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.

Farmers Market update

Weston Farmers Market has finally moved to its designated temporary location in the UP Express parking lot on Weston Road south of Lawrence. As readers know, this year, the market had to find a new home as the old site was sold by the Toronto Parking Authority and is being ‘developed‘. Metrolinx was persuaded to allow the market to use its UP Express parking lot but unfortunately dragged its feet and didn’t have the site ready for the market until late last week. Thanks are due to MPP and provincial cabinet minister, Laura Albanese for applying pressure on behalf of the market through many letters to Metrolinx.

Thanks should also go to Weston Park Baptist Church who, when asked, donated their parking lot to the Market while the Metrolinx site was unavailable. Weston B.I.A. Chair Masum Hossein tells me that without Weston Park’s generosity, the market would have had nowhere to go while waiting for Metrolinx to release the site.

This week, in a new location and layout, the market looked much more like a market from the street and if there was any doubt, the B.I.A.’s Deborah Gibson was pulling in passing traffic in fine carny barker style.

Deborah Gibson from the BIA doing a fine carny barker routine.
Deborah Gibson from the BIA encourages passing traffic to try the market.

The larger space of the Metrolinx lot allows for a better arrangement of stalls that has much more appeal from the street.

DSC05823
Now that’s what a market looks like. Wychwood Barns it ain’t but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Those two SUVs are still blocking the view (we’re talking to you smoothie man and Grandpa Ken).
DSC05829
Grandpa Ken’s bacon sandwiches are still big sellers. Perhaps Grandpa Ken could encourage his clients to line up so that they don’t block access to other traders.

Masum also mentioned that the market area is patrolled on Friday nights until early on Saturday mornings and then cones are strategically placed so that people aren’t tempted to park overnight in the market area.

Councillor Frances Nunziata was there keeping an eye on things (you can see her in the second photo far left). Traders I spoke to seemed pleased at the numbers this week and the weather cooperated. It also helps that there is a large amount of fresh Ontario produce available, much of which comes directly from farms and orchards. I bought some peaches and they were delicious.

Is it too much to hope for a beer garden?

Kathy Haley a scapegoat? Not so much.

Kathy Haley has resigned as head of the Union Pearson Express effective March 31st. She has been employed by Metrolinx since July 2011 and came in with high hopes to run a successful airport express. There are two interesting videos on YouTube that encapsulate the hopes and aspirations of Ms. Haley and they certainly don’t seem to mesh with reality.

Watch this first video taken in Vienna when she confidently announces, “I’m developing and building a new air-rail link for Toronto”. Along with giving the impression of building the train single-handed, she frames herself as a person able to explore and adopt the needed expertise.

In the second video, taken in late 2014, Ms Haley makes some excellent points about marketing and the customer, “If you put the voice of the customer on the table, it’s hard to argue with his or her voice”. Unfortunately those words were uttered just months before the UP Express opened in July 2015 with outrageously high fares. Presumably once the train began running, it became hard to listen to the customers because they were nowhere to be found.

Once the UP Express was up and running, Ms. Haley became its official cheerleader and her new goal was to get more bums on seats. The bean counters in the Ontario Liberal Government had decided that operating costs had to be recouped through passenger revenue and Ms. Haley was given the impossible task of encouraging people to pay exorbitant fares that were devised by and approved by the Ontario Government through the nodding heads of the Metrolinx Board. All this in spite of the Auditor General’s advice (based on Metrolinx’s own figures) that ridership would be low and a fare price over $22.50 would be too high. The Board decided that regardless of the reality, high fares would not be a problem for the target customers (presumably those mythical captains of industry for whom money was no object).

As the months dragged on with no significant change in ridership, Ms. Haley was regularly seen earnestly arguing that despite the awkward facts, passenger numbers really were improving and a breakthrough was imminent. This flew in the face of many anecdotal reports of almost empty trains. Each grudgingly parsimonious fare promotion and discount was greeted with excitement by Ms. Haley and with a yawning indifference by the public. Bums remained off seats.

The final straw came during the most recent Valentine’s Day giveaway when hordes of people waited for hours to try out the service. The glaring gap between the huge interest in UPX and Ms Haley’s declaration that ‘once people know that we’re here, passengers will flock to the service’ simply became untenable. The truth was quite simple. Fares were too high. Their reduction finally came about through a humiliating but necessary intervention by the Premier. Already passenger numbers have doubled as fares have become affordable. Weston residents have a fast portal to downtown for a reasonable cost.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who earns an such an awesome salary ($249,020.54 in 2012). No doubt she has a golden parachute to soften the landing until the next well-endowed gig comes along. While her resignation is understandable, the other players in this debacle (in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo), “Have some ‘splainin’ to do”. These would be the Metrolinx Board of Directors, Metrolinx Chair Robert Pritchard, CEO Bruce McCuaig and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca.

Last but not least, the Premier was herself Transportation Minister in 2010 when private consortium SNC Lavalin pulled out of building UPX when it was clear there was no chance of making a profit. She knew the task was impossible from the start. Wouldn’t it be nice if all players acknowledged their individual blame in this sequence of events instead of hoping that Ms Haley’s departure will clear the air? Some more resignations would not go amiss.

Chicagomag: UPX a failure.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is investigating the possibility of emulating Toronto and building an express train that would take passengers from O’Hare Airport to downtown. Yesterday, Chicagomag.com published an article warning against this and declares Toronto’s UP Express to be a failure. Read all about it here.

 

Sullivan: Metrolinx and Transit Implications

Now that the dust has settled after October’s Federal Election, I was curious as to how former York South-Weston Member of Parliament, Mike Sullivan was adjusting to the new reality of being a regular citizen once more. He agreed to an in-depth interview and we sat down last Friday over coffees in a busy Perfect Blend Bakery. We touched on four main topics that we will roll out over the next four days;

Already published:

1. Fallout from the election

2. The Weston Cultural Hub

The third issue that we discussed was Metrolinx and transit implications for Weston.

3. Metrolinx

Prior to winning a seat in the House of Commons in 2011, Sullivan was co-chair of the Clean Train Coalition, a grass roots community group dedicated to electrification of the rail lines that run through what used to be known as the Georgetown Corridor. He was a vocal critic of the Airport Rail Link before it became known as the UP Express. For a flashback to the past, this interview with Sullivan is a good refresher on the issues back in 2010.

Sullivan is still keenly interested in transit as it pertains to Weston. We started with the new GO Station parking lot and and its role as host to the Weston Farmers Market for the foreseeable future.

Metrolinx is giving the farmers market (the GO Station Parking lot) for free for the next couple of years because there are no GO Trains on Saturdays and because you’re not allowed to park overnight on that (GO Train) lot. No one will use that lot to take the Airport connection. When Metrolinx was first talking about the quantities of parking that they were going to need, I got the impression that because they were going to market the link as an alternative to parking at the airport so you would pay $16 each way for the ride and park for free. And so that’s why they’re building that massive lot at the south end for the GO patrons and the North end will be potentially long term although Metrolinx told me that they have no intention of doing that they’re so desperate for ridership and ours is the only station where there is any possibility of parking.

Between Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack and the new LRT line, many have been wondering what will happen to Weston’s GO and UP Express stations once the LRT is complete. A new Mount Dennis station will be located uncomfortably close to Weston.

Watch this dream-like video. Notice the connections to GO and UP Express marked on the station entrance. Read more about the station here.

Sullivan spoke briefly about the way the New Eglinton LRT line will disrupt everything.

When the Eglinton LRT is opened, the UP Express and GO train will stop at Eglinton. That’s not good if you live in Weston.

The implication being that having two stations so close together will be mean that one will have to go. In other words, the least useful will become redundant and that could be Weston because it’s not a major transfer point as a triple rail intersection would be. The Mount Dennis Station will allow a transfer between GO, the UP Express, the Eglinton LRT not to mention the hastily planned election promise that was SmartTrack.

Weston may have another fight on its hands if it is to keep its two stations.

Sullivan moved on to the expensive and barely used UP Express and is sceptical about the latest Metrolinx UP Express ridership numbers.

UP Express claimed October ridership was higher in October but they didn’t take into account the fact that October has an extra day.

 

When asked to comment on the ticket prices charged by UP Express, Sullivan claims that the cost of running UPX is about $5 per fare. If this is the case, Metrolinx has lots of room to manoeuvre. Rumblings have already started about a really competitive fare that would boost ridership numbers. No doubt the New Year will bring a sober second look at prices.

Tomorrow: The Church Street, former Humber River Regional Hospital Site.

No tunnel noise walls

Weston is about to get much noisier. Metrolinx is abandoning its plans to build some of the noise walls that would have dampened noise from the new airport trains.

Manuel Pedrosa, a spokesperson for Metrolinx, says that “planned noise walls were not technically and economically feasible to be built on the Weston Tunnel Walls. The noise walls, as designed, are too heavy to be attached to the Weston Tunnel wall”. (Emphasis mine.)

Pedrosa says there will be no noise walls on the “strutted area” of the tunnel. This includes the areas between, roughly, John and Queenslea (in purple).

  weston_rendering1-1000x750 (1)Westontunnel

It is not yet clear whether there will be noise walls in the other areas of the Weston tunnel (in red). Pedrosa said “We are currently reviewing the constructability [sic] of the other planned noise walls in the area”; I have asked him for clarification. I have also asked him to clarify the effects on nearby properties and the farmers’ market.

In the Junction, they do not want walls, but they’re getting them. In Weston, we want them but we are told we can’t have them.

More stalling from Liberals

A provincial request to Metrolinx to hand over information about the business case for the UP Express was once again blocked by Liberal members of the committee that could order it. They likely fear there is no business case, and the report will embarrass the government.

Liberals Mike Colle and Mitzie Hunter clintoned their way into a committee filibuster by saying, more or less, “Define ‘market’ exactly” again and again for 40 minutes when Rosario Marchese asked Metrolinx to produce the market study. A representative sample:

What is a market study? Is it a look at the impact and the reaction and the response by people living in the old town of Weston as relates to the air-rail link and the local BIAs there, the residents and the BIAs and what their uptake will be on the potential ridership etc.? Do you want all the background information undertaken by all the examinations of the impact this would have on Weston? Because there was a very complex situation there where there used to be a net grade crossing, and they have now had to go with a tunnelling alternative. So it’s been a very, very difficult transition in that determination of putting some tunnelling in the old town of Weston that the local residents and the local small businesses wanted. Is that part of the market study? I don’t know….

 

This kind of grad-school metaphysical crap-talking has been going on for months as the committee tries to block the release of the documents that, we can assume, will embarrass the government right before an election.  Colle and Hunter were helped by the Chair of the committee who ran down the clock so that the motion couldn’t be passed.

The Liberals, having faced the gas plant scandal, must be worried that their plans to build an expensive money-losing train for the 1% will cost them seats. As well it should.

Marchese brought up the committee wheel-spinning at Queen’s Park—and instead of taking the moral high ground, went after Glen Murray, the Minister. Marchese asked what Murray was afraid we would find in the report. Finding that went nowhere, he asked the Minster to crack his whip on the committee—and got a filthy misdirection and character assassination from the Minister instead of an answer.

Your humble correspondent is a civil servant. His wife is a civil servant. YHC knows the good work that government can do. And this is not the good work of government. This is repugnant, unprincipled, cowardly opacity and self-protection. This is the work of an unfit government using process to protect itself from facts.

When it prevents this report—or any report—from public scrutiny, this government is saying that its seats are more important than the truth. The government is saying that it doesn’t trust you, its employer, to judge it by the facts.

Laura Albanese, our MPP, sits on this committee. She has done nothing to further the filibuster—or to end it.

 

http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/committee-proceedings/committee_transcripts_details.do?locale=en&Date=2014-03-04&ParlCommID=8959&BillID=&Business=Agency+review%3A+Metrolinx&DocumentID=27745