The Don Valley Layover: History and Options

In Opponents voice concerns about new GO train facility in the Don Valley, the Globe & Mail’s Oliver Moore writes about the ongoing controversy of Metrolinx’ proposed train storage facility in the Don Valley at Bloor Street.

In two previous articles, I have examined this scheme in detail.

As this debate unfolded, it became obvious that some design choices Metrolinx defends are leftovers of earlier versions, and that the actual purpose of the facility has evolved. This tangle of history and garbled explanations is a common situation for Metrolinx.

This article consolidates the main points including an additional alternative that I have not covered before.

Metrolinx’ Original Proposal

Metrolinx’ original plans for the lower Don Valley include two separate changes:

  • On the west side of the valley, the Bala Subdivision (Richmond Hill Corridor) would be upgraded with electrified double track from the Union Station Rail Corridor (USRC) to Pottery Road (a level crossing north of Bloor Street).
  • On the east side of the valley, the single-track Don Branch (a former CPR link to its mainline at Leaside) would be expanded with a three track yard south of Bloor Street. Support buildings would be located south of the Viaduct.

According to Metrolinx, the track on the Bala Subdivision would be used as a turnaround facility for eastbound GO Transit trips ending at Union Station. Instead of staying on the platform during the reversal, trains would continue east and north onto the Bala Sub, set up for westbound operation, and lay over until their return journey. Their stops both ways at Union would be like those of through trains with only a brief stay on the platform and hence a lower consumption of station capacity.

This explanation makes sense operationally, but the amount of electrified track is much greater than needed to act as a reversing area for trains from Union. This begs the question of whether there are other intended or possible uses.

The scheme for the Don Branch ran aground, so to speak, because it would occupy part of the flood plain of the Don River. The original proposal was changed to use the existing single track between the point where the line crosses to the east side of the river north to the high bridge near the Brick Works. This would provide storage for three trains nose-to-tail.

The support buildings have migrated as the plans evolved from south of the Viaduct, to underneath it, and now to a location just north of the bridge. That location requires the facility to be built on a platform several metres above the valley floor so that it is level with the existing rail line.

The Environmental Assessment covering this facility is clear that the intent was for 7×24 operation with three shifts of workers and overnight train servicing. Metrolinx claims that this is not their intent and that the track would only be used to store three trains mid-day between the two peak periods. However, they have also pressed for early completion of this storage yard to replace capacity that will be temporarily lost from the Don Yard at the east end of the USRC due to construction (possibly the Ontario Line and other reconfiguration of tracks just west of the Don River). The Don Yard stores trains overnight.

Questions About the Proposals

Are The Servicing Buildings Actually Required?

The original proposal included overnight servicing of trains (cleaning and fuelling). If trains will only be stored during the mid-day period, the work that would occur, and the supporting facilities, would disappear. Another mid-day storage area, on the Lake Shore East corridor near Midland, has none of the facilities planned for the Don Valley Layover.

If the Layover does not require service buildings, then there is more flexibility in its possible location, and much less land is required.

Why is the Layover So Far North?

The Bala Sub and the Don Branch both run north from the USRC on the west side of the Don River. Originally there were two tracks (one used for switching freight) on the Bala Sub and one on the Don Branch. Today, there is only one Bala Sub track as far north as River Street where a second track splits off and provides a siding to south of Pottery Road. The eastern Don Branch track is overgrown but would be reconditioned under Metrolinx’ plans.

The distance from Eastern Avenue to the point north of River Street where the Don Branch crosses the river is about 1.5km. This is slightly longer than the planned layover on the east side of the river. Metrolinx currently does not plan to triple track this section, but there is definitely room as past usage shows.

Here are two photos from 1967 at Queen and at Gerrard showing the three-track right-of-way.

Looking north at Queen Street (former Don Station), 1967. Photo by the author.
Looking east at Gerrard Street, 1967. Photo by the author.

What About Flooding?

Metrolinx cites flooding of tracks on the west side of the river as a reason against using it for storage. However, the electrification to Pottery road shows that Metrolinx intends to use this area for short term storage, and the access track to the Don Valley layover would also be affected by flooding in the lower Don.

As these floods are rare, and could become rarer with the improved river flow thanks to the redesign of the river mouth now in progress, Metrolinx treats these as events that could be dealt with as and when they occur. If that’s good enough for the Bala Sub on the west side, it should also apply to the Don Branch track where it is west of the river.

Flooding, by the way, has also been cited as a reason against electrification of the Richmond Hill corridor. Now Metrolinx plans to electrify a portion of the Bala Sub that is particularly prone to being under water.

Here is the stretch near the Brick Works where a GO train was underwater in July 2013. The road in the middle of the photo is the ramp linking Bayview Avenue to the DVP.

Looking northwest across the Bayview-DVP ramp to a GO Train on the flooded Bala Sub, July 8, 2013. Photo by the author.

Here is the area where Metrolinx proposes to put its service facility shown during the same flood. The Don Branch is just visible in the lower left of this photo. It is on a berm above the flood plain.

Looking southwest to the Prince Edward Viaduct, July 8, 2013. Photo by the author.

If There Must Be Buildings, Why Are They At Bloor Street?

The proposed buildings are at Bloor Street no doubt because that is where they started out just south of the bridge. However, an alternate location is available at the north end of the proposed Don Layover just south of the Bayview-DVP ramp.

Source: Google Earth

Finding an area that does not have trees in the Don Valley is a challenge, but the land shown above lies in an area hemmed in by roads. Addition of parking and a service building would not have as severe an impact as further south at the Viaduct.

Access to the Layover Area

[Section added at 5:20 pm, Oct. 5/21]

A further complication of the Don Branch layover is that it requires road access along its length. Metrolinx has designed this to be wide enough for fire trucks, including a turning loop at the south end. Even if the service buildings are eliminated, this road would require expansion of the rail berm and a retaining wall for support.

On the west side of the valley, the tracks are adjacent to Bayview Avenue and access by emergency vehicles is much simpler.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A fundamental problem with Metrolinx is that explanations of why and when this layover facility is needed change, and there is no clear explanation of how their needs cannot be met by full utilization of their right-of-way on the west side of the valley. The buildings and parking appear to be left over from an early, more intensive use of this layover for overnight servicing, and it is not clear why they are needed if only midday storage is contemplated here.

There are alternatives on the table, but Metrolinx shows no sign of embracing them.

13 thoughts on “The Don Valley Layover: History and Options

  1. What can be done to change or modify Metrolinx’s plans? Is this the best place to put a facility like this?

    Steve: The main thing is to get Metrolinx to discuss what is going with full information about their needs and plans, together with people who actually understand the lie of the land rather than regurgitating talking points they’ve been given by others.

    Storage space near Union is at a premium, but Metrolinx has taken the path of, they thought, least resistance.

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  2. Alternatives? We don’t have to provide you with alternatives, whipper snapper! And pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain. He is but a humble servant of the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.

    We could do the badges scene from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but one reference to old Hollywood is enough in making the case that Metrolinx is just another movie we’ve seen before.

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  3. This nails it – “why and when this facility is needed” has yet to justified by Metrolinx. Thing is if you criticize this small component of GO Expansion you start to uncover a whole bunch of problems with the magical wishful thinking contained in the 2018 GO Expansion Full Business Case.

    Toronto Region Board of Trade says “with as much as 25% of downtown commuters on GO anticipated not to return post-pandemic” – so again why and when is this thing necessary?

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  4. Hi Steve,

    I would think there are better possible uses of the CPR line through Don Valley, including both GO service on part or all of the Peterborough line, and–if they could re-open the CPR-CN line thru Don Mills–a shorter better connection to Richmond Hill. (The local screams would probably prevent reopening that connection!) Would all need to be double track in the Don Valley. Since Metrolinx loves spending money…! (They could use the old twisty CN Don Valley line for storage if needed.)

    Cheers, Andy

    Steve: Yes, the local screams would definitely be deafening especially considering that was a single track emergency connection with a grade crossing on Lawrence just east of Leslie. Frequent service would require a messy grade separation.

    As for a Peterborough service, as and when the HFR service gets a path out of the city, likely via the Stouffville Line, that’s the more likely route for any comparatively local srvice.

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  5. Suffice to say, Metrolinx has retained Escher as head planner and theoretical dimension shifter:

    It’s difficult to address as to what Metrolinx is thinking when they don’t know themselves.

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  6. Is the need for a Don yard related to the proposed Spadina-Front station? Presumably, the proposed station would reduce the capacity at the existing GO storage yard between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue.

    Steve: My understanding is that the issue with the Don Yard came up fairly recently, compared to the Spadina Station which has been around for quite a while, and that it is a temporary rather than a permanent situation related to construction in the area.

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  7. Steve, once again there is no mention of the trackside service road and the destruction to the slope and tree canopy its construction would entail. A road capable of supporting an emergency vehicle such as a TFD firetruck would require a level and stable base. As the existing track is almost adjacent to the slopping hillside, 1.2 additional kilometres of retaining wall would have to be built to support the road. At a much higher construction cost, but also a much, much higher cost to the environment.

    Steve: Thanks for pointing this out. I will update the article.

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  8. What a confusing mess of a moving target…smells very fishy. OR else just typical opaque public sector s..t show. Someone in charge aka Duggo or Johnny T needs to call a time-out and investigate whats really going on. This is like a giant and costly game of hide the peanut in the dark.

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  9. Instead of a layover why does not go transit by the track from CP and link it up with the CP mainline at Leaside and they can run trains to Peterborough and other areas, Havelock for example.
    Plus going over the CP bridge will be quite the tourist attraction has been there for sometime and no one ever sees any trains on it and wonders what is about.

    Steve: Metrolinx has looked at this before and they are not really interested in running a Peterborough service. CP does not want passenger service on their main line and would probably fight this idea. The Montreal HFR scheme now looks like it would go up the Stouffville corridor which will be double tracked and have a grade separated connection at Scarborough Junction. A separate connection track to the Peterborough line would be needed to avoid using the CP. Assuming we ever see an HFR service, the question then is whether this would be the only operation on that line or if a more local commuter service could co-exist.

    The bridge near the Brick Works would have to be rebuilt for any new service because it is no longer structurally sound.

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  10. Why do they need to store GO trains in downtown Toronto overnight? Don’t most of the routes head out of the city in the evening rush?

    Steve: There isn’t enough storage out in the burbs to hold all of the trains.

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  11. I still don’t understand why they can’t use space closer to Union Station for this, if it’s only daytime layover for three trainsets.

    Like some of the material storage areas on the south side of the corridor between Jarvis and Parliament. Or a slight southern extension of the Don Yard as part of the whole Gardiner / Lakeshore reconfiguration down there.

    Steve: According to Metrolinx there is no room for expansion of the Don Yard. Some of the land that appears to be “available” is not as easy to access as it seems. The obvious question is why not at the south end of the Don Branch/Bala Sub beside Bayview Avenue.

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  12. “Why do they need to store GO trains in downtown Toronto overnight? Don’t most of the routes head out of the city in the evening rush?

    Steve: There isn’t enough storage out in the burbs to hold all of the trains.”

    So the solution is to build that storage…in the Don valley? Seems relatively absurd. Land is far more plentiful, cheaper, and less valuable from an environmental perspective out in the suburbs! For holding trains during midday so that there’s more available for the evening rush, it makes sense. But that would not require overnight operations or servicing!

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  13. The Montreal HFR scheme now looks like it would go up the Stouffville corridor which will be double tracked and have a grade separated connection at Scarborough Junction.

    Is there any concrete plan on this or is this still in pre-election-announcement handwaving stage? How far would the double-tracking extend? Would the connection to the Havelock subdivision be via new track north of Major Mackenzie or along the CN York sub/407 corridor or something else altogether? The Stouffville corridor seems pretty tight north of the 407/Unionville station and passes by quite a lot of backyards in an electoral battleground area.

    Steve: Double tracking of the Stouffville corridor is already underway as part of the GO Expansion. The double track will extend to just north of Unionville. See the Roll Plan for the corridor (very large pdf).

    There would likely be a separate connection to the Havelock sub on its own right-of-way, or so I’ve heard, but nothing about HFR can be considered to be definitive.

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