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Rail plan rises to link Union Station and Pearson


Passengers travelling to Pearson International Airport may be soaring skyward on a train before they fly out on a plane in coming years.

A plan for a rail link between Union Station and Pearson would see tracks lifting off the ground and running up on pillars to the top of the airport’s massive new terminal.

Sources at Pearson and the federal transport ministry, which is keen to launch the project, say both sides have agreed on a basic configuration for the link.

Instead of earlier plans, which would have seen the line terminate at Woodbine Raceway - where passengers would have to transfer to an airport “people mover” for several kilometres - the link will now likely run right into the top of Pearson’s new $3.3 billion terminal.

While transport ministry officials are still reviewing plans from eight private consortiums who have expressed an interest in building a line, officials say any link will almost certainly have to run right into the terminal building to draw customers.

It would also likely employ self-propelled “bud cars,” which resemble electric subway trains but are driven by diesel engines. The diesel-powered trains would not require link builders to electrify their line and would allow it to be completed for between $300 million and $500 million.

At that price, transport officials say, private builders may be able to recoup their investment from passenger fares and make a profit.

Electrifying the line would boost its price to a billion dollars or more, pushing it far out of the reach and interest of any potential investors.

Without exhaust-free electric trains, however, a link station in the belly of the new airport terminal would produce unacceptable or dangerous levels of diesel fumes.

Thus airport designers suggested the station be high in the terminal, where fumes could be easily vented through the ceiling.

The ministry is hoping to put out an official request for proposals on the project in January. The basic line would almost surely run like this:

Starting from Union Station, the trains would head west every 20 minutes or so on the Canadian National Lakeshore line to Strachan Ave.

There they would switch northward on to CN’s Weston subdivision line, where a second set of tracks would have to be built to accommodate the airport trains.

Likely stopping at Bloor St. for a link to the TTC subway, the line would also call in at a new Woodbine station where it could pick up regional GO Transit passengers.

From the racetrack it would likely run on a single set of tracks to the terminal where it would lift off the ground into an upper-storey station.

In coming to an agreement with Pearson, the ministry has overcome some initial opposition to the project.

Pearson officials, frightened it would hurt revenues from their new parking facility, the largest in Canada, and queasy at the possibility they might be asked to help pay for the line, were at first dead set against the downtown link.

With the airport now on board, however, the link still faces some major challenges.

First, GO transit, whose trains use the Weston line on their Georgetown runs, is opposed to the project, saying that even with the double tracking there’s no room for both agencies.

Revenue potential is another potential problem.

Pearson now plays host to more than 28 million passengers a year and that total is expected to climb to some 52 million over the next two decades. But the Malton facility is and always will be a regional airport, with fewer than 20 per cent of passengers travelling directly to or from downtown Toronto.

And the vast majority of those passengers would be business people who have the option of a relatively cheap limousine ride, taking them right to their destinations on a company expense account.