Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Toronto weighs its options

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

Subway or surface rail? Core city growth or regional approach? Political posturing aside, Canada’s largest city is counting on passenger rail for its future health and growth.

For decades, Toronto was considered the bellwether of passenger rail transit—the North American city that showed how a mix of public transit, heavily rail reliant, could work as an alternative to automania. Today, Toronto is at a crossroads, pondering just how to take rail transit growth into the 21st century.

The task will be weighted by political baggage. The venerable Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), operator of subways and streetcars as well as buses, faces a new partner—some argue it’s more of a confrontational overseer—in the form of Metrolinx, formerly known as the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, and designated to guide regional transportation plans for Greater Toronto and nearby Hamilton, Ontario.

Add to that the arrival Dec. 1 of a newly elected mayor, Rob Ford, who campaigned on a pledge to repeal Toronto’s Transit City light rail transit expansion in favor of building more subways and employing more buses, and the stage is set for transit turmoil in the months and years ahead. In some ways, Toronto’s options are anything but novel. The core central city strives to enhance auto alternatives while surrounding suburbs seek fresh access to rail transit of any kind, a scenario playing out throughout North America.

Transit City plan moves ahead David Miller, who stepped down as Toronto mayor Nov. 30, pushed hard during his tenure in office for the ambitious “Transit City” light rail plan, which initially sought 75 miles of LRT service to the city’s existing system, carrying 175 million annual riders. Transit City has been opposed by Metrolinx and (more vocally) Miller’s successor, Mayor Ford, but was still part of Toronto’s official plan at press time. But C$4 billion in provincial funding for Transit City has been deferred, placing the program’s ambitious reach in doubt.

Observers suggest Mayor Ford’s disdain for streetcars is based, in part, on the protests generated by auto users (often from outside the city) over “interference” issues with streetcars operating on existing 11 routes, over 47 route-miles, in the city. Unlike most North American cities, Toronto held fast to many of its streetcar routes laid out in the 19th century. While newer streetcar route additions will be see more dedicated right-of-way, most of the current routes share space with auto traffic. Says one rail observer outside Toronto, “Toronto motorists of previous generations did not make a big issue about this. Now, things are different.”

Different or not, three “priority” LRT projects are still on the move: Sheppard East LRT, extending east to a planned storage facility, which began construction in December 2009 and targets an opening date of 20014; Etobicoke-Finch West LRT, running along Finch Avenue West, set to open in 2019; and Eglinton Crosstown LRT, an 18.6-mile addition along (or under) its namesake avenue.

Also still included among active Transit City projects is a controversial C$1.4 billion rehabilitation and extension (in 2007 Canadian dollars) of the Scarborough Rapid Transit Line; TTC has sought to convert the line from automated LRT to standard LRT operation to streamline operations.

Such conversion may be in jeopardy if Mayor Ford holds to his plan, but observers say that the reality may be more difficult.

An editorial last month in the Toronto Star noted, “About [C]$130 million has already been spent on Transit City, including the cost of environmental assessments, planning, and design work. Cancelling the light rail plan would be equivalent to throwing this money away.

“But even bigger losses loom—contracts worth about C$770 million deal to buy the vehicles to run on Transit City’s tracks; a C$54 million purchase of massive tunnel-boring machines, now being built; and C$30 million for construction of a grade separation on the Sheppard light rail line, where work is already under way.” The editorial also notes that Transit City is, in fact, “part of a regional plan developed by Metrolinx.”

Indeed, despite charges that Metrolinx is antagonistic toward Transit City, Metrolinx last June awarded Bombardier Transportation a C$770 million contract to supply 182 Flexity Outlook light rail vehicles for Transit City expansion, with an option for an additional 118 LRVs, a total of 300 new cars.

Subway growth seems assured Subway system growth in some fashion also appears to be a sure thing, as incoming Mayor Ford has voiced strong support for it. Last month, TTC awarded hometown construction company Aecon Group Inc. a C$279 million contract to extend the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line on the U-shaped route’s western portion, including the addition of two subway stops at Sheppard West and Finch West. Part of the contract is a joint venture with McNally Construction, Kiewit Construction, and Aecon Constructors to construct 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) of twin tunnel subway track.

Construction on the extension is expected to begin next month and continue until April 2014.

The subway line extension is one of three planned MoveOntario 2020 projects; Ontario province would finance roughly two-thirds of the cost of each project. The Yonge-University-Spadina extension would eventually include six new stations, terminating at the proposed Vaughan Corporate Centre. All extensions will be wide gauge, matching the four feet, 10 7/8-inch (1,495 mm) gauge of the existing system. Already arriving are the first of 420 new subway cars, dubbed Toronto Rockets, being built by Bombardier at the company’s Thunder Bay, Ontario facilities.

Originally expected to arrive in late 2009, the first cars were delivered last October. The new trains were initially expected to enter service in late 2009. Arranged in six-car trainsets, some 70 new Rocket consists will expedite retirement of TTC’s H-series subway cars and offer adequate rolling stock for expanded subway service. The Rockets should enter revenue service early next year.

Among various features of the new trains, TTC is touting “full walk-through access” for better passenger distribution—an amenity running counter to developments in other North American subway and/or heavy rail systems, where passage between cars is being discouraged or banned, mostly due to safety concerns.

Airport rail link generates controversy Also advancing under Metrolinx’s purview is a long-planned C$300 million rail link to Toronto’s Lester W. Pearson International Airport, connecting GO Transit stations at Weston, Bloor, and Union Station in downtown Toronto, with service every 15 minutes.

Metrolinx, inheriting the plan after a private company failed to secure financing, wants the line in place in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015, saying the line is a high priority. Metrolinx seeks to build a 3.0-kilometer (1.6-mile) spur onto airport property, a task GO Transit chief executive Gary McNeil says is a “very complex construction process.”

Metrolinx last month said it had entered “formal negotiations” to piggyback an order for 18 diesel-multiple units (DMUs, configured as six three-car trainsets) from Sumitomo Corp. of America; Sumitomo is expected to land a base order of 27 DMUs (nine three-car trainsets) from Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in northern California. Critics of the planned purchase say Metrolinx has dismissed electric-rail options; Metrolinx counters that the airport line can be electrified in the future as fiscal conditions and passenger demand dictate. The DMUs, moreover, will comply with Tier 4 emissions standards, Metrolinx insists.

Speed of introduction is also a factor, says GO Transit’s Gary McNeil. “We’re looking at up to 18 because we’re looking at 12 vehicles on opening day and we want an option to buy additional vehicles in the foreseeable future so we can take advantage of the very competitive price for those vehicles,” McNeil says. “If we actually could electrify the system we’d actually need to test and commission the actual system for probably six to nine months.”

Metrolinx critics, including former Toronto Mayor Miller, note that a recently publicized internal Metrolinx document drafted by a consultant advises Metrolinx officials to “salt” public hearing sessions with supporters to thwart criticism from both anti-rail groups and pro-rail supporters of an electrified alternative. Several Metrolinx board members have publicly rejected the proposed tactic. Toronto’s mayor has a seat on the Metrolinx board, now held by Ford, as does TTC Chairman Adam Giambrone.