Unless GO Transit makes major changes, some new SmartTrack stations are almost useless.
Overall ridership would actually decline with John Tory’s SmartTrack plan as existing riders would abandon the system due to longer travel times with the new stops, according to new Metrolinx reports.
As part of its plans for upgrading the GO Transit rail system, Metrolinx has been studying the locations of potential new stations. After 17 locations were identified for further study, 12 new stations were included in its plans. Eight of these 12 stations sites are located in the City of Toronto, and six are stops proposed by Tory’s SmartTrack plan.
The estimated cost of building and maintaining the six proposed SmartTrack stations is between $560 million and $690 million—this figure does not include the cost of new train sets or other track work to accommodate increased service levels.
Tory’s SmartTrack proposal, revealed during the 2014 mayoral election campaign, promised frequent surface rail service from the Airport Corporate Centre in Mississauga to Markham, in seven years, on a TTC fare. After major revisions, the SmartTrack plan is far less ambitious; it now basically replicates Metrolinx’s existing GO Regional Express Rail (RER) plans on the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors.
The initial business cases for each station were written back in July 2016, but were only released on March 16. These additional reports go into more detail than the summary report previously released.The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail both agree that the latest reports further undermine SmartTrack, which has already faced several major setbacks.
The trouble is that some of the proposed stations—namely, Finch East and Lawrence East, on the Stouffville Line, and St. Clair West, on the Kitchener Line, all three proposed as part of SmartTrack—would attract very few riders.
The low demand for some stations could cause a drop in overall public transit ridership, leading to more people taking their cars, meaning millions more kilometres driven on GTA roads.
However, for stops at Liberty Village (on the Kitchener Line, near King Street), at First Gulf’s East Harbour site (the former Unilever Lands, near Broadview Avenue), and at Gerrard and Pape, ridership numbers are much higher. All three sites have good access to connecting transit as well as existing and proposed employment clusters.
These station studies, however, assume the existing GO Transit operations and fare structure. GO Transit uses long 10- and 12-car trains pushed or pulled by heavy diesel locomotives, making limited stops within the City of Toronto. This type of operation isn’t suited for local service, due to long acceleration and deceleration times.
Electrification, however, and the use of smaller, more nimble multiple-unit train sets, would cancel out some of the time lost stopping at additional stations.
As well, long-distance commuters could be served by express trains—like those currently operating on the Lakeshore East and West lines between Oshawa and Hamilton—and would not be affected by new local station stops.
The other key issue is that of fare integration. Right now, GO Transit’s fare structure favours long-distance travel over short-distance travel, and there is no fare integration with the TTC. Because of this, passengers travelling within the city of Toronto, who might benefit from a faster ride via GO Transit, aren’t doing so.
However, Metrolinx is studying a new regional fare structure, which will likely address some of these problems.
Once it becomes easier to transfer between GO and the TTC, ridership at new RER stations will certainly increase. (There are concerns, however, that Metrolinx is pushing for a fare-by-distance structure that would result in higher fares for many TTC riders.)
Another issue that Metrolinx will have to work out is the station layouts. The initial station business cases illustrated plans that had poor connections with connecting TTC routes and limited development possibilities. At St. Clair West, for example, there’s a long and unpleasant walk between the train platforms and the 512 streetcar. Little wonder, then, why ridership projections are so low.
Initial plan for St. Clair West station, which poorly connects to nearby TTC routes, including the 512 St. Clair Streetcar
At first glance, the initial business cases for new GO RER/SmartTrack stations look very bad. And it’s now clear that SmartTrack, or what’s left of it, is in ruins and at odds with Metrolinx’s own plans for GO Transit. With the Ellesmere station eliminated from consideration, and the Finch East and Lawrence East stops rating poorly, Scarborough could see very little benefit.
Had Mayor Tory not been so eager to push for SmartTrack, it is more likely that a three stop—not a one stop—subway extension would still be planned for Scarborough.
But there are many uncertainties that the planners had to work with. Fare integration, changes to GO Transit operations, and better station plans could change the outcomes, making these additional stations worth the cost. GO RER, if built right, could be a boon for both suburban commuters and transit riders within the city of Toronto. The city should push for better station plans and a fare structure; Tory could at least take some credit then, for sticking up for Toronto commuters and leveraging benefit from GO improvements, even if it’s not the SmartTrack he imagined.
If Metrolinx is only planning for operations as usual—suburban-style stations, with infrequent trains suited for long-distance commutes, which riders are charged high fares to use—ridership projections will not favour new stops in suburban Toronto. This is what the new reports clearly point out. But, if the conditions are changed to make regional rail useful for Torontonians, these new stations become an essential part of an integrated transit network.