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Pearson airport needs a TTC rapid transit link

By John Thompson

The need for a rail transit link to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is a topic that keeps resurfacing. This year, airport rail service has been described as being crucial to Toronto’s proposed bid for the 2008 Olympics.

However, the only type of operation that seems to have been considered recently is a GO Transit service, over the existing Canadian National line between Union Station and Malton. This route, which is more than a kilometre east of the airport terminals, already has limited GO train service, which would have to be increased drastically to be of significant benefit to air travellers. A bus shuttle service would be needed between the rail station and the airport terminals.

The commuter rail option to serve Pearson airport would be very costly, though. GO trains are expensive to operate, which is why the service has not been expanded more. Train crews, due to outmoded types of labour contracts, are highly paid, with locomotive engineers earning as much as $80,000 yearly.

In addition, since the tracks, almost without exception, are owned by Canadian National or Canadian Pacific, GO Transit must pay rental and administration fees for their use. Not only that, but the railways bill the authority for any improvements, such as new bridges, tracks or signals, that they claim are needed for increased commuter train service. In short, when it comes to running trains, GO is not really a master in its own house.

If a new GO Transit spur line were to be built into Pearson airport, the cost would be prohibitive, since considerable tunnelling would be needed.

Given these major drawbacks to a commuter rail airport connection, Toronto should follow the example of several U.S. cities, and build a TTC rapid transit line to Pearson airport. American cities that have airport rapid transit services include Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington. Other cities, such as Minneapolis, San Francisco and Salt Lake City, are working on similar connections. Philadelphia is the only American city that uses commuter rail to serve its airport.

In Toronto, a high speed streetcar (Light Rail Transit) line could be built north to the airport from Kipling station, western terminal of the Bloor-Danforth subway. The station already has a loading platform, on the south side of the elevated bus loading area, that was specifically built for an airport LRT line. From Kipling, passengers could reach downtown in 30 minutes, or continue east or north.

The LRT route would follow an existing Ontario Hydro power line corridor north from Dundas St., to Hwy. 401. It would either bridge or tunnel under the highway, then continue to the airport. An aerial structure, similar to that used by the Scarborough Rapid Transit line in the Town Centre, might circle the airport, serving all three terminals.

Standard TTC streetcars, with luggage storage space provided, would provide service. Use of these cars would mean far lower construction costs compared with extending the subway to the airport. The aerial structure could be built far more cheaply for the shorter and lighter streetcars. Also, it wouldn’t be necessary to construct costly overpasses at intersecting roads, because of a subway train’s power rail.

A TTC LRT line serving the airport would be cheaper to run than a GO train service, since the commission’s labour costs are lower. It would own and maintain its own tracks, and wouldn’t have to subsidize CN and CP’s shareholders.

An articulated streetcar can carry more than twice as many people as a highway bus, yet still be operated by a single employee. A rail link is immune to traffic congestion, which will certainly get far worse around Toronto in the coming decades. Also, rail is far less affected by bad weather than buses.

In St. Louis, Mo., the Bi-State Development Agency operates a Light Rail line that serves both terminals of Lambert Field, the city’s main airport. Passengers walk just a few hundred feet from the station platforms to the ticket and waiting areas.

The line, opened in 1993, uses articulated streetcars (Light Rail Vehicles). Construction costs averaged about $12 million (U.S.) per kilometre. It reaches the airport via an aerial structure; the balance of the route is mostly at ground level, with short tunnel sections.

The airport authority paid for construction of the two stations at Lambert Field. St. Louis has been very happy with the success of its line. An extension is being built to serve another airport, across the Mississippi River in Illinois.

Former TTC chief general manager Dave Gunn felt that a TTC link would outperform a commuter rail service, saying that crewing costs are too high with commuter rail. Gunn added that Washington’s subway has captured about 30 per cent of the market share of trips to and from National Airport. He emphasized, though, that a rapid transit line serving an airport must have intermediate stops, serving a wide area.

“It can’t stand on its own. The airport needs to be a stop on an otherwise busy route. Before building a line, though, it’s essential to have accurate projections of the potential ridership,” he said.

It’s essential, before a decision is made about a rail link to Pearson airport, that Toronto check out the airport rapid transit experience of American cities. A rail line is something that taxpayers have to live with for a long time; the decision should be the right one.

John Thompson is a Toronto writer, specializing in urban transit issues.