GO Expansion Don Valley Layover Update

On June 24, Metrolinx held an online consultation session for its proposed Don Valley Layover. I wrote about this on June 27 in Metrolinx’ Ill-Considered Don Valley Layover. This article is an update based on that session.

There have been many Metrolinx consultations recently, and a few common threads appeared sitting through this many hours of their presentations and Q&A sessions. Some of the frustration with Metrolinx comes from the way they present material, and from what appear to be shifting positions on key issues.

What Is The Don Valley Yard?

As a quick review, this “yard” is in fact a single storage track, the former CPR, now Metrolinx, Don Branch that once connected the CPR mainline at Leaside to Union Station. It is called a yard because the original proposal was for a three track yard south of the Prince Edward Viaduct.

Metrolinx proposes to convert the portion of this line for storage of three trains between the point where the line crosses to the east side of the Don River roughly at Rosedale Valley Road and the high level bridge near the Brick Works. The site is not accessible by public transit, although it is passed on one side by the DVP and on the other by the Don Valley Trail with many cyclists and pedestrians.

Here is the aerial view.

Metrolinx June 29, 2021 Presentation, p. 2

This will require the creation of a service road alongside the track for access to and from stored trains as well as supporting buildings and a small parking lot just north of the Prince Edward Viaduct. The site servicing plan, which includes buildings, roads, utilities and elevations (grey numbers on the diagonal giving the height above sea level in metres) is shown below. The buildings (from south to north) include an electrical building, and air compressor, a staff building and a sanitary waste building.

Click for a higher resolution image.

The valley floor rises gradually to about 80m at the western edge of the Metrolinx site, but the roadway linking the buildings is at about 88m. The parking area shown is on the valley floor, but there is a ramp for vehicles up to the level of the rail corridor. There is also a stairway from the parking up to the staff building. The land owned by Metrolinx is outlined in a broken black line “— – –”. Because of the change in elevation, a retaining wall (yellow in the aerial view) at least 8m high will be required except adjacent to the rail line.

The claimed purpose of the facility is to store three trains between the AM and PM peak periods and, possibly, to perform some light servicing on them. This does not align with the original proposal that clearly talked of a 7×24 operation with three shifts of staff. That might have been an error, a cut-and-paste job from one layover site to another, but the traffic study does speak of arrivals and departures corresponding to shift changes well outside of the midday period.

In any event, there is no provision in the plan for fuelling and Metrolinx claims that they intend to operate here only between the peak periods. We shall see.

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Raising the Rails in Riverside: Metrolinx Comments

In a recent article Metrolinx Plans Major Grade Change on Lakeshore East Corridor I noted that a new set of drawings had appeared in the Ontario Line Neighbourhood Update, East web page showing a proposed change in the elevation of tracks in the shared GO/OL corridor between East Harbour and Gerrard Stations.

Here is a Metrolinx illustration showing the change. The layout as originally proposed is on top, and the revised layout is on the bottom. Note that where green space is shown neside the corridor, this does not necessarily exist as some of the Metrolinx property line is at or close to the sidewalk. The retaining wall plus noise barrier would be immediately adjacent.

I posed a series of questions to Metrolinx in an attempt to sort fact from fiction on this matter, and today had a call with their project staff to sort through the issues. The principal speakers for Metrolinx were Malcolm MacKay and Richard Tucker.

When was the decision made to regrade the rail corridor? Why is this being done?

According to Metrolinx, this has been underway for at least 6 months as a collaborative effort with the TTC and City of Toronto to establish bridge clearances and other design elements.

Substandard clearances are a concern on the road network for both the City and the TTC. Those of us who follow TTC service interruption reports often read of “mechanical problems” near Queen and DeGrassi Streets. These are almost always due to damaged or broken overhead thanks either to a dewirement, or to an over-height vehicle striking the TTC wires.

A related concern is that the bridges in this corridor are about a century old, and this is an opportunity to replace them with new structures that will have lower maintenance costs

Later in the conversation, I asked whether Metrolinx was saying, in effect, that “the City made us do it”. To this they responded strongly that they are not blaming the City, but there is a 5m standard for bridge clearances that they are following. They went on to say, possibly imprudently, that there were pro and anti camps on the question of whether this work should be done.

Obviously the pro camp won out, but drawings showing the change are quite recent, and there is no mention of this in all of the studies that have been published.

What is the extent of the work, i.e. between what locations will the track be raised from its current level?

From east of the Don River to Gerrard Street. According to Metrolinx, he TTC still has an interest in the Dundas Street bridge because they are protecting for an extension of streetcar service to Gerrard Station via Dundas and Carlaw.

By how much will the track be raised?

The change varies by location, but it will be between 900mm and 1500mm according to Metrolinx. For those who still think in Imperial measure, that’s just under 3 feet to just under 5 feet.

I asked whether a plan showing the new elevations exists in the style of “roll plans” that have been provided for other corridor projects. This will probably be published along with other details for the next round of public consultations later in 2021.

What are your staging plans for maintaining GO service during this work?

Metrolinx would likely slew the existing GO tracks to create work space on one side of the rail corridor at a time. This would allow all work to be done within the corridor rather than using adjacent spaces. Metrolinx’ property is wide enough for six tracks, and this means that three could be maintained in operation by shifting them to one side while work was done on the other side. There are no switches in this segment, and therefore shifting the tracks is relatively straightforward.

If low ridership on GO continues long enough, it might be possible to reduce the corridor temporarily to two tracks giving more room to work around the live operations.

What are the effects on the bridges in the affected area?

The bridges are old dating back to 1924. Metrolinx intends to replace them with new structures regardless of whether they are owned by the City or Metrolinx.

The elevation change will be entirely at Metrolinx track level. The road elevations will not change.

When I published my article, a few emails arrived suggesting what was behind this change. One claimed that the High Frequency Rail (HFR) project wanted a different track standard to support their planned operating speed. This seemed a bit far-fetched considering how close the tracks in question are to Union Station, and how short (2km) the segment is. The change in travel time from Toronto to Montreal would probably be measured in seconds.

Can you confirm or deny that at least part of the reason for the regrading is to suit HFR? If so, does the intent to use “tilting” trains change the spacing of the tracks needed for clearance?

Metrolinx replied that HFR did not play into decision making for rail heights or tilting trains. The alignment is designed to Metrolinx standards. They are not precluding HFR, but not changing bridges or track layout on HFR’s behalf.

A Question of Transparency

I will take it on faith that the City and TTC really have been working with Metrolinx for half a year on this matter, and that there may have been a debate about whether regrading the corridor and raising the bridges was actually necessary.

That said, Metrolinx published extensive studies and community presentations showing the corridor at its present elevation, and with no provision for the construction effects of rebuilding the segment from the Don River to Gerrard, not even a mention as a possibile subject for further study.

There has been no evaluation of the construction effects, and proposals regarding mitigation of the combined OL and GO effects here are based on current track elevations. This affects sound barrier heights and the amount of room available for corridor “softening” with treatments such as vegetated slopes or additional trees where room is available for them. The drawings purporting to show what the corridor would look like simply do not match what Metrolinx now plans to build.

All this is not to say that raising the corridor and improving clearances are, on their own, bad ideas. It would be refreshing to have fewer service interruptions on the streetcar network here, especially considering that over half of the fleet is based just east of this bridge at Leslie Barns and Russell Carhouse.

If this has been a City and TTC concern for months, why does the local Councillor not appear to know this could be part of the project scope?

Another obvious question must be what effect this will have on the project’s cost and duration. Who is picking up the tab?

One cannot help wondering whether it is only good fortune that this design change came to light during the current round of consultations.

What else don’t we know about Metrolinx’ intent in this and other corridors?

All of the debates about the project until now were based on a false presentation of how the enlarged use of the rail corridor would affect the neighbourhood.

This is not just a question of settling a debate among “the experts” about whether to raise the rail corridor or not. This is not a minor scope change. This is not an “oops”.

Even with the best of intentions, the basic issues are transparency in public consultation and trust in Metrolinx.

The Long Arm of Metrolinx

Doug Ford wants his pet transit projects built now and will sweep away any opposition. His agency, Metrolinx, is more than happy to oblige if only to make itself useful.

There was a time when the Tories hated Metrolinx as a den of Liberal iniquity, but Phil Verster and the gang made themselves useful to their new masters with new plans. Ford returned the favour with legislation giving Metrolinx sweeping powers in the Building Transit Faster Act. In particular, Metrolinx has review powers over any proposed activity near a “transit corridor” (anything from building a new condo to extending a patio deck) lest this work interfere with their plans. They also have right of entry, among other things, to perform their works.

Metrolinx describes the various aspects of review in Building near a Metrolinx transit corridor

Operative language in the Act is extremely broad about “transit corridors”:

Designating transit corridor land

62 (1) The Lieutenant Governor in Council may, by order in council, designate land as transit corridor land if, in the opinion of the Lieutenant Governor in Council, it is or may be required for a priority transit project. 2020, c. 12, s. 62 (1).
Different designations for different purposes

(2) The Lieutenant Governor in Council may designate the land for some of the purposes of this Act and not others, and may later further designate the land for other purposes of this Act. 2020, c. 12, s. 62 (2)
Notice and registration

(3) Upon land being designated as transit corridor land, the Minister shall,

(a) make reasonable efforts to notify the owners and occupants of land that is at least partly either on transit corridor land or within 30 meters of transit corridor land of,

(i) the designation, and

(ii) this Act; and

(b) either,

(i) register a notice of designation under the Land Titles Act or Registry Act in respect of land described in clause (a), or

(ii) carry out the prescribed public notice process. 2020, c. 12, s. 62 (3); 2020, c. 35, Sched. 1, s. 4.

Building Transit Faster Act, S. 62,

Note that there is no requirement that land actually be anywhere near a transit project, merely that it “may be required for a priority transit project”.

“Resistance is futile” should be the Act’s subtitle.

Metrolinx has a diagram in Doing construction work near a Priority Transit Corridor which shows the bounds of their interest.

In various community meetings, the assumption has been that the “corridor” corresponds to the bounds of Metrolinx’ property, but that is not the case. A much wider swath has been defined in several corridors reaching well beyond the wildest imaginations of what might be affected lands. Needless to say this has not endeared Metrolinx to affected parties for “transparency”.

This applies to the “priority” corridors: Scarborough Subway Extension, Richmond Hill Extension, Eglinton West Extension and, of course, the Ontario Line.

In addition, there are constraints around GO Transit corridors, as well as separate Developer’s Guides for LRT projects in Toronto and on Hurontario. Note that these predate the election of the Ford government, and rather quaintly refer to the Eglinton West and Sheppard East LRT corridors. Although it is mentioned in the text, the Eglinton West Airport Extension is not shown on the map.

There is an interactive map page on which one can explore the bounds of areas where Metrolinx asserts various rights of review, control and entry. It is tedious, and one must wait for all of the map layers to load to get a complete picture. But fear not, gentle reader, I have done the work of wandering through the GTHA on this map and taking screenshots to show each line. I have attempted to maintain a consistent scale for the snapshots of the maps. All of them are clickable and will open a larger version in a new browser tab.

Readers should note that the areas of influence/control for Metrolinx corridors discussed here are separate from the effects of MTSAs (Major Transit Station Areas) on development around rapid transit and GO stations, a totally separate topic.

I will start with the Ontario Line because it is the most contentious, but Metrolinx territorial ambitions do not stop there.

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A Very Busy GO Corridor (Updated)

Debates on the effect of Metrolinx service expansions often turn on noise and vibration effects, the degree to which any new or modified service will change the communities through which lines pass. Nowhere is this more striking than in Toronto’s Riverside district where an existing three-track GO corridor will be widened with a fourth GO track plus two Ontario Line tracks.

Reviews of the effects along the GO and OL corridor are hundreds of pages long for those who have the stamina to dig through appendices in so-called environmental reviews, but the material is inconsistently presented. Three separate projects affect this corridor, but no study considers the combination of three services.

This is a major oversight, and it hobbles any public consultation. Metrolinx appears either unable to answer valid questions about the effects of new services, or worse unwilling to reveal information that they should already have. Past experience makes communities distrust what Metrolinx says especially if “consultation” sounds more like cheerleading for decisions made long ago by sage transit wizards.

Updated 4:15 pm: Due to an error in a spreadsheet, the summary counts are off a bit because existing service was included in future totals. This has been fixed.

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Infrastructure Ontario’s April 2021 Update

Infrastructure Ontario issues quarterly updates about the projects it is managing for P3 procurement, and I have been tracking the transportation items on this site. Their April 2021 Market Update came out on April 8, but I have been waiting for clarification of some issues before posting here.

Here is a spreadsheet tracking changes in project status since these updates began.

Items highlighted in yellow have changed since the last update.

Note that this report only covers the procurement portions of Metrolinx projects that are undertaken through Infrastructure Ontario. Contracts that are in construction, or are directly tendered and managed through Metrolinx outside of the P3 model, do not appear here.

Ontario Line, Line 1 North Extension (Richmond Hill Subway), Line 4 Sheppard East Subway

There are no changes to these projects in this update.

Line 2 East Extension (Scarborough Subway)

As previously announced, the tunneling contract gets underway this spring. The contract for the remainder of the project (stations etc.) enters the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) stage this spring/summer, but contract execution is not expected until spring 2023.

Note that vehicles for the extension will be procured as part of a TTC order for fleet expansion and renewal that does not show up in the IO updates.

Line 5 Eglinton West Extension

As previously announced, the tunneling contract gets underway this spring. There is no date yet for the remainder of the project to enter the RFQ stage.

GO Expansion Projects

Metrolinx came up with a new term for procurement, the “alliance” model where more responsibility for the project is shifted back onto Metrolinx as owner rather than expecting bidders to take on a substantial project risk. This showed up in the Union Station platform expansion project early in 2020.

In this round of updates, things appear to have gone a step further. Three projects (Lake Shore East and West Corridors, and the Milton Corridor) are reduced in dollar value. I asked Infrastructure Ontario about this, and they replied:

Since the previous Market Update (Dec 2020), there have been some changes in scope of work for these projects. Items which have been descoped may be carried out by Metrolinx in the future under separate, traditionally-procured contracts. The intent is to better manage risks and costs with respect to the GO Expansion program.

As these projects remain in procurement, we will provide further updates this spring/summer.

Email from Ian McConachie, IO Media Relations, April 9, 2021

Specific changes by corridor:

CorridorChange (per Infrastructure Ontario)Previous CostUpdated Cost
Lakeshore WestDescoping of Exhibition Station in-corridor enhancement works and track improvements, Clarkson Station and Bronte Station in-corridor enhancement works.$500M-$1B$200-500M
Lakeshore East-Central Descoping of Scarboro Golf Club Works and 2.5km of grading (previously part of LSE-E) and deferral of Highland Creek Expansion $200-499M$100-200M
Milton Descoping of Station Operations West Facility and replacing the pedestrian tunnel with a pedestrian bridge. $100-199M< $100M

The project formerly called “Milton Corridor” is now called “Milton Station”.

A separate project line, Lakeshore East-West Corridor, dropped off of the IO Update in mid-2020. The project was transferred to Metrolinx for delivery as a non-P3 contract.

The comment about “better manage risks and costs” is telling here, and it implies that the P3 model has not worked out as favourably as hoped for all of Metrolinx’ work. In some cases it is simpler and cheaper to just go out and buy/build something yourself than to set up elaborate machinery for others to do this for you.

Notably the $10B GO “ON-Corr” project which entails a complete restructuring of GO including future operation, maintenance and electrification has not changed status in a year. With GO’s ridership uncertain in the near term, projecting just what Metrolinx might ask a P3 to undertake, let alone contracting for it, is like peering into a very cloudy crystal ball.

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.

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Ontario Line Design Changes Again

Updated March 27, 2021: The reference to third rail power pickup for the Ontario Line was incorrect and has been changed. According to the December 2020 Preliminary Design Business Case the line will use 1500V DC overhead power supply.

As originally announced, the Ontario Line was intended to run along the GO Lake Shore East corridor between the Don River and Gerrard Street with the new rapid transit tracks straddling the GO transit line as shown in the map below.

Discussions with the Riverside and Leslieville neighbourhood have been fraught with concerns about the combined effect of the two new Ontario Line tracks, the stations, the expanded four-track GO corridor and the infrastructure needed for electrification. This has been the subject of previous articles and I will not rehash the issues here.

At a community meeting on March 25, 2021, an unexpected piece of news was revealed not by Metrolinx staff, but by City Councillor Paula Fletcher: Metrolinx has changed the design so that the Ontario Line tracks will run on the west side of the GO corridor.

I asked Metrolinx for their comment, and here is their reply:

As part of our planning, we have been exploring alternatives that will allow us to incorporate some of the feedback from the community. The updated plans are not yet final so it is too early to provide details or images.

One thing we are looking at is shifting both Ontario Line tracks to the west side in the corridor, rather than on either side of the GO tracks.

Once finalized, we will be sharing the updated plans related to the configuration with the community in the coming weeks at a public consultation.

We are still conducting environmental assessments for the area, which include a Joint Corridor Early Works Report and an Environmental Impact Assessment Report for the whole line.

Email from Metrolinx Media Relations, March 26, 2021

This has many implications including the total space needed for the six-track corridor, the placement of electrification infrastructure, the effect of stations on their neighbourhoods, and transfer provisions at the key East Harbour Station.

From a construction point of view there are benefits to keeping the OL tracks together:

  • There is no longer any need to tunnel under the rail corridor so that the eastbound track can reach its position south-east of East Harbour Station, nor to tunnel again for the tracks to rejoin at Gerrard before heading up Pape.
  • Only a single shared bridge over the Don River will be needed.
  • The two directions of the OL can share a centre platform rather than requiring dedicated platforms, including access elements like escalators and elevators.
  • Structures for GO can be better separated from those for the OL which will now lie beside the GO tracks, not astride them.
  • Construction of the OL should have less effect on the adjacent GO operations.

The possible downsides or side-effects include:

  • The consolidated eastbound and westbound platforms and station structures are now all on one side of the GO corridor possibly affecting areas and buildings that were previously outside of the construction area.
  • The minimum clearances for GO electrification will have a greater effect on the east side of the corridor because the eastbound OL track will no longer provide some of the separation needed from nearby buildings and vegetation.
  • The claimed benefit of across-the-platform transfer between GO and OL services at East Harbour is now reduced. All transfers will have to go down to a concourse level to switch between trains.

At the March 25 Metrolinx Board meeting, management presented an overview of the Ontario Line and the benefits of above ground construction. This alignment change was not mentioned at all. Notable by its absence was any reference to the convenience of across-the-platform transfers, a major selling point for the OL as a potential way to offload demand from Union Station.

When originally announced, the Ontario Line would provide across-the-platform transfers with GO at both East Harbour and Exhibition Stations to redirect some GO traffic to the OL and offload Union Station. At Exhibition, this design has already proved to be impractical and the OL station will be entirely north of the rail corridor. We appear to be on the verge of seeing a comparable change at East Harbour. This was a major selling point for the OL design.

As I discussed in a previous article, aspects of that presentation put a better spin on Metrolinx plans than might actually be deserved. With the change in the track layout, a further issue pops up: the proximity of buildings or vegetation to the electrified GO trackage.

Here is a diagram showing the minimum clearances from adjacent vegetation (mainly trees) on an electrified GO corridor:

In a context where buildings are nearby, the diagram changes a bit, but the basics are similar.

These drawings show a two-track GO corridor, but Lake Shore East will have four tracks, plus the Ontario line tracks. If this view looked northeast, the OL tracks would be on the left side, probably to the left of the pole holding the overhead system.

In that configuration, the “no vegetation” zone to the left (west/north) would be occupied by the OL itself which should have much less restrictive requirements for nearby growth because it uses overhead power at a much lower voltage than GO trains. However, on the right (east/south), the outermost GO track is now at the edge of the corridor and clearance requirements for electrification apply. [Corrected March 28/21 to reflect overhead rather than third rail power supply.]

An illustration of a park on the line must be seen in this light. This shows a mature tree immediately beside the sound wall and the overhead support poles. As shown, it is within the clear zone required for electrification.

In the management presentation, Metrolinx claimed that the Ontario Line will actually make the neighbourhood quieter, although they did not explicitly say “quieter than today”. This is something of a stretch because there will still be more GO trains, and many of them (thanks to the Bowmanville extension of GO service) may well be diesel.

This is an example of a fundamental problem with Metrolinx planning for this corridor: they conduct separate studies and community sessions for the Ontario Line and for the GO Expansion and Electrification program rather than producing a consolidated plan showing the effect of all three changes planned over the coming decade.

A further exaggeration, intended to show how all of this work has a beneficial end even though it might affect the community, lies in claims of environmental and congestion benefits of the project (regardless of its alignment).

All of the new transit riders on the Ontario Line are assumed to represent avoided auto trips complete with their congestion and pollution. There is no guarantee that fewer auto trips will be taken in the future due to a backlog of demand for road space, and due to population growth.

A common remark Metrolinx has made about The Big Move regional plan is that it will at best keep things from getting worse. In areas where there is already heavy traffic and congestion, it is not realistic to assume that the day the OL opens, roads will suddenly empty of cars. This is a bogus position, and Metrolinx should know better.

The original Ontario Line scheme was sold on its benefits for GO interchange and because it was claimed to fit within existing Metrolinx lands, more or less. Gradually these claims are coming unglued, although many of the underlying issues were clear the day the line was announced.

Postscript: An Alternate Alignment from the Don River to Carlaw

In my previous article, I alluded to a possible alignment that would splice the Ontario Line into the Relief Line’s alignment running up Carlaw from Eastern. From East Harbour, the OL would have travelled east parallel to Eastern Avenue and descended below grade, then veer north to hook into the Relief Line route at about Logan Avenue.

This scheme depended on the Ontario Line being entirely on the south/east side of the rail corridor at East Harbour rather than astride it (as in the original OL plan) or on the north/west side as in the revised plan.

With the proposed shift of the Ontario Line to be entirely on the north/west side of the rail corridor, this scheme is no longer feasible.

Over or Under? Can Metrolinx Make Up Their Mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s hear it for tunnels!

Ah … but not so fast …

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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.

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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.