For greater clarity, will SmartTrack fares be available at Milliken, Agincourt, Kennedy and Main Stations on the Stouffville service, and at Bloor and Weston stations on the Kitchener service?
Question 5c: Will SmartTrack pricing be available on express trains stopping at stations within the City of Toronto?
Question 5d: Will SmartTrack pricing be available on corridors other than Stouffville and Kitchener within Toronto?
Many of these questions probably cannot be answered because negotiations are still underway to define just what SmartTrack is, and who will pay for various aspects of it including fare subsidies. However, the demand model must have used a specific tariff in order to factor fare levels into the projections.
This leads to a further question:
Question 6a: What are the demand model results (akin to question 2 above) for the “no fare barrier” option?
Station Business Cases and Designs
Metrolinx has already published detailed Initial Business Case reports for each of the proposed new stations. These were not made public until after a Freedom of Information request by the Toronto Star.
The information included in both the New Stations report and in presentation materials used at public meetings shows that there is more background information available as an update to the information in the original IBCs. However, there is no new set of revised Business Case reports, only the summary information in the New Stations report.
Station designs have changed. The modifications are described in text in the New Stations report, and diagrams have been presented for all of the stations within Toronto at public meetings.
Question 7a: Do updates for the IBC reports exist showing comparable information at the same level of detail, and if so, will they be published?
Question 7b: Do design drawings for stations outside of Toronto comparable to those presented at recent public meetings exist, and if so, will they be published?
Metrolinx purports to have assessed a number of new stations and produced “business cases” supporting their construction and operation. The level of detail in the New Stations report is considerably lower than in past studies.
SmartTrack remains an ill-defined service in terms of frequency, stopping pattern and fares.
The demand projections are given only for new stations, not for the balance of the network which, according to the report, would be affected by diversion of demand. Moreover, there is no examination of the capacity of the network, the proposed service plan and the demand that is cited for each of the stations.
Costs projections for stations are not included in the new study, and are only bundled into two groups for SmartTrack and RER stations. Metrolinx claims that this is to avoid a situation where bidders would know what the station budgets are, and yet they expect the City of Toronto (and its taxpayers) to sign on to the cost of stations sight-unseen. Some individual station costs have been cited by the Star even though they are supposedly confidential.
Despite the bundled pricing in the report, the underlying analyses were done knowing the actual cost estimates because these are cited as rising (mainly) or falling (a few) since the values in the IBCs. Many of the new stations would not stand on their own outside of a bundled proposal where a few key sites, notably East Harbour, supply the majority of the benefit to the GO network.
All of the information sought by the questions in this article should exist because without it, the New Stations report could not have been produced.
A worthwhile project for the Metrolinx Board would be to seek the publication of this information as soon as possible.