Heading back on the train

Item date: 
December 11, 2017
Item context: 

Transport Futures delegate Don McLean wrote this article after attending the Intercity Travel Conference on November 27, 2017.


Asian and European experience strongly supports the development of an Ontario regional express rail system that includes Hamilton’s LRT. Speakers at a transportation conference last month argued that growing road congestion and inherent transit advantages in the Toronto-Hamilton area point to a big shift in how people will need and want to get around. 

Michael Schabas, a Canadian with decades of experience in planning and building high speed passenger rail in Germany, Britain, Australia and the United States, believes the “opportunities are really exciting” for transit expansion in the GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area). He led the team that developed the business plans for Ontario’s proposed high speed rail as well as its Toronto-centred regional express rail and he continues to advise Metrolinx on its implementation.

“Populations have doubled or tripled, incomes have gone up, travel has quadrupled or quintupled in intercity travel and remarkably the roads can’t be expanded, which is good news,” Schabas told a Transport Futures conference in late November. “In terms of density, Toronto is a really dense city. There’s high rise apartments all over the suburbs, and townhouses packed together. And downtown is one of the densest in the world with 200,000 people connected by the PATH system to Union Station.”

He noted that more than 50 cities in Europe and Asia have regional express rail systems in place and that except for the US and developing countries, it is the norm in almost all city-regions with populations larger than four million. The GTA already has over 6.5 million residents and is expected to climb to nearly 10 million by 2041.

With major backups now a regular feature on area highways Metrolinx is shifting GO Transit from a commuter system to an all-day service. It anticipates “doubling peak service and quadrupling off-peak service over the next ten years” to try to keep up with demand.

Schabas contends Canadian cities are much less car-dependent than many US metropolises. For example, Houston has 43 freeway lanes into and 43 out of its central core, while Toronto has six each way. Along with higher density, this makes Canadian cities more like European ones.

Carsten Puls of Deutsche Bahn Engineering and Consulting described the German rail system to conference delegates. It carries 138 million passengers a year and is time-competitive with air travel in the 600 km corridor between Munich and Berlin. It not only matches origin to destination speed, it offers far more quality work/leisure travel time that’s isn’t eaten up by all the flight arrival and departure requirements.

Like many Ontario rail corridors, the German tracks are shared with freight trains, but the latter are scheduled to run overnight when there is no demand for passenger service. And over the last quarter century, rail travel times have been slashed by up to 50 percent.

With some train speeds exceeding 300 km/hr, the German rail system is already capturing half or more of the travellers in several major intercity corridors. Schabas says an investment of $50 billion “will give Toronto the kind of rail system that Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne have had for 20 years.”

And he emphasized that most of these European systems operate without subsidies using variable fare systems that allow low-cost travel in off-peak periods. For example, Britain’s London to Manchester fare is 200 pounds ($344 Canadian) at 8:30 in the morning, “but at 9:30 it’s 60 pounds ($103C) and if you book a week in advance it would be 25 pounds ($43C).”

Electrifying the Toronto-centred rail system will also sharply lower the cost of high speed train connections to other cities such as the one Ontario has announced from Windsor to Toronto. That route will pass through Pearson airport, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and London, but not include Hamilton.

Provincial rail plans for Hamilton include rush hour service to Union Station every 15 minutes and hourly service the rest of the day.