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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Who Will Pay For SmartTrack?

Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a series of reports on the proposed SmartTrack project and related matters at its meeting on Tuesday, April 17, 2018.

These reports set in motion several aspects of the GO/RER/ST program, although the primary focus is the funding the the new SmartTrack stations which is a city responsibility. This article deals with the main report and the first two attachments.

Attachment 3 is a compilation of the information on the proposed new stations that has already been discussed in my previous articles on the public meetings.

Attachment 4 explains the link between SmartTrack and plans for significant changes to the road network in the St. Clair, Keele, Old Weston Road area including widening of St. Clair through the railway underpass and extensions of various roads to fill gaps and provide additional paths for traffic flow. The new station at St. Clair and Old Weston/Keele would be constructed based on the new layout, and work on these projects will be co-ordinated.

Attachment 5 was prepared by Metrolinx. It sets out the status of the many changes to various rail corridors that are within the City of Toronto.

Attachment 6 illustrates the planned new south platforms and concourse at Union Station, an expansion project separate from the renovation of the existing station now underway. Of note in the design is the replacement of four tracks by two making room for a pair of much wider platforms than in the older part of the station. From a service design point of view, these tracks and platforms will likely be the new home for the Lakeshore services as this will allow them to operate along the south side of the rail corridors free of interference with traffic from the more northerly corridors like Milton/Kitchener/Barrie to the west and Richmond Hill/Stouffville to the east.

(Metrolinx has already talked about the need to consolidate trackage and platforms in the old part of the station to improve capacity both for train service and for passengers, but that is beyond the scope of the city reports.)

The current report deals only with the SmartTrack stations. Specifically it does not address:

  • The Eglinton West LRT which, having replaced a part of the original SmartTrack scheme, is still bound up with ST as part of the total budget number for this project.
  • Operating and maintenance costs for GO/ST service.
  • The cost to the city of “fare integration” or even exactly what this will mean.

A further problem, as I discussed in a recent article, is that recent changes in the Metrolinx/GO service design for various corridors has changed the mix of local and express trains on which the SmartTrack scheme rests. Metrolinx has still not explained how they will operate the number of trains the city report claims will stop at all of the “local” SmartTrack stations, and they are quite testy on the matter when pressed. For its part, the city assumes a service level (and hence attractiveness of service) greater than what Metrolinx has, so far, committed to operating.

The works that are included in the report are:

  • Six new GO/SmartTrack stations at Finch, Lawrence East, Gerrard/Carlaw, East Harbour, Liberty Village and St. Clair/Old Weston.
  • Additional city requirements for station facilities that are not strictly required for operation of the transit service.

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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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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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Metrolinx Board Meeting and Town Hall: December 2017

Metrolinx held a Board meeting on December 7, followed on December 12 by a Town Hall.

Public questions to the Town Hall were submitted in advance and in real time during the Town Hall online, and in person by attendees. Metrolinx plans to put answers to all questions, including those that could not be handled during the Town Hall itself online in coming weeks. That record is now available at MetrolinxEngage.

My interest in both events was as much to see how the new CEO Phil Verster would handle himself especially during an open Q&A session which has not, to be kind, been part of the corporate culture at Metrolinx.

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Metrolinx Board Meeting Followup: October 26, 2017

Updated Nov. 2, 2017 at 2:50 pm: Typos corrected, notably “DBFOM”.

The Metrolinx Board met on October 26 with an agenda that was largely discussed in private. This article is a follow-up to the preview published before the meeting.

A major item on the confidential agenda concerned “Benefits Management and Realization”. Why this was handled at such great length in private is a mystery, and I attempted without success to clarify the topic of discussion with Metrolinx.

I asked:

Is this the issue of identifying, encouraging and capturing some of the benefits of transit expansion?

In a thoroughly opaque reply, Metrolinx stated:

Benefits management is a process to help us maximize project value as Metrolinx plans, builds, operates and connects transit projects in order to provide benefits to the region. [Email of Oct. 23 from Scott Money in Metrolinx Communications]

A major problem for Metrolinx and for the Regional Plan in general is the propensity to build stations surrounded by parking lots and structures (GO) or free-standing architectural sculptures that make integration with future development quite difficult. On a smaller scale, Metrolinx will have to get used to thinking smaller, in the sense that stops on BRT and LRT lines should not be planned around massive growth but depend on medium density locally plus intersecting feeder routes.

Metrolinx has committed to publishing information about its private sessions in the future, and it will be interesting to see how much we actually learn about evolving thoughts on this issue. After all, this meeting was billed as a “strategy session”.

The New CEO Introduces Himself

Metrolinx’ new CEO, Phil Verster, made a few remarks most of which were predictable as so much at Metrolinx meetings can be.

His focus since joining the agency has been on talking to customers and front line staff, especially those who do the invisible tasks that keep the system running. He has also been consulting with Metrolinx staff and management about the importance of positioning the agency to get the most out of the investment in the RER (Regional Express Rail) program over the coming years.

Among many projects, Verster spoke of the Kipling mobility hub (recently announced with a media event by sundry politicians), a project that has been brewing for over a decade.

Fare integration was another topic Verster focused on with the recently announced GO-TTC co-fare arrangement being the first step to region-wide integration. This will affect business case analyses, travel behaviours and patterns. New travel, of course, will depend not only on fares, but also on service, a topic on which Verster was silent.

In a telling comment, Verster observed that while Metrolinx has a lot of capital improvements underway, it is important to remember “the soft stuff” of organizational improvement, transparency to the community, and becoming an organization that represents transit in an objective and positive manner.

Being “objective” is a topic that returned in other discussions as the meeting went on.

Regional Transportation Plan Update

Antoine Belaieff presented an overview of the RTP consultations to date. He reported that reception to the draft plan as been generally positive, but that there is continued impatience for system improvements. Riders want seamless fares and service, have diverse opinions on parking and station access, and are interested in seeing how the plan will be staged and implemented. At the municipal level there were few surprises because local planners have been involved in developing the draft, although there is some interest in adding projects to the plan. Stakeholders want clarity about the first/last mile problem and how the growth in travel with RER will affect station access. There is continued interest in long and short haul goods movement by truck and rail.

There have been “fairly technical” discussions about roles and responsibilities for Metrolinx vs the provincial government, especially with respect to the provincial Growth Plan, and a desire for “crisp and concrete” language.

Phil Verster observed that the plan should not be “final” but should be open to changes. It should not be an “event” but an ongoing process.

Board member Upkar Arora asked whether people have been flagging omissions in the plan, have concerns about the environment and sustainability, or are split between an urban/suburban view of the plan.

Belaieff replied that, if anything, people are having to digest a “rich” plan that has a great deal to absorb. Feedback on environment issues has been supportive because of the plan’s “call to action”. Suburban areas tend to focus on how the plan will support growth both through new stations and with expansion that is timely relative to development.

Board member Rahul Bhardwaj asked whether “we hearing from the right people” or just those who are usually engaged, and using an unfortunate phrase, referred to the “silent majority”. Belaieff replied that he was pleased to see audiences not just of his planning friends, but that there was genuine input from “everyday” people. Getting attendees to meetings is hard, and Metrolinx is counting on local networks to help with this, but both “planning intellectuals” and “real people” were present. Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer, noted the need to reach marginalized communities.

Woo advised that there will be a report in December on the feedback Metrolinx has received and how it will affect the next version of the document. In parallel staff are working on economic information and will propose “a way forward” with the plan and its implementation. She proposed that the plan not be considered as finite, but as a generator of more specific studies.

One statement caught my ear, namely that this is a plan for ten years, after which there will be a new plan. That is technically correct, in that there is a legal mandate to review the plan every decade (the current review is triggered by that), but the RTP is intended to look forward a quarter century and given the lead time for the most complex projects, a ten year outlook simply won’t do.

As for the comments about “real people” at meetings, this cuts two ways. On one hand, it is vital that the plan be shaped by genuine public opinion as opposed to the “usual suspects” be they those of us who always comment on anything, or politicians who warp transit plans to suit their electoral goals. On the other hand, public opinion can be skewed by biased presentations, and some of the activism so familiar in transit circles arises directly from the need to provide contrary views to the official versions. Being “engaged” should not disqualify one from providing input to a vital plan, and engagement does not necessarily translate to agreement.

The finality of a plan, or its openness to change, is always a tug of war at the planning and political levels. Plans that are open to constant change can leave us with a situation where changing priorities and limited funding guarantee that nothing actually happens. On the other hand, the lack of published details behind many parts of the plan, specifically ridership projections, land use assumptions, project costs and priorities leave us with a full network for 2041 but no sense of how we will get there, or how subsets of the plan would perform.

Hydrogen Trains

Phil Verster introduced this report as an examination of an alternative “green” way to implement non-diesel propulsion for GO saying that there will be a very important feasibility study of the technology this fall. Mark Ciavarro, VP of RER Implementation, took the Board through the presentation (linked above) together with Peter Zuk, Chief Capital Officer.

Ciavarro noted that interest in hydrogen as a fuel goes back to 2012 when it was still a relatively new technology and, at the time, not worth further pursuit. In September 2016, Alstom unveiled a pilot and the vehicle is now in testing, although in a different, much smaller form than trains GO would use. The test train reaches a maximum speed of 140 km/h, and 60 trains are on order. Chief Operating Officer Greg Percy noted that GO’s top speed now is 90m/h or 150km/h. Greg Verster stated that speeds of 180-200km/h and up lie in High Speed Rail territory.

Chair Rob Prichard noted that there is a terminology issue in that all locomotives are electric, but the question is where the energy comes from. [Diesel locos generate their power on board while “electric” locos obtain power from an overhead wire. In both cases the actual propulsion is provided by an electric motor. However, truly electric trains give the option of powering all cars, not just the locomotive, and this changes a train’s performance.]

Zuk stated that GO is electrifying its network and the question is how this would be done. They are doing a feasibility study of hydrogen and other potential technologies. In Germany, commercial uses of hydrogen goes back to 2002, but there is a question here of the scale and applicability to large commuter rail operations.

Verster observed that the application of hydrogen trains in Germany would be to rural lines where electrification infrastructure is not cost effective. The train is small, and the issue is whether the technology can be scaled up. There will be challenges and that is why Metrolinx is conducting the feasibility study. There are hydrogen fuel cell applications in LRT and buses, but this is the first train. Surplus electricity can be used to create hydrogen, and that first stage is always expensive. This is a key part of the study.

Board member Carl Zehr asked whether the study will look at the transition to and integration of hydrogen technology. Verster replied only the technical feasibility is  being studied in the immediate future. His main objective is to deliver RER at the best cost and time. With respect to using the technology on track that GO does not own [portions of some corridors are owned by CN and CP which operate freight traffic over them], hydrogen trains could avoid the need for overhead contact systems (OCS) on non-GO trackage but there is no regulatory framework for this yet in Canada.

Zuk noted that each component of hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for years. What is new is their integration into a rail system. Metrolinx needs to determine if and how fuel delivery will work, and how the technology would fit into EMU (electric multiple unit) trains.

There will be a symposium to assess the state of the technology on November 16, 2017 (see p. 13 in the presentation deck) and this will be open to outside parties. Whether this means media and the general public is as yet uncertain.

Rob Prichard wondered whether GO Transit would be the last system to build an overhead based system. The obvious rejoinder is that the whole world is building these systems. Verster replied that Metrolinx should not engage in delivering a program that is dependent on research and development.

The study will likely be done by the end of 2017 with a report for the February 2018 Board meeting.

During the press scrum after the meeting, the Star’s Ben Spurr asked Chair Prichard and CEO Phil Verster what made them think hydrogen technology is even possible. Verster replied unambiguously that there are significant community ridership benefits in RER, and Metrolinx will not jeopardize this based on a technology that is not ready to market. He observed that the study will affect RER procurement – under a DBFOM scheme (where a bidder does everything from designing to operating and maintaining the system) there is a question of what technologies a provide might bid.

Spurr also asked about Metrolinx attempting to position Ontario as a global leader, and whether this is a transit agency’s role. Verster replied that Metrolinx should “scan the horizon” to know what is available.

The DBFOM reference raises the question of whether Metrolinx is planning to outsource its RER operations completely on a turnkey basis. I attempted to obtain clarification of this from Metrolinx later on (the scrum ran out of time), but replies yielded no information at all. As for hydrogen itself, it is clear that there is a tension between the basic action of getting an update on the technology, and a political stance that would provide Ontario (and its politicians) with yet another chance to show off advanced technology. Our experience in that regard is less than stellar.

GO/TTC Discounted Double Fare

This report is substantially the same as the one presented at the recent TTC Board meeting. It deals with the proposed agreement between Metrolinx and the City of Toronto/TTC to implement the first stage in a planned four-stage evolution of regional fares:

a) Discounts on double fares (GO-TTC)
b) Discounts on double fares (905-TTC)
c) Adjustments to GO’s fare structure
d) Fare Policy Harmonization

Leslie Woo expects to report to the December Board meeting on all of these.

During the scrum, Rob Prichard observed that although the GO-TTC co-fare is a three year agreement, he feels that unwinding it is unlikely because it is so clearly the right policy direction. If anything, it will be rolled into a more extensive set of integrated fares.

We can only hope that Metrolinx has moved beyond regarding the matter of time-based fares (the two-hour transfer) as a matter of local policy rather than as a potential key part of regional integration for non-GO services. All systems outside of Toronto now use this scheme, and York Region recently eliminated its zone fares. Only the TTC remains as an exception, and there will be a proposal in the coming Ridership Growth Strategy that Toronto move to the two-hour transfer.

This could leave Metrolinx in the position of trying to foist fare by distance, their long-favoured scheme, on local systems that have already standardized on a flat, time-based fare.

Governance

The agenda included a private session item on governance which will be public at the December meeting. This may deal with the issue of which items and reports are dealt with in private session, and which are made public, especially before rather than after they are massaged to fit political reaction.

Rob Prichard, after much prodding in the media scrum, allowed that the controversy over Kirby and Lawrence East Stations was a “catalyst for discussion”. Phil Verster took a shot at the issue by saying that there are four phases to the benefits case process and the station review is at stage 1. There will be more information later in the cycle. Ben Spurr challenged him on the sequence of a Ministerial announcement that appears to seal the decision. Verster replied that communities should get a sense of direction, but that Metrolinx has a long way to go in the maturity of how they work with benefits cases. These are not an absolute science but have strategic overlays leading to a policy decision.

The Globe’s Oliver Moore asked if the Ministerial intervention was appropriate. Verster replied that he cannot comment, but wants to look forward. Metrolinx will give informed advice and options, but it is up to the politicians to make decisions.

These statements dip and dive around the issue, and the comments about the uncertain nature of benefits cases beg the question of the value of the degree to which Metrolinx has relied on these in the past as definitive studies. Either they can hide behind studies as the work of “experts”, or they can recognize them as works in progress that might not be “mature”.

TTC Board Meeting October 16, 2017 (Updated)

The TTC Board will meet on October 16. Among items of interest on the agenda are:

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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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Metrolinx Board Meeting: September 14, 2017 (Updated)

Updated September 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm: An inconsistency in the opening date for the Finch West LRT between the Capital projects update and the project’s website has been flagged by a reader. Snapshots have been added to this article.

The Metrolinx Board met on September 14 to consider various reports. I have already written about the Fare Integration update, and will devote separate article(s) to the “Next Big Move”, the updated regional plan.

Other items of interest on the agenda included:

Presto Update and Quarterly Report

The roll out of Presto continues and TTC, even with a relatively low take-up rate to date, now accounts for more Presto taps than any other agency in the network. However, this only slightly more than one quarter of all Presto “taps” on a monthly basis (6.6 million for TTC vs about 24m for all systems). As the proportion of Presto-based TTC trips rises, TTC figures will dwarf all other agencies.

Status updates of note:

  • Readers are now performing well, but problems remain with the add value machines. A new generation of machines is now in testing and these will be rolled out across the system in the near future, including on the about-to-open Spadina subway extension to Vaughan.
  • There is no plan to introduce “open payments” (credit/debit cards, etc) on Presto in 2018 because Metrolinx is pre-occupied with the TTC roll out. Something might appear in the following year, but a related issue is that security standards for bank card transactions keep changing and getting tighter requiring ongoing design updates.
  • Presto sales and reload functions in Shoppers Drug Mart stores have been well received.
  • Presto supports “UPASS” programs. These are specific to each institution, not a system-wide standard implementation. Improvements coming in November:
    • UPASS program core functionalities enabled as part of PRESTO Vouchers solution.
    • UPASS program will provide discounted fares to university students in their respective districts through their local transit agency and universities.
    • Students will be able to electronically load discounted passes onto their cards through the PRESTO Customer Website, and universities can add eligible students through the PRESTO Vouchers portal.
  • Presto has negotiated a new agreement with various client agencies. There was no information in the presentation about how willing these agencies/cities were to accept higher service fees to fund the Presto system.
  • Presto is developing a new privacy policy for disclosure of data to law enforcement agencies. Public feedback on their proposals will be sought through a web survey, stakeholder groups and public sessions. The Information and Privacy Commissioner will review management proposals to ensure that they comply with applicable laws. A proposed policy update will come to the Board in December 2017.

Capital Projects Update and Quarterly Report

Metrolinx’ large inventory of capital projects continues, notably the Crosstown LRT, but also expansion of GO corridors.

There was a lengthy discussion of Union Station capacity, and among the information that came out was that Metrolinx is considering a reconfiguration of the station with fewer tracks and wider platforms. This would provide more passenger handling capacity, a key requirement considering the anticipated rise in service on all corridors. A new layout would also imply that services would be “hooked up” east and west of Union rather than terminating there. This would considerably simplify operations. A study of Union’s future requirements will come to the Board in December 2017.

Metrolinx is planning to study the status and appropriateness of Hydrogen technology to their operations:

  • A feasibility study on the use of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative technology for electrifying GO rail service and the UP Express is underway
  • Ontario is committed to running electrified trains on the GO rail network by 2025. Studying the feasibility of hydrogen rail technology is part of our due diligence to ensure that we choose the appropriate technology.
  • Metrolinx has had discussions with the Germany-based National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW) to learn directly about early experience
  • Metrolinx is committed to bringing industry leaders together for a symposium later this year to explore the potential application of hydrogen fuel cell technology

This will be useful if only to get a current view of the technology’s maturity and applicability, assuming that there are no Ministerial interests in forcing a conversion on Metrolinx. According to staff, they are operating on the basis that RER will be rolled out with existing electrification technology.

Updated September 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm:

In the Quarterly Report, there is a status table for all of the projects. The Finch West LRT is shown with an In-Service date of 2022.

However, the project’s web page shows a 2021 opening. I have asked Metrolinx to clarify this discrepancy. Thanks to reader Kass Forman for catching this.

2016-2017 Annual Report

The Annual Report includes, under the heading of “Being responsive & accountable”, the following statement [p. vii]:

Metrolinx is:

  • Increasing transparency in its financial, labour, realty, freedom of information, support fleet, information technology and capital projects details, so that Corporate and Administrative Costs are easier to understand.
  • Increasingly relying on evidence-based cost drivers to strengthen the data used to allocate costs to capital and operating programs.

These are fascinating claims considering the degree to which Metrolinx is a secretive organization. Far too many background studies are published, if at all, long after the Board has made a decision and the time for public input which could have been informed by such studies has passed.

“Freedom of Information” should occur naturally (as it would for a municipal agency), not when it is forced on Metrolinx by a formal FOI request from the media.

Easy understanding of costs will be more challenging because of corporate restructuring to amalgamate former divisions (Presto and UPX) into the main body of Metrolinx.

The integration and consolidation of operations under one management structure will deliver core Metrolinx services to customers and allow us to leverage internal learning and skills so we can adapt quickly and respond to our dynamic and fast-changing region. While we will maintain the identities of each service brand externally, we will be looking for opportunities to help our customers and the public understand the connections between each service and product. Beginning next fiscal year, we will report on our consolidated transit operations division, which will combine data and statistics for GO Transit and UP Express. [p. viii]

This will make determination of the profitability or cost of individual segments that have been treated as independent divisions more difficult, along with the degree of cross-subsidy that might exist between various aspects of Metrolinx’ businesses.

I asked Robert Siddall about this during the press scrum after the meeting. Siddall is the Metrolinx CFO, but is also Acting President and CEO pending the arrival of a recently-appointed CEO in October. He replied that with UPX becoming operationally part of GO Transit, it did not make sense to attempt to break it out as a separate cost and revenue centre. He was silent on the question of Presto.

For 2016-17, Presto received $14.8 million in usage fees. Operating costs were not broken out. [See charts on pp 35 and 38 of the report.] Oddly, the Presto update earlier in the agenda treated the negotiation of the client agreement with UPX as if this were a completely separate agency rather than part of GO Transit. The degree to which there are cross-subsidies between GO and UPX trips and Presto is completely hidden.

To Kirby, or Not To Kirby

The line in the Annual Report about “evidence-based cost drivers” is particularly amusing given the situation at both the provincial and municipal levels.

Ben Spurr in the Star has reported on political interference with the stations selected to be part of GO’s coming expansion. Specifically, the Lawrence East and Kirby Stations were originally not to be included in the list recommended to the Metrolinx Board, but this changed after intervention by the Minister of Transportation.

During the press scrum, Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard performed a not-too-elegant dance around repeated questions about just how the change in Metrolinx’ official position on these stations came about. Boiling many answers down to their core, he argued that although the Board had considered the matter of the station list on three occasions, they only actually voted on it once. Moreover, it is Metrolinx’ job, he argued, to provide advice based on information and analyses they have. Such decisions are a combination of technical analysis and art, he said. It was a performance not quite at the level of Swan Lake. [I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Prichard was auditioning for Prince Siegfried or Baron von Rothbart.]

An obvious question here is this: Metrolinx is supposed to give advice based on their expert technical studies (and whatever art they might muster). However, if the Cities of Toronto and Vaughan have new information about development plans for these two station sites, one must ask why Metrolinx staff and consultants did not have this as part of their study. How credible is any plan Metrolinx produces if “new information” can arise with clear political motives to swing decisions?

Fare Integration Update

As I previously reported, Metrolinx has rethought its approach to integration so that it can actually achieve something rather than endless discussion. Specifically, the Board approved:

  1. The Metrolinx Board endorse the step-by-step strategy outlined in the Report and that staff report back on December 14th 2017 on means to advance the strategy which includes:
    • Discounts on double fares (GO-TTC)
    • Discounts on double fares (905-TTC)
    • Adjustments to GO’s fare structure
    • Fare Policy Harmonization
  2. Staff undertake to engage the public and key stakeholders (including municipal elected officials) on advancing the step-by-step strategy
  3. Staff post the consultant’s Draft GTHA Fare Structure Preliminary Business Case

After a long period when Metrolinx was attempting a “big bang” change in fare policy, they are now trying a “step-by-step” approach intended to deal with the most annoying inconsistencies in regional policy without actually tearing the entire structure apart. Although it is clear Metrolinx would like to reach an end-state based on fare-by-distance, they will settle for an interim configuration for “two to five years”, according to Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer. Politically, that is equivalent to saying that the matter is deferred sine die.

This would conveniently allow someone in, say, the midst of an election campaign, to promise added funding to cover the cost of bringing the TTC into a consolidated fare system, to rationalize GO transit’s fares, and to sort out some regional inconsistencies such as the TTC’s transfer policies.

If Toronto adopted the two-hour transfer, this would make a seamless cross-border trip simple to implement and administer for Presto users. With the 416/905 barrier out of the way, the “need” to completely reorganize fares would drop substantially, and the political leverage to go “all the way” to fare-by-distance would be reduced almost to vanishing.

One issue came up during the scrum, and it will be thrown into the hopper for December’s report: the integration of UPX fares with the rest of GO. It makes no sense to operate UPX effectively as a short turn service on the Kitchener line while charging different fares. Moreover, integration of UPX trips with the wider GO tariff, including any TTC co-fare, is essential if Metrolinx is to play by the same rules they expect of every other transit agency.

Particularly important to any discussion about alternative fare schemes will be an open revelation of how each arrangement would affect different types of riders. Metrolinx has always been silent on the effect of a distance-based fare and premiums for “rapid transit” (e.g. subway) on long-haul suburban commuters within Toronto. Failure to publish this information puts the “debate” in the ludicrous situation of asking for a faith-based approval rather than one based on actual evidence. This kind of “planning” and “consultation” at Metrolinx must stop if they are to achieve their goals for transparency.