SmartTrack cannot be built as proposed and addresses only some of Toronto's major transit challenges.
Late in May John Tory launched his plan for a new transit line called SmartTrack—the centrepiece of his “One Toronto” transit plan [PDF]. Even in the early days of the campaign, there was good reason to distrust Tory’s grasp of his own proposal, let alone his willingness to engage in debate: he made the briefest of appearances to make a canned statement but answered few questions. Supporting documents were scant on details.
In brief, SmartTrack adapts part of Metrolinx’s Regional Express Rail (RER) plan, a broader strategy for enhancing service in the GTA [PDF], and tries to use a portion of that plan to help meet Toronto’s transit deficit.
None of this is simple—certainly not as simple as Tory would have us believe. And almost none of it makes sense.
What’s the Plan?
SmartTrack would see express trains operating primarily on GO Transit corridors. It would begin at the Airport Corporate Centre (but not run to the airport itself), then veer east to Mount Dennis, travel south in a rough U-shape across downtown, and then proceed north to Unionville. The route would charge regular TTC fares with free transfers to the existing TTC system, and trains would run every 15 minutes. Over its 53 kilometre route, SmartTrack would have 22 stations, and might, according to the campaign, carry over 200,000 passengers per day. It is, somehow, supposed to be constructed without taxpayer funds (more on that in another article shortly), and it is supposed to be complete within seven years.
Is There Room on GO’s Corridors?
Over much of its length, SmartTrack requires space in the existing GO corridors to operate. At the frequency Tory says SmartTrack will run, this means two tracks in those corridors: two tracks GO does not have today, at least not sitting there just waiting for new trains.
To the west, a new pair of tracks exists for the Union-Pearson Express service, but that goes to the airport via a different route than SmartTrack, through north Etobicoke. It is not clear whether SmartTrack could share the same infrastructure.
On the eastern side, the Stouffville corridor—the portion of SmartTrack that would run north to Unionville—has to be double-tracked for Metrolinx’s own regional plan to work: fitting both SmartTrack and frequent GO service to points beyond Unionville on the same line will be a challenge. Scarborough Junction, the point where the Lake Shore East and Stouffville corridors diverge, will almost certainly have to be grade separated given the combined frequency of service. Fortunately for Tory, Metrolinx already considers this a possibility, but SmartTrack would certainly force the issue.
And at the very centre, within the Union Station corridor, SmartTrack again shares capacity problems with Metrolinx’s regional plans. As the ridership on individual GO corridors grows, the combined effect at Union could overwhelm that station.
The problem is that Tory has, in effect, appropriated a chunk of the Metrolinx RER scheme as if it were his own line, with no consideration for whether both services could co-exist.
Is There Room on Eglinton?
The least credible part of SmartTrack is the route it takes from Mount Dennis to the Airport Corporate Centre.
Decades ago, when Toronto was looking at building a series of urban highways (including the Spadina Expressway), land was reserved north of Eglinton for the Richview Expressway, which would have run “from the Mount Dennis area…westward to the junction of Highways 401 and 27… The Metro government began land assembly for the project along Richview Side Road—later Eglinton Avenue… This is why today there is a very wide right of way for Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke.”
Of course, that expressway was never built. In the years since, various transit proposals included plans for using this land; the consensus going back to the 1980s was that any new transit line should be in the middle of Eglinton Avenue. A median LRT or BRT was proposed there long before Transit City came along to recycle the idea.
Tory’s SmartTrack planners relied on outdated information about Eglinton Avenue, assuming that there was still room for a new rail corridor. In fact, Build Toronto has been selling off the Richview land (reserving a small strip to allow for road widening in case an LRT or BRT project materializes), and chunks are already occupied by new buildings.
Metrolinx plans call for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT to be extended from Weston Road to the airport. This could be done with the original Transit City surface route, or with a tunnel under the Eglinton roadway, or a hybrid scheme to balance cost against traffic considerations at major intersections. However, taking SmartTrack along Eglinton is quite another matter.
The route must turn from the rail corridor west through a tunnel under a residential neighbourhood to reach Eglinton, but railways cannot make tight turns like streetcar routes. Wherever SmartTrack’s station might be, it will not be close to the planned LRT station on the Kodak lands to the northeast. An additional challenge will be the steep grade down to Jane Street that could dictate a deep station at Mount Dennis.
These problems would be eliminated if SmartTrack continued on the rail corridor through northern Etobicoke to the airport on the Metrolinx Union Pearson spur, and the Crosstown LRT continued west across Eglinton as originally planned. Passengers would have a direct route to the airport on either route rather than a forced transfer.
Why Do We Need Two Lines in Scarborough?
In yet another dodge around controversial debate, Tory prefers to leave the Scarborough subway scheme as is rather than reopen the LRT/subway battles. The cost is huge, and as with many politicians before him, Tory’s support for it constitutes blatant pandering for votes. In Tory’s plan, the three-station Scarborough subway (with stops at Lawrence, Scarborough Town Centre, and Sheppard) remains, while SmartTrack operates only a few kilometres to the west with stations at Lawrence, Ellesmere, Sheppard, Finch, and Steeles. Those subway riders would be drawn from the same territory that SmartTrack would serve in Unionville: building both therefore dilutes the value either service would provide.
If the GO corridors really can handle frequent service, and both SmartTrack and the Scarborough subway are built, then the expected subway demand may never materialize. Toronto will have paid a high premium to finance infrastructure beyond what it actually needs.
SmartTrack as a Way Into and Out of Toronto
Tory claims that SmartTrack would attract over 200,000 riders per day, in part because of the diverse set of trips it would serve. Not only would the line funnel riders to the core, it would provide new service to the lands south of the airport as well as the developing business district in Markham.
Tory’s backgrounder on his One Toronto transit plan [PDF] shows employment clusters in the GTA, including a large grouping around Highway 404 and Highway 7. That’s definitely a node worth shooting for, but the SmartTrack rail line is actually a few kilometres to the east, in Unionville.
Similarly, the airport district is spread out over a large area that cannot be served by a route stopping only its southern edge.
If SmartTrack is to be effective in linking riders to these areas, passengers will need frequent connecting bus services—a way for people to travel between their final destinations and the SmartTrack stations at each end of the route. This is notably absent from Tory’s proposal. It is also partially outside of his purview: on the Unionville side, that bus service would need to be provided by the City of Markham.
SmartTrack Within Toronto
Starting from the west, on its trip into downtown SmartTrack would serve northern Etobicoke, but only with stations at Kipling and at Jane. These would be handy for folks living nearby, but good feeder bus services would be essential.
Proceeding east, there would be stops at Eglinton (albeit a difficult one to integrate with the Crosstown LRT), St. Clair, Bloor and Dundas West, Liberty Village, and Spadina.
SmartTrack tries to serve two very different types of demand—not just riders from the edges of Toronto but also local trips closer to the core. A major concern in attracting riders, however, will be service frequency and station access time. The closer one gets to downtown, the time actually spent on a SmartTrack train becomes less important than the time required to board it. A Liberty Village station would actually be on the northeastern edge of that neighbourhood, quite distant from many residents and businesses it might try to serve. The Spadina station would be very close to Union in an area already served by the Spadina/Harbourfront streetcar. Both scenarios make SmartTrack less appealing for residents who need to access those areas.
Continuing east, the one station associated with new waterfront development would be at the Unilever site south of Queen and east of the Don River. This would do nothing for the large population planned west of the river and mainly south of the Gardiner Expressway. Meanwhile, Tory has been notably silent on transit service to the waterfront.
Continuing east to Scarborough Junction, there would be stops at Queen, Gerrard, and Main/Danforth. These could attract some transfer traffic, but again the extra time needed for that transfer—at least 10 minutes on average—would counteract the time saving of the faster trip to Union.
As for those 200,000 daily riders, this is a dubious claim even if SmartTrack is treated as two lines on either side of downtown. On a transit line with good all-day demand, typically half of the ridership comes during the peak periods, with half of that concentrated in the two peak hours. This would mean 12,500 peak hour riders, with most of those trips going inbound to the downtown core. Meeting those numbers would be a real challenge for trains that only run every 15 minutes.
The fundamental problem with SmartTrack is that it looks nice on a map, but the mechanics of actually operating the route and the experience of using it as transit rider involve many complications.
SmartTrack and the Relief Line
Toronto needs both better service on the GO network, to help suburban residents get into the core, and additional local capacity linking the core, near-downtown areas, and the wider network. A single line cannot perform both functions, but that is effectively how Tory is pitching SmartTrack.
Any service that operates in the GO rail corridors will have the most benefit for passengers whose trips originate in the outer 416 and the 905. Travel time savings and a 15-minute headway represent a real improvement over today’s offerings on that front. If the intent is to provide some relief for the current system, it must come by diverting that type of rider away from the outer ends of the subway network, not by intercepting trips that are already on local TTC services closer to the core.
Tory’s position on the Relief Line (politicians of all stripes seem to have dropped the apparently toxic word “Downtown”) has changed from the early days of his campaign.
Back in March Tory announced: “John Tory has a plan for a more affordable, functional and liveable Toronto. Job number one in that plan is building the Yonge Street relief line.” Only a few weeks later, he launched a broadside at the Olivia Chow campaign for treating the Yonge relief line as a lower priority, saying “you can get action on Yonge Street Relief Line from me now.”
Now that Tory’s scheme is the centrepiece of his campaign, the possibility of a new subway line providing local service in the areas close to downtown drifts further off into the future in a Tory Toronto.
Missing From the Map
Notable by their absence on the SmartTrack map are three important new LRT/streetcar services: Sheppard East, Finch West and a waterfront line. In August Tory claimed continued support for the Finch and Sheppard lines (which have planned 2020 and 2021 opening dates). He makes no mention of transit to the waterfront, a project mired in anti-downtown rhetoric, dreams of Ferris wheels in the Port Lands, and a lack of serious commitment by council and the TTC.
Keeping the Current System Running
Tory falls into the familiar trap of emphasizing construction—touts new lines that, someday, might improve the lot of some transit riders (and conveniently come with high-profile ribbon-cutting ceremonies)—while ignoring the basic day-to-day needs of the existing system.
In August the TTC proposed a suite of changes to make the system more attractive to riders, including improved transit service, replacement of transfers with a two-hour fare, and a system-wide move to proof-of-payment and all-door loading. Tory’s response? “Irresponsible,” because there was no funding plan attached to it.
In that one word, Tory not only displayed his ignorance of council procedures—the TTC’s job is to propose how it might operate most effectively to meet resident needs, and then council decides if or how to fund the proposal—but also his focus on throttling expenses and holding down taxes. There was no sense he understands the severity of the looming problem of system capacity.
The TTC operating subsidy for 2014 will be about $430 million, of which Toronto provides $340 million and Queen’s Park $90 million (from the gas tax). A further $100 million is needed to run WheelTrans, which is completely funded by the municipal government. Service cuts under Rob Ford and Karen Stintz capped TTC budget increases, but this cannot continue forever. And that’s just to keep the service running. In terms of infrastructure costs, the TTC needs $9 billion for system maintenance and vehicle replacements over the next decade; currently it is about $3 billion short.
The TTC has even more schemes in the wings, but omits them from the list as less vital projects, or pushes their start dates beyond the 10-year span for budget planning. If the TTC used the same 25-year outlook as the Metrolinx Big Move, the deficit would be much larger.
Torontonians needs better service on the transit they already have just as much as they need to open up new rapid transit lines.
The absence of a meaningful strategy to address transit needs beyond SmartTrack reveals a large, threadbare patch in Tory’s platform.
Can John Tory Change?
Since its announcement, SmartTrack has been the John Tory campaign’s mantra, the centrepiece of his platform, and his solution to almost every problem. But SmartTrack cannot be built as proposed, and addresses only part of the overall transit challenge in Toronto.
Campaigns are a horrendous time to ask candidates to shift positions. They are terrified of appearing weak, uncommitted, vacillating, unable to lead the city to a single, defined goal. The term “flip-flop” looms like a scary thundercloud overhead. But the mark of a good would-be mayor is the ability to grow beyond a simple slogan like “subways subways subways” and “the gravy train.”.
Tory wants to be a mayor who will work with all sides of council, and he will not achieve that by trotting out a single plan over and over at every meeting for every issue. As a leading candidate in the polls, Tory should have the headroom to embrace more options for transit, to show that he can see beyond his campaign literature.
Can John Tory move beyond a one-track platform and show he really understands the complexity of transit needs, or will he plow ahead with a shiny but ultimately half-baked scheme that will short-change Toronto?