A small crowd of approximately twenty people, including the very short person pictured above, gathered on Tuesday before Union Station’s Front Street entrance to blow bubbles with soap, after being denied the right to do so inside the station. They did this because they’re upset with Metrolinx, the GTA’s newish regional transit authority, for its refusal to consider running electric trains on a pair of proposed regional rail expansions. The expansions, which as planned will accommodate only diesel-burning locomotives, would link Union Station to Pearson Airport and more than triple service on GO Transit’s Georgetown corridor between Union Station and Malton on opening day.
Actually, the pictured individual might have been slightly more interested in bubbles and the blowing thereof than in the ramifications of different kinds of rail infrastructure. We did not seek comment.
But there were also adults there, and THEY very definitely were blowing bubbles in protest. Yes, the demonstration was small and maybe just a bit over-reliant on the fickle political power of the soapy sphere. But the issues are real and pressing.
The event was arranged in the style of a flash mob by a group of concerned citizens who call themselves the Clean Train Coalition. They told Torontoist that this protest would be only the first and quietest of several to come.
The Coalition’s members were quick to assure us that they love transit. Their problem with Metrolinx’s planned rail expansion isn’t about the expansion itself, but rather the diesel-electric trains that Metrolinx will have riding the rails, and some details about how those rails will be laid out. The Coalition is concerned that the diesel-burners will fill the air with dirty airborne particulate matter, which they say could cause health problems for people living near the lines. They’re also championing a handful of other quality of life issues related to the expansion. (You can read more about their position in their FAQ.)
A map of the proposed rail expansion (in yellow). Courtesy of Metrolinx.
The group’s proposed solution to the diesel quandary is for Metrolinx to electrify all the new tracks, so carriers can run pollution-free electric trains on them. The Coalition is extremely adamant about this. In response to an emailed request for clarification of the group’s goals, member Carina Cojeen told us: “what we are asking for is that NONE of the new rolling stock on this corridor be diesel. We ask for electrification from the very beginning, both for the GO service and for the UPRL [Union-Pearson Rail-Link] trains.”
There’s a reason they’ve chosen this moment to press their issue: the proposed expansion’s mandatory public project assessment period is officially underway. This assessment is part of what Metrolinx describes as a “new streamlined EA [environment assessment] process.” The streamlined EA proceeds on the basis of a compressed timetable designed specifically to begin and end in the span of six months. The assessment’s one-hundred-twenty-day public comment phase began on April 2, so a full third of it is gone already. Perhaps most maddening for the Coalition is the fact that Metrolinx is not obliged to consider alternative proposals to their existing plan. They only need to hear public opinion on what they’ve drawn up already.
Metrolinx, for their part, says that they will absolutely consider running electric trains on the new tracks, eventually. The page devoted to this flap on the expansion proposal’s Public Comment Portal puts it like so: “The Georgetown corridor is being planned now to allow for electrification in the future. In the meantime we need to get on with required service improvements on this corridor.”
In other words, in the opinion of Metrolinx, there’s an urgency to building these expansions that makes it impractical to spend time exploring technologies that are not currently used as part of Toronto’s regional rail service. Metrolinx would rather retrofit later than delay construction today. Also, electric rail is more costly to build than diesel.
But the Clean Train Coalition is having none of that.
“Build it once. Build it right,” said flash mob participant Keith Brooks. Mike Sullivan, another participant, warned that the new lines could possibly become “the single busiest diesel rail corridor on the planet,” if allowed to go ahead unchecked. There was a shared sense among the Clean Train Coalition members we spoke to that electric regional rail in Toronto is long overdue. The question is whether or not there’s harm in waiting even longer.
GTA citizens with strong feelings on the matter can register their opinions with Metrolinx until July 30.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
Additional reporting by Hamutal Dotan.