High Speed Rail – bring it on!

I am going to take the opposite viewpoint to my esteemed colleague Adam on this topic. Here’s the ‘good cop’ version.

David Collenette was the man behind the UP Express, having first proposed it 20 years ago. His original vision was for a direct train that would offer a 22-minute ride from Pearson to Union that would cost $20. Without going into the details of what happened between concept and reality (read our back issues), the end result was that Weston in effect ended up with an all-day commuter rail service into Toronto for about the same price as a GO Train ticket.

Collenette has re-emerged as a ‘Special Advisor’ in a report outlining a vision of a high speed rail line joining Toronto and Windsor.

Lord knows how hard it is to get anything built in this neck of the woods. Collenette’s vision of the Air Rail Link (as it was then known), ended up as a huge gift for Weston’s commuters. Now on the wildly popular UP Express (since lowing prices), in rush hours, it’s standing room only.

What about the Toronto to Windsor HSR Line? It’s certainly needed. In fact, decent rail links all over Canada are needed. Part-way to Windsor lies Canada’s Silicon Valley in the Kitchener / Waterloo area. It’s too close to fly there (only 100 km) yet GO Trains take at best 2 hours. An HSR train would use much of the same corridor and cut travel time between the two city centres dramatically. Stops at Malton (Pearson), Guelph, Kitchener and London are proposed for the first phase.

The HSR route will use the UP Express corridor. Click for larger view.

What’s in it for Weston?

In 2021, the UP Express will add one more station at Mount Dennis and connect to the new Crosstown Line. Will this new station make the UP Express unacceptably slow? There is a rumoured possibility that Weston’s station will be too close to Mount Dennis and may be closed as a result.

The report itself recommends that existing services be ‘optimized’:

The Province should align provincial mandates to optimize rail services by directing Metrolinx and MTO to collaborate on the development of an Integrated Rail Strategy for the Toronto-Kitchener corridor, which would

•Clarify the mandates of GO RER, UP Express and HSR on the corridor.

•Assess ridership and service frequencies.

•Recommend how the Province might optimize GO RER, UP Express and HSR ridership to maximize the benefit to Ontarians.

One way around the two station dilemma might be to convert the existing UP Express into a commuter line and open new stations along the way. This could be a way of easing the burden on the subway system while preserving Weston’s regular and rapid link to downtown.

What will the cost be? Anyone who has done home renovations will know that estimated costs before a project begins are likely to end up higher in reality. What studies do show is that public transit adds value to a community if done well. No doubt changes and variations are up for grabs as they were with the original idea for the Airport Rail Link.

What about a high speed train running through our community? The train won’t likely be that fast in the city. Currently the UP Express hits speeds of up to 130 km/h between Bloor and Weston for an average of around 77 km/h. The report projects a somewhat faster average speed (just under 100 km/h from Union to Malton).

Travel times for the faster of the two HSR scenarios. Click for larger view.

The next steps will be more studies and consultations. This is just the beginning of what will be a long and ambitious project. While there may be pitfalls along the way, there will be opportunities and this proposed infrastructure holds huge promise and potential for Weston.

We do however need to be on top of this as a community and make sure that the people of Weston / Mount Dennis are heard loud and clear.

Body blow to SmartTrack

By nixing road tolls around Toronto, Kathleen Wynne failed to cauterize the arterial bleeding of a corpse-white SmartTrack plan that would have benefitted Weston and Mount Dennis. Wynne killed the tolls because she faces a tough reëlection fight next year.

The bill for the western part of SmartTrack was to have been roughly $2 billion. The province has promised to give Toronto $170 million a year in gas-tax money, short of the roughly already-inadequate $250 million tolls would have raised. The gas money will go to all transit in Toronto, not only SmartTrack.

Tory’s revised SmartTrack plan would have built an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT out toward the airport from the Mount Dennis station, connecting the west end to Etobicoke, Mississauga, and Pearson.

Tory did bring much of this pain on himself, promising a magical line that could leap deep valleys, tunnel far underground, and be built by 2021 without raising taxes. He complained to the press about being treated like a boy in short pants by Wynne—but boys do dream about trains.

 

 

The Future of UP Express

 

A UPX train. Note the difference between the UPX platform and the adjacent GO train platform. (File)
A UPX train. Note the difference between the UPX platform and the (foreground) GO train platform. (File)

Officials at Metrolinx are looking over their shoulders after the unprecedented intervention by the Premier in forcing a rapid and substantial revision of UPX fares. When the Premier has lost patience in your effectiveness, other questions from the top may follow, such as, ‘Where else are they screwing up?’, and, ‘How many people did it take to make that idiotic decision?’

It doesn’t take much digging to uncover their inadequacies. Whether it’s the inability to coordinate a VIA Rail stop in Weston or their continued insistence that UPX needs to recover its investment, management has shown that they have a tenuous hold on the idea of serving the people (watch the most recent Board Meeting to get the idea) while ignoring the realities of transportation in the GTHA. The lack of a unified fare structure between TTC, UPX and GO and the failure to connect the UPX Bloor Station to the Dundas West TTC Subway station also come to mind.

Even before the outrageous fares were set, the whole idea of a boutique rail line serving business professionals was simply a non-starter. Back in 2012, WestonWeb asked,

Can you imagine captains of industry schlepping their own bags along miles of platform at either end and onto a train?

Captains of industry want to be carried (preferably in a limo) from door to door and don’t care about the cost as long as they get a receipt.

WestonWeb was not alone in predicting a tough time for UPX. Mike Sullivan, the Clean Train Coalition and many others voiced their concerns but the experts knew better. One wonders about the high priced consultants (expert experts) that Metrolinx was tapping into. How did they all get it so wrong?

UPX President Kathy Haley (screenshot from February 23rd Board Meeting )
UPX President Kathy Haley (screenshot from February 23rd Board Meeting )

No doubt there needs to be a scapegoat and according to media reports it’s likely to be UPX President Kathy Haley who was given the impossible task of making an unviable service financially self-sustaining. Her cheerleading for the service rang more and more hollow in recent days as evidence mounted that while people would clamour for a free ride, they weren’t prepared to pay more than a TTC or at worst a GO fare. Metrolinx head, Bruce McCuaig and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca bear some of the responsibility for their stubborn expectation of the impossible.

What should be the future of UP Express?

The first should be a recognition that this is truly public transit and like all public transit should not be expected to recoup its cost. There are reports that the service will be pulled under the GO Train umbrella and that would seems likely given the recent fare alignment with GO. Regardless of the overhead, in this day of electronic fares, there are attendants galore and a ticket inspector on every train. Some re-deployment of staff to other GO positions would no doubt cut down on costs.

Will the lower price increase ridership? Probably, but the trains will not be full even at the new fare structure. Many people have suggested that the train be made part of the ever changing SmartTrack plan with additional stations along the way. An obvious site is Mount Dennis where a Crosstown Line station will be located. One problem needing a solution is the high platform of the UPX (see photo above). Regardless, many communities along the line would also welcome a quick commute to Union Station. That is likely the future for UPX but for now, Weston residents can bask in a fast (14 minute) service to and from Union every 15 minutes.

Metrolinx to VIA: No dice.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 3.18.09 PM
Oh the possibilities! VIA Rail’s route (in blue) from Union to London.

VIA Rail trains pass (without stopping) through Weston twice a day in each direction on their way from London to Toronto’s Union Station. Some passengers from London, Kitchener, Guelph, Stratford and other stations along the route are headed to Pearson and it seemed like a no-brainer for those passengers to simply exit at Weston and hop aboard the airport train thus saving themselves time and money. Another plus, Westonians would have another way to travel westwards along that route and even catch a ride to Union in the other direction twice daily.

Enter Metrolinx. Metrolinx has said no. Apparently the arrangement is too hard to accomplish because of tight scheduling, passengers would only have 60 seconds to get off the train. Compared to regular UPX stops of 30 seconds, this seems like quite a generous allocation; especially since few will likely be getting off.

Why the foot dragging from Metrolinx? Well for starters, that’s a precious revenue loss if passengers can get a cheaper fare to the airport from Weston. Second, it’s an inconvenience to have a tight schedule to worry about. Third, why bother; it’s only Weston.

Bottom line: Laura Albanese, Ahmed Hussen and Frances Nunziata should be screaming from the rooftops for Metrolinx to add this (however small) amenity to Weston. Larger scheduling problems have been solved in the past. According to an article in the Star, this decision is not carved in stone. Let’s hope that our representatives can bring some pressure to bear; soon.

SmartTrack is at a fork

John Tory’s administration is releasing some of the proposals for the signature SmartTrack plan that pulled him into office. All of the proposals will affect Mount Dennis; some will affect Weston, too. There is a good chance, though, that none of them will come to pass.

The SmartTrack train will, according to Tory’s plan, run above- and under-ground in a U shape from roughly the airport, through downtown, and out to Unionville. Importantly, the original plan called for a sharp turn in Mount Dennis, and an impossible trip along Eglinton. It was a poorly thought out idea.Smarttrack

In February, City Council asked, among other things, for a rethink of the Mount Dennis section, and now that rethink has been released.

There are six proposals, each with deficits.

The first proposals (1A, B, and C) run along the proposed (but not funded or built) Eglinton Crosstown route along Eglinton Avenue. They do not stop in Weston. They would have very serious, and sometimes deleterious, effects on Mount Dennis—including a train through the park at Eglinton Flats. They would also require adding two more tracks and a widening of the corridor from downtown.  On the other hand, Mount Dennis would get an excellent station that would connect cars, trains, LRTs and 12 bus routes.

In the second group of proposals, the original plan is abandoned, and the train instead runs north, through Weston, and out to the airport. These proposals are less disruptive to Mount Dennis, but would still require more tracks and “significant modifications to recent rail improvements in the Weston and Junction areas.”

There is also a lot of duplication in this plan. The UPX and GO Train already run all day from Weston to downtown, GO will likely run more often in the near future. SmartTrack through Weston, in other words, would provide a third way to get downtown on the same track corridor.

 

 

 

Community day on UPX

The UP Express, which launched last week, had a community day today, giving free rides to all takers. It was extremely well attended—with standing room only on the ride I took.

The trains are nice; they are designed much like airliners, with overhead luggage bins and a functional, though not beautiful, interior.

Bugs remain, though. I had to wait more than 25 minutes for a train that runs every 15. Worse, there were no announcements about the schedule or of delays. Had I been waiting to catch a flight, I would have worried.

The platforms weren’t very clearly marked: the television screens all say the same thing, whether you are heading to the airport or downtown: “Pearson: Track 2, Bloor & Union: Track 1”.  That’s dumb: it puts the onus on riders to find out whether they’re on the right track rather than telling them. Finally, the platforms are open. Even today, in fairly nice weather, it was pretty cool and damp.

 

 

 

UP Express opens June 6.

With great fanfare, Premier Wynne today rode the UP Express from Union Station through to Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport. The Premier, pronouncing the much discussed train as the ‘up express’ (rather than U.P.), stated that this is the beginning of a new era in infrastructure investments. She also suggested that public transport becomes widely used if it is a more convenient way to move from one place to another than driving. No doubt many people will sample the new service for the first time out of curiosity but whether the train is viable in the long term is a highly contentious point. Time will tell if our new transit link will be more convenient for Torontonians, airport workers and tourists (and therefore successful) or if it will end up as a commuter rail line with additional stops along the way.

The Premier also referred to the doubling of GO train service by 2020 which is part of a $16 Billion Liberal infrastructure spend designed to get people out of their cars and onto public transit. Metrolinx President, Bruce McCuaig claimed that in its first year, the UP Express will result in 1.6 million fewer car trips. Former federal Transport Minister David Collenette who got the ball rolling back in 2000 tagged along for the ride. Sadly, there was no invite for WestonWeb to sample the new line.

In its early inception, the train was called Blue 22 and tragically, with the addition of a stop in Weston and three minutes of extra travelling time, nobody in the government could come up with a brief rhyming couplet that ended in twenty-five; hence UP Express. As readers are aware, the stop in Weston was a testament to the political clout of residents who forced the government to offset the negative repercussions of about 150 extra trains through Weston every day. Hence we ended up with a stop along the route, new respect from politicians and a beginning to the end of the decline of Weston.

Arrive in 25.
Don’t Drive – Arrive in 25™

Let’s hope that the same fighting spirit hasn’t left the station as there are fresh battles coming (more on that later).

For extra credit, here is an article that extolls the merits of vastly expanding our current (slow and very tentative) link to Kitchener (Incidentally, there is considerable interest among Kitchener residents, some of whom would like to change at Weston onto the UP Express).