Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (I)

In December 2013, the Neptis Foundation published a review of the Metrolinx Big Move plan authored by Michael Schabas. This review received prominent attention in the Toronto Star and is regularly cited in their coverage of transportation issues. Some elements also appear in recent comments by Transportation Minister Glen Murray, and it is reasonable to assume that his view of Metrolinx priorities has been influenced by the Neptis paper.

Since its publication, I have resisted writing a detailed critique in part because of the sheer size of the document and my disappointment with many claims made in it, and a hope that it would quietly fade from view. Recent Ministerial musings suggest that this will not happen.

The stated goals of the report arose from four basic questions posed shortly after The Big Move was released in 2008:

  • What evidence suggests that the projects in the Big Move will double the number of transit riders and significantly reduce congestion in the region, as promised by Metrolinx?
  • Does each project offer good value for money?
  • Do all the projects add up to a substantial regional transit network or is the Big Move just an amalgam of projects put forward by diverse sponsors?
  • How do the projects in the Big Move relate to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, its land use equivalent? [Page 2]

The report itself addresses a somewhat different set of questions and notably omits the land use component.

  • Will the Big Move projects achieve the Metrolinx objective of doubling transit ridership?
  • Are these projects consistent with Metrolinx’s own “guiding principles”?
  • Are they well-designed, consistent with international best practice, and integrated with other transport infrastructure?
  • Will they support a shift of inter-regional travel onto transit?
  • Are there alternative, more effective schemes that should be considered?
  • What changes would help Metrolinx produce better results? [Page 14]

Schabas’ work is frustrating because on some points he is cogent, right on the mark.

Metrolinx has bumbled through its existence protected from significant criticism, swaddled in a cocoon of “good news” and the presumed excellence of its work. To be fair, the agency operates in a political environment where independent thought, especially in public, is rare, and years of planning can be overturned by governmental whim and the need to win votes.

That said, Metrolinx is a frustrating, secretive organization conducting much of its business in private, and tightly scripting public events. Schabas rightly exposes inconsistencies in Metrolinx work, although his own analysis and alternatives are, in places, flawed and blinkered.

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Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (II)

This article is the second section of my critique of the December 2013 review of the Metrolinx Big Move Plan written by Michael Schabas for the Neptis Foundation. It should be read in conjunction with Part I and following sections.

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Liberals Plan Transit One Tweet At A Time

Premier Kathleen Wynne recently unveiled the Moving Ontario Forward plan which, at this point, consists of a website and a  general idea of what level of spending we could see. The details won’t be released until the budget is tabled in early May.

Some ideas come out in comments by Transportation & Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray who is as active on Twitter at times as he is in press scrums. How much these comments are realistic, how much they reflect government policy or detailed study, is quite another matter.

From a funding point of view, there will be two pots of money – one for the GTHA and one for the Rest Of Ontario.  When the Transit Panel released its Making The Move revenue tool proposal, misinformed media stoked the idea that rural gas taxes would go to pay for subways in Toronto even though this was explicitly rejected by the panel.

The solution is to fund the non-GTHA projects with non-GTHA money, in effect building a wall around whatever the “GTHA” means for planning purposes from day to day. This may quiet those who feel “Toronto” gets everything, but with the scale of transit operations in southern Ontario, “Toronto” grows every time the government announces a new GO service.

The political rhetoric takes the Scarborough-vs-Downtown battle over rapid transit spending to a province-wide scale. Perish the thought that Thunder Bay should pay one penny toward a rapid transit line in Toronto even though they will reap the benefit from cars manufactured to operate it. The Liberals bought into this divisive talk to win a by-election in Scarborough, ironically in a riding that won’t even see a subway line. The danger is that even within the GTHA, voters may well ask “why should I pay for a service I won’t use”.

According to the Premier’s announcement, “nearly $29 billion” will be split between the GTHA and non-GTHA funding pools over the coming decade with four sources of funding:

  • “Repurposing” the sales tax (HST) now charged on gasoline and diesel fuel for on-road use;
  • “Redirecting” 7.5 cents of the existing fuel tax;
  • Sales of government assets, and
  • Proceeds of a “Green Bonds” program.

Among the tactics proposed by the Transit Panel was the leveraging of any revenue stream through borrowing. A government that once was terrified of more public debt may now embrace it with the proviso that it can be retired with earmarked revenue.

The problem here is that new spending requires either new revenues, or cuts in expenses elsewhere. Shifting existing tax streams into a transit fund will leave a hole in general revenues that could be made up by other taxes on classic targets such as the well-to-do and the corporate sector. We must await for the budget for any details.

A backgrounder from the Ministry of Finance hints at some of the projects that might be funded:

Proceeds from the dedicated fund for the GTHA would help build the next set of priority projects included in Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan, The Big Move. Projects identified in The Big Move include: GO Rail Service Expansion (more two-way, all day and rush hour service) on key corridors, Brampton Queen Street Rapid Transit, Dundas Street Bus Rapid Transit, Durham-Scarborough Bus Rapid Transit, Hamilton Rapid Transit, Hurontario-Main LRT linking Mississauga and Brampton, a Relief Line, and Yonge North Subway Expansion to York Region. The fund could also support other transit infrastructure projects that stimulate economic development and improve mobility, such as the East Bayfront Light Rail Transit project.

This list sticks mainly to the established Metrolinx plans and implies that they still have some relevance in this very political setting. However, a backgrounder on GO Regional Express Rail ups the ante:

The new Moving Ontario Forward plan would work toward phasing in electric train service every 15 minutes on all GO lines.

This is a rather careful statement, and the words “work toward phasing in” have been the death knell of more than one project, most recently the Transit City LRT plan. The backgrounder talks of the benefits, oddly, of relieving subway congestion rather than of the much larger regional role GO could have.

It would also give commuters within Toronto another way to get downtown by increasing service between GO stations and Union Station. A commuter could get to Union Station from Danforth GO Station in just 9 minutes, or from Bloor GO Station in just 15 minutes.

This ignores the problem of transferring between routes and the substantial barrier now posed by GO’s separate and punitive fares for travel over short distances within the city. It also presumes there would be capacity available for such short-hop trips. Near-downtown trips were an odd choice to feature in such an important announcement.

Although the “Downtown Relief Line” is still mentioned as an important part of overall plans, work now underway by Metrolinx and comments by some politicians imply that they would love to put this project on a slow track with GO improvements taking up the role. If nothing else, this would free up money in the short-to-medium term for large pet projects elsewhere. Both GO and an expanded subway system have a role to play, but too much rhetoric has focused on single-line “solutions” rather than a network view.

All this begs the question of just how much of The Big Move will actually survive the Minister’s interventions.

In qualifying the electrification plans, both the Premier and the Minister talk of “lines that we own”, although the Minister is on record about acquiring more track for GO:

“We’re looking at higher speed connectivity, buying up rail lines more aggressively, improving service outcomes and more regular two-way GO service,” Murray said of the priorities that will be laid out in the budget.

… he said the province is actively buying up rail capacity so that GO Trains are no longer seen as “tenants” on other railroad’s lines.

“We now own 80 per cent of the track that we need to own, we will be buying up the remaining 20 per cent and a lot of that is on the lines that come to Kitchener,” Murray said.

[Kitchener-Waterloo Record March 31, 2014]

That will be a challenge considering that portions GO does not yet own are the main lines of CNR and CPR, not lightly used or abandoned branches.

GO has long had an aversion to electrification both because of objections from the railways whose lines would be affected, and from a chronic lack of strong, dedicated funding that could expand service and operations to a range where electrification made sense. Changing that outlook would be quite a coup, but this depends on continuity in the government and long-term commitment to transformation of the GO network. GO must have a publicly announced plan for expansion and improvement beyond whatever is needed to win the election of the day.

On the municipal front, things are not quite as clear. Although the Metrolinx Investment Strategy included 25% of new revenues for municipal projects (with 15% going to transit), municipal funding was completely absent in this announcement. Indeed, Murray has rather testily noted that Toronto, especially, already gets money from the gas tax and has revenue tools such as Vehicle Registration Tax that it chose not to use.

The gas tax revenue, of course, has been established for many years and is worked into the budgets of all local transit systems. It is not “new money”, and can hardly be cited in response to questions about the hoped-for Investment Strategy dollars. [Toronto splits its provincial gas tax between the operating and capital budgets. See 2012 financial statements at page 26 (operating, $91.6m) and page 28 (capital, $75.0m).]

Murray also spoke of “High Speed Rail” in the Toronto KW London corridor, an idea that has been floated before. Although this was unclear in the press statements, Murray’s Twitter exchanges claim that the corridor would see 320 km/h operation (see below). The problem with the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor, however, is not simply getting from one and to the other, but to the many stations in between.

The line once had reasonably frequent VIA trains on rider-friendly schedules, but this service withered through years of cutbacks and, more recently, competition from GO expansion. The infrastructure needed for operation at this speed is substantial, and one must ask whether the corridor’s demand could be better served simply by more frequent service at typical (Canadian) rail passenger speeds up to 150 km/h. Better service for southwestern Ontario risks being highjacked as an HSR technology project rather than a service improvement that could be delivered faster at much less cost.

The operative phrase throughout the announcement was “wait for the budget”.  A Liberal party website promotes the Moving Ontario Forward plan, but is short on details pending the budget announcements.

Meanwhile, Minister Murray, a prolific tweeter, adds his own spin to the debate.  [The tweets have been edited to remove extraneous user ids and hastags. All of this can be retrieved by browsing Murray’s Twitter account @Glen4ONT.]

On April 17, an exchange about GO and Downtown Relief, Murray shows support for both regional and local relief.

Glen Murray: #RER15Min will build transit ridership on local transit routes. Need 2 plan GO-local transit connections together. Greater demand w/RER

Robert Zaichkowski: I wonder if #RER15Min will lead to GO stations being placed closer together? Could be a good #ReliefLine solution.

Glen Murray:  Robert you are absolutely right. Downtown relief needs system wide relief & increased capacity downtown.

Also on April 17, an exchange about the Scarborough Subway.

Rob Salerno: So if Scarb has access to improved GO service, is there still ridership/need for a subway there?

Glen Murray: MLX will make that decision. We will meet our commitments.

Rob Salerno: erg, so now the Scarb subway may be cancelled if @Metrolinx says it’s not necessary?

Glen Murray: No. Let MLX do their job.

Rob Salerno: Huh? Those two sentences are contradictory.

Glen Murray: No. MLX has made a decision. I don’t imagine that will change, but it is their decision.

Oh come off it, Glen. The idea that Metrolinx makes any decision independently of the government is riotously laughable. The Liberals ran on a Scarborough Subway platform to win the Scarborough-Guildwood by-election, and Murray himself is pushing a subway from Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre via the existing SRT alignment.

It’s amusing that in one line, Murray says that Metrolinx “will make” the decision, and later that they “have made” it. One of these statements cannot be true.

Is there now a recognition that the rationale for the subway may have been cooked to placate Scarborough voters (not to mention the Scarborough Liberal Caucus)? Might a proper analysis show that another option including GO improvements might be preferable? If Metrolinx made a decision, where was this analysis? Nobody has ever published a review including GO services, the subway option and the Scarborough LRT network proposals.

Even better, what would happen if an independent Metrolinx actually concluded that the Scarborough Subway was a waste of money? Would such a report ever see the light of day?

In a discussion with the Globe’s Oliver Moore, we hear about the benefits of more frequent off-peak service.

Oliver Moore: Increased GO service will lead to higher ridership and lower subsidy required, @Glen4ONT says. Could lead to more competitive fares.

‏@GTAMOVEnetwork: The big problem is spending the money required to take GO transit from “commuter” to “rapid transit” and in ensuring that the investment in GO Transit will not be pulled back in the first 3 years when ROI is not great.

Glen Murray: Not an issue at all.

‏@GTAMOVEnetwork: I very much hope so. This is going to be a huge investment and ROI won’t be seen for a long time.

Glen Murray: ‏Not true. 1/2 hour Lakeshore service increased ridership & fare revenue by 30% in less than a yr.

This discussion dodges the basic point that capital costs have never been considered in evaluating GO’s business, only day-to-day operating costs. The situation is the same at the TTC. It is very unlikely that GO will make a profit from extra fares with expanded service. If anything, one could argue that service improvements should come as quickly as possible to maximize the ridership and convenience from the capital investment.

On service to Niagara Falls, London and “HSR”:

Glen Murray: Niagara will be getting 15min Regional Express Rail. See today’s announcement. Completed with in 10 yrs.

Tom W: Wynne said GO-owned tracks only – still valid? Or will GO be buying tracks from Burlington to Niagara Falls?

Glen Murray: No. All tracks we own or lease.

Tom W: Thanks! Also, does “high-speed rail” to London mean 200+km/hr?

Glen Murray: 320KM

Tom W: To be clear, you’re promising a train with a top speed of 320 kilometres per hour running from Toronto to London?

Murray really seems to be freelancing on both of these issues given the ownership and existing uses of the corridors in question, not to mention the challenge of truly high speed operation in the KW-London corridor.

On April 17, asked about travel across Toronto rather than to the core:

Glen Murray: #RER15Min is 15 minute service across the GTHA using Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) running on all GO lines. Huge reduction in congestion.

Saurabh: Someone going from York region to Peel can bypass Union?

Glen Murray: Yes. Once the Crosstown is complete. It is under construction now.

Someone should mention to the Minister that his own government chopped off the western end of the Crosstown, and unless the boundary of Peel Region is now at Weston Road, the Crosstown won’t get someone to Peel from Richmond Hill even presuming they wanted to take such a route.

And finally on April 19:

Glen Murray: Projects 4 Prov funding will b evaluated by MLX based on Big Move priority & net benefits.

This, of course, presumes that “net benefits” are fairly calculated and don’t include politically inflated assumptions.

When the budget comes out, we will see just how much of the “promises” made here have survived.

Metrolinx Contemplates Relief (2)

This article is a continuation of a previous commentary on the Metrolinx Yonge Network Relief Strategy.

On February 14, 2014, the Metrolinx Board considered the presentation on the Yonge Network Relief Study, but little information was added in the debate.  One question, from Chair Robert Prichard, went roughly “shouldn’t this have been started two years ago”, but it was left hanging in the air without a response.  Two years, of course, has brought us a new Provincial Premier and a recognition that her predecessor’s timidity on the transit file wasted a great deal of time.

Moreover, there is a long overdue acknowledgement that Metrolinx cannot simply plan one line at a time without understanding network effects including those beyond its own services.

Originally, I planned to leave the next installment in this discussion until public consultation sessions began, but I have now decided to make some brief comments on the various options that will be on the table.  (See Yonge Network Relief Study, page 11.)

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Metrolinx Contemplates Relief

At its meeting on February 14, 2014, the Metrolinx Board will receive a presentation on the Yonge Network Relief Study. Despite the need for better regional transit links (and by that I mean links that do not take people to downtown Toronto), the elephant in the room has always been the unstoppable demand for more capacity into the core area. Planning for and debates about catching up with the backlog of transit infrastructure cannot avoid this issue, and it skews the entire discussion because the scale and cost of serving downtown is greater than any other single location in the GTHA.

Conflicting political and professional attitudes across the region colour the view of downtown.  Toronto suburbs, never mind the regions beyond the city boundary, are jealous of downtown’s growth, and for decades have wanted some of the shiny new buildings and jobs for themselves. But the development, such as it was, skipped over the “old” suburbs to new areas in the 905 that could offer lower taxes possible through booming development and the low short-term cost of “new” cities.

Strangling downtown is not a new idea, and politicians decades ago foretold of gleaming suburban centres to redirect growth together with its travel demand. The transit network would force-feed the new centres, and downtown would magically be constrained by not building any new transit capacity to the core.

Someone forgot to tell GO Transit where service and ridership grew over the decades. Downtown Toronto continued to build, and that is now compounded by the shift of residential construction into the older central city.

Thanks to the early 1990s recession, the subway capacity crisis that had built through the 1980s evaporated, and the TTC could talk as if more downtown capacity was unneeded. To the degree it might be required, the marvels of new technology would allow them to stuff more riders on existing lines. A less obvious motive was that this would avoid competition for funding and political support between new downtown capacity with a much-favoured suburban extension into York Region. Whenever they did talk about “downtown relief”, the TTC did so with disdain.

Times have changed. Long commutes are now a burden, not a fast escape to suburban paradise. Every debate starts with “congestion” and the vain hope that there is a simple, take-two-pills-and-call-me-in-the-morning solution. Top that off with an aversion for any taxes that might actually pay for improvements, or sacrifices in convenience until that blissful day when transit arrives at everyone’s doorstep.

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Another DRL Proposal or Just Another Gerrymander? (Update 2)

Updated August 2, 2013 at 6:00am:

André Sorensen has written a commentary in today’s Star expanding on his proposed use of the rail corridor for express airport service and a quasi Downtown Relief line.  I’m with him on a more intelligent use of the rail corridor, especially to the northwest of downtown, but not with the premise that this could replace the proposed subway from Don Mills & Eglinton to the core.

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Union Station & Rail Corridor Capacity

At the recent Metrolinx Board meeting, staff presented an overview of planning now underway for the future of Union Station.  One background report addressed the future levels of GO, VIA and other services at Union and the surrounding rail corridors.  This report makes interesting, if unsurprising, reading because it confirms what anyone with even a modest understanding of railway operations already knows:  there are severe capacity constraints at Union as it is now configured and operated.  Too much discussion focuses on a bright future of frequent service without considering how we will fit all the trains and passengers through the hub of the network.

The full report is not online at Metrolinx, but I have obtained a copy.  Due to its size, I will not link the entire document here.  If you just want the highlights, read the Executive Summary.  For more details including a description of the evolving simulations of various levels of service, read the main report.

USRC Track Study Executive Summary

USRC Track Study Main Report

The study considered various scenarios corresponding to stages in the growth of GO and other services over coming decades:

  • Base Case:  The existing service at Union, including a reservation of two tracks out of service for the reconstruction project.  This was used to calibrate the model.
  • 2015:  Construction at the train shed is completed giving two more tracks for service.  The only new peak hour service beyond the base case would be a few VIA trains and the Air Rail Link.
  • Electrification study base case:  This configuration was used as a starting point for the recent electrification study, and it assumes two-way service on all corridors.  Three variants of this were tested to refine operations and remove constraints triggered by service at a much higher level than today.
  • Maximum capacity:  This configuration attempted to maximise service on all corridors.

The study concludes that significant changes will be required both in the physical plant (track, signals) and in train operations which will have to be managed considerably more tightly than today.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting November 23, 2011 (Part I)

The agenda for November 23rd’s meeting of the Metrolinx Board is now online and it includes several reports of interest.  Here I will deal with GO transit performance and capacity issues.  In a future article, I will turn to Presto (and the proposed TTC implementation which is also on the TTC’s agenda for November 23), the Air Rail Link, and planning issues at “Mobility Hubs”.

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Not Quite Greased Lightning: GO Transit to Electrify, Eventually

Today, Metrolinx released its long-awaited study of GO Transit electrification.  I will comment on this in more detail over the next day or so, but here are preliminary observations while the news is fresh.

Updated 4:30 pm: The study appendices are now available online.  I have not incorporated any information from them in the article below.

The study finds that electrification is a worthwhile venture on selected, well-used corridors, and that it is an important foundation for the growth of GO Transit into its regional role proposed in Metrolinx’ Big Move.

The proposed staging of the electrification project (all times are estimates) is:

  • Preliminary design and Environmental Assessments (3-4 yrs)
  • Union to Pearson Airport, and Union to Mimico (Willowbrook Shops) (4-5 years)
  • Pearson Airport spur to Brampton (Mt. Pleasant) (2 years)
  • Union to Oshawa (including access to a new eastern maintenance shops) (4 years)
  • Mimico to Oakville (2 years)
  • Oakville to Hamilton (James Street Station) (2 years)
  • Oshawa to Bowmanville (2 years)
  • Brampton to Kitchener (2-3 years)

Other corridors were studied, but the best benefit-cost ratio was found to be the combination of Georgetown and Lake Shore.  Events over the next decades may prove this to be short-sighted, but that’s today’s plan.

The implementation is rather leisurely, and if all of its phases take place sequentially, it will be the early 2030s before this scheme is completed.  The Environmental Assessments will use the expedited process most recently seen on the Transit City projects.  This will avoid the need for “alternatives analysis” on projects where the alignment and technology selections are a foregone conclusion, and the “terms of reference” will be much simpler than a full EA.

No individual benefit is cited for electrification, but rather the combined effect of contributions to travel time savings, operating costs, reliability, environmental concerns and long-term capacity of the GO system.

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GO Electrification & Air Rail Link Updates (Update 2)

Updated Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm: Metrolinx today announced that it will be ordering DMUs from Sumitomo, piggy backing on the Sonoma-Marin order.  The statement, which is available in full on the Metrolinx site, includes:

Metrolinx will be entering into formal negotiations with Sumitomo Corporation of America to exercise an option from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (California) procurement contract to purchase up to eighteen (18) highly efficient Diesel Multiple Units (DMU’s). These vehicles will meet stringent Tier 4 emissions standards and will be convertible to electric for the Air Rail Link.

Updated Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm: Information on the proposed Sonoma-Marin “SMART” Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) acquisition has been linked from this article and the price per unit cited by me in the original text has been corrected.  See the section on the ARL for updates.

The original article (as amended) from November 12 follows below.

On Tuesday, November 16, the Metrolinx Board will receive updates on the GO Transit Electrification Study and on the status of the Air Rail Link to Pearson from Union Station.

The Electrification Study has been underway through 2010 and it has produced a number of background reports.  I will leave the truly keen readers to plough through all of this, but a few high points deserve mention.

  • Electric locomotives are the most cost-effective option for GO services
  • The most value-for-money comes from electrifying entire corridors

That electric operations are better for GO is no surprise to anyone who has watched the growth of electric railways worldwide.  Sadly, GO has decades of saying “no” to electrics on the grounds that investment in better service trumped investment in technology at the service levels then in effect.  With the proposals found in The Big Move, this position is no longer valid.

The study workshops have seen vigourous debate on the issue of locomotives vs a fleet of electric multiple units (EMUs).  It is cheaper to haul longer trains of coaches with one electric locomotive than to power each car in a train.  However, this places a limitation on acceleration and speed between stations because the locomotive must do all of the work.  (Only the locomotive’s wheels provide the power for acceleration, and there are limits to the forces that can be transmitted in this manner.)

The finding that full corridor electrification is most cost-effective comes from the high cost of dual-mode locomotives and the operational constraints that would probably exist if only some units had this capability.  Only trains with “off-wire” capability could be dispatched to outer, peak-only parts of corridors.  The study does not review a configuration with a mix of pure diesel-hauled trains with electric trains, although these would have effectively the same operational constraints.

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