By Peter Drost, with assistance by Jordan Kerim.
The GO-ALRT (Government of Ontario Advanced Light Rail Transit) program is one of the great "ifs" in the history of public transportation in Southern Ontario. Although GO-ALRT died in the mid-1980's, the proposal ranks with Sir Adam Beck's ambitious radial system and Metro Toronto's Transportation 2011 Network plans in both size and scope.
If built it would have consisted of two main lines. One line would have paralleled (and replaced) GO's Lakeshore line from Hamilton to Oshawa. A second line would have arced north from Oakville to Pickering via Mississauga City Centre, Pearson Airport, North York City Centre and Scarborough Town Centre. According a map of this system, it appears as if the northern east-west section of track would run along the Finch Avenue Hydro corridor. A third line, in very early planning stages, would have linked downtown Brampton with the North and Lakeshore lines. In total there would have been 201 km of track and the system was expected to cost $2.6 billion in 1980 dollars.
The vehicle proposed for GO-ALRT looked similar to the Scarborough RT, and like the RT it was supposed to be a driverless system with "steerable" axles. Moreover, the vehicle would not be powered by linear induction motors, but rather by eight 600V DC rotary electric motors. A pantograph would have drawn power from a 25 kV AC supply system and propelled the train up to 120 km/h, with an average speed around 70 km/h along standard gauge track laid on wooden sleepers and ballast. Because of its lightness and turning ability the trains would travel at grade where possible, but could also duck under (tunnel) or pass over road and rail crossings on an elevated guideway.
The GO ALRT vehicle went through several redesigns throughout the planning stages of the project. Starting out with almost ICTS proportions, the train cars lengthened out and obtained articulated sections. An intermediate design called for a 36 metre long articulated vehicle with "spacious" seating for 124 passengers. The most recent design called for a 45 metre long vehicle. No reason was given for the redesigns, although it suggests that the engineers knew that the original designs could not handle the passenger loads predicted for the system.
Throughout the system, stations would be set 3 km apart. The first two sections would have been built from Hamilton to Oakville and Oshawa to Pickering. In the documentation I've seen a location for the Hamilton station was not yet selected (see below). From west to east station would have been set up at Aldershot, Brant Street, Appleby Line, Third Line, Fourth Line and Trafalgar Road, similar to the current GO stations.
The eastern section would have seen stations built (from west to east) at Liverpool Road, Westney Road, Brock Street, Hopkins Street, Stevenson Road and the final station just east of Harmony Road at the Oshawa-Bomanville border.
There was considerable controversy with the western alignment, particularly with the route it took through Hamilton. Ideas ranged from using the old Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo station, another station at the bottom of James Street, or a new alignment entirely, through a tunnel or elevated guideway through downtown Hamilton, possibly York Street. The latter proposal generated considerable opposition from the community and local business associations. In the end, GO finally settled upon using the TH&B station, but only after the GO-ALRT program was dead. To the east, the considerably less controversial idea of paralleling the 401 allowed the project to develop much quicker. By the time the GO-ALRT project was cancelled, enough property had been purchased for GO to build on its own right-of-way between Pickering and Whitby.
These two routes (Oakville to Hamilton and Pickering to Oshawa) were designed to handle 7,500 passengers per hour per direction initially, although critics lampooned the suggestion of having ALRT trains at five minute intervals connecting with GO commuter trains operating at twenty minute intervals. However, the system would have been designed to carry 25,000 passengers per hour per direction with as little as two-minute headways, and the connection with standard GO trains at Oakville and Pickering was meant to be only temporary.
The Northern Proposal
By 1985 the northern route of the GO-ALRT system was under study. Because of a lack of space for right-of-ways across the region, it was thought that GO-ALRT trains could run in existing Hydro corridors. Specifically, as it would have pertained to Toronto, planners were looking at the Richview-Cherrywood Corridor located just north of Finch Avenue, from Weston Road to the Rouge River.
Planners consulted with Ontario Hydro in a GO-ALRT report that looked at all the major hydro corridors across the region. Most were thought to be able to accommodate a GO-ALRT train, either at or below grade or on an elevated platform, but some changes would have to be made. This report also lays out the minimum clearances a GO-ALRT train could be from the towers.
It is interesting to note that the TTC also looked at the Richview-Cherrywood corridor in a study of its own at the same time as GO-ALRT planners. The TTC was only interested in the section between Dufferin Street and McCowan Road. The conclusion of this report was that it was impossible to build an LRT (streetcar) line along this corridor with having to change the configuration of the transmission towers.
However, the TTC also considered the possibility of a busway (or transitway) along the same corridor. The report concluded that: "A busway fit is feasible without altering the existing hydro faciliites". The only drawback with the busway was that planners would have had a hard time lighting the road way in places due to space constraints for the lighting facilities. A busway would be a tight fight.
At the time of the report no stations were planned - it was still too soon. As well, a lot of technical issues had to be ironed out. The report notes that only a couple of electric railways in the world travel close to or within power transmission corridors. This meant that there were only a couple of precedents, so practical guidelines for construction next to power lines were not likely to exist. The report lists these railways as, Queensland Railway, Australia, Netherlands Railway, and British Rail. In the case of British Rail, 160 km of 25 kV overhead line equipment between Carlisle and Motherwell parallels 275 kV high voltage power lines.
The big "unknown" for planners was the effect electrical fields would have on the riders, the trains and the general environment. Planners thought that cardiac pacemakers might be affected by fluctuations in the electrical field. The report cites other potential problems including, grounding, bonding, electromagnetic interference and the effects on pipelines due to electromagnetic induction.
According to the report a route could be made through the hydro towers. Some of it would have to be below grade, other sections would have to elevated, while some towers would have to be moved. However, with the demise of GO-ALRT the northern route was little more than a proposal with a set of quirky, unresolved electrical problems.
The Big "If"
Back in the 1970's I don't think people living in what it now called the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) felt as if they were part of the integrated region. Although the areas has been called the Golden Horseshoe for years, gaps in development meant that communities were somewhat isolated from one another for many years.
In a matter of a decade this changed as development in and around Toronto expanded causing the centre of gravity to exact a greater and greater pull on the entire region. In short: More residents, more development, more roads and more traffic with Toronto as the hub.
I say all the above in order to draw attention to the fact that GO-ALRT's planners really got it right. It was simply too far ahead of its time. Nearly 20 years after the GO-ALRT system was proposed the region's road network (with the exception of highway 407) appears to be on the brink of gridlock and will only get worse. Inter-regional travel by transit is not easy and relies on either the GO network that radiates out of Union Station, or on the TTC.
The beauty of the GO-ALRT system was that it was regional in scope. It took into account the coming diverse travel patterns between major centres and destinations around the whole area. Best of all with light, driverless trains it would have been relatively cheap to operate. If the system ran today there is little doubt that it would have been very useful to many people.
James Snow Speaks For Himself
The GO-ALRT program was very much the brain child of Ontario premier Bill Davis and his transportation minister, James Snow. James Snow talked about his feelings regarding the program and its subsequent abandonment. The following is taken from his autobiography:
"I believe that my biggest disappontment over my years in government took place within weeks of my leaving the Ministers Office in M.T.C. This was the total scrapping of all the plans for the new, GO Transit, Advanced Light Rail System. This happened as soon as Bill Davis and I were away from the cabinet table. I am sure it was a decision of the new Minister, George McCauge and the new Treasurer, Larry Grossman, but Frank Miller surely must have been in on the discussion and this major decision.
"To me this will prove to have been the a most devastating decision ever taken by a Government in recent times to the people of the Greater Metro Region of Ontario. The plan was a good, well thought out addition to the Ontario transportation system that will someday have to be built, or Metro will completely strangle and choke in traffic jams as it is already doing today. I know the cost was high but it will never be lower. The plan could have been implemented in stages, over perhaps 20 years, as I had planned to do, as funds were available.
"The plan included a direct A.L.R.T. link to Toronto International Airport from the total area between Oshawa and Hamilton, where a population of nearly five million people already reside. We all know how badly that is needed today. The most disgusting thing is that there was not even any action taken to protect the rights of way for future building of these lines.
"You can possibly understand Grossman wanting to wanting to cancel GO A.L.R.T., as it did not do anything for his St Andrew-St Patrick riding, but it is hard to believe that Miller and McCague would have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel. This decision will cost us dearly in the future. Already portions of the plan are being built at greatly increased costs on a piece meal basis.
The final blow to the GO-ALRT project came when federal legislation changed the relationship between GO Transit and the freight railroads it operated on. The new legislation gave higher priority to passenger trains on rail lines and removed one of the reasons GO was considering building lines on its own right-of-way in the first place. It suddenly became several million dollars less expensive to build the GO ALRT extensions using conventional commuter train technology.
To some degree GO Transit has picked up the ideas behind the GO-ALRT program. The number of GO stations has increased and service has expanded. The Pickering-to-Oshawa right-of-way, intended for use by GO ALRT vehicles, was built to commuter rail standards, and service extended. Overall, the GO Transit system has become more and more integrated with routes (bus and rail) all over the GTA.
Still, GO has to buy time on its tracks from CN as there are only a few exclusive passenger rail right-of-ways. As well, I don't think continuous two-minute headways are possible with the current set of trains. An airport link that serves the entire GTA has yet to be built. The only thing that comes close to the GO-ALRT's Northern Line proposal today is the proposed busway (or transitway) that would run beside highway 407.
The GO ALRT project has been tarnished somewhat by its (erroneous) association with the ICTS experiment on the Scarborough RT. There were many who criticized the province for going with untested technology over a perfectly suitable commuter rail system. Was the GO ALRT a technological boondoggle? Or was it a transportation vision that was decades ahead of its time? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. However, we can only look back on the GO-ALRT project, now, and wonder at what might have been.
Any other information or corrections would be greatly appreciated. Please e-mail, if you have it.
(Update February 24, 2002) Mark Walton adds: The Peterson Liberal government, more than anyone else, may be responsible for GO-ALRT's demise. Ed Fulton, who was Transportation Minister in the Peterson minority government (1985-87) was barely in office when he requested a feasibility study of using regular GO trains for full-time service to Hamilton.. He said that since the bilevel cars had been developed recently (1978) and in Ontario (by the then Hawker Siddeley), they would give "more blast for the bucks", to paraphrase Wintario advertising of those days. He did not want the bilevels to be pushed aside after less than a decade in service, in favor of an unproven system like GO-ALRT. At that time, I was editor of Transit News Canada magazine, and my opinion was much the same as Mr. Fulton's.