Intercity Rail Travels

Cuba’s Hershey Train: the last interurban railway


Last week, my partner-in-crime and I escaped to Cuba for a short vacation. Eschewing the all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, we decided to spend our time in Havana instead.

Havana is a fascinating place that’s worth exploring beyond the popular spots such as the picturesque Old City, Revolution Square, and the Cristóbal Colón Cemetery; like any great city, it is best explored by foot.

One of our highlights was getting an impromptu tour of the José Martí National Library of Cuba in Havana. The library, named for the Cuban national hero, is adjacent to Plaza de la Revolución. The Plaza also holds the seat of the Communist Government and is famous for the towering monument of Martí and the metal mural of Che Guevara.

We met a wonderful guide, who with great pride described the library’s programs, but also the effects of the 55-year American embargo on obtaining educational materials, up-to-date computers and access to the Internet and other digital resources. We were fortunate for experiences like that, where we met interesting people and learned a bit more about the country. These were experiences that tourists staying at beachside resorts, perhaps visiting Havana on a bus tour or to see a cabaret show, sadly miss.

But, being on vacation, we made sure to spend some time to relax and enjoy the hot — yet pleasantly non-humid — weather. So we decided to go to the beach for our last full day in Cuba. But instead of taking the tourist buses, we decided to hop on the Hershey Train, probably the last true interurban railway in the Americas.

Interurban railways once existed all over Canada and the United States. Electrically-powered trains linked towns and cities together, providing passenger and local freight services and filling a niche between urban streetcars and long-distance steam railways. Improved roads, and increased car and truck ownership resulted in the closure of just about every interurban railway in North America, the last to close in Canada was the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway in 1959. A few remnants of North America’s interurban lines survive as modernized commuter services, such as the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. But Cuba’s Hershey Train still looks, and operates, like the electric railways that once crisscrossed much of southwestern Ontario and the eastern United States.

Transit Urban Planning

Missed opportunities on the Mississauga Transitway

IMG_0343-001Route 107 Malton Express bus on the Mississauga Transitway at Tomken Station

After riding the UP Express back in March, the inspiration for a post on a proposed transit hub at Toronto Pearson International Airport, I went for a ride on the Mississauga Transitway.

I first rode the Mississauga Transitway on a snowy Monday, November 17, 2014, the day it opened. At the time, only four stations were opened — Central Parkway, Cawthra, Tomken, and Dixie. On my first visit, I was unimpressed. But I decided to give it another try after the two new stations opened, on a Saturday, when I had plenty of time to check out the service, the new stations, and the environs.

I have many thoughts and criticisms about this new piece of transit infrastructure, which will cost the City of Mississauga and Metrolinx a combined $528 million.

mississauga_transitway_map_en-670x340Map of Mississauga Transitway, taken from the GO Transit website

What is the Mississauga Transitway?

The Mississauga Transitway is a bus rapid transit (BRT) project. BRT is a term used in the transit industry to describe everything from limited-stop conventional buses, perhaps with some perks like all-door boarding and queue-jump lanes sometimes called BRT-lite (Brampton Zum is a good example), to fully grade-separated, high speed bus corridors that operate like metro lines (the Ottawa Transitway and Bogota’s TransMillenio system are good examples). Other busways in Canada include the Ottawa Transitway, to be partially replaced by light rail transit, the Gatineau Rapibus corridor, York Region’s Viva Rapidways, and Winnipeg’s RT corridor.

The Mississauga Transitway is a true BRT system, but it has several major weaknesses.

Brampton Transit Urban Planning

GO Transit and the high cost of “free” parking, Part II: Brampton Boogaloo


GO and VIA Trains meet at Brampton Station

September 20, 2016 update: Metrolinx has begun the process of demolishing its newly-acquired Downtown Brampton properties. It has applied for a demolition permit for 28A and 28B Nelson Street West, two semi-detached dwellings that were built in 2001. In the  City of Brampton, demolition permits for residential properties must be approved by the Planning & Infrastructure Services Committee. The permit will likely be approved at the September 26, 2016 meeting of that committee.

On April 5, 2016, Peter Criscione at the Brampton Guardian reported on a matter that arose during the regular meeting of the City of Brampton Planning & Infrastructure Services Committee on April 4. Metrolinx, the regional transit authority that operates GO Transit and UP Express, confirmed the purchase of 1.78 acres in Downtown Brampton, land that will be used for surface parking.

Brampton Station, served by GO Transit and VIA trains, is located in Downtown Brampton, and is adjacent to Brampton Transit’s downtown transit terminal. With local shopping, restaurants, residential areas and employment, it is one of the most walkable stations in GO Transit’s system; it has a Walk Score of 90. (Bramalea GO Station, in comparison, has a Walk Score of 22.) The options of getting to Brampton Station without a car are quite good, at least as far as most GO stations go.

But Brampton Station’s two lots are full, and there are planned service improvements to Brampton, including eventual hourly evening and weekend rail service. Not everyone can be expected to take transit, walk, or get a ride to the station. But I find this land assembly troubling.

According to Criscione, and noted in the minutes of the April 4 meeting [page 25-26], the properties purchased by Metrolinx include:

  • 20 Nelson Street West
  • 37 George Street North
  • 41 George Street North
  • 26 Nelson Street West
  • 3 Railroad Street (includes 3 separate parcels)
  • 28A Nelson Street West
  • 28B Nelson Street West
  • 30 Nelson Street West
  • 42 Elizabeth Street North

The planning committee asked staff to contact Metrolinx and report on the status of its recent and pending purchases of downtown lands. It also invited Metrolinx to work with city staff and officials, as well as present their plans at a future meeting.

The purchase of downtown lands for a parking lot is troubling, in my opinion. Downtown Brampton is a designated “anchor hub” — a major mobility hub where two or more rapid transit lines meet where transit-oriented development and intensification is encouraged. At no point do I see new surface parking lots are part of this vision, especially if buildings must be vacated and demolished to do so. And Downtown Brampton, not yet experiencing a building boom, has plenty of parking lots and garages that could be employed instead.

The embedded Google Map below shows where these properties are located, immediately south of Brampton Station, and west of the Brampton Transit downtown terminal.


On Friday, April 8, I visited Downtown Brampton to have a look at the properties in question.

Maps Transit Urban Planning Walking

Mapping Major League Baseball’s stadiums by walkablity, transit access


What major league ballpark is the easiest to get to by public transit? Which stadium has the highest walk score? And where does the phrase “take me out to the ball game” absolutely require getting in a car and fighting traffic to do so?

Over at Torontoist, I explore these questions in more detail. I created a map of all thirty major league stadiums (and the 2017 home of the Atlanta Braves). About half the stadiums are located in downtown areas or urban neighbourhoods, close to transit stations, bars, restaurants, and shopping; the other half are generally surrounded by parking lots.

SkyDome isn’t a great ballpark, especially when the dome is closed, but in these rankings, it does really well.

Toronto Transit

The many challenges of creating a transit hub at Pearson Airport

Sign in Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport. Whether we realize it or not, Pearson Airport is already a transit hub. 

Updated April 7, 2016

Lester B. Pearson International Airport is Canada’s busiest airport, handling 41 million passengers a year. It is not the busiest transportation hub in the Greater Toronto Area, though; Union Station is considerably busier (GO Transit alone handles 64.4 million passengers a year at Canada’s busiest station).

Pearson Airport is located almost entirely within the City of Mississauga, but the terminals are less than a kilometre away fromthe City of Toronto’s western boundary; due to the location of the airport terminals, most passengers reaching the airport by road, or transit pass through the City of Toronto to get to it.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), the not-for-profit agency that operates Canada’s busiest airport, has expressed interest in creating a transit hub and guiding transit-oriented development around it. It’s an interesting idea, and some of the facts are compelling.

There are approximately 300,000 jobs located at and near Pearson Airport. The airport itself hosts 40,000 employees that work for the airport authority and its contractors and tenants, including retailers, airlines, and allied services. The remaining 250,000 jobs are located in office parks and industrial areas that surround the airport, in the cities of Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton, a very large area that extends north into Bramalea, west of Hurontario Street and south to Highway 403.

You can read the GTAA’s report, written by the prestigious planning firm Urban Strategies Inc., and named Pearson Connects: A Multi-Modal Platform for Prosperity online as a PDF. The report claims that Pearson Airport and environs has more jobs, and more economic clout than any Canadian downtown, with the exception of Downtown Toronto. To a degree, this is true. But the size of the Airport Employment Zone, as the GTAA defines it, is much larger in size than any downtown, even Toronto’s; the jobs are mostly dispersed in warehouses, factories, and suburban office buildings difficult to reach by transit.

In fact, Pearson Airport and its surrounding area — all 25,600 hectares  (256 square kilometres) — has fewer than 25 employees per hectare, while Downtown Toronto, one-tenth the size, has nearly 200 employees per hectare (and a growing residential population as well). Igor Dragovic calculated these figures from a recent Neptis report. The low employment densities found in business parks and warehouse districts are only partly to blame; the airport itself, with five active runways and a large land buffer, contributes to this.


The GTAA wants to build an “airport-related multi-modal hub” that would tie together existing and planned rapid transit services, including the Kitchener RER Service, LRTs on Eglinton and Finch Avenues, the Mississauga Transitway BRT and a proposed Derry Road transit corridor.  It cites airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, and Hong Kong as examples to emulate.

GTAA ProposedThe GTAA’s proposal for a transit hub, taken from Page 7 of the report

The report also neglects to recognize that Pearson Airport is already a major transit hub; the problems lie in integrating the existing and proposed transit services together. And for an area the size of the GTAA’s Airport Employment Zone, that’s a very tall order.