A Few Questions For Metrolinx (II) (Updated)

Updated April 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm: Comments about projected demand at Park Lawn Station have been added at the end of this article.

In a previous article, I reviewed the Metrolinx technical report on the performance of proposed new GO and SmartTrack stations as part of their overall network. At the time, there was some debate about the validity of the report’s analysis.

Metrolinx has now produced a backgrounder to this report which gives greater details about their methodology and results.

This information is interesting not just in its own right as part of GO’s planning, but also in its implications for the City of Toronto’s expectations for GO/SmartTrack service. The service levels listed in the City’s report date from a Metrolinx plan approved by their board in June 2016. The levels shown in the backgrounder are different, and reflect the change to a mix of local and express trains in the GO corridors. The backgrounder takes pains to emphasize that the service plan is not definitive, but the express/local mix of trains is an essential part of GO’s strategy as approved at a recent Board meeting.

The report begins with an introduction common to such documents laying the basic process for “business analysis” of new proposals. This is summarized in the following diagram. The model focuses on a few key factors:

  • The degree to which riders are lost from GO because the addition of stops reduces the competitiveness of GO travel versus driving.
  • The degree to which riders shift to a new station thereby reducing their travel time.
  • The number of new riders who previously drove and are enticed onto transit by the new station.

This scheme underpins recent changes in the planning for services notably through the benefits conferred by a combination of express services (avoided delays from new stations) and level boarding (reduced station dwell times generally). The technical details of “level boarding” have yet to be revealed, but the analysis assumes a benefit through the elimination of the step between platforms and the interior of trains.

The benefits of electrification in reducing overall travel times and allowing for more closely spaced stops are not mentioned at all, and travel time comparisons are based on an electrified service as a starting point. Metrolinx has effectively discarded one of the arguments they used in advocating electrification in the first place.

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Queen’s Park’s Long Overdue Move on Fare Integration

The recently-announced Ontario Budget includes a lot of spending on transportation that transit riders in the GTHA can only hope to see delivered by whoever is in charge at Queen’s Park after the June 2018 election. Even though the budget is as much about vote-getting as about actual governance, it is worth looking at what the promised fare changes would bring if they are implemented.

From the press release:

  • Beginning in early 2019, the province is reducing the cost of GO Transit trips to just $3 for PRESTO users who are travelling under 10 kilometres anywhere on the GO network
  • All GO Transit and Union-Pearson Express trips anywhere within the City of Toronto will be reduced to $3
  • With proceeds from Ontario’s cap on pollution, the province will also provide fare integration discounts of up to $1.50 per ride for anyone who travels between the York, Durham, Brampton and Mississauga transit networks and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), saving regular commuters up to $720 every year
  • PRESTO card users travelling on GO Transit between Union Station and stations near Toronto, such as Port Credit, Malton, Pickering, Ajax or Markham will see fare reductions.

As with any announcement, “the devil is in the details”, and I fired off a series of questions to clarify how this might all work. Responses came back from Metrolinx.

Q1: Regular GO Transit riders now enjoy a monthly cap of 40 fares on their travel. The 36-40th trips are at a discount, and from 41 onward, they are free. Will this apply to the new $3 fare? In other words, is there an upper limit of 40 x $3 = $120 to a rider’s cost of using GO within the 416, or is it open ended like TTC fares where there is no cap unless one buys a pass?

A: Details on this will be worked out as part of our implementation planning and work.

Q2: There are now co-fare arrangements between the 905 systems and GO, as well as between GO and TTC. If someone makes, for example, a YRT-GO-TTC trip, what discounts apply? Are the cofares cumulative?

A: YRT-GO Co-Fare, GO-TTC DDF. Yes, cumulative.

Q3: By analogy to Q1, if a rider makes a three-legged trip regularly, thereby becoming entitled to free rides for the GO segment after 40 trips, what happens to the co-fares? Do they still apply, or does the rider pay full 905 plus TTC fare in this case? The potential savings are “up to $720 per year”. Is this simply a calculation based on 20 commutes for 12 months, or will it be a capped saving?

A: Details on this will be worked out as part of implementation planning and work.

Q4: If someone has a Metropass (or its Presto equivalent), they are not entitled to the TTC-GO co-fare. Is it correct to say that their monthly cost would be the cost of the pass plus $3 times the number of GO trips taken within Toronto?

A: For adults, yes.

Q5: For clarity, is the $3 fare a flat rate even if riders transfer from one GO service to another, such as from Lake Shore to UPX, but stays within Toronto for their trip?

A: Yes as long as [the] individual uses the GO readers for their UP Express trip.

Q5a: If part of their trip is inside Toronto, but a second leg goes outside, does the $3 apply to the “inside Toronto” portion? Example: Rough Hill to Union to Weston is all inside Toronto, but Rouge Hill to Union to Airport is not.

A: Fares for any trips to and from Toronto Pearson Airport remain unchanged.

Q6: The co-fare for GO-TTC is relative to an assumed $1.50 per full adult fare with lower co-fares for those getting discounts like Seniors. Will the same apply to the 905-416 co-fare?

A: Details on this will be worked out in conjunction with the transit agencies.

In brief, the only thing that is nailed down so far is that discounts between each leg of a trip are cumulative so that, for example, a Miway rider travelling to a station within the $3 GO tariff zone and thence to a TTC route will get the Miway co-fare discount, the new low GO transit fare and the GO-TTC discount. Also, transfers between GO services do not attract another fare provided that the trip stays within the city.

Every thing else is to be “worked out”.

There are a variety of scenarios one can construct including the combined effects of bulk fares (passes) on 905 systems, the existing GO Transit monthly fare caps, and whatever co-fare/discount arrangements will exist. Anyone trying to work out the permutations has my sympathy. From the Metrolinx point of view:

The reason these changes will only be introduced in early 2019, is because Metrolinx needs time to work with our transit partners to ensure the various scenarios and all fare rules are in place. This budget provided Metrolinx with direction to move forward on fare integration. [Metrolinx email]

Leaving aside the question of whether the government in place for the 2019-20 budget will support whatever fare scheme Metrolinx comes up with, there are also obvious questions about the implications for service crowding and for possible changes needed in local route networks, mainly on the TTC, to provide better connections with GO stations. The lower fares may look attractive, but actually using the service could be challenging within Toronto.

  • On Lakeshore West, most inbound trains run express from Clarkson to Union with local trains only every half hour in the AM peak. The same arrangement applies outbound on the PM peak.
  • On Lakeshore East, there is a similar pattern with express trains skipping all stops from Rouge Hill to Union, and local trains running roughly twice/hour in the peak, albeit on an irregular headway. Some additional service is provided at Danforth (Main) and Scarborough stations by the Stouffville line’s trains.
    • TTC services in southern Etobicoke and Scarborough focus on the Bloor-Danforth subway, and actually reaching the GO stations (or using the TTC as a connecting service from them) is not easy.
  • On the Milton corridor, trains operate only in the peak period, peak direction although for someone at Kipling Station, the all-local service now operated would actually be better than what is provided at, say, Mimico on the Lakeshore West corridor.
  • The Barrie corridor and the Vaughan subway extension are in direct competition with each other, although service is far more frequent, especially during the off-peak, on the subway than on the hourly GO train, and the GO stations within Toronto are not well-served by the TTC network (other than the connection point at Downsview Park station).
  • The Richmond Hill corridor, like Milton, has only peak service, and its stations within Toronto are poorly served by the TTC.
  • The Stouffville corridor has all-day service with stations that potentially could connect with TTC feeder routes at Steeles (Milliken), Sheppard (Agincourt) and Eglinton (Kennedy). As on Lakeshore, the tradeoff will be for a faster trip bypassing the subway.
  • The Weston corridor is a special case because it hosts not only the GO Kitchener service but also the Union Pearson Express (UPX) trains which provide the most frequent of GO services within Toronto.

The fare reductions for trips from the near-Toronto stations in the 905 could shift some travel away from the subway, although few of the stations are well-located for this purpose. The Richmond Hill corridor is the most obvious of these, but the limited service there does not offer a lot to diverting demand.

As a follow-up question, I asked Metrolinx whether they had any demand studies to show travel patterns with the new fares, to the degree that these are known. Their reply is pending, and I will update this article when I receive further info.

It is well-known that the demand models are sensitive to three factors: trip speed, service frequency and fare level. This came out quite clearly in the background studies for SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway where ST would succeed in drawing significant riding only if it operated frequently and cheaply, as originally touted in John Tory’s campaign. Just how many riders the lower GO fares, by themselves, will attract remains to be seen. A related problem, of course, is the question of train capacity if many actually shift to GO.

Not to be forgotten in all of this are the cross-border travellers between the 905 and 416 (in both directions) for whom a discounted fare will be a benefit. However, if this is only available to riders paying the full adult fare in each jurisdiction, this could undo the benefit now enjoyed by pass users who will not get any further discount. This would be particularly important if a pass holder took many “local” trips on the TTC in addition to cross-border trips into the 905.

In general, riders who already enjoy some sort of discount like seniors and students will benefit far less from the new tariff.

Whether any of this will come to pass is purely speculative at this point given the tenuous status of the current government and the well-known, vague bluster of their principal opposition.

Metrolinx (and by implication its political masters) have wasted years on pursuit of “fare integration” schemes that began with the premise of revenue neutrality to limit the government’s cost through added subsidies, and with the underlying view that distance-based fares were the end state at which they would aim. Had the option of added subsidy and reduction of short-haul GO fares been part of the mix a few years ago, the entire debate over fare integration could have taken a completely different path and a new tariff would already be in place.

Transit policy should arise from reasoned, open evaluation of alternatives, including those that may require an “investment” to make them work, not from a deathbed change of heart by an unpopular government facing defeat at the polls.

New SmartTrack/GO Station Designs (III)

In two previous articles I review new station plans for the Weston and Stouffville corridors that are part of the SmartTrack scheme. This article turns to stations on the Lakeshore East corridor at Gerrard/Carlaw and at East Harbour.

At a public meeting on March 21, 2018, there was a large crowd who raised many of the same issues from residents along other parts of the corridor.

Cost: Capital, Operating and Future Fare Integration

Metrolinx’ recent report on new stations included a capital cost estimate of $1.195 billion for the construction of six SmartTrack stations. A report on the overall financing of SmartTrack, which also includes the proposed Eglinton West LRT extension, is expected to be on the April 2018 Executive Committee agenda.

However, there is no information yet on an operating agreement for SmartTrack service or for the cost to Toronto of “fare integration” between the TTC and GO/SmartTrack services. Metrolinx representatives tend to be evasive when pressed on these issues for the simple reason that they don’t have any answers. If there are concrete proposals on the table between Metrolinx and the City, there has been no indication of any details. This is likely to be a very delicate matter heading into an election at both levels of government and a possible change in provincial transit policies.

If fare integration requires additional subsidies, this will probably be substantially at Toronto’s cost, and could represent a diversion of transit operating dollars from other needed improvements to the wider TTC system. There is also the question of whether integrated pricing will eventually extend to all GO services within Toronto, and the potential for cost increases if the amount of service is expanded from planned GO/RER levels to the claims made for SmartTrack at recent public meetings.

The current peak service levels planned for parts of the corridor, as described on the Metrolinx website are:

  • Weston corridor: Four trains/hour between Bramalea and Union overlaid by four trains/hour to Mount Pleasant of which two/hour in the peak direction would extend to Kitchener. The Bramlea trains would provide the “local” service stopping at the new SmartTrack stations.
  • Stouffville corridor: Four trains/hour between Unionville and Union overlaid by three trains/hour to Lincolnville in the peak direction. The Unionville trains would provide the “local” service.
  • Lakeshore East corridor: Four trains/hour between Oshawa and Union.

If express trains on either corridor, including the Oshawa service, stop at any of the new stations, this would be at East Harbour given the projected demand.

The original service design proposed in June 2016 was for all trains to run local, but Metrolinx has revised this to a mix of local and express trains. The claim of 6-10 trains/hour (corresponding to headways of 10 to 6 minutes) at SmartTrack stations which has been made at all three of the public meeting simply does not line up with current Metrolinx plans. It is misleading to claim that SmartTrack will in any way be “subway like” at this service level except at the express stations, which do not even include all of the existing GO stations.

Metrolinx has talked of trying to increase the local service, but the infrastructure has not been designed for this. Moreover, it is unclear who would pay the cost of more local “SmartTrack” service and the added infrastructure this could require.

Noise and Pollution

A major issue for residents along the Lakeshore corridor west from Scarborough Junction is the potential for noise and pollution as the level of GO service increases. Metrolinx is less than honest in its discussion of this issue because the context of the new station studies takes a narrow view of the station effects, not of the wider issue of the accumulating increase in all types of service.

At the currently planned service levels, there will be the following trains on the Lakeshore corridor from East Harbour to Scarborough Junction:

  • Four trains/hour each way on the Oshawa service
  • An unspecified number of extra “express” trains in the peak direction to/from Oshwas
  • Four trains/hour each way on the Unionville service
  • Three trains/hour in the peak direction to/from Lincolnville
  • VIA service including possible future upgrades to train frequency

This gives in the range of 20 trains/hour in total, or one every three minutes. Some of these will eventually be electrified, but not necessarily all of them, and in any event Metrolinx is likely to improve service from existing levels before the electrification is in place. (There is also the possibility that a new regime at Queen’s Park will derail the electrification project.)

If SmartTrack service were provided every 6 minutes (10 trains/hour), and assuming that this would be achieved in part by having the “express” trains stop at SmartTrack stations, this would add a further three trains/hour each way. It is quite conceivable that the corridor could see combined service with a train passing every two minutes on average, and two trains passing at the same time is a likely event.

Any noise studies must take into account the cumulative effect of all services, their stopping patterns, the possible mix of propulsion technologies including a worst case all-diesel configuration, and the effect if service is improved beyond the planned levels to achieve the claimed SmartTrack frequency.

Metrolinx and the City owe us all a thorough, public discussion of service and technology plans, and the implications for the neighbourhoods through which GO/RER/SmartTrack will operate.

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New SmartTrack/GO Station Designs (II)

On March 6, 2018, the City of Toronto and Metrolinx hosted a meeting at Scarborough City Hall to present the two new SmartTrack stations proposed for the Stouffville corridor. This follows on from a meeting to present the west end stations, and the series will conclude on March 21 with a presentation of the downtown east side stations (East Harbour and Gerrard-Carlaw) at Queen Alexandra School.

The Scarborough meeting dealt with two stations: Finch-Kennedy and Lawrence-Kennedy.

The audience was not particularly supportive of the project. Complicating this situation was a group of presenters who seemed either not fully in command of information about the stations, or unwilling to engage in discussion, and a moderator who lost his credibility as an impartial actor. Some statements were, to put it charitably, badly misinformed on two key issues.

Service Levels

The viability of the Scarborough SmartTrack stations, especially the one at Lawrence which will replace the existing RT station, depends on service frequency. Past Metrolinx publications including the GO RER website claim that the line will see seven trains/hour of which four would run through to/from Lincolnville and three would run to/from Unionville. (For details, see my previous article A Few Questions For Metrolinx.) Originally, all trains were to stop at all stations, but Metrolinx has recently changed their service plan so that only the Unionville trains will run “local” and stop at the SmartTrack stations (among others). This fundamentally alters the attractiveness and usefulness of the service.

At the meeting, a Metrolinx representative claimed that the service plan was actually for seven local trains, not four, as well as the four express trains. This is the first time that service plan has been claimed for the corridor. Whether it is actually possible given the absence of passing tracks and the effective headway of under six minutes is quite another matter. An express train can only make up more than the time between two locals if it can overtake them. Metrolinx has not presented a track design that would allow this, and the corridor is constrained for additional tracks especially where GO must co-exist with the Scarborough RT. The whole point of the 4+3 service plan was to fit within the capabilities of planned GO RER infrastructure.

Fares

The attractiveness of a train in the GO corridor as part of the local transit system also depends on the fare that will be charged. Although Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack plan claims that free transfers would be available between the TTC and GO, information from Metrolinx varies with options including:

  • A flat fare structure as promised by Mayor Tory with free transfers.
  • A discount for GO+TTC usage similar to that now in place for riders who pay with single fares on Presto (not passholders).
  • Reduced GO fares within Toronto, but not necessarily to “TTC” levels.

It is irresponsible and misleading for anyone at a public meeting to say definitively what the fare structure will be. This has not yet been negotiated between Metrolinx and the City of Toronto, much less approved by the two bodies as to the cost sharing arrangements. Toronto is supposed to be on the hook for all “SmartTrack” costs, and a subsidized transfer fare would be on the City’s account.

A further problem is the question of how extensively a “Toronto” fare would apply on the GO network, whether it would be valid on the “express” trains running in the SmartTrack corridor, and whether it would be valid at all stations including existing GO stations like Agincourt and Bloor (Dundas West), let alone on other GO corridors like the Lakeshore East and West.

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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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New SmartTrack/GO Station Designs

In two recent articles, I wrote about new stations that are proposed on some of the GO corridors, and their recently updated evaluations and designs:

The reports did not include any illustrations of the proposed designs, but these are starting to appear through the SmartTrack station consultation meetings. As they become available, I will post excerpts in this article.

The March 1 meeting dealt with four stations on the west side of the old City of Toronto. The presentation materials are not yet online, but I have included excerpts from them here.

Among the issues discussed in an earlier round of meetings were:

  • Noise during the construction period, and later from trains including the bells which sound as they enter and leave stations.
  • The service plan – what will be the frequency of service through and at each station?
  • Fare integration – what will the fare be for a combined TTC/GO trip?

A Metrolinx representative was somewhat evasive on the issue of noise on two counts. First, there is the question of how long it will be before the majority of service will be electrified. If one believes the original electrification plan (cited by the Metrolinx rep), some trains will always be diesel on some lines because they will run into territory owned by other railways where electrification will not occur. Conversely, if one believes the optimistic claims of the hydrogen train study, all GO trains will convert to hydrogen-electric operation, although on exactly what timetable is unclear.

The noise of the bells raises two concerns. First is the question of whether there can be an exemption so that neighbours are not constantly annoyed by the bells of passing trains. The other is the methodology by which an “environmental assessment” treats transient noises like this. Past EAs have dismissed transient noises because they average out with lots of quiet time between trains, but this does not address the problem of occasional noises such as roaring engines or ringing bells. Moreover, with the planned increases in service levels, these noises will be present more frequently.

SmartTrack was described broadly in the following slide:

A pressing issue for most stations is the recently revised service plan that Metrolinx announced in its updated stations report.

Express (non-stop) and tiered service patterns typically have trains serving outer stations. They typically run non-stop past inner stations which are served for by other trains. Such tiered service patterns impact business case assessment in the following key ways:

  • Reduces the number of upstream riders that need to travel through the station. Upstream users that are travelling through may now choose to use a faster express train to reach their destination. This reduces upstream delays and the number of riders that switch to other modes. This will have a positive impact on station performance.
  • Reduced train frequency at stations without express service (i.e. trains that previously stopped at the station can now skip some stations). Riders may also divert to stations with express services resulting in a negative impact on station performance.

As the GO RER service plan is still evolving, a conceptual service plan has been developed for modelling purposes only, which considers the following express or tiered inner/outer service concepts on the Lakeshore West, Barrie and Stouffville corridors.

  • Lakeshore West corridor: Alternating trains with bi-directional 15 minutes service on the corridor with stops at Mimico and Park Lawn stations. Mimico and Park Lawn stations would therefore receive 30 minutes service inbound and outbound all day.
  • Barrie corridor: Outer service stopping at all stations between Allandale Waterfront and Aurora; trains will also stop at Downsview Park and Spadina stations, otherwise, express to Union Station. Inner services will serve all stations between Union Station and Aurora.
  • Stouffville corridor: All-stop peak direction outer service between Lincolnville and Unionville stations; trains will also stop at Kennedy and East Harbour stations, otherwise, express to Union Station. “Inner” services will stop at all stations between Unionville and Union Station.

This does not match the service plan adopted for RER in June 2016 where all trains would serve all stations, although that appears to be the plan staff at the March 1 meeting were working from.

The claim of “all-day two-way service, with more frequent trains during peak periods and every 15 minutes during off-peak periods” can be read to mean quarter-hourly service all day with even better peak service, or it can be read as “better service than you have today” during peak periods, but not necessarily every 15 minutes, let alone 10 minutes or below. As things now stand, the difference between Metrolinx’ updated service plan and the claims of SmartTrack service levels border on misrepresentation.

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Metrolinx New Stations Report: The Details

In a previous post, I reviewed the updated evaluation of proposed new stations on the GO/RER/SmartTrack network. In brief, the situation for some locations is not as dire as in mid-2016 because Metrolinx has changed some of the operating rules and plans for it services. Whether the newly proposed services can actually be operated remains to be seen and is, as usual, a subject for further study.

This article is a station-by-station review of the primary issues at each proposed new stop. The stations are ordered here by corridor for ease of reference by geographical grouping, whereas in the Metrolinx report they are in alphabetical sequence.

(There will doubtless be a small industry in pushing for reviews of stops that are not in the Metrolinx list. That is not the purpose of this piece which reviews the updated evaluations as presented by Metrolinx.)

My apologies in advance for a long, text-only read. There were no illustrations beyond general maps in the Metrolinx report, and so there are none here either.

There is a series of planned public meetings about SmartTrack stations, and it is possible that these will include more details of current designs. If so, I will update this article to include them.

THURSDAY MARCH 1, 2018
Lithuanian House
1573 Bloor Street West
6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Presentation begins at 7:00 pm

TUESDAY MARCH 6, 2018
Scarborough Civic Centre,
Council Chamber
150 Borough Drive
6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Presentation begins at 7:00 pm

WEDNESDAY MARCH 21, 2018
Queen Alexandra Middle School,
Small Gym
181 Broadview Avenue
6:15 pm – 9:00 pm
Presentation begins at 7:30 pm

A total of 17 stations are reviewed in this study. Of these, 5 were not recommended in the initial report in 2016. Of these, only Park Lawn has been resurrected to go forward for reasons discussed later. One of the 12 in the approved list, Mulock, has negative benefits and might fall off of the table if Metrolinx cannot find a way to make a better case for it.

General issues that are either not addressed by or not detailed in the report include:

  • There are no detailed design drawings of the stations, only very general location maps.
  • Details of the service plan(s) used to model demand. There are some specific references with respect to express and local operations at certain stations, but not for existing stations or the network as a whole. This affects demand modelling.
  • Modelled demand at all stations, not just the new ones, and of the cumulative on-train loads. This is important to ascertain whether the planned service can actually support the projected demand.
  • Details of the boardings and alightings at stations. Combined values are shown, and the descriptive text indicates which is the predominant flow, but not the proportions.
  • Differentiation of new riders attracted to GO service by the station as opposed to existing riders diverted from nearby stations (i.e. net new ridership).
  • The degree to which, if at all, performance improvements through electrification (whether by conventional power of hydrogen fuel cells) will offset the time penalty associated with new stations.
  • Additional infrastructure required for express and local operations to co-exist on each corridor. Some of this is mentioned, but not in a comprehensive way.
  • Details of train operations including use of express and local tracks, and track assignment on corridors with multiple services. Any requirement for individual services to cross each other affects capacity along the route and at Union Station.
  • Details of the implications for freight operations both with respect to existing spur lines and to clearance issues with new structures.
  • The anticipated volume and operational interference of freight operations on GO’s passenger service.

For the original station designs which, in some cases, have now been modified, please refer to the Metrolinx mid-2016 reports. Go to the Metrolinx New Stations page, scroll down to and open the Initial Business Cases bullet.

A consistent problem through all of these studies is the reliance on the imputed value of time savings to travellers. This is not “real money” in the sense that it can be recouped to pay for the transit investment, but a social benefit that transit confers. There is nothing wrong with this outlook, but readers are cautioned that when Metrolinx speaks of benefits exceeding costs, this does not mean that profits will roll in the doors at stations. Moreover, the model is very sensitive to the imputed effect of delays caused by new stations.

In their attempt to address the negative effect of adding stations to the corridors on riders making long trips, Metrolinx has changed their service design to include express and local trains. This fixes one problem, but adds others in terms of the resulting frequency at local stations, and the capacity of local trains to handle the projected demand.

All demand numbers cited here are for the 2031 projection which assumes the current fare structure with GO/TTC co-fares, but no “regional integration” beyond what is already in place:

The PDBC analysis assumes:

  • introduction of Presto on all TTC services across the City of Toronto;
  • the current discounted double fare agreement between the City of Toronto and Metrolinx – a $1.50 discount is applied when an adult Presto user’s journey includes both a TTC and GO segment;
  • the planned TTC 2-hour transfer to make the TTC more aligned with 905 transfer policy, planned for implementation in August 2018; and
  • progress by all transit agencies on addressing removal of fare barriers and improved service integration.

As a starting point, the base fare structure as of December 2017 is assumed for the PDBC analysis. [p 12]

Mayor Tory has trumpeted this report as showing a strong support for his SmartTrack project with 60-year benefits of $4.59 billion greatly exceeding the capital costs of $1.195 billion (2022$). However almost all of the benefit comes from two stations – East Harbour and King-Liberty.

East Harbour provides 55% of the demand and 84% of the imputed benefits from the six SmartTrack stations. King-Liberty adds a further 16% of the demand and 9% of the benefits. These stations stand on their own as worthwhile additions completely separate from SmartTrack.

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Metrolinx Updates News Stations Business Cases

In anticipation of its board meeting on March 8, 2018, Metrolinx has released a report updating its analyses of various proposed new GO stations, some of which are intended to serve John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme.

The whole question of new stations has been under a cloud recently thanks to reporting by the Star’s Ben Spurr who has documented political interference in the evaluation process. Metrolinx is very sensitive to this and tries to dodge questions both by characterizing such reporting as “conspiracy theories” and by saying that they want to go forward rather then looking back on how we reached the current situation. It’s water under the bridge, dirt swept under the carpet, pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain territory. And if you don’t buy that, well, politicians make decisions all the time, and the staff’s job is only to provide advice. That the advice might be tailored to fit a desired conclusion is simply beyond discussion.

In a set of analyses conducted in mid-2016, Metrolinx reviewed several stations and found some of them wanting in the contribution they might make to the network. Notable among these was Kirby Station on the Barrie line which was not originally recommended. Magically, the numbers changed after Ministerial intervention. We have no way of knowing how many other Metrolinx staff recommendations have been perverted in this manner, but the problem will not go away. Already the newly minted Minister is musing about stations in her political territory, the Milton corridor.

The new report seeks to justify continued spending on many stations, but with the focus on individual station analyses, important details are buried or simply not included in the published information. We are supposed to read the summary and look no further.

The status of stations still actively under review is presented in one chart.

In a marvellous piece of newspeak, Metrolinx refers to stations where “Benefits are Positive but Less Than Costs”. In other words, the costs outweigh the benefits, but this is presented as if it were a positive state of affairs.

One would generally expect that the presence of new stations would be positive, and the only case where this does not apply depends on the presumed effect of adding a stop on the attractiveness of service to existing and potential riders. A large proportion of the “benefit” in Metrolinx analyses arises from the imputed value of reduced travel times and diversion of trips from auto to transit. The model is very sensitive to changes in travel time, and so the addition of stops tends to hurt ridership whose trips are lengthened by adding stations.

Back in June 2016, Metrolinx evaluated four models for future service on its network including the new stations to be added by SmartTrack. The service plan at the time was quite clearly to provide a 15 minute or better service on most of the network except some outer sections which would receive a lower level of service, possibly peak only. With respect to service inside the City of Toronto, the report observed:

All seven GO corridors run through the City of Toronto, stopping at 19 stations, and meeting at Union Station. … the GO corridors largely run through Etobicoke and Scarborough, providing downtown access opportunities to neighbourhoods located at a distance from the subway. By bringing fifteen minute or better two-way service to five of the GO corridors, … GO RER will bring more flexible travel options for residents and jobs within the City and to the broader region. [pp 18-19]

This information is echoed on the “How Will You Benefit” pages such as the Stouffville Corridor page where it is quite clear the intent is for all trains to stop at all stations.

This echoes the conclusion of the June 2016 report in which four possible service plans were considered:

• Option A: Increased frequencies, 5 new stations
• Option B: Express and local service, 8 new stations
• Option C: Committed GO RER frequencies, 7-8 new stations
• Option D: Committed GO RER frequencies, 4-5 new stations

The first two options, notably the one including express service, were dropped because of the infrastructure needed to provide for SmartTrack and GO/RER co-existence.

GO RER is expected to utilize the available and planned track and corridor capacity. In this light, integrated GO RER-SmartTrack options were screened to determine the extent of additional infrastructure that they would require over and above that which is required for GO RER. Through this analysis, it was determined that Options A and B would each require extensive additional track infrastructure, resulting in the need for corridor widening, extensive property acquisition, consequent community impacts, and other deliverability challenges. In light of these findings, Options A and B were screened out and detailed analysis focused on Options C and D. [p 19]

Option D makes the cut because with fewer new stations, it creates less delay for riders on the outer ends of the corridors and hence less imputed value from lost time and potential lost ridership.

In summary, based on business case analysis, Option D is the stronger performing option for integration of SmartTrack with GO RER, striking the optimal balance between advancing local access within Toronto while preserving service quality for medium and longer distance passengers. Consistent with the findings of the new stations analysis, this report recommends six new stations for GO RER-SmartTrack integration: St. Clair West, Liberty Village, Don Yard/Unilever, Gerrard, Lawrence East, and Finch with an estimated cost of $0.7 to 1.1 B ($2014, costs do not include escalation, financing costs, lifecycle and operating and maintenance). [p 20]

Times have changed at Metrolinx, and they now regard a mix of express and local services as best service design.

An all-stop service (as in the IBC) means that the upstream riders are delayed at every new station, which is a negative economic benefit. This negative benefit is compared to the positive economic benefit from the new riders joining at the station and the time savings they will make from using GO. It is much more optimal to have an express service (rather than all-stop) that selectively stops at those stations and at those intervals when the new riders joining would be substantial enough to justify the stop. This is best practice in service planning in all jurisdictions. [p 2 Staff Report]

CEO Phil Verster was quite adamant on this point during a media briefing and was quite dismissive of the idea of stopping trains for comparatively few passengers. There is only one small problem – it is precisely this type of stopping pattern and service level at every stop that was used to “sell” SmartTrack as part of GO/RER. No amount of managerial swagger can undo the very real position taken by Metrolinx and by municipal supporters of SmartTrack less than two years ago. A train every 20 minutes is not what riders in Scarborough and elsewhere along the ST corridor expected in place of their existing transit service, especially when SmartTrack is touted as a substitute for stations on the Scarborough Subway Extension.

Stops that would be affected by the new service design include: Bloor-Lansdowne, Kirby, Park Lawn, Mimico, Finch-Kennedy, Lawrence-Kennedy, Gerrard-Carlaw, St. Clair-Old Weston. This list may not include all affected locations as only those in or directly related to the new station analysis are mentioned in the report.

(As an aside, one cannot help wondering what the Toronto subway network would look like if subjected to the Metrolinx outlook. Many stations would close for much of the day, if not permanently, because there simply is no justification to keep them open for very low demand.)

By reversing course and reinstating express trains in the service plan, Metrolinx avoids the travel time penalty of adding new stations, but with the offsetting effect that these stations get much less service. The problem is so acute for the SmartTrack corridor that Metrolinx is now trying to figure out how to squeeze more trains onto the line, and even talks of a separate “relief” function for a U-shaped Unionville to Bramalea service. The infrastructure to support this does not exist, and the scheme is a far cry from the idea that “SmartTrack” could simply be implemented using existing infrastructure. A further problem lies in the Union Station Rail Corridor (USRC) where track, signalling and platform configurations combine to dictate how many trains/hour can operate there without substantial upgrades.

In a media scrum at the Board of Trade, CEO Verster stressed that service was the most important factor, the one with the biggest effect on ridership. GO Transit and Metrolinx have planned within the limitations of their corridors including the USRC, but there may now be a recognition that what is planned simply is inadequate to address region-wide needs.

Two other factors were touted as improvements to GO operations and travel speeds:

By the same logic of minimizing the time of every stop at every station, implementing level boarding (as opposed to low platforms and a delay from stepping up/down and positioning the train) reduces the negative impact of the station on the economic benefits of the upstream riders.

The business cases now assume that all fare barriers have been removed with an integrated fare system in place. The economic benefits of fare integration is estimated to exceed the cost by a factor of 12 (ie a BCR or Benefit Cost Ratio of 12).

There is no question that level boarding will speed things up at GO stations, but this is a matter of reducing the time spent at all stations, including any added ones. Not mentioned at all were the travel time savings possible with electrification. In earlier studies, these were counted as an offset to the extra delay of added stations.

The question of fare barriers is rather odd because it is unclear whether the barrier is physical (a turnstile or limited access streams past Presto readers) or psychological (a double fare). The technical report notes:

As a starting point, the base fare structure as of December 2017 is assumed for the PDBC analysis. A future looking full fare integration scenario was also tested to examine impacts on ridership and the overall economic case for each station where no fare barriers exist. [p 10]

Elimination of physical barriers or congestion points at platform access will only speed travel for riders who show up at the last minute and could face a missed trip if their path from parking space or connecting bus were longer than a “crow fly” distance, or delayed by queueing at fare machines. Otherwise, fare validation occurs during the wait time before a train arrives. From a demand modelling perspective, there is also a “barrier” inherent in extra fares for each stage of a journey. Metrolinx has long talked of the need for “regional fare integration” without getting into the specifics especially as they might affect riders of local transit systems. If the analysis mentioned above shows a benefit cost ratio of 12, or extremely high, this must be based on some specific mix of tariff and subsidy changes.

A major failing of the New Stations report is the omission of much detail such as the derivation of claimed demand at the various stations, notably a split of new and existing riders, a breakdown of boarding and alighting passengers, the effect on conditions at nearby stations, and the specifics of the modelled service plan. Some of this information was included in the initial round of evaluations in 2016, but only summary values are published in 2018.

The chart above shows numbers for AM Peak and All Day boardings and alightings, but there are large differences in the behaviour which are mentioned in the individual station analyses. During the AM peak:

  • Some stations are primarily “boarding” locations either from local transit or from parking. Indeed, it might be argued that in a few cases, the primary function of a new station is to host a new parking garage that might not fit at an existing site.
  • Some stations are primarily “alighting” locations in that they are destinations, not origins, of trips. This is strikingly true for the Liberty Village and East Harbour stations who primary function is to bring people to work in the immediate vicinity, not as an origin point for “in town” travel.
  • Demand at stations could be new GO riders, or it could be from trips that are more conveniently served from the new station. For example, a new station might shorten the access trip to GO by car or transit, and this translates to an imputed benefit from time saving.

For the SmartTrack stations, the 60-year benefits are shown as outweighing the capital costs by a factor of almost 4:1. However, almost all of those benefits are the notional value of time saving, and to a lesser extent, reduced auto travel. Operating costs, including that of any additional local transit service or of fare integration subsidies is not included in the analysis.

Of the six SmartTrack stations, East Harbour, the site of a proposed massive commercial development east of the Don River, is by far the major contributor to the positive comparison for SmartTrack. It accounts for 84% of the travel time savings and 55% of the passenger activity at the six stations. The analysis did not include the presence of the Relief Line, and the service plan assumes that Lake Shore East trains do not stop at East Harbour.

Because the individual station cost estimates are not broken out, it is impossible to know the performance of the StartTrack stations, but we know from the summary that only East Harbour and Liberty Village have benefits which outweigh their costs.

This is an almost meaningless analysis.

Metrolinx claims that it will produce an updated analysis and recommendations by the end of 2018 in time for an RFP for the implementation and operation of GO RER and SmartTrack. At this point, a huge amount of detail is missing, especially the degree to which the original GO service plan from 2016, on which a great deal of infrastructure work now in progress is based, must now be revised. It is quite clear that Metrolinx is struggling to come up with credible plans, and they are quite defensive about the changes they are now making.

All is not sweetness and light, and the unseen hand of political interference to justify many of these stations is clearly at work.

In a future article, I will turn to the individual stations and discuss the issues affecting them.

Toronto’s Transit Capacity Crisis

In recent days, Mayor Tory has announced, twice, a ten point program to address crowding on the TTC. The effectiveness of this program is limited by years of bad political decisions, and the hole Toronto has dug itself into is not one from which it will quickly escape.

This article is a compendium of information about the three major portions of the “conventional” (non-Wheel-Trans) system: subway, bus and streetcar. Some of this material has appeared in other articles, but the intent here is to pull current information for the entire system together.

Amendment February 15, 2018 at 5:30 pm: This article has been modified in respect to SmartTrack costs to reflect the fact that over half of the cost shown as “SmartTrack” in the City Manager’s budget presentation is actually due to the Eglinton West LRT extension which replaced the proposed ST service to the commercial district south of the airport. A report on SmartTrack station costs will come to City Council in April 2018. Eglinton LRT costs will take a bit longer because Council has asked staff to look at other options for this route, notably undergrounding some or all of it.

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SmartTrack Update: More Questions Than Answers (October 13 Update)

For the coming three evenings, October 10-12, the City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC will host open houses to present and discuss plans for six new SmartTrack and two new GO Transit stations. Although material for all stations will be part of each event, stations “local” to each site will receive more emphasis than others.

Each meeting will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a presentation at 7 p.m.

  • Tuesday, October 10, Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Dr.
  • Wednesday, October 11, Riverdale Collegiate Institute, 1094 Gerrard St. E.
  • Thursday, October 12, New Horizons Tower, 1140 Bloor St. W. (new location)

Note: The location of the Oct. 12 meeting has been changed and it is now across the street from the originally announced site (which was Bloor Collegiate).

Updated October 11 at 10:30 pm: There continues to be confusion about just what “SmartTrack” service will look like, and this is not helped by the City’s presentation. Details can be found in the June 2016 Metrolinx report. For further info, see the update at the end of this article.

Updated October 13 at noon: Metrolinx has confirmed that the Barrie corridor trains will operate through to Union Station, not terminate at Spadina/Bathurst Station as I had originally thought. However, the operational details have not yet been worked out. For further discussion, scroll down to the section on the Spadina/Bathurst Station.

I attended a media briefing that covered the materials to be presented and the following article is based on that briefing which was conducted by City of Toronto staff. Illustrations here are taken from the deck for the media briefing which is available on the City of Toronto’s site. Resolution of some images is constrained by the quality of data in the deck.

[In the interest of full disclosure: A “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” (or SAC) has already been meeting on this, and I was invited to participate, but declined given my concern with a potential conflict between “advisory” and “journalist/commentator” roles. It is no secret that I believe SmartTrack is a deeply flawed concept. Its implementation is compromised by fitting a poorly-conceived election promise into a workable, operational scheme for the commuter rail network. Any “debate” is skewed by the need to pretend that this is anything beyond campaign literature.]

The intent of these three meetings is to conduct the first detailed conversation about these stations with the general public. Early designs appeared in the “Initial Business Case” for the stations, but these have been revised both for technical and for philosophical reasons. Specifically:

  • The City does not want to build traditional GO stations dominated by parking.
  • The interface between the new stations and the transit network (both rapid transit and surface routes) should be optimized.
  • Strong pedestrian and cycling connections are required.
  • Stations should be close to main streets.
  • Stations should support other City objectives such as the West Toronto Railpath and parallel projects such as the St. Clair/Weston study now in progress.
  • Transit-oriented development should be possible at stations.

This is a list that to a typical GO Transit proposal in the 905 would be unrecognizable. GO Transit’s plan ever since its creation has been to serve auto-based commuting first and foremost with ever larger parking structures that poison the land around stations. Local transit was something GO, and later Metrolinx, simply “didn’t do”, and the idea that Queen’s Park might fund strong local transit as a feeder to GO services has been limited to co-fare arrangements.

The situation within Toronto is very different, and there are connecting routes on the TTC that individually carry a substantial proportion of the daily ridership of the entire GO network. Moreover, if GO (or SmartTrack, whatever it is called) will be a real benefit to TTC riders, then the process of getting people to and from stations must not depend on parking lots that are full before the morning peak is even completed.

The new stations will go into existing built-up areas, not into fields with sites determined primarily by which well-connected developer owns nearby property. Residents will be consulted about how these stations will fit their neighbourhoods, how they will be accessed, and what might eventually become of the community and future development.

A big problem facing those who would present “SmartTrack” to the public beyond City Hall insiders and neighbourhood activists is that almost nobody knows what SmartTrack actually is. This is a direct result of Mayor Tory running on a design that could not be achieved, and which has evolved a great deal since he announced it in May 2014. In brief, it is three GO corridors (Stouffville, Lake Shore East and Kitchener) plus an Eglinton West LRT extension, but this differs greatly from what was promised in the election.

Service levels for SmartTrack are described as every 6-10 minutes peak, with off-peak trains every 15, but this does not necessarily match Metrolinx’ announced service plans for their GO RER network onto which SmartTrack is overlaid. The idea that there would be extra SmartTrack trains added to the GO service was killed off in 2016 in the evaluation of possible operating modes for the corridor.

Fares on “SmartTrack” are supposed to be “TTC fares”, but this is a moving target. Voters understood the term to mean free transfer onto and off of SmartTrack trains as part of their TTC fare, but with all the talk of regional fare integration, it is far from clear just what a “TTC fare” will be by the time SmartTrack is operating.

Even that date appears to be a moving target. City Staff referred to 2025 when GO RER would be fully up and running as the target date for “integration”, but Mayor Tory still speaks of being able to ride SmartTrack by 2021 while he is presumably still in office to cut the ribbon.

At the briefing, many questions arose from the media, and the answer to almost all of them was “we don’t know yet”. It is clear that the Mayor’s plan has not proceeded beyond the half-baked stage, and many important details remain to be sorted out.

  • What is the status of Lawrence East Station and how does it fit with the recently announced review of this (and Kirby) stations by the Auditor General?
  • How will an expanded GO/ST presence at Lawrence East co-exist with the SRT which will operate until at least 2025, if not beyond to whenever the Scarborough Subway opens?
  • What are the arrangements for City/Province cost sharing on the stations, especially since Lawrence East was originally to be a GO station, but its future as such is unknown?
  • What will be the cost of the new stations once design reaches a level where the numbers are credible? The range of $700 million to $1.1 billion has not been updated since the matter was before Council.
  • Will all stations on the SmartTrack corridor honour ST fare arrangements regardless of whether this is a city-built station under the ST banner?
  • Why should GO riders who are not on the SmartTrack corridor pay regular GO fares, while those using the ST route have a “TTC fare” for their journey? The most obvious contrast in this case is between the existing Exhibition Station on the Lake Shore corridor and the proposed Liberty Village Station on the ST/Kitchener corridor, but there are many others.
  • What service levels will be provided, and how will they affect projected demand at the stations? Were previously published estimates based on more ST service than Metrolinx actually plans to  operate? How will constraints at Union affect the ability to through-route service between the Stouffville to the Weston/Kitchener corridors?
  • If the City wants more service than Metrolinx plans (assuming it would even fit on the available trackage), how much would Toronto have to pay Metrolinx to operate it?
  • Where are the residents and jobs that are expected to generate ST demand, and how convenient will access to the service actually be considering walking time, station geometry (stairs, tunnels, bridges, etc) and service frequency?

The stations under consideration are shown on the map below. A common question for all of these locations will be that of available capacity on the GO trains that will originate further out in the corridor. Without knowing the planned service design for “GO” trains and “SmartTrack” trains, it is unclear how often, if at all, there will be short-haul ST trains originating within Toronto as opposed to longer-haul GO trains from the 905. The availability of space on trains could affect the perceived service frequency if people cannot board at stations near Union (just as long-suffering riders of the King car complain about full streetcars).

Updated October 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm

After I posted this article, I realized that there was an important part missing, a commentary on the “consultation” process  itself.

A big problem with many attempts to seek public input is that the wrong question is posed, and factors are taken as given when they should be challenged. In the case of SmartTrack, the basic question is “why do we have SmartTrack at all”.

The original scheme was essentially a real estate ploy to make property in Markham and south of the Airport more valuable by linking both areas with a frequent rail service to downtown. Reverse commuters were a big potential market for this service. In the course of becoming part of the Tory election campaign, the focus turned inward, and SmartTrack became the line that would solve every transit problem. The claims about service frequency, fares and integration with other local and regional service were complete fantasies, but they gave the impression that Tory “had a plan” as distinct from the bumbling proposals of his opponent, Doug Ford, and the lackluster efforts of Olivia Chow. Tory even got professionals to declare his scheme a great idea, one giving it an “A+” on CBC’s Metro Morning, but this was for a version of SmartTrack that was unbuildable.

Now, over three years later, we are still faced with the myth that SmartTrack is a real plan, that it is anything more than what GO Transit would have done in the fullness of time. We are, in effect, being asked about the colour of tiles in stations when we should be asking whether the stations should even be built at all. There is no guarantee that service can be overlaid on GO’s existing plans to provide anywhere near what was promised in the campaign – a “surface subway”. Metrolinx has been quite firm on the subject, and going to the frequencies assumed by ST advocates would be well beyond the infrastructure we are likely to see on GO corridors.

The City will conduct its consultations, but the hard question – Why SmartTrack? – will never be asked.

For the October 11 update, please scroll to the end of the article.

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