Over or Under? Can Metrolinx Make Up Their Mind?

The Metrolinx Board meeting on March 25, 2021, brought two contrasting views of “good” rapid transit projects to the fore exposing inconsistencies in the “official story” about building above or below ground.

On the Capital Projects front, many works ranging from LRT lines to GO upgrades are on the surface although, of course, the central portion of the Eglinton line is underground. Progress on the surface LRT lines is swift thanks to the avoidance of underground work and complex tunnel structures.

But at the end of the presentation, the “big news” is that prime bidders for both the Scarborough Subway and Eglinton West LRT tunnels have been selected and negotiations are underway on contract details. Some early works such as construction of the tunnel boring launch site at Sheppard/McCowan Station will begin in April.

The long history of debates about Scarborough’s transit network do not bear repeating. Suffice it to say that the underground option is oft touted as the only way to provide good transit, albeit at substantial cost.

According to a Metrolinx Blog article, the line will be tunneled in one bore from Sheppard south and west to Kennedy Station rather than in two separate bores meeting at Lawrence East. This simplifies some of the construction staging and eliminates the potential for major upheaval for Scarborough General Hospital at Lawrence & McCowan. The line will be a single bore 10.7m diameter tunnel according to the Board presentation by Matt Clark.

On Eglinton West, despite the availability of land for a surface LRT right-of-way and demand projections well within the capacity of surface operations, the line will be buried from the Humber River westward as dictated by Premier Doug Ford in his transit plan.

In both cases there will be fewer stations that would have existed with surface LRT options, and on Eglinton ridership projections are lower as a result. (Scarborough is a more complex case because one subway has been substituted for two, if not three LRT lines in a network.) Access time between surface and subway routes – a key item Metrolinx always mentions about its surface alignments – is not mentioned when they enthuse about coming tunnel construction.

So let’s hear it for tunnels!

Ah … but not so fast …

The Ontario Line South of Gerrard

Next up is a report on the Ontario Line. The segment of this route through Riverside and Leslieville has been contentious ever since Metrolinx proposed it because an agreed-to underground route for the Relief Line via Eastern and Carlaw was replaced with an at grade alignment on the rail corridor.

Metrolinx has been pushing very hard to discredit community opposition to this change in part by misrepresenting the effect of what they plan to build, and what the community’s objections are.

The situation is complicated by the concurrent GO Transit corridor expansion project. To read descriptions of either project, it is as if the other one does not exist. Metrolinx has yet to produce consolidated plans showing the combined effect of expanding GO from three to four tracks, making provision for electrification, and adding two Ontario Line tracks straddling the GO corridor.

A related but separate issue is the effect of the GO expansion on the Small’s Creek area where substantial clear-cutting was proposed in the creek valley which the GO corridor bisects.

The problem began with Metrolinx’ revision of the Ontario Line alignment so that its platforms could straddle GO’s at East Harbour Station and provide an across-the-platform transfer. This would allow the OL to offload some traffic that would otherwise go to Union Station, a requirement that has emerged from concern that Union will not be able to handle future demand as GO service expands. A similar scheme was originally proposed for Exhibition Station, but that has been abandoned because of technical complexities.

Shifting the transfer at East Harbour from the original Relief Line plan at Broadview does considerably improve the link with GO Transit and the new alignment avoids going under the Don River. Turning north up the rail corridor to Gerrard, including a station at Queen, introduces problems because of the combined width of GO and OL trackage. Both the proposed stations on this segment, one at Queen (aka “Leslieville”) and Gerrard have been shifted to reduce their footprints and limit the effect on nearby buildings, notably the Jimmy Simpson Recreation Centre.

In their blog article Why can’t Metrolinx run the Ontario Line underground? Metrolinx shows the effect an underground station at Queen would have, but they do not consider the option of simply removing the station from the plan.

Metrolinx is wedded to keeping the station at Queen even though it is very close to East Harbour claiming that this will give streetcar riders an opportunity to transfer to the OL for a faster ride into downtown. This is hard to credit considering the extra time needed to get to and from the OL at both ends of the trip, and the fact that Queen Street offers direct rides not just to Queen but also to King Street (via the 503 Kingston Road car).

An option Metrolinx did not consider was to continue the OL via Eastern and Carlaw roughly following the Relief Line design. This would require that the OL tracks be on the same side of the rail corridor (south), not split apart, and would require a portal structure east of East Harbour Station. Yes, a portal, but this would replace the portal(s) needed at Gerrard where the Metrolinx alignment dives underground.

Both the stations at Queen and Gerrard will require two platforms rather than one shared between directions because the OL tracks straddle the rail corridor. This is touted as a benefit at East Harbour, but it affects the design further north adding to the combined width of two “half stations”.

Avoiding tunnels under rivers seems to be less of a concern for other Metrolinx projects notably the Scarborough Subway (Highland Creek north of Lawrence) and Yonge North (Don River). The Eglinton West extension will cross the Humber River on a bridge, but that was always to be its design.

Easy access to surface stations is touted as a plus where it applies to the Ontario Line and the Yonge North extension, but the relative impediments for underground are not mentioned on the Scarborough or Eglinton West extensions.

More details about the alignment are in this Metrolinx Blog article.

Ontario Line North

The Ontario Line will cross the Don River on a bridge and enter Thorncliffe Park on an elevated structure at the north end of the Leaside Bridge. This has provoked some objections about the effect of the structure through this neighbourhood, but Metrolinx is quick to point out with an aerial photo just how much space there is around the planned alignment.

The problem with elevated structures is that they are inevitably portrayed from a point of view where their massing and intrusiveness are minimized. People do not fly through the air, but rather they walk and ride along streets. There are elegant elevateds, and beauty shots will be trotted out to sell any new project. However, there is no guarantee that this is what Metrolinx would actually build.

The REM project in East Montreal is already under attack for its intrusive structures, and the SRT’s structure through the Scarborough Town Centre is well-known. Ontario has a 50-year history of misrepresenting the effect of elevated transit lines on neighbourhoods always showing light guideways and columns surrounded by empty space and seen from afar.

Without question, there is more room for an elevated line through Thorncliffe Park, but Metrolinx’ argument for this would be considerably helped if they would actually show people what it would look like. This is a fundamental problem with Metrolinx “consultation”. The designs are never sufficiently advanced when Metrolinx seeks community input, and by the time the designs are known, it is too late to change them.

Finally, Metrolinx treats the northern portion of the OL as an “extension” that would not exist without their intervention. In fact, preliminary work on the Relief Line North was underway by Metrolinx but at a glacial pace. All work halted for the election that brought Doug Ford to the Premier’s Office, and it never restarted. One wonders if Metrolinx might have already been planning to sabotage the RL work with their own counter-proposal.

Metrolinx Knows What’s Good For You

The Ontario Line presentation starts with the following statement:

Metrolinx is committed to helping communities understand how running the Ontario Line above-ground in key areas introduces key benefits while avoiding significant impacts – particularly for the communities of Riverside/Leslieville and Thorncliffe/FlemingdonPark.

There is also an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the customer experience people can expect, as well as the community improvements and protections in store.

(Presentation p. 3)

The underlying assumption is that the problem lies in “community misconceptions” rather than in Metrolinx’ design and attitude.

The lay of the land is shown with aerial views. Neither of these shows the effect “on the ground” and the amount of space that will be required, especially at stations.

On the topic of noise in the rail corridor, Metrolinx offers two solutions.

First is that, miracle of miracles, they will use continuous welded track for the Ontario Line as opposed to jointed track that produces the characteristic click-clack of passing trains. There are only two basic problems with this claim. First, it is not exactly a new technology and has been used throughout the TTC for years. Second, GO already uses welded rail for much of its track and this will be essential for electrification as the rail provides the ground return for power.

Metrolinx is makes a comparison with a technology and claims a noise reduction that would occur in the normal course of events. Moreover, the big complaint for anyone along the rail corridor is the noise of the engines, particularly for eastbound trains climbing the hill away from the lake. Electrification, as and when it occurs, will cut down on this, but will not eliminate it according to GO’s own service plans. Those plans, like so much of Metrolinx’ work, are hard to nail down.

The other solution will be noise barriers along the rail corridor. The diagram below shows only a portion of the corridor adjacent to a park, not the full six-track right-of-way and barrier on the other side. An important issue about the widening is that the retaining wall itself occupies space, and its width varies with the height of the corridor. (This is one of the issues in the Small’s Creek area because the retaining walls must be rebuilt and moved outward for a wider corridor.)

Over at Small’s Creek, Metrolinx “listened” to the community, but at the end of the day has not really changed their plans as discussed in this blog article.

Safety

Finally, Metrolinx responds to the question of safety by citing the long-standing existence of the train control technology. However, that is not the issue.

Rail corridors normally have a space buffer around them to provide for safety in case of derailments or collisions, and indeed Metrolinx’ own standards call for a wide buffer around any new builds.

A related issue is the relative strength of Ontario Line trains and mainline rail equipment. Where there is a mismatch between train types, this is typically addressed by temporal separation with rail operations during periods when the transit service is closed or infrequent. That is quite obviously impossible with a mainline commuter corridor and a rapid transit line where trains will run as often as 90 seconds apart.

High voltage overhead electrification brings its own set of clearance standards.

Metrolinx has not addressed how all of this will fit within a narrow corridor.

Lessons from Copenhagen

In a recent blog article From Copenhagen to Toronto Metrolinx talks about the construction of the 17-station underground Cityringen in the heart of the city.

This was a complex project through a very old city and in some tight quarters. Essential to the project’s acceptance was good community relations, and I suspect that this involved more than a take-it-or-leave-it stance by the project’s proponents. Almost all of the new stations entrances are quite modest and there is no sense of them “elbowing aside” the existing city.

In some cases, locations were specifically chosen because room was available. Alas Toronto does not have big public squares in every location a station might be needed, but that’s a challenge Metrolinx must face.

Also worth noting is that there is no sense that the “investment” in the new subway should somehow be recouped by redevelopment around stations. The benefit is improved mobility, not real estate income for the transit system.

In Conclusion

The Ontario Line as proposed by Metrolinx has some aspects to recommend it, notably that it is now one project going to Eglinton, the minimum distance required to intercept a lot of traffic on the Yonge line. Going further would be even more beneficial, but that is long in the future in any plans.

We have yet to see if Ontario can achieve the low cost claimed for the Ontario Line including the westward extension to the Exhibition, or what pieces might “fall off” the plan if costs rise beyond original estimates. Recent changes in the Yonge North extension show what can happen when projects cannot stay within their budgets.

As with much of Metrolinx’ work, many problems arise from incomplete presentation of their proposals, and less than forthcoming responses to questions or challenges. So much is “confidential” or just not known in detail when one asks. This breeds mistrust and undermines their work.

Whatever version of the Ontario Line and GO Corridor expansion are eventually be built, Metrolinx’ reputation will depend on real engagement with the public. This will be particularly important if the Ford government is replaced in 2022 and Metrolinx has new masters whose love for current plans might be less enthusiastic.

3 thoughts on “Over or Under? Can Metrolinx Make Up Their Mind?

  1. Steve said: Metrolinx has been pushing very hard to discredit community opposition to this change in part by misrepresenting the effect of what they plan to build, and what the community’s objections are. …

    This is a fundamental problem with Metrolinx “consultation”. The designs are never sufficiently advanced when Metrolinx seeks community input, and by the time the designs are known, it is too late to change them. …

    The underlying assumption is that the problem lies in “community misconceptions” rather than in Metrolinx’ design and attitude.

    One issue is the absolute failure of Metrolinx to respectfully and sincerely deal with the community it impacts. Metrolinx has no mission statement, it doesn’t need one, it has the power to do what it wants … and does. It doesn’t work with the community to identify concerns and then design incorporating concerns. Their ability to do what they want means, they get to implement their design whenever they finish the design work, not establish project milestones where community input can meaningfully change the course of the project.

    It is so immature and callous not to care about people you are negatively impacting, the attitude of, that community is living under a “misconception”. Metrolinx is incapable of recognizing the human aspect of disrupting people’s lives and causing financial damage to people’s real estate value or businesses.

    So many of these projects are the glory of mega-projects, and really don’t benefit our society.

    The Scarborough Subway Extension costs $6 billion to benefit 103,000 daily trips, slightly more than what some bus routes carry. The Yonge subway pre-Covid was over-crowded, and the Yonge Extension passengers will not like the crowded conditions they are heading into. The Ontario Line will fail to address its primary mission to address the congested Yonge subway.

    The biggest failure of Metrolinx is its failure to provide strategic leadership towards improving public transit. Toronto has difficult transit problems. Solutions, that local politicians peddled, have been deficient (Ford–subway, Tory–SmartTrack). No one talks about the real problems: Yonge subway overcrowded, Bloor/Danforth crowded, Dufferin/Bathurst corridor and Victoria Park Ave need infrastructure projects for public transit. Only Metrolinx has the authority undertake such projects. Metrolinx doesn’t have the chops to take on these problems.

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  2. Eglinton is the most obvious boondoggle, which maybe set the precedent for the rest. Even if you accept that the line should be fully grade-separated (I do), there are countless ways to make this happen. Mount Dennis to Mulham (1/2 way between Scarlett and Royal York) the got about right – by going elevated. From here, they could have used cut-and-cover the 4km to Martin Grove. The option for locals could have been – cut-and-cover or elevated, you decide. Then it could have gone elevated over Mimico Creek (there’s another River that Metrolinx has no problem tunneling under) and Highway 427 and Renforth.

    Steve: Yes, it could have been fairly shallow cut-and-cover except with enough headroom to get under utilities at cross streets, and the stations would have been inexpensive. The option of a trench (like the Yonge line between Rosedale and St. Clair) might have been possible, but it takes more room than a box tunnel and you lose the option of reclaiming the surface space.

    Scarborough is the next problem, where there are likely must better ways of serving Scarborough with grade-separated transit, but if this is what the voters wanted. I wonder if the Glen Murray route would have been cheaper and feasible. The alternative, if locals object, would be cut-and-cover along the current route, with and Old Mill style station and bridge over Highland Creek. 401 would have to be tunneled. With some savings, this could have made it to Finch.

    Steve: Glen Murray’s route had big problems at Kennedy Station because the existing subway points the wrong way (east rather than north) to extend up the SRT right-of-way. Also, this would probably have scotched any hopes of double-tracking the Uxbridge Sub for GO because of the extra width a pair of subway tracks and stations would have taken. Cut-and-cover along the existing route could simplify the Highland Creek crossing but at the expense of major upheaval for the hospital there.

    It’s important to remember that the subway was shifted further east so that it would not “compete” in demand models with John Tory’s SmartTrack running in the rail corridor. That’s what created the difficult situation with Highland Creek in the first place.

    Yonge and Ontario Line also have bad design decisions, but I will address those in your next article.

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  3. One other point about Eglinton West. There are really only two options:

    1) If you are convinced TBM is the best solution – then tender the Line the old fashioned way, Design-Bid-Build. One contractor for tunnels. Another 1 for each elevated station, and the tracks in between. One for Each of Royal York, Islington, Martin Grove, Renforth Station. Each contract is small enough that you would get multiple bidders and a better price. or,
    2) If you have some doubt, go with a Design Build or P3 and allow the Contractors to make revision proposals that would reduce the construction costs. The contractor can decide if shallower stations are less cost. We should get the line that meets the criteria.

    The worst thing they could do is a mixture of the above and have the TBM tunneling contract as one contract and the entire remainder as a giant P3 contract. You have shut out the P3 contractor the ability to find savings, but you pay extra for the contract uncertainties and financing.

    Steve: Er, why would you have a tunnel contractor and elevated stations? As for multiple bidders, we seem to swing back and forth on that. It was a big problem with both St. Clair and the Spadina extension, and Eglinton has shown that one big consortium does not necessarily work either. Metrolinx is shifting back to multiple large, but not all-inclusive contracts. A notable change is splitting the operations and system contract away from infrastructure. They never made sense together in the first place.

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