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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Maybe Yes, Maybe No, SmartTrack Stations

After a recent Metrolinx Board Meeting (about which more in a separate article), reporters the Star and the Globe peppered Chair Robert Prichard about decisions to approve two future GO stations against original staff recommendations.

Ben Spurr wrote in the Star about the Kirby station in Vaughan that leapt from an initial review to part of GO’s plans thanks to political intervention at Queen’s Park. In between the detailed station reviews and the final recommendations to the Metrolinx Board, a summary report consolidated the detailed reviews. This report, which has not been published by Metrolinx, has different recommendations that those presented to the Board, according to Spurr’s article.

I wrote extensively about the reviews of proposed stations within the City of Toronto in these articles:

Another station that found its way onto the approved list in spite of a negative review was Lawrence East. This station is critical to plans for the Scarborough Subway providing a replacement for service in an area the subway will bypass.

The future of stations that would be added through the SmartTrack scheme is rather cloudy. Even though Lawrence East, for example, is “approved”, this is subject to operational reviews and intensification of land use by the City of Toronto to build demand. Talking of the Kirby station, Spurr reported:

Prichard said the board’s decision was “conditional” and that Metrolinx will continue to update its analysis based on development in Vaughan. If the greater density doesn’t materialize “we can back off,” he said.

For the stations in the City of Toronto, the situation begs more questions. First, Metrolinx required Council to sign on guaranteeing that they would fund added stations for SmartTrack in November 2016. Council was told that Metrolinx was going into design and construction, and that a commitment was needed “now” for this work to stay on schedule. Second, the total cost of the six proposed stations approved by Council was more than twice the cost estimates in the Metrolinx station reviews.

Metrolinx station review cost estimates:

  • Lawrence East: $22.7 million
  • Finch East: $108.9 million
  • Liberty Village: $30.8 million
  • St. Clair: $27.4 million
  • East Harbour (Unilever): $118.9 million
  • Gerrard: $251.7 million
  • Total: $560.4 million

City Council estimate: $1,251.8 million

With total costs much higher than in the original evaluations, the business cases for these stations are even weaker than have been stated. The City is not strictly on the hook for these costs yet, whatever they might be, because there will be a final approval point when more detailed estimates are available prior to tendering the construction work. This point is unlikely to be reached before the municipal election in fall 2018.

Several of the proposed stations pose construction challenges, and it is not clear how well all of them can be fitted into the corridor. Liberty Village station is particularly tight for space.

Lawrence East poses a delicate political problem because it cannot be built while the SRT remains in operation. However, the Scarborough Subway will not open until late 2026 leaving the possibility of an early shutdown of the SRT, or a delay in the provision of a SmartTrack station. Intensification at Lawrence East could be a hard sell given Toronto’s intention to focus substantial development on the Scarborough Town Centre and uncertainty about the type and cost of transit service that would be available.

A related issue came up in discussion of the fall 2017 GO Transit fare increase. This will see fares rise by 3% except those for short-distance trips that will be frozen at $5.65. Metrolinx has recently discovered the importance of short-distance travel on its network as an untapped market after years of deliberately overpricing these trips to discourage demand. Keeping inside-Toronto trips at a fixed cost would allow GO fares to gradually become more attractive to TTC riders, although that would take many, many years. Clearly Metrolinx is rethinking the role of its network both for in-Toronto trips and for shorter trips in the 905 that could become more attractive as service improves.

All of this leaves the question of which stations might be built up in the air subject to future considerations in spite of Toronto Council’s support in 2016.

An Invitation to Dinner

At the recent meeting of the TTC Board, Vice-Chair Alan Heisey proposed that the TTC and Metrolinx Boards should meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. Such a meeting took place a year ago, but despite the best intentions at the time, nothing further came out of this. As Heisey said “It’s not as if we don’t have things to talk about” citing fare integration, Presto, the Crosstown project and SmartTrack. Using fare integration as an example, with some discussion already afoot about just what this entails, it will be better to have these discussions earlier rather than later, said Heisey. The TTC should be in front of discussions on how an integrated system will be structured in Toronto.

Heisey went on to mention that at a recent meeting of the Toronto Railway Club, of which he is a member, he learned things about the Crosstown contract he did not know such as that the operation of the Mount Dennis yard will not be done by the TTC, and that although the TTC is supposed to be operating the line, the company delivering the project would really like to do this work. This is the sort of information Heisey hopes would come out in a joint meeting, and he proposes that the TTC host the event (as Metrolinx did in 2016).

It is no secret that far more information is available outside of formal Board meetings at both TTC and Metrolinx than one ever hears on the record. Those of us who attend Metrolinx meetings regularly know that “information” is thin on the ground at these events where the primary function appears to be telling the staff how wonderful they are and luxuriating in the ongoing success of everything Metrolinx, and by extension the Government of Ontario, touches. “Seldom is heard a discouraging word” could be the Metrolinx motto.

Indeed the TTC has become infected with a similar problem recently where whatever new award(s) they manage to win take pride of place at meetings while serious discussion about ridership and service quality await reports that never quite seem to appear. Budgets do not offer options conflicting with Mayor Tory’s insistence on modest tax increases. Getting an award for the “We Move You” marketing campaign is cold comfort to people who cannot even get on a bus or train because there is no room.

Oddly enough, when TTC Chair Josh Colle contacted his opposite number at Metrolinx, Rob Prichard, the word back was that such a meeting might have to await the appointment of a new CEO. The position is now held on an acting basis with the departure of Bruce McCuaig to greener pastures in Ottawa. That is a rather odd position to take. Is Metrolinx policy and strategy so beyond discussion that without a CEO, they cannot have a meeting? How is the organization managing to push trains out the door, let along host an almost endless stream of photo ops for their Minister?

Commissioner De Laurentiis agreed that there are many issues, and warmed to the idea, but suggested an information sharing/exchange session as opposed to a formal meeting. She concurred that the type of information Heisey is gathering “accidentally” should come the Board’s way formally.

Vice-Chair Heisey noted that he was told he could not see the Crosstown’s Operating Agreement because it was confidential. For what they’re worth, here are a few handy links:

These do not include the operating agreement for the line because, I believe, it does not yet exist beyond a draft format and the intention is not to formalize it until a few years before the line opens in 2021. However, aspects of the proposed agreement are certainly known to TTC staff. Whether their interpretation matches Metrolinx’ intent is quite another issue.

Other topics for a joint meeting suggested by Commissioner Byers included Accessibility, and the working relationship between Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario including the topic of risk transfer.

For those who have trouble sleeping, the Crosstown agreement makes interesting, if tedious, reading. One section deals for pages on end with the contractual arrangements between Metrolinx who will procure and provide the fleet, and the project provider who must test, accept and operate (or at least maintain) the cars. This is a perfect example of the complexity introduced by multi-party agreements with the 3P model. Each party must define at length its roles and responsibilities where a consolidated organization would deal with the whole thing in house. Of course some would argue that this simply shows how keeping parts of the overall procurement within Metrolinx adds layers of complexity that a turnkey solution might avoid. That’s a debate for another day, but an important part of any future project design.

Chair Colle observed that just because you invite someone over to your house, they don’t necessarily accept, and the TTC could find itself without a dance partner. Heisey replied that we should invite Metrolinx to dinner and tell them what the menu will be. Dinner invitations are often accepted. Colle observed that any one or two of the suggested items could “keep us well nourished”.

Mihevc added to the list by suggesting both the Finch and Sheppard LRT projects. That should be an amusing discussion considering that Metrolinx and City Planning have gone out of their way to be agnostic on the subject of Sheppard East’s technology considering that there are Councillors and (Liberal) MPPs who would love to see a subway extension there, not LRT. Both Boards, not to mention their respective management teams, would go to great lengths to avoid implying any sort of commitment beyond the next announcement of another GO parking lot or a long-anticipated subway extension’s opening date.

The biggest problem with the Metrolinx-TTC relationship is the province’s heavy-handed approach whereby any move away from the “official” way of doing things will be met with a cut in subsidy. Indeed, despite increasing outlays from Queen’s Park on transit, they keep finding more ways to charge Toronto for their services. The City gets more money on paper for transit, but spends some of it to buy provincial services in a monopoly market. Even if Metrolinx invites Toronto to dinner, they will expect the City to foot the bill.

As a public service, if only to forestall imminent starvation of the TTC Board, the balance of this article explores some of the issues raised by Commissioners.

The video record of the TTC debate is available online.

[For readers in the 905, please note that this is a Toronto-centric article because it deals with issues between the TTC and Metrolinx. Municipalities outside of Toronto have their own problems with the provincial agency, not least of which is its undue focus on moving people to and from Union Station.]

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Has John Tory Discovered Life After SmartTrack?

With all the flurry of transit funding and construction announcements lately, Mayor John Tory added his own contribution with a media statement at that busiest of stations, Bloor-Yonge. What prompted such a high-profile event? Rumour has it that Queen’s Park plans to fund the Richmond Hill subway extension in its coming budget, and Tory wants to be sure he defends the existing downtown system against overloading from the north.

(See coverage in The Star and The Globe & Mail)

Specifically, Tory wants to ensure that funding will be available for:

Building new transit lines including the Eglinton East LRT, waterfront transit and the downtown relief line

This is brave stuff, our Mayor rallying his city to the barricades [cue inspirational and very-hummable anthem here] were it not that Tory himself is responsible for much of the confusion and misdirection in transit plans today. His election campaign promoted “SmartTrack”, a single city-wide project that would solve every problem and magically be funded through taxes on new development the line would bring. A “surface subway” would speed riders from Markham to Mississauga via downtown with frequent service at TTC fares. Nothing else (except for a politically unavoidable subway in Scarborough) was needed, certainly not better bus and streetcar service to fill all those spaces in between major routes.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. SmartTrack has dwindled to a handful of new GO stations to be built on the City’s dime, some of which Metrolinx might have built anyhow, and a few in locations of dubious merit beyond their soothing effect on local politicians. With the demise of a scheme to run GO trains along Eglinton from Mount Dennis to the Airport district, the Eglinton West LRT extension is also on the table, but it stops short of its necessary end, the airport, because Toronto lopped off the outside-416 segment to reduce the cost. Whether Mississauga and/or the airport authority itself will contribute to the LRT remains to be seen.

Tory discovered that surface routes suffered under his predecessor, and vowed more money for buses. Toronto bought the buses, but money to actually operate many of them is harder to come by. The only thing that saved the TTC from widespread service cuts in 2017 was a last minute City budget fiddle to bump the expected revenue from Land Transfer Tax.

Meanwhile in Scarborough, SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension vie for the same pool of riders, and it is only the comparatively infrequent GO service that preserves any credibility for the subway extension. Planners who once argued that an east-west line through the Town Centre precinct would better serve future development now compliantly endorse the supposed benefit of a single new north-south station between McCowan and the shopping mall.

Mayor Tory might now think of both ST and the SSE as “done deals”, although there’s a lot of ground to cover before the final cost projections and approvals by Council. Those extra GO stations and the express subway might still cost more than the preliminary estimates shown to Council, but there’s no more money coming from Queen’s Park. Indeed, the two governments cannot agree on how to calculate inflation in the provincial “commitment”, and Toronto thinks more money is on the table than is likely to be available. After all, Tory is in no position to tell a funding government how much they will pay out. Even those numbers are subject to change if the Liberals lose control of Queen’s Park to the Tories, as seems very likely in 2018.

Then there’s Ottawa and Trudeau’s huge infrastructure program, just the thing a politician who is desperate to make everything seem affordable could wish for. Except, of course, that the infrastructure pot isn’t bottomless. Once it is divvied up across the country, Toronto’s share is well below the level John Tory hoped to spend with his shiny new Liberal red credit card. Holding press conferences about the need for projects won’t change the amount of money available, and the federal program requires that municipalities, even big irresponsible ones, must set priorities. Tory’s plans also require Queen’s Park to come in with funding equal to the Fed’s contribution at a time when provincial budgets are tapped out, and Toronto’s ongoing game of holding down taxes rather than pay for its own services and infrastructure plays poorly beyond the 416.

What does the Mayor do? John Tory, the man who had a one-line plan to solve everything, now looks to a world beyond SmartTrack.

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How Many SmartTrack Stations Will Survive? (III) (Updated)

This is the third and final installment in my review of the Metrolinx Initial Business Cases for new GO Transit (and SmartTrack) stations.

Part I reviewed stations on the Stouffville and Kitchener corridors.

Part II reviewed stations on the Lake Shore and Barrie corridors.

Updated March 24, 2017 at 11:00 am: Additional information including replies to some of the questions I posed to Metrolinx and a report of GO Transit’s current ridership added at the end of this article.

Regular readers here will not be surprised at my skepticism regarding the methodology found in Metrolinx reports to perform comparative evaluations of projects. Much of the information is presented at a summary level, important details are omitted, and the underlying assumptions for some calculations are dubious. That said, these reports are the documents Metrolinx relies on to justify its decisions. Understanding how their methodology works is an important part of any critique of the outcome.

What these calculations do not consider is the political context where the “value” of a station is more strongly linked to its perceived delivery on a campaign promise, or to give the impression that transit service will substantially improve where the station is located. This is quite different from how the new facilities will actually affect the transit network or improve the lot of transit riders.

Most of the proposed stations actually do not fare well in the evaluations, although that could well be due to pessimistic projections of the effect of added stops on other “upstream” users of affected GO Transit routes. The evaluation process is very sensitive to the ridership estimates, and if the underlying assumptions change, then so do all of the outcomes.

The new stations to be funded by the City of Toronto have approved as a package, and the detailed IBC reports were not available to Council at the time. A smaller set of stations might make more sense from a financial or planning perspective, but they were sold as a package that is unlikely to be broken up unless some projects prove to be unexpectedly difficult or costly.

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