Yesterday, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment ruled in favor of Toronto’s plans for expanded commuter rail operations on the Georgetown Corridor, which runs northwest from downtown’s Union Station. The project would significantly expand passenger rail capacity on the line and allow for direct connections to the airport, improving transit for the western side of the region. Project opponents, however, are concerned about the effects of diesel exhaust on their neighborhoods and continue to push for the use of electric trains on the line. The government ruling makes the hope for that more environmentally sensitive approach less likely.
Plans for the expansion of Toronto’s transit system are developing quickly, with a major subway and light rail program funded and underway. The region’s Metrolinx agency, which now runs the GO commuter rail system, has an ambitious project called The Big Move that would transform GO’s peak-only commuter lines into regional express corridors, with trains operating every few minutes in an out of Toronto city center.
The Georgetown South Service Expansion, which the Environment Minister approved for construction yesterday, is the first element of the region’s major commuter plans. Today, fifty trains a day operate along the line between Union Station and Georgetown, including 25 freight trains; any expansion is limited by the number of tracks along the line and the fact that passenger and freight services use the same right-of-way. The Metrolinx project would change the equation by adding 20 km of new track at a cost of C$1 billion; these improvements will eventually allow 400 trains a day to use the service. One major component of the project is a connection it will include with Toronto Pearson International Airport, which will get 140 reserved trains a day, to be operated by a private carrier. In addition, VIA Rail Canada may eventually use the corridor for up to 60 trains a day if intercity high-speed rail to Windsor ever becomes a reality.
Construction will begin next year, with service available by 2014.
This massive expansion will turn the Georgetown Corridor into something close to an all-out rapid transit line, with the notable difference being that its trains will operate entirely on diesel fuel rather than electricity. Unsurprisingly, this fact has raised the ire of the inhabitants of neighboring neighborhoods, who have incorporated into the Clean Train Coalition, which is fighting for full electric operation. The group argues that diesel exhaust is a harmful pollutant and that the adjacent citizenry would be put in an unhealthful situation with the sudden ramp-up of new service. Electric trains, they suggest, would produce no exhaust and provide lower operations and maintenance costs.
The approval of the Environment Minister is contingent on the implementation of Tier 4 diesel engine standards on Georgetown Corridor trains. Tier 4 was designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to significantly lower particulate emissions from vehicles, and indeed, compared to today’s locomotives, a new generation motor would produce far less exhaust. Though these engines do not yet exist, the technology will probably be readily available by opening day.
Yet Clean Train opponents argue that even Tier 4 emissions still aren’t low enough — a contention that is up for debate. After all, we allow heavily polluting cars and trucks to crowd our streets. New rail service would produce new pollutions, but on the other hand, it would get thousands of people out of their private vehicles, meaning that the overall pollution might be lower in the end game.
Even so, electrification remains ideal, both because of its lower long-term costs and because of its zero point-source emissions. Metrolinx is planning to design the Georgetown line so that electrification can be implemented at some later point, and the agency currently has a major electrification study underway for all of its lines. Toronto joins a number of other cities around the world considering how to convert diesel operations to electric, all interested in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of traction power.
The broader question for Toronto, though, is what the region wants to get out of its limited funds for its transportation system. Should it spend more on the Georgetown line to electrify it, or, as Metrolinx suggests, save the cash for other vitally needed improvements throughout the network? Is it fair to subject some neighborhoods to dramatically more diesel exhaust because of a vague promise that electricity will eventually be considered? Is the advantage of switching more people to transit so large that the case for spending more money on electric operations is overwhelmed?
Image above: Georgetown Corridor Commuter Rail Map, from Metrolinx