Toronto’s Georgetown Corridor Moves Forward, but Opposition Mounts to Diesel Operation

Georgetown GO Corridor Project Map» Electrification of the line could provide a significant reprieve for surrounding communities concerned about pollution.

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

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Good questions.

    This project should be interesting to folks in the US because there aren’t many (any?) good examples of peak commuter rail services morphing into all-day frequent rapid transit — yet there are many that have at least the demographics of the Georgetown corridor. Caltrain south of San Francisco has perfect rapid-transit demographics — basically a long string of downtowns that grew up around the rail line — but its commuter rail history and institutions have tended to set what’s possible.

    If we continue to see an urgent demand for more transit now, politicians will have to look beyond the big-ticket items to things that can be thrown together in a year or two, Big frequency upgrades to existing commuter rail lines, at least where the tracks are available, may turn out to be an especially fruitful area of focus, even if they can’t always be electrified right away.

  • smably

    Steve Munro (a long-time transit advocate from Toronto) has been covering this issue in great detail on his transit blog.

    His latest post, regarding the supposed environmental benefits of diesel trains vs. automobiles, is particularly interesting: It seems that Metrolinx based their air pollution figures on every train carrying a full load of 1900 passengers, even outside peak hours. Even with the yet-nonexistent Tier 4 diesel locomotives, some types of air pollution could actually increase, per passenger, compared to the automobile baseline.

    As can be seen from some of his earlier posts on this topic, Metrolinx has a habit of manipulating figures to support its agenda which, in this case, seems to be against electrification.

  • Ignore fools

    More envirowhacko ridiculousness. Even at full bore 500 trains per day any pollution would be completely imperceptible off of railroad property and the health impacts non-existent. Not enough to accumulate to any kind of health threat, other than the mental anguish of fearing enviro monsters under their beds. Typical NIMBY’s and activists/awyers trolling for employment that have zero sense of scale. It is like complaining that a dozen grains of sand were added to the beach.

  • Ye olde proof by repeated assertion…

  • Cameron Slick

    While certain things, like particulate matter and SO2 could increase over the equivalent number of gasoline-powered automobiles, it’s unfathomable to believe that high-frequency commuter rail would result in more CO2 than the cars would. Furthermore, blends of biodiesel can reduce pollution in every factor, except nitrogen dioxide. Tri-Rail in Florida has now moved to B99, and I suspect that Toronto, because of the winters, could still pull a yearly average of B15.

  • Adirondacker12800

    Ontario gets roughly 80 % of it’s electricity from hydro and nuclear. How does that change the comparison?

  • Cameron Slick

    The capital cost of installing the electric catenary lines is less economically effective than running diesel trains. If the issue is the site pollution produced by the diesel exhaust, this issue can be diluted by running trains on biodiesel, which produces 90% of the energy volume at 22% CO2 emissions. Running trains in the summer with high blends of biodiesel takes care of the argument against pollution. Of course, the cost of running electric lines will pay for itself eventually, too, but this issue shouldn’t delay the commencement of service.

  • Rick Ciccarelli

    The economic benefit of installing electric caternary forToronto’s and Ontario’s economy is greater than diesel acquisitions.

    Electric more efficient and cost effective energy source. Fuel cost savings offset cost differences.

    Is Biodiesel available?

  • Green unicorns for Utopia!

    “The economic benefit of installing electric caternary forToronto’s and Ontario’s economy is greater than diesel acquisitions.

    Electric more efficient and cost effective energy source. Fuel cost savings offset cost differences.”

    Only after 40-60 years (depending on energy prices.) Sorry, but electrification has such high upfront investment costs that the break even point takes decades to reach. Those rosy reports from politicians claiming otherwise are padded by things like quantifying peace of mind and smugness.

  • Green unicorns for Utopia!

    I should clarify, that doesn’t mean that electrification is a bad idea or shouldn’t be done in this case.

  • Justin Bernard

    Tier 4 Locomotives don’t even exist yet. It makes no sense to build infrastructure for diesel, when you are going to be running near metro frequencies.
    I do not buy the argument that this service will get people out of their cars. That extra highway space will be quickly filled up again. Metrolinx is making a serious mistake by not electrifying now. No new transit service is worth it, if not done right the first time.

  • Only after 40-60 years (depending on energy prices.) Sorry, but electrification has such high upfront investment costs that the break even point takes decades to reach.

    Do you have a reference? What I’ve read is that on mainline rail (e.g. the NEC), electrification costs about $3 million per km, even when built to stringent high-speed rail specs.

  • girlfiddler

    I didn’t see an answer for Rick Ciccarelli’s question about whether bio-diesel is available. Is anyone else concerned about using a non-sustainable fuel (diesel) as the world reserves slowly run out?

  • Woody

    And here’s this from the Toronto Globe and Mail, via the UTU news site,

    http://www.utu.org/worksite/detail_news.cfm?ArticleID=49207

    “The Ontario government’s requirement for state-of-the-art clean diesel trains on the rail link between Toronto and Pearson airport will likely double the cost of locomotives, an industry expert told the Globe and Mail.

    “Diesel locomotive technology that can meet “Tier 4” emissions standards has yet to be invented. It is currently envisioned as an add-on to each engine that could cost as much or more than the locomotive itself when it’s brought to market in 2015, said David Brann, emissions compliance manager at Electro Motive Diesel.”

  • Biofuels require more energy to grow than they give off. They’re a scam perpetrated by farm interests.

  • DBX

    The stance against electrification of the airport line is extremely dubious. I had trouble finding recent figures for an electrification project cost — I think Alon’s NEC numbers are based on Amtrak’s 1996-1999 extension to Boston and are not inflation-adjusted — but there is one recent project I’m familiar with, in Scotland, and the numbers should be pretty startling to anyone who brushes off electric as too expensive.

    The route in question is a fourth line between Glasgow and Edinburgh, going through Airdrie, Drumgelloch, Bathgate and Livingston. The Drumgelloch-Bathgate stretch had its passenger services withdrawn in 1956 and freight withdrawn and the track pulled up in 1982. Meanwhile, Drumgelloch to Airdie was single-tracked, and the entire Drumgelloch-Glasgow stretch electrified. Passenger services were restored from Edinburgh to Bathgate in the 1980s, but using DMUs.

    The project, which will provide service every 15 minutes in both directions, involves double-tracking Aidrie-Drumgelloch, completely rebuilding Drumgelloch-Bathgate as double-track, and double-tracking Bathgate-Edinburgh. Additionally, new overhead electrification will be built, on the extra track for the couple of miles between Airdrie and Drumgelloch and then on both tracks, completely new, to where it joins existing electrification about three miles or so west of Edinburgh Waverly. That’s about 25 miles or so of completely new electrification on two tracks.

    Cost for the electrification? Just over £28 million. These are 2006 first quarter numbers from when the authorizing legislation was introduced (work commenced in ’07 once the bill received Royal Assent), so use whatever inflation multiplier you wish. This number does not include design and engineering, but if you simply allocate the project design and management costs evenly across all construction work — civil engineering, electrification, structures, stations, signaling, communications, depots, permanent way work — electrification picks up about another £9 million. (I’m taking the £28.06 m for electrification, dividing it into the total £176.09m construction cost, and multiplying by the £55.23m project design and management cost) So for electrification you end up at about £37 million out of a project that costs £254 million plus £46 million contingency. By any standard, that’s a very modest increase in cost for what will be massive savings down the road.

    As for the electric trains, compared to diesels, they’re lighter, causing less wear and tear on tracks; they accelerate faster, boosting timetables without the added cost in signaling and grade separations of going over 80mph; and they’re cheaper to maintain.

    The only significant added cost for a North American commuter operation compared to a British one is that, where tracks are shared by freight, catenary has to be higher to allow for double-stack clearances whereas the UK only runs single-stack freight. That means taller structures for catenary, as well as slightly higher equipment acquisition costs due to the need for high-reach pantagraphs on trains. But even at double the Drumgelloch-Edinburgh electrification cost, Toronto Union station to the airport — which is a shorter distance — should surely still be good value for money given the service frequencies they’re talking about. To say otherwise without running the numbers is purely FUD.

    You can read the full Promoter’s Memorandum to the Scottish Parliament here — this is the basis on which the Act of Parliament was passed.

    http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/bills/64-airdBathRail/b64s2-introd-pm.pdf

  • Nathanael

    *Repeated* studies dating back *decades* have concluded that GO should electrify the Lakeshore Line (east *and* west*).

    For some reason they still haven’t gotten around to it.

    This would allow for cheaper operations, moving more people, along what is already the densest, best-used corridor of the GO Transit system; and it doubles as part of the Windsor-Quebec High Speed Rail corridor, and in particular is a part of the corridor where new ROW is going to be effectively impossible, so HSR will simply mean electrifying the existing corridor.

    The urbanization and mode-shift benefits of this are greater than for any of the other proposed GO Transit projects, but it remains caught in study hell.

    Certainly the Georgetown line should be electrified, but if GO can’t manage to electrify the Lakeshore Line, how will they manage to electrify the Georgetown line?…

    • Matt Fisher

      I agree. The whole Quebec City-Windsor corridor should be electrified, and my annual train rides to Toronto (2008, 2009, and recently in 2010 – but four weeks ago, since I happened to be safe from the G20 protest violence that happened yesterday), where the train appeared to be full, proves my point. :)

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