Yet Another Fantasy Map Clouds Regional Planning

On March 29, 2021, the Toronto Region Board of Trade released a proposal Getting on the Right Track – Connecting Communities With Regional Rail as the second of a planned series that will eventually include:

I reviewed the first report in The Siren Song of Regional Fare Integration and will not duplicate my comments on the Board of Trade’s fare proposals beyond the level needed to explain how the scheme in Getting on the Right Track dovetails with this.

From the title of the article, one can easily guess that I was not entranced with the Board’s proposal, and I should make clear why right at the outset.

First: Although the plan includes a very robust regional network with frequent service on all GO corridors, there is too much talk of how everything will work when it is finished, and not enough about how we actually get from here to there.

Second: As with so much regional planning that comes out of Metrolinx, there is no discussion of last mile costs and service, nor of the burden local municipalities would face in providing them. Yes, a “last mile” report is in the offing, but this could range anywhere from massive increases in publicly funded local transit to an embrace of ride sharing services. The report contains not even a hint of how the vastly improved service will get riders to and from its stations.

Third: The focus is very strongly on Toronto (the 416) where there is an established transit system that can provide frequent service at connection points, but less on how this would scale outward into the 905 and beyond.

Fourth: The Invisible Line report and its fare-by-distance proposal is assumed as a pre-requisite even though there is no agreement that this is how fares should and will be calculated. In particular, its gerrymandering of fare zone boundaries and the tariff has not been subject to critical review outside of venues such as this blog.

Many proposals in Getting on the Right Track are good and provide a level of background we have not seen from the nominal regional planner Metrolinx, an agency that prefers to save proposals for Ministerial photo ops and routinely hides details under confidentiality provisions.

To give Metrolinx their due, a key shortcoming in the Board of Trade’s report is that it does not clarify which parts of its proposal are works already in the Metrolinx pipeline, and which are net additions to the scheme. Indeed, maps purporting to show regional networks and travel times do not even acknowledge rapid transit lines planned and under construction that will open within the timeframe of the Board’s proposal.

An untutored reader might think that almost nothing is underway, that the Board has returned from the mountaintop with the one true word on regional transit.

Finally, and particularly toward the end of the report, elements creep in which feel like pet rail projects with only minimal evaluation. They are included either because the Board sought to curry favour with politicians in the affected areas, or because someone had too many crayons to play with. I leave it to the dedicated reader to peruse those parts of the report.

There is a sense throughout that what might have been a reasonable proposal for Metrolinx to aim higher in its plans evolved into a design exercise that substitutes detail and volume for practicality.

“Organization Before Technology Before Concrete”

On page 20, the Board makes a key observation, if only by implication, about how transit is planned in the GTHA by citing a practice elsewhere:

The German-speaking world has propounded the planning and engineering doctrine of “organization before technology before concrete.” The highest priority is to resolve issues of organization, which includes factors like fare and service integration between agencies. Then, technology, such as better signalling systems and rolling stock, should be improved. The last priority is the building of new infrastructure, like additional tracks and grade separations on corridors. This prioritization provides the most economically efficient means of improving service and capacity on a network.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 20

This is one of several cases where there is an implicit, if not explicit observation that the way “we” do business is out of step with good practices elsewhere, or even just common sense here. However, the Board has violated its own principle by driving through an entire network design exercise without clearly figuring out goals, not to mention the basic question of how much we might be prepared to spend on this transit network.

“We” is a tricky term here because there are three levels of government each of which prefers to fund only certain types of service and infrastructure, and each has significant blind spots in the financing and funding of public transit.

In this article, I will not attempt an exhaustive review because even my readers have limits to their patience. Moreover, there are points where one must peer very deeply into the crystal ball, make too many assumptions about actual future circumstances. If our current situation teaches anything, it is that the future will change.

Guiding Principles

This section is buried down on page 21, and yet it is absolutely key to the entire discussion. It is so important that I will include its text here.

Drawing from international best practices, it is possible to demonstrate five guiding principles that form part of successful implementations of regional rail. Based on these principles, it is possible to design a network and operations plan for the Toronto Region.

Two-way, All-day Service

The majority of trips in any region – even work trips – do not involve the downtown core and do not take place at rush hour. A service plan that provides service all day, every day is essential if a regional rail system is to become a core part of the regional transit network.

High Frequency (turn up and go)

Research by Transport for London indicates that riders on routes with a frequency of 12 minutes or less will not need to consult a schedule and can instead simply “turn up and go.”

This level of service has been demonstrated to drive major increases in ridership. Frequency is even more important when making connections because wait times can multiply when a trip involves several connecting segments, and a missed connection could result in an unacceptable delay.

Seamless Integration with Local Transit

On a busy commuter rail service like GO Transit, park-and-ride lots fill up early in the morning. That makes them effectively useless for mid-day travellers. For two-way, all-day service, there needs to be another way to access the station. Transit-oriented development can play a role – and provides a major opportunity for recovery of regional rail investment – but as the TTC subway demonstrates, the most effective way to deliver large numbers of riders is by seamlessly integrating rail with local bus and streetcar services. That means fully integrated fares – a transfer is an inconvenience, so you should not have to pay more for it. It also means having bus routes designed to connect with stations, additional rail stations to connect with busy surface corridors, and schedules with timed transfers where necessary. The objective is to create the equivalent of a subway backbone for the whole region, serving local trips as much as long-haul. By being a backbone of a broader transit network, regional rail does not just serve residents of neighbourhoods adjacent to stations – it serves everyone in the region.

Focus on Equity

Planning should intend to prioritize improved access to employment opportunities and services for equity-seeking communities. This means reducing travel times, locating additional stations where they would serve communities like the City of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, and ensuring that fares are not prohibitively expensive. Transit must function as an integrated network, particularly for those who rely on it for all their trips so it is imperative that no transit mode be deemed “premium.”

Integration with Regional Planning

With its region-wide extent and high level of service, regional rail should become a centrepiece of regional planning. In Copenhagen, for example, all substantial office developments must be located within walking distance of a rail station. This would not be possible today in Toronto, given the limited size of the existing rapid transit network, but it could be possible with regional rail. Greenfield suburban developments could be designed around rail stations, creating “15-minute communities” oriented to walking and cycling, rather than following the traditional auto-oriented pattern centred on concession road blocks. Regional rail is the most feasible path to a truly transit-oriented region.

These are key principles not just for a regional rail network, but for transit in general. They run counter to so much of what would-be transit riders are fobbed off with.

“High frequency” really does mean frequent service, not a train now and then when it is convenient to run one. This requires a commitment to both capital and operating costs for the rail network.

“Seamless integration” means an end to assuming that parking will solve all access problems, and that the rail system’s revenue stream is sacrosanct. The concept of a “premium” service as a justification to charge higher fares on part of the network simply does not work if the rail lines are the key, backbone component of a whole. This is an example of how looking at only one aspect – fare revenue – distracts from the larger picture of the potential contribution and value of the rail network for mobility.

As for regional rail and planning, this is a fascinating position for the Board of Trade because it implies that we would dictate where development could and could not occur. Will we also consider network effects of overbuilding at selected “hot” development nodes, and the implications for road congestion and pollution of allowing growth away from transit stations?

The Trillium Network

Yes, it’s a branding exercise, and the Board makes no bones about this. It has a nice sound, and it uses the provincial flower. The name and logo might even survive a change of government. There is a spiffy map.

The key point in this design is that services are through-routed at Union Station and arranged in a manner to avoid conflict between four main corridors: Lake Shore, Kitchener-Don-Richmond Hill, Barrie-Don and Milton-Lincolnville. This is not new, and Metrolinx has talked about the need to reorganize its service in a similar way as part of its expansion program.

Services have route numbers all starting with “T” although the nomenclature could be confusing if a scheduler decides that trains will operate between some other pair of endpoints. The combined service through Union Station is impressive with the intent of a massive increase both in GO’s capacity and its usefulness as a regional and local carrier.

Electric Multiple-Unit Trains

The Board emphasizes that the scale of service proposed cannot be achieved without a wholesale conversion of GO Transit from locomotive-hauled to electric multiple-unit (EMU) trains. What’s that when it’s at home? The term EMU refers to train where every car is powered rather than pulled by a locomotive (electric or diesel) at one or both ends of the train. The technology is identical to a subway car with adjustments for a different operating environment and top speed.

With each car powered, the driving force is distributed to all (or most) axles throughout the train rather than concentrated at the locomotive, and this permits faster acceleration, a key part of frequent, high-performance service. Metrolinx’ own electrification study went down that path too, but current plans focus on locomotive-hauled trains. This preserves the existing fleet of bi-level coaches and allows electrification by the simple move of swapping a diesel loco for an electric. The Board argues that this approach will constrain future service growth by preventing a move to very frequent, fast service that EMUs can bring.

The report includes a substantial discussion on issues such as train size, capacity, platform height, signalling and motive power as examples of changes that make a unified whole of the new network. Much of this is familiar to anyone with knowledge of railway operations and certainly to Metrolinx.

An important change would be to move to single level cars with multiple doors and level platforms to speed loading and unloading just as the subway does today. There is an obvious tradeoff on train capacity, and the current GO model is based on the need to run few trains within the limits of existing rail operations and signalling.

EMUs and the stations they serve would operate much more like subway trains with short station stops, speedy arrivals and departures unlike the lumbering 12-car GO trains. Each train would have a lower capacity, but there would be more of them. The Board does not sort out the net change in capacity versus anticipated demand.

Counterintuitively, using cars with less capacity can increase overall line capacity if it means passengers can board and alight more quickly, and therefore trains won’t need to dwell so long at stations. A GO bilevel car has about 80% more capacity than a Toronto Rocket subway car, which is significant. But if a subway-style train can run every 2.5 minutes while the GO train can only run every ten minutes because of long station dwells, the subway realizes a 300% increase in train throughput. Even taking into account the smaller number of people who can fit on a subway car, that’s still more than twice as much overall line capacity.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 33

A typical European single-level EMU, like the new Class 490 trains of the Hamburg S-Bahn, would have a little more than half as many seats as a GO train of the same length (though the difference including standing riders is smaller). That means that doubling frequency would exceed existing capacity – something that is easily achievable with the far higher performance, and faster loading and unloading, of single-level EMUs.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 33-34

The problem here is that the Board has latched onto a specific technology rather than addressing the basic “what do we want to do” question. If one presumes the decision to create, in effect, a surface subway network on the existing rail system, this certainly explains what is needed, but there is a cart-before-horse feeling to the proposal.

We have been here before. Remember the surface-subway that was to be SmartTrack? That scheme is mentioned from time to time, possibly to assure Mayor Tory that somebody actually remembers it exists, but SmartTrack is a plan like a tree in autumn whose leaves lie more on the ground than on the branches.

I must come back to that map above: it shows service frequencies, but not capacities, nor does it show how these would differ from what Metrolinx provides today or plans to provide within the next decade, let alone how this might relate to future demand.

Without question, the frequent off-peak service proposed can carry a lot of riders, but whether they will show up is quite another matter. There is no point in talking about all those new riders at noon, evenings or weekends if one does not also talk about peak demand. This may be less of an issue with future commuting patterns, but we are not yet sure, and latent demand could very well backfill work-from-home travel reductions.

Getting Autos Off The Road

Freight and the needs of the trucking industry are often mentioned in transportation reports, but we have been waiting for a “freight strategy” for almost as long as Metrolinx has existed.

[…] trucks find it increasingly difficult to get to their destinations because the area’s highways are at a crawl for much of the day. Regional rail can get thousands of cars off the Highway 401, freeing up space for the trucks that keep our economy moving and help bring our exports to market.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 9

A common thread in many transit proposals, and a key part of the Metrolinx Benefits Analysis process, is the premise that getting people on transit will reduce congestion. This is a bogus claim for several reasons including:

  • There is a substantial latent demand for road space. If this were not so, we would not live in a region where highway widening projects are part of daily commuting life. A basic rule of traffic planning is that demand will grow to fill available road space.
  • The percentage change in demand represented by any individual network change is too small to have a noticeable network effect, and even this benefit must work against population-related demand growth. As I noted recently, the Yonge North Subway Extension will make only a tiny dent in non-transit market share on the Yonge corridor. Autos will continue to handle over 80 per cent of commuter traffic because the transit system does not serve these trips.
  • The 401 corridor, and specifically the area round Pearson Airport, a major, national hub, is not paralleled by major transit routes to which trips could be diverted. GO Transit and the subway system already brought in pre-pandemic times the vast majority of travellers to Toronto’s core from outside of the city. This is not the case for most other employment nodes in Toronto and beyond.
  • GO depends on a high ratio of parking to riders with about two parking spaces for every three riders. The ratio is lower if one counts GO trips, but each rider makes two trips per day. Most of them would not do so without a parking space. Those “last mile” trips take up road space and drive the need for ever more parking if GO is to gain more riders. This is not a sustainable business model.

A similar argument applies to claimed pollution reduction with trips diverted to transit. Latent demand will offset much of the saving, and most trips will continue to be by car. A shift to electric cars will change this, but that too will be gradual, and does not eliminate the need for commuters to have their own vehicles and the congestion they bring.

Union Station Rail Corridor

A fundamental problem for the entire GO rail network is the layout and usage of tracks and platforms at Union Station. The Board proposes a complete reorganization of this and a GO route structure that would be optimized to the new structure. This is not news, and Metrolinx itself has proposed something similar.

The changes needed and proposed are complex, and to avoid bogging down readers here, I have placed some of this discussion in an appendix.

In brief, three problems with current operations and facilities limit the station’s throughput of trains:

  • The track layout and platform assignments require services to cross each other. These create conflicts limiting service frequency.
  • Service levels on each corridor vary with the intent of keeping costs at levels appropriate for demand. This makes through-routing difficult and requires trips to terminate at Union. In turn that drives up dwell times on platforms.
  • Platforms are capacity constrained both by vertical circulation structures (stairs, escalators, elevators) and by the design of some platforms. Those originally intended for baggage and freight are narrower than those intended for passengers.

The Board proposes new track and platform layouts and the addition of three satellite stations converting the rail corridor into something more like a subway line than a commuter rail system.

The Board proposes that some tracks through Union Station be eliminated and replaced with consolidated platforms. This is similar to Metrolinx’ own view, but with some significant differences:

  • The Board proposes that some tracks might be relocated although this would shift them off of the support columns beneath them. This would require structural changes so that columns continued to bear the shifted load.
  • Space east and west of Union now occupied by storage yards would repurposed for satellite stations whose spacing is much more like a subway line than commuter rail.

The satellite stations only work with EMU trains where the extra stops would not represent a major delay, although stops there would eat up some of the savings from lower dwell times at Union. The intent is to offload Union so that passengers bound to/from the shoulders of the core would not have to use Union.

A major shortfall of this is that the concentration of destinations (mainly jobs) is much lower at the satellite locations and nearby areas that would be reached by walking or by a short local transit trip. Just because there are four stations in place of one does not produce a massive reduction in demand for Union and its surroundings. Fare integration with the TTC would strengthen demand at Union with its direct link to the subway.

A vital part of the design for the area east and west of Union Station is the replacement of existing yards used to store trains between the peak periods with stations at Spadina, Sherbourne and Cherry. The intent is to spread demand away from Union Station, but this assumes that there is a substantial number of trips that are bound for these locations. Moreover, much of the conversion to EMU operation and replacement of the yards is required before these stations could be built.

This has the air of an attempt to make GO regional rail a substitute for local transit to the waterfront and shoehorn into its mandate a task better left to local transit service. There is already the planned Ontario Line on the north side of the corridor, and the waterfront east extension from Union Station.

There is no discussion of the staging of conversion between the current and future arrangements.

A truly breathtaking example of transit planning hyperbole appears in a footnote explaining the claimed capacity of the new configuration. This completely ignores the many changes that would be needed throughout the network to achieve anywhere near the claimed capacity, notably a massive increase in local transit feeder services.

Yes, the Union track bottleneck could be eliminated, but that is only one part of a much larger picture. Moreover, “solving” this problem only provides better regional network service to the extent that travel is on existing corridors and local transit supports this.

Based on a service pattern of 12 trains per hour on Kitchener, Lakeshore, Stouffville, and Milton corridors and 6 trains per hour on other corridors, using Paris RER MI09 rolling stock of the same length as existing GO trains. At 12 trains per hour, the trains would have a capacity of nearly 47,000 passengers per hour per direction. At the intensity of operations and station design typical of European or Japanese operations, ultimate capacity on the ten-track downtown corridor would increase to as much as one million people, per hour, per direction, compared with GO Transit’s pre-COVID total rail ridership of 215,000 per day.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 10, emphasis added.

SmartTrack

The Board perpetuates the myth that SmartTrack still exists despite the fact that it has dwindled to a handful of stations, some of which are not on the SmartTrack corridor. The emperor’s new clothes are very, very tattered.

The City of Toronto’s SmartTrack plan builds on these efforts with its aim of fully integrating part of the Stouffville, Lakeshore, and Kitchener corridors into the local TTC transit with frequent, rapid transit service. This means that riders would pay the same fare as the TTC, including free transfers from bus, subway, and streetcars to the new SmartTrack trains. It also means redesigning bus routes where necessary to bring passengers to the stations, as is the case on the subway, and it means additional stations to facilitate those connections and to serve key urban nodes. SmartTrack is an important step toward realizing regional rail, and this report is intended to build on the city’s and province’s plans, highlighting globally proven practices to aid in their implementation. It calls for implementing and going beyond two-way, all-day GO service to true electrified regional rail.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 11

There is only one problem: SmartTrack barely exists any more as stations fall off of the map. The planned service level (to the degree one can get a straight answer on this out of Metrolinx) is far below the “surface subway” analogy used when then-candidate John Tory announced it as a centrepiece of his campaign.

We need to stop using that brand name and recognize that the real issue is network-wide improvements to GO Transit both inside the 416 and beyond the city limits. The Board of Trade at least moves the regional rail discussion beyond SmartTrack’s limited scope.

Who Owns What and Limits on Service Growth

The GO network has expanded over the years as the province of Ontario bought up portions of the CNR and CPR networks that served industrial areas that have disappeared or are now served primarily by trucks rather than trains. Portions still in the railways’ hands are parts of their national freight networks and would be given up only with great difficulty. (That also applies to trackage that is not part of the GO network, notably the CPR line running from West Toronto across midtown and out to northeastern Scarborough.)

GO service takes second place to freight on railway-owned lines, and any service improvement requires negotiation both for track time and in some cases additional track capacity add at GO’s cost.

The Board has strongly supported the work of the Connect the Corridor organization, which has long been advocating for the infrastructure upgrades needed to enable two-way, all-day service on the Kitchener corridor without impeding CN freight traffic.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 12

The Board is rather cavalier in thinking that these problems can be easily fixed and implies that simply putting enough money on the table will soothe the railways’ concerns. However, they need their lines, and would face huge costs and challenges to duplicate some of them elsewhere.

A February 2017 article on Urban Toronto’s site delves into the freight railways in more detail, and I recommend it to readers to fill out their knowledge of the rail network beyond GO Transit. Note that it is four years old, and plans for a new CN/CP shared corridor west of Toronto appear to be stalled.

Network Reach and Fares

The Board of Trade, while talking about better use of the rail corridors, makes a key point about how the GO network should be truly part of a regional service: fares must be fully integrated with and comparable to local transit.

[…] the Lakeshore corridor between Burlington and Oshawa, the Kitchener corridor from Union to Bramalea, and the entire Stouffville and Barrie corridors are already owned by Metrolinx and have limited freight traffic. Fundamentally, the limited service on these lines is a choice. These routes have as much potential as any subway, but subway-level demand will only materialize if their service levels and fares are made comparable to local transit.

Hundreds of train cars and invaluable trackage sit idle for all but a few hours of the day, five days per week, while carrying loads artificially depressed by fare policy.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 12

The Board goes on to points rail corridors that might be added if only they could be pried loose from the owners (mainly CP):

  • the CPR line through midtown and northeast to Scarborough;
  • the link from Leaside to Union via the Don Branch which Metrolinx now owns, but plans to use as train storage;
  • The CPR line to Bolton;
  • CNR track on the eastern waterfront;
  • a connection from the CPR to the GO Richmond Hill corridor that has not existed for years.

This really has the feeling of throwing every piece of track one can find onto the map, and creating the impression that a regional network could solve many problems. This is reminiscent of SmartTrack which was touted as being the one service that would cure all of Toronto’s transit ills.

Notable by their absence on this and other maps are many routes including Eglinton Crosstown, the Eglinton West LRT to Renforth Gateway and the airport, the Eglinton East LRT to UTSC and Malvern, the Scarborough and Richmond Hill subway extensions and the Ontario Line all of which are in various stages of planning and construction. This grossly misrepresents the gaps in the existing network or the ways in which that growing network can integrate with the proposed regional system.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 13

This also applies to service to key neighbourhoods that are more transit dependent. The GO rail network is not the only game in town, and the Board would do well to remember that little system called the TTC. An example of a trip improved by the Board’s network ignores the effect of the future Scarborough Subway, or the fact that service in the Stouffville corridor will exist in Metrolinx and City plans. The stumbling blocks are fare integration and frequent “subway-like” service.

[…] instead of needing to ride the bus all the way from Malvern to the overcrowded Yonge subway to get downtown, Scarborough residents could take a short bus ride to the Stouffville corridor, which would save them as much as 80 minutes on a round-trip downtown.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 13

The problem of transit access is critical in low income neighbourhoods far from good transit, and regional rail can help change this. However, it would be part of a network of services, not the only one, and the Board would do well to remember this. They fall into a trap commonly seen at Metrolinx where their own proposal solves everything, while projects and services on other agencies’ maps count for little.

Currently, the score for transit service and accessibility in high-income areas of the city is almost four times higher than low-income ones. The radically improved access afforded by regional rail would be life-changing for residents of the region who currently struggle to get to their jobs and to other services.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 13

There is a huge problem in the GTA that high intensity transit concentrates on getting people downtown while leaving those travelling elsewhere to their own devices.

While commuter service currently effectively serves commuters to downtown Toronto, the area represents about 16% of the region’s nearly 3.5 million jobs.

Regional rail is not just about regional trips. With additional stations, frequent trains, and connections to local transit, it can function as a kind of local subway within cities across the region. By knitting together the region’s patchwork of local transit systems, regional rail can quickly and cheaply improve their efficiency and increase their ridership.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 14

That sounds wonderful, but the fact is that the rail corridors are radial and they cannot serve non-core oriented trips without a big help from local transit. There has to be a local service to connect with. That “patchwork” is a direct result of the lack of provincial funding support, and of municipalities running only enough service to get by depending on transit’s budget priority. Even in Toronto, transit does not get all the support it deserves.

An important way to view transit service is to map how far people can travel in a given time on various network configurations. The maps below show how the reach of transit travel is improved by the addition of frequent fast service on the rail corridors. What is missing from these maps is the contribution of new rapid transit corridors such as Eglinton Crosstown.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 15

In a vignette describing the effect of the new network, a rider is described as travelling from Scarlett Road & Eglinton Avenue to Bramalea on 4 local buses, taking 90 minutes, and costing two fares. Many things would improve this journey including the Crosstown extension westward, improved bidirectional service on the Kitchener GO corridor and fare integration, but some connections between routes will still be needed. The big changes would be in reduced fares and shorter wait times on all legs of the journey.

It’s A Network

We take until page 18 to reach a key observation: designing at the individual project and component level will always miss the mark.

Each aspect of the system fundamentally affects every other aspect, so nothing can be designed in isolation. The performance characteristics (particularly braking and acceleration) and capacity of trains (rolling stock) determines how much track capacity will be required, how much electrical infrastructure will be needed, the weights for which infrastructure like bridges and overpasses must be designed, and how stations should be designed. Conversely, station design determines the choice of rolling stock – if the main station has small platforms and narrow access points, smaller but more frequent trains are likely a better approach than large trains. These are only a small number of ways that different aspects of the infrastructure affect each other, necessitating integrated planning.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 18

A huge gap in Metrolinx planning is that they review projects in isolation from each other so that their combined effects, benefits or shortcomings are seen individually, not in a network context. “Investment” in new transit (to use the current market-oriented lingo) produces many benefits but these are not always captured. Conversely, projects may be evaluated on a small scale to avoid sticker shock, a problem we have seen in TTC planning and at Metrolinx going back to the original “Big Move” plan that was trimmed to fit within a politically acceptable budget.

In some cases, the apparent cost of a project such as the original Relief Line sandbagged the project for decades because this was not offset by the cost of attempting to handle demand growth without relief from a new line.

The Board’s proposal takes a network view, at least to the point it considers multiple lines, technologies and infrastructure requirements rather than the simplistic approach of, say, the SmartTrack plan.

There is an implicit criticism of existing plans, but with no specifics, in the following statement:

Designing infrastructure without a detailed projected timetable that incorporates a full and integrated understanding of all aspects of the planned operation is a recipe for overbuilding – potentially wasting billions of
dollars on unnecessary infrastructure.

These kinds of unnecessary expenditures can be avoided when a comprehensive infrastructure plan, guided by a detailed operations plan, is created before infrastructure is built.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 19

By implication, we are now planning or building some “unnecessary” infrastructure, and by implication the Board’s plan avoids this pitfall. They owe us specific examples to illustrate what they might change and how the network would benefit.

Earlier I quoted a key passage about the order in which aspects of network planning should occur, according to the Board. Here is longer version of this quote:

The German-speaking world has propounded the planning and engineering doctrine of “organization before technology before concrete.” The highest priority is to resolve issues of organization, which includes factors like fare and service integration between agencies. Then, technology, such as better signalling systems and rolling stock, should be improved. The last priority is the building of new infrastructure […]

The second step is to invest in technology where appropriate—using advanced signalling systems and higher-performance rolling stock to squeeze more capacity out of existing infrastructure. Then, only when necessary, new physical infrastructure should be built.

[…]

Developing a comprehensive timetable for a system as large and complex as Trillium may be challenging. That is why it may make sense to build one corridor at a time, enabling challenges to be uncovered and lowering overall project risk.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 20

Here, the Board stepped on a land mine. After all of the fine words about a massive network transformation, we get a proposal for staged implementation, but without explaining how various network configurations might co-exist or the transitions between them. Moreover, there is no discussion of how service build-up might fit together with infrastructure needs.

We have a truly marvellous plan, but like so much transit in the GTA it would be achieved in dribs and drabs, and probably never at its full extent. The unasked (and hence unanswered) question is what intermediate stages might look like, especially if they turned out to be end states for decades to come.

What Is This Mythical Local Transit?

Through close integration with local transit, Trillium will radically increase transit accessibility in the Toronto Region, bringing people closer together.

This is just one of many explicit and implicit references to the local transit services across the GTA, but there is no discussion at all of the changes in scope and funding required to make the regional rail network work. Just as the subway depends on surface routes as feeder/distributors as well as walk-in trade, a regional network must have good local transit serving its catchment area. Adding stations to existing routes, as the Board proposes, will reduce access distances, but will not eliminate them nor the need for something other than a 15-minute walk.

The Board proposes a study of what factors might draw people to transit to which I respond you don’t know already, but you are redesigning the entire network?

The report talks about the importance of reliable, frequent transit in the context of the rail network, but this applies equally if not moreso to local transit service.

People who have a choice rarely use transit systems where they need to check a timetable. Research has shown that the frequency at which riders can simply turn-up-and-go is about 12 minutes. 10-minute frequency provides the opportunity for a “clockface schedule,” where trains depart at the same time every hour. Australian scholar Paul Mees has referred to a “network effect” to explain that when all routes are sufficiently frequent, it becomes possible to conveniently make transfers between routes. This has a compounding positive effect on the utility of a transit system. Instead of only being able to reliably reach destinations on the line that happens to run past the rider’s origin, a network that facilitates connections enables the rider to go from anywhere to anywhere in the region.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 25

That is precisely the argument behind so much transit advocacy work: a line on a map is not enough if the bus shows up infrequently and irregularly. A network does not have “reach” if waiting for service consumes the lion’s share of journey times and compounds because of dubious connections between services.

The Board notes that GO stations are getting expensive. Part of this is due to the high cost of parking structures that should, in theory, not apply to a truly “transit oriented” area.

While some new GO Transit station projects are very impressive facilities, their high cost is not always necessary – especially for stations that are anticipated to have relatively modest ridership. The five proposed City of Toronto stations on the GO network are planned to have an average cost of $239 million each, excluding additional amenities like pedestrian improvements requested by the City, while the new Bloomington GO station cost $82 million. In Montreal, a recently completed commuter rail station cost $14.2 million,17 while in Italy, typical regional rail stations cost between $3.8 and $9.2 million. A group of seventeen new regional rail stations in Germany averaged $3.61 million apiece.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 44

The Board trots out Transit Oriented Development, another planning fantasy that sees more use in studies and reports than in actual practice. Development may occur around transit, but because of market forces, not because planners put it there. Also, the idea that “there’s gold in them thar hills” is a common misconception when one compares the revenue available from developments and the high cost of stations in an urban area. Yes, stations are easier and cheaper to build for a surface rail line but property will be expensive and stations should be integrated with development, no simply be a little building next door.

Again the Board cites local transit feeders as a benefit for development at stations, but neglects to mention the scale of change needed.

While most riders on a Trillium Regional Rail Network will likely reach their stations by connecting bus routes, as on the suburban stretches of the TTC subway, transit-oriented development will still be an excellent means of augmenting ridership at a station while raising revenue.

While all development around the network’s stations will be desirable, employment will be of particular benefit to ridership. Firstly, it is a way to generate bidirectional traffic on lines, improving infrastructure utilization. Secondly, office employment has higher density than residential, as office buildings contain more people per square foot, and their occupants are more likely to be making commuter journeys. GO Transit currently has acres of parking around most of its stations. By shifting access to the station primarily to surface transit through integrated fares and increased frequency, as well as improving pedestrian and cycling access, it will be possible to monetize much of that land through high density development. Local transit feeding regional rail trains can facilitate “missing middle” development throughout the region.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 45

The Board foresees a day when local-to-regional connections are simple because of station placement, but this ignores the fact that rail corridors are where they are for historical reasons and they are not going to move. The paragraph below ends with the observation that on-board displays would tell riders about connecting services at stations. If those services operated to the same frequent service standard, on board displays for connections would not really be necessary.

To be able to serve as the backbone of the regional transit network, it is essential that regional rail be fully integrated with local transit. Bus routes must be designed, and regional rail stations situated, to facilitate intermodal transfers. For example, instead of locating stations behind acres of parking lots, additional stations could be
designed with direct pedestrian access to and from the sidewalks of major arterial roads, minimizing the need for buses to divert from their route or for passengers to walk long distances to make transfers. More frequent, urban-style stop spacing – potentially with stations spaced as close together as subway stations when the circumstances justify it – is possible with faster-accelerating modern electric multiple-unit trains. This will also minimize the need for buses to divert from their most direct routes. Stations should also be designed to integrate seamlessly with other mobility modes, such as through the inclusion of bike storage, scooters, and facilities for ride-hailing pickup and drop-off. Integration with local transit will allow people to take a short bus trip to the station and then the train for the rest of the journey, rather than needing to use a slow local bus for the entirety of long journeys. Trains can provide realtime information about connecting routes at upcoming stations.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 47

Union Station Rail Corridor Capacity

Here is a diagram of the current track layout at Union, and this diagram does not clearly show all of the links where tracks cross on the diagonal.

Metrolinx is proud of this complex track layout (the diagram below does not clearly show all of the links) although it is relic of intercity train operations unsuited to high capacity regional rail services.

The proposed new layout and track allocation is shown below. Note that the colour scheme in the key is out of sync with the chart, and the route identities (“T1” etc) should not be confused with track and platform numbering.

There is a very strong argument that Union could handle more trains/hour than it does today. The charts below show how many trains pass through the station eastbound and compares this with major stations in Paris and Berlin. (Note: Lakeshore West numbers are only for trips ending at Union. Through trips are counted with Lakeshore East.)

The high throughput at the European stations is a direct result of each line operating independently of others without conflicts combined with signal and train control systems that support very frequent service. Achieving this on GO requires a complete change in the train fleet, signalling and Union Station’s layout. This is not an overnight change and it affects the entire network.

Note: Lakeshore West number include only trips terminating at Union. Through trips are included in Lakeshore East.

The Board fudges the question of how Union Station might be reconfigured, and frankly I have to ask why they didn’t simply go to Metrolinx who have already pondered this question.

These changes pose some challenges, and it is unfortunate that they were not implemented at the same time as the broader reconstruction of the station. Still, they are absolutely essential if the goals of regional rail are to be achieved. It should be possible to relocate tracks where needed. Most of the existing tracks are situated directly above support columns. If it is necessary to move the tracks, it should be possible to support them with a beam running between the two adjacent columns. If shifting the location of tracks should prove to be entirely impossible, it would still be feasible to simply remove some tracks and build expanded platforms overtop.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 42

23 thoughts on “Yet Another Fantasy Map Clouds Regional Planning

  1. “organization before technology before concrete.”

    I agree with this, but it misses the essential first step. It should be, “City planning before organization before technology before concrete.” In other words, the most important first step is to decide what kind of city we want to live in. For me, I want to live in a city that puts people first. To quote William Davis, “The city is for people, not cars.” I will add to that saying, “and not for developer’s profits.”

    Here is an excellent video by Jason Slaughter entitled, “What Makes a City Great.” By “Great,” Jason means a city that results in happiness, health and well-being for the people who live there. A great city is a city that people want to live in.

    Great cities are also ones that prioritise children and their freedom to get to school, visit their friends and explore. Places that top UNICEF’s list of child well-being.

    I believe that Toronto can be improved to be a truly great city. Public transportation is a key part of this. But the #1 key issue is that public transit is a means to an end. Transit planning and all other city planning should be totally dominated by the goal of building a great city. This Board of Trade plan, and all other plans should be evaluated by these fundamental questions: Are we building a great city? Are we building the happiness, health and well-being of all people, particularly children?

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  2. What sent that document into Looney Tunes territory is that they think they can *eliminate the need for parking spots* at GO stations, everyone will magically take local transit to and from, and then replace them with condo developments.

    Steve: Yes, that’s one of those places where I sense bad editing, or multiple hands at work. Bad enough that more local transit is needed to handle additional GO demand, but when the parking goes away, so will those riders.

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  3. It’s all so frustrating. Just a general lack of vision or plan. When the current Union Station revitalization started (10 years ago?), I had a vision of how I thought that should be rebuilt but at the time I thought my idea would take too long… little did I know how long they’d take building this (and still not solved the problems you mention).

    Steve: Some of the problems like platform width were known, but Metrolinx/GO were wedded to the way they had been doing business. As for the project duration, two separate contractors went bankrupt over the course of the project, not because of Union itself, but because they were overextended. In one case fraud was involved (again, not at Union). Between that and unexpected site conditions, it has been a difficult project.

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  4. There is an obsession with connecting regional centres with regional rail and its clouding their the report author’s judgment. Why build a tunnel to Sq1 from Cooksville when there will be an LRT that will provide a connection?

    Steve: More generally, Metrolinx has an obsession with “mobility hubs” and some of these show up (not named as such) in the report. Basically some bright spark at Metrolinx drew dots on a map wherever two lines crossed whether it was a logical place to put a hub, including local development, or not. This is called “planning” in some circles.

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  5. Long time lurker here from New York. First off, I have to say I really enjoy reading your work.

    Second, the impression I get is that the Board took a look at the good current trends in transportation planning, picked out what sounded nice without actually thinking real hard about what that meant, and are now hoping to hand the specific details to, well, someone in the vague sphere of planning or government. This plan might get people hooked on, but there has to be more detail.

    Steve: Thanks for lurking. You are in good company.

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  6. Currently there is a fleet of EMU’s in Montreal that were removed from service at the end of 2020 by EXO. They are in full running condition and not that old with many years of service left. These electric cars/trains could be used to update SRT ASAP eliminating the years of bus use that is facing Scarborough now. Minor modifications needed.

    Will TTC/Metrolinx take advantage of this? Doubt it. Scrap man will prevail!

    Steve: The cars date from the mid 90s and re considerably larger than SRT cars. They will not fit on the existing infrastrucure. Also they use 25KV AC power and an entirely new power feed system would have to be installed to run them. “Minor modifications” is far from the situation.

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  7. Fun fact about the chart for Friedrichstraße station… All the trains shown (the S-Bahn lines) are on 2 tracks – the other 2 tracks are for additional longer-distance regional and a few national trains, including those would bring throughput on the 4 tracks closer to 24 trains per hour.

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  8. All their talk about a regional network but not even their fantasy map talks about what a Durham-York-Peel region transit should be like.

    Also, what happens to VIA trains at Union?

    Steve: There is provision for VIA on four tracks (gray lines on the proposed layout).

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  9. Of course the funny thing is that this plan is so technology dominated that buses aren’t even in the picture for transit planning. GO transit knows that until the political will is there to expand rail transit buses do quite well. Double deckers are running on the 407 corridor to serve 905 to 905 trips when Highway 7 was waiting to have its express buses and rapidways built. Buses serve Barrie, Hamilton and Niagara before the first GO trains arrive there. If GO was waiting for the government to provide rail service a lot of places in the 905 would be even more car centric and Universities would need even more parking.

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  10. Steve Munro wrote:

    “A common thread in many transit proposals … is the premise that getting people on transit will reduce congestion. This is a bogus claim …”

    I think your statement is wrong. Also, in my view not consistent with any type of transit advocacy.

    For any given development and economic activity pattern, switching people to transit will reduce road congestion. Most likely on a less than 1 for 1 a basis, but still a reduction. Anyone who has lived through a transit strike can attest to this.

    It is true that opening new transport options, whether highway or subway, will create new economic activity that will fill up the channel (unless it is tolled). But that is equally an argument for destroying transit as it is one against building it — no subway, no highway, no crowding.

    Steve: There is a difference between a transit strike when all transit capacity is withdrawn, and the opening of a new service which adds capacity for specific trips, but not the majority of travel. Metrolinx acknowledged years ago that their regional plan would not actually reduce congestion, only prevent it from getting worse, and even that benefit was limited to certain parts of the region.

    Toronto has a substantial latent demand with its existing population plus growth to come in the future. The total amount of traffic is likely to stay at best the same on already crowded corridors, not be reduced. Projections in the recently released study for the Yonge North subway extension show that the percentage of market share in the corridor, now under 20%, will change by 1% or less. This does not represent massive relief or reduction in traffic.

    The regional rail plan proposed by the Board of Trade focuses on travel on the existing rail corridors and would substantially increase their quality of service. However, without routes running across the region providing complementary travel paths, the rail corridors will be limited to trips that lie along the corridors. Metrolinx plans for regional bus service is rather sparse, certainly not on the scale of transit we are used to seeing within the City of Toronto, and they assume that local municipal systems will pick up a lot of the slack. This will not happen without funding particularly in regions which are car-dominated and need much better transit to be competitive.

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  11. The Board of Trade must be able to get a shipload of fancy napkins. Not the paper kind, but the cloth napkins to present their ideas on.

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  12. I’m really not happy to see everyone dissing the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s submission to better transit. Did they not advance the talk? I thought that they did. Get back to them and tell them where they could improve, but overall it is a plus, no? And, are they not against top-down transit planning? (The problem is that planning is too political.)

    Steve: I’m really not happy about how “everyone” seems to take a black-or-white view of criticism of the TRBoT paper. I agreed with a lot of what was in it, but faulted the author for giving us a blue sky view of what a network could be together with a lot of detail (mainly in the latter parts of the report) that belong in a later implementation plan. Also, although local transit is mentioned, and TRBoT plans a paper on the Last Mile Problem this summer, there was no sense of two important points: (a) what interim stages of the network would necessarily have to look like, and (b) the importance of funding local service.

    Far too much “planning” is done “regionally” and assumes that the last mile problem will just look after itself, or will be magically solved with ride sharing. That’s not true, but it suits pols who read a report about expanded use of the rail network to focus only on that, including shovelling every “recovery” or “stimulus” dollar they can find at capital construction, not operations.

    There is the pressing need for cross region services that do not lie along the rail corridors, and that run frequently all day long. There is no point in having very frequent service on the largely radial rail network if there is little or no bus service to travel between places the rail lines do not serve.

    TRBot proposed half a network, the relatively easy half considering Metrolinx is already building a considerable chunk of what will be needed.

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  13. Perhaps a bit off-topic, but regarding GO service, the BoT map did not show service potentially planned to Bolton and Orangeville. There is a big problem with Bolton, as the site chosen for the GO station is at least 10 km from town, but there is a perfect spot next to the Walmart, at least 10 acres big. We used to have regular passenger train service and hourly bus service here in Bolton, but since Ontario took over, it has been nothing but cutbacks. Bolton is being ignored by Queens Park and everyone else.

    Steve: The Bolton corridor is mentioned on page 51 of the report as a possible expansion line:

    “Other lines that could be used effectively for regional rail in the longer term would be CP’s corridor through northern Etobicoke to Woodbridge and Bolton, …”

    “Longer term” does not exactly give hope that the report’s authors see this as much of a priority.

    As for the location, well, we already know that Metrolinx’ site choices can have more to do with politics than planning.

    Thanks Steve for your answer to my previous comment!

    Steve: You’re welcome!

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  14. A few random comments about odd things in the Board of Trade’s report:

    1. Service to Gerrard-Don with a headway of 5 minutes during peak hours and 10 minutes off-peak. With some peak-hour service continuing to Richmond Hill. Hmmm… How is this going to relate to the Ontario Line? It looks like this will be a competing, redundant service. Gerrard-Don seems like an odd place to deliver such a large amount of service.

    Steve: They are simply piggybacking on the proposed electrification of the Bala Sub to Pottery Road which would be used for short-term storage and an eastern terminal for some west side trains so the they can “run through” at Union. It’s a weird place for a station and is unlikely to generate transfer traffic from the Carlton car given the time and convenience penalty of the transfer so close to Union. This (and other station proposals in the report) is a symptom of a problem that Metrolinx had some years ago with plunking “mobility hubs” wherever services intersected without thinking through the scale, implications or reasonableness.

    2. The Milton to Lincolnville local service has a note, “Some trains to/from Mount Joy, all times.” Hmmm… My definition of local service is that the train stops at all stations. ls this supposed to mean that this train is local except for Mount Joy station, which some trains skip? Or is it supposed to mean that some trains terminate at Mount Joy? Odd.

    3. Steve wrote:

    “However, the Board has violated its own principle by driving through an entire network design exercise without clearly figuring out goals, not to mention the basic question of how much we might be prepared to spend on this transit network.”

    Precisely so. In particular, a large-scale and very expensive proposal such as this that does not come with some clue as to how to pay for it is an exercise in pure juvenile fantasy. Grown-up adults know that we have to pay for the good things we want. One laudable part of Metrolinx’s “The Big Move” was the “adult conversation” on how to pay for it. Which resulted in excellent feedback, such as the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s (OCC) proposal on how to raise taxes to pay for it.

    I do not agree with all the OCC opinions about which taxes to embrace, but this is the type of discussion that it is necessary to have to move from “fantasy” to “reality.”

    4. Board of Trade wrote:

    “People who have a choice rarely use transit systems where they need to check a timetable.”

    That is complete nonsense for regional transportation. 100% of the current GO regional service is timetabled. Except for peak hour service on the Lakeshore line, none of the current GO service meets their 12 minute ‘turn up and go’ standard. Does that mean that people rarely use GO? Throughout the world, regional service is usually timetabled, with a lot of headways longer than 12 minutes. These services are used frequently, not rarely.

    The Board of Trade would have more credibility by writing, “People who have a choice will tend to use the fastest, easiest and most convenient means of safely travelling from A to B. Frequent ‘turn up and go’ service is an important part of this convenience.”

    Steve: I will come partly to the BoT’s defence here by saying that “turn-up-and-go” makes sense in the context where the rail network really is behaving like a “surface subway” and acts as a key link among equally frequent bus routes running on a fairly close grid and serving those trips that do not lie entirely on the rail network. That said, we heard a lot about “surface subways” in the hype for SmartTrack and we know just how far that went.

    5. The Board of Trade wrote: “…equity-seeking communities…”

    My first reaction was, “what’s that?” Then Google informed me that this is the latest trendy “politically correct” euphemism for the word “poor.” My eyes roll. Poverty is not going to go away by using opaque euphemisms.

    Steve: That term’s meaning is more subtle than just saying “the poor”, and is related to the demographic problem that racial groups are more likely to be among the poor for various historical and cultural reasons (and by that I mean our white culture). An important part of equity as it relates to transit is mobility which, because of the way our region has pushed poorer groups into auto-dominated suburbs, is harder to obtain for the complexity and distance of trips required for just about everything. It is ironic that an organization which is very white and affluent, the BoT, advocates a network which is still very core commuter centric.

    My gut feeling is that without a lot of investment in transit that goes nowhere near Union Station, the benefits will continue to fall more to those who can afford to get themselves to a rail station without depending on local transit. BRT aimed at non-core travel will continue to be a mix of big road-building projects without service, and red paint without enforcement.

    The Board’s next report is supposed to deal with local service, and we will see just what they propose. They are going to have to talk about money one of these days because local transit isn’t just about buying buses and building garages, it’s about actually operating them.

    6. The Board of Trade is showing their proposed Lakeshore West service going to Niagara, but their Lakeshore East service stopping at Oshawa. That is odd. Even Metrolinx is significantly expanding their service to Bowmanville.

    Steve: I was amused that a professional report that includes a special section on the Milton line missed an extension that is already in the works. Has someone in Milton been bending the BoT’s ear?

    7. “The Board proposes a study of what factors might draw people to transit..”

    My eyes roll once again. As I mentioned above, people will almost always take the mode of transportation that is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely moving from A to B. I await my multi-million dollar consulting contract to deliver this gem of wisdom.

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  15. Thank you for the response. I cannot say that I agree with your standard — that a transit line must add capacity for “the majority of travel” to say that it reduces congestion — but your position is clear.

    I also just wanted to note my objection to some of the ageism in this commentary — both in your post and comments you published. By this I mean statements like the authors English/Schultz had “too many crayons to play with”, that the report is a “juvenile fantasy” not written by “grownup adults” but is an exercise by “rail fans” (not in a positive sense!). or scoffing when English is referred to as “Dr” (it’s an earned title).

    Anyway, I hope the discussion of the report, whether positive or negative, can shift to a more respectful tone.

    Steve: We can agree to disagree on congestion. At the heart of my position are two factors: latent demand, and the fact that most existing congestion does not lie in corridors that the proposed network will serve and draw from.

    My reference to crayons was not intended to suggest that the report was childish, although it has been taken that way, and echoed in one of the comments. It is fairly common practice, especially when talking about planners and politicians with grand plans to refer crayons as a measure of simplicity, a lack of depth. If I wanted to sound more “managerial”, I might have said “magic markers” or “power points”. The effect is the same: the urge to draw on a map, and the danger that once drawn, a line is very hard to erase. “SmartTrack” comes to mind.

    As a railfan myself, I can certainly sympathize with anyone being called that dismissively. What bothered me about the report, at its heart, was that there was no sense of knowing when to stop, when the level of detail was far beyond what was needed to make the case. At that level, it can become “railfanish” in the attention to fine detail while missing the overarching question of practicality.

    When you are published by the Board of Trade, there is a responsibility for quality that goes beyond the level of a blogger (“respected” or not), let alone comments left under a pseudonym. I say that not to slag you personally, but I get a lot of anonymous comments, some rather abusive, from people who won’t put their name to what they write. The nasty ones you never get to see.

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  16. An anonymous commenter wrote: “… my objection to some of the ageism in this commentary…”

    Since this remark appears to be directed at me, I will make very clear just exactly what I meant. I have three adult children. Before they were adults, all of their needs were provided at zero cost to them by their parents. But when they became adults, it was time for them to be independent and stand on their own two feet.

    This is, of course, the way that things should be. Children should expect all their needs to be provided for without having to worry about them. My heart is moved with compassion for children who have such unjust stress and anxiety in their lives.

    That is why any proposal for large-scale spending without any corresponding discussion of how to pay for it, I will call childish. Childish, because the proposal’s authors are like children who expect their needs to be provided for without having to pay for it.

    I am, of course, not the first person to draw a contrast between childish and adult ways of thinking. This is one of the themes of the New Testament.

    To quote St. Paul – 1 Corinthians 13:11

    “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

    If some anonymous commentator is thinking that his way of thought is more holy and righteous than God, then perhaps a re-think is in order.

    Steve: I don’t think that most people, including me, on this site believe that they have divine insight into our transit future. God or Fate or whatever you want to call it does, however, have a wicked sense of humour for those with an inflated sense of their own worth.

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  17. Steve, I’m not sure if you’re aware of the growing presence of Youtube channels dedicated to transit info and advocacy in our region. The most prolific is Reece Martin who offers reporting, analysis, and commentary. He did a video on the report and then a 40 min interview with the authors Jonathan English & Uday Schultz. Unfortunately the interview didn’t provide much insight beyond the report itself, but readers of this blog (and the author) may still be interested to hear directly from the report’s authors.

    On to my own commentary:

    I’m not sure if this report “clouds” regional planning. I agree with pretty much all of the criticisms mentioned here by Steve and others, but I have trouble seeing the harm in the report, which is implied by the post’s title. For years I have looked at the rail network and wondered how it might be better utilized, so to see a report like this, flawed as it may be, I think helps build political capital around the subject. A large chunk of Toronto transit politics ends up being “subways, subways, subways”, and to me shining a light on an albeit somewhat Utopian regional rail plan seems to be a positive addition. However, I always look forward to reading Steve’s analysis and critiques.

    I do wonder why the Toronto Board of Trade is doing these reports and what their goal is and how they hope to accomplish it. It feels a bit like a passive aggressive fight with Metrolinx. At least they’re not releasing reports titled “A bigger network of highways for future”.

    Steve: I am well aware of Reece Martin’s YouTube work. There have been a few pitched battles on Twitter about it, and we have now blocked each other. I really don’t want to launch a thread here that will replicate that exchange. Let’s just say I have a problem with the accuracy and reasonableness of some of his videos, especially the recent one about enhancements to the streetcar system.

    As for the TRBoT report: I have a hard time figuring out whether the Board is trying to prod Metrolinx into doing more, or to change directions. At times the Board is thick as thieves with Metrolinx, providing them a springboard for presentations to a receptive, uncritical audience. Metrolinx stands for big construction projects first and foremost, and that keeps a lot of people in the business community happy.

    The TRBoT report is not only a blue sky, everything we could imagine proposal, but it can be misleading because it papers over, or ignores, some fundamental flaws. Moreover, it does not give full credit to Metrolinx for the plan they already have underway, and it reads as if TRBoT came up with this new plan to save us from a complete absence of foresight. As I said in my article, the TRBoT report violates some of its own stated, fundamental planning principles by going into far more detail than is appropriate. Moreover it makes a technology choice as a basic premise.

    Finally, it (like a lot of Metrolinx’ work) ignores the problem of getting people to and from this marvellous new GO network. Inside the 416 (the TRBoT’s focus) last-mile service is more or less automatic because the TTC exists, although it is more oriented to the subway than the GO network. I am not sure it will be easy to serve both. Outside in the 905, local transit service, particularly outside of the peak, is not very attractive. Moreover, local attractions are not necessarily at GO Stations (which exist as an historic artifact of the industrial era and the rail network), but rather where developers have assembled land for regional centres oriented to highways. Serving both those centres and the GO stations will be tricky.

    TRBoT plans two more papers: one on local transit and last mile problems, and one on infrastructure. Frankly, I think they should have done the local transit one first, or at lest made a significant stab at a “coming soon” overview as an integral part of the GO network paper. As it is, they have proposed half a network, and areas crying out for congestion relief will see little or none. This is not just TRBoT’s problem, but also Metrolinx’ whose entire contribution to regional bus service is a proposed grid of lines mostly on 2km spacing (the concession roads) running every 10 minutes. Depending on the fare they charge and how they integrate with local routes, that is not exactly going to pry thousands of drivers out of their cars.

    More local transit means more local subsidy, and that is something the province has steadfastly refused to improve.

    As for infrastructure, we know that projects are expensive here, and we are already supposed to be seeing great improvement with the use of P3’s, the “private sector can do better” trope. This has yet to be demonstrated. Moreover, there has been strong pushback from industry on the degree of risk transfer Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario have attempted, to the point that one major company refused to participate in a bit, and the project stucture now includes an “alliance model” where less of the risk is assumed by the private sector. I will be intrigued to see if the Board of Trade has a magical solution to this problem.

    Why did I choose that title? Because every time a plan like this comes out, it diverts attention from major issues and forces everyone to regroup around the “new map” treating it as if it were gospel. We have been here before. I would not mind the new map quite so much if it were not so fantastical in parts with assumptions about the ease of changing use of various parts of the GO, CN and CP rail networks.

    Then there is the question of how we will pay for it, how we will get from “here” to “there” and whether such a plan is achievable given political and financial circumstances.

    TRBoT may present this as high level advocacy, but if a proposal cannot be achieved, the primary effect is to further dull political will to do anything with transit because it “won’t work”. Can we please get on with building highways? That is exactly the opposite of what we want.

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  18. Thanks for the detailed reply Steve. Many points taken. I’d like to comment/ask a bit more.

    As you point out, the 416/905 divide of the GO rail network is stark. Focusing on the 416 side, do you think the rail corridors (including CP’s North Toronto Sub) could serve as a cost effective investment in rapid transit, in particular compared to building new metros/subways? I understand that using the CP sub means spending money to shift their traffic and that’s part of the equation.

    Regarding the 905 side, my career has taken me out of the 416 core where I grew up and towards the 905. Living in northern Scarborough and working in Markham gives me an understanding of the suburbs that I never had before. Walking or driving through neighbourhoods, and browsing on Google Maps I see an inconvenient truth. Mass public transit will never work for most of the single family homes.

    The walking distances are simply too long for the majority of houses. I’m pretty sure you’ve pointed this out many times. However, the suburbs, especially the old ones, are often a tale of two cities. The sprawl, and the high rises clustered around major intersections. Within the Toronto boundary, most of these get good bus service, but several are at capacity. Is investing in regional style rail a good way to help these riders?

    Finally, outside Toronto my experience is mainly limited to highway 7 so I’ll ask about that. I’ve seen the development in Markham around Hwy 7 over the last 6 years and the density on the road has gone up significantly. However, Viva leaves much to be desired. The BRT is barely faster than the regular YRT. Frequencies are not high. Ridership is low outside of the 9-5 commute. Generally the route doesn’t seem well designed; too many lights, single lane under the 404 but completely unnecessary dedicated lane on South Town Centre Blvd. Do you think there is good rail investment to be made for these types of new higher density areas/corridors?

    I guess the short question is “where in the GO/rail network does it actually make sense to invest in?” The whole premise of the report is that we have this huge under-utilized resource, and I’m wondering if you agree with that, and what your take on how best to use it is.

    Thanks again!

    Steve: You’re welcome!

    This is going to take a bit to unpack.

    Shifting the CPR traffic to share the “Toronto Bypass” corridor along the CN up in York Region is a big ticket item, and it’s not just a case of laying a few more rails along CN’s York Sub. Frankly I don’t think we will ever see this happen, and any plan that depends on it will be stalled more or less permanently. Yes, if we found several pots of gold at the ends of several rainbows, we might be able to convince CP to shift, but it will be a very hard sell.

    Then we have to convert the North Toronto and Belleville Subs for GO use, but they connect with the subway in very inconvenient locations. Summerhill has provision for this, but Dupont not so much so. In both cases we would be adding new load into the core at the peak point. The CPR line does not directly serve major job centres for the simple reason that it is almost by definition an industrial corridor. There is no place on the line to deliver passengers. At best, it will be a connecting line between other services.

    A service from the northeast could come into Union via the Don Branch (which would have to be upgraded), and at least that would avoid adding load to the subway. But this still needs the CPR shifted to work.

    I agree that there are big problems in the 905 especially with inward facing neighbourhoods that do not connect easily to transit even if good service were provided. The VIVA system was more a road building and widening project than a transit project, and the service levels on Viva reflect its true importance politically as transit.

    Little of the existing rail network serves travel patterns within the 905 with one exception that is beyond GO’s reach: the Kitchener corridor (actually the north main line all the way to London) links several cities that have significant attraction, especially for students, but also for some businesses on their own. They are not just bedroom suburbs. This is the fundamental problem of much of the 905: from a transit destination point of view, there is little “there” there given that jobs and schools (the academic equivalent) are primary drivers of transit demand. Some nodes such as in Markham have evolved, but around a highway interchange with the nearest rail corridor not exactly next door. Moreover, that corridor only serves north-south, not east-west journeys.

    An important point in thinking about any transit intensification in the 905 is that building one or two [gasp, such extravagance!] lines is of little use without a good, broad network of local service. The 905 has many-to-many demand patterns and no single line can address them.

    In a recent report, Metrolinx made a cryptic remark about a Steeles Avenue Rapid Transit line. I asked about this, but they could/would not elaborate further. Something faster and more capacity on Steeles would be nice, but it will not address much of the travel within the 905 on its own.

    Even if we had built rail (and for this discussion it doesn’t matter what mode) before everything developed, the likely place this would have gone was new expressway corridors which are notoriously bad as transit corridors.

    All that said, it makes sense to invest in GO especially in the KW corridor, because if any area’s demand is going to recover eventually, it will be the core and established centres along that route. We hear a lot about the Toronto-KW tech corridor, but don’t do much beyond continued highway widening to support it.

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  19. The problem is that we build lines not networks. Take Scarborough for instance. We are told that the Scarborough subway will solve all of Scarborough’s transit woes. It won’t but it is a step in the right direction. We need a network of lines in Scarborough. The Scarborough subway extension should meet the Sheppard subway extension. We also need Malvern LRT and Eglinton Crosstown East LRT to UTSC.

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  20. Some observations on the report:

    • for a system of colour rail lines branded Trillium, oddly there are no green, white or purple lines.
    • the argument for Trillium branding is pretty weak, when the system already has an excellent brand. The plan to have 2 brands for rail and no mention of brand for GO’s buses.
    • using the 2001 Ottawa O-Train pilot as a ‘case study’ is the stuff of fantasy. That $21M project was a rail unicorn. Kudos to Bob Chiarelli for making it happen, but it’s not reproducible, and everyone forgets the 20km/h trains.
    • mentions the growing need for non-core travel, and then largely ignores non-core travel in favour of radial lines. The most helpful rapid transit projects are non-radial. They could be heavy surface rail, but only if cost is no object.
    • the focus is gradually lost. Eventually, Trillium is putting a chicken in every pot. Replacing WWLRT, serving Square One, adding short diversion lines in satellite cities (Where? Does it matter?). Build it, and they will come, no matter where rail is. Presumably, someone should tell Barrie to add some rail.

    Steve: Yes. The report feels like something that started off with good intentions, but then got out of control trying to do too much.

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  21. Thanks again Steve.

    I’ll end with a personal anecdote on the placement of 905 GO stations with respect to job centres. My office is in “Downtown Markham” and I live on the Stouffville line. I want to take the GO train to Unionville to work (post pandemic) but for some reason they decided to build this residential and employment centre 1 km away from the station instead of around the station, which still is surrounded by nothing. To add insult to injury the pedestrian path adds 900m of distance as it heads in the wrong direction, forced to follow the auto traffic. The whole thing seems crazy. So close yet so far.

    At least without GO Expansion a train trip wouldn’t even be possible for me because I need to travel in the counter peak direction. But without fixing the pedestrian access, or fare integration and good local bus frequency, the train remains a flawed option.

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  22. Steve said: TRBoT may present this as high level advocacy, but if a proposal cannot be achieved, the primary effect is to further dull political will to do anything with transit because it “won’t work”

    That’s the most salient commentary.

    I read the report diligently, and my thoughts were quite divided. I applaud that the authors provide service plan details and back it up with solutions to make it happen (in some cases). It’s an improvement over a service plan with circles where transit lines meet.

    Yet it’s not a big enough improvement – Trillium is stuck in the middle. A proposal for a specific technology, service plan and configuration for the Union Station rail corridor has to be accompanied by other information. It’s missing:

    • Specific goals. Implicitly, the goal appears to be ‘maximize Union Station rail corridor capacity’, which is a means, not an end.
    • How the results compare with current GO Expansion plans.
    • How the transition to EMUs could be staged for each line.
    • How much it will cost, and vs GO Expansion.
    • Key data such as traffic counts for each station, new ridership on each line, travel time reductions, changes in mode share in each community
    • How/where each station ties in with local transit. Regional transit at this scale is a white elephant without top shelf local transit integration. That means moving and/or rebuilding many existing GO stations, for starters. The report extols more cheap stations, not real ones.
    • How the system serves non-core trips without non-radial rapid transit, which is where most new trips will be.

    With all that info missing, Trillium is closer to brainstorming stage than a real plan. Brainstorming in most contexts is helpful, but as Steve so succinctly points out above, the consequences for Toronto are not benign.

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  23. Jonathan got the translation of the German expansion philosophy wrong. I put it at the top of all my reports and it is, “Optimization Before Technology Before Concrete.” If Metrolinx is an example of how Ontario does “organization,” then that’s the last thing we need. Furthermore, I wouldn’t trust this bloated organization to optimize anything because it would be FUBAR in their hands, which are pulled by strings leading right to the politicians of the day.

    Steve: There are several references in English and German to “Organization/Organisation” in a simple Google search, but none to “Optimization”. Source please?

    I concur with the sentiment, and politically motivated plans are rarely “optimized”, but would like to know whether your citation is an alternate form.

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