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.

UP Express Survey

Adapted from nedrunner.nl
Adapted from nedrunner.nl

Next Wednesday March 9, UP Express fares are set to drop dramatically. No doubt Metrolinx will be anxiously watching ridership figures but in the meantime, we have a short (highly unscientific) survey to gauge readers’ interest in the train.

[poll id=”2″]

Readers are invited to support their choice with a comment.

Transit Plans – 1. John Tory

The top four Mayoralty candidates have released their transit plans. This is the first of a four-part series assessing these plans.

In a nutshell, current front-runner John Tory believes that above-ground subway lines are the best way to go. He proposes a line following GO train tracks where possible that will run across the city from east to west, passing through Union Station.

London has many of these – in fact 52% of London’s subway network is above ground. London has been building subways since the early 1860s – nearly a century before Toronto opened its first line.

Unlike London where new above-ground subways have been able to take over existing but unused railway lines, Toronto has no such advantage. New tracks must be added to current ones and, where none exist (along Eglinton for example), carved out of the existing landscape. Think of the disruption we are enduring here in the comparatively simple task of adding GO tracks to the existing line and right-of-way through Weston – imagine what carving out a rail corridor from scratch will involve. Unfortunately, the corridor along the north side of Eglinton (that Mr. Tory appears to think still exists) was sold off as surplus by the city in 2010 and is now a construction site for hundreds of new homes. Where Mr. Tory’s SmartTrack will fit along this route is anyone’s guess. And all of this will allegedly come to pass in 2021.

John Tory's Transit Plan
John Tory’s Transit Plan – click for larger image.

At its western end, Mr Tory’s SmartTrack line begins at the Matheson / Airport Corporate Centre (not the airport) – which connects to Mississauga Transit. It travels along Eglinton – until a few years ago, the planned route of the Richview Expressway. Once it hits Mount Dennis, the SmartTrack joins and heads down the GO / U.P. Express tracks towards Union. No mention is made of the U.P. Express or what his plans are to retain or modify the service.

Mr. Tory claims that the billions needed for SmartTrack will come from tax increment financing. This is the financial wizardry in which extra money is provided in the future by additional tax revenue generated by higher property values and therefore higher tax assessments along the new lines. Tax increment financing is how Rob Ford proposes to pay for his subways subways and more subways. ‘Nuff said.

John Tory's anticipated flow of passengers.
John Tory’s anticipated flow of passengers.

The Tory plan theorizes that passengers will be diverted from the east west and north-south subways and buses and use the SmartTrack trains from the west and east ends of the city to get to Union. This will provide, “congestion relief on the Yonge line for someone who lives in Lawrence Park or Leaside”.

Unfortunately, most commuters don’t want to go to Union Station. Only 260,000 do so daily and that’s using GO Train, GO Bus and subway combined. Bloor-Yonge is already straining with 420,000 daily passenger movements. Mr. Tory’s plan will simply add more pressure on this station from passengers hopping off SmartTrack and onto the Bloor Line in the West or East. Yes, the people of Lawrence Park and Leaside may be more comfortable but SmartTrack will add even more congestion to an already congested area. A downtown relief line is seen by experts as the only answer to this rapidly growing demand and Mr. Tory does not adequately explain how his SmartTrack will be an effective substitute.

It’s one thing to think outside the box and come up with a concept such as an above-ground subway. It’s another to believe that you and a group of your political advisors can ignore expert opinion and sit down with a map of the city and magically determine the fate of transit in this city for decades to come. The experts say that a downtown relief line is needed. SmartTrack is not an effective substitute.

With regard to finances, tax increment financing is fraught with peril. Extra revenue generated by such accounting sleight of hand is not guaranteed. This windfall would normally be taken into account to maintain and upgrade the city’s infrastructure so it’s not just free money.

Mr. Tory should defer to the experts (who spend whole careers immersed in the topic) before launching Toronto in yet another whimsical transportation direction with magical financing. The incumbent Mayor’s floundering has cost us dearly and set transportation in this city back by several years. Let’s not add even more delays and band-aids to an increasingly desperate situation. SmartTrack is the wrong track.

Nunziata looks ahead.

Artist's rendering of the proposed ARL (diesel version)

On the agenda at next week’s Toronto City Council meeting is an interesting motion from Councillor Nunziata, seconded by Councillor Mike Layton. It concerns the Airport Rail Link; Ms Nunziata is hoping that Council will request the Premier to add:

…a minimum of eight additional stops to the two planned at Weston and Bloor, with one of the added stops to be at Eglinton Avenue West to integrate with the Eglinton LRT. That other stops considered include Liberty Village, the Junction, Carleton Village, Jane Street, Etobicoke North, Woodbine and Humber.

The eighth stop will perhaps be named later (what about Mount Dennis?). The motion goes on to recommend electrification. This seems to reflect a growing consensus that we have the potential of a commuter line serving communities along the way as proposed by (amongst others) MP Mike Sullivan and MPP Jonah Schein.

The original name of the ARL was Blue 22, meaning that the Pearson to Union trip would take only 22 minutes. Originally the link was to be run and built at no cost to taxpayers by a consortium of private interests. As we all know, the deal fell through and the Province was left to pick up the pieces. The addition of the extra stop in Weston was calculated to have added 3 minutes to the predicted journey. If we extrapolate and say that each additional stop adds 3 minutes, then eight more stops will stretch the entire journey out to 25 + 24 or 49 minutes which might be a tedious journey for an airport rail link.

There is one thing that could shorten these times and that is electrification. Electric trains can accelerate much faster, reaching higher speeds between stops and therefore times would be shorter possibly up to 15%. If the Premier acts on the entire motion, the Airport Rail Link will be another creature altogether. The creature would be an above-ground subway line.

Now that we’re all excited about an electrified line that will connect several communities, what are the chances that the Premier will act on the motion?

Answer: zero. The projected costs of electrification and building additional stations would give Dalton McGuinty and Dwight Duncan heart palpitations and potentially add billions to the Ontario deficit. In a period of austerity, this is a non-starter.

Next question; why would Councillor Nunziata align herself with a left wing councillor and propose a motion that may pass Council but hasn’t a snowball’s chance with the Province?

Answer: It’s a futile but symbolic gesture; our councillor may have decided that it’s time to start the move away from Team Ford, and get better positioned for election day, October 27, 2014.

Weston Treasures: Weston GO Station

Weston is lucky to have access to downtown in 17 minutes via the GO train. Just to put that in perspective, TTC subway from Royal York to Union involves a line change and takes 33 minutes on a good day. Property values around Royal York Station are astronomical in no small part because of the subway. Here in Weston, we can get downtown in half the time and don’t have to change trains. The only thing faster to downtown than the GO from Weston is a helicopter. Unfortunately GO’s service is a commuter run only with 7 Union Station bound trains in the morning and 6 Weston bound trains in the evening (go figure).

According to InsideToronto.com about 450 people get on or off at Weston each day. Assuming that most are on a return trip, that’s fewer than 250 actual people. The lack of parking at the station has long been cited as a problem. Weston’s GO station’s new location just south of Lawrence Avenue later this year may help. The relocation will almost double the number of parking spots to 200 and access will be from Weston Road. A temporary platform will be in place by November and a fully functioning station, platforms and even more parking will be ready for the opening of the Airport Rail Link in 2015. GO transit is anticipating an increase in ridership from Weston with the additional parking spots and a doubling of service levels in 2015 by which time the Airport Rail Link will be making stops here too. With electrification of the line, the service will be quieter and even faster.

The new Weston GO station should help revitalize the Village of Weston as 2015 approaches, if it’s constructed to reflect the wishes of the community. Congratulations and thanks should be extended to those fighting for a better implementation of the Airport Link stop as well as to those fighting for electrification.

Metrolinx says no to electric trains

My grandfather went to work by electric train beginning in 1904. It was a wonder of the day with far less noise and pollution than steam trains. More than a century later, electric trains are even more efficient and are used in jurisdictions all over the world where clean, fast and quiet transportation is a priority. Quite simply, electric trains are quiet, efficient and far less polluting than any other mode of transportation except the bicycle. They are faster too, and can regenerate power when braking. Diesel is recognized to be noisier and more polluting although electrifying a rail line is an added cost.

More than 100 years later, Metrolinx is in the late stages of negotiations with a California counterpart (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) to purchase up to 18 Japanese built diesel powered locomotives for the route from Union Station to Pearson Airport scheduled for opening in 2015. This is in spite of a study forced on Metrolinx by politicians after a public outcry over plans to send dozens of noisy, polluting diesels through the heart of Weston every day. The electrification study report will be released in the middle of this month and Metrolinx will make a decision January 26th, for or against electrification based on the report’s findings.

Cynical souls like myself think that this is a done deal and that Metrolinx will claim that electrification will be too expensive, take too long (the two-week 2015 Pan-American Games again) and that their trains really aren’t that polluting. They might also do the right thing and electrify the airport link as a pilot study for the eventual conversion of the whole GO railway system (also under study). This is without even considering the thousands of jobs that could be created locally by Canadian manufacturing companies. We’ll see. In the meantime, the Clean Train Coalition is hoping that people will let the Premier and other elected representatives know how they feel. They have the support of local MPP Laura Albanese and recently delivered to the Ontario Legislature a petition with over ten-thousand names in support of electrification. The Clean Train Coalition is holding a general meeting this Thursday, January 6, between 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. at the Perth Davenport Neighbourhood Centre; 1900 Davenport Ave (at Symington Ave) and invite all interested people to attend. Refreshments will be served.