Canada Intercity Rail Politics

The future… never!


High speed rail: it’s an idea that has been talked about in Canada since the 1960s. But sadly, in 2016, we’re still just talking about it.

I’m a big fan of passenger rail. I’ve rode on most of VIA’s network, from coast to coast, as well as several long distance Amtrak lines in the United States, as well as trains in Britain, Continential Europe, and China. I enjoyed riding high speed rail (HSR) trains between London, Paris, and Amsterdam, but I also appreciate a leisurely cross-country ride. In Canada, the train isn’t very fast, nor is it very reliable, but it’s a comfortable, peaceful, and social way to travel. It’s still my favourite way to travel to Ottawa or Montreal.

Passenger rail — excepting commuter services such as GO Transit — declined in this country in the last 40 years, in terms of ridership, speed, and reliability. There are thousands of kilometres of track in Canada that hosted passenger trains only a few decades ago that are now torn up, the land sold off or turned into rail trails. In 1989, there were five trains a day in each direction through Kitchener and Stratford. Today, there are just two.

In 1976, a year before VIA Rail Canada was formally established, the fastest trains between Toronto and Montreal, (CN Trains 66 and 67, the famous Turbo,) were scheduled to take 4 hours and 10 minutes, stopping only at Guildwood and Dorval.

Today, the fastest train between Canada’s two largest cities, Train 68 from Toronto, takes 4 hours and 42 minutes, if it’s running on time. (It didn’t on Wednesday, March 23, arriving 41 minutes late into Montreal.) And there are only six direct trains in each direction between the two cities.

VIA Train 68 Status - March 23 2016
Delays, despite longer scheduled travel times, are common on the Corridor

While commuter rail services are expanding in Toronto and Montreal, passenger service has not. Since being formed in 1977, VIA Rail suffered through several major cutbacks in 1981 and 1990, and minor cuts in 2004 and 2012; but VIA held on despite the neglect – – or complete disdain — of both Liberal and Conservative governments. Ridership fell, not because people didn’t like riding trains, but because governments didn’t want to fund rail services, nor did freight railways like hosting them. Roads were seen as investment; passenger rail an expense.

Toronto Transit

On transit ridership in the GTHA

Earlier this week, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) released its agenda for the next board meeting, to be held on March 23. Among the items to be discussed are updates on the delayed Line 1 subway extension to York University and Vaughan, plans for the Line 2 subway extension to Scarborough Centre, the new MiWay/GO Transit terminal at Kipling Station, the planned new 514 Cherry streetcar line and other Waterfront bus improvements, and a ridership update.

As always, Steve Munro is on top of it all, and I encourage you to read his post.

I wanted to make a few observations about ridership, especially in Toronto’s suburbs. Growth in the TTC’s ridership has slowed down in the last three years, from a 2.1% annual increase in 2013, to a much more modest 0.5% increase in 2015.

Ridership figures are not detailed enough to know at what times of the day ridership is changing, nor on what routes. But ridership growth has fallen (or even declined) for other major Canadian transit systems, including Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa. There are many causes for changes to ridership — population and employment growth or decline, fare increases, service improvements or cuts, even the cost of gas, which has been declining in the last two years. Much of the employment growth within the City of Toronto has been in the downtown core, but so has the population growth due to new residential highrises. (I’m one of thousands who live and work in or near the downtown core — my TTC use is now mostly during the evenings and weekends as I mostly walk to work).

Hopefully, the Commission and the city don’t use this short-term trend as  an excuse to hold back on needed service improvements or projects such as the Relief Line — for one thing, many buses, streetcars and subway trains are already overcapacity, and it is impossible to know whether slower ridership increases represent a long-term trend, or a short-term blip.

There was one table in the TTC ridership update that caught my attention. The table, on page 5, shows the ridership for every Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area transit system (though excluding Milton Transit). I reproduced that table below.


GTHA transit agency annual growth rates, 2013 to 2015. Adapted from TTC 2016 Ridership Update, page 5.

While the TTC’s ridership growth has slowed, ridership in many suburban municipalities have either flatlined or declined. Only Mississauga and Brampton show consistent, positive growth over the last three years. MiWay, previously known as Mississauga Transit, hasn’t expanded transit operations that much in the last few years, but that city continues to enjoy modest employment growth and improved connections to the airport, Brampton Transit and the TTC. It is currently building a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line, the Mississauga Transitway (more on that in a later post), and city council is backing the Hurontario LRT line, which would largely replace bus service on its busiest corridor.

Brampton’s growth has been, by far, the most impressive. That suburban municipality is growing thanks mostly due to new sprawling subdivisions, but since in the last decade, Brampton Transit has been introducing annual system improvements, including the Zum “BRT-lite” network of limited-stop bus routes. Brampton’s ridership is now almost that of the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR). Unlike Hamilton, Brampton doesn’t have two major post-secondary educational institutions, nor a dense urban core, though it serves Humber College, York University, and two secondary Sheridan College campuses in Brampton and Misssissauga.

In Hamilton, ridership dropped by 1.8% in 2015. Most ridership in Hamilton is concentrated in the lower city, as well as a few trip generators in the suburbs, including Mohawk Collage on the Mountain, and Lime Ridge Mall. Many parts of the lower city have been hit hard by job losses in that city’s major industries, though new subdivisions (and, to a lesser extent, downtown gentrificaton) have contributed to modest population growth. Hamilton is going ahead with a provincially-funded east-west light rail line that will connect McMaster University, Downtown Hamilton, and the east end.

Elsewhere, transit ridership growth has been quite disappointing. Burlington Transit saw a drastic 13.3% decline over the last three years, Durham Region, which I recently visited, saw a major decrease in 2015. However, there is lots of promise in its five-year service strategies, which will improve and simplify the agency’s route structure and provide enhanced service.

2015 Ridership
2015 ridership for GTHA transit agencies (Milton excluded). The TTC, with narly 75% of the region’s ridership total, dominates. GO Transit holds another 9%. 

York Region Transit, serving a population of 1.2 million, has only 1 million annual riders more than Brampton, whose population is nearly half of York’s. And despite adding new subdivisions (and a few new residential towers), ridership declined in the last two years. As illustrated in the table below, YRT’s ridership per capita is less than half of Hamilton’s or Mississauga’s.

YRT Ridership StatsComparing York Region Transit to other Canadian transit systems, 2013. From the VRT/Viva 5 year service plan, page 7. 

It’s interesting that despite poor transit ridership (amid York Region Council-mandated service cuts and steep fare hikes) York Region, with senior government assistance, is spending $1.4 billion on dedicated median busways on Highway 7, Yonge Street and Davis Drive. York Region will get the Spadina subway extension in 2017, and it pines for an extension of the over-burdened Yonge Subway to Richmond Hill Centre.

In York Region, there’s a troubling disconnect between spending money on capital projects and funding the services that will use the shiny new infrastructure, or feed ridership to it. Brampton has proven that growing service, not necessarily fancy infrastructure, will grow ridership. That said, it remains disappointing that the suburban municipality with the best record for ridership growth in the Toronto region rejected a funded light rail transit line to its downtown core.

Maps Toronto Walking

Where the sidewalk ends in Toronto (Updated)

McNicoll Avenue at Boxdene Avenue. There’s no sidewalk on the south side of this busy Scarborough road.

Update: I posted a revised and updated version of the map and article on Spacing Toronto. There, I mention a new absurdity in the war on sidewalks: on Glen Scarlett Road, near the old Stockyards in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, the city is proposing  a new sidewalk for 2016 as part of a road reconstruction project.

The local councillor, Frances Nunziata, is siding with local industry in opposing a sidewalk. Local industries — including slaughterhouses and warehouses — oppose a sidewalk as it would cross their loading docks; Nunziata’s office claims that since the street “is unsafe for pedestrians to be walking on due to heavy traffic, [the City] should not be encouraging pedestrians to use this road by installing a sidewalk.”

This logic is completely counter-intuitive. It ignores the needs of workers walking to work, and local residents walking to the streetcar loop at St. Clair Avenue and Gunns Road, or to nearby shopping and residential areas.


There was a very interesting interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Tuesday, February 16). Host Matt Galloway spoke with Fiona Chapman, the City of Toronto’s manager of pedestrian projects, on missing sidewalks. Nearly one-quarter of all local streets in Toronto don’t have a sidewalk; many more only have a sidewalk on one side of the street. Chapman was discussing a presentation to the City’s Disability, Access, Inclusion and Advisory Committee on staff recommendations that would seek to fix this problem.

CityData - SidewalksStatic map showing the City of Toronto’s sidewalk inventory as of 2011.

Most local streets that don’t have sidewalks are found outside the old Cities of Toronto, East York and York, particularly in parts of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough built in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of these residential and industrial streets were built with ditches instead of storm drains; others were laid out without sidewalks in mind. In the master-planned Don Mills development, there are many walkways connecting parks, major roads, and schools; it was likely intended that these would be used for getting around on foot rather than sidewalks. In other post-war subdivisions, particularly affluent areas like those in central Etobicoke, it was probably assumed that everyone would get around by car.

The City of Toronto is hoping to change this. As roads come up for reconstruction, the new policy, recommended by staff, is to install a sidewalk where there isn’t one already, even despite local opposition. The current policy, in place since 2002, is that a new sidewalk could only be installed on an existing local street after the local councillor completed a consult of the neighbourhood and there was a consensus supporting the installation.

In Toronto, the installation of new sidewalks has been surprisingly controversial. But the city’s presentation lists some of the reasons why sidewalks are often opposed. Sidewalks have to be cleared by the adjoining landowner. Residents can’t park their cars in the driveway if they block the sidewalk. They might result in the removal of landscaping or trees. And there is a minority who just want to keep outsiders out of their neighbourhoods. You could call this NIMBY-ism, even though sidewalks are technically is in the front yards, not the backyards, of local opponents.

Sidewalks provide safe, accessible routes for pedestrians, especially important for people using strollers or mobility devices. They promote the city’s initiatives encouraging children to walk to school, for all persons to engage in physical activity, and for seniors to age at home. City policy, including the Toronto Pedestrian Charter, supports sidewalks.

On Chine Drive, in an affluent part of Scarborough near the Bluffs, local residents opposed the construction of a sidewalk, even though it would provide a safe path to a nearby school. Since 2004, some residents opposed the sidewalk, claiming that they were afraid it would “take away from the rustic look of the neighbourhood.” Supporters, including parents with young children, wanted a safe route to the local school. It took ten years, but in 2014, the sidewalk was installed.

Last year, on nearby Midland Avenue South, there was a similar fight to keep sidewalks off of that street. This is despite the fact this section of Midland Avenue is designated as a collector road, and is part of the Waterfront Trail’s route in the Scarborough Bluffs area. The city owns the land, known as a boulevard, where the sidewalks would go, but without the consent of local homeowners, the city was left in a bind. This new city policy will hopefully solve this problem.

Below, I created an interactive map of the City of Toronto’s sidewalk inventory, created with data from the City of Toronto’s Open Data Initiative. It shows each public street in the city of Toronto (excluding private roads and laneways), as of 2011. I made a few edits, such as including the new Chine Drive sidewalk, and correcting a few errors that I was aware of.

Almost every arterial and collector road in Toronto has a sidewalk on at least one side of the street. Exceptions include Highway 27 and Black Creek Drive, where, like expressways, pedestrians and cyclists are prohibited, the Bayview Drive Extension though the Don Valley, and in the far northeastern part of Scarborough, in Rouge Park. But it’s the local streets, marked in orange and red that are most apparent.

Providing safe, accessible, and consistent pedestrian infrastructure is simply the right thing to do. The city owns the land on which sidewalks can be put down, if they aren’t already. There are legitimate concerns that need to be taken into account when new sidewalks are proposed — trees and landscaping especially — but at the end of the day, the needs of vulnerable road users need to be addressed first and foremost.

Toronto Transit

Tunnel Vision: A History of Toronto’s Subway


If you haven’t yet had a chance to go, you should be sure to visit the Market Gallery at St. Lawrence Market. The current exhibition, called Tunnel Vision: The Story of Toronto’s Subway, is a fascinating collection of maps, photographs, memorabilia, and drawings illustrating over a century of subway plans and operations in Toronto. Dominating the gallery, which was the City of Toronto Council Chambers in the 19th century, is the front of an H-4 subway car; visitors are encouraged to take selfies with it.

While Canada’s first subway opened in 1954, there were serious subway proposals that date back to 1910. Interestingly, many of these early subway maps feature a line that looks very similar to the (Downtown) Relief Line.

I wrote more about this exhibition, which continues until June 11, 2016, in Torontoist


Welcome to Toronto, we guess

Welcome sign when entering the City of Toronto

Last weekend, I was out exploring the Toronto-Mississauga border. I have a few thoughts about suburban transit projects like the Mississauga Transitway and as I have time, I’ll post those here.

But where Eglinton Avenue crosses Etobicoke Creek, motorists (and the few brave cyclists and pedestrians), are greeted with a sign that said, simply, “Welcome to TORONTO” and underneath, “Ontario’s Capital.”

Yes, Toronto is the capital of Ontario; that’s what they teach childen in Grade 2, along with the other provincial and territorial capitals of Canada. But surely, a city of three million people that’s known for its talent, creativity, and diversity can come up with something better than this uninspired sign, which is found at many, if not most, entrance points to the city. The welcome sign would even better off without the “Ontario’s Capital” tab.

But while I was walking on the Etobicoke Creek bridge — a hostile environment as any for a humble pedestrian — I noticed this plaque, marking the border between the City of Mississauga and what was then the City of Etobicoke. The bridge was built in 1978, but is being widened to support a new bus rapid transit project. This section of Eglinton is built for cars, but it is only as a pedestrian that you can spot this sort of detail.


In 1978, Etobicoke’s motto was simply “Tradition and Progress” while Mississauga’s crest didn’t sport a motto. Today, signs welcoming you to Mississauga say “Leading today for tomorrow, a rather boastful, yet meaningless slogan.

Brampton Transit

Digging a hole on Main Street

Fullscreen capture 29022016 113646 PM

Most people that know me know that I’m a fan of The Simpsons. There’s a scene at the end of a classic episode, entitled “Homer the Vigilante,” where several characters, including Homer Simpson, Otto Mann, Mayor Quimby, and Police Chief Wiggum are stuck in a hole, looking for a non-existent buried treasure.

The final few minutes of the episode are a spoof of the 1963 comedy epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: a cat burglar tricks the people of Springfield into seeking his buried treasure while he escapes from the police lockup. A briefcase found quickly when digging under a “Big T” says as much, but a few determined souls decide to keep digging in the vain hope of finding that promised treasure. Finally, after digging for hours and finally realizing that there was no fortune to be found, the remaining excavators decide to dig their way out of the deep hole they find themselves in. As the final scene fades into the credits, Wiggum suggests they’re all doing it wrong, providing some nonsensical advice: “No, no. Dig up, stupid.”

On October 27, 2015, Brampton City Council decided, in a 5-4 decision, to terminate the provincially funded LRT line at Steeles Avenue. Council was pressured by local opposition from wealthy landowners on Main Street South and several downtown businesses. Construction on the shortened transit corridor is scheduled to begin in 2018.

After rejecting the recommended surface alignment, Council asked staff, which twice recommended the original surface route, to come back with alternative alignments. Late last week, staff released its report on the various options for extending the Hurontario LRT from Steeles Avenue (Shoppers World). That report, buried in a large PDF document, starts at page 238. The report will be brought to the Planning and Infrastructure Committee on Monday, March 7, and will likely presented at a special public meeting on Monday, April 18.

Yesterday, in Bramptonist, Divyesh Mistry summarized the report’s recommendations. Staff recommended  two tunnel options. Both potential tunnel alignments would extend from a portal between Elgin Drive and Nanwood Drive under Main Street to the GO Station, either with underground stations at Nanwood and Wellington Street (at Brampton City Hall and Gage Park), or running straight through without stops, but a new surface stop at Elgin Drive. The first option, with underground stations at Nanwood and Wellington, would cost $570 million; the second tunnel option would be cheaper, costing $410 million. The tunnel would have to clear the Etobicoke Creek bed, and each underground station would require stairways and elevators to provide access.

Staff recommended that council authorize $2.5 million for a new transit project assessment process (TPAP), including technical and design work, that would take two years to complete.

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Appendix B from the City of Brampton staff planning report, which outlines each LRT routing option’s consistency with city, regional, and provincial planning policies

Of course, cheapest and most obvious option, running the new light rail line on the surface between Nanwood Avenue and the Brampton GO Station, was “removed from further consideration per Council direction.” Various other alignments that would have seen the light rail line follow  McMurchy Avenue, McLaughlin Road, Etobicoke Creek and/or the Orangeville-Brampton Railway were rejected as they were found to be inconsistent with various planning policies, including the city and regional official plans and economic and transportation policies. The various other alignments would be less direct, follow active railways or floodplains, and move the LRT away from Main Street, but in the neighbourhoods of other, less wealthy residents.

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Appendix A: from the City of Brampton staff planning report, a map of alternative LRT alignments north of Steeles Avenue

If money weren’t an object, the first tunnel option, with stops at Nanwood and Wellington, would be a reasonable compromise. It maintains the linear alignment most suited to moving passengers, it gets the LRT to Downtown Brampton, the Queen Street corridor, and the GO/VIA station, and it placates the local NIMBYs worried about light rail trains operating on Main Street.

But the City of Brampton, when it rejected the alignment north of Steeles Avenue planned during a multi-year TPAP, threw away the $200 million the province was prepared to spend on that segment. If Brampton ends up deciding to extend the LRT, it’s already in a $200 million hole, unless it can convince Queen’s Park to give that money back. If it decides to build a tunnel, it will dig itself even deeper into that hole. The cheaper of the two tunnel options misses useful stops at Wellington and at Nanwood, where the Brampton Mall lands provide an excellent opportunity for urban intensification.

So I see three options going forward:

  • The status quo. Brampton City Council balks at the costs of each alternative alignment, and the Hurontario-Main LRT terminates at Shoppers World. Maybe in a few years, Brampton will realize its mistake, à la Mesa, Arizona, and approve and build the extension. I see this as the most likely outcome.
  • A return to the surface TPAP LRT alignment. Brampton City Council, once again faced with a staff report advocating the direct Main Street alignment, balks at the cost of the tunnel, and decides to reverse position, even begging Queen’s Park to provide funding. Will a dysfunctional Brampton City Council come to this decision? Possible, but unlikely.
  • A go-ahead for a tunnel. With the recent election of a new Liberal government committed to building infrastructure, there’s a slight chance that Brampton would find enough support from upper levels of government for partial funding for a $410-570 million tunnel into Downtown Brampton. But it will be up against many competing bids for transit funding. London, Ontario has a plan for a rapid transit system. Ottawa is ready to start building Phase II of the Confederation Line LRT. And, of course, Toronto has several plans for new subways and LRT lines. Will Brampton be willing to go it alone?

As Lisa Stokes points out, Brampton already has a $1.5 billion infrastructure gap, and there are many other projects that the city needs in the short to medium term, such as a second full-service hospital campus, a central library, a permanent market space, or simply repairing the roads, parks, and recreation centres in dire need of attention.

So because of its rejection of a financially and technically sound surface routing last October, the City of Brampton will likely go through a new round of project assessments. It will also have to go begging for money to build their preferred alternative. Without even starting construction, City Council dug a pretty deep hole for itself. Can it dig itself out?