Metrolinx Continues Its Pursuit of Hydrogen Trains

Metrolinx has released a long study about the feasibility of using electricity generated from hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to conventional railway electrification with overhead wires. The “Hydrail” project page contains links to both a quicky “fact sheet” and to a 353-page report. The report itself contains a 13-page Executive Summary giving a high level view of the proposals and recommendations without much of the technical detail.

It is impractical here for me to review the entire document, and indeed this is not really needed because a great deal of the content is a tutorial on hydrogen technology. The report is clearly written by people with more of a background in hydrogen technology and marketing than in railway planning and operations.

Fascinating though this is, the report does not address the most crucial issue of all – what are the implementation scenarios for hydrogen propulsion depending both on technical maturity and on policy decisions still to be made about the evolution of the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) system.

A great deal of confusion lies in the process Metrolinx is following to provision RER. Their intent is to farm the entire thing out to a private consortium:

Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) Procurement Process

Metrolinx is intending to engage a contractor to upgrade the GO network using a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) model. As part of the tender process, bidders will be able to propose both hydrail and overhead wire technology to electrify the GO network. The benefit of this DBFOM approach is it allows one single party to manage all the interrelated decisions necessary and oversee each phase of the process from design to maintenance. This ensures optimal performance is achieved for the entire system, which can create efficiencies. [Website]

However, as the industry now stands, the information needed to allow an informed assessment of technical maturity, feasibility and risk for hydrogen trains at the scale of a GO/RER implementation does not exist. There is a lot of speculation, but it is based on much, much smaller and simpler implementations of various aspects of the technology.

The intent of the proposed study is to acquire as much information and experience as possible so that bidders can bid intelligently. The real challenge will be for this to happen before the Request for Proposals is issued at the end of 2018.

There is a subtle change in the text above to statements by Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster in 2017 when he said that it would be up to bidders to decide which technology they would choose to offer. Instead, the description above states that bidders can propose either technology and it would be up to Metrolinx and the Government of Ontario to decide which version to implement. It is quite likely that for the riskier new technology, bidders will be less willing to accept broad technical risk, and they will charge a premium for this. Whether the government of the day will see any extra costs as worth the investment remains to be seen.

Indeed, although the report states that the Cost:Benefit ratios for conventional and hydrogen options are similar, there is no mention of the risk premium a bidder might place on one option over the other. Moreover, the actual calculation of the ratio is not explained, nor are the total costs given. This raises the question of whether a higher cost is offset by a higher assumed benefit so that the ratios come out similarly, even if the magnitudes of investment differ.

At a recent Board of Trade appearance, Verster was asked about electrification, and replied with praise for Ontario’s “hydrogen economy”. It is quite clear that he drank the Kool-Aid and the government’s usual fascination with technology is getting in the way of his proper role as CEO. Immediately afterward, he reverted to the position that it is up to the would-be builders/operators of the RER network to propose technologies and the risk they are willing to assume.

Later the same day, when asked at a Metrolinx Town Hall about the possibility that hydrogen efforts would delay electrification, Verster replied with the standard response that the vendors will decide. However, the timelines for investigation of hydrogen and the contract award date suggest that a lot of work will be jammed into a very short period, and that Metrolinx’ own technical investigations will overlap the bid process.

A fundamental problem with Metrolinx “benefit cases analysis” (also misleadingly termed “business case analysis”) lies in the calculation of presumed benefits which are built up from a variety of factors. These include not just direct spending, but also the imputed value of effects such as reduced travel times, reduction of congestion and the value of environmental improvements. This side of the analysis is not present in the report, and so it is difficult to ascertain the “benefits” against which each scheme is measured. As for costs, so many elements of the hydrogen train proposal are little more than assumptions about the scalability of existing technology, it is hard to believe that the cost estimate is much beyond the back-of-an-envelope stage.

The capital and operating cost estimates presume a level of certainty about the hydrogen option which simply cannot exist at this point. Indeed, a major purpose of the planned work is to provide the technical basis on which a bidder might construct a proposal. Some capital costs included for conventional electrification are not included in the hydrogen scenario, and there is a wide variation in the range of projected operating costs.

With a planned launch of RER by 2025, the timelines are quite tight because major decisions on the infrastucture needed for either alternative must be made soon so that RER is “ready to roll” when planned.

Notable by their absence are key pieces of information:

  • What is the relationship between the timelines of the proposed hydrogen investigations and prototyping, and the timespan of the DBFOM procurement through all of its phases from initial tender up to revenue service? Can the research phase be completed in time to inform bids from potential builders/operators of the GO/RER network?
  • If the DBFOM bidders depend on investigative work done by Metrolinx or others on its behalf, what liability will Metrolinx have for non-performance if their work turns out to be incomplete or faulty, and therefore prevents the successful execution of the contract?
  • What is or will be the position of the railways, CN and CP, to the presence of hydrogen trains on their systems? Their dislike of electrical distribution and overhead structure in their territory is cited as a benefit of the hydrogen alternative, but one must ask how the railways will view the risks of a new propulsion technology co-existing with their operations.

This brings us to a fundamental question about RER and electrification, regardless of the technology. At the risk of being accused of environmental insensitivity, it must be said that electrification is not a prerequisite for RER implementation at the service levels now planned. Indeed, electrification makes the system design more complex especially where GO services operate over other railways’ territory. The tradeoffs are between many issues including the increased intrusion of more frequent GO service in corridors now hemmed in by residential development rather than by industry. This brings noise and pollution from frequent service with diesel locomotives. Even electric trains are not silent.

Reading between the lines, one might well think that full electrification is now contemplated as something for the future, in the mid 2040s, not in the 2020s. This is fundamentally tied up with questions of implementation and roll out, none of which is addressed in the report because it assumes this is a matter for future study.

Although much discussion reads as if RER will appear overnight in January 2025, Metrolinx plans to begin building up service levels from current to the RER proposal on an incremental basis as infrastructure improvements are completed. This means that a substantial portion of “RER” based on existing technology would exist before electrification, by whatever scheme, actually is “turned on”.

An important part of any implementation plan will include the mechanism by which a DBFOM bidder will take over existing assets, and this necessarily must be spelled out as part of the tender process. This will lead to two huge transitions occurring in parallel: the move from direct Metrolinx capital and operating responsibility for the GO system to a separate provider, and the technology transition from diesel to electric on some or all of the network. Whether Metrolinx has the capability to manage something on this scale, or will simply dump the responsibility in the provider’s lap and hope for the best, remains to be seen.

There is also the fantasy that the “risk” will be transferred from the government to the provider, but that risk comes at a price, and what is effectively “risk insurance” usually has a cap. Examples of capped liabilities, or even of providers walking away from their responsibilities, are not hard to find. Of course there could be problems with conventional electrification too, but they are less likely with a mature technology.

In this article, I will review the recommendations so that readers who want the “short version” can get my opinion without reading all the way to the end. In a separate future article, I will turn to specifics in the detailed report.

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TTC Service Changes Effective Sunday, April 1, 2018

April 2018 brings several adjustments to TTC schedules, but nothing like the upheaval of February’s streetcar/bus changeovers or the subway opening of December 2017.

After a long absence, streetcars will return to The Queensway subject to construction at Humber Loop reaching a point where this is physically possible. Schedules on the 66 Prince Edward and 80 Queensway buses will revert to the pre-construction route configurations with the following effects:

  • 66A Prince Edward buses will terminate at Humber Loop rather than running east to the on street Ellis/Windermere loop.
  • 80B Queensway buses will terminate at Humber Loop rather then at Keele Station late weekday evenings and on Sundays.

The TTC’s service memo does not set out the arrangements for the 501L buses to Long Branch connecting with the 501 streetcars, or where the east end of the bus shuttle will be. Details of the bus operations will be announced closer to the start of the new schedules.

Through 501 Queen streetcar service to Long Branch will be scheduled for the May 13, 2018 board period.

The 512 St. Clair streetcar will become an officially low-floor route with all off-peak service designated to receive Flexity cars. Peak period extras will become fully low-floor as new cars are available. The service frequencies are almost identical to the current schedules.

As approved in November 2017, two routes will lose late evening service because their ridership is below the 10 riders per bus hour standard. These are:

  • 5 Avenue Road all days
  • 169 Huntingwood weekends

The 73B Royal York to La Rose Avenue branch will lose its weekend late evening service at the end of 2018 when construction at Royal York Station and the current interline between the two Royal York routes (73/76) ends.

The 94 Wellesley bus will lose its direct subway access at Wellesley Station during elevator construction. The 94B service which normally terminates at this station will be extended to loop around Queen’s Park as 94C. On street stops at Yonge and Wellesley will require transfers for token/ticket/cash users as at other stations where surface routes do not have a closed connection to the subway. This arrangement is expected to last until December 2018.

Minor changes in routes serving Pioneer Village station will ensure that last buses provide a connection with the last northbound subway train.

Several routes have minor changes in service levels and/or running times for construction (Metrolinx projects), adjustments to demand and correction of timings to match actual conditions.

2018.04.01 Service Changes

New SmartTrack/GO Station Designs

In two recent articles, I wrote about new stations that are proposed on some of the GO corridors, and their recently updated evaluations and designs:

The reports did not include any illustrations of the proposed designs, but these are starting to appear through the SmartTrack station consultation meetings. As they become available, I will post excerpts in this article.

The March 1 meeting dealt with four stations on the west side of the old City of Toronto. The presentation materials are not yet online, but I have included excerpts from them here.

Among the issues discussed in an earlier round of meetings were:

  • Noise during the construction period, and later from trains including the bells which sound as they enter and leave stations.
  • The service plan – what will be the frequency of service through and at each station?
  • Fare integration – what will the fare be for a combined TTC/GO trip?

A Metrolinx representative was somewhat evasive on the issue of noise on two counts. First, there is the question of how long it will be before the majority of service will be electrified. If one believes the original electrification plan (cited by the Metrolinx rep), some trains will always be diesel on some lines because they will run into territory owned by other railways where electrification will not occur. Conversely, if one believes the optimistic claims of the hydrogen train study, all GO trains will convert to hydrogen-electric operation, although on exactly what timetable is unclear.

The noise of the bells raises two concerns. First is the question of whether there can be an exemption so that neighbours are not constantly annoyed by the bells of passing trains. The other is the methodology by which an “environmental assessment” treats transient noises like this. Past EAs have dismissed transient noises because they average out with lots of quiet time between trains, but this does not address the problem of occasional noises such as roaring engines or ringing bells. Moreover, with the planned increases in service levels, these noises will be present more frequently.

SmartTrack was described broadly in the following slide:

A pressing issue for most stations is the recently revised service plan that Metrolinx announced in its updated stations report.

Express (non-stop) and tiered service patterns typically have trains serving outer stations. They typically run non-stop past inner stations which are served for by other trains. Such tiered service patterns impact business case assessment in the following key ways:

  • Reduces the number of upstream riders that need to travel through the station. Upstream users that are travelling through may now choose to use a faster express train to reach their destination. This reduces upstream delays and the number of riders that switch to other modes. This will have a positive impact on station performance.
  • Reduced train frequency at stations without express service (i.e. trains that previously stopped at the station can now skip some stations). Riders may also divert to stations with express services resulting in a negative impact on station performance.

As the GO RER service plan is still evolving, a conceptual service plan has been developed for modelling purposes only, which considers the following express or tiered inner/outer service concepts on the Lakeshore West, Barrie and Stouffville corridors.

  • Lakeshore West corridor: Alternating trains with bi-directional 15 minutes service on the corridor with stops at Mimico and Park Lawn stations. Mimico and Park Lawn stations would therefore receive 30 minutes service inbound and outbound all day.
  • Barrie corridor: Outer service stopping at all stations between Allandale Waterfront and Aurora; trains will also stop at Downsview Park and Spadina stations, otherwise, express to Union Station. Inner services will serve all stations between Union Station and Aurora.
  • Stouffville corridor: All-stop peak direction outer service between Lincolnville and Unionville stations; trains will also stop at Kennedy and East Harbour stations, otherwise, express to Union Station. “Inner” services will stop at all stations between Unionville and Union Station.

This does not match the service plan adopted for RER in June 2016 where all trains would serve all stations, although that appears to be the plan staff at the March 1 meeting were working from.

The claim of “all-day two-way service, with more frequent trains during peak periods and every 15 minutes during off-peak periods” can be read to mean quarter-hourly service all day with even better peak service, or it can be read as “better service than you have today” during peak periods, but not necessarily every 15 minutes, let alone 10 minutes or below. As things now stand, the difference between Metrolinx’ updated service plan and the claims of SmartTrack service levels border on misrepresentation.

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Metrolinx New Stations Report: The Details

In a previous post, I reviewed the updated evaluation of proposed new stations on the GO/RER/SmartTrack network. In brief, the situation for some locations is not as dire as in mid-2016 because Metrolinx has changed some of the operating rules and plans for it services. Whether the newly proposed services can actually be operated remains to be seen and is, as usual, a subject for further study.

This article is a station-by-station review of the primary issues at each proposed new stop. The stations are ordered here by corridor for ease of reference by geographical grouping, whereas in the Metrolinx report they are in alphabetical sequence.

(There will doubtless be a small industry in pushing for reviews of stops that are not in the Metrolinx list. That is not the purpose of this piece which reviews the updated evaluations as presented by Metrolinx.)

My apologies in advance for a long, text-only read. There were no illustrations beyond general maps in the Metrolinx report, and so there are none here either.

There is a series of planned public meetings about SmartTrack stations, and it is possible that these will include more details of current designs. If so, I will update this article to include them.

THURSDAY MARCH 1, 2018
Lithuanian House
1573 Bloor Street West
6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Presentation begins at 7:00 pm

TUESDAY MARCH 6, 2018
Scarborough Civic Centre,
Council Chamber
150 Borough Drive
6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Presentation begins at 7:00 pm

WEDNESDAY MARCH 21, 2018
Queen Alexandra Middle School,
Small Gym
181 Broadview Avenue
6:15 pm – 9:00 pm
Presentation begins at 7:30 pm

A total of 17 stations are reviewed in this study. Of these, 5 were not recommended in the initial report in 2016. Of these, only Park Lawn has been resurrected to go forward for reasons discussed later. One of the 12 in the approved list, Mulock, has negative benefits and might fall off of the table if Metrolinx cannot find a way to make a better case for it.

General issues that are either not addressed by or not detailed in the report include:

  • There are no detailed design drawings of the stations, only very general location maps.
  • Details of the service plan(s) used to model demand. There are some specific references with respect to express and local operations at certain stations, but not for existing stations or the network as a whole. This affects demand modelling.
  • Modelled demand at all stations, not just the new ones, and of the cumulative on-train loads. This is important to ascertain whether the planned service can actually support the projected demand.
  • Details of the boardings and alightings at stations. Combined values are shown, and the descriptive text indicates which is the predominant flow, but not the proportions.
  • Differentiation of new riders attracted to GO service by the station as opposed to existing riders diverted from nearby stations (i.e. net new ridership).
  • The degree to which, if at all, performance improvements through electrification (whether by conventional power of hydrogen fuel cells) will offset the time penalty associated with new stations.
  • Additional infrastructure required for express and local operations to co-exist on each corridor. Some of this is mentioned, but not in a comprehensive way.
  • Details of train operations including use of express and local tracks, and track assignment on corridors with multiple services. Any requirement for individual services to cross each other affects capacity along the route and at Union Station.
  • Details of the implications for freight operations both with respect to existing spur lines and to clearance issues with new structures.
  • The anticipated volume and operational interference of freight operations on GO’s passenger service.

For the original station designs which, in some cases, have now been modified, please refer to the Metrolinx mid-2016 reports. Go to the Metrolinx New Stations page, scroll down to and open the Initial Business Cases bullet.

A consistent problem through all of these studies is the reliance on the imputed value of time savings to travellers. This is not “real money” in the sense that it can be recouped to pay for the transit investment, but a social benefit that transit confers. There is nothing wrong with this outlook, but readers are cautioned that when Metrolinx speaks of benefits exceeding costs, this does not mean that profits will roll in the doors at stations. Moreover, the model is very sensitive to the imputed effect of delays caused by new stations.

In their attempt to address the negative effect of adding stations to the corridors on riders making long trips, Metrolinx has changed their service design to include express and local trains. This fixes one problem, but adds others in terms of the resulting frequency at local stations, and the capacity of local trains to handle the projected demand.

All demand numbers cited here are for the 2031 projection which assumes the current fare structure with GO/TTC co-fares, but no “regional integration” beyond what is already in place:

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. [p 12]

Mayor Tory has trumpeted this report as showing a strong support for his SmartTrack project with 60-year benefits of $4.59 billion greatly exceeding the capital costs of $1.195 billion (2022$). However almost all of the benefit comes from two stations – East Harbour and King-Liberty.

East Harbour provides 55% of the demand and 84% of the imputed benefits from the six SmartTrack stations. King-Liberty adds a further 16% of the demand and 9% of the benefits. These stations stand on their own as worthwhile additions completely separate from SmartTrack.

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