Go Transit and the Promise of Regional Express Rail

When Metrolinx first published The Big Move in November 2008, its vision for reducing traffic congestion in the Toronto region contained 10 strategies.

Strategy #1 could not have been more clear or unambiguous: “A fast, frequent and expanded regional rapid transit network.”

The first part of that first strategy read: “Build the regional rapid transit network … to bring fast, frequent, all-day, two-way express rail service and expanded regional rapid transit service to every region of the GTHA and to within two kilometres of 80 per cent of GTHA residents.”

The Big Move held out the promise of really rapid transit by express rail: faster electric trains as frequent as every five minutes, capacities of up to 40,000 passengers an hour, and stations two to five kilometres apart.[1]

It was a bold and attractive idea. It also made sense, because only a region-wide express rail network such as those that exist in dozens of other large cities (including London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Brisbane, Sao Paulo, and Milan) could serve as the framework for a “three-tier” transit systems, with a network of fast radial rail lines for inter-regional trips, slower metro and light rail lines for travel within the city, and bus and surface trams and buses to penetrate local neighbourhoods. Without the regional express rail network, the lower-speed “ribs” have no backbone, and their usefulness is greatly reduced.

More than six years years into the Big Move, we have a very basic regional rail line along the Lakeshore corridor. Services now run every 30 minutes all day, but trips are still slow because the line has not been electrified. On all other routes, services still run only in peak hours, and only in the peak direction, although GO says it is hoping to introduce a two-way all-day service on the Georgetown line in a few years.

What we are far from doing is upgrading the network across the region, most of which still lacks frequent express rail service. And the current version of The Big Move emphasizes local transit routes over regional express rail. Why?

The lack of progress can be traced to a 2010 report on the electrification of the GO Rail network. Although the original version of The Big Move contained photographs of electrified services from other cities (such as Tokyo, Paris, and San Francisco) and defined “Express Rail” as “High-speed trains, typically electric, serving primarily longer-distance regional trips with two-way, all-day service,”[2] the only rail line proposed for electrification at present is the Union Pearson Express, which is still under construction.

Michael Schabas, in his 2013 report, Review of Metrolinx’s Big Move, faults the 2010 electrification study for failing to recognize the transformative potential of a change in technology.

GO Rail has become successful by moving thousands of commuters during peak hours using large trains consisting of heavy diesel locomotives and bi-level unpowered coaches, at limited speeds with slow acceleration and braking. The electrification study was mainly a study of the costs of replacing the big diesel locomotives with big electric locomotives. It largely overlooked the opportunities presented by Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) – trains formed of two or more cars, each with its own electric motor.

As Schabas has described it, GO considered electrification as simply a change in motive power, and not (as other cities have done) a way to change how the entire system operates. What GO was proposing was a new technology for an old use: like buying a cellphone, but leaving it plugged in at home as a replacement for a land line. New technologies don’t just replace the old; they create opportunities to do things differently.

EMUs accelerate and brake much faster than locomotives pulling unpowered coaches, and can achieve higher speeds. Many regional transit networks around the world operate with EMUs, or a combination of EMUs and electric trains pulled by locomotives. EMUs can provide frequent (every 15 minutes or less) off-peak services with smaller trains.

Experience in Europe and Australia has shown that non-peak rail ridership is growing faster than peak-hour ridership. The market for peak-hour commuting by transit is largely fixed and “captive,” since commuting by automobile is slowest at that time of day. But people travelling outside peak hours have more choice; if transit is sufficiently frequent and fast, passenger numbers increase rapidly. GO Rail has already seen a jump in off-peak ridership following its expanded service on the Lakeshore route.

Increasing ridership means more people paying fares. Schabas estimates that the revenues from greatly increased off-peak travel will more than offset the costs of electrification, the purchase of EMUs, and operation of all-day frequent (15-minute) service. Other jurisdictions have found this to be the case: why not the Toronto region?

The entire GO system, including branches to Milton, Georgetown, Barrie, Richmond Hill, and Stouffville can be upgraded to a 15-minute-all-day, two-way service with 25 percent faster journey times for less money than the cost of Phase 1 of the proposed Downtown Relief Line.[3]

As Schabas puts it: “Electrification of the GO network with a fast and frequent all-day service could be transformational.” And wasn’t The Big Move supposed to be about transforming the region?

1. The Big Move, November 2008, page 28.
2. Ibid.
3. Note that this rough estimate covers only the incremental cost of converting the system to electricity and purchasing electric multiple unit (EMU) technology. Moving to more frequent service using either diesel or electric technology would entail additional costs for new tracks, expanded stations and platforms, additional personnel, and so forth that are not included here.