GO Transit’s 404 Error?

IMG_8969-001GO Train at Gormley Station

Previously on this blog, I wrote about how new public institutions like hospitals and university campuses are built in isolated, auto-dependent areas without regard to provincial land use policies. In St. Catharines, a new modern hospital on the city’s western outskirts replaced two urban sites, despite available opportunities that would be more accessible to at-need populations. In Orillia, Lakehead University built its campus on the edge of that small city, far from other institutions or its charming downtown core. Similar decisions are being made for new hospitals and university campuses in Niagara Falls, Windsor, and Milton.

But Metrolinx and GO Transit, its regional transit subsidiary, often fail too to meet the provincial goals of intensification of urban centres and major transit nodes, containing urban sprawl, and promoting sustainable transportation. In Downtown Brampton, an anchor mobility hub, Metrolinx plans to build a new surface parking lot — demolishing several houses and two office buildings in the process — to satisfy commuters’ demands for free parking.

This failure is especially evident on the newly extended Richmond Hill Line, where one new station — Gormley — opened late last year, and another — Bloomington — is now under construction. Both stations do not support any evident land use policy (both are located on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine); they continue GO Transit’s heritage of building stations that serve car owners, but remain largely inaccessible to pedestrians, cyclists, or local transit users.

I recently took the train north to Gormley to inform my critique of GO Transit’s new stations. I came away even more disappointed than I had expected.


Locations of Richmond Hill, Gormley, and future Bloomington GO Transit stations

Gormley Station opened on December 5, 2016, and cost $22 million to build. The station boasts 850 parking spaces, a “kiss and ride” loop, a bike shelter, and two electric car plug-in stations.

Five peak-period trains every weekday morning depart from Gormley to Union Station, and five return in the afternoon. There are GO buses as well, connecting Gormley, Richmond Hill, and Langstaff Stations to Toronto Union, supplementing the train service, but operate on a limited peak-direction schedule, and only on weekdays.

The Richmond Hill line is unique among all seven GO Transit rail corridors not to offer all-day or weekend rail or bus service. Constrained by CN freight operations through Richmond Hill, and a winding, flood-prone route through Toronto’s Don Valley, the Richmond Hill line has less potential for growth than any other GO Transit corridor. (York Region politicians, with conditional support from the City of Toronto, are pushing for a Yonge Subway extension instead.)

IMG_8975-001Gormley Station’s parking lots are surrounded by farmlands. 

Gormley Station takes its name from the small settlement of Gormley, immediately to the south within walking distance of the station. Gormley has about thirty houses, a church, a few small businesses and a brickyard. Otherwise, the station’s adjoining land uses are agricultural, with exurban estate housing to the west, a cemetery, small industrial area to the east, on the other side of Highway 404. The area is completely auto-dependent.

IMG_8974-001Congestion at the station exit after the arrival of a GO train

Only one York Region Transit bus route — 15 Stouffville — operates along Stouffville Road, and stops adjacent to the new station. However, Route 15 does not enter the station property, nor is its schedule designed to connect with any GO Trains. During weekday rush hours, Route 15 operates every 70 minutes, with limited dial-a-bus hours on Saturdays and Sundays. There are no other connecting GO or YRT bus routes at Gormley.

IMG_9000-001The York Region Transit stop is impossible to get to safely and legally from the GO station

Even more absurd is the location of the eastbound YRT bus stop: the signalized intersection at the station exit at Stouffville Road is designed chiefly to permit cars to enter and exit the station grounds. There is a north-south pedestrian crossing on the west side of the intersection, but east-west crossings across the driveway are expressly prohibited, and there is no crosswalk on the east side. This makes getting to that bus stop legally impossible.

It is painfully clear that Gormley Station was built for drivers, without any thought to supporting sustainable land use or transportation. To the north, GO Transit is building an even larger station, Bloomington, which will have many of the same issues as Gormley.

Bloomington.jpgRenderings of the new Bloomington GO Station now under construction, via Metrolinx

Bloomington Station will be located next to the Highway 404/Bloomington Road interchange, on the Richmond Hill-Aurora border. The new station will feature a 6-bay bus loop, a kiss-and-ride facility, and 1,018 parking spaces; most of those spaces will be located in a multi-level parking structure. According to the press release, it will cost $82.4 million to build the station. Bloomington will open in 2019. No YRT bus services come close to this rural area so new connecting buses to meet morning and evening trains will have to be created. Given YRT’s poor service standards, this is not even a guarantee.

Bloomington Station, like Gormley, is located on the Oak Ridges Moraine, on the Greenbelt. Bloomington will be surrounded by golf courses, horse farms, and more exurban estate housing, distant from any major built-up areas. The site is located nine kilometres to the southeast from Aurora Station on the Barrie GO Line.

Despite my criticisms, there are some valid reasons why GO Transit chose to proceed with extending the Richmond Hill Line.

Aurora GO Station is one of the busiest on the Barrie GO Line, and it, like many stations, does not have enough parking spaces to meet peak demand. These two new stations with easy access to Highway 404 provide an alternative for some commuters unable to find parking at other GO Transit lots and driving into central Toronto.

As part of the project to extend GO Transit service north of Richmond Hill, a new train storage yard was built between Gormley and Bloomington station sites, which benefits GO Transit operations. Before the new yard was constructed, trains on the Richmond Hill had to run out-of-service (known in the industry as “deadheading”) to and from GO’s Willowbrook rail yards for overnight storage. The new yard can store six twelve-car trains.

Metrolinx is also now planning and building urban light rail and regional transit lines, such as the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT and GO RER. But GO Transit, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, still represents a very autocentric view of what regional transit should be.

Neither Gormley nor Bloomington Stations offer any opportunity for transit-oriented development, nor do they offer the intermodality necessary to build an integrated transit network. If the goal is simply make it easier to live and drive in Toronto’s outer suburbs by providing free parking at GO Station lots, than building these new stations makes sense. But if protecting Ontario’s Greenbelt and directing new growth to existing urban areas is important, these new stations make little sense.

Whether it’s siting new health and post-secondary educational facilities, or building new transit stations, the province needs to decide what it wants: progressive, sustainable land uses that it supposedly champions, or the continuation of auto-dependent sprawl. Right now, it sends mixed messages.

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