On April 9, Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a massive set of reports on the many transit projects at various stages of design and construction in Toronto.
In Part I of this series, I reviewed the financing scheme for four major projects as well as details of the Scarborough Subway Extension, aka the Line 2 East Extension. In this article, I will review the Relief Line, SmartTrack and the Bloor-Yonge Station Expansion project.
The reports applicable to this article are:
- Main Report: Toronto’s Transit Expansion Program – Update and Next Steps
- Attachment 1: A status update on all projects
There are related reports about signalling and capacity expansion of Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina in the TTC Board’s agenda for their April 11 meeting. I will deal with these in a separate article.
After decades in which the focus of transit planning looked outward to the 905 beyond the bounds of Toronto, there is now a political realization that capacity into the core is a major issue for the region’s economy. Politicians and planners may show optimistic studies of suburban centres and growth, but the development industry, a bastion of free enterprise thinking, persists in building downtown because that’s where they can sell at the greatest profit.
The Relief Line, SmartTrack, Automatic Train Control, subway station expansions and even surface transit projects like the King Street Pilot all attempt to address the demand for travel to and through the core area. Looking beyond the city boundaries, there are subway and GO Transit extensions and service improvements. Some of these schemes are more successful than others, and some have very long lead times before any benefit will be seen. Political attention has shifted from the fights over which one project will be built each decade to the recognition that many projects must occur in parallel so that capacity can catch up with latent and growing demand.
SmartTrack was the brainchild of John Tory’s 2014 mayoral campaign, and it grew out of a scheme to run frequent service over GO Transit trackage from Milton to Unionville via Union Station. The impetus for this was as much to provide capacity for out-commuting to suburban job centres as it was to bring riders into the core area. Trains would operate frequently, possibly 10-12 per hour, and would provide a “surface subway” at a fraction of subway costs.
By the time the scheme was announced as part of Tory’s platform, the western leg changed from GO Transit’s Milton branch to a new rail line planned for Eglinton West in lands originally reserved for the Richview Expressway that would have linked the airport area to Highway 400 south (now known as Black Creek Drive). Planners for this scheme neglected to check that the land was actually available (it was not, and houses had already begun to appear on plots the city had sold for development) or that a physical link from the GO Weston corridor to Eglinton West was actually practical. That western leg was dropped and replaced by the Eglinton West LRT extension which was, of course, part of the old Transit City scheme.
Meanwhile, GO Transit has been working on its Regional Express Rail concept which would expand service frequency on most corridors. Recently, GO has rediscovered short-hop trips as a potential for ridership growth and have turned their attention to the same market that SmartTrack would have tapped, but on a network-wide basis. SmartTrack really only touches the Stouffville and Weston corridors, and to a limited degree, the Lake Shore.
What was originally described as a service in its own right, possibly even with dedicated trains, has dwindled to a program of station building to be funded by the City of Toronto. This includes six stations on the Stouffville/Weston corridor (large blue circles below) plus two non-SmartTrack GO stations on the Barrie corridor (green circles on the map).
At the point Toronto City Council bought into SmartTrack as it had evolved by 2016, the service levels advertised matched those GO Transit was planning for its RER network. These are still shown on the RER project website where several “what’s in it for me” pages show planned service designs. Here is the info for the Stouffville and Kitchener (Weston) corridors in snapshots taken on April 5, 2019.
The service shown here for the Unionville-to-Union segment includes three trains/hour inbound from Lincolnville and four trains/hour both ways between Unionville and Union making a total of 7 trains/hour.
On the Weston corridor, the peak service includes four trains/hour inbound from Mount Pleasant, and four trains/hour both ways between Bramalea and Union for a total of eight trains/hour.
The Status Update report includes the following description:
The SmartTrack Stations Program is a package of six new stations on the Stouffville, Lakeshore East and Kitchener GO corridors. The Program also entails a service concept of 6-10 minutes during peak periods and 15 minutes during off-peak periods … [p. 22]
In fact, the only stations that would have seen trains every 6 minutes (10 trains/hour) in the original proposal were those on the Lake Shore corridor at Gerrard and East Harbour.
In February 2018, Metrolinx announced a new service design that was intended to avoid penalizing long-haul trips with extra stops on the inner ends of journeys to the core. This would be accomplished with a mixture of express and local operation where trains originating on the outer part of routes would skip the closely-spaced stops on the inner part. The only problem with this scheme was that it would remove many trains from the potential service at “SmartTrack” stations.
The City and Metrolinx have been using conflicting views of the future service plan interchangeably for a few years, and there is no clarity about the service that will actually be provided. I have repeatedly attempted to get clarification of this from Metrolinx, as recently as Wednesday, April 3. Their Media Relations office replied that they would not be able to get back to me that day, but I am still waiting now on April 5. This should not be a hard question to answer: what is the effect of the Metrolinx express/local scheme on the service that will be provided to SmartTrack stations?
It is self-evident that there is a big difference between 4 trains/hour (the basic local service) and up to 10 trains/hour (combined local and express), and this will strongly affect the attractiveness of “SmartTrack”. Other changes required for SmartTrack include:
- Reduce GO Transit’s base fare component and increase the distance component; and
- Provide riders using transit in Toronto, with the same GO Transit co-fare option on the TTC as riders starting trips in other Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) municipalities have. [p. 22]
The government recently announced a change to the GO Transit tariff:
At the direction of the Minister of Transportation, Metrolinx is making changes to better align GO fares for short-distance trips and provide customers with significantly more affordable options for travelling between GO stations and bus stops within and around their communities. Effective April 20, 2019:
- PRESTO fares for trips up to approximately 10 kilometres will be reduced to $3.70, a reduction by as much as 40% from fares for some trips. For example, the new $3.70 fare for customers travelling from Oakville to Appleby is reduced from $6.18.
- GO single-fare (non-PRESTO) paper ticket prices for trips up to approximately 10 kilometres will be reduced to $4.40 a reduction of up to 22%. [Metrolinx Proposed Fare Changes p. 1]
A table of sample fare changes appears in the Metrolinx report:
For example, trips from Exhibition (Liberty Village) or Bloor (Dundas West Station) to Union that now charge $4.71 to Presto users will drop to $3.70. If the trip involved the TTC, an adult rider would get a $1.50 discount on their TTC fare as part of the GO/TTC fare discount policy already in effect. Note that the discount is only available to riders who pay individual fares for their TTC trip, not for monthly pass holders. This makes the combined fare $5.20, and that is considerably more than the “TTC fare” originally proposed in the SmartTrack package.
The combination of fare and service levels will not bring the hundreds of thousands of riders originally foreseen for SmartTrack, and its benefit as a “relief” to the subway system will be much less than was touted.
Toronto Council approved up to $1.463 billion for the stations, although this is not yet fully funded in the City’s financing plans.
However, the Metrolinx station strategy has changed substantially under the Ford government to focus on locations where nearby development can pay for some or all of station construction costs. The most recent update to this policy is in a report for the Metrolinx Board’s April 10, 2019 meeting.
It is unclear how this will affect the City’s funding requirements for SmartTrack stations or if some locations will not be built. An obvious issue in some cases is that development is already substantially complete (e.g. Liberty Village) while in others almost nothing has happened (East Harbour). Indeed, some locations may not lend themselves to intensification (Finch-Kennedy) and exist on the map primarily as an interception point for riders on local bus service. Without frequent service and little or no fare penalty, such stations have little reason to exist.
The planned in service date for the new stations is 2025 when it is possible that none of the politicians now in charge of decisions will remain in office.
Relief Line South
The Relief Line from Pape to Osgood Station already has an approved EA, and detailed design is underway. Recently, comments by Michael Lindsay, the Provincial Advisor on subway uploading, have produced a lot of speculation about the RL’s technology and the TTC’s intentions. As I previously reported, some provincial statements about the RL suggest that they have only a vague understanding of the project, or are willfully blind to what the TTC is proposing. For example, the proposed train technology is up to modern standards including Automatic Train Control, and there is no intent (nor even the physical capability in the design) to through route existing Line 2 trains from Danforth/Scarborough to downtown via the RL.
The Relief Line will operate as a separate subway line, but will be integrated into the TTC subway system. Service levels and the hours of operation will be similar to existing TTC subway lines. There will be convenient interchange connections for passengers at Pape, Queen, and Osgoode subway stations, and at the Gerrard-Carlaw and East Harbour SmartTrack stations. The trains, stations, and other infrastructure will be designed to the latest subway standards, and will permit a high-capacity service to be operated to meet the projected passenger demand over at least the next 30 years. Provision is being made for automatic train operation, platform edge doors, and longer trains, to allow the most flexibility for future increases in ridership demand. The line will be entirely tunnelled, and will be isolated from the weather-related delays that can affect service on Lines 1, 2, and 3. A separate, short tunnel will allow Relief Line trains to be driven to the TTC’s existing Greenwood Yard for necessary maintenance and repairs, thus allowing efficient use of existing subway system resources. The same tunnel will also allow the TTC’s existing fleet of maintenance trains to reach the Relief Line for overnight work. For maximum service resilience and redundancy, the connection to the wider subway system would allow for trains from Line 1 or Line 2 to be operated on the Relief Line, if necessary. [p. 15]
The reference above to “longer trains” refers to the planned initial service with four-car consists as on Line 4 Sheppard today where stations are built for six-car trains, but only finished to a four-car length.
During the press conference launching the Omnibus Report, Mayor Tory claimed that a contract for construction of the tunnel boring machine (TBM) launch site could be awarded late in 2019. This was an error, and the work to begin will be the design of the launch site with actual construction to begin in 2020. The TBMs have to be ordered and are long lead time items. They would not arrive in Toronto until 2022.
As currently planned, the RL South will be a twin-bore tunnel with cut-and-cover station construction as on the Eglinton Crosstown project. The designs are under review to determine whether some stations could be built by mining from adjacent shafts (as has been done at Laird Station on Eglinton) rather than by digging down from the roadway above the station sites.
Although the alignment and station sites for the RL south are already approved, the design is not set in stone:
As part of the current phase of the project, a detailed review of project components is underway to seek opportunities for positively impacting costs and implementation. This includes exploring options for construction methods, optimizing the number and location of stations as part of the overall transit network, and considering property requirements in light of opportunities for land value capture and transit-oriented development. A value engineering exercise is also underway to analyze the design and cost effectiveness of the project and identify potential methods of reducing costs while maintaining key project objectives. A procurement options analysis is underway to consider the best approach to delivering the design and construction of the project. [p. 17]
There are obvious opportunities for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) at some locations such as East Harbour and Gerrard Stations. Other locations are already developed (the downtown stations), or lie in areas where a significant change in city policy to higher density development would be required.
The estimated cost for the RL south is $6.8 billion, but this is a Class 5 number with a wide margin for error/adjustment either way. Current plans call for design work to advance to a Class 3 estimate that can be used as a realistic project budget with a report to Council in the first quarter of 2020. The funding for this work is uncertain:
To complete the current preliminary design and engineering phase, the City of Toronto committed $55.5 million and the Province of Ontario, through Metrolinx, committed $45 million. The City’s capital budget includes an additional $325 million for 2019 / 2020 to identify tactics to accelerate the schedule. The City is currently seeking partnership funding of $162.5 million to support the $325 million program identified by TTC for this work. [p. 18]
The project has been planned on the basis of a 2031 opening date, but some early work such as property acquisition and utility relocations will be advanced with the hope of shifting the opening back to 2029.
All of this could be compromised by the Provincial declaration that they wish to take over the project and make it independent of Line 2’s fleet and carhouse.
Relief Line North
Work on the northern portion of the Relief Line is no where near as advanced as on the southern segment. This work is led by Metrolinx, and public participation “went dark” for the provincial election. There has been some consultation on possible routes, but no evaluations have emerged. An Initial Business Case together with route and station locations are expected in fourth quarter 2019 with a report to Council early in 2020. This, of course, assumes the current arrangement where this is a joint provincial-municipal project. If the entire process is taken over by Ontario, especially if there is a major change in the design and proposed implementation of the entire RL, these dates might not hold.
A particular concern in evaluation of the RL and any business case analyses is the scope of what is included as a “cost” and a “benefit”. The whole point of this line is “relief” and that has a benefit in the avoided costs (both for infrastructure and for rider convenience and comfort) of a “do nothing” option where the existing subway must absorb demand that might otherwise be handled by the RL. Looking more broadly, there is the question of the Richmond Hill GO corridor, but that is more likely to benefit riders originating north of a likely terminus for RL north as opposed to “in town” demand such as that at Thorncliffe/Flemingdon Park and the impending redevelopment at Don Mills and Eglinton. Just as with transit demand, cost benefit analysis must consider the network, not simply one project.
A major project has bubbled away at the design level for the expansion of passenger capacity at Bloor-Yonge Station, and it is about to emerge for approval of a preferred concept (at 10% design) late in 2019. Construction would occur in the 2020s aiming to open before 2028 when the station is expected to be at capacity. A rough cost estimate for this work is $1 billion.
The status of this project is unknown in a provincial takeover scenario, but it is an excellent example of the scale of work needed on the existing system while most politicians are preoccupied with system expansion.
A preliminary design appears in the status update report [p. 5]. In order to understand this design, one must know how the existing structures lie below the ground and between buildings at this major intersection.
The Yonge line (Line 1) lies east of Yonge but is not parallel to the axis of that street. It threads between existing buildings on the north side that were built after the subway was in place. There is also a Bell switching building on Asquith Street very close to the subway structure. Although there was once a scheme to widen the tunnel north of Bloor Station as part of new Line 1 platforms, this would have been a difficult project and it has been abandoned.
The Bloor line (Line 2) crosses Yonge north of Bloor at an angle and does not “straighten out” under the street until the intersection at Park Road (the east end of the Hudson’s Bay building). Riders will know that trains coming east from Bay veer right (to the south) on the approach to Yonge, and to the left (north) leaving Yonge Station. The portion of the route on the diagonal relative to the street grid lies between the two curves. The station is physically within the buildings on the north side of Bloor. The proposed expansion lies under Bloor Street as noted in the diagram below. This would provide considerably more space and access to the Bloor Station platform further south to better distribute arriving passengers.
On the lower level, a new eastbound platform for Line 2 trains would be built south of the existing station and slightly offset from it. Escalators, stairs and elevators would link this platform up to the expanded east (northbound) and west (southbound) platforms. Note that the new platform is shorter than the existing one and has just enough room for a six-car train (click on the drawing to see a larger version).
The existing centre platform would be used only by westbound trains thereby reducing demand on it just as was done at Union station where there are now separate platforms for riders bound for the University and Yonge legs of Line 1.
This is a major change to the station and as part of the work it must be brought to current fire code. This requires new ventilation fans as shown in the drawings.
Yonge Subway Capacity Study
The TTC Board’s agenda for April 11 includes a report on Line 1 Capacity Requirements that goes into some detail on issues related to adding capacity to Toronto’s primary subway route. I will review this in detail in a separate article, but a few points are worth noting in the context of the plans discussed above.
For many years, the TTC talked about subway capacity as something that had one major “fix”, the conversion of the Yonge line to Automatic Train Control. With a new signalling system, trains could run closer together and provide more capacity. However, there are many other challenges facing the TTC in actually achieving this.
- Running trains closer together requires more equipment, more crews, more maintenance staff and more storage for trains that are not in service.
- An offsetting saving is possible with ATC because trains can safely run at higher speeds, notably in areas where stations are far apart.
- Running more trains and at a higher performance level draws more power, and this affects the substations and distribution network for traction power in the subway.
- With more frequent service, passengers will arrive at busy stations at a higher rate, and this will strain already-crowded exits especially in cases where one is blocked for work such as escalator repairs.
- Increased demand on stations will require additional exits and ventilation changes to bring stations to current fire code.
- Geometric and operational issues at terminals affect the throughput of trains arriving and leaving, and even under best case conditions it may not be possible for the TTC to achieve all of the reduction in headways (the time between trains) by which they hope to substantially improve capacity.
These are interlinked requirements and “cherry picking” for budgetary reasons risks the ability of the line to provide the level of service anticipated by many plans.