Friday, January 09, 2009

Metrolinx RTP: Considerations for subway construction

There's no question that Toronto is at a junction when it comes to the preferred technology for rapid transit construction in the region. Subways have traditionally been the preferred technology, but the undeniable truth is that many corridors outside of the downtown core do not have the necessary ridership projects to warrant that kind of capacity in the short, medium and probably even the long term. Modern light rail has been used successfully around the world as an alternative in these cases, but this suffers from many criticisms in a city where many view them as replicating less-than-stellar streetcars lines uptown. This has been particularly controversial on Sheppard Avenue East, where the recently completed Environmental Assessment is recommending a modern light rail line be constructed instead of the long standing plan to extend the Sheppard subway.

There are many arguments to be made that the Sheppard subway should have been built as a light rail line to begin with, and that the current proposal is appropriate given the projected ridership. There are also many arguments to be made that since the subway was partially built, it is only appropriate to finish it, and that projections do not take into effect the extra draw that a faster subway would have. The way I see it, about 500 years ago we knew that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. About 100 years ago we knew that the Titanic was an unsinkable ship. About 50 years ago we knew that the garden city-style plan proposed for Regent Park would be one of the greatest social housing developments in Canada. Opinions and priorities change over time, and that means that as the city evolves light rail proposals will transform to higher capacity lines, while subway proposals will transform to more cost effective technologies. It's ebb and flow, and one of the things that makes living in the city all the more exciting.

Even through there has been a shift in priorities over the last few years, we can still expect significant subway construction to occur over the next 25 years, and each one comes with challenges that will have to be overcome as we move forward.

Yonge-University-Spadina Subway
The detailed engineering design of the Spadina subway extension is pretty much done, and while pre-construction utility relocation has been going on for quite some time, actual construction should begin this year. Currently, the plan is to run every third train to the terminus, which suggests a 15 minute off-peak frequency to Vaughan Corporate Centre. I would strongly prefer that this frequency be shortened to every ten minutes at most. Otherwise, the level of service will be only marginally better than the VIVA line it replaces. The Steeles West station is planned to have a large bus terminal, but the RTP calls for Jane and Steeles to become rapid transit routes. Hopefully the terminal is designed in such a way that the unused space can be used for other purposes once routes are consolidated.

On Yonge Street, those same two issues exist. More frequent subway service to Richmond Hill Centre will mean a higher level of service improvement over VIVA, and a plan is needed to deal with large bus terminals that could become surplus as more and more lines are consolidated into rapid transit lines. The main issue, however, is how to ensure that passengers boarding north of Finch do not overwhelm the line and prevent those boarding at the southern stations from getting a seat. There are a few tools which can help improve the capacity of the line, and many of them are already well underway.
  • The Spadina Subway extension - Currently the Yonge subway is the only rapid transit destination for users of the Finch West, Steeles West and the Highway 7 buses. The Spadina subway will add a second connection with all of these routes, and I suspect most who currently ride all the way to Yonge will switch to the new route.
  • New subway trains - The next generation subway train will be able to carry more passengers per car, and passengers will also be able to walk from from one end of the train to the other while the train is in motion. This will help increase capacity by eliminating uneven crowding at stations where the most popular exit is at one end of the platform.
  • Automatic train control - A computerized signaling and control system will allow trains to run closer together than they can safely do when humans are in control. More frequent trains means more capacity.
  • Bottleneck redesign - On the existing system there are two bottlenecks which limit the minimum frequency of the trains. With extensions the bottlenecks turning trains around at the terminals should be eliminated, but the delays caused by extreme passenger turnover at Bloor will remain. The station itself may have to be re-designed, and potential configurations could include a new island platform between the trains, or it could include a double length station with an unload-move forward-load protocol. Either way, it will be a very complex project.

Downtown Core Line
One of the solutions to the Yonge capacity issues is to divert the passengers elsewhere, and the Downtown Core Line, also known as the Downtown Relief Line, is one of those solutions. The original DRL and enduring proposal saw a subway from Pape station south to Eastern Avenue, then westward parallel to the railway corridor to the CNE grounds, then north along the railway corridor to Dundas West station. The current DCL proposal would likely follow Queen Street instead of the more southerly route, and I support this option for a few reasons. Firstly, my vision for GO service along the railway corridor would provide a subway-like service within the built-up area of Toronto, so a subway along this corridor would be a needless duplication of service. In addition, a northerly route would provide a massive service improvement along the Queen / King corridor - lines which have reached their practical capacity. Of course, since I believe that streetcars are to Toronto as double-decker buses are to London, we may need to come up with creative ways to ensure an east-west subway line doesn't lead to an abandonment of streetcar lines.

At the west end of the DCL I prefer a Roncesvalles alignment rather than a railway corridor alignment, mainly for the reasons outlined above. In London, surface railways, as opposed to Underground lines, form the backbone of the heavy rapid transit service south of the Thames. My vision for GO rail involves something similar, so building a subway would be a duplication. At the east end of the line, the originally proposed extension to Eglinton following the Don Mills bus route would connect to the Eglinton-Crosstown line could divert passengers away from the Yonge subway. Above Eglinton the character of Don Mills changes drastically, making it a logical terminus. On the west end, however, there is no logical path for northern extension besides the railway corridor.

There is no question that the projected ridership justifies a heavy rail subway, but an underground light rail line will allow the Don Mills line, the Waterfront West line, Queen East, King and possible even a Junction/Dundas West line to use the tunnel to reach the downtown core. If this can handle the capacity then it's my preferred solution, but some projections indicate that the line might carry more people then the entire Bloor-Danforth line.

Bloor-Danforth Line
Under the RTP, the Bloor-Danforth line remains relatively static, but limited expansions may be useful to connect emerging growth centres. A westward expansion would serve Sherway Gardens, where a few towers have been constructed and room for many more exists. In addition, this expansion would serve the Honeydale Mall property, which is in desperate need for redevelopment. A line to Mississauga, in my opinion, would be best handled along the GO line. At the east end, while I believe that a refurbished Scarborough RT line interlined with the Eglinton-Crosstown will prove to be a great improvement over the current line, a subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre may be necessary if it becomes overwhelmed.

Sheppard Line
I suspect that if modern light rail were seen as a viable transportation option in 1995 when the Sheppard subway proposal began to move forward there would have been no controversy attached to this line. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

At the eastern end of the line, I have long supported the current proposal to build a light rail line to far Scarborough, as I believe it to be the most cost effective solution, and will be a great improvement over the Sheppard East bus. I also believe that a branch to Scarborough Town Centre would be a well-used link. From an official standpoint, the only outstanding issue is the connection between the existing subway line and the LRT. One option is to extend the subway eastward to Consumers Road where a dedicated transfer station could be made. The other option is to make the connection at Don Mills station, possibly along a double-length platform. If the former is chosen, then perhaps Victoria Park would be a better place for the connection, as this would serve the #24 bus. Either way, the tunnels will be build to accommodate a subway, opening the door to unique opportunities.

At the western end of the line there have always been calls to extend the line to Downsview, and according to the TTC, this is necessary - but not for the reasons you might think. According to the TTC, a western extension of the Sheppard subway might be necessary to allow trains from Wilson Yard to reach Richmond Hill centre quickly at the daily start of service. But, this could also be accomplished by storing those trains overnight at Davisville, according to Steve Munro. In my opinion, it could go either way. I don't think that Sheppard West warrants the capacity of a subway, but having a subway line between two light rail lines would be an awkward arrangement indeed.

Most proposals for east west connectivity across Yonge involved Finch West trams running east to Don Mills, south to Sheppard and continuing eastward, serving Seneca College along the way. If an underground transfer between the subway and the LRT is made at Don Mills, it might be wise to reconfigure the tunnels to accommodate light rail vehicles. This will result in a one-seat east-west ride along Sheppard from far-Scarborough to Downsview at a capacity that matches the demand, at a speed far faster than buses and at a cost far less than a subway. As for Finch East, I believe an extension of the Finch West LRT eastward into Scaborough is justified by the number of buses that currently serve the avenue.

Like Bloor-Danforth line, there may come a time when the Sheppard LRT becomes overwhelmed. If the subway remains then extensions will be more than appropriate. If the line is converted to light rail, then a buried light rail line could be used very effectively here - a concept called Pre-metro used in Belgium.

Subways have not died in Toronto, but an era when the choice was only between local buses and subways has been replaced with an era where the technology choice can be tailored to the desired speed and necessary capacity of the line. There will be some adjusting to this new era as celebrated mega projects of the past give way to more practical solutions, I think that in ten years we'll wonder why this paradigm shift didn't occur sooner.

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