Rocket Talk: What's the Status of the Downtown Relief Line?
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Rocket Talk: What’s the Status of the Downtown Relief Line?

Have questions about the TTC? Rocket Talk is a regular Torontoist column, featuring TTC Chair Adam Giambrone and Director of Communications Brad Ross’s answers to Torontoist readers’ questions. Submit your questions to [email protected]!

Reader Neil Shyminsky asks:

I know that a Downtown Relief line, running from Dundas West to Union to Pape, was proposed twenty-five years ago, and I read recently that the TTC would like to revisit it in ten years or so. I’ve also read that it might now intersect with the Queen streetcar line, rather than going as far south as Union. (A line which, I’m sure I don’t have to add, is so painfully slow and unreliable that I’m not certain “relief” would be an appropriate descriptor of any such expanded line.) I realize that there are a lot of tracks to be laid elsewhere between now and the hypothetical point at which this line is built, but is there an actual plan for the Downtown Relief Line?

TTC Chair Adam Giambrone says:

Toronto has talked about an east–west subway line serving the downtown all the way back to the early twentieth century, when the first studies were done. Indeed, the thought of the subway was so much on people’s minds that when they built the Prince Edward Viaduct, it was designed to accommodate a subway under the road platform.
Then in the early 1940s, as Canada was at war, TTC engineers began drawing up plans for a subway on Yonge to replace the Yonge streetcar, which simply could not carry enough passengers in the heavy traffic of the time:
“The Commission does not propose to stand idly by and allow this deterioration of its services and of the city itself to take place. There must be a gradual separation of public and private vehicles, both of which are now trying to operate on the narrow streets originally designed for horse-drawn traffic,” said a Policy Statement by the Toronto Transit Commission in 1945.
At the same time, the TTC began initial designs on an underground east–west streetcar route that would have travelled along Queen Street in the centre of the city. The TTC even built out the shell of a “Queen Lower” station for this line.
The TTC paid for most of the construction of the Yonge line from operating profits gained from increased ridership during WWII. (Due to parts and vehicle rationing, the TTC was unable to invest profits from increased ridership into new vehicles, though industrial production was otherwise ramped up.) There was not, however, enough for the Queen line, and in what would become a pattern, requests for federal or provincial funding in the late 1940s for it were turned down.
The first east–west subway was, as we know, built on Bloor–Danforth by the TTC under direction from the then-Metro government, and funded by both Metro and provincial governments.
Then-Mayor Nathan Phillips spoke against the decision to build the Bloor–Danforth line, and instead advocated for the Queen subway. The TTC and others, however, argued for Bloor–Danforth, and we all know the result.
Subway construction in the 1960s and 1970s was focused on pushing outwards to the inner suburbs. However, by the late 1980s, ridership was at an all-time high (only surpassed in the last few years) and the Yonge line, which had reached ridership in the low- to mid-thirty thousands per hour, was near capacity.
It was at this time that the TTC began a study of a “relief” line from the east part of the Bloor–Danforth line to the centre of the city, to offload the pressures on the Yonge line south of Bloor, where the problem was and still is the greatest.
The very preliminary study looked at a line that would come down somewhere in the Pape corridor and east–west in the Richmond corridor, stopping just west of the University line. The second phase of the line was envisioned to head north somewhere in the Roncesvalles corridor, possibly using the Georgetown rail corridor. A third and maybe fourth phase—reviewed even less—considered continuing north up to around Jane and Eglinton in the west, and Don Mills and Eglinton in the east through what is now Flemingdon Park.
The plan was killed with the recession of the early 1990s. With TTC ridership plummeting due to massive job losses, large fare increases, and service cuts, the pressure was relieved to the Yonge line in general and the choke point of Bloor-Yonge Station in particular.
Fast-forward to today.
Ridership on the TTC and Yonge lines has reached record highs. The Commission has not cut service, and as a result the TTC is one of the few North American or European systems to not see a drop in ridership—rather, we are on track to continue to set record ridership numbers this year and next. In addition, the condo market shows no signs of letting up, and there is even talk of extending the Yonge line to Richmond Hill and beyond, bringing more and more riders to what passengers know is an already busy line (indeed, the busiest piece of transportation infrastructure in Canada and one of the busiest in North America).
The new Toronto Rocket subway trains arriving this year will hold eight percent more passengers because they are one long tube, with no room lost to having separate cars. The Automatic Train Control (ATC) project, which will be complete by 2015 on the Yonge–University–Spadina line (Union to Eglinton will be complete by late 2012 or early 2013) will also allow the use of more trains on the line since the headways—the distance between trains—can be shortened and perhaps will also allow for longer trains.
These measures, however, will eventually not be enough to keep up with demand. Even with these increases in capacity to the Yonge line (and eventually also the Bloor–Danforth, which will get ATC by the early 2020s), the choke point will increasingly become Bloor-Yonge station. Today, around 480,000 people daily move through the station and many transfer trains. The station will not be able to handle the increased volume.
Currently the passenger separation project, which uses barriers and staff at Bloor-Yonge station to ensure better traffic flow, has increased the Yonge line’s capacity by six to ten percent a day by allowing, on average, two more trains to get through per hour, and sometimes as high as four more. With each train carrying one thousand people in rush hour, this program, which costs around $250,000 a year, has been a tremendous success. While it is somewhat unpopular, it is an absolute must until ATC is brought online and major multi-hundred-million dollar renovations to the station are made. These renovations, which will be expensive and very difficult, are needed to help the “vertical flow” of the station—the movements of passengers up and down between the two lines—which is constrained.
Seeing the current and future challenges at Bloor-Yonge station, on the Yonge line, and perhaps eventually also the Bloor-Danforth line, the TTC recently restarted studies on the Downtown Relief Line. The study will cost three million dollars, and is being broken down into two phases. Phase 1, which will be completed by the end of this year, will look at ridership, capacity, and transit policy issues for serving the downtown core. Phase 2, which will be completed by the end of 2011, will consider rapid transit needs up to 2031; it will look at different technologies, possible routings, and possible station locations. And, importantly, it will let the City know what property must be protected so that future construction may be considered.
At the current $300 million per kilometre cost for subway construction, this is anywhere from a three billion– to eight billion dollar–line, depending on how long it is. Due to the large amount of big buildings in the downtown core, this will be a very challenging project and, unlike the 1980s, when surplus industrial land was available in the east end for a new car-house, today much of that land is already spoken for.
The original Queen subway was conceived of as an underground streetcar line, and the plan for the original DRL of the 1980s was to use ICTS (the same technology as the SRT), but today, the DRL would be built either as an underground LRT (like Eglinton) or as a full subway.
Demand projections for the original DRL were in the fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand people per direction range, per hour in the peak hour, but demographics have changed and it will be interesting to see if all the condo construction and some new commercial space offsets the loss of some very large employers (like Massey Ferguson) that were expected to generate ridership. Remember, subways need more than just rush hour traffic to be justified, and while the King and Queen streetcars carry around one hundred thousand people a day combined (and perhaps they would carry more if they weren’t seen as unreliable due to traffic congestion), there needs to be hundreds of thousands per day to justify a subway.
There will be public meetings late this year and early next year, and the study will be done by the end of 2011. While the DRL is in the twenty-five-year funding plans, the last few months have shown there is little appetite financially at the Province for large projects, so it will be interesting to see if the DRL is ever built.
A great city needs a strong transit system built on a variety of modes and one would hope that one day, funding will be in place to allow us to move forward on great city-building projects like the DRL. The TTC is doing its part to push forward the debate.