The Dwindling Capacity of the Yonge Subway

Yesterday’s launch by York Region of their Yonge Subway Now website brought to the fore the question of just how much room remains on the Yonge Subway for additional riders. Over many years, claims about capabilities of new subway technologies together with changing projections for future demand have left Toronto in a position where its subway is badly overloaded with little relief in sight.

This article traces the evolution of those claims and the reality of what can actually be provided to show that building a Relief Line is not a project for a future decade but one that must begin now.

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Toronto’s Network Plan 2031: Part IV, Relief Line

This is the fourth part of my review of the reports on the agendas of Toronto’s Executive Committee and the Metrolinx Board. The full list is in the first article.

This report reviewed here is the Relief Line Initial Business Case.

Following a series of public meetings and background reports over past months, the Relief Line study has settled on a proposed alignment from Pape Station south to Eastern Avenue, then west to the Don River (passing beside the Unilever/Great Gulf development site), jogging north back to Queen Street west of the river, and thence to University Avenue. This is referred to as Option 3. The other options were:

  • 1: Surface transit improvements on Queen and King, but no Relief subway line
  • 2: Relief line from Pape Station to downtown via Queen
  • 2A: Relief line from Pape Station to downtown running diagonally from Gerrard to Queen via the GO rail corridor.

Future extensions to the north and west are also contemplated, but this “Business Case” report deals only with the first phase.

As the route selection process evolved, so did the scoring system used to rank the options. For example, the employment benefits of the Unilever site were not considered in earlier schemes where a Queen Street alignment all the way from Pape to University ranked highest. By the time we get to the “final” ranking, the Pape/Eastern/Queen alignment clearly wins out. Some of the change is due to the use of the City’s “Feeling Congested” evaluation matrix that has been brought to many of the recent studies. The priorities of these evaluations are more weighted toward social and city building benefits, and less to raw travel-time saving.



Relief to the Bloor-Yonge interchange is projected, although the larger benefits occur when the line is extended north to Sheppard & Don Mills.

The first phase of the Relief Line is anticipated to provide a net reduction of 3,400 to 5,900 riders on Line 1 (Yonge) south of Bloor during the AM peak period. The subsequent extension of the Relief Line north to Sheppard Avenue is projected to provide even greater relief, with a net reduction of 6,500 to 9,900 riders relative to the Base Case in 2041. [p 3]

The future second phase is shown in this map:


The detailed ridership estimates have not been published, but the presumed network elements that would exist for the modelling are:

• Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mt Dennis to Kennedy Station (currently under construction);
• Toronto-York- Spadina Subway Extension (currently under construction);
• Sheppard Avenue East LRT (funded);
• Scarborough Subway Extension (3 stop) (funded); and
• Connections to new subway stations from existing local bus and streetcar routes [p 16]

Notable by their absence are SmartTrack and the Crosstown East LRT to UTSC, and the Scarborough Subway is presumed to be the 3-stop version to Sheppard Avenue. Considering that the configuration of the “optimized” Scarborough network changed some months ago, the use of an out-of-date model is surprising.

The projected cost of the Relief Line has been widely reported as almost doubling. This is misleading because it contrasts current 2016 dollar estimates ($4.1 to $4.4 billion) with projected spending when the project is actually constructed sometime in the late 2020s or beyond. Earlier estimates have been quoted in older dollars at correspondingly lower projected total cost.

Of the increase, $300-400 million is due to the selection of the Pape/Eastern alignment which makes for a longer route. Roughly $2 billion is due to inflation between the 2016 estimates and the likely period of construction.

An interesting observation in the report is that the benefits case methodology confers a substantial value to reduction of travel time. However, the RL’s primary effect is not intended to speed riders from the outer suburbs to downtown, but to improve flows through the network, especially on the initial downtown-to-Pape phase. Therefore, a significant component of some “benefit” estimates – travel time savings – is not available to the Relief Line despite the major contribution it brings to network behaviour and the expansion potential it creates.

It is important to note that the focus in the Metrolinx business case guidance is on travel time savings benefits and benefits associated with reduction in auto-use. As a result, there are several key benefits associated with local transit and city building objectives that are not monetized in this economic evaluation. Further work is required in the development of the business case tool to ensure the economic evaluation includes the monetization of the types of benefits expected from transit expansion projects which provide a more local service. [p 33]

This begs the question of whether the traditional “benefit analysis” which does contain a travel time saving component truly presents the “value” of new transit lines, or if it is skewed to reward projects serving longer commuter-type trips and the infrastructure they require.

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A Cat’s Cradle of Transit Plans (Updated)

Updated June 6, 2016 at 11:30 pm: The chart of the demand profile for the Eglinton East LRT has been updated by City Planning to correct an error in labelling where inbound and outblound values were reversed. The new chart has been placed into this post, and the link to the source pdf has been updated below.

Public consultation sessions are coming to an end on the “motherlode” of transit projects (as they were described earlier this year by Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat). This process will soon bring a consolidated set of reports and recommendations for Council. So far, the presentations have been subdivided between various projects.

A major challenge for politicians, the media and the general public is to sort out all of these schemes and to understand how they all fit together. This is not just a question of how we will finance all of the projects, but of how each project and the choices made for it will affect everything else. Where typical studies in Toronto might have wrestled with whether a new line should go under street “A” or “B”, and where the stations might be located, today’s work requires understanding of how the network will evolve over time and how it will work as a whole in a few decades.

The process is complicated further by having municipal (City Planning & TTC) and provincial (Metrolinx) components, and the secretive nature of Metrolinx studies means that some vital information about its projects is not yet public. The Metrolinx reports are expected to appear on their Board’s agenda for June 28, and this implies public availability sometime in the preceding week.

The consolidated City reports should be available on June 21 when a briefing session is to occur at City Hall a week before the June 28 Executive Committee meeting.

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A Boost for the Relief Line

This afternoon, June 1, there was a small miracle at the TTC’s Greenwood Yard. Assorted politicians and transit management gathered for an announcement of transit funding, of new transit funding, and for that perpetual orphan of Toronto’s political scene, the (Downtown) Relief Line.

Steven Del Duca, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation, announced that Metrolinx would be given “more than $150 million” to work with the City and the TTC on advancing planning and design for the Relief Subway Line to bring it to “shovel ready” status.

This is a substantial commitment of financial support, but more importantly of political support. Del Duca was joined by Mayor John Tory in singing the Relief Line’s praises as a necessary part of growing capacity on the transit network building out from earlier improvements through GO/RER and SmartTrack.

According to Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat (whose Twitter session is in progress as I write this), study of the RL will focus initially on Phase 1 (Danforth to downtown), but will then shift to the northern and western extensions. The northern extension is of particular importance because, according to Metrolinx demand projections, it will have a major effect in offloading demand from the Yonge Subway and the Bloor-Yonge interchange.


[Source: Metrolinx Yonge Relief Network Study p. 31]

With both the Mayor and Queen’s Park supporting the RL, and with provincial funding of the design work, the Toronto City Council gridlock over transit priorities can be “relieved” for at least a few years. The RL will not have to compete with other schemes for City funding, and with Metrolinx holding the purse, Council will not be able to divert the money to pet “relief” lines for suburban Councillors. Indeed, the whole suburbs-vs-downtown argument, which is born in part by a desire to be at the front of the line, need not pollute the RL study.

The Metrolinx role is also important because the RL (aka the “Don Mills Subway” to many on this site) needs time to be presented for what it can do for suburban Toronto were it to run north at least to Sheppard & Don Mills via Thorncliffe Park. Many riders would have a completely new route to downtown comparable to the service now provided by the Spadina Subway, and this would be completely separate from the existing congested system. Capacity released on the Yonge line would be available to riders from the proposed Richmond Hill subway extension, and the reduction of transfer traffic at Bloor-Yonge could eliminate the need for an extremely expensive and complicated expansion of platform and circulation capacity there offsetting some of the Relief Line’s cost.

Del Duca acknowledged the considerable work already done by the City and TTC on this file. Indeed, had it not been for the TTC’s Andy Byford with support from City Planning raising the alarm about the need for a Relief Line, nothing would have happened.

Some comparatively short term improvements will provide “relief” on the Yonge line, but these will be backfilled by pent up demand over the next decade.


[Source: Metrolinx Yonge Relief Network Study p. 20]

Smart Track may shave another small amount off of this, but notwithstanding the Mayor’s enthusiasm, the City’s own demand projections published as part of the Scarborough studies show that SmartTrack has a very small effect at Bloor-Yonge.

Tory is still somewhat confused about just what Smart Track’s effect will be considering how much it has been scaled back since his election campaign. He was happy to talk about track work now in progress in Scarborough (on the Stouffville corridor) as being part of Smart Track, when in fact it is the double-tracking work for improved GO service that was in the works before he even ran for office. And he still talks of this as if it were an $8 billion project when a great deal has been lopped off of the project’s scope.

Finally, the TTC CEO Andy Byford is happy just to see money coming his way from all three governments on both the capital and operating sides (although, the latter more grudgingly from the City).

As for construction, that’s still some years off, and it will be important to think of the project in phases, not as one megaproject. It will take five to six years to get to “shovel ready” status, and the issue then is how quickly we want to build the line. A lot of transit capital planning lately has been hostage to constrained finances at both the City and at Queen’s Park. By the early 2020s, the Scarborough subway project should be winding down and spending can shift to the Relief Line.

Now in all this excitement, if only someone would treat other orphaned projects like the Waterfront and Sheppard LRTs seriously.

Toronto Council Endorses Transit Plan, Seeks Background Details

At its meeting of March 31, 2016, Toronto Council passed several motions relating to the proposed rapid transit plan for the city.These evolved first as a set of staff recommendations, then amendments at the Executive Committee and finally amendments at Council. The changes along the way give a sense of how the attempt at a general approach taken in the new transit plan by staff can be warped into an emphasis on individual projects while losing sight of the overall purpose. This is not new in Toronto’s political theatre, but the city and region are at a crucial time when the “big picture” of the transportation network is essential. The challenge for those who would lead this process is to find a responsible balance between wider priorities and local concerns without making every decision only on political merits.

Many of these motions involve requests for additional reports, and at one point there was some concern about whether city staff could actually handle the workload. One might ask whether the city should be making such important decisions if staff are unable to produce sufficient background material and simply want approval trusting their recommendations. While studying issues to death is a well-known delay tactic, rushing decisions without all the details is a classic method of railroading through decisions the city might regret later. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking for a more thorough study of items that have been omitted, provided that the same requests do not surface over and over again.

If anything, Council has been woefully underinformed on transit options, priorities and tradeoffs, and such an environment “debate” often has little to do with the real world. Will every Councillor read every page of every study? No, but at least the material will be there to answer questions, support the good ideas and counter the dubious schemes. We hear a lot about “evidence based planning”, but this can be a double-edged sword where “evidence” might not support fondly-held proposals.

This article groups Council’s motions by topic so that readers do not have to sort through the relationship of recommendations and amendments.

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TTC Board Meeting Review: February 25, 2016

The TTC Board met on February 25, 2016. This article is a review of some of the reports and discussions at that meeting. For the full list, please refer to the agenda.

In this article:

As part of an update on cycling initiatives, the Board passed a motion asking staff to work together with the City on improved parking facilities for bicycles at subway stations. An article on this appeared on Torontoist’s website.

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Where Should A Relief Line (East) Go? (Updated)

Updated February 24, 2016 at 10:40 pm: A map showing the various options for a Pape-Queen routing to downtown has been added at the end of this article.

The City of Toronto Planning Division has released the detailed technical scoring for evaluation of six possible routes for a Relief Line linking the core area to the Danforth subway.

The possible routes that survived a preliminary cull were:

  • A: Broadview to Queen crossing the Don River at Queen
  • B1: Pape to Queen crossing the Don River at Queen
  • B2: Pape to Queen, dodging south to serve the Unilever site before crossing the Don and swinging back to Queen Street
  • C: Broadview to King crossing the Don River at Queen
  • D1: Pape to King crossing the Don River at Queen
  • D2: Pape to King crossing the Don River at the Unilever site

Of these, the two Broadview options don’t fare very well, and the real debate is between the four remaining Pape options.

The scoring extends through many categories and pages, but to simplify things and understand just how each factor was ranked, I have consolidated the scores into a spreadsheet. (For the detailed evaluation, refer to the scoring document linked above.)


In place of the scoring system used in the city summary, I have converted each of the symbols to a numeric value:

  • Full moon = 4 points
  • 3/4 moon = 3 points
  • Half moon = 2 points
  • 1/4 moon = 1 point
  • New moon = 0 points

Within each major grouping of scores, the values were totalled and then normalized to the range of zero to one. For example, if a group contained 4 topics, then the maximum possible score is 16, and each alignment’s score is divided 16 to get a normalized value. This allows the scores from each group to be compared with each other.

At the end, the scores can either be summer individually (each topic counts equally), or the group averages can be totalled (each group count equally regardless of how many topics it contains) and normalized.

On a grand total basis, both the city’s technical evaluation and public feedback came to the same conclusion: even though there are variations between the four alignments, they all average out to a 3/4 score.

The point scores also come out close to the same with higher values on one item balancing lower values on others for, overall, an even ranking.

Quite simply, all other things being equal, the four alignments are more or less equivalent using this scoring system. However, the City opted for alignment B1 because, among other things, is is claimed to be cheaper and simpler to build.

The costs estimates in the City’s evaluation [at p.19] are:

  • $3.7-billion for either of the Pape via Queen options regardless of whether they follow Queen or King to the core
  • $4.0-billion for the Pape-Unilever-King option
  • $4.1-billion for the Pape-Unilever-Queen option

The ridership estimates are generally higher for the via King options, and higher still for the routes serving the Unilever site. In all cases, off-peak riding tends to be low compared to the rest of the network with roughly 2/3 of all boardings on the Relief Line being during the AM or PM peak. The effect is even more striking for configuration where frequent SmartTrack service at 12 trains/hour competes with the Relief Line for customers. This demonstrates the problem of a line aimed at primarily peak period “relief”. As and when we see projections for longer versions of the RL (to Eglinton or Sheppard), the balance of off-peak travel may change because the route will serve new subway territory, not simply provide an alternate route for existing trips.

Despite the even scoring overall, the preferred corridor was selected based on giving some criteria additional weight as shown in the table below.


This evaluation, like so much other recent work, depends very much on the presumed presence of frequent SmartTrack service in the rail corridor. If that is found to be impractical, then the relative importance of the RL changes along with its appropriate alignment to serve the core. This is particularly critical at the Unilever site which would have only SmartTrack serving it if the RL stays on Queen Street.

One point above misrepresents the technical evaluation: both of the Queen Street crossing routes have the same cost estimate regardless of which route they take to the core area (Queen or King) and they share the same river crossing characteristics.

In summary, the choice “makes sense” in the limited context that a frequent SmartTrack service will actually be feasible and will be built. If SmartTrack cannot be provided on a five minute headway with a low fare, then the entire planning process will require a major rethink.

Updated February 24, 2016: The following map shows possible alignments for a route from Pape & Danforth to the core area. Notes on the map talk of a track connection at Danforth to provide access to Greenwood Yard. The technical scoring paper also mentions a southerly route under the rail corridor from Gerrard & Pape eastward. While this is longer, it would avoid the complexity of adding linking curves at Danforth.


Demand Projections for Relief Lines

The City of Toronto Planning Department has published a set of demand projections for various combinations of the (Downtown) Relief subway line, SmartTrack, and the proposed northern extension of the Yonge line to Richmond Hill.

This document makes interesting reading because it shows both the status of the evolving master transit plan that went into the modelling, and the vital point that additional capacity into the core area is essential to prevent complete gridlock on the subway system. Both SmartTrack and the Relief Line are essential to a future transit network.

That said, the report raises several issues in part by what it does not talk about, specifically some of the network configurations that have already been presented in various studies.

Alignment Options for the Relief Line, and Other Model Variations

This question of the Relief Line’s alignment is subdivided into two parts: what is the scope of the line, and which route will it take to link Danforth to the core area.

The big options include:

  • A “little J” route from Yonge Street to Danforth
  • A “big J” route from Yonge Street to at least Don Mills & Eglinton, possibly beyond
  • A “little U” from Danforth to Bloor West via downtown
  • A “big U” with northern extensions of one or both arms of the “little U”

Work has focussed on the “little J” because that is the scope for a Relief Line so long discussed, and approved for study by Council. Therefore the model numbers do not show any effect of taking the “little J” further north to intercept more traffic bound for the Yonge line. This has already been reported by Metrolinx as a very beneficial extension to the RL.

Within all of the options, there are permutations of a Danforth to Downtown route:

  • The north-south segment could lie on either Pape of Broadview.
  • The Don River crossing could be at Queen, or further south to allow the line to serve the Unilever site.
  • The route into the core could be via Queen or King.

A northern route via Queen makes for a simpler river crossing, but the southern route picks up a major new employment district. The King Street route into downtown also attracts more riders than a Queen route.

City Planning staff have erroneously talked of a King route as if it could only exist as part of the southerly Unilever site alignment, when their own study clearly shows the option of a route crossing the Don at Queen, and then veering into King Street. The more northerly crossing is preferred because it will be easier to build under the river at a narrower point.


The following permutations were modelled to see how they would perform:

  • Broadview to Queen
  • Broadview to Queen to King
  • Pape to Queen
  • Pape to Queen via Unilever
  • Pape to Queen to King
  • Pape to King via Unilever

Of these, the two most promising were the Pape to Queen options with the only variation being whether the line ran to downtown via Queen or via King after crossing the Don at Queen Street. For this article, these are the only two whose demand projections I will discuss.

Further east, there is the question of the Scarborough Subway extension and SmartTrack. Model runs were performed with three variations:

  • No SmartTrack
  • SmartTrack on a 15 minute headway (4 trains/hour)
  • SmartTrack on a 5 minute headway (12 trains/hour)

The SmartTrack cases used a modified land use plan that assumed SmartTrack itself would cause growth that would not otherwise occur. This causes increases for the Relief Line’s projected demand when it is matched with a the lower level of SmartTrack service (4 trains/hour) because the latter does not attract as much riding as the Relief Line.

All model runs used a Scarborough Subway (SSE) with its original three stops, not the “optimized” version serving only Scarborough Town Centre. The disconnect between what is modelled and what is proposed indicates that some of the plan’s elements have changed very recently. The model is supposed to catch up to the plan in future iterations.

None of the SSE or ST figures are included in this report, and so we cannot see how the model divided up demand between them, albeit with the “wrong” station configuration.

Finally, the Richmond Hill extension was added to the model networks to see how it would affect demand on the critical downtown segment and Bloor Yonge Station.

All of these numbers must be taken with awareness of the limitations on what has been modelled, notably:

  • With the RL ending at Danforth, the potential benefit (and hence RL demand) of the “big J” is unknown.
  • The five-minute service on SmartTrack, identified in a previous study as essential to attract riders, may not be physically possible given constraints on sharing the network with GO.
  • It is unclear whether SmartTrack will actually operate at no fare premium above local TTC services, another essential component of making this service attractive to riders.
  • The effect of SmartTrack in the downtown segment, including the degree to which it would duplicate an RL at the Unilever site, depends on the ability to operate frequent ST service.
  • The relative roles of the Scarborough Subway and SmartTrack in attracting riders is unknown because the now-proposed station layout has not been modelled.

That is a long list of variables. Many of these will be addressed in updated model runs expected in coming weeks, but readers should be careful not to take the current model output as definitive.

Nonetheless, the report concludes that treating SmartTrack and the Relief Line as options is misguided because both will be required to accommodate future demand to 2031 and beyond. Addition of the Richmond Hill extension to the mix will exhaust the Yonge line’s capacity by 2041. This makes further study of the “big J” quite important.

The findings in this Summary Report make clear the importance of the Relief Line. It is apparent that both the Relief Line and SmartTrack will be required in the future to ensure the efficient operation of the existing and proposed future transit networks. Additional work is required to assess the potential benefits of extending the proposed Relief Line north of the Bloor-Danforth subway to Eglinton Avenue and potentially to Sheppard Avenue. [p 3]

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A Rainbow of Rapid Transit

In Toronto’s never-ending fascination with new transit maps, the City Planning department has released a vision for our rapid transit network as it will be in 15 years.


Despite much talk of “evidence-based” planning, this is a very political map, and I cannot help remembering then-Premier David Peterson’s announcement of 1990 (not long before he lost an election and Bob Rae wound up as his much-surprised replacement) that amounted to a chicken-in-every-pot map.

There is nothing wrong with network-based planning, and indeed I have been beating a well-worn drum on that subject for years. But let us also remember that the Scarborough Subway exists because of the political clout of Brad Duguid, a former City Councillor, now Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development. Mayor John Tory, in Toronto Life, cites Duguid as saying that “if anyone tries to cancel the [Scarborough] subway, they’ll do it over his dead body”. “Evidence” apparently includes having a large cudgel to keep wandering pols in line.

The map also includes the Mayor’s pet project, SmartTrack, and it’s no wonder that he steers clear of the Minister’s position given the need for a provincial agency, Metrolinx, to accommodate SmartTrack on their network.

All of this is part of the “Motherlode” of public consultation sessions now running in various places around the City, and through Metrolinx in the wider GTHA. Background information and links to related material are available at Toronto’s TransitTO web site.

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Relief Line, SmartTrack, GO/RER, Scarborough Subway Consultations

Toronto City Planning has released a draft list of upcoming public consultations on various transit plans including:

  • The Relief Line
  • The Scarborough Transit Plan (Subway, SmartTrack, Crosstown East LRT)
  • The Western SmartTrack Plan (SmartTrack, Crosstown West LRT)


Additional meetings and information about Metrolinx plans (GO Regional Express Rail) will be organized by that agency.

Even more information will be available in March 2016 when the City releases a compendium report on all transit initiatives currently under study. These will include items listed above as well as the “Waterfront Reset” study, TTC Fare Integration proposals and a review of how (or if) Tax Increment Financing can contribute to the many transit projects under review. The intent is that this report will form the basis for public consultation and debate leading to recommendations at Council in June 2016. This is a very aggressive schedule, and there is no indication how consensus will actually be achieved in so short a time, especially with the usually-secretive Metrolinx as an essential player. At least the discussion will be at a network level, not ward-by-ward with a “relief” line for every member of Council, and there will be some filtering of various schemes based on engineering and operational realities.

What is sadly missing from all of this is a discussion of day-to-day transit operations and the backlog in the state-of-good-repair budget. We can blithely discuss billions worth of subway building to Scarborough and a Relief line, but Council won’t fund the basics of running a transit system.