GO Rail and a Regional Express Rail Network

Metrolinx’s ability to deliver on its first guiding principle, “Regional Focus,” depends on its use and management of the GO Transit system. This is the backbone of any future regional network. Understandably, in the 2008 Big Move, Priority Action Number 1 was upgrading the GO rail system into a “fast, frequent and expanded regional rapid transit network.”[1]

Our analysis confirms the original conclusions of The Big Move: there are massive benefits to be gained from upgrading the GO Rail system into a two-way system offering fast and frequent all-day services. Indeed, the financial benefits of reduced operating costs and higher fare revenues could offset most or all of the costs. Compared with the subway extension and LRT schemes, the capital costs are actually fairly modest. Taking account of the time savings and other benefits to transit riders and road users indicates very high benefit:cost ratios. Unfortunately, GO does not seem to have recognized this opportunity.

Figure 3: Upgrading GO into a true Regional Express Rail system: Priority Project 1 in the Big Move. 

GO management has a record of successfully delivering incremental service upgrades over the past half century. Typically, it has had a capital budget of $50 million or $100 million per year, while consistently recovering 80% or more of operating costs through the farebox.

In 2009, Metrolinx completed a “Benefits Case Analysis” for GO Transit Lakeshore Express Rail, indicating that phased electrification and service upgrading (costing, initially, about $2.5 billion) would bring benefits, mostly time savings to passengers and reduced traffic delays to motorists, of about $5.8 billion.[2]

GO then proceeded with an electrification study,[3] published in December 2010. This longer, more detailed study concluded, essentially, that electrification might be worthwhile, taking account of operating savings and passenger benefits. But the Benefit:Cost ratio was not much greater than 1.0, and depended on certain assumptions about capital costs and future energy costs that were subject to change.

Figure 4: GO rail upgrading hardly figures in Metrolinx's “9 Top Priority Projects” in 2011.[4]

GO management and provincial decision makers hesitated to take on a massive investment that the study seemed to show to be barely worthwhile in economic terms and which would, apparently, need to be funded mostly by public investment.

In 2011, Metrolinx reviewed its investment priorities.[5] “Express Rail” had dropped off the agenda. Now the only “Big Five” project relating to GO Rail is the rebuilding of Union Station.

GO has since purchased diesel multiple units for the Union-Pearson Express service,[6] and low-emission Tier-4 diesel locomotives to propel bi-level trains. This suggests at least a medium-term commitment to diesel power.

GO is now adding tracks and grade separations, increasing all-day services on the Lakeshore route to half-hourly, and seems committed to extending services to Bowmanville. It is also exploring ways to introduce two-way all day services on other routes, using diesel-powered bi-levels at half hourly frequencies. Metrolinx is also proceeding with preparation of an Environmental Assessment for electrification of the Union Pearson Express line. This could be a first to step to gradual upgrading of the system. However, no master plan for the system as a whole has been released.

The initial enthusiasm for upgrading the GO Rail system, which was “Priority Action #1” in the Big Move, dissipated quickly. Money that could be spent to turn the GO Rail system in to a true regional metro, with frequent all-day services, has been diverted to LRT projects, mostly in the City of Toronto, at least for the “First Wave” of projects. What happened?

It matters, because until the GO Rail system is upgraded, there is little chance of delivering the Metrolinx objectives. The regional rail system is the “backbone” of the GTHA public transit system. LRT and BRT services have a local and feeder role, but are too slow to compete with the road system for longer-distance trips within Toronto and throughout the region.

[6] http://www.upexpress.com/en/project/vehicles.aspx The DMUs are self-propelled rail cars with diesel motors in each car. They operate in “consists” of two or three cars. The DMUs may also adhere to the same Tier 4 emissions standards as new locomotives. Metrolinx has said the DMUs could be converted to electric power in future, if the GO network is electrified. While this is technically possible, more likely the diesel cars would be shifted onto another route or sold to another operator, and new all-electric EMUs purchased.