Ontario’s passengers have much to celebrate & anticipate

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Last week I attended the American Public Transportation Association’s annual Rail Conference, which is held in a different North American city each year. The setting of this year’s conference in Toronto was appropriate, as Ontario is a hotbed of propitious activity in passenger train and rail transit development. 

A Bombardier Flexity Outlook streetcar on TTC's 501 Queen line traverses lively Queen Street West in downtown Toronto on June 24, 2019. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
First, rail transit continues to grow and thrive in greater Toronto. North America’s largest legacy streetcar system continues to be well-loved and well-used by residents and visitors, serving as a central piece of the bustling city’s mobility ecosystem. The re-equipping of the system with Bombardier Flexity Outlook 98-foot low-floor streetcars, each of which can accommodate up to 250 passengers, is nearly complete. Transforming the center-city portion of King Street into a Transit Priority Corridor has smoothed the operation of the system’s busiest streetcar line, especially at rush hours.

Metrolinx, the regional transit planning and operating agency, is growing and modernizing its already extensive service network with a 25-year, $50-billion CAD investment dubbed ‘The Big Move.’ In addition to implementing Regional Express Rail, which will transition most GO Train lines from peak direction-focused commuter rail into all-day, bidirectional regional rail, Metrolinx is also in the process of building three new light rail lines in Toronto’s outer neighborhoods, each connecting to the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway. Two of the three lines are under construction — one is set to open in 2021 and the other in 2023. Metrolinx will own these lines but the TTC will operate them, also using Bombardier vehicles. The current Scarborough RT heavy rail line is also being replaced with light rail.

A Waterloo-bound ION light rail train pulls up to the Kitchener City Hall station on June 24, 2019.
62 rail miles west of Toronto (57.5 miles as the crow flies), North America’s newest light rail line — part of ION, a public-private partnership concession overseen by Grand River Transit, with Keolis as the operator — opened on June 21. The 12-mile line connects Kitchener and Waterloo, running in the streets through both downtowns then occupying a dedicated right of way on the outer segments, terminating at large suburban shopping malls on both ends. Part of the Waterloo end of the light rail line is shared with Goderich-Exeter Railway (a Genesee & Wyoming outfit) freight trains, operating between 1:00 and 5:00 A.M. under temporal separation, using gauntlet tracks to clear the raised light rail platforms. 

Four days after opening, taking a brief hiatus from the Rail Conference, I traveled out from Toronto for the afternoon to join the still sizable crowds taking their first ride on the new system, which also uses Bombardier light rail vehicles. The ride was smooth and the modern signal system (well coordinated with traffic signals) and grade crossing warning devices all worked as intended. An end-to-end trip takes about 45 minutes, with trains going no faster than 30 mph, even on dedicated segments. 

VIA Rail Canada train 85, a mid-day 2-coach consist bound for London from Toronto, pauses at Kitchener station on-time on June 24, 2019.
My trip out to Kitchener on one of two daily VIA Rail trains in each direction using CN’s “back way” between Toronto and London (once the route of the joint VIA-Amtrak Toronto-Chicago International) took 95 minutes, while my return trip using an express GO Transit bus to connect with a GO train at Bramalea station took about two hours. My VIA train 85 was a two-coach consist behind an F40PH locomotive. Both coaches predated VIA — one came from the Southern Railway and the other came from the original CP Canadian fleet.

Speaking of VIA, Canada’s national rail passenger carrier is making strides in modernizing equipment and infrastructure that Amtrak may do well to emulate. In addition to placing an order with Siemens for 32 trainsets (similar to the ones currently operated by Brightline/Virgin Trains USA in Florida) to begin augmenting the Windsor-Quebec City Corridor fleet in 2022, VIA also won a significant victory to advance its plan to build a new high-performance passenger-only rail line between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. The Canada Infrastructure Bank’s decision last week to spend $71 million CAD to begin engineering and economic analysis on the project, while remaining open to helping fund its construction provided that the analysis returns favorable results, gives VIA confidence that it can attract private investment to help the government-owned corporation complete the project. 

Keep in mind that the proposed line is not world-class high-speed rail — it would be a conventional line allowing conventional equipment to operate at up to 110 mph with numerous grade crossings. Nevertheless, it would cut travel times by up to one third less than current schedules and offer much greater reliability by not being shared with freight. This milestone, along with Virgin Trains USA’s expansion to Orlando proceeding apace, proves that modern passenger rail projects in North America don’t have to be grade-separated bullet trains or use some flashy new technology like maglev or hyperloop in order to attract private-sector participation and deliver tremendous utility to the traveling public and to local and regional economies. 

If VIA can overcome the hurdles of political will and resistance on the part of its host railroad Canadian National, and if its urban regions continue to develop and modernize rail transit, Ontario’ populous southeast and southwest regions would be well-positioned to continue providing a high quality of life to their growing populations as energy and other resources inevitably become scarcer with climate change and growing global demand. Many locales stateside could learn from this success. At the same time, unmet travel needs in Ontario's more sparsely populated north and west, where a great deal of passenger train and intercity bus service has been lost in the last three decades, should not be overlooked.

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