A Very Busy GO Corridor (Updated)

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

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

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

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

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Yet Another Fantasy Map Clouds Regional Planning

On March 29, 2021, the Toronto Region Board of Trade released a proposal Getting on the Right Track – Connecting Communities With Regional Rail as the second of a planned series that will eventually include:

I reviewed the first report in The Siren Song of Regional Fare Integration and will not duplicate my comments on the Board of Trade’s fare proposals beyond the level needed to explain how the scheme in Getting on the Right Track dovetails with this.

From the title of the article, one can easily guess that I was not entranced with the Board’s proposal, and I should make clear why right at the outset.

First: Although the plan includes a very robust regional network with frequent service on all GO corridors, there is too much talk of how everything will work when it is finished, and not enough about how we actually get from here to there.

Second: As with so much regional planning that comes out of Metrolinx, there is no discussion of last mile costs and service, nor of the burden local municipalities would face in providing them. Yes, a “last mile” report is in the offing, but this could range anywhere from massive increases in publicly funded local transit to an embrace of ride sharing services. The report contains not even a hint of how the vastly improved service will get riders to and from its stations.

Third: The focus is very strongly on Toronto (the 416) where there is an established transit system that can provide frequent service at connection points, but less on how this would scale outward into the 905 and beyond.

Fourth: The Invisible Line report and its fare-by-distance proposal is assumed as a pre-requisite even though there is no agreement that this is how fares should and will be calculated. In particular, its gerrymandering of fare zone boundaries and the tariff has not been subject to critical review outside of venues such as this blog.

Many proposals in Getting on the Right Track are good and provide a level of background we have not seen from the nominal regional planner Metrolinx, an agency that prefers to save proposals for Ministerial photo ops and routinely hides details under confidentiality provisions.

To give Metrolinx their due, a key shortcoming in the Board of Trade’s report is that it does not clarify which parts of its proposal are works already in the Metrolinx pipeline, and which are net additions to the scheme. Indeed, maps purporting to show regional networks and travel times do not even acknowledge rapid transit lines planned and under construction that will open within the timeframe of the Board’s proposal.

An untutored reader might think that almost nothing is underway, that the Board has returned from the mountaintop with the one true word on regional transit.

Finally, and particularly toward the end of the report, elements creep in which feel like pet rail projects with only minimal evaluation. They are included either because the Board sought to curry favour with politicians in the affected areas, or because someone had too many crayons to play with. I leave it to the dedicated reader to peruse those parts of the report.

There is a sense throughout that what might have been a reasonable proposal for Metrolinx to aim higher in its plans evolved into a design exercise that substitutes detail and volume for practicality.

“Organization Before Technology Before Concrete”

On page 20, the Board makes a key observation, if only by implication, about how transit is planned in the GTHA by citing a practice elsewhere:

The German-speaking world has propounded the planning and engineering doctrine of “organization before technology before concrete.” The highest priority is to resolve issues of organization, which includes factors like fare and service integration between agencies. Then, technology, such as better signalling systems and rolling stock, should be improved. The last priority is the building of new infrastructure, like additional tracks and grade separations on corridors. This prioritization provides the most economically efficient means of improving service and capacity on a network.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 20

This is one of several cases where there is an implicit, if not explicit observation that the way “we” do business is out of step with good practices elsewhere, or even just common sense here. However, the Board has violated its own principle by driving through an entire network design exercise without clearly figuring out goals, not to mention the basic question of how much we might be prepared to spend on this transit network.

“We” is a tricky term here because there are three levels of government each of which prefers to fund only certain types of service and infrastructure, and each has significant blind spots in the financing and funding of public transit.

In this article, I will not attempt an exhaustive review because even my readers have limits to their patience. Moreover, there are points where one must peer very deeply into the crystal ball, make too many assumptions about actual future circumstances. If our current situation teaches anything, it is that the future will change.

Guiding Principles

This section is buried down on page 21, and yet it is absolutely key to the entire discussion. It is so important that I will include its text here.

Drawing from international best practices, it is possible to demonstrate five guiding principles that form part of successful implementations of regional rail. Based on these principles, it is possible to design a network and operations plan for the Toronto Region.

Two-way, All-day Service

The majority of trips in any region – even work trips – do not involve the downtown core and do not take place at rush hour. A service plan that provides service all day, every day is essential if a regional rail system is to become a core part of the regional transit network.

High Frequency (turn up and go)

Research by Transport for London indicates that riders on routes with a frequency of 12 minutes or less will not need to consult a schedule and can instead simply “turn up and go.”

This level of service has been demonstrated to drive major increases in ridership. Frequency is even more important when making connections because wait times can multiply when a trip involves several connecting segments, and a missed connection could result in an unacceptable delay.

Seamless Integration with Local Transit

On a busy commuter rail service like GO Transit, park-and-ride lots fill up early in the morning. That makes them effectively useless for mid-day travellers. For two-way, all-day service, there needs to be another way to access the station. Transit-oriented development can play a role – and provides a major opportunity for recovery of regional rail investment – but as the TTC subway demonstrates, the most effective way to deliver large numbers of riders is by seamlessly integrating rail with local bus and streetcar services. That means fully integrated fares – a transfer is an inconvenience, so you should not have to pay more for it. It also means having bus routes designed to connect with stations, additional rail stations to connect with busy surface corridors, and schedules with timed transfers where necessary. The objective is to create the equivalent of a subway backbone for the whole region, serving local trips as much as long-haul. By being a backbone of a broader transit network, regional rail does not just serve residents of neighbourhoods adjacent to stations – it serves everyone in the region.

Focus on Equity

Planning should intend to prioritize improved access to employment opportunities and services for equity-seeking communities. This means reducing travel times, locating additional stations where they would serve communities like the City of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, and ensuring that fares are not prohibitively expensive. Transit must function as an integrated network, particularly for those who rely on it for all their trips so it is imperative that no transit mode be deemed “premium.”

Integration with Regional Planning

With its region-wide extent and high level of service, regional rail should become a centrepiece of regional planning. In Copenhagen, for example, all substantial office developments must be located within walking distance of a rail station. This would not be possible today in Toronto, given the limited size of the existing rapid transit network, but it could be possible with regional rail. Greenfield suburban developments could be designed around rail stations, creating “15-minute communities” oriented to walking and cycling, rather than following the traditional auto-oriented pattern centred on concession road blocks. Regional rail is the most feasible path to a truly transit-oriented region.

These are key principles not just for a regional rail network, but for transit in general. They run counter to so much of what would-be transit riders are fobbed off with.

“High frequency” really does mean frequent service, not a train now and then when it is convenient to run one. This requires a commitment to both capital and operating costs for the rail network.

“Seamless integration” means an end to assuming that parking will solve all access problems, and that the rail system’s revenue stream is sacrosanct. The concept of a “premium” service as a justification to charge higher fares on part of the network simply does not work if the rail lines are the key, backbone component of a whole. This is an example of how looking at only one aspect – fare revenue – distracts from the larger picture of the potential contribution and value of the rail network for mobility.

As for regional rail and planning, this is a fascinating position for the Board of Trade because it implies that we would dictate where development could and could not occur. Will we also consider network effects of overbuilding at selected “hot” development nodes, and the implications for road congestion and pollution of allowing growth away from transit stations?

The Trillium Network

Yes, it’s a branding exercise, and the Board makes no bones about this. It has a nice sound, and it uses the provincial flower. The name and logo might even survive a change of government. There is a spiffy map.

The key point in this design is that services are through-routed at Union Station and arranged in a manner to avoid conflict between four main corridors: Lake Shore, Kitchener-Don-Richmond Hill, Barrie-Don and Milton-Lincolnville. This is not new, and Metrolinx has talked about the need to reorganize its service in a similar way as part of its expansion program.

Services have route numbers all starting with “T” although the nomenclature could be confusing if a scheduler decides that trains will operate between some other pair of endpoints. The combined service through Union Station is impressive with the intent of a massive increase both in GO’s capacity and its usefulness as a regional and local carrier.

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Ontario Line Design Changes Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email from Metrolinx Media Relations, March 26, 2021

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

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

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

The possible downsides or side-effects include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: An Alternate Alignment from the Don River to Carlaw

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

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

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

Over or Under? Can Metrolinx Make Up Their Mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s hear it for tunnels!

Ah … but not so fast …

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Plans for GO Expansion Omit Key Features

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

The consultation runs until December 11, 2020.

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

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

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

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

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GO Transit Expansion Plans & Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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”.