Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Visions for the GTTA: Regional Rail

As the price of gasoline climbs ever higher, the citizens of every community in Ontario will be affected. Businesses will begin to relocate closer to their markets to reduce shipping costs, which means that many one-industry town in the province may lose their only employer. As the businesses move, employees will follow. Since they will be unable to afford the commute, employees will likely move with the companies and settle in the cities where sustainable transit is available. While intensification is a good thing, cities like Windsor, Kitchener, Kingston, Ottawa or even Toronto could not possibly accommodate every single citizen from the hinterland. Something will have to be done to prevent the wholesale dismantling of rural Ontario.

Once upon a time, railways crisscrossed Ontario and moved freight and passengers between almost every city, village and town. But, as roads were improved and automobiles and trucks became more popular, passengers and shippers migrated to other means of travel. Railways were gradually abandoned and quickly torn up. Today, passenger rail service in Ontario is limited to the GO Transit regional services in the Toronto area, Ontario Northland's services in the far north, and VIA Rail Canada inter-city service, rural and transcontinental service.. The freight railway network isn't much bigger, limiting the potential to construct new railway routes. But, what if we hadn't abandoned those lines? What if we could undo the past?

Recommendation #1 - Implement the Rail Ontario initiative

In many cases, we can undo the past, as the rights-of-way of abandoned railways in Ontario have been preserved as trails (either formally or informally) and most are easily identifiable using satellite photography. Modern railway tracks should be laid in these corridors to restore service will still preserving the trail system. Stops should be placed in communities of all sizes, the corridors should allow freight trains and passenger trains to co-exist, and electric rail infrastructure should be installed on the highly travelled lines. In some cases, development has obscured the right-of-way. Tunnelling may be justified for important corridors, but tram-trains - street railway vehicles capable of operating on mainline railways - could be used on less travelled routes. However, this would require federal railway regulations to be amended.


Stations should be placed in every town and village along the line, as close to the central business district as possible, and should be constructed in a style that reflects the community. If possible, existing stations should be restored and returned to railway use, and replicas of stations long demolished or moved should be constructed where required. Some stations will be large and architecturally elaborate, while others will be small and simple. Regardless, the station should be a building the community is proud to call their own. The station in Woodstock, Ontario, is one example of a station unique to its community.

In order to serve the hundreds of newly connected communities, smaller communities should be served as flag stops. Passengers wishing to board should wait on the platform and activate an electric signal to notify the engineer that passengers wish to board. If the signal is not activated, the train will pass at speed unless passengers wishing to disembark have notified the conductor. In flag stop communities, the railway operator should partner with a local business to serve as the ticket agent.


Connections should be provided to Manitoba, Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Quebec. It is also recommended that a similar network be constructed in Quebec, and should offer seamless connections to the Rail Ontario network. Additional connections should be provided to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New Brunswick. Upon reaching the border with the United States, trains should continue on to major centres like Chicago, New York and Boston.


During the heyday of passenger rail service, many of the premier passenger trains were named. Most of VIA Rail's transcontinental and rural passenger services are named, but trains in the Windsor to Quebec City corridor are only identified by their numbers. Restoring these iconic names, such as The General Brock, The Cavalier and The Metropolis, will help promote train service in Ontario and reduce customer confusion over which train is an express and which provides local service.

Urban Service

Within the built up areas of Ontario, commuter rail service should be operated under the familiar GO Transit brand. However, service should not be oriented just to commuters. Currently, the only demographic that GO Train serves well is the commuter who lives in the suburbs and works in the downtown core. Improvements are on the way, but service plans for 2020 only call for trains every 30 minutes or better during the off-peak. Increasing these frequencies, operating faster equipment and adding more stations, even if only on the core GO network of 2009, can transform the these lines into over 300 kilometres of above-ground subways. Frequent service will untie riders from schedules and encourage higher off-peak ridership - like the subway - and bi-directional service will support live-work-play developments - like the subway.

The conventional wisdom has been to use mainline railways to serve longer-distance regional trips, while using subway to serve medium-distance trips within the city. Express trains skipping stations stops closer to the city can still serve longer-distance trips, especially during the peak hours, but there is precedent for using the railways to serve a role traditionally filled by subways. South of the River Thames, London Underground coverage is relatively poor. However, frequent local train service provided by the national railway operators provide a comparable level of service to the Underground. At West Croydon station, for example, there is a departure approximately every 10 minutes heading towards central London - on a Sunday evening.

In order to accomplish this level of service, several capital upgrades must be completed:
Upgrade rail corridor speeds and capacity
Rail corridors must be upgraded to allow frequent stopping train service (every ten minutes or better) and through trains to coexist. In most cases, this will require three or four tracks. The rights-of-way through higher density areas must be carefully designed to minimize the divisive effects of railways on the urban fabric.

In New York City, The Metro-North Railroad uses a tunnel under Park Avenue between 97th Street and Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street. Once a rail yard on the surface, the area above the tracks is now prime real estate. Since this is an expensive proposition, tunnelling should only be used when there is no other practical alternative. In addition, the space above the tracks should be put to a higher use.
Construct more train stations
More train stations should be added to serve more people and create more locations for transit-oriented development to occur. Currently, GO stations are spaced between 5 and 10 kilometres apart. The Metrolinx RTP predicts that, at stations spaced every 2 - 5 kilometres apart, service can be operated at around the same end-to-end speed as today, provided other upgrades are made. If these upgrades are not as effective as anticipated and travel times increase, express trains should be used to serve the outer sections of the line.

New train stations within the built-up area need not have extensive parking lots or large bus loops. Simple stations, like Bloor, should serve as a model for stations within Toronto.
Upgrade rolling stock
Faster trains should be purchased to take advantage of the upgraded rail corridors. Electric locomotives, electric multiple unit (EMU) trains and diesel multiple unit (DMU) trains have superior performance characteristics when compared to diesel locomotive-hauled trains.

According to the GO Lakeshore Benefits Case Analysis, using these trains could save approximately 10 minutes on an all-stop trip from Toronto to Hamilton. These time savings could be used to serve new stops without increasing travel times over 2009 levels. New federal railway regulations will be required to operate European-spec trains, but a North American design could also be commissioned as a stimulus project.
Upgrade Union Station and North Toronto Station
The train and passenger movement capacity of Union Station must be improved to accommodate frequent GO service, as well as the other services proposed under the Rail Ontario initiative. This can be partially offset by returning North Toronto Station to railway service.

Some or all trains which pass through Streetsville, Woodbridge and Agincourt could use North Toronto Station to relieve pressure on Union Station.

Northern and Transcontinental Service

In late 2009 and early 2010, Greyhound Canada announced that several routes, particularly in northwestern Ontario, were no longer profitable to operate and that service would be suspended unless a new subsidy model could be negotiated. Since these communities are so isolated, maintaining transportation links to larger centres in the north is critical. In most cases, railways - not roads - allowed these communities to be founded. As such, upgraded passenger rail service can provide a fast, reliable, all-weather connection to the outside world. Currently, several passenger rail routes are operated in Northern Ontario, and a re-organization of these routes should be performed to improve service and serve communities that have not seen a passenger trains since the early days of VIA Rail. Among the major changes:
  • Super Continental - renamed from The Canadian and re-routed through Thunder Bay and Fort Frances. East of Caperol, one section travels to Toronto via Parry Sound and Orillia, and a second to Ottawa and Montreal via the Beachburg line.
  • Canadian - restored service along CP tracks through downtown Sudbury. East of Sudbury, one sections travels to Toronto via Parry Sound and Alliston, and a second to Ottawa and Montreal via the Ottawa Valley line.
  • Lake Superior - re-routed from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie.
  • Northlander - extended to Winnipeg to replace The Super Continental through Nakina and Sioux Lookout.
  • Algoma Central train 631/632 - should be named.
  • Abitibi - extended from Senneterre to Kirkland Lake via Rouyn-Noranda.
  • Saguenay - extended from Jonquière to Chicoutimi.
  • Atlantic - restored service between Montreal and Halifax via Fredericton and Saint John, New Brunswick.
  • New service paralleling Quebec routes 167 and 113 between Chambord-Jonction and Barrute.
Most far north services should be equipped with locomotives pulling passenger coaches. These trains should offer sleeping, dining and observation cars, in addition to coaches, as the distances involved will surely require overnight travel. Branch lines and routes with day-long travel times should use more efficient DMU trains.

Regional Service

Currently, VIA Rail trains in the Windsor to Quebec City corridor only stop in larger communities. Residents of smaller towns are forced to drive to the nearest station to board the train, and this often encourages them to drive all the way to their destinations. As such, there should be several classes of train service in southern Ontario and southern Quebec to minimize the amount of travel necessary to reach the nearest train station:
  • Local service should be provided on all routes, serving flag stops and smaller communities in addition to larger centres. For example, between Hamilton and Niagara Falls, a local train would stop in smaller communities like Winona, Beamsville and Vineland Station. DMU trains, which have superior acceleration characteristics, will help compensate for more frequent stops. In addition, these trains are less expensive to operate and can reduce the cost of serving these small communities.
  • Limited-stop service should be provided major routes, stopping only in larger communities - similar to the service provided by VIA Rail today. Between Hamilton and Niagara Falls, the only intermediate stops would be Grimsby and St. Catharines.
  • Express service should be provided between the largest cities in the region, and offer high-speed rail service with end-to-end travel times faster than flying. Cities to be connected through high-speed rail should include Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec and Buffalo (for Amtrak connections to New York), and could also include Windsor, London and Kingston.
Once upon a time, the train was the only way to travel quickly between cities and towns in Ontario. But, as these were operated as private enterprises, they fell victim to changing market conditions. As the network shrank the usefulness of the remaining network declined, causing traffic to decline even further. These routes may not be financial performers on their own, but restoring each link strengthen the network as a whole. A second renaissance is long overdue, and when it arrives, almost every community in the province could be just a convenient train ride away.

My next series of posts will cover my recommendations for rapid transit - everything from subways to LRT to simple express buses.

Labels: , ,


At 1/13/2010 3:46 p.m. , Blogger leonsp said...

Great post. I'm not sure about named trains -- that seems more of a retro thing -- but everything else is very practical. Implementing this plan would make it much easier to travel in Ontario.

As a Torontonian, it strikes me as a good first step to advocate for electrification and EMUs on the existing GO system.

At 1/13/2010 3:59 p.m. , Blogger Andrae Griffith said...

Should we advocate for the electrification of the GO network as a whole? Absolutely, recognizing that the network effect is a good reason to convent the entire network - not just one line (yes, I'm talking about Georgetown). But, I do not believe that we should put off incremental improvements while we wait to electrify.

Lakeshore trains will move to every 30 minutes in the midday (at least) and midday service will extend to the Stouffville and Barrie/Bradford lines sometime this year. It would be shameful if these long awaited improvements were delayed because they are not going to be electric.

At 1/16/2010 4:46 p.m. , Blogger z said...

Perhaps I don't have the right frame of mind, but I can't understand why there isn't already an electrification plan for all GO transit lines, already.

Why does this part of the world love to study things to death, rather than just getting it done? Madrid's subways weren't studied to death, they were just built!

Double-tracking and electrifying all GO lines in the GTA should be the ultimate priority within the next 5 years.

At 1/17/2010 1:38 a.m. , Blogger D said...

Z's comment resonates with an issue I have in this corner of the world.

It seems that, while others have figured it out, we don't know how to learn from them. We must attempt to reinvent the wheel, and we invariably can't improve on what works.

Why can't we learn from other systems and implement something here that's proven?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home