On March 6, 2018, the City of Toronto and Metrolinx hosted a meeting at Scarborough City Hall to present the two new SmartTrack stations proposed for the Stouffville corridor. This follows on from a meeting to present the west end stations, and the series will conclude on March 21 with a presentation of the downtown east side stations (East Harbour and Gerrard-Carlaw) at Queen Alexandra School.
The Scarborough meeting dealt with two stations: Finch-Kennedy and Lawrence-Kennedy.
The audience was not particularly supportive of the project. Complicating this situation was a group of presenters who seemed either not fully in command of information about the stations, or unwilling to engage in discussion, and a moderator who lost his credibility as an impartial actor. Some statements were, to put it charitably, badly misinformed on two key issues.
The viability of the Scarborough SmartTrack stations, especially the one at Lawrence which will replace the existing RT station, depends on service frequency. Past Metrolinx publications including the GO RER website claim that the line will see seven trains/hour of which four would run through to/from Lincolnville and three would run to/from Unionville. (For details, see my previous article A Few Questions For Metrolinx.) Originally, all trains were to stop at all stations, but Metrolinx has recently changed their service plan so that only the Unionville trains will run “local” and stop at the SmartTrack stations (among others). This fundamentally alters the attractiveness and usefulness of the service.
At the meeting, a Metrolinx representative claimed that the service plan was actually for seven local trains, not four, as well as the four express trains. This is the first time that service plan has been claimed for the corridor. Whether it is actually possible given the absence of passing tracks and the effective headway of under six minutes is quite another matter. An express train can only make up more than the time between two locals if it can overtake them. Metrolinx has not presented a track design that would allow this, and the corridor is constrained for additional tracks especially where GO must co-exist with the Scarborough RT. The whole point of the 4+3 service plan was to fit within the capabilities of planned GO RER infrastructure.
The attractiveness of a train in the GO corridor as part of the local transit system also depends on the fare that will be charged. Although Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack plan claims that free transfers would be available between the TTC and GO, information from Metrolinx varies with options including:
- A flat fare structure as promised by Mayor Tory with free transfers.
- A discount for GO+TTC usage similar to that now in place for riders who pay with single fares on Presto (not passholders).
- Reduced GO fares within Toronto, but not necessarily to “TTC” levels.
It is irresponsible and misleading for anyone at a public meeting to say definitively what the fare structure will be. This has not yet been negotiated between Metrolinx and the City of Toronto, much less approved by the two bodies as to the cost sharing arrangements. Toronto is supposed to be on the hook for all “SmartTrack” costs, and a subsidized transfer fare would be on the City’s account.
A further problem is the question of how extensively a “Toronto” fare would apply on the GO network, whether it would be valid on the “express” trains running in the SmartTrack corridor, and whether it would be valid at all stations including existing GO stations like Agincourt and Bloor (Dundas West), let alone on other GO corridors like the Lakeshore East and West.
The Finch-Kennedy station is at a point on the corridor which is now a level crossing between Finch Avenue East and the railway. The proposed station would span a new underpass for Finch Avenue with connections to bus service in the underpass. The main station building would lie further north at a point where auto access would be provided for drop offs and pickups including Wheel-Trans service.
As originally designed, the station had a fair amount of parking, but this has been dropped in the current plan although the diagram above notes the possibility for future addition of parking as part of redevelopment. New access roads (blue arrows) are shown for circulation to and from the station.
Representatives of the Agincourt neighbourhood raised what has been a burning issue for residents around this stretch of the corridor. There are multiple grade crossings of the existing rail line and local streets, but Metrolinx proposes only to grade separate Finch and Steeles. See RER Level Crossings Strategy, February 2017.
With a service plan of at least 7 and possibly 11 trains/hour in this corridor each way, grade crossings on the corridor would see a train either way quite frequently – just over every 4’17” on average for 7 trains/hour each way, or every 2’44” for 11 trains/hour each way). This raises issues for road capacity, pedestrian conflicts for crossings in residential neighbourhoods and constant noise from crossing alarms and train horns.
Locations that would be affected are:
- Huntingwood : This is beside a school and students walk to and from it across the railway.
- Havendale : This is a residential neighbourhood that closely borders the corridor.
- Progress : This is in an industrial area.
- McNicoll : This is in an industrial area immediately adjacent to the new TTC garage now under construction.
- Passmore : This is an industrial area.
The choice of grade separation locations depends on several factors including the frequency of GO trains. At the point where the current list was produced, service at 7 trains/hour each way was planned. If the actual number will be 11/hour, then the “exposure index” which drives the scoring process goes up by 57%, a very substantial increase that would definitely change the ranking of most if not all of the level crossings.
As safety is a top priority, it is heavily reflected in the analysis through the usage and existing conditions category, which accounted for 60% of the total consideration. The usage and existing conditions criteria included “exposure index (EI),” a standard measure of traffic volumes commonly used by transportation agencies in crossing assessments related to safety and impacts to road users. The EI is derived by multiplying the average annual daily railway traffic and the average annual daily road traffic at a crossing location. [p 7]
Metrolinx needs to settle the question of service levels on this corridor (including any plans for expansion) and determine whether the decision to leave these grade crossings in place is actually justified. If not, then there will be both upheaval at the affected sites and an increase in RER project costs.
As shared pieces of infrastructure, it is expected that costs associated with grade separations will be shared between the rail and road authorities. Under Canadian Transportation Agency guidelines, the agency that requires the grade separation is responsible for 85% of the basic costs. Where there is mutual benefit, parties share costs 50% each. Also by agreement other arrangements are possible. [p 11]
Whether any of this becomes a SmartTrack cost remains to be seen. In either case, local municipalities bear part of the cost for grade separations, and this could be an as-yet missing cost within Toronto’s budget.
The Lawrence-Kennedy station is a controversial location because of the political commitment that the SRT will remain in operation until the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) opens. As this is after the supposed launch of GO RER and SmartTrack in 2025, the two systems must coexist. This was not possible in the original design where the GO corridor, expanded to two tracks plus a central platform, would encroach on the existing northbound platform of the SRT.
In the new scheme, the central platform is replaced by two side platforms, one of which (southbound) would initially be narrower than its eventual dimensions to avoid the SRT structure. Splitting the platforms like this moves the northbound GO rail away from the overpass structure where there are clearance issues both for the trains and for the overhead catenary that would be installed for electrification. [See pp 33-34 of the New Stations report.] Among other issues, the report notes:
Exemptions will be required from Transport Canada and GO Design Requirements Manual clearance requirements due to the narrow space between the Line 3 station and the existing Lawrence bridge piers.
Because the RT line is in the way, there can be no access to the SmartTrack station both while the RT continues to operate and until the structure is demolished. Metrolinx proposes that access would be provided from bus platforms at the crown of the bridge over the corridor with vertical access down to the platforms via stairs, escalators and elevators (according to the March 6 presentation).
Prior to removal of Line 3, access to west platform would be from the Lawrence bridge overpass and the east station platform, but not accessible from the area of the current Line 3 station. The station facilities and tracks will block direct access to the east until Line 3 is decommissioned.
At the March 6 presentation, the top-of-the-bridge transfer arrangement was presented as a positive change because 54 Lawrence East buses would no longer be delayed by looping through the station, and this would benefit through riders. The fact that a large number of riders are actually destined for this station, which is a short-turn point for the 54E express operation, appears to have escaped the presenters whose interest appears to be in making a bad connection sound better than it really is.
If access to the bus loop were restored after the SRT station is removed, one must ask why the buses could not resume using that as their transfer point with a convenient across-the-platform access to the southbound platform. Northbound would require an underpass, possibly a continuation of the existing link to the SRT’s northbound platform. Why this is not in the station design is a mystery other than the high throwaway cost of using the bridge-based access for only a few years.
The projected cost for the Lawrence-Kennedy station has not been released by Metrolinx, but the Star’s Ben Spurr reports that it is now $155 million, up from $23.2 million in the June 2016 Initial Business Case. That’s a lot of money for a station that will be entirely on Toronto’s dime, and with structures that could be obsolete a few years after it opens.
This is the sort of ludicrous arrangement that passes for planning in Toronto.
A much more sensible arrangement (assuming one agrees with the whole SmartTrack/SSE plan) would be to leave this site without a SmartTrack station until the RT is closed and its station removed, and plan for rapid construction of a replacement SmartTrack station as quickly as possible afterward. This will still leave riders of the Lawrence East bus without service for a period, but at a much lower cost and the possibility of building the station properly rather than shoe-horning it in beside an operating SRT line.