SmartTrack Reduced to a Handful of GO Stations

Updated January 22, 2021: Replies from the City of Toronto to several questions seeking details of the proposed service and demand modelling have been added.

The ongoing saga of SmartTrack, once billed by then-candidate John Tory as the saviour of Toronto’s transit, took another hit with the publication of an update on the SmartTrackStations project.

As originally proposed, SmartTrack looked like this. The line ran from Unionville to the Airport Corporate Centre with 22 stations, mostly new.

It was supposed to open this year (2021). That has been pushed back to 2026, and even that could be a soft date if GO’s expansion plans are delayed.

It would have worked hand-in-glove with GO Transit’s Regional Express Rail concept as former Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard enthused in the project’s promotional literature:

The project contemplates making the GO train corridors virtual “surface subways” with service so frequent and fast that the trains became an irresistible substitute for driving, thus significantly mitigating traffic congestion. Imagine going to the GO station confident that the next train will be along soon, just like when we go to a subway station.

Robert Prichard: Transforming the Way We Move. Address to the Empire Club April 23, 2014. Cited in Surface Subways for Toronto from John Tory’s election website [since removed].

Many parts fell off of this plan including:

  • The proposed Eglinton West branch to the Airport would have required a mainline rail corridor from Mount Dennis to the Airport. This was not technically practical, and plans for this area reverted to the western extension of the Crosstown LRT.
  • Instead of being a dedicated service with its own fare structure, SmartTrack stations will now be served as part of the GO network using whatever fare arrangements are in place by the time service begins.
  • The City’s plan now includes only four stations on the Weston-Scarborough corridor, plus one on the Barrie corridor that had previously been part of GO’s plans.
    • The most recently deleted stations were at Lawrence East and at Gerrard as these locations will be served by the Scarborough Subway Extension and the Ontario Line respectively. Bloor-Lansdowne has become a “City” station while Spadina-Front remains a “GO” station.

Park Lawn and Woodbine, also shown in the map below, are “GO” stations that are not part of the SmartTrack plan.

Of the stations that remain in the project, their viability deserves reconsideration:

  • Three of the stations (Finch-Kennedy, St. Clair-Old Weston and Bloor-Lansdowne) are projected to have little walk-in trade.
  • Transfer traffic at two stations (Finch-Kennedy and Bloor-Lansdowne) may be limited by competing nearby services including the Scarborough Subway terminal at Sheppard-McCowan and the subway-GO connection at Dundas West.

The original SmartTrack plan projected very high all-day demand:

The SmartTrack line will have a conservatively estimated ridership of 200,000 per day. This is the equivalent of about half the daily ridership of the existing Bloor-Danforth line.

Source: The SmartTrack Line from John Tory’s election website [since removed].

To put this in context, this is about two-thirds of the entire GO Transit network, pre-pandemic. That is simply not possible with trains running every 15 minutes that must also carry riders from other GO stops.

The demand projection depended on a level of service and fare structure that will not be part of whatever “SmartTrack” is by the time service finally operates to the new stations. When SmartTrack was “sold” to Council, a different service level, station count and fare structure were cited than now appears to be likely.

Indeed, Metrolinx had already change its future service plans and announced their miraculous discovery (a mix of local and express trains) at a Toronto Region Board of Trade event. Frequent service at SmartTrack stations would not be possible if the express trains did not stop there.

The report makes clear a change in service planned for the SmartTrack stations that Metrolinx watchers had suspected for years, namely that the frequent “subway like” service touted for SmartTrack had been replaced with much less frequent GO service.

From the main report:

2018 Version2021 Version
Service ConceptProgram service levels will be 6-10 minutes during peak periods and 15 minutes during off-peak periods.Program service levels will be the same as the planned GO Expansion-level service for the corridors in which the Stations reside, with a minimum service level of two-way, 15-minute frequency commencing upon full implementation of GO Expansion service, with more frequent service to be determined on a market-led basis and subject to ridership demand.

Updated January 22, 2021:

I posed questions about service levels to the City of Toronto. Here are the responses from the Transit Expansion Office.

Q: What service frequency was assumed for peak and off peak service?

A: Program service levels will be the same as the planned GO Expansion-level service for the corridors in which the Stations reside, with a minimum service level of two-way, 15-minute frequency commencing upon full implementation of GO Expansion service, with more frequent service to be determined on a market led basis and subject to ridership demand. [This is the same text as in the report Executive Committee.]

Q: What stops (other than the new ST stations) would trains on this route also serve? In other words, do the ST trains make all local stops including the new stations?

A: All GO stations (e.g. Agincourt, Kennedy/Eglinton, Scarborough Jct., Danforth)? Stouffville trains will call at all stations, one note we haven’t made this mandatory at Danforth, which is currently on the LSE service group.

Q: Is it assumed that the “SmartTrack” service will be through-routed at Union Station as in the original proposal so that a rider originating on the western leg can ride through Union to East Harbour without changing trains?

A: We have mandated trains to run through Union station to East Harbour from KL St Clair etc – we have left a degree of flexibility whether the trains terminate on Stouffville or LSE.

Q: Was the model capacity constrained (e.g. by size and number of trains)?

A: The model wasn’t capacity constrained. Below is the forecasted service frequency.

StationService GroupUponOpeningFutureMinimums
Pk HrContra Pk HrOff Pk HrPk HrContra Pk HrOff Pk Hr
East HarbourLSE4 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph
STF2 tph2 tph2 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph
Finch EastSTF2 tph2 tph2 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph
St. Clair WKIT2 tph2 tph2 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph
King LibertyKIT2 tph2 tph2 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph
Bloor-LansdowneBRI1.4 tph (2.5 tph avg)02 tph4 tph4 tph4 tph

In brief, the opening day service at all stations except East Harbour will be half-hourly growing to at least quarter-hourly at an unspecified future date. This is a far cry from “subway like” service claimed in SmartTrack promotional literature. These service levels will deter transfers between frequent TTC service and less-frequent GO/SmartTrack service.

As for fares, the whole idea that somehow riders on trains in GO corridors could pay via two different tariffs with free transfers to/from TTC service was always hard to believe. It is now clear that a “TTC” fare will be achieved by forcing everything, including local TTC service, into a regionally integrated system that, judging by Metrolinx’ long-held preferences, will be based on distance travelled.

Updated January 22, 2021:

I asked the City about fare levels:

Q: What fares were assumed, especially any provisions for transfers to/from connecting TTC routes?

A: Fare setting for the Program will be considered in the broader context of regional fare integration.

Council and Torontonians were misled as they have been on more than one transit project.

A related problem, considering the size of the investment, is that the lion’s share of ST riders will not be net-new to transit, but rather will be diverted onto ST trains by the lure of a faster, and possibly less-crowded journey.

In total, the five stations are projected to attract a combined 24,000 boardings and alightings during the average weekday peak hour. Taken together, the five new stations are projected to attract 3,400 new daily riders to Toronto’s transit system by 2041 every weekday. Ridership would likely be higher with full fare integration between the TTC and GO Transit.

Source: Technical Update, p. 3

Note that by counting both boardings and alightings, these figures double the number of trips because anyone who “boards” must eventually “alight” somewhere. This will count everyone who makes a trip on GO twice for the network as a whole.

Time savings were illustrated by a “SmartTracker” website (still active as of January 20, 2021 at 3:00 pm) to demonstrate how one might make a faster journey with ST in place. The calculated ST travel times did not include any wait time for the train because service was assumed to be very frequent.

Projected values are in the Technical Update for each station, but they do not show the network as a whole. “Person Minutes Saved” are calculated by multiplying the riders for a station by the extra time they would have required to make the same trip if the ST station did not exist. For a station that is off of the beaten path like East Harbour, this translates into a large total saving.

It is not clear which lines were in the “base network” without the ST stations, and in the particular case of East Harbour, whether the Ontario Line was there or not. In other words, what is the extra riding and time saving due to SmartTrack as opposed to the Ontario Line? We don’t know because this information is not in the report. Another key missing piece of information is the service level assumed in the model.

StationPeak Hour Boardings & AlightingsPerson Minutes SavedNotes
Finch-Kennedy4,600 (*)> 250,000Demand primarily from bus transfers
East Harbour13,000> 1 millionMajor development node and transfer point with Ontario Line
King-Liberty3,200> 175,000Major residential neighbourhood
St. Clair-Old Weston300Limited demand, but some development possible. Project will include road reconfiguration between Keele and Old Weston Road.
Bloor-Lansdowne2,900Connection to subway poor
Source: Technical Update / (*) The Finch-Kennedy value is not in the report, but is derived from 24K total cited above less published values for other stations.

How Much Will “SmartTrack” Cost?

The City’s original budget for SmartTrack was $1.463 billion of which $585 million would be from the pool of Federal infrastructure funding. The project is now smaller because there is, net, one fewer station and some elements originally included have been deferred to a “phase 2” (and a separate budget line). However, the total is unchanged probably due to inclusion of other options in the design such as the City-initiated Keele-St. Clair project.

Cost estimates for specific stations have not been released yet, only the totals: $1.195b is for base station infra and $268 is for city initiated station requirements. That’s a cost/station of over $200 million, rather substantial for a line that is not underground.

Metrolinx will carry the operating and maintenance cost of the stations which they will own, and they will get to dictate the service level. Fare revenue will flow to Metrolinx who will set the tariff.

How this would interact with City policies on reduced fares for low-income riders is difficult to say, but the higher GO fares could work against any benefit for low-income areas the new stations might otherwise provide.

Continue reading

GO / UP Express Off-Peak Service Cuts Effective January 23, 2021

In response to the steep decline in demand on their rail services, Metrolinx announced substantial changes to off-peak services on January 14.

Union-Pearson Express

Service now begins at 4:55 am every day and continues until 1:00 am every half-hour. This will change:

  • On weekends, the first train will leave Union at 6:00 am.
  • The last train will leave Union at 10:00 pm every day.
  • Half-hourly service will be provided only during these periods:
    • Weekdays 5:30 to 9:00 am, and 3:00 to 8:00 pm
    • Weekends 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
  • Hourly service will operate at other times.

GO Transit

All weekend and evening train service on the Kitchener, Barrie and Stouffville corridors will be replaced by buses operating from the new Union Station bus terminal. The changeover will begin on Friday, January 22 for Stouffville trains in the evening due to planned construction on the line that weekend.

The Effect of Covid-19 on GO/UPX Ridership

In recent years, Metrolinx has been proud to show strong growth on its network, and was starting to think in terms beyond peak-period, peak-direction commuting to downtown Toronto. With the work-from-home shift in the business core, this demand has collapsed.

The map below shows the growth in ridership for the period April-December 2019 compared with the 2018 figures. The size of the dot at each station is scaled to the change in demand. (Click on the images below for larger versions.)

Covid-19 changed everything, and ridership in April-September 2020 is only a fraction of former levels.

PDF versions of these files are available here:

The decline in demand has been severe, and no corridor is carrying even 10 per cent of its former demand. This is much worse than the situation on the TTC network where demand, although down from 2019, ranges up to 50 per cent of former levels thanks to continued strong ridership by essential workers and by those for whom car travel is not an option.

At a corridor level, the best performance is on Lakeshore East at 9.4 per cent of former demand, while Richmond Hill brings up the rear at 1.5 per cent, or 87 riders per day.

At a station level, the best performance is at Oshawa at 11.6 per cent of former demand, or 418 riders per day. Some stations are below 10 per day.

A tabular version of the station-by-station values is available here:

Weekday train service to Niagara Falls was suspended earlier in GO Transit’s covid-era schedules, and the weekend service was dropped on Saturday, January 9. GO hopes to resume weekend service in spring 2021.

Longer term, the challenge for Metrolinx will be the pace of demand recovery on its network given its strong commuter orientation. The program to expand GO capacity and, eventually, to electrify parts of the network now depends on assumptions about future levels of service and demand including when or if these will be achieved.

As on the TTC, it would be easy for budget hawks to claim that big spending on transit is a waste, but this is entirely the wrong time to make such a call. We do not know what the situation will be even a year from now, let alone further out, and what course the pandemic era will follow. This is not the moment to give up on transit much as road-building advocates might prefer to kick the competition while it is down.

There is a more subtle, but important point about GO Transit’s situation. If their service and policy focus shifted away from downtown commuting to all-day, everywhere service, this could bring a truly “regional” outlook.

Governments of both the Conservative and Liberal stripe at Queen’s Park have no interest in “local” transit service beyond funding provided to municipalities via the gas tax. The tax amounts just announced are for the fiscal year 2020-21 and are already baked into local budgets, and are separate from any covid-specific relief. They are not “new money”.

Ontario suffers from a combination of limited local transit and even less intercity service thanks to the disappearance of private sector carriers. A few new services have appeared, but there is no sense of a network approach let alone provincial funding to build ridership. With the core GO Transit network at historically low ridership, an expanded role for GO buses is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The problem is compounded by a political orthodoxy that somehow the private sector will fill the gap, ideally without any public funding.

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park are happy to focus on transit megaprojects, but the benefits are confined to specific corridors, some at great cost, and are years in the future. Meanwhile, we wait and hope for transit demand to recover and restore GO Transit’s relevance.

Plans for GO Expansion Omit Key Features

Metrolinx has launched another round of consultation for various projects that make up the GO Transit Expansion Plan. Information on these is scattered through various pages on their site.

The consultation runs until December 11, 2020.

There is an interactive map of locations where changes are proposed, although it can be tedious to navigate because the default map does not have street names. (You can change this by selecting a different base map from the options in the upper right of the display.)

This map shows roughly the location of the Ontario Line corridor, but gives no detail about extra space, although the map is not to be taken as definitive. Nothing is shown of potential stations for the OL, and there is no information at all in the map for the several proposed SmartTrack stations.

This means that the scope of the project review and the combined effect GO Expansion will have with other projects is not known. Moreover, it would be foolish to approve a project based on a spec that did not include two major additions that are somewhere in the Metrolinx pipeline.

Stations, be they for the Ontario Line or for GO/SmartTrack require platforms and circulation elements (stairs, elevators, roads) but there is no hint of the space these will take.

Continue reading

Toronto Council Pursues Details of Metrolinx Projects

An ongoing problem for anyone attempting to work with Metrolinx on their projects is the lack of transparency, the fog through which details emerge, if at all, on what they actually propose to do.

Distrust of Metrolinx to deal fairly and honestly with communities and their political representatives led to widely-supported motions when Council considered two reports regarding Metrolinx projects on October 1, 2020:

Included here are Council motions regarding:

Also included are recent replies to queries from me about the Ontario Line.

Continue reading

Drifting Timelines on Metrolinx Projects (Fall 2020 Update) (Revised)

Back in June 2020, I wrote about the gradual drift in the planned dates for various Metrolinx projects as reported by Infrastructure Ontario [IO for short].

See: Drifting Timelines on Metrolinx Projects

The September 2020 Market Update has been issued by IO and it shows changes in some projects from the June update.

Sept 26, 2020: Revised to include the change in financing method for the OnCorr GO Corridor project.

Is The P3 Model Falling Apart?

Two revisions in the large GO project procurement model involve a change from private sector financing to traditional government borrowing.

This suggests that the market willingness to finance projects on behalf of the government, or at least to do so at rates competitive with direct government borrowing, may be on the wane. That implies that the “P3” model may be coming unglued.

At its heart, this was always seen as an accounting mechanism to shift debt off of the government’s books, and without this shell game, a major argument for P3s could vanish.

The Future of Electrification

The change in financing model could shift any decision on propulsion technology back to the government.

Metrolinx had pushed this off its plate by saying that the bidders who were going to design and operate a future GO network would make that choice. This punted the knotty political problem of hydrogen trains touted former Premier McGuinty out of Metrolinx itself.

Will Ontario be willing to finance the large up-front capital costs of electrification itself with so many other pressures on financial resources, or is electrification about to fall out of consideration while spending focuses on service expansion?

Ontario Line

The project is in three sections of which the last will be the “Northern Civil, Stations and Tunnel” which includes the portion of the line east of the Don River and north to Eglinton, but not the Maintenance Facility which is included with the “South Civil” portion as it is needed relatively early in the project.

Some of the work on the North section between the Don River and Gerrard Station might be undertaken as part of the GO Corridor improvements, but exactly what this might entail has not been made public.

Since the last update, there are three changes for the North section:

  • The date for RFQ (Request for Qualifications) issue has been changed from Winter to Spring 2022.
  • The RFP (Request for Proposals) issue has been changed from Spring 2022 to Fall 2022.
  • The Financial Close (in effect, the contract signing) has been changed from Fall 2023 to Spring 2024.

The remaining portions of the line are on the same timeline as before.

The timelines for this project, with financial close for the first two portions in fall 2022 and for the third in spring 2024 puts this beyond the next provincial election expected in mid 2022, the four-year anniversary of the Ford government’s election. Who will be in place to make final decisions, and what the government’s financial position will be by then, remain to be seen.

Line 2 East Extension (Scarborough Subway)

This project is now shown with two portions: one for the tunnel, and the other for the stations, railway and systems.

There is no change in the tunnel portion of the project, but the remaining portion has reverted to the dates shown for the overall project in the Winter 2020 update.

GO Expansion Lakeshore West Corridor

The financial close for this project has been changed from Winter 2021 to Spring 2021.

GO Expansion Lakeshore East-West Corridor

This was originally to have been a “Build-Finance” project, but it is now “Design-Bid-Build”, a change that was made in August 2020 according to the IO report.

GO OnCorr Projects

[Added to this article on September 26, 2020]

This is a very large project including future operation of GO Transit and possible changes in the propulsion technology.

The procurement model has been changed from “DBOFM” (Design-Build-Operate-Finance-Maintain) to “DBOM”. The proponent will no longer finance the project which has a projected value of over $10 billion.

All other projects are unchanged. A summary of the Metrolinx projects tracking their changing status is available in this spreadsheet (revised version).

Drifting Timelines on Metrolinx Projects (Updated)

Updated June 23, 2020 at 1:50 pm: The table of projects has been updated to include anticipated events, notably “financial close” dates, that were included in various project announcements by Infrastructure Ontario. Also Union Station Platform Expansion was described in the original version of this article as closing sooner than originally projected. This has been corrected to show a delay of roughly nine months.

Infrastructure Ontario recently released its Spring 2020 Update for P3 projects under its control including several Metrolinx projects. To date there have been three of these updates:

These updates include information on the project status, the type of procurement model, and the expected progress of each project through the procurement process. This provides “one stop shopping” compared to Metrolinx’ own site. As a convenience to readers, I have consolidated the three updates as they relate to transit projects to allow easy comparison between versions.

Some projects have evolved since the first version, and in particular the delivery dates for a few projects have moved further into the future. The “financial close” dates for some projects, in effect the point at which a contract is signed and real work can begin, has moved beyond the date of the next Provincial election. Whatever government is in power after summer 2022 will have a final say on whether these projects go ahead.

Subway Projects

Ontario Line

The Ontario Line was previously reported as a single project with a price tag of over $10 billion. In the Fall 2019 update, the intent was to have the financial close in Winter/Spring 2022 ahead of the election. In the Winter 2020 update, this changed to Spring 2022.

In the Spring 2020 update, the project has been split into separate parts to reflect industry feedback about the original scope.

  1. GO Corridor from Don River to Gerrard
  2. South Tunnels, Civil Works and Stations CNE to Don River
  3. Rolling Stock, System Operations & Maintenance
  4. North Tunnels, Civil Works and Stations

The GO corridor work will be done as a conventional procurement by Metrolinx and will be bundled with upgrades to GO Transit trackage.

The financial close for items 2 and 3 above is now Fall 2022, and for item 4 it is Fall 2023.

This means that an actual sign-on-the-dotted-line commitment to the project will not be within the current government’s mandate. Even the so-called “early works” comprising the southern portion of the route from Exhibition to the Don River is not scheduled to close until Fall 2022. The northern portion, from Gerrard to Eglinton will close in Fall 2023. This contract is being held back pending results for the south contract to determine the industry’s appetite for the work.

The southern portion, with a long tunnel through downtown and stations in congested street locations would start first. However, the line cannot actually open without the northern portion because this provides the link to the maintenance facility which is included as part of item 3 above although the actual access connection would be built as part of item 4.

An issue linking all of these projects is the choice of technology which, in turn drives decisions such as tunnel and station sizes, power supply, signalling and maintenance facility design. When the Ontario Line was a single project, Metrolinx could say that this choice was up to the bidders, but now there must be some co-ordination to ensure that what is built can actually be used to operate the selected technology. It is hardly a secret that Metrolinx is promoting a SkyTrain like technology, although which propulsion scheme (LIM vs rotary motors) is not clear. There are well-known problems with LIMs and the power pickup technology used on the SRT, and this would also be a consideration for the outdoor portions of the Ontario Line.

Scarborough Subway Extension

Like the Ontario Line, the Scarborough Extension has been split into two pieces. The first will be the tunnel contract from Kennedy Station to McCowan. This is now in the  procurement phase, and financial close is projected for Spring 2021.

The remainder of the project previously had a projected closing date of “Winter/Spring 2023”, but this is now just “2023”. With the tunnel hived off into a separate contract, it is reasonable that the remainder would have a later start date because the tunnel is a key component that must be in place first.

Metrolinx recently published a Preliminary Business Case for this extension. It includes the following text:

Kennedy Station Pocket Track/Transition Section

The Kennedy transition section extends roughly 550 metres from the east side of the GO Transit Stouffville rail corridor to Commonwealth Avenue and will include special track work and a pocket track to enable every second subway train to short turn to suit ridership demand and minimize fleet requirements, as well as lower operating costs. [p 24]

This turnback has been an on-again, off-again part of the project but it is now clearly included as a cost saving measure. With only every second train running to Sheppard/McCowan, the fleet required (as well as storage) would be within the system’s current capacity. This ties in with the timing of the T1 fleet replacement on Line 2 as there are enough T1s to run alternate, but not full service to Sheppard. This would be similar to the arrangement now used on the TYSSE where only half of the AM peak service runs north of Glencairn Station to Vaughan.

Richmond Hill Subway Extension

The Ontario government recently signed an agreement with York Region for the extension of the Yonge line from Finch to Richmond Hill. The status of this project is unchanged with an RFQ to be issued in Fall 2021, an RFP in Spring 2022 and financial close in Fall 2023.

Sheppard East Subway Extension

This project remains in the planning phase.

Continue reading

GO Transit Expansion Plans & Meetings

Metrolinx will conduct a series of public meetings at various locations to present information about their plans for the GO Transit network.

Location Date and Time
Markham Village Community Centre
6041 Highway 7
Markham, ON L3P 3A7
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Southshore Community Centre
205 Lakeshore Drive
Barrie, ON L4N 7Y9
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Aurora Community Centre
1 Community Centre Lane
Aurora, ON L4G 7B1
Monday, February 24, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Scarborough Civic Centre
150 Borough Drive
Toronto, ON M1P 4N7
Monday, February 24, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Evergreen Brick Works
550 Bayview Avenue
Toronto, ON M4W 3X8
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Central Recreation Centre
519 Drury Lane
Burlington, ON L7R 2X3
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Metropolitan Centre
3840 Finch Avenue East
Toronto, ON M1T 3T4
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Lucie & Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre
at George Brown College
80 Cooperage Street
Toronto, ON M5A 0J3
Thursday, February 27, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Vaughan City Hall
2141 Major Mackenzie Drive West
Vaughan, ON L6A 1T1
Saturday, February 29, 2020
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Abilities Centre
55 Gordon Street
Whitby, ON L1N 0J2
Saturday, February 29, 2020
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

For the full set of documents, go first to the list of “participation opportunities”, then click through to an individual project page, and finally select the “Important Documents” tab. The same set of documents appears on every project’s page.

An important note here is that electrification is still officially an important part of the overall plan. The provincial flirtation with Hydrogen Trains seems to have disappeared at least for the projects on the major GO corridors that Metrolinx owns.

This is intriguing because Metrolinx has been sidestepping the decision on technology by saying that the private sector partners in the expansion plan would make that choice. Now, their literture is full of electrification including one document about effects on vegetation along the rail corridors to provide clearance for the infrastructure, and another on electromagnetic fields.

Several key documents are online as I write this on the morning of February 18, 2020.

  • Station Overview : Despite its title, this document covers many other topics, notably planned service levels for the GO corridors.
  • Station Studies : The title of this document is misleading because it contains little about actual stations, but a lot about environmental issues and a catalog of “cultural heritage” features which are bridges on the Richmond Hill and Lakeshore West corridors.
  • Infrastructure : This is the most extensive of the documents with information about bridges, stations and yard expansion plans.
  • Don Branch Storage Area Roll Map : The only detailed map of proposed infrastructure online at this point (February 18, 2020 at 5 pm) is a map showing the proposed use of the Don Branch as a three-train storage facility northeast of Union Station. There are no detailed maps for other projects.
  • Vegetation Removal Program
  • Electromagnetic Fields and Interference

Continue reading

The Transit Nest Egg Toronto Won’t Spend

Between the Scarborough Subway Extension, now rebranded as the Line 2 East Extension, and SmartTrack, Toronto has a lot of money sitting in the bank that could be used to fund other, much more deserving projects.

Ontario has taken over responsibility for the SSE/L2EE, and at least three of the proposed six SmartTrack stations compete directly with the SSE or the Ontario Line. A fourth (at Finch East) would certainly be affected by the SSE running north to Sheppard.

My latest for Now Toronto: Why is city council pretending that SmartTrack is still alive?

A Big Announcement, or a Transit Three Card Monte?

On October 16, the governments at Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall announced a deal to sort out competing transit plans for the city. The current provincial priority projects are the Ontario Line (Don Mills/Eglinton to Exhibition), Scarborough Subway extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard, Yonge Subway extension from Finch to Richmond Hill, and the Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to Renforth.

The main City of Toronto report will be discussed at Executive Committee on October 23, and then at Council on October 29-30.

This article reviews that report with reference to a few parts of its many attachments. I will turn to the technical attachments in a second article. To focus material on each subject for readers, I have grouped related items together or re-sequenced things for emphasis. There are extensive quotations of key material so that readers hear not just my “voice” but that of the report’s authors.

Despite the importance politicians at both levels place on the proposals, the fundamental problem remains that many of the details are cloudy, to be kind. Specifically:

  • The City of Toronto retains ownership of the existing transit system avoiding a complex realignment of responsibilities and governance, but with this comes total responsibility for funding the ongoing state of good repair.
  • A large gap remains between the amount of funding needed to maintain and expand Toronto’s transit system relative to the amounts actually available and committed in budgets at various levels of government.
  • Ontario will build four key projects substantially with its own money, but continued support for transit beyond this is uncertain.
  • Toronto will redirect funding originally earmarked for its share of the key projects to other priorities, notably the TTC’s repair backlog. However, much of that “funding” does not exist as allocations in existing budgets and new money is required from Toronto to pay its share.
  • Cost estimates for the key projects are based on preliminary estimates that could change substantially as the design process unfolds. These estimates are in 2019 dollars and make no provision for inflation. The reports are silent on how the proportion of total spending by each contributor might change over the decade or more of construction.
  • A substantial total of project costs will be born by private sector partners through a “P3” financing mechanism. These arrangement will require future payments for what will be, in effect, a capital lease, but the mechanism for funding this from three levels of government is unclear. The reports are silent on the split between short term borrowing to pay for construction as opposed to long term payments to the P3 financier.
  • Project details as they are known today will change in response to design work and the need to keep costs within the projected level. This will affect alignments and stations, and what we think we are buying could be quite different from what we actually get.

The challenge in all of this is, as always, the question of money. We can watch the hands of politicians and managers at all levels as they shuffle cards on the table. We hope to “find the Queen”, to win in the subway sweeps rather than being taken for suckers who will cheer any plan, but lose every game. It is far from clear whether the proposal is a “good deal” for Toronto, and there are huge future transit costs that are barely addressed.

The whole exercise is a political deal to bring peace, comparatively speaking, to the transit file which was needlessly fouled by Doug Ford’s insistence that he knows more about transit in Toronto than anyone else. Does Toronto take this as its last best chance to preserve some semblance of control over its transit future, or do we keep fighting for a better deal?

There are a lot of holes in this plan and severe implications both for the City’s finances and the future of Toronto’s transit system. Many questions need to be asked and answered, even if the result will be a whole new plan after provincial and municipal elections in 2022.

Continue reading

Metrolinx Board Meeting September 12, 2019

The Metrolinx Board met on September 12, 2019, but there was not much of substance on the public agenda. Presentations consisted as much of rehashing old news (including he oft-announced service improvements on GO Transit), but almost no substantive policy discussions.

Links here to the Agenda and Video for the meeting.

Ontario Line Initial Business Case (Video at 23:35)

This report was presented by a team of four from Metrolinx:

  • Mathieu Goetzke, Chief Planning Officer (Acting)
  • Malcolm Mackay, Project Sponsor for the Ontario Line, and until 13 days ago an engineer at TTC with 13 years experience, now transferred to Metrolinx. His previous major TTC projects included the Relief Line and the Union Station second platform.
  • Duncan Law, Head Sponsor for the subway program
  • Becca Nagorsky, Director for Project Planning

As I have already reviewed the Initial Business Case (IBC) in some detail, I will not dwell on that here, but will flag comments during the presentation and discussion of particular interest.

There were two threads on which nobody remarked, but which were significant given the way that the Ontario Line was announced:

  • The project details are far less advanced than the bluster of the original announcement might have indicated, and Metrolinx acknowledges that significant technical challenges remain for the design.
  • Language implying the general incompetence of the TTC to build a “modern” rapid transit line is much reduced if not eliminated from the discussion.

These are welcome changes, but we now face the need to build something because the Premier announced it.

Mathieu Goetzke introduced the presentation saying that although the Initial Business Case (IBC) was published in July, they are now going into more details. The Preliminary Business Case (PBC), the next step in the process, must resolve some issues and Metrolinx needs to “activate all possible levels” to address project costs. (See video at 27:00.)

Duncan Law continued in this vein saying that it was important to recognize that the IBC is an early stage of the project. Both the Relief and Ontario Lines are underpinned by the recognition that more capacity is needed. With roughly 50 per cent of the Ontario Line being at or above grade, there would be cost savings. Moreover, with the line separate from the existing subway system, there is an opportunity for technology change that would not otherwise be possible. There is a big difference in this outlook from saying that the TTC uses out of date technology.

Becca Nagorsky echoed the remark that the IBC is a first phase saying that its purpose is to define the project’s goals that must be preserved through the life cycle of more detailed design. She continued what has become a standard Metrolinx comparison of the original Relief Line project to the Ontario Line considering only the Relief Line South. This works from the assumption that the Ontario Line’s technology change will save so much money that the Relief Line North, as a conventional subway, does not even come into the discussion. This precludes the possibility that future design work might discover that the Ontario Line could be more expensive than originally thought, but by then the idea of going back to a subway project will be difficult, if only for political reasons. (There are parallels with the now-entrenched concept of a Scarborough Subway.)

The capital cost projections include anticipated savings due to “risk transfer” to a private sector partner in a Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM) P3 arrangement, but as with so many P3 schemes, there is little explanation of how exactly this is achieved. In particular, there is always the possibility that circumstances and designs will change, and the private sector “partner” will not assume this risk.

Note that none of the Benefit-Cost ratios exceeds “1” indicating that any version of the project does not produce a “profit” within the Metrolinx benefit-cost methodology. This came up in discussion a bit later (see below). The important issue here is that a large project such as the Ontario or Relief Line has benefits (and possibly costs) that the methodology does not capture notably the value of increasing resiliency in the rapid transit network by provision of alternate routes, and the enabling of projects such as the Richmond Hill extension that would otherwise overload the system.

A new addition to the discussion is a map showing the supposed benefit of the Ontario Line to residents of low income areas. It is no surprise that the OL (and the full RL to Eglinton that preceded it) benefit low income areas such as Thorncliffe Park and Moss Park, but there is a bizarre problem with the map which shows a reduced access to low-income jobs for residents between the Spadina Subway and the Barrie GO corridor south of Eglinton, far from the Ontario Line, not to mention Flemingdon Park north of Eglinton. There is something wrong here with the underlying model, but nobody at the meeting picked up on this.

Duncan Law bravely observed that “we are trained to challenge how things have been done” and this will lead to cost avoidance in the design (video at 38:00). He noted that early works on the route would be accelerated, although this is a tactic already in place (after much political fighting with Mayor Tory who eventually embraced it) for the Relief Line. At this point, Metrolinx is considering what their options for the OL design are before they take them to the public for comment, and they are still at an early stage.

In other words, they have a line on a map, but even that may change, and they fear alarming the locals with designs that are not yet definitive.

Malcolm Mackay spoke about the early works and the importance of co-ordination with large programs in the corridor to “leverage” contracts and consultants for other projects such as delivery of the (now) six track structure from East Harbour to Gerrard (four GO tracks plus two for the OL). There is also the potential role of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) works where some OL work could be combined with private development. However, it is not clear whether the likely construction timeframes of East Harbour and other projects would mesh with the schedule for construction of the OL.

In a marvellous piece of bafflegab, the presentation notes:

To demonstrate visible progress and to de-risk the schedule, a progressive works program is being contemplated with a ground breaking target of 2020 – 2021. [p 20 of the PDF]

What this means is that if Metrolinx actually undertakes some work soon, there will be political benefits of “progress” (shovels in the ground) and would-be bidders for the larger project will see that it has progressed beyond a political slogan and a line on a map. It is unclear just how much will actually be achieved by 2020 when the requests for qualifications and proposals (see chart below) occur.

Among the potential early works is design work the Don Valley crossing and possible launch sites for tunnel boring machines (TBMs). The decision to place some of the OL at or above grade means that there are more transitions in and out of tunnels than would be the case with an all-underground line, and launch sites at the transitions are required. These have significant effects on their locations as recent experience on the Eglinton Crosstown shows.

Mathieu Goetzke observed that the Queen Street corridor has challenges, but of course that would also have applied to the RL at least as far west as Osgoode Station. There is the larger question of the choice by the RL project of Queen versus a route further south, and again that is both a technical and political decision that is now set in stone.

The Next Steps slide below contains the troubling observation that Metrolinx will work to “understand community engagement” as if somehow Metrolinx has been operating in the dark while the Relief Line project went through its assessment and consultation stages. In a telling, but common, misuse, Metrolinx describes what they will undertake as “fulsome” intending to imply “copious” or “substantial”, but the word can also mean “excessive and insincere”, the fawning behaviour of one who insults by being overly complimentary. Metrolinx and GO before them have a long history of insincere public participation.

Discussion by the Board raised various questions starting with one from Michael Kraljevic who asked how much of the work already done on the Relief Line can be used for the Ontario Line? Mathieu Goetzke replied that work on the Queen Street corridor “feeds in” to the OL project, and Queen is “incredibly complicated”. The northern branch of the OL was built in part on the Relief Line North study. Malcolm Mackay stated that all of the work done so far will still be used giving the example of an underground station where geological information would inform design for a nearby structure. Some strategies that were “not successful” will not be pursued for the OL.

Regarding the construction challenges listed in the IBC, Vice-Chair Bryan Davies asked about “showstoppers” in the project. Duncan Law stated that there are none in the project “at this stage”, and he claimed that the benefit is that we see the risks now. Undoubtedly there will be several challenges, but the team will work through them, he said. The objective is to get people to jobs and home. Integration with GO for local and regional travel is important, Low continued. Environmental Assessment amendments will be required including a review of technical options for the OL. There is a “significant mountain to climb”.

Consultants have been engaged for the EA process, but subways tend to be environmentally positive, said Mackay, Metrolinx claims, and challenges with the elevated sections will be overcome.

These comments really are a dodge of the main question about the ability to reuse work already completed. The basic fact is that the OL alignment diverges considerably from the RL in places, and the detailed RL work, including public consultation, does not reflect the OL plan as it now stands. Again, we hear that this is a complex, challenging project, a rather different characterization than the self-confidence of the line’s announcement.

Director Paul Tsparis asked how the OL project helps to alleviate pressure on Line 1, and how is the TTC helping on that front.

Malcolm Mackay trotted out the usual list of TTC efforts including:

  • Larger trains
  • Painted tiles on the platforms at St. George and Bloor-Yonge to channel waiting passengers
  • Automatic Train Control
  • Bloor-Yonge Station expansion

The reference to larger trains is getting tiresome whoever cites it because the “new” Toronto Rocket (TR) equipment has been operating for some time now, and their extra capacity was long-ago consumed by latent demand. The painted floor directions may have some effect, but the big problem at busy stations is that platforms become totally filled even with a slight delay and this prevents easy exchange of passengers with trains. As for ATC, Mackay despite his years working at TTC, was unsure of the dates when it will be implemented. He also neglected to mention that more service requires more trains and, eventually, more train storage when the TTC exhausts what it now has. If the province takes ownership of the subway, this problem will land in their lap.

This was capped off with an observation that going north to meet the Eglinton Crosstown is a “beautiful addition to relief” to Line 1. Well, yes, many advocates have been saying this for a very long time while others downplayed the importance of continuing north of Danforth. Even Metrolinx flagged the added relief of the northern extension, and this informed support for work on it by the previous provincial government.

Michael Kraljevic asked about the benefit cost ratio where the value is less than one, although the P3 arrangement is alleged to improve that factor. How does this line up against other subway projects?

Mathieu Goetzke replied that it is hard to get a ratio beyond 1 with brand new infrastructure. GO improvements have good numbers because they build on legacy infrastructure. Moreover other modelling techniques would pick up economic development issues that are not included in the Metrolinx model. Phil Verster explained that Metrolinx does not consider benefits outside of purely transit ones, and the wider economic benefits would make every transit business case a good one. A case will always be touch-and-go for tunnels to get to a ratio of 1. Goetzke added that the OL can enable other works [e.g. the Richmond Hill extension].

This is quite an admission for Metrolinx who have wrestled with their business case analysis for some time. In a political climate where projects must at least break even, the benefits that are balanced against costs have a huge influence on the results. This can include both the scope of benefits (how wide a net is cast to capture benefits) and what payback period is used in the calculation. If the scope is too wide, there is a risk that presumed benefits are not entirely due to the project itself. If the timeframe is too long (Metrolinx uses 60 years), there is a financial problem of substantial expenditure in the short term for savings that might or might not accrue over the very long haul. Moreover, a large proportion of the “benefits” do not capture revenue that can be used to pay off project debt, but rather accrue to transit riders in reduced travel time and increased mobility.

These approaches can be defended on the grounds of “city building” and the long term, cumulative effect of having more transit infrastructure. However, the attempt to make any one project “pay its way” can distort how it is evaluated for political reasons.

Footnote: The Metrolinx Blog includes an article which emphasizes that the Ontario Line will not be built on unproven technology. The ghost of the UTDC and the Scarborough RT still haunts provincial decisions.

Ridership Initiatives (Video at 1:13:19)

Metrolinx ridership for the second quarter of 2019 is up 4.1% over the same period in 2018. However, children did not ride free a year ago, and when they are removed from the “before” numbers, the remaining ridership rose by 5.2%. It is worth noting that the TTC attempts to count children even though they ride free on the system, and so ridership numbers for the two systems are not directly comparable, at least on that basis. There is also the challenge of defining a “ride” when trips can involve a series of transfers and the benefit of the two-hour fare on Presto. The whole question of reporting demand on the GTA network needs work, including granularity about when and where people actually travel.

Statistics reported by APTA show commuter rail up 2.1% among reporting agencies, and bus ridership down 1.0%. GO bus ridership is up 4.5%.

A detailed map (PDF) shows the ridership by station across the rail network. There is no data for the bus network where there has been some controversy about which services should be maintained and which should be cut. Moreover the rail network counts do not distinguish by time of day to break out growth, if any, in off-peak travel as GO moves beyond peak period, peak direction commuting service to downtown Toronto.

Ridership growth varies by corridor and station. The high roller is Barrie with a 10.6% growth in the corridor. Kitchener us up 5.6% and Lakeshore East is up 4.8%.

GO is doing a lot of online marketing which they report as being quite successful, and there is an uptake of e-Tickets as a way of purchasing fares. Many of the promotions are for attractions in the off-peak period and for casual users who would be new to the system.

GO regards riders in Toronto as “transit natives”, people familiar with what transit can offer, and markets to them differently than to potential riders in the 905. Whether this is valid all the way out to the 416/905 boundary is hard to say.

The lower base GO fares are driving ridership within Toronto, but there was no discussion of the effect that will occur if the GO-TTC co-fare arrangement ends thanks to lack of funding from Queen’s Park. This has already affected riders on the UPX who no longer get a UPX+TTC discount. All the marketing efforts in the world can be undone by fiscal policies that affect fares and service.

Presto Quarterly Report (Video at 1:28:08)

Director Janet Ecker asked about efforts to minimize TTC criticisms of Presto. From what she is reading, criticisms of the system way off base. She asked how Metrolinx is trying to deal with this.

Phil Verster replied that it is illuminating to see how some comments get headline status and do not reflect what’s happening on the ground. Things are challenging, he said, and Metrolinx continues to work closely with TTC. There are claims that Metrolinx feels are not valid, and they have encouraged the TTC “to put this behind us”, not to go to dispute resolution.

Annaliese Czerny, Executive VP, PRESTO, felt that it was a shame the story is not about new products and better experiences. Verster was optimistic about making progress with TTC to move to a better future – new devices, open payments – and that this will be the story rather than problems. Czerny noted that TTC is an active and positive partner in the process for future developments.

This was the usual positive Metrolinx spin on PRESTO, but it was undone by the TTC when they released their agenda for the Board Meeting to be held on September 24. In it, the CEO’s Report is quite clear that the TTC will pursue arbitration under their PRESTO contract in an attempt to obtain payment of lost revenue due to non-delivery of a working fare system.

With PRESTO readers on every bus, streetcar and fare gate, and with PRESTO fare vending machines and self-serve reload machines at every station, the provincially-led fare card system has given our customers many benefits, but also many challenges.

Over the summer, I met with Metrolinx President and CEO, Phil Verster, to discuss the outstanding claims between the parties and the status of the outstanding deliverables of the contract for the implementation of PRESTO on the TTC. It is clear from our discussions that Metrolinx considers the contract deliverables complete.

So, while these discussions were informative about the positions of each organization, we were not able to reach a common understanding and agreement. We did agree that the next step is to proceed with arbitration, which is the dispute resolution process provided in the contract.

We are working with external counsel to review the process and finalize material and submissions. As we outlined in our report to the Board in June, the TTC does not consider the contract closed. Rather, there are significant deliverables outstanding, including open payment and account-based technology (which includes equipment), equipment to provide PRESTO Tickets on buses and streetcars, an acceptable third-party distribution network and Service Level Agreements for all equipment.

[TTC CEO’s Report at p. 14]

A major problem with Metrolinx’ perception of a “working” system is that they assume that any rider who encounters a fare machine that is out of service will use an alternate just as they would at a GO station. However, on crowded transit vehicles getting to another reader, let alone another fare machine for tokens or cash, can be very difficult and many riders do not bother to try. If they have a Metropass on their card (or a two-hour fare from a previous tap), this really does not matter because they have already paid, but for other riders this represents lost revenue to the TTC. Credit card holders cannot pay at all because this function rarely if ever worked.

Regular riders are familiar with the situation and just shrug when their tap does not register. I personally encounter this problem at least once a week, and see others having the same problems with unresponsive machines even more often. Things may be improving, but perfection is some distance off and Metrolinx has a lot to answer for from the earlier days of their PRESTO implementation.

Metrolinx tests the availability of fare equipment by “pinging” each device (sending a signal to a machine that elicits a response simply saying “I am here”). However, that function takes place at a low level within the hardware and the application software could be hung even though the “ping” gets a positive response.

Metrolinx measures of PRESTO access are likely too rosy because of assumptions about how easily riders can access the machines and about what constitutes a “working” box when tested remotely.