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.
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.
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.
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.
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.