But now that Metrolinx has accepted the logic of electrification of the busiest GO rail corridors, it makes sense to reconsider the role of those corridors for delivering regional transit services. Diesel trains are very slow to accelerate, so they are only suitable for the long-distance express services that GO already operates. Diesel trains don’t work when stations are closer together like subways, and can’t provide high-frequency service like subways with just a few minutes between trains. But with electrification, it becomes possible to combine the fast regional express services for long trips with local services along the same line to provide a subway quality of service along those corridors.
Such express/local commuter rail services are already operating in cities around the world, so there are no technical obstacles to this approach. There is also no need for extensive double tracks, just double tracks at the stations where riders can cross the platform to change from local to express, or express to local trains. With such a configuration, it is possible to provide subway-quality levels of service to local stations along an entire corridor, with the added benefit of the fast express service that bypasses local stops.
The ideal location to create such a line is to combine the Union-Pearson express with the proposed relief line. Such a line could run on the UPX tracks from the airport to Weston, Dundas West and Union Station, and then the Lakeshore GO tracks to Main Street station on the Danforth. A combination of an airport express that only stopped at those five stops with a local service that stopped at local stations along the line would be much better than either of the options currently being studied, and would dramatically increase the line’s ridership.
A major problem with the airport express as currently imagined is that as a premium service priced at a rumoured $25 per trip, it would likely attract only a small number of business travellers from the downtown core to the airport. It would do nothing for the thousands of people who work in and around the airport, or for other commuters along the corridor. It seems highly unlikely that it would attract a significant ridership. Service along this corridor should be integrated into the TTC network with a regular fare, with perhaps a slightly higher fare to go to the airport as on the Canada Line in Vancouver.
The main problem with building the relief line as a subway is that it would be very expensive, and is unlikely to be operational within the next decade or even two. The proposed alignment along Wellington or Adelaide through the core would be of limited value in providing service to the Port Lands, Harbourfront, City Place or Liberty Village where massive population growth is now occurring. And it would not provide the link to the airport.
A combined express/local DRL-Pearson line would provide a fast express service to the airport from the whole central area, including the eastern part of the city, with a local service along a corridor that includes much of the most rapidly growing areas of the Port Lands and central city as well as huge development opportunities along the corridor from Dundas West to the airport. With fast access to the city centre and the airport, a subway-quality transit service along this corridor would create an attractive location for both office and housing development. Crucially, with the region’s two major employment nodes served by the line, it could be expected to attract a significant number of commuter trips. Local stations between Union and Pearson would provide huge opportunities for transit-oriented development.
Finally, this approach can be carried out in stages. The first stage would be to complete the express line from Pearson to Weston, Dundas West, Union Station and Main St. Station. Ideally, this would be electrified from the start, although it may already be too late if it is to be in service for the Pan Am Games as promised. The second stage would be to create the local service. This would not need to be the whole line all at once, but could be done in stages, for example from Union Station to Dundas West Station initially. Logical future extensions of the line would then be to Brampton going west, and in the east from Main St. Station to Kennedy, Agincourt and Markham along the existing GO alignment, as proposed by Markham Councilor Jim Jones last year.
Electrification along this corridor would eliminate the significant pollution burdens that the proposed diesel service would create, and would make the proposed noise barriers along the line unnecessary. But even more important, it would allow a combination of fast express services with cost-effective local services equivalent to subways in frequency and capacity. This is a model of public transit well suited to providing a high level of transit service to the whole of the Toronto region, and the corridor from Union Station to Pearson Airport is the ideal place to start.
Andre Sorensen is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Human Geography at the University of Toronto Cities Centre, University of Toronto Scarborough.