The material here is condensed from recordings of the two meetings about the section from Gerrard to Exhibition Station. The questions and answers have been grouped to bring related topics together, mainly on a geographic basis. This is not an exhaustive Q&A as the topics depend on the interests of those participating.
Statements are not attributed to any specific person (if you really want to know who said what, listen to the recordings), but if anyone feels I have misrepresented their position, please let me know through the comments.
The sections prefaced with “Comment:” are my remarks.
Updated January 13, 2022 at 6:45 am: Sundry typos and scrambled phrases have been corrected. The projection of additional bus requirements for a 70 per cent service increase has been corrected to include spares.
At its recent meeting, Toronto Council endorsed a plan to move the City to Net Zero emissions by 2040. A review of the full plan is well beyond the scope of this blog, but some proposals affecting transit service and operations are very aggressive.
If Toronto is going to be serious about this we need a detailed examination of assumptions, scenarios, cost projection, and plans out to 2040. Where will population and job growth be? How will transit serve them?
Before I get into the report itself, a quotation from former TTC CEO Andy Byford is worth mention.
Andy Byford sums up the role of a transit system:
“…service that is frequent, that is clean, that goes where people want to go, when people want to go there, that is customer responsive, that is reliable, in other words that gets the basics right …”
Too often we concentrate on big construction projects, or a new technology, or a showcase trial on one or two routes rather than looking at the overall system. In particular, we rarely consider what transit is from a rider’s point of view. It is pointless to talk about attracting people to use transit more if we do not first address the question of why they are not already riding transit today. This is an absolutely essential part of any Net Zero strategy.
The reports contain a lot of material, although there is some duplication between them. They contain proposals for short and medium term actions. At this point, Council has not embraced anything beyond the short term plan.
From a transit point of view, that “plan” is more or less “business as usual” and does little to challenge the current status of transit service in the short term. There is hope that electrification of the diesel/hybrid bus fleet might be accelerated, but little sense of what, on a system-wide basis, would shift auto users to transit beyond works already in progress.
A vital point here is that transit has two major ways to affect Council’s Net Zero goals:
Conversion of transit vehicles to all-electric operation will reduce or eliminate emissions associated with these vehicles, depending on the degree to which the electricity sources are themselves “clean”. This is a relatively small part of the City’s total emissions.
Shifting trips from autos to transit (or to walking or cycling) both reduces emissions and relieves the effects of road congestion, including, possibly, making more dedicated road space available for transit and cycling. Emissions from cars are much more substantial than those from transit.
In the short term, the overwhelming focus is on conversion of the existing bus fleet to electric operation, not of expanding service to attract more riders. Improvements to specific routes might come through various transit priority schemes, but these will not be seen system-wide. Based on demand projections, large scale capital works, notably new subway lines, will primarily benefit existing riders rather than shifting auto users to transit.
The short term targets related to transit are quite simple:
Electrify 20 percent of the bus fleet by 2025-26.
This effectively requires that 400 diesel or hybrid buses be converted. The TTC already plans to buy 300 eBuses, and the Board has asked TTC management to look at accelerating this conversion. This target is very low hanging fruit provided that someone will pay for the buses.
Further targets are 50 per cent conversion by 2030, and 100 per cent by 2040.
Looking at the TTC’s likely replacement schedule (discussed in my Capital Budget Follow-Up), they will easily be achieved as much of the existing fleet is due for replacement by the early 2030s. Hybrid buses to be acquired this year will reach end of life in 2034-35.
This is an endorsement of “more of the same” in our transit planning, but no real commitment to making transit fundamentally better so that it can handle many more trips at lower emission rates than today.
Looking further out there are proposals for substantially more transit service and free fares, but these are not fully reflected in projected costs or infrastructure needs.
Some of the proposals for the NZ2050 plan are, shall we say, poorly thought-out:
Convert one lane of traffic to exclusive bus lanes on all arterials.
Many arterials are only four lanes wide and taking a permanent bus lane has considerable effects on how the road would operate. This is a particular problem for routes with infrequent service during some periods of operation.
Increase service frequency on all transit routes: bus by 70%, streetcar by 50%, subway off-peak service increased to every 3 mins.
This represents a very large increase in transit service with effects on fleet size, facilities and, of course, budgets. This would require an increase in the bus and streetcar fleets beyond what is already planned as well as construction of new garages and a carhouse.
Tolls of $0.66/km on all arterial roads.
This would apply only to fossil-fueled cars, and the forecast amount of revenue is less than half of the additional funding transit would require.
No transit fares.
The immediate cost of this would be about $1.2 billion in foregone fare revenue, offset by about ten percent in the elimination of fare collection and enforcement costs.
Shift 75% of car and transit trips under 5km to bikes or e-bikes by 2040.
This is truly bizarre. In effect, transit stops performing a local service for most rides and they are shifted to cycling. The average length of a transit trip is under 10km, and many are shorter. Moreover, trips are often comprised of multiple hops each of which might be quite small. There is a small question of how much uptake there would be in poor weather conditions.
Shift 75% of trips under 2km to walking by 2040.
Even some transit trips are short, and transit, especially with improved service, is the natural place for these trips. It is not clear whether the plan would be to somehow deter transit users from making very short trips just as, indeed, a car driver would.
[Revenue and cost issues are discussed in more detail later in this article.]
With all of the planned investment, transit’s mode share of travel is projected to fall, while walking and cycling would rise considerably in part because of the policy of diverting short trips. It simply does not make sense to push people off of transit just at the point where we are trying to encourage transit use. This part of the plan is laughably incoherent, and is an example of how good intentions can be undermined by poorly crafted policy.
For example, it is less than 5km from Liberty Village to Yonge Street, and if we were to take the proposal seriously, we would expect most people to cycle to work downtown, not take GO or the streetcar services. I look forward to the public meeting where this scheme is unveiled to the residents. If the demand for GO and for the King car is any indication, they do not want to use “active transportation”. Similarly, the planned development at East Harbour is less than 5km from downtown.
Meanwhile, transit electrification itself only eliminates 3 per cent of existing emissions, assuming a clean source of electricity. The subway and streetcar systems already are electrified, and both have capacity for growing demand if only more service were operated.
City Council endorse the targets and actions outlined in Attachment B to the report (December 2, 2021) from the Interim Director, Environment and Energy, titled “TransformTO Net Zero Strategy”.
Councillor Layton moved two amendments:
* Request the Board of the Toronto Transit Commission to identify opportunities to accelerate the Green Bus Program and to request the CEO, Toronto Transit Commission to report to the Board in the second quarter of 2022 on these opportunities.
* City Council request the City Manager, in consultation with the General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission, to outline in the 2022 Budget proposal options to increase spending on surface vehicles and hiring additional operators aimed at increasing ridership to get us on the path to achieving the TransformTO goals.
The first amendment echoes a request from the TTC Board to its management at the December 20, 2021 meeting. Acceleration of eBus purchases will require additional funding from somewhere, as well as a vendor capable of meeting a larger order. It will also have effects on TTC infrastructure needs for garaging.
The second amendment is more pressing because it speaks to the 2022 Budget process that will launch on January 13. If the TTC is going to ramp up service this year, this must be factored into the budget. A likely problem will be that any growth beyond that now planned will be entirely on the City’s dime rather than supported by other governments. However, we need to understand what could be done, if only to know the cost should a “fairy godmother” show up with some spare change.
Neither the amendment nor the short-term target for 2022-2025 gives any indication of just what is meant by “better” transit service, nor do they distinguish between restoring pre-covid service levels and going beyond that to encourage more ridership.
The points listed above for NZ2050 are excerpted from Attachment C, the technical background report. A casual reader might think that Council has embraced a very expansive view of transit’s role, but they have not.
The tactics from Attachment C are notably absent from Attachment B which refers to them, but actually lists a much more restricted set of transit goals. I have confirmed with City staff that Council has only endorsed Attachment B.
Q: For clarification: There are, broadly speaking, two levels of a shift in the emphasis on transit in the short term plan to 2030 and in the longer term to 2040 and beyond. Reading the Council motion, it appears that Council has endorsed the short term plan (Appendix B), but has not endorsed the more aggressive targets of the longer term set out in Appendix C. Is this a correct interpretation?
A: Yes. City Council endorsed the targets and the actions outlined in Attachment B ‘TransformTO Net Zero Strategy’. Attachment C is a technical backgrounder report that was used to inform the targets and actions that were recommended and adopted.
Email from Steve Munro to Toronto Media Relations, December 29, 2021. Response from Toronto Environment & Energy Division, January 10, 2022.
That is a polite way of saying “we had some really aggressive ideas, but we know enough not to bring them to Council”.
“Transit” vs “Transition”
In the process of reviewing the reports, I searched on the word “transit”, but got hits more frequently on “transition” as there are many other sectors where reduction or elimination of emissions are possible and on a large scale.
According to the most recent greenhouse gas inventory, transportation is the second largest source of GHG emissions, accounting for 36 percent of total emissions with approximately 97 per cent of all transportation emissions originating from passenger cars, trucks, vans, and buses. Gasoline accounts for about 30 per cent of Toronto’s total GHG emissions.
TransformTO: Critical Steps for Net Zero by 2040. p. 30
Here is a pie chart showing the relative contribution of each proposed action in the Attachment C list which is a more aggressive set of changes than Council adopted. Note the small contribution of transit (red) compared with other areas such as personal and commercial vehicles and changes to building energy use.
Another way to look at this is shown in a chart of energy sources and emissions generated by each transportation sector as the full NZ plan is implemented.
Top left: the emissions of urban buses are shown in green. This falls off to zero as the bus fleet electrifies.
Middle left: the decline in diesel (green) is a combination of transit, trucking and a small contribution from diesel-powered autos.
Bottom left: Cars and light trucks are the overwhelming contributors of emissions within the transportation sector.
On the right, the charts are harder to accept at face value because they include the effect of a very large shift of short trips to active transportation. An interesting comparison would be what might happen if autos electrified, but did not lose mode share.
That last point has a knock-on effect because if short trips are not shifted, but are only electrified, they will contribute a substantial demand to generating and charging capacity, not to mention continued auto traffic and competition for road space.
This meeting mainly dealt with the Early Works portion of the Ontario Line and GO Expansion projects between the Don River and Gerrard Street including construction effects and post-completion conditions.
A separate EA looking at the Ontario Line overall including future operations and mitigation of noise and vibration issues will be available in early 2022.
Metrolinx assured everyone that no construction work will begin until the Minister approves the Early Works Environmental Assessment, but that statement is true only as far as it applies to things in the EA.
Other work such as vegetation clearing was approved in the GO Expansion and Electrification EAs, and could start any time. Clearing is already in progress elsewhere in corridor and on the GO network. In the Joint Corridor it will begin later this fall, but specific dates have not been announced. A strange statement by Metrolinx claimed that any removals for the Ontario Line will not take place until the EA is approved by the Minister. This is potentially misleading given that approvals already exist by way of the approved GO Expansion.
Metrolinx appears to be less then forthright about their actual timeline. Meanwhile, they claim that consultation will continue as the project goes into detailed design. That will not occur until well into 2022.
Climate change and the need to “green” party platforms trigger proposals to spend money on transit, especially at election time. An oft-cited stat is that the transportation sector represents the largest contribution to greenhouse gases. This is the launching pad for transit spending proposals, but they are often misguided if not counterproductive.
The emissions due to the public transit sector are a very small portion of the total within “transportation”, and the real problem lies with the vast numbers of trips taken in private autos. If these are not diverted to modes with lower emissions, changes made to transit will achieve little.
Shifting demand to public transit will require more and better transit, and the magnitude of that shift must be substantial to make any dent in overall emissions. Political promises offer money for various schemes, but a gaping hole is better funding for day-to-day operations.
Far too often, plans focus on capital projects: electrification of bus and rail networks, not to mention rapid transit construction. Electrification by itself does not produce one more bus or rail trip, only a cleaner, quieter one. Rapid transit construction can improve travel options in the affected corridors, but system wide benefits and increased demand requires more than a new subway here and there.
Electrification of commuter rail service (GO Transit in Toronto) can bring improvements in travel time and reduced operating costs. Fewer electric trains with better performance can provide the same level of service as more, less sprightly diesel-hauled trains, or conversely more service can be provided at the same cost. This is always a tug of war for transit systems: take the savings from running fewer, faster or larger trains/vehicles, or invest the savings in more service. If all we do is to replace a 15-minute service of 2,000-passenger trains by changing out the locomotive, no additional service is provided and hence no contribution from reduced auto commuting.
A further wrinkle lies in the evolution of railway technology with battery powered trains used for “off wire” service on minor lines where the cost of conventional overhead is prohibitive for the service level, or where the line is not owned by the commuter operator. CN and CP have been quite firm that they will not allow electrification on their trackage and GO, for example, must make do with electrifying tracks that it owns.
Planning for electrification includes power and charging infrastructure as well as fleet plans that can span a few decades given the longevity of railway equipment. Government attention to transit projects can be measured in nanoseconds, especially when a former proponent goes to their electoral rest.
Metrolinx has yet to produce a consolidated roadmap for electrification, and the situation is complicated by a political desire to push rail service beyond its current limits faster than the wire would catch up, if ever. A candidate route for electrification might sprout an extension beyond the trackage Metrolinx owns, and that changes the planning for how the entire corridor will be served.
A further problem lies in Metrolinx’ decision under a former government to leave technology decisions to a future P3 builder/operator of the GO rail network. This is an abdication of the public sector’s role in setting policy, but it suits a political climate where significant decisions can be hidden within the “commercially confidential” P3 arrangements.
Subways, Subways, Subways!
Everybody wants subways, but they do not necessarily produce a change in travel patterns proportionate to their cost and implementation periods. The Spadina extension to Vaughan benefits its riders, but most of them were already using transit for their travel. We have given them a faster trip, but not diverted many cars off of the road.
A fundamental problem with subways is that they tend to be extensions of existing routes and serve demand oriented to downtown areas. Improved connectivity for existing riders is a good thing, but we should take care not to treat a big hole in the ground as automatically producing a huge environmental benefit.
Rapid transit that serves the region cannot depend on subways as a solution. They are too expensive, too long to build and provide too little coverage. What is needed is the will to take road space for a more finely-grained network than a subway plan could achieve, and to focus not just on downtown but on travel across the region. This will be challenging because we have built a car-oriented region with very diverse travel patterns that cannot easily be replaced by transit.
Electrification of bus service will be a nice show of environmental support, but if those buses run infrequently and do not provide a true network of service, they will carry few riders and auto emissions will continue to dominate the roads.
What About eBuses?
Electric buses are starting to make inroads on transit systems as replacements for diesels and diesel-electric hybrids. The TTC’s head-to-head test of three vendors’ products is still underway, but a large purchase is likely within a year. The hope is that new buses will not expose us to the type of reliability issues seen in early hybrid buses (also hailed as a “green” solution in their day, as were the compressed natural gas buses before them).
Electric buses have higher up-front costs, not to mention the charging infrastructure, although they are expected to have lower lifetime operating costs. Schemes to fund electric buses can run aground (and have in the past) if they attempt to achieve too much, too fast.
The nature of provincial and federal programs is that they tend to be short term policies, funding that evaporates if it is not used within a brief period. This was a major problem with some of the pandemic relief for “infrastructure” stimulus because it could not be spent within the allowed time period. A related issue arises if government “A” offers funding that is conditional on governments “B” and “C” chipping in a share. This can trigger a need for a city like Toronto to spend capital it had not planned simply to get the handout from another government within the allowed window. If that funding is tied to a more expensive technology, the net benefit could be zero if old buses are simply replaced one-for-one.
Bus fleets have a lifetime of about 12 years, and the TTC’s fleet, for example, has vehicles of varying ages. Any electrification program that is short term will trigger either premature replacement of buses (some of which themselves may have been bought with previous rounds of “stimulus”), or will limit the program’s take-up to only part of the fleet.
If governments are not willing to make a long-term commitment to funding, then planning for any conversion will be difficult.
Free Transit is Not The Answer
Another supposedly pro-transit scheme is the reduction or elimination of transit fares. This is a populist appeal to lowering user costs, but it would not contribute anything to actual service.
For medium and large sized system, fares cover much of the operating cost ranging roughly from 40 to 70 per cent. On smaller systems where fares now cover a small proportion of total costs, and service has capacity for higher demand, free transit is a simple option, although it contains the seeds of its own failure if ongoing funding does not keep up with operating costs and demand.
There is a parallel with using ride shares as a transit alternative, and one trial system that ran out of allocated funding because demand exceeded projections. If the response to “we need more service” is “we cannot afford it”, then the political commitment to greening transportation is simply not serious.
The shift to free transit, however provided, could produce more demand, but service will always be constrained by how much we, collectively, are willing to spend.
Without question, the cost of riding transit is one of many things those with little income must juggle. If the desire is to make travel cheaper for them, this should not occur for every rider just because of the political simplicity of the message.
On the TTC, fares contributed just under $1.2 billion in 2019, two-thirds of the system’s total cost. Even a reduction to 50 per cent recovery through fares would have required an added $300 million in annual operating subsidy. If we have that kind of money to redirect as transit subsidy, let alone another $900 million it would take to eliminate fares, might it be better spent on programs directed to those who need them?
Free transit benefits all riders, but only those who choose to shift to transit represent a net “green” saving if they were previously auto users.
It’s All About Service
In all of this, the focus has been to convert existing systems, not to expand the level of service. It is not enough to say “we will help you buy electric buses”. What is needed is a commitment to increasing transit fleets (and building the garages needed to house them), and vitally to the ongoing operation of these vehicles to provide more service, more capacity to draw auto trips onto transit.
We are coming out of the pandemic era with a hope to attract riders from only two years ago back to the system, let alone gaining net new demand. Current TTC bus and streetcar service sits well below the level possible with existing fleets, let alone any expansion. The problem is a lack of operating funds, and by extension with staffing levels. You can’t run a bus or streetcar without someone to drive it, and someone else to maintain it.
At no point has the TTC produced an estimate of the operational and financial implications of full utilization of its bus and streetcar fleets. How much service could be on the road if only we would pay to operate it?
What is completely missing from debates on greener transit and its contribution to emission reduction is the importance of service, of transit as a clear, attractive alternative. A bus with a nice green paint job that shows up every 15 minutes, if it’s on time, is no solution.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is an interactive map of locations where changes are proposed, although it can be tedious to navigate because the default map does not have street names. (You can change this by selecting a different base map from the options in the upper right of the display.)
This map shows roughly the location of the Ontario Line corridor, but gives no detail about extra space, although the map is not to be taken as definitive. Nothing is shown of potential stations for the OL, and there is no information at all in the map for the several proposed SmartTrack stations.
This means that the scope of the project review and the combined effect GO Expansion will have with other projects is not known. Moreover, it would be foolish to approve a project based on a spec that did not include two major additions that are somewhere in the Metrolinx pipeline.
Stations, be they for the Ontario Line or for GO/SmartTrack require platforms and circulation elements (stairs, elevators, roads) but there is no hint of the space these will take.
Metrolinx will conduct a series of public meetings at various locations to present information about their plans for the GO Transit network.
Date and Time
Markham Village Community Centre
6041 Highway 7
Markham, ON L3P 3A7
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Southshore Community Centre
205 Lakeshore Drive
Barrie, ON L4N 7Y9
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Aurora Community Centre
1 Community Centre Lane
Aurora, ON L4G 7B1
Monday, February 24, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Scarborough Civic Centre
150 Borough Drive
Toronto, ON M1P 4N7
Monday, February 24, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Evergreen Brick Works
550 Bayview Avenue
Toronto, ON M4W 3X8
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Central Recreation Centre
519 Drury Lane
Burlington, ON L7R 2X3
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
3840 Finch Avenue East
Toronto, ON M1T 3T4
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Lucie & Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre
at George Brown College
80 Cooperage Street
Toronto, ON M5A 0J3
Thursday, February 27, 2020
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Vaughan City Hall
2141 Major Mackenzie Drive West
Vaughan, ON L6A 1T1
Saturday, February 29, 2020
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
55 Gordon Street
Whitby, ON L1N 0J2
Saturday, February 29, 2020
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
For the full set of documents, go first to the list of “participation opportunities”, then click through to an individual project page, and finally select the “Important Documents” tab. The same set of documents appears on every project’s page.
An important note here is that electrification is still officially an important part of the overall plan. The provincial flirtation with Hydrogen Trains seems to have disappeared at least for the projects on the major GO corridors that Metrolinx owns.
This is intriguing because Metrolinx has been sidestepping the decision on technology by saying that the private sector partners in the expansion plan would make that choice. Now, their literture is full of electrification including one document about effects on vegetation along the rail corridors to provide clearance for the infrastructure, and another on electromagnetic fields.
Several key documents are online as I write this on the morning of February 18, 2020.
Station Overview : Despite its title, this document covers many other topics, notably planned service levels for the GO corridors.
Station Studies : The title of this document is misleading because it contains little about actual stations, but a lot about environmental issues and a catalog of “cultural heritage” features which are bridges on the Richmond Hill and Lakeshore West corridors.
Infrastructure : This is the most extensive of the documents with information about bridges, stations and yard expansion plans.
Don Branch Storage Area Roll Map : The only detailed map of proposed infrastructure online at this point (February 18, 2020 at 5 pm) is a map showing the proposed use of the Don Branch as a three-train storage facility northeast of Union Station. There are no detailed maps for other projects.