As journalist Rick McGinnis recently pointed out, Toronto’s local railways are an asset waiting to be put to use.
Unless you’re a regular reader of t.o.night (and I admit I am not—Derek Flack on Twitter steered me right on this one), you likely missed Rick McGinnis’ great piece from last Friday, “Dreaming of Riding the T.O. Rails.” (To read it, you need to scroll down in this weird pdf thing to pages 8-9.) He suggests that a big part of the solution to Toronto’s rapid transit woes would be to revive the city railroad—reopen a bunch of old local train stations along the existing heavy rail network on which GO and VIA and freight trains now operate, and maybe build an LRT line to serve those stations.
After coming up with his big idea, he found Greg Gormick, who wrote a piece advocating this for the Star in May:
Toronto possesses the rail corridors—many now owned by GO—to create an urban railway cheaper and faster than is possible with subways. It would mesh snugly with any new TTC lines that may get built, making direct connections with these and existing subway, streetcar and bus routes. Furthermore, its construction won’t snarl up great swaths of the city because the rail corridors are independent of the street grid.
Frankly, this is a brilliant idea. I had been toying with similar ideas—tossing around the suggestion of building an elevated train line above the rail tracks or a bike superhighway system beside them. And in a piece I wrote for Eye Weekly in 2004, I suggested running subway-style service on the GO lines. But I think this is just better all around. The best thing about using the existing rail network as a inner-city rapid transit system is that they already exist, and are well positioned to serve a lot of our needs. Have a look at this map of existing rail lines in Toronto as of 1954:
Image from www.trainweb.org.
Now, picture that as a series of subway lines—or high-speed LRT if you want, which just means cheaper, above-ground subways—hooked up to the existing TTC newtwork. You’ve got service out to Liberty Village, North Scarborough, The Junction (hooray!), The Beach… this would alleviate the need for a downtown relief line, and pretty much any other lines. (The only things you’d really want or need in addition to that would be some midtown or north crosstown lines, say on Eglinton and Sheppard or Finch which, as it turns out, we’re already planning to build.)
The best thing about this is that it’s already there. No tunnels need to be dug, no roads need to be torn up, no traffic needs to be blocked. The bridges over roads and the road underpasses under tracks already exist. I’m not sure exactly what amount of money in savings this represents versus other options like building subways or monorails or streetcars, but I think it has to be massive. The big construction project here is to build stations in every neighbourhood in the city.
Of course, you’d also need to get trains—LRTs or whatever—running in those corridors serving those new stations at 10 minute-intervals all day. This would likely require, according to my admittedly vague understanding of how these things work, electrifying the lines (an environmental good) and/or installing new lighter-rail track in the corridors. This is no doubt a big job. But it is, I am confident in claiming, a breeze compared to tunnelling subway lines.
How can we not be doing this?
According to McGinnis, it’s almost purely a matter of jurisdictional wrangling. Metrolinx and GO, who own much of the network, have a different mandate than the TTC, to enable travel in and out of the city rather than within it, and so they think it’s not worth doing. McGinnis calls bullshit. Me too. Other lines are, I take it, owned by CN and CP, and using them or the land would require a lot of political will and arm wrestling (although I admit I may be confused about the ownership/use situation). But how can we not conjure the will to put this underused asset to work for us?
Incidentally, GO is planning to introduce more frequent, all-day service on their lines, which is halfway good. But they aren’t opening up new stations or electrifying the lines in ways that would make this a truly Toronto—rather than regional—transit network. It just isn’t the same thing.
To her credit, TTC chair Karen Stintz was open to hearing McGinnis out. “Karen Stintz won’t tell me it’s a lousy idea,” says McGinnis. That’s a start. But she wasn’t ready to champion the cause either, saying she was too busy with existing projects, and it would need leadership from the province.
But this is too good not to be at least a big part of our discussion, now that we’re back in the what-should-we-do phase of things again, talking about Ford’s private subways or reviving Transit City and all of that. If a mayoral candidate in 2014 puts that map up as their transit strategy, I guarantee they get attention.
UPDATE: Steve Munro, a Toronto transit advocate and expert who, it is often said (with good reason), may know more about transit in Toronto than anyone else, posted some thoughts in the comments below that I wanted to draw attention to. He offers some necessary perspective and provisos when and if we start discussing this as more than a blue-sky vision and develop it into more of a plan:
Important points for people who are just picking up this idea.
First: The map above is old and includes many lines that no longer exist. Be careful if you make a proposal to check that the right-of-way still has track on it, not buildings or a bike path.
Second: Metrolinx’ Big Move plan did include some new GO services on routes that now only have freight traffic. The most important of these is the CPR line through Agincourt to Durham Region. However, this is CPR’s main line across Toronto, and adding frequent GO service to it will not be easy. This line is not now, and is unlikely to be soon in GO’s hands.
Third: There is a limit on how many trains can be operated through Union Station, although electrification would deal with some of these problems. This will be an essential part of changing the way the network operates.
I agree that the way we expect the “local” TTC service to move people from the outer corners of the city to downtown (Rexdale and Malvern) rather than using GO is really quite ridiculous. That said, the rail corridors will work for downtown-focussed traffic, and this is only one part of a larger regional transit problem.
Glad to see that the idea is getting some discussion.