Comfirm or Deny: Big Changes Coming to GO Bus Service

Over the past weekend, a post appeared briefly on Facebook describing proposed changes to GO Transit bus service that were presented to ATU Local 1587 members on Wednesday, July 17. Normally I would take info like this with a grain of salt based on decades of hearing various half-baked stories about TTC plans that pop up from railfan speculation and internal TTC rumours. However, this was too detailed a list and from a first-hand source, and it cannot be ignored.

Updated July 23, 2019 at 8:55 am: The following email was sent to me by ATU 1587 who represent the GO Transit Workers:

A.T.U. Local 1587 was not aware of a posting on social media of service cuts produced by Metrolinx. It was brought to our attention from you, Steve. Thank you.

Metrolinx has however, brought to the union, approx. a month ago, of service cuts in bus that affected Beaverton, Oshawa, Waterloo, Bolton, Cambridge.

Metrolinx is trying to reduce bus service, and force passengers onto trains, which means less local access for our passengers. If there is local transit, then they will have to take that system and  transfer once they are close to a GO station, if not then they will have to use their personal vehicle.

Our members provide an excellent service overall. We don’t however, create the schedules of where we go or don’t go. Our members have voiced their disbelief about the cuts to trips not only for our seniors that use our service for appointments, but our university students as well. Everyone who uses GO Transit/Metrolinx is using us for a reason. Our members are proud of what they do, helping those with disabilities, seniors, children, etc. The pride does not stop at our drivers. Everyone from plant maintenance to station attendants, to our coach tech’s (mechanics), transit safety officers, OFPT. We are all proud of the job we do for the public, our passengers.

Thank you,

Christine Broeze
President/Business Agent
A.T.U. Local 1587

Updated 4:44 pm July 22: Metrolinx claims that the information posted on Facebook is not true.

The rumours are not accurate.

Buses form a vital connection between trains and communities not connected to train service or with limited train service.

Buses will always be an important part of our regional transportation plan. In fact, we are actively recruiting bus drivers to join our team.

We currently have a fleet of 532 buses and approximately 420 are used for service. We have more buses on the road today than we ever have and every year since our existence they have increased.

We are always monitoring our services to ensure we are making the best use of our resources.

We are embarking on the largest expansion of rail service in our history.

At times, when new train service is introduced it makes sense to redeploy bus services to other communities. Trains can carry far more passengers and shorten the trip.

It is difficult for us to comment on the presentation made to union members as we were not there. [Email from Fannie Sunshine 4:35 pm, July 22]

Original post below:

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Metrolinx Board Meeting: February 7, 2019 (Updated)

Updated February 10, 2019 at 9:00 am: Notes from the Board meeting have been added at the beginning of this article.

Relief Line Business Case

When the agenda was released, the Relief Line report created quite a stir with an apparent shift in Metrolinx’ position on the staging of subway expansion projects. Where “relief” taking precedence over the Yonge north extension only referred to the southern section (Pape to Osgoode), Metrolinx now shows a shortfall in capacity if the northern section (Danforth to Sheppard) is missing from the network.

This prompted a letter from Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of Markham and Chair of the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation Board. The heart of Scarpitti’s objection is that the Metrolinx report uses a mixture of demand models and assumptions to arrive at its conclusion, and that this is out of step with previous studies and approvals.

The Relief Line Business Case Development presentation paints a flawed picture of the ridership modelling work being undertaken by Metrolinx, in conjunction with York Region and City of Toronto staff. The vague and contradictory information being used to update the public on slide 7 regarding Line 1: Ridership Demand and Network Effects has, once again, pitted two critically needed infrastructure projects against one another, namely the Relief Line against the Yonge Subway Extension. This positioning is not supported by the ridership modelling analysis and is at odds with the advice and information presented by Metrolinx at a recent meeting.

On June 25, 2015, Metrolinx released the results of the Yonge Relief Network Study to the Board. Supported by a Stakeholder Advisory Committee and a Peer Review Panel, the Board endorsed the finding that “With the Yonge North Extension, the Yonge Subway will still be under capacity.”

The Relief Line Update uses a blend of data and methodologies to make broad assumptions about future ridership. Each subsequent ridership model claims to have better information, more detail and more sophisticated analysis. Some models include independent findings and more recently, to our objection, some have been relying heavily on market driven employment and population data, contrary to the required obligation of all municipalities to follow the Provincially-mandated “Growth Plan” numbers.

The Relief Line Update being presented to the Metrolinx Board on February 7, 2019 has, according to Metrolinx staff, blended the findings of at least three different models and does not accurately represent any of the individual modelling analyses. Slide 7 suggests that, in 2041, Line 1 will be below capacity and then over capacity when the Yonge Subway Extension is added. This is completely inaccurate – current Metrolinx modelling shared as recent as January 21, 2019 demonstrates that the Yonge Subway Extension adds a relatively minor number of riders to the peak demand location and, in no case, is it the cause of Line 1 becoming over capacity.

The facts are that only 20% of the new riders on an extension of the Yonge Subway line would be headed south of Bloor. Ridership growth on Line 1 is directly related to population and employment growth in Toronto. In fact, models show that ridership on Line 1 will exceed capacity regardless of whether the Yonge Subway Extension is constructed. We believe that by promoting the shift of as little as 10% of people from peak hour travel from the Extension to the Richmond Hill GO Line, and by using fare structure and level of service incentives, that substantial relief on Line 1 can be achieved while the Yonge Subway Extension is being constructed.

Modelling also shows that the majority of riders (80%) on the Yonge Subway Extension are headed to Toronto’s uptown employment centres north of Bloor, including St. Clair, Eglinton and York Mills. Furthermore, the Yonge Subway Extension will also serve a large number of Toronto residents that work in York Region Other initiatives are underway, or should be underway, to alleviate Line 1 capacity problems. Metrolinx’s 2015 study concluded that a number of planned and funded initiatives such as Automatic Train Control, more Rocket Trains, GO Expansion, and the opening of the Line 1 extension to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre will add capacity and offload the Line 1 demand.

These are serious challenges to the professional quality of work presented by Metrolinx planners.

The June 2015 report cited here was the Yonge Relief Network Study and it contains the quotation about the subway remaining under capacity even with the Yonge North extension. However, this depends on a number of factors:

  • The model year is 2031
  • Then-current projections for population and jobs
  • Assumed diversion levels for ridership to TYSSE and GO RER, net of demand added by new projects especially the Crosstown LRT at Eglinton

The reported projected that the volume/capacity ratio would have been 96% (2031) over the peak hour meaning that the super-peak would be above the line. The claim that the subway would still have capacity is “true” only on average and with no headroom for growth. Metrolinx planners should have known better to make that statement in 2015.

Metrolinx staff pointed out:

  • They are modelling for 2041, ten years later
  • The 2016 Census shows that core area employment is growing faster than predicted
  • Modelling now includes factors for latent demand and safety considerations at stations and platforms
  • If there is no alternate relief in place by 2041, the Relief Line North will be required

Staff also reported that although the Relief Line South approved concept (Pape to Osgoode via Carlaw and Queen) has a positive Business Case, the value is only slightly above 1.0. All six of the options were close to 1 and so the distinction between them is not as strong as the simple over/under status in the report might imply. With only a small positive margin, factors such as cost control and encouragement of Transit Oriented Development along the line will be important to maintain the supposed benefit.

CEO Phil Verster argued strongly that building the Relief Line does not preclude building other projects. His concern is to build more transit and build faster. Metrolinx is looking at (unspecified) new technology and innovation from industry to speed up the process. More than one line could be built concurrently, but the critical point is to open them in a sequence that causes the desired redistribution of demand.

Verster admitted that Metrolinx has not done enough to look at the Richmond Hill GO corridor for its potential contribution to relief.

A Board member asked whether the staff have identified a “tipping point” in safety for their studies. There is not a single value, but rather a variation from one location to another depending on local demand, station geometry and passenger flows.

Unspoken through all of this was the years of delay in admitting that a problem even exists, let alone of doing something about it. GO’s ability to provide relief has been downplayed for various reasons including the need to regrade the south end of the line to make it flood-proof, the winding valley route’s limitation of travel speed, and operational conflicts with CN’s freight traffic that limit GO capacity to Richmond Hill. Meanwhile, candidate John Tory’s SmartTrack campaign claimed that his scheme would eliminate the need for a Relief Line, and TTC projections did not raise alarms about capacity and safety issues until the situation at Bloor-Yonge could not be ignored.

“Relief” will not come from any one line or project, but from the contributions of several.

Financing and deliverability studies will be reported in spring 2019 for the Relief Line South, and a preliminary business case for the Relief Line North will be available by year-end.

This entire exchange shows the problems brought on by oversimplified presentation decks for the Board. In their oral remarks, Metrolinx staff displayed a more extensive grasp of the issues and details than contained in the Powerpoint deck.

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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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