A Few Questions For Metrolinx

The recent publication of updates to the New Stations review together with information at two public SmartTrack station meetings raises several questions about Metrolinx plans and their methodology in evaluation of the worth of new facilities.

In attempting to dig through the contradictions, I asked Metrolinx for the detailed background reports for their updated “business cases” for new stations, and was advised that there are no reports beyond the technical paper that is part of the board’s agenda for their March 8, 2018 meeting.

This is not a credible statement.

The evaluation of new stations depends heavily on the projected demand at each location. This demand depends on several factors:

  • The frequency and capacity of service provided at the station
  • The travel time to destinations for trips served by the station
  • The cost of a trip
  • Feeder services for riders including connecting transit routes and parking lots

Land use patterns around the station are also a factor, but they are secondary in two senses. First, demand projections are generally run against a fixed land use model while changing other factors such as service frequency and cost. Second, land use is not under the direct control of a transit agency while service and fare factors are, and they can have a much more immediate effect on demand.

The newly modelled demand for stations follows on from the Initial Business Cases (IBCs) of 2016:

The overall methodology and approach to modelling used in carrying out the business case analysis is consistent with the approach used in undertaking the 2016 IBC’s and has been independently peer-reviewed and validated. In particular, the current business case analysis measures and captures the same key benefits (e.g. new station users benefit from the station) and impacts (e.g. delays to upstream riders due to the station). The current business case analysis for new stations take advantage of updated input information, including GO rail service assumptions, land use, connecting rapid transit infrastructure, and a refined approach to ridership forecasting and modelling.

The economic and financial cases for each new station depend on forecasts of how travellers will respond to the presence of a new station. Stations can support increased system ridership by providing a new access opportunity that may be closer to household locations and employment, school, or other travel destinations. Individuals who use the new station benefit by saving time relative to their previous travel option – travelling farther to another GO station, or using a different transport mode such as subway, bus, or auto. Existing GO passengers that do not use the station, on the other hand, can be delayed if they travel on a train that now stops at the new station. Examining travel time savings, delays, and modal shifts is the focal point of the business case analysis. [p 7]

Metrolinx is all about “transparency”, and in that spirit here are several questions about their models and plans.

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Metrolinx Continues Its Pursuit of Hydrogen Trains

Metrolinx has released a long study about the feasibility of using electricity generated from hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to conventional railway electrification with overhead wires. The “Hydrail” project page contains links to both a quicky “fact sheet” and to a 353-page report. The report itself contains a 13-page Executive Summary giving a high level view of the proposals and recommendations without much of the technical detail.

It is impractical here for me to review the entire document, and indeed this is not really needed because a great deal of the content is a tutorial on hydrogen technology. The report is clearly written by people with more of a background in hydrogen technology and marketing than in railway planning and operations.

Fascinating though this is, the report does not address the most crucial issue of all – what are the implementation scenarios for hydrogen propulsion depending both on technical maturity and on policy decisions still to be made about the evolution of the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) system.

A great deal of confusion lies in the process Metrolinx is following to provision RER. Their intent is to farm the entire thing out to a private consortium:

Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) Procurement Process

Metrolinx is intending to engage a contractor to upgrade the GO network using a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) model. As part of the tender process, bidders will be able to propose both hydrail and overhead wire technology to electrify the GO network. The benefit of this DBFOM approach is it allows one single party to manage all the interrelated decisions necessary and oversee each phase of the process from design to maintenance. This ensures optimal performance is achieved for the entire system, which can create efficiencies. [Website]

However, as the industry now stands, the information needed to allow an informed assessment of technical maturity, feasibility and risk for hydrogen trains at the scale of a GO/RER implementation does not exist. There is a lot of speculation, but it is based on much, much smaller and simpler implementations of various aspects of the technology.

The intent of the proposed study is to acquire as much information and experience as possible so that bidders can bid intelligently. The real challenge will be for this to happen before the Request for Proposals is issued at the end of 2018.

There is a subtle change in the text above to statements by Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster in 2017 when he said that it would be up to bidders to decide which technology they would choose to offer. Instead, the description above states that bidders can propose either technology and it would be up to Metrolinx and the Government of Ontario to decide which version to implement. It is quite likely that for the riskier new technology, bidders will be less willing to accept broad technical risk, and they will charge a premium for this. Whether the government of the day will see any extra costs as worth the investment remains to be seen.

Indeed, although the report states that the Cost:Benefit ratios for conventional and hydrogen options are similar, there is no mention of the risk premium a bidder might place on one option over the other. Moreover, the actual calculation of the ratio is not explained, nor are the total costs given. This raises the question of whether a higher cost is offset by a higher assumed benefit so that the ratios come out similarly, even if the magnitudes of investment differ.

At a recent Board of Trade appearance, Verster was asked about electrification, and replied with praise for Ontario’s “hydrogen economy”. It is quite clear that he drank the Kool-Aid and the government’s usual fascination with technology is getting in the way of his proper role as CEO. Immediately afterward, he reverted to the position that it is up to the would-be builders/operators of the RER network to propose technologies and the risk they are willing to assume.

Later the same day, when asked at a Metrolinx Town Hall about the possibility that hydrogen efforts would delay electrification, Verster replied with the standard response that the vendors will decide. However, the timelines for investigation of hydrogen and the contract award date suggest that a lot of work will be jammed into a very short period, and that Metrolinx’ own technical investigations will overlap the bid process.

A fundamental problem with Metrolinx “benefit cases analysis” (also misleadingly termed “business case analysis”) lies in the calculation of presumed benefits which are built up from a variety of factors. These include not just direct spending, but also the imputed value of effects such as reduced travel times, reduction of congestion and the value of environmental improvements. This side of the analysis is not present in the report, and so it is difficult to ascertain the “benefits” against which each scheme is measured. As for costs, so many elements of the hydrogen train proposal are little more than assumptions about the scalability of existing technology, it is hard to believe that the cost estimate is much beyond the back-of-an-envelope stage.

The capital and operating cost estimates presume a level of certainty about the hydrogen option which simply cannot exist at this point. Indeed, a major purpose of the planned work is to provide the technical basis on which a bidder might construct a proposal. Some capital costs included for conventional electrification are not included in the hydrogen scenario, and there is a wide variation in the range of projected operating costs.

With a planned launch of RER by 2025, the timelines are quite tight because major decisions on the infrastucture needed for either alternative must be made soon so that RER is “ready to roll” when planned.

Notable by their absence are key pieces of information:

  • What is the relationship between the timelines of the proposed hydrogen investigations and prototyping, and the timespan of the DBFOM procurement through all of its phases from initial tender up to revenue service? Can the research phase be completed in time to inform bids from potential builders/operators of the GO/RER network?
  • If the DBFOM bidders depend on investigative work done by Metrolinx or others on its behalf, what liability will Metrolinx have for non-performance if their work turns out to be incomplete or faulty, and therefore prevents the successful execution of the contract?
  • What is or will be the position of the railways, CN and CP, to the presence of hydrogen trains on their systems? Their dislike of electrical distribution and overhead structure in their territory is cited as a benefit of the hydrogen alternative, but one must ask how the railways will view the risks of a new propulsion technology co-existing with their operations.

This brings us to a fundamental question about RER and electrification, regardless of the technology. At the risk of being accused of environmental insensitivity, it must be said that electrification is not a prerequisite for RER implementation at the service levels now planned. Indeed, electrification makes the system design more complex especially where GO services operate over other railways’ territory. The tradeoffs are between many issues including the increased intrusion of more frequent GO service in corridors now hemmed in by residential development rather than by industry. This brings noise and pollution from frequent service with diesel locomotives. Even electric trains are not silent.

Reading between the lines, one might well think that full electrification is now contemplated as something for the future, in the mid 2040s, not in the 2020s. This is fundamentally tied up with questions of implementation and roll out, none of which is addressed in the report because it assumes this is a matter for future study.

Although much discussion reads as if RER will appear overnight in January 2025, Metrolinx plans to begin building up service levels from current to the RER proposal on an incremental basis as infrastructure improvements are completed. This means that a substantial portion of “RER” based on existing technology would exist before electrification, by whatever scheme, actually is “turned on”.

An important part of any implementation plan will include the mechanism by which a DBFOM bidder will take over existing assets, and this necessarily must be spelled out as part of the tender process. This will lead to two huge transitions occurring in parallel: the move from direct Metrolinx capital and operating responsibility for the GO system to a separate provider, and the technology transition from diesel to electric on some or all of the network. Whether Metrolinx has the capability to manage something on this scale, or will simply dump the responsibility in the provider’s lap and hope for the best, remains to be seen.

There is also the fantasy that the “risk” will be transferred from the government to the provider, but that risk comes at a price, and what is effectively “risk insurance” usually has a cap. Examples of capped liabilities, or even of providers walking away from their responsibilities, are not hard to find. Of course there could be problems with conventional electrification too, but they are less likely with a mature technology.

In this article, I will review the recommendations so that readers who want the “short version” can get my opinion without reading all the way to the end. In a separate future article, I will turn to specifics in the detailed report.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting and Town Hall: December 2017

Metrolinx held a Board meeting on December 7, followed on December 12 by a Town Hall.

Public questions to the Town Hall were submitted in advance and in real time during the Town Hall online, and in person by attendees. Metrolinx plans to put answers to all questions, including those that could not be handled during the Town Hall itself online in coming weeks. That record is now available at MetrolinxEngage.

My interest in both events was as much to see how the new CEO Phil Verster would handle himself especially during an open Q&A session which has not, to be kind, been part of the corporate culture at Metrolinx.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting Followup: October 26, 2017

Updated Nov. 2, 2017 at 2:50 pm: Typos corrected, notably “DBFOM”.

The Metrolinx Board met on October 26 with an agenda that was largely discussed in private. This article is a follow-up to the preview published before the meeting.

A major item on the confidential agenda concerned “Benefits Management and Realization”. Why this was handled at such great length in private is a mystery, and I attempted without success to clarify the topic of discussion with Metrolinx.

I asked:

Is this the issue of identifying, encouraging and capturing some of the benefits of transit expansion?

In a thoroughly opaque reply, Metrolinx stated:

Benefits management is a process to help us maximize project value as Metrolinx plans, builds, operates and connects transit projects in order to provide benefits to the region. [Email of Oct. 23 from Scott Money in Metrolinx Communications]

A major problem for Metrolinx and for the Regional Plan in general is the propensity to build stations surrounded by parking lots and structures (GO) or free-standing architectural sculptures that make integration with future development quite difficult. On a smaller scale, Metrolinx will have to get used to thinking smaller, in the sense that stops on BRT and LRT lines should not be planned around massive growth but depend on medium density locally plus intersecting feeder routes.

Metrolinx has committed to publishing information about its private sessions in the future, and it will be interesting to see how much we actually learn about evolving thoughts on this issue. After all, this meeting was billed as a “strategy session”.

The New CEO Introduces Himself

Metrolinx’ new CEO, Phil Verster, made a few remarks most of which were predictable as so much at Metrolinx meetings can be.

His focus since joining the agency has been on talking to customers and front line staff, especially those who do the invisible tasks that keep the system running. He has also been consulting with Metrolinx staff and management about the importance of positioning the agency to get the most out of the investment in the RER (Regional Express Rail) program over the coming years.

Among many projects, Verster spoke of the Kipling mobility hub (recently announced with a media event by sundry politicians), a project that has been brewing for over a decade.

Fare integration was another topic Verster focused on with the recently announced GO-TTC co-fare arrangement being the first step to region-wide integration. This will affect business case analyses, travel behaviours and patterns. New travel, of course, will depend not only on fares, but also on service, a topic on which Verster was silent.

In a telling comment, Verster observed that while Metrolinx has a lot of capital improvements underway, it is important to remember “the soft stuff” of organizational improvement, transparency to the community, and becoming an organization that represents transit in an objective and positive manner.

Being “objective” is a topic that returned in other discussions as the meeting went on.

Regional Transportation Plan Update

Antoine Belaieff presented an overview of the RTP consultations to date. He reported that reception to the draft plan as been generally positive, but that there is continued impatience for system improvements. Riders want seamless fares and service, have diverse opinions on parking and station access, and are interested in seeing how the plan will be staged and implemented. At the municipal level there were few surprises because local planners have been involved in developing the draft, although there is some interest in adding projects to the plan. Stakeholders want clarity about the first/last mile problem and how the growth in travel with RER will affect station access. There is continued interest in long and short haul goods movement by truck and rail.

There have been “fairly technical” discussions about roles and responsibilities for Metrolinx vs the provincial government, especially with respect to the provincial Growth Plan, and a desire for “crisp and concrete” language.

Phil Verster observed that the plan should not be “final” but should be open to changes. It should not be an “event” but an ongoing process.

Board member Upkar Arora asked whether people have been flagging omissions in the plan, have concerns about the environment and sustainability, or are split between an urban/suburban view of the plan.

Belaieff replied that, if anything, people are having to digest a “rich” plan that has a great deal to absorb. Feedback on environment issues has been supportive because of the plan’s “call to action”. Suburban areas tend to focus on how the plan will support growth both through new stations and with expansion that is timely relative to development.

Board member Rahul Bhardwaj asked whether “we hearing from the right people” or just those who are usually engaged, and using an unfortunate phrase, referred to the “silent majority”. Belaieff replied that he was pleased to see audiences not just of his planning friends, but that there was genuine input from “everyday” people. Getting attendees to meetings is hard, and Metrolinx is counting on local networks to help with this, but both “planning intellectuals” and “real people” were present. Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer, noted the need to reach marginalized communities.

Woo advised that there will be a report in December on the feedback Metrolinx has received and how it will affect the next version of the document. In parallel staff are working on economic information and will propose “a way forward” with the plan and its implementation. She proposed that the plan not be considered as finite, but as a generator of more specific studies.

One statement caught my ear, namely that this is a plan for ten years, after which there will be a new plan. That is technically correct, in that there is a legal mandate to review the plan every decade (the current review is triggered by that), but the RTP is intended to look forward a quarter century and given the lead time for the most complex projects, a ten year outlook simply won’t do.

As for the comments about “real people” at meetings, this cuts two ways. On one hand, it is vital that the plan be shaped by genuine public opinion as opposed to the “usual suspects” be they those of us who always comment on anything, or politicians who warp transit plans to suit their electoral goals. On the other hand, public opinion can be skewed by biased presentations, and some of the activism so familiar in transit circles arises directly from the need to provide contrary views to the official versions. Being “engaged” should not disqualify one from providing input to a vital plan, and engagement does not necessarily translate to agreement.

The finality of a plan, or its openness to change, is always a tug of war at the planning and political levels. Plans that are open to constant change can leave us with a situation where changing priorities and limited funding guarantee that nothing actually happens. On the other hand, the lack of published details behind many parts of the plan, specifically ridership projections, land use assumptions, project costs and priorities leave us with a full network for 2041 but no sense of how we will get there, or how subsets of the plan would perform.

Hydrogen Trains

Phil Verster introduced this report as an examination of an alternative “green” way to implement non-diesel propulsion for GO saying that there will be a very important feasibility study of the technology this fall. Mark Ciavarro, VP of RER Implementation, took the Board through the presentation (linked above) together with Peter Zuk, Chief Capital Officer.

Ciavarro noted that interest in hydrogen as a fuel goes back to 2012 when it was still a relatively new technology and, at the time, not worth further pursuit. In September 2016, Alstom unveiled a pilot and the vehicle is now in testing, although in a different, much smaller form than trains GO would use. The test train reaches a maximum speed of 140 km/h, and 60 trains are on order. Chief Operating Officer Greg Percy noted that GO’s top speed now is 90m/h or 150km/h. Greg Verster stated that speeds of 180-200km/h and up lie in High Speed Rail territory.

Chair Rob Prichard noted that there is a terminology issue in that all locomotives are electric, but the question is where the energy comes from. [Diesel locos generate their power on board while “electric” locos obtain power from an overhead wire. In both cases the actual propulsion is provided by an electric motor. However, truly electric trains give the option of powering all cars, not just the locomotive, and this changes a train’s performance.]

Zuk stated that GO is electrifying its network and the question is how this would be done. They are doing a feasibility study of hydrogen and other potential technologies. In Germany, commercial uses of hydrogen goes back to 2002, but there is a question here of the scale and applicability to large commuter rail operations.

Verster observed that the application of hydrogen trains in Germany would be to rural lines where electrification infrastructure is not cost effective. The train is small, and the issue is whether the technology can be scaled up. There will be challenges and that is why Metrolinx is conducting the feasibility study. There are hydrogen fuel cell applications in LRT and buses, but this is the first train. Surplus electricity can be used to create hydrogen, and that first stage is always expensive. This is a key part of the study.

Board member Carl Zehr asked whether the study will look at the transition to and integration of hydrogen technology. Verster replied only the technical feasibility is  being studied in the immediate future. His main objective is to deliver RER at the best cost and time. With respect to using the technology on track that GO does not own [portions of some corridors are owned by CN and CP which operate freight traffic over them], hydrogen trains could avoid the need for overhead contact systems (OCS) on non-GO trackage but there is no regulatory framework for this yet in Canada.

Zuk noted that each component of hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for years. What is new is their integration into a rail system. Metrolinx needs to determine if and how fuel delivery will work, and how the technology would fit into EMU (electric multiple unit) trains.

There will be a symposium to assess the state of the technology on November 16, 2017 (see p. 13 in the presentation deck) and this will be open to outside parties. Whether this means media and the general public is as yet uncertain.

Rob Prichard wondered whether GO Transit would be the last system to build an overhead based system. The obvious rejoinder is that the whole world is building these systems. Verster replied that Metrolinx should not engage in delivering a program that is dependent on research and development.

The study will likely be done by the end of 2017 with a report for the February 2018 Board meeting.

During the press scrum after the meeting, the Star’s Ben Spurr asked Chair Prichard and CEO Phil Verster what made them think hydrogen technology is even possible. Verster replied unambiguously that there are significant community ridership benefits in RER, and Metrolinx will not jeopardize this based on a technology that is not ready to market. He observed that the study will affect RER procurement – under a DBFOM scheme (where a bidder does everything from designing to operating and maintaining the system) there is a question of what technologies a provide might bid.

Spurr also asked about Metrolinx attempting to position Ontario as a global leader, and whether this is a transit agency’s role. Verster replied that Metrolinx should “scan the horizon” to know what is available.

The DBFOM reference raises the question of whether Metrolinx is planning to outsource its RER operations completely on a turnkey basis. I attempted to obtain clarification of this from Metrolinx later on (the scrum ran out of time), but replies yielded no information at all. As for hydrogen itself, it is clear that there is a tension between the basic action of getting an update on the technology, and a political stance that would provide Ontario (and its politicians) with yet another chance to show off advanced technology. Our experience in that regard is less than stellar.

GO/TTC Discounted Double Fare

This report is substantially the same as the one presented at the recent TTC Board meeting. It deals with the proposed agreement between Metrolinx and the City of Toronto/TTC to implement the first stage in a planned four-stage evolution of regional fares:

a) Discounts on double fares (GO-TTC)
b) Discounts on double fares (905-TTC)
c) Adjustments to GO’s fare structure
d) Fare Policy Harmonization

Leslie Woo expects to report to the December Board meeting on all of these.

During the scrum, Rob Prichard observed that although the GO-TTC co-fare is a three year agreement, he feels that unwinding it is unlikely because it is so clearly the right policy direction. If anything, it will be rolled into a more extensive set of integrated fares.

We can only hope that Metrolinx has moved beyond regarding the matter of time-based fares (the two-hour transfer) as a matter of local policy rather than as a potential key part of regional integration for non-GO services. All systems outside of Toronto now use this scheme, and York Region recently eliminated its zone fares. Only the TTC remains as an exception, and there will be a proposal in the coming Ridership Growth Strategy that Toronto move to the two-hour transfer.

This could leave Metrolinx in the position of trying to foist fare by distance, their long-favoured scheme, on local systems that have already standardized on a flat, time-based fare.

Governance

The agenda included a private session item on governance which will be public at the December meeting. This may deal with the issue of which items and reports are dealt with in private session, and which are made public, especially before rather than after they are massaged to fit political reaction.

Rob Prichard, after much prodding in the media scrum, allowed that the controversy over Kirby and Lawrence East Stations was a “catalyst for discussion”. Phil Verster took a shot at the issue by saying that there are four phases to the benefits case process and the station review is at stage 1. There will be more information later in the cycle. Ben Spurr challenged him on the sequence of a Ministerial announcement that appears to seal the decision. Verster replied that communities should get a sense of direction, but that Metrolinx has a long way to go in the maturity of how they work with benefits cases. These are not an absolute science but have strategic overlays leading to a policy decision.

The Globe’s Oliver Moore asked if the Ministerial intervention was appropriate. Verster replied that he cannot comment, but wants to look forward. Metrolinx will give informed advice and options, but it is up to the politicians to make decisions.

These statements dip and dive around the issue, and the comments about the uncertain nature of benefits cases beg the question of the value of the degree to which Metrolinx has relied on these in the past as definitive studies. Either they can hide behind studies as the work of “experts”, or they can recognize them as works in progress that might not be “mature”.

GO Transit Electrification Public Meetings

Metrolinx/GO has announced a series of public meetings through November 2016 dealing with some aspects of the electrification project.

GO Rail Network Electrification Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP) (Hydro One as co-proponents):

• The focus of this round of public meetings will be to provide an update on the project and conceptual design of the Traction Power Supply and Distribution components.

Barrie Rail Corridor Expansion TPAP:

• The focus of this round of public meetings will be to provide an update on the project and seek feedback on the environmental impacts.

Lakeshore East-Don River to Scarborough Expansion TPAP:

• The focus of this round of public meetings will be on existing conditions.

Further information and a list of meetings is available in the Metrolinx announcement.

Does Toronto Owe Metrolinx Half a Billion?

Rummaging in financial reports can lead to interesting discoveries, although we usually read about them when some financial hound exposes dubious accounting practices and drives down the value of a company’s shares. Indeed, the Globe’s David Milstead had a long article on just how pervasive the use of non-standard accounting has become in corporate reports.

In the public sector, various mechanisms are used to reduce apparent debt and exposure to future costs. Some of these involve judgements about just when bills and revenue will roll through the door, or of exactly who will pay these bills as they come due.

In a previous article, I wrote about the TTC’s newfound mechanism called “Capacity to Spend” which reduces future funding requirements by roughly as follows:

  • Project estimates show that the TTC will need about $9 billion to fund its “Base Capital Program” over the next ten years. This does not include special projects such as subway extensions, nor does it include a long list of “below the line” projects that have not yet matured to “approved but unfunded” status.
  • Yearly capital spending by the TTC is typically lower than the budgeted value, but the main reason is that work took longer than expected, or projects were rescheduled into future years. Only a few of the underspent accounts arise from actual savings thanks to lower than expected costs or project cancellations.
  • Nonetheless, the TTC has decided that its real funding requirement for 2017-2026 is now almost a billion lower than has been claimed for many years running.

This is a basic case of revaluing the exposure to future costs to make long term funding (including borrowing) needs appear lower than they really are. This year brings an extra incentive with federal funding that requires matching municipal contributions, money Toronto does not have. But hey, presto!, if we reduce the future spending, at least on paper, we have “found” money with which to pay the local share of the fed’s new program.

Meanwhile up the road at Queen’s Park, a lovely myth for the past near-decade is that there is a “municipal share” to the GO Transit capital program. Most people don’t know about this, and Toronto has refused to actually pay into that pot for several years.

The mechanism was set up back when GO Transit was a separate agency, and it has been passed down through successor organizations to its current home, Metrolinx. The amount of money outstanding is not trivial.

metrolinxmunicipalchargebacksto201603

By the end of Metrolinx’ fiscal year March 31, 2016, the accumulated balance of deferred municipal contributions totalled $1.1 billion. The proportions owed by each municipality are set by regulation, and Toronto’s share is just under half a billion. The proportions assessed to each region have not changed since this charge was instituted although one could argue that population shifts and the focus of GO expansion would suggest a different ratio is in order.

Toronto does not carry an account payable for this amount on its books. Meanwhile, in every financial statement, there is a note in this format:

Metrolinx realized a shortfall in municipal funding related to its capital program. The Province has provided funding to bridge the shortfall in the current year in the amount of $141,097 (2015 – $171,111) and the cumulative amount is $1,114,484 (2015 – $973,387). The Province will work with its municipal partners to address the funding shortfalls. [Note 12 to Metrolinx Draft Financial Statements for the year ended March 31, 2016]

What is unclear is whether Queen’s Park will ever call this debt due, or if it will simply be written off as a provincial contribution to GO expansion.

This charge is intended to recover costs for general GO expansion, and it does not include:

  • Chargebacks for works undertaken as part of a provincial project that improve municipal assets such as replacement of water mains or provision of improved streets. This was a major issue for Toronto on the Georgetown South project.
  • Charges for the abandoned Scarborough LRT project engineering.

Missing from all of the annual reports is any indication of just which GO projects these contributions aided. Indeed, the amounts are intended to go into the general subsidy pot at GO without being tied to its work with the assumption that everyone benefits from “more GO” in the end.

An ongoing problem with provincial funding is that there are various ways that the gas tax grants now paid to municipalities are clawed back. There has been almost no change in the level of gas tax provided, and the amount coming to Toronto has been sitting at about $160m for many years. (Toronto apportions this partly to capital and partly to operations.) The effective value of this contribution falls due to inflation. If Toronto had actually paid their Metrolinx assessment in recent years, this would have wiped out half of the gas tax grant.

In 2017, the TTC is making provision in its budget for additional costs related to Carbon Taxes. This will further erode the contribution from Ontario.

The combined effect of all this will be that, at some point, all of the provincial contribution via gas tax will be consumed by paybacks under various levies and fees.

In an attempt to illuminate this issue, I posed a series of questions to the Minister of Transportation:

Which projects now underway or planned will trigger additions to this outstanding balance including, but not limited to, such things as:

  • Ongoing GO improvements (non-RER)
  • GO RER
  • LRT and BRT projects

In other words, although Ontario has not actually collected on the receivable, will it continue to grow and, in effect, will municipalities be expected to eventually contribute to “provincial” projects, and at what level?

Many projects do not fit into the classic GO Transit model of serving downtown Toronto. For example, York VIVA BRT, The Hurontario and Hamilton LRTs, and the Toronto Crosstown and Finch LRTs serve a very different travel demand from GO’s rail network.

Will the formula for allocating these costs be changed to reflect the service territory and areas benefiting from the projects where municipalities are expected to make a contribution?

Although Ontario makes significant investments in transit, its budgetary effect at the local level will be offset by chargebacks including:

  • The deferred Metrolinx receivable above
  • Future costs for Presto which is expected to become self-sufficient and will require increases in service fees to local providers to do so
  • Future costs for LRT operations

Starting in FY 2011-2012, there was a large increase in the annual charge added to the receivable, an average of $183m/year over the last five years, of which Toronto is responsible for $81.6m/year. What projects contributed to this charge and what was their total value (in effect, my question is what proportion of these projects was back-charged to the municipalities)?

When I receive a reply to these questions, I will update this article.

Toronto’s Network Plan 2031: Part I, SmartTrack

For the past months, Toronto Planning, the TTC and Metrolinx have hosted a number of public consultation sessions leading up to two critical meetings on the same day: June 28, 2016.

One will be the Toronto Executive Committee’s consideration of a series of reports on various transit proposals.

The other will be the Metrolinx Board’s first meeting in four months with several related items on the agenda.

Reviewing all of this material will require several article that I hope to finish before the meetings where these issues will be discussed actually occur.

Here I will begin with SmartTrack because of all of the proposals, that has been the most threadbare one throughout the public consultation. It is complicated by being a joint project with Metrolinx who own the tracks over which the trains will operate, and who now quite clearly will also own and operate the trains regardless of what the service is called.

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GO/RER Details Emerge in Business Case Analysis

Metrolinx has published a set of documents containing the “Initial Business Case” for the GO Transit Regional Express Rail (GO/RER) network.

  • Summary
  • Full Report
  • Appendices A-J
    • A: Corridor Specifications
    • B: Corridor and System Schematics
    • C: Model Assumptions and Results
    • D: Record of Assumptions – Direct Demand Model
    • E: Financial Performance of RER Systems
    • F: Sensitivity Analysis
    • G: Wider Economic Benefits
    • H: Line Speed Analysis
    • I: Environmental Assessment Program
    • J: Fare Structure Issues and Solutions
  • Appendix K:  Station Access Analysis

[Note that except for the Summary, the documents are large PDFs.]

This article begins a review of these documents and of the various RER proposals examined in the Metrolinx studies.

Overview

Work on this review of GO/RER began in April 2014 following the announcement by Queen’s Park of its commitment to the RER concept. Unlike previous reports, this study looks in depth at all of the GO corridors, and reviews the technical issues associated with both increased service and electrification. This is not a final review, and much engineering work remains to be done, but there is a great deal more information now publicly available as the basis for discussions.

These documents were completed sometime in 2015 as is clear from references to future events that will occur later in the year, notably reports from the City of Toronto on SmartTrack. That scheme gets only passing mention, some of it the usual political cover story, because the specifics had yet to be decided. Exactly what the incremental effect of ST will be beyond the proposed GO/RER configuration is not yet known. Preliminary information in City reports implies that ST will amount to considerably less than was foreseen by the Tory election campaign, possibly as little as a few more stations and some sort of TTC/GO fare integration.

Five scenarios were reviewed to compare the effects, benefits, costs and technical issues associated with various possible future networks.

  1. The “Do Minimum” scenario provides only marginal peak period improvements to the existing system in response to projected demand growth, but with no electrification. This is effectively a “business as usual” model for the base case.
  2. The “Two-Way All-Day” scenario expands off peak service, but with diesel operation and no electrification. This is a minimal level of service expansion.
  3. The “10-Year Plan” would provide frequent service on the inner parts of some corridors, but with limited electrification.
  4. The “Full Build” extends beyond the 10-Year Plan to provide frequent service on the inner parts of all corridors, and with full electrification.
  5. The “10-Year Plan Optimized” extends the scope of electrification beyond that contemplated in scenario 3.

This progression implies a certain sequence of events during the study where a full build is impractical and the original 10-year plan was not aggressive enough with electrification, a key component of the announced government direction.

The estimated capital costs rise from $5 billion for scenario 1, through $10b, $12b and $19b for scenarios 2 to 4. The price tag for the latter is well above what Queen’s Park has available, and scenario 5 was developed with a projected cost of $13.5b. All but scenario 4 are said to be achievable by 2024. Given that it is now 2016, and this is a 10 year plan, that date probably requires some adjustment.

Scenario 5 is the 10-Year Plan Optimized, it represents significant progress towards implementing the service levels of Scenario 4. It goes beyond the investments and service included in Scenario 3 (10-Year Plan), with electrification also to Bramalea, Barrie, Stouffville and to Pearson Airport. This scenario and the resulting recommended RER program has been defined to maximize return on investment while mitigating risks. Depending on resolving various challenges, it can be delivered over 10 years for approximately $13.5 billion. It does not preclude, but rather prepares for, services to Milton and Kitchener to be eventually electrified and frequent all-day services introduced when agreement is reached on co-existence of GO and freight on these privately-owned corridors. [p. iv, Full Report]

Annual ridership is expected to go up by a factor of 2.5 over the coming 15 years, but operation costs will not rise at the same rate. The study postulates that an operating profit would be possible, eventually, but that will depend a lot on future fare policies, and on the evolution of trip patterns (length, direction, average fare). The ridership model foresees that “hundreds of thousands” of auto trips would be replaced by GO ridership each weekday comparing scenario 5 to scenario 1. The proportion of trips and its relationship to expected growth is not specified in the Executive Summary. (Possibly in the demand modelling later.)

The rate of demand increase on GO overall is projected at 2.3% which is lower than recent levels, but allows for some leveling off in a more mature service.

One big issue is the problem of getting riders physically to and from the GO trains. Either this will be done with substantially improved local transit services (an option that brings many issues associated with fare integration and cross-system subsidies), or with parking. The cost estimates include $750m for 15,000 new parking spaces, or $50k per space. At that scale, simply paving empty lots is not an option. The study notes the possibility that some of this cost “may not be necessary if service integration and fare integration with local transit services can be improved”. [p. v]

Those 15,000 spaces represent nowhere near the ratio of new parking spaces to existing facilities that the projected ridership growth would entail if everyone arrived by car. Parking charges are listed as a way of raising additional capital for the RER project, and of encouraging a shift to ride sharing and public transit feeder services.

It is amusing to read about the benefits of proven technology, something for which Ontario has not been noted in past endeavours.

Virtually all of the works are within existing rail corridors, so environmental and community impacts are limited mostly to noise and vibration. RER will use proven technology that is working around the world. [p. v]

Descriptions of RER cite similar operations in more than 50 city regions worldwide [page 6], and list a number of factors that simplify implementation [p. 4]. I cannot help thinking of how badly past studies have downplayed the benefits of LRT which bears a family resemblance, but at a local rather than a regional level.

The first electric railway opened in 1883 (the Volks Tourist Railway on the Brighton seafront in the U.K.). Ever since that time, electric traction has increasingly become the default source of power for the world’s more intensively used rail systems. [p. 14]

Finding this statement in a Metrolinx report is quite amusing considering some of the remarks made during community meetings on electrification before Metrolinx and GO “got religion” on the subject. The report skirts that debate by observing that GO is now at the threshold where electrification makes sense:

Until recently, diesel traction has been the appropriate mode of traction for the GO rail operation. However, the service enhancements envisaged in the near future will take GO rail beyond the threshold of service intensity appropriate for electrification. Continued use of diesel traction will become a source of financial and economic inefficiency. [p. 14]

Metrolinx intends to pursue discussions with the railways regarding the upgrades needed on their trackage, and also intends to review “modern, proven technology” with Transport Canada and the railways.

This is an “initial” analysis, and changes are likely depending on the evolution of expectations, changes in provincial funding, and who knows what political meddling that could arise.

A decade is a long time in politics, and the likelihood that the current governing parties or councillors will still be in place at that distant time is minuscule. Moreover, changes could come at any level part way through the project, and only a very strong, unshakeable commitment (i.e. very popular and difficult to derail) is likely to survive. This is not simply a case of showing up for a photo op or two with a gigantic prop cheque, but of supporting the plan for the long haul, including building a constituency that can survive beyond current governments. The arrival of a Ford-equivalent who simply wanted to start over with his own plan would be disastrous.

Continue reading

GO Transit Electrification Study Public Meetings

Metrolinx has announced a series of meetings for public participation in the TPAP (streamlined Environmental Assessment for Transit Projects) for their GO Rail Network Electrification Study.

Four of these overlap with sessions previously announced by City Planning for other projects under review:

  • Tuesday February 16: John Vanier school in Scarborough
  • Wednesday February 24: Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto
  • Wednesday March 9: Lakeshore Collegiate in Etobicoke
  • Tuesday March 22: Nelson Mandela Park school in Toronto

The area of this study covers only the trackage already owned by Ontario through Metrolinx.

Joint Metrolinx, City and TTC Consultation on Transit Studies (Updated June 21, 2015)

Updated June 21, 2015 at 12:45 am: SmartTrack alignment option 1C which was included in the presentation deck, but not in the individual illustrations on the project website, has been added to the consolidated set.

Updated June 12, 2015 at 6:30 am: Details of SmartTrack and Relief Line alignment options added.

The City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC will conduct a series of eight meetings at locations around Toronto over coming weeks to present current information on studies now in progress regarding GO’s Regional Express Rail (RER) plan, SmartTrack, the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) and the Relief Line (aka “DRL”). Some of these meetings will focus on specific projects (noted below), while others are general overviews.

  • Sat. June 13 9:30am: Burnhamthorpe Collegiate Institute, 500 The East Mall
  • Mon. June 15 6:30 pm: Estonian House, 958 Broadview Avenue (Relief Line)
  • Wed. June 17 6:30 pm: Spring Garden Church, 112 Spring Garden Avenue
  • Thurs. June 18 6:30 pm: Archbishop Romero Catholic SS, 99 Humber Boulevard South (SmartTrack)
  • Sat. June 20 9:30 am: Hyatt Regency Hotel, 370 King Street West
  • Mon. June 22 6:30 pm: Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute, 2239 Lawrence Avenue East
  • Wed. June 24 6:30 pm: Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Drive (SSE)
  • Thurs. June 25 6:30pm: Riverdale Collegiate Institute, 1094 Gerrard Street East (Relief Line)

Consultation in Mississauga, Peel, Markham and York Region will occur in September according to the City’s press release.

Recommendations will be presented by TTC and City staff to the TTC Board and Council in Fall 2015 on SmartTrack, the SSE and the Relief Line.

Update June 12:

SmartTrack

The presentation boards and alignment options for the western leg of SmartTrack are now available online. For convenience, I have collected the illustrations in one file [PDF 2MB].

Broadly the study is considering three alignment groups for the link between Mount Dennis and the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre:

  • A direct connection via Eglinton from the Kitchener rail corridor
  • A separate heavy rail corridor via Eglinton from Mount Dennis
  • A direct connection south from the Kitchener rail corridor through the airport

The “base case” for the study is the already-approved second phase of the Crosstown LRT.

The options include:

  • 1: Direct links with the SmartTrack alignment:
    • 1A: Swinging east of the KW rail corridor south of Eglinton, and then turning west to make a direct connection with the Crosstown line.
    • 1B: Turning west from the KW rail corridor south of Eglinton. This is the original SmartTrack proposal.
    • 1C: Continuing north of Eglinton, and then veering back south through a vaguely defined area west of Weston Road [illustration added June 21]
  • 3A: A separate line west from Mount Dennis.
  • 2: Links north via the rail corridor and then south into the airport lands:
    • 2A: To a point beyond the UPX airport spur, then south through the airport. The “Airport” station would be a connection to the UPX at Airport Road.
    • 2B: The same alignment as 2A at the north end, but following Dixon Road and Carlingview south to 427/401.
    • 2C: To a point east of the UPX spur with a station at the east side of the airport, then south via Carlingview as in 2B.

Some alignments require tight turns and tunneling will be needed for all of them contrary to the original claims that SmartTrack would be a “surface subway”. This will also force the issue of electrification without which a tunnel alignment is impossible, but Metrolinx plans now claim that the first electric operations will not begin until 2023.

The option 2 alignments will face technical challenges including curve radii depending on the exact details of the alignment and the equipment chosen for the route.

Headways for all option 1 and 2 alignments will be constrained by the need to share trackage with the UPX operation.

Relief Line

Four corridor options are under consideration. At its northern end, the corridor would start at either Broadview or Pape Station, and through the core area, the line would follow either Queen or King/Wellington. I have collected the four maps together in one file for convenience.

Detailed discussions of the pros and cons of these options are on the respective pages of the project site. The Pape alignment has clear advantages over Broadview, and a Wellington alignment through the core has advantages over King or Queen.