A sign announcing the Clean Train Coalition’s protests at today’s Metrolinx board meeting, spotted last week in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Photo by Amanda Happé/Torontoist.
At a meeting this morning convened especially for the purpose, the Metrolinx board of directors approved a plan to electrify the Georgetown and Lakeshore GO corridors, as well as the Union-Pearson Air Rail Link (or ARL), still under construction. If the province agrees to fund the project, electrification would proceed over the course of the next twenty years or so. Electric trains would improve commute times and save yearly operating dollars, but would cost an additional $1.6 to $1.8 billion on top of maintenance and expansion already planned or underway.
Metrolinx president and CEO Bruce McCuaig reaffirmed his organization’s commitment to completing the ARL—which will connect Union Station and Pearson Airport, stopping at Dundas West Station along the way—by 2015, too soon for it to be electrified from the outset, but with service starting just in time for Toronto’s Pan Am Games. The ARL will initially run diesel trains that can be converted to electric. Staff estimate that the the line could be fully electrified no sooner than seven years from now.
The board’s decision comes after a year-long study of the costs and benefits of converting the corridors—which, like all GO lines, currently support only diesel trains—to electric catenary power, similar to that used by streetcars and other light rail vehicles.
Metrolinx staff recommended electrification on the Georgetown and Lakeshore GO lines, as well as the ARL, and today those recommendations were approved by the board without substantial changes. This means electrification will proceed as proposed—provided the province agrees to fund the conversion.
Shortly after the meeting, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation issued a press release announcing that the province would be funding an environmental assessment, the first phase of the electrification project. Metrolinx staff have said that the province had reviewed the recommendations prior to the board meeting, which explains the speed of the funding approval.
Outside the Metro Central YMCA, where the meeting took place, around one hundred protesters connected with the Clean Train Coalition rallied, holding aloft signs that said things like: “DON’T KILL OUR KIDS. ELECTRIC NOW.” The Coalition is a group of community organizations that oppose expanding diesel service on the Georgetown GO line and the ARL, for environmental reasons.
Their pro-electrification activism has continued, now, for more than a year and a half. It may have hastened Metrolinx’s decision to publicly commit itself to electrifying, though electrification of some GO lines was already one of the transit authority’s stated medium-term goals.
In the end, environmental benefits were not among the reasons cited by Metrolinx staff for recommending electrification. The ultra-modern diesels considered as an alternative to electric locomotives would have emitted relatively low levels of pollutants, according to the study report, making air quality benefits from electrification “marginal.”
At the board meeting, Karen Pitre, who led the electrification study, cited cost and speed as the plan’s key advantages. Provided that GO ridership continues to grow as expected, electric trains would be less expensive to run than diesels, by about $18 million per year. Their quick acceleration and deceleration also makes them slightly faster: average commute times would be reduced by 2.4 to 2.8 minutes per trip, according to the study report.
Metrolinx brass believe that electrification would be a first step toward providing more frequent service along the Georgetown and Lakeshore corridors—perhaps even amounting to as much as a train every five minutes in coming decades (though not any time soon). Some board members consider this especially important in view of the GTA’s impending population growth.
“I must admit that given the significant incremental costs involved in doing this, I was quite underwhelmed by the business case,” said board member Rahul Bhardwaj, during this morning’s meeting. “[But] the case doesn’t capture a very important element, which is that we’ve got to find a way to move four million more people.” Bhardwaj may have been alluding to this recent Toronto Star analysis that predicts regional population growth of 40% by 2031.
“If we don’t anticipate those four million people, we will have given up the game and the big picture,” said Jennifer Babe, another board member.
Asked if modern, so-called “tier four” diesel locomotives could deliver the type of performance necessary to serve a burgeoning metro region for years to come, Metrolinx president and CEO McCuaig said: “Tier four diesel will not get us there.”
Paul Bedford, also a board member, reminded his colleagues that 2031 is only twenty years away, and that twenty years ago was 1991—an appalling notion, perhaps, for anyone over the age of twenty-five.
“To me, it’s now or never,” said Bedford. “This problem’s not going to go away. This is going to be here regardless of what government’s in power, regardless of the financial situation.”
The vote was taken at 10:30 a.m., and was unanimously in favour of electrification. The relative brevity of the meeting suggested that its outcome had all but been decided in advance.
After the environmental assessment is completed, and provided the province agrees to provide funding, electrification will take place across the two GO lines and the ARL over the course of approximately the next two decades, with the ARL and the eastern segment of the Georgetown corridor to be completed first, in an estimated minimum of seven years.