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Crowded tracks, monorail shuttle: $250 million doesn't buy much

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

Federal Transport Minister David Collenette says a new rail link between Union Station and Pearson International Airport could be built for $250 million.

He’s most likely right. But it wouldn’t be the luxurious, rapid European-style airport links he has so often praised.

Here’s the kind of cut-rate service and infrastructure that money would buy you:

  • Just six self-propelled, diesel-powered subway-like cars running at 130 km/h, by themselves or in trains of two.
  • A single new set of tracks alongside the Canadian National line running from Union Station up the railway’s Weston subdivision corridor, from Strachan Ave. near Lake Shore Blvd. W. to Woodbine Raceway.
  • Further new tracks on a fresh route from Woodbine to the airport.
  • Pearson cars sharing crowded rail lines with freight, VIA and GO Transit trains.
  • Just one station between Woodbine and Union Station - at Bloor St., connecting the line with the subway system.
  • A station on the Pearson periphery where passengers would have to use an airport monorail to shuttle to and from the terminals.

This would be a very bare-bones rail link indeed. It wouldn’t compare to the London system - with its large, fast, electric non-polluting cars running right into Heathrow terminal - which Collenette has persistently pointed to as something Toronto should emulate.

But it’s a link that transportation consultant Lee Sims says would take you between Union and Pearson in 20 minutes at the price Collenette cites - that is, for a quarter of the original estimated cost.

“Some people say my figures are low,” says Sims, whose IBI Group conducted the study last year for Transport Canada.

“But I believe it would get you enough equipment to run a 15- to 20-minute service to the edge of the airport.”

Even if the cost should be slightly higher - and Collenette said the price tag could go as high as $300 million when he promised Wednesday to tender it as a private sector venture - it will still be vastly cheaper than the $1 billion the line was originally pegged at.

For that kind of money, you could get a Cadillac rail link like Heathrow’s.

A system like that would cost hundreds of millions more than the one IBI proposes, says veteran transportation consultant Ed Levy.

“If it’s a properly done thing, it’s going to cost you plenty,” says Levy.

“If it’s a half-assed thing with some idiotic transfer at the airport, ($250 million) is probably within the ballpark but it’s not a ballpark worth visiting.”

Levy also points out that only 17 per cent of Pearson’s 28 million annual passengers travel to downtown Toronto - and that only a fraction of these would use the link.

“This makes the whole project of suspect value,” Levy says.

Aside from being done on the cheap, the new line as envisioned by Sims would have another problem. Only one extra set of tracks would be built to complement the single CN line that currently runs up most of the corridor.

The Pearson service will need to run too frequently to be handled by just one train, moving back and forth on that line. So Pearson trains would often have to use the same track as GO trains plying the Weston corridor on their Georgetown runs.

And that means the Pearson and GO services would almost certainly come into conflict, says GO planning manager Michael Wolczyk.

“The question is, how do you run GO trains in all of that,” says Wolczyk.

“If they’re running a frequent service, there should be two sets of tracks on top of everything that’s already there … or else I’m not sure how it can work.”

With only two tracks, both of which would be used at the same time by the trains coming and going on the Pearson service, GO trains would almost certainly be in the way, Wolczyk says.

“We have over 11,000 people a day using that line and we’re expecting that to grow by 75 per cent over the next 10 years,” he says.

“Certainly the larger market is the existing GO service.”

Nevertheless, an airport link does have backers in the private sector willing to explore the concept.

Canadian transportation giant Bombardier Inc. says it’s worked for more than a year on a link plan. The company’s plan, which would cost “a bit more” than the IBI proposal, would use specially appointed GO trains to bring passengers from Union to a new Woodbine station, where a small “people mover” rail line would bring them to the airport.

The Bombardier plan is one of three Canadian proposals Collenette said he’s already entertained, says company sales and marketing boss Mike Hardt.

It would also make the airport link part of a wider GTA and southern Ontario network by connecting with the GO system and VIA trains at the new Woodbine station.