The Rail Link Between Pearson Airport and Union Station

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The Rail Link Between Pearson Airport and Union Station

Claude Bergeron

In the saga of the Georgetown Corridor Rail Expansion Project, the withdrawal of SNC-Lavalin from the airport rail linkEnvironmental Assessment project and the announcement of a new environmental assessment study is good news. As first proposed, the increased GO Transit train service and the air-rail link are both inadequate and insufficient, and we are now counting on having the opportunity to reconsider the plans from scratch.

The rail link between the airport and Union Station would very likely never have turned a profit (why else did SNC-Lavalin decide to quit?), except by charging far too much for public transit, and thereby limiting the use to the well-heeled. The project would also have been unsuccessful because of the determined opposition of the Weston residents who felt they were being shamefully exploited. They were being expected to tolerate the extra noise and other inconveniences of a rail line, while enjoying none of the advantages of it, as, there being no stops in their area, they could not use it. Furthermore, the project reveals a total disregard for the City of Toronto’s objectives for the development of public transit, as stated in the Official Plan adopted by City Council in November 2002.

A major point in the Official Plan’s strategy for improving public transit is “supporting the increased use of existing rail corridors within the City for enhanced local and inter-regional passenger service” (Official Plan, p. 14). What GO Transit is proposing in the northwestern part of the city amounts to practically nothing with respect to this objective. At least, nothing that deserves to be called a public transit service worthy of a metropolis of several millions.

On the Bradford line, GO plans to install a station where its track crosses St. Clair Avenue near Caledonia Road. That means two southbound trains (maybe three) will stop there in the morning and the same number of northbound trains at the end of the day. That is hardly a frequency one expects to find in a city, considering also that the next stops south and north of St. Clair Avenue are at Union Station and north of Finch Avenue. A substantial upgrade of service along that one-track line will never happen until it is converted into a two-track line. That delay could be acceptable for the time being thanks to the Spadina subway line which runs parallel and at a reasonably close distance. The situation could even be improved when (or if) the Spadina line is extended to York University.
The Weston line, on the contrary, runs through a huge area deprived of rapid transit, and GO’s plans propose basically nothing that will improve the situation. By 2009, four more trains (for a total of 9) will run at rush hour in the morning and in the afternoon. During the rest of the day, the number of trains will be increased from nine to fourteen. That translates into seven trains in each direction outside of rush hour, which is close to two hours between trains. This is hardly convenient for someone who wants to

travel downtown during the day or in the evening. No train service is guaranteed over the weekends either. Worst of all, GO proposes no additional stops along its Weston line.

Within the city boundaries, the only stations for boarding the train will remain those at Union Station, Bloor Street, Weston Road, and Etobicoke North. In conclusion, if the progress of rapid transit in the area of Toronto west of Dufferin Avenue and north of Bloor Street depends on the contribution of GO Transit, that sums up pretty much what the situation will be by the year 2030.

Now that GO’s plans for the Weston line and the air-rail link are pretty much up in the airfor a proper debate through the full EA, the St. Clair West Revitalization Committee suggests that the improvement of urban transit in this area be associated not with GO’s Weston line, but with the rail link between downtown and the airport. The frequency of this service (as often as every 15 minutes) from early in the morning to late at night, and seven days a week, makes it a much more powerful instrument to upgrade public transit.
While the original plans for the air-rail link included only one stop at Bloor Street on the journey from the airport to Union Station, SWRC proposes one at every major crossing: Etobicoke North, Lawrence, Eglinton, St. Clair, and Bloor. That, as well as the relatively frequent journeys, will create conditions approaching those of a subway line. Because the air-rail link cuts across this vast area diagonally, from the south-east to the north-west, easy connections with an extensive network of fast buses running east-west and north-south could be made to improve transit markedly over the entire region.
Combining the airport rail link with public transit will make the former more financially sound than it appears to be in the initial project, and the implementation of a rapid transit line will be obtained at an exceptionally low cost. If adding commuters to air travelers eventually encumbers the trains, the number of vehicles per train or the number of journeys could easily be increased. The end result would be an improvement of public transit pure and simple.

Adding a number of stops will obviously make the journey between downtown and the airport longer, but what difference will perhaps five more minutes make? Similar solutions already exist in a number of cities. In many cities, like Madrid and Frankfort, the subway system links the airport and the downtown. In Paris, both Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly airports are linked to a main train station (respectively Gare du Nord and Gare d’Austerlitz) by a line of the regional express network. Each connection includes a number of stops, with the result that the journey from Charles-de-Gaulle takes 30 minutes and the one from Orly, 45 minutes. In Rome, a direct train (“The Leonardo Express”) links Fumicino Airport to the city’s main station every 30 minutes, and the journey takes 30 minutes. Another train, making several stops within the city, serves commuters as well as air travelers. In Australia, Sydney is in the process of building its rail link between the city and the airport, as part of the suburban network. The line will include four stops.

The case of Heathrow in London provides a precedent one should definitely keep in mind while building the Toronto link. The Heathrow Express opened in 1998 as a direct link between the airport and Paddington Station. The non-stop journey time is 15 minutes, for a distance close to the one that separates Pearson Airport and Union Station. The construction of the line was costly, it is costly to run, and the tickets are expensive. Five years later, it was decided to add a new five-stop line. Inaugurated in June 2005, the Heathrow Connect links Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station in 25 minutes at a much lower fare, and, very likely, it accommodates a much broader segment of travelers. Obviously, this is not identical to what we are proposing for Pearson Airport; it is adapted to the conditions of London, while the Toronto system will have to be conceived for the needs of this city.

Very little has been accomplished so far to meet the objectives of Toronto’s Official Plan of integrating the various modes of transportation. Understandably, bringing together different networks that are separated by large distances can require extensive and very costly works. It is not surprising that the results are slow in coming. However, not attempting to integrate these networks when new lines and new tracks are being built, as is the case in the Georgetown corridor, is quite another story. What has been planned there so far shows very little concern for the City’s objectives. At this rate, it will take generations before Toronto has an integrated transit system.

Toronto, September 13th, 2005

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