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The Regional Dream

The rapidly growing GTA desperately needs more commuter rail service. The network is there, JOHN LORINC writes, but is the political will?


Special to The Globe and Mail

For years, it has been little more than a gleam in the eye of Toronto transit planners — the notion of launching new commuter rail service on existing rights-of-way that fan out to Bolton in the north, Kitchener in the west and Peterborough in the east.

In the case of the latter, the line in question is Canadian Pacific Railway’s North Toronto Subdivision, a rail corridor that swoops in from Milton, cuts through midtown Toronto just north of Dupont Avenue, and then heads east through the north Pickering area of Seaton, where new development will create a booming suburban satellite of 250,000 residents over the next two decades.

“Everyone agrees it makes a lot of sense,” says Richard Soberman, a respected transportation consultant and emeritus professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto. “The problem is that the line happens to be one of the busiest CP freight trunks in the country.”

The labour disruptions that hobbled GO Transit last week served to remind thousands of residents of the mounting importance of the Greater Toronto Area’s patchy commuter rail network, as well as the need to plan for future expansion. “When you look at our commuter rail compared to New York, Madrid or many Asian cities, [it] is woefully inadequate,” says Robert MacIsaac, chair of the newly created Greater Toronto Transportation Authority.

When Mr. MacIsaac returns from vacation next week, the GTTA’s new board will get down to the hard work of drawing up a transportation master plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which will grow by the equivalent of Montreal’s current population over the next quarter-century.

He hopes that the GTTA will be ready to release a draft version within a year. Intended to ensure that fast-growing suburban hubs are served by transit infrastructure, the master plan will be a blueprint for future investment in GO’s commuter rail network and rapid-transit bus service on dedicated lanes on the 400-series highways.

Meanwhile, Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield is interested in creating a light rail line on a right-of-way that runs along the entire length of Highway 407, from Burlington to Durham, according to her spokesman, Neal Kelly. “That would be fairly easy to do because the province owns the land.”

Right now, Mr. MacIsaac won’t say which he prefers. “We need more of everything. I’m not dogmatic about whether it’s rail or bus rapid transit. We need a new transportation system that has more of all of these things.”

GO officials are less circumspect. “The expansion of rail corridors has to be on everybody’s radar screen,” says GO chair Peter Smith, a home builder who is also vice-chair of the GTTA. “We’re not going to solve our problems over the next 10 or 15 years just by putting more buses on the road.”

While bus service is cheaper and more flexible, Mr. Smith’s remarks indicate that extensive commuter rail networks offering frequent and efficient service represent the high-water mark for regional transit agencies.

But, as Mr. Soberman points out, the simple fact of an available rail corridor doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be readily transformed into a commuter line.

North America-wide safety regulations prevent commuter rail agencies from operating “self-propelled” trains on lines used by freight haulers. That’s why GO trains are run by locomotives operated by the engineering crews that allegedly staged this week’s labour action in response to staffing cuts by Canadian National Railway.

Then there’s the question of sharing track time. The North Toronto Subdivision is one of CPR’s busiest routes, and company spokesman Ed Greenberg says any commuter expansion would involve extensive negotiations over additional infrastructure and the apportioning of costs related to extra track and stations. In fact, the railways have been historically reluctant to lease tracks to commuter agencies if it means their own service will be hampered or delayed.

Much of GO Transit’s $1-billion expansion strategy — which was announced in 2001 by former premier Mike Harris and remains a work in progress — has focused on adding third tracks and grade separations on existing lines, with the goal of improving service by segregating the double-decker GO carriages from the serpentine freight trains that shunt around the GTA.

GO’s current plans also call for extending service to Georgetown and Barrie (the current service goes only to Bradford), and a controversial environmental assessment of the Union Station-Pearson International rail link is ongoing.

While Mr. Smith admits that some of these projects will not be completed before the end of the decade, he says planning for the next generation of rail service will begin “very, very soon,” probably spearheaded by the GTTA.

So far, Peel Region has already acquired land in Bolton for a station should service ever materialize along a rail line that runs out to that fast-growing hub between Caledon and Vaughan.

Transit expert Steve Munro says the North Toronto Subdivision is strategically important because it has the potential to provide commuter rail service from downtown to the GTA’s northeastern periphery.

Mr. Smith agrees: “Seaton shouldn’t get developed without adequate transit links. There is a [rail] corridor out there.”

The big question about the North Toronto Subdivision is whether GO trains would some day travel on the stretch that bisects midtown neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, Forest Hill and St. Clair West. Until the 1920s, passenger trains used that line and stopped at a station that now houses the refurbished Summerhill LCBO outlet.

The line passes within metres of two Toronto Transit Commission subway stops: at Summerhill on the Yonge line; and Dupont on the Spadina line. TTC officials have taken steps in recent years to protect a swath of land at the south end of the Summerhill station in case passenger rail service ever returns to the North Toronto subdivision. But TTC chair Adam Giambrone says a connection isn’t on the city’s radar right now, largely because the vast majority of GO passengers arriving at Union Station don’t transfer onto the TTC.

Both Mr. Munro and Mr. Giambrone agree that a GO-subway link makes more sense at Dupont because, during peak periods, the Spadina subway isn’t nearly as crowded as the Yonge line and could therefore accommodate the additional volume of commuters headed downtown. But such a scheme would depend on creating an integrated fare system between GO and the TTC.

Mr. Greenberg says CPR has not been approached by GO to discuss the future of the North Toronto Subdivision.

Neither Mr. MacIsaac nor Mr. Smith wants to be drawn into public discussions about individual lines, saying the focus should be the development of a comprehensive plan that addresses the needs of the entire region, as well as a strategy for financing future growth plans. Citing Montreal’s recent investment in its own commuter rail network, Mr. MacIsaac says: “If we just do what they’ve done, we’ll just be treading water.”